October 30, 2008

The Allegory

The story of indie developer 2D Boy's puzzle game World of Goo is apparently a metaphor for designer Kyle Gabler's experience working at EA. It explores the theme of stifled creativity in the face of technical progression and uninspired factory production lines. World of Goo's text is mostly optional; printed on signs scattered throughout the game world. Given the allegorical bent of the game, players might be inclined to use the sign text as a Rosetta stone, assigning the gameplay and images metaphorical meaning in the context of the story as it appears on the signs. They might make connections between a phrase and a gameplay element where none was actually intended, because they're conditioned to look for that stuff.

If that's the case I wonder what it would be like if you removed all the text from World of Goo and replaced it with the cryptic books from Braid. Maybe new players would sense the narrative-gameplay incongruity, or maybe they wouldn't, and consider it an allegorical puzzle needing to be solved. Players might even be completely convinced in their theory of what this arbitrary Frankenstein's monster is really about.

[This contains spoilers for the actual and hypothetical stories of Braid and World of Goo.]

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She waits for him up on high ledges or behind spiky walls, never quite close enough to him. Tim desires to reach out and hold her again, but the distance between them sometimes seems impossible.

From his grief at their separation, Tim has taken the shape of goo; like the disseminated mercury T-1000 or the Black Oil in the X-Files. He chases the Princess across time. By her touch he will be fulfilled, completed.

Tim made a mistake. She slipped from his touch, became more distant.

What if our world worked differently? Could we turn back the clock on a mistake? Yes, we could, always, but only five times in a row and then we'd have to make some more moves while it recharged.

He felt on his trip that every place stirred up a time and a location from his past. He and the Princess had once walked together in lush gardens and dazzling red carpets. She had no fear then of his closeness.

Tim worked his ruler and his compass. He scrutinized the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. Always to reach the Princess. He built his towers on sturdy foundations so they could break into the heavens. One day his work beget a castle, a triumph of his dedication and ambition. But there was no Princess in the castle.

Tim wants to find the Princess, to know her at last. For Tim this would be momentous, sparking an intense light that embraces the world, wherein we can exist in peace. The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing.

When at last he touched the face of the Princess, she took ill and exploded into several pieces. Tim's perceptions ran contrariwise; while he had thought the Princess lost, she had in actuality been hiding from him.

She had reason to fear him. Tim was a pestilence, a disease. Smallpox, they called him. Tim was, in his life, constantly mutating, evolving into deadly new strains of the virus. Variola major, variola minor; each spreading his infectious caress.

Tim needed to be immune to the Princess's caring touch. He would transform her, and everyone. They had schemed to eradicate him, to shrug him away with a stab in the arm. The World Health Organization had tried the ring vaccination, and the ring made its presence known. It shined out to others like a beacon of warning. It made people slow to approach. Suspicion. Distrust.

In 1978, he learned to trace a path through their defenses. He became airborne, traveling through air currents and into service ducts.

Tim walked in the cool air toward the university. The Corporation had isolated him in a research laboratory in Birmingham, England. From his prison he climbed higher and higher, through the tubes to the Anatomy department above, to the room with the telephone. At last he had his freedom, at last he had the Princess.

The world looked upon the Corporation with horror; decried their mistake. The professor said: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

The mistake was irreversible. All they could do was put an end to Tim, the viral outbreak. Fantastic advances in scientific technology were sufficient quickly contain him. Someone said: "It worked!" They high-fived each other. It was a great day.

Year by year, memories of Tim became muddled, replaced wholesale. Had the experience of the mistake made us wiser? We prepared ourselves for the threat of a new pathogen: another germ, another planet.

To stockpile an appropriate amount of vaccine would need many tests. But attaching these blowfish to the telescope and the island and lifting it all into the sky seemed (pretty much) like an acceptable start.

Who has see the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.
-- Christina Rossetti


October 28, 2008

600 Hours

A baby needs to crawl for 600 hours before it can walk. This is something I've heard from people I know who have kids. I don't have children myself -- I mean apart from the seven I've mentioned previously -- but I find it amazing how much of life can be understood in terms of grinding, unlocking abilities and leveling up.

The comparison doesn't work both ways. Never while playing a video game have I felt the enormity of something like learning to walk or writing a blog for one year.

That is what this is actually about.

At the beginning, it was nothing but crawling. For a while it seemed like that was as good as it was ever going to get. There were definitely growing pains. And how long did it take before Hit Self-Destruct stopped peeing and vomiting on everybody? It's still kind of doing that. One Year was, for the longest time, an absurdly distant goal. It would be a cool thing to say, sure, but it wouldn't actually mean anything. Now it turns out that the best thing about doing something for a year is that it gets better.

We had our ups and downs. There were mistakes, missed opportunities, and moments where the entire thing nearly fell apart, and all of those were my fault. It could have all gone wrong so easily. Sort of like this post, incidentally, since today isn't the real birthday. It was a couple of days ago. But it's all part of the epic fragility of life, or, you know, whatever, basically, pretty much, I guess.

Learning to walk is a reinvention. There's so much more you can do now. The sense of achievement and potential is awesome in one sense and terrifying in another. Now that you can walk, the next 600 hours might get better but they will certainly get harder. Walking isn't a reward, it's the next level. Expectations have gone up. You can't get away with crawling anymore. You thought crawling for 600 hours was a grind? That shit was easy. It's only going to get worse. Most actual babies, fortunately, are not haunted by these kind of self-esteem problems.

Most babies don't have all of you guys, either. I evidently can't explain how I feel about all this without resorting to confused and exhausting metaphor so, for you, I'll leave it alone and be as direct as I can: Thank you so much.

It was a long year. Which is why this one day exists. I get 24 hours out of 600 to not care about how time-consuming and challenging this will always be. One year is an awfully long time to wait to say "I did it", but, well, I'm walking now. It's nice.

October 25, 2008

Murder Charge

7:35 AM

If Benjamin Day woke up before nine on a weekday, then something was wrong. It was the ring of his iPhone that pulled him from his sleep, and, confused, he thrashed around in bed and accidentally sent the phone spinning to the floor. Scrambling over the carpet in his boxers, he followed the vague direction of his ringtone and answered the call on his knees.

7:45 AM

It was unusual for Benjamin to write a news post from home. He held his fingers to the keyboard for a long moment but did not begin typing, a commitment he delayed further by pausing to review his schedule for the day.

10:15 AM: Taping "On The Clock" episode w/ Fallout 3 sweatshirt giveaway
11:30 AM: Editorial meeting: Dan's office
12:45 PM: Interview w/ BioWare's Daniel Erickson re: SW: TOR
Compiling 10 reader questions for Mark Rein Q&A re: UT3 exp
Preview: Tomb Raider: Underworld
Feature: The New Old E3?
Feature: Analysis/theories of new First Flight 2 teaser trailer
Feature: Top 5 First Flight Moments [w/ Matt Hannah]
4:30 PM: Empire: Total War event in SF harbor [On pirate ships]
8:30 PM: Ubisoft party: W bar in SF

He wrote the first sentence -- Hard Landing Studios creative director and First Flight lead designer Mark Brandon was arrested last night following a fatal car crash in Marin County -- and took another break.

9:40 AM

The elevator doors parted to reveal Jessie, theatrically frozen in horror. Benjamin's trip to the office was so far containing more drama than he was really comfortable with. With her arms outstretched and her mouth hanging dumbly open; her body language said "Oh my God" in everything but words.
   "Oh my God," she said in words.
   Benjamin stepped out of the elevator, Jessie swiveled on her feet to maintain eye contact.
   "Is he okay?" she asked.
   "I don't know."
   "I mean, was he hurt? Did he get hurt in the crash?"
   "I don't know that."
   Jessie gave him a look, one raised eyebrow and a subtle curl of her lip, and its intent Benjamin couldn't quite decipher.
   "I found out about it, like, this morning, okay. I will, I will try my best to find out later but I don't know anything yet."
   "Was he drunk, what happened?"
   "I don't know anything."
   "What about the guy who died?"
   "I don't know who he was."
   "It was raining last night," Jessie said, and she clasped her hands together and pointed two fingers at Benjamin's face. "That means it could have been an accident."
   Benjamin struggled with her question and finally threw up his hands in defeat.
   "You should ask them that," Jessie persisted.
   "Who should I talk to, Jessie? I wrote the story, I'm going to try and get a quote from Phil, right now I'm doing all I can."
   There was another look; Benjamin knew what that one meant.
   "I have to, you know. I have to go be on this podcast."
   She shrugged with one shoulder. "Go then."

10:20 AM

"You can play the game from that perspective whenever you want, but you won't want to. It's no help in combat and Bethesda is making a 3D shooter, they're taking advantage of 3D space in a way that the older isometric games weren't, right?" Reclining in the leather studio chair, Matt Hannah crossed his legs. "It's one of those things that you can point to and say that there's really no reason for that feature to be in this game other than it was put in there as a, as really a kind of superficial capitulation to fans who don't like how Bethesda is moving away from the more traditional Fallout games that they remember. Having that option doesn't hurt the rest of the game, but why is it in there? I think you have to, and nobody's going to do this, but you have to get these fans to realize that they're not the ones making the game and they shouldn't be trying to participate in its development. But yeah, it's all looking good."
   "Well, let's get through the rest of the news real quick," said Tom, in another chair, shuffling show notes in his hands, "you'll probably know more than we do about this by the time we put this up, but, sadly, we just heard, Mark Brandon, from Hard Landing and lead designer on -- one of the great shooters of 2007, really, First Flight, it was a great game, I think everyone here really loved that game, Mark Brandon, was involved in a car crash -- and Benjamin, you know more about this."
   Benjamin wasn't expecting the transition, nor to deliver expert testimony, and stumbled a little before composing himself.
   "Uh, yeah, last night Mark was driving in, somewhere in Marin, I think, and all we know now is that he did hit someone and, really tragically, that person did, uh, lose their life. We don't know what the circumstances are right now or if he's going to be charged with anything, but we're uh, waiting to hear about all that right now." It was the first thing he had said the entire show after his name. "I think it was raining last night."
   "We're all hoping the best for Mark's family right now," said Tom. "Michael Pachter, yesterday, of the NPD group, is saying that the current economic recession might be good for gaming, and we're going to give our thoughts on that for the rest of this segment."

11:25 AM

"'Our game potentially lost a million copies in sales to piracy on the PC. The big secret in the industry right now that nobody wants to acknowledge is that it has become increasingly untenable to develop for the PC, and going into the future that is not something we are interested in. We have a great relationship with Sony and Microsoft and will continue to develop our games for their platforms. As far as we are concerned, PC gaming is dead.'"
   "What's that?" asked Matt, who was lying on Benjamin's couch checking his text messages.
   "Mark Brandon, from January," said Benjamin, pointing to his monitor even though Matt wasn't looking. "I wrote that story."
   "I'm looking at the forums right now," said Matt. "Have you read them yet?"
   "I don't need to, I know what they're going to say. Most of the posts will just be emoticons and 'wow' at first, and then someone will ask about what's going to happen to First Flight 2, and suggest that their favorite developers should finish it, and some of them will start saying that he had this coming to him basically because he's one of the most candid guys in the industry, which gets him into trouble, and some will say that he deserves it because of his attitude towards the PC. Then they all agree, by page four, that First Flight is suddenly not a good game even though they all had the avatars as little as a month ago."
   Matt caught up on the thread. "You're good at this."
   Benjamin spun around in the chair with no enthusiasm.
   "Guess what the title is. Of the thread. It's 'Brandon: PC Gaming, Guy I Hit With My Car Are Dead'."
   Benjamin reread the old news story, which included a photo of Mark Brandon caught mid-conversation at a press event. He closed the window.
   "You know what?" said Matt. "I don't think they would have deleted my Little Big Planet level if I hadn't put so many dicks in it."

11:50 AM

Dan had been fidgeting with a ballpoint pen for the entire meeting and Benjamin believed it was about to snap and hit someone in the face. "The problem with the game criticism column is nobody likes the game criticism column. All the reader mail we get and everyone on the boards is calling it pretentious and that's the stigma and it's not getting much clicks. I think it's a business decision at this point."
   Benjamin leaned forward onto the table and out of the likely trajectory of the ballpoint pen. "The reason why I wanted to work here, and why I still work here, is I like working with serious people. Why should we pretend we're dumber than we are in exchange for page views?"

12:20 PM

"I can't believe I finally got you on the phone," Benjamin said, sitting back in his office and poised to take down the quote.
   "Yeah, well, the only thing that happened today was our creative director getting arrested for killing somebody, so I definitely have a lot of time to talk to the enthusiast press."
   "What's the quote."
   "Alright, you can say this is from the president of Hard Landing. Steven Wells."
   "I know his name."
   "Are you ready? 'We were saddened to learn of this tragic accident. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family of the deceased. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and with Mark's family at this difficult time. We are not currently ready to comment on the development of our flagship title First Flight 2. Hard Landing is dedicated to making quality products and will remain so going forward.'"
   "That's it? The part about making quality products?"
   "That is the quote."
   Benjamin shook his head. "Whatever. Thanks."
   "E-mail me if you need anything else, okay?" said the representative. "What happened to Damian? He used to be the only one of you guys I ever heard from."
   "Oh, Damian went to EA. He's in production somewhere, I think."
   "Yeah? Why'd he leave?"
   "He didn't like doing this."

1:10 PM

The post on Star Wars: The Old Republic should have been finished ten minutes ago, but Benjamin had zoned out after trying to think of a third synonym for 'story' that didn't sound like it came from a thesaurus. The noise of an AIM window popping up startled him into focus. It was Jessie, asking him if he knew anything else. For a moment, he wondered what she was talking about. "Is he OK? do you know?" Benjamin responded that he didn't know anything yet. The AIM status bar told him that Jessie was typing a message, and he waited for it, and then she wasn't writing anything anymore.

1:25 PM

Benjamin appeared in Dan's office, bracing himself against the doorway. "Three hours ago Mark Brandon made bail."
   Dan looked up from his desk. "So what? Did you put that in the news post?"
   "Why would it be such a weird thing? I mean, is there something I'm not seeing? What is wrong with us picking up the phone and talking to Mark Brandon? We have no idea what happened, we don't even know if he's okay. I don't want to be in that position. Maybe it would be weird, maybe it would, but don't you think it's a good idea? Talking to him? Don't you think?" He paused, swallowed. "I feel very strongly about this."

2:25 PM

"Here's... here's the... here's the thing..." Benjamin murmured, tentatively using the silence on the phone as a mic check. The name of the firm was Foster & Samson, and they didn't have hold music. This was minute seven.
   "Here's the thing, started out friends," Gradually raising his voice above a squeak to a falsetto, "it was cool, it was all pretend, yeah yeah." Air drumming with his free hand.
   "Since you've been gone, I can breathe for the first time," Closed his eyes. "I'm so over you, YEAH..."
   "This is Nadine Campbell."
   "Good afternoon, my name is Benjamin Day, I'm the news editor for a website called GameTime dot com, we cover video games and the game industry. I spoke to a woman named Claire?"
   "Yes, she told me who you are." It was an older woman's voice, with kind of a husky quality to it. Benjamin guessed that Nadine Campbell was a smoker, and this made him feel like a detective.
   "Alright, what I was hoping, what we were hoping for is to do an interview, or a Q&A with Mark Brandon, who's..."
   "No, I don't think that's a good idea."
   "Wait, listen," said Benjamin, leaning closer into the receiver, and speaking faster, "he knows us, Mark knows us, we've done interviews with him before, we gave his last game a ten, okay, that means a lot, we have a great relationship. So please, just, before you say no, please ask him about this, please run it by him because I know Mark, he'll want to do it. Don't you have a responsibility to run this past your, your client?" He gripped the phone cord. "I would think, actually, I would think that it would be a good thing if he got a chance to talk to a press outlet that was, you know, sympathetic, and knew who he was and he'd be able to present his side of the story. It'd, you know, we could see him in a good light, because right now we don't know what's going on and there are a lot of questions out there, right? He will want a chance to talk. To us. He would think that would be a good idea, please ask him. He'll say yes."
   Nadine stifled a cough. Smoker.
   "I'll tell him that Gamer Time wants an interview."
   "No no no," Benjamin said hurriedly, "not GamerTime, it's GameTime, no 'r'. That's a totally different site and if you say Game-ER Time he won't know what you're talking about and won't do it. Also, there's a gametime dot blogspot, don't say that one either. It's Game... end of word... Time. GameTime."
   "Good, thank you." She hung up. "Good, good phone call."

3:00 PM

"Obviously, I could just make a new level," said Matt, who was sprawled out in Dan's office chair and gesturing at the ceiling fan, "or make a sanitized version of my old level, because I really did like that one, and aside from all the sexual elements, I thought it was a really tight design. But making a cleaned-up version seems like such a surrender. I don't know. What do you think?"
   Benjamin considered it carefully. "What?"
   Dan was pacing in and out of his own office as if he was a courier whose route was the corridor.
   Benjamin tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I wonder what I should wear."
   "Just show up like you are now, man, it's good."
   Dan walked in. "What are you guys talking about?"
   "Ben wants to know what he should wear," said Matt, raising his voice as Dan walked out again.
   "Wear a suit," Dan said, heading back around his desk.
   Benjamin turned up his nose. "I haven't had to wear a suit since my bar mitzvah."
   "I'm serious," said Matt, "wear what you've got on now." The three men took in Benjamin's outfit: jeans and a brown flannel shirt hanging unbuttoned over a New Pornographers t-shirt.
   "That," Matt continued, "will say to Mark, 'hey, man, it's all good. Nothing to worry about. It's casual.' You show up wearing a suit, that'll freak him out."
   "You'll wear a suit," Dan decided.
   "I don't have one."
   "You can rent them from the place across the street," Matt offered.
   "They rent tuxedos, Matt. Ben is not going to his interview in a tuxedo. Get a suit off one of the guys in advertising, then. Those guys are dorks."

3:15 PM

The call came when he was at the urinal. In three messy seconds, he zipped up, backed away to the sink and answered the iPhone, forgetting to wash his hands in between.
   "Hello," he said, staring into the bathroom mirror.
   On the phone was Nadine Campbell, who explained the situation to him in a clipped cadence that Benjamin found difficult to follow over his pounding heart and clammy, unsanitary palms. They had talked to Mark Brandon, she said, and Benjamin should be at the Foster & Samson offices at five o'clock. She gave him an address in Redmond City and told him to come to the seventh floor reception. Benjamin asked if he needed a lanyard; Nadine's response indicated that he would not.
   "I told you," said Benjamin with sudden confidence, gloating at his own reflection. "I knew it, I said if you talk to him, he'd say that he wants to do it. Right? Tell me what he said."
   "He said he didn't care."

3:30 PM

"Do you think he was high?"
   Benjamin and Matt were convened in Dan's office, with Bryan Tse, who'd asked the question, slouched up against the wall.
   "Absolutely he was high," said Dan, who was reading a magazine. "It's Mark Brandon, he was high or drunk or on something. First thing you learn in this business, Mark Brandon is a party animal."
   Matt screwed up his face like a cat and made his hands into claws. "RAWR!"
   "This is why I don't drink," Dan continued. "Because of something dangerous like this happening."
   "Dan, we drink all the time," Benjamin said, "and we don't do anything dangerous. When I get drunk I volunteer for public service."
   Bryan sat down. "Make sure you ask Mark if he was drinking."
   Benjamin shook his head. "We shouldn't ask him about that. Because what if he was? The guy is under siege, and not to mention he attracts enough controversy on his own, right? I don't want to be the one to get him in even more trouble. We should be on his side with this. I mean, in the entire, uh, legal system, is there anyone in there who understands him more than we do? We know him, we get him, I think we have a responsibility here not to throw him under the bus."

3:55 PM

"You can't go to the Ubisoft party in that."
   "No, it's cool, I'll head straight there after the interview." Benjamin was sporting a charcoal suit with a pressed blue shirt. He spun around, craning his head to check out the back of the jacket. "I wish we had a mirror in here."
   "You look like an FBI agent," said Matt. "They'll think you're there to bust someone."
   "This is great, it even almost fits me. It's a little big."
   "'Hi guys, it's me, Ben.' 'Fuck, it's the Feds. Shoot him.'"
   "I didn't know these came with shoulder pads! I want to wear this every day."
   Benjamin twirled again with his arms spread wide, and when he'd turned all the way around, Jessie was in his office standing next to Matt. His arms dropped to his side instantly.
   "This is so cool that you're doing this," she said. She'd come into his office with Angela, the new girl, but it had taken Benjamin an extra second to register her. She was shorter. "Ask him if he's okay, alright?"
   "Hey," said Benjamin, taking a step towards Jessie, "do you know how to tie this? I haven't had to wear a suit in fifteen years." He had a red and black striped tie in his hand.
   "Sorry, no," she shook her head, smiling, "I don't."
   "I can do it," Angela said, and she took the tie from his hand and tucked it under his collar. Benjamin bent his knees to accommodate her diminutive stature.
   "I used to work at an EB," she said as she draped one end over the other, "and all the guys there had to wear those game ties and they didn't know how to tie them either."
   Benjamin glanced at Jessie. She laughed. Angela tightened the knot around Benjamin's neck and smoothed down the collar.

4:25 PM

Benjamin checked his Twitter account on the bus to Redmond City. Balancing his shoulder bag on his knees, he signed in under the screenname ben_day and fired off a quick message: 'Ubisoft party TONIGHT. Great way to end the week.'

5:10 PM

Surrounded by mood-lit suede furniture, potted plants, a water cooler and panoramas of skylines and lakes, Benjamin Day sat on the couch reading his Twitter feed. He remembered the receptionist's name was Claire; she was about his age, with short blond hair and glasses, and that was really all he knew about Claire from what little he could see of her over the desk. She was answering phones: "Foster and Samson. Yes. Yes, let me put you on hold. Thank you."
   "No hold music," Benjamin whispered.
   Claire glanced up, which caught Benjamin's eye, and they watched an immaculately-dressed woman walk out of the hallway. The lawyer was probably in her late forties, with her hair pinned up. Slight lines were etched around her mouth and the corners of brown eyes. Her black suit and starched-white shirt were offset by the delicate chain of gold hanging around her neck. Her suit, Benjamin noted, fit her.
   "Mr. Day," she extended her hand, "Nadine Campbell, we spoke on the phone."
   Benjamin stood up, picking his bag up from the carpet and shook her hand. "Hi." He assumed she was about to lead him to her office, and took a step forward, almost crashing into Nadine who had remained standing.
   "So here's what you should know," she said. "You will have fifteen minutes with Mr. Brandon and myself. Mr. Brandon will answer only the questions I advise him to. Any story you plan on publishing which contains quotes from this interview you must first submit to me for approval. You may not use any kind of digital or tape recorder; you may take notes. Is that clear?"
   "Can you write shorthand? Claire knows shorthand, don't you, Claire?"
   "Yes, ma'am."
   "I'll, uh," Benjamin shifted his weight. "That all sounds fine with me."
   "Good. Follow me, then."
   Nadine led Benjamin down the corridor, as Claire turned her attention to a ringing phone.
   "Foster and Samson, this is Claire."
   They stopped at an unmarked office door, where Nadine rested her hand on the doorknob and looked back at Benjamin.
   "One of my colleagues will be sitting in, I hope that's fine with you too."
   "It's okay," Benjamin said, "PR handlers sit in on my interviews all the time, it's no big deal."
   "Alright, then," she said, and she opened the door.

5:16 PM

The other lawyer, a heavy and unhealthy-seeming person, eyed Benjamin as he came in. They were wearing the same tie. He stood in the corner of the room, which was empty except for a small mahogany table and not enough chairs for four people. Benjamin took a seat, opening his bag on his lap and digging out a notepad and pen. Nadine sat opposite him, and laid her hands on the table, fingers interlocked. Benjamin clicked on his pen and looked at the last person in the room.
   "How are you doing?"
   Everything about Mark Brandon looked new except for his face. He had showered recently and stepped into a nice blue shirt which probably still had the price tag attached. His eyes, and the pallor of his skin, said that he had not slept in two days. There were, Benjamin saw, bruises on his hands.
   "How are you doing?" he repeated.
   Mark shook his head lightly. "I don't know."
   Benjamin glanced over at Nadine, staring coldly back at him.
   "Um," he said, waving his pen back and forth over the paper but not actually writing anything, "do you know what the charges are going to be?"
   Nadine interjected: "That's something you should ask the Marin County police department." Mark's eyes drifted off towards the floor.
   "Do you know," asked Benjamin, "how this will affect the development of your game in the short-term?"
   "No," Mark said. "I can't say. I don't know what will happen to that. That isn't my decision."
   "You should refer that question to Mr. Brandon's employer," Nadine added.
   At Benjamin's look, she tilted her head unsympathetically, as if to ask what did you expect?
   "Okay," said Benjamin, checking his notes, "is there anything you want to say to the fans of your games? To the people who know you?"
   "You don't have any, like, message?"
   Mark struggled with the question for a minute, then said quietly, "I made a mistake and I want to, uh..."
   Benjamin waited as Mark trailed off.
   "I'm sorry for letting everyone down," he said flatly.
   "Do you, uh," Benjamin began, watching Nadine, "do you want to say anything also to the family of the person who, uh, lost their life."
   Mark frowned. "We're not going to be addressing that today," said Nadine.
   "Okay, well, then," Benjamin detected irritation in his own voice. "Can you tell me how it happened?"
   "The accident," pressed Benjamin, "can you tell me about the accident."
   Mark appeared to think it over, he scratched at his neck and chewed on a thumbnail while not looking at Benjamin, then he folded his hands over the table and kept his head down. "I was, it was after work," he said, "and I was with some friends until about ten thirty. I think it was between ten thirty and eleven, I was with them and I didn't leave until it was late. I didn't, or I wasn't going to call my wife, I was just, uh. I was driving back home and it was on some street, where it was dark maybe because a streetlamp was out or because it was eleven o'clock and it was dark, and what I didn't... what I didn't..." Mark exhaled and his previously unsteady voice solidified into monotone. "The car hit something, and it threw me up against the steering wheel and knocked my head against the door, and so the car swerved a little bit and then there was another noise that I heard. I stopped the car and I took my hands off the steering wheel and undid my seatbelt. I opened the door and stepped out and I walked in front of the car and I couldn't see very well because it was dark and the headlights were very bright and glaring in my face, but I saw some kind of a dent, or a mark on the hood of the car. I looked around the street and by the right of the car there was a man lying on the ground and I think that perhaps the car had hit his legs because they were bent back. It looked like he had fallen and hit his head on the sidewalk. I don't know when, exactly, that he died, but there was already blood there. I wasn't sure what time it was but I called for an ambulance and I don't remember what I said to them. It seemed like it took them a while to show up but I don't remember waiting for them. I was sitting in my car with the door open and I think I kept the lights on and the engine running, which I shouldn't have done. Then the ambulance was there and they picked him up off the ground."
   Benjamin had his eyes locked on his notepad, where more than anything he wanted not to look at the face of Nadine Campbell.
   "Do, uh," he started, the pen almost slipping out of his hands, "do you have any message that you maybe want to give to the gamers who are your fans."
   "You asked that question already," he heard Nadine say.
   "Alright, well, let me find one of my additional questions," he said, flicking through the pages.
   "I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday/Parking by the lake there was not another car in sight..."
   Nadine looked at Benjamin evenly. "What is that."
   "And I never had a girl looking any better than you did..."
   "That's me, I'm sorry," said Benjamin, reaching into his coat pocket. "And all the kids at school they were wishing they were me that night." He checked his caller ID; it was Matt. "And our bodies were oh so close and tight..."
   "Excuse me, I have to take this." He answered it. "Hello?"
   "Hey, it's me. Guess what, they're saying they might put my Little Big Planet level back in and all I have to do is take out the swinging platforms that look like swinging dicks."
   "Okay, thank you," said Benjamin, and hung up. "Now let's get back to the questions."
   He started writing in the notebook and pointed a finger at Mark. "Mark, let me ask you, have you softened your stance regarding PC piracy at all?"
   Mark shifted in his seat. "Not, uh, not really I guess. If you talk to a lot of developers, that's still something everybody is struggling with."
   "Can you comment on whether First Flight 2 will be a prequel? That's the theory judging by a lot of the shots in the teaser."
   "I don't think Hard Landing is ready to talk about that yet."
   "Okay, and," Benjamin said quickly, "can I ask you about the ending of First Flight because I'm sure you know to a lot of people that was a disappointment, especially the difficulty spike, and if you didn't do the mission for Cryer and get the sniper mod, you were screwed..."
   "Alright," said Nadine, standing up. "This is over, I think? Yes, Mr. Day, please go and wait outside for me, do that right now."
   Mark turned his head to the floor, avoiding Benjamin's gaze. He put the notepad back in his bag and got up to leave.

5:32 PM

There was a photograph of San Francisco on the wall, with the evening sun suspended high over the skyline. Somehow it held Benjamin's attention until Nadine threw open the door behind him.
   "This was a stupid thing," she snapped, "I thought that..."
   "I'm sorry if I said something silly," he said, facing her, "I apologize. I'm sorry if I did something to make it a joke, I'm really sorry, I am, but I have to get back in there, please let me talk to him. It's really important. I need to do that. I can help him, there's so much I know about him, and things you should know, there are stories about him and drugs, and please if I could just get to talk to him. I want to be in there and talking to him, I think, please let me finish, I think that I really could help, it's so important. Please. I want to help. Please. I'm sorry. I have to go back in there."
   Nadine waited for him to run out of breath. "What are you doing?" she said.
   He shook his head like he didn't understand the question. "What?"
   "I let you do this because I thought you would take it seriously."
   "I do take it seriously, that's..."
   "Then what are you doing here?"
   "I do take it seriously," he said quietly. His eyes stung.
   Nadine watched him with crossed arms. "Last Monday," she said, as she slipped a hand into her inside jacket pocket, "there was a client who, driving home in the afternoon, spun out on a wet road and crashed." She produced a business card, which she held up between two fingers.
   "His wife was in the passenger seat. She was killed instantly. Their two sons were in the back seat, and they died within hours. The man was considered lucky to escape with multiple fractured ribs. Then he wakes up in the hospital to find out that his deceased wife's parents are talking about pressing charges. Against him. That happened on Monday. Can you imagine how much happens here in one day? I have been doing this for twenty years." She turned the business card between her fingers. "If Mark Brandon goes to court, he will be represented by an exceedingly competent and qualified legal team. What I need to happen now is for you not to try and do my job for me. You have your role and I have mine."
   Nadine offered her card to Benjamin. "Is that clear."
   Benjamin hesitantly pried it from her fingers and ran his thumb over the embossed title. "Can I just ask you one question."
   "Off the record?"
   "Is he okay?"
   "No, he isn't."
   When he looked back from the door to Nadine's face, she nodded: yes, it's time to leave.

5:40 PM

Five people came down in the elevator, all immediately recognizable by their dress as professionals. As they exited into the lobby, two of the men accidentally bumped shoulders. "Oh, I'm sorry, excuse me," said the one man to Benjamin Day, and individually, they all filtered outside into the thoroughfare.

7:25 PM

"So now I'm praying for the end of time to hurry up and arrive/cause if I gotta spend another minute with you/I don't think that I can really survive/I'll never break my promise or forget my vow/but God only knows what I can do right now/I'm praying for the end of..."
   "Hey, Ben, it's Dan, you finally picked up."
   "Yeah, sorry." Benjamin unlocked the door to apartment 8E. "What's up."
   "We're about to leave for the party, are you coming back here or going straight there?"
   "Oh, I don't know."
   "Matt and Jessie left already, they scouted ahead to see if the W has a karaoke machine."
   "Yeah. No, that sounds like fun." He flicked the light switch and closed the door behind him. "You know what, I don't think I'm going to be able to make it. Something came up at the last minute."
   "What happened?"
   "Oh, it's... you know, I'll tell you on Monday." Shaking the bag off his shoulder, it slid onto the glass coffee table and pushed his PS3 controller to the floor.
   "Hey, so how did the interview go?"
   "It went okay. There's some stuff we can use."
   "That's great, that's really great. I don't mean to pressure you about this, but when do you think it can go up?" Benjamin held the phone away from his ear for a second as he struggled to loosen his tie. "I wouldn't usually ask except it's such an important story and an exclusive, too. Do you think you can get it up soon?"
   Benjamin flopped into the armchair by the window, where, if he angled his head just right, he could see the sky. "Well, I'm not sure. Maybe there's something we can do."

October 20, 2008

Decide Now

I can make my avatar male or female, accept the mission or reject it, negotiate with the bandits or kill them, use the shotgun or the katana, take my reward or demand more, can play it through on the good path, the evil path, use stealth or go in with guns blazing, play it alone or with others, play it on easy or on hard and on my platform of choice. Games like to be all things to everybody, appealing to the broadest possible demographic or perhaps a collective lack of attention.

Think about a game that refuses the player the above agencies/freedoms/liberties/inalienable rights and instead gives them only a knife then locks them in a basement with a monster. That narrow scenario demands our full attention in a way that less-linear games do not. We don't get to think about preferred weapons or the smartest strategies, our attention is dedicated to escaping with the very limited tools at our disposal. If the knife isn't working, we can't then fall back on the rocket launcher; we have to make it work. We have no alternatives, so we don't focus on how we like to play games, but on playing the game.

Survival horror can sustain that intensity because they don't ask you to make as many decisions. Games based around decision-making gameplay -- a tactical shooter or strategy game, or a role-playing morality test -- never evoke that same high-adrenaline sensation; the kind where your heart is pounding and you're completely fixated on your own survival since the consequences of failure are permanent. They're not capable of that but they pretend they are.

It's a cliche of marketing campaigns to promise that this time, in this game your choices really matter, and they affect the people and world around your character. You are given great latitude in how you build your defenses, prepare your troops and how you resolve a domestic dispute, and your decision will have lasting consequence. "Every choice matters," but have they, ever? In those genres where decisions should matter the most, they matter the least.

Drawing attention to multiple choices in single-player games reveals how compromised your decisions actually are. In a single-player game, your choices are never permanent, because you can always go back and try it again. Tough ethical quandaries and desperate battle tactics are easily redacted. Decisions are never final because replayability exists, even if the game doesn't have replay value in the conventional sense. Making a decision when prompted is more like reconnaissance than commitment. You can always take it back, and you know this, so you don't take it so seriously in the first place. You're aware of the alternatives and however subliminally, you register the point of no return as an opportunity to test your plan before loading a save and making your "final" choice. When Bioshock responds to my treatment of the Little Sisters, it's not judging the person I am. If I started killing Little Sisters, regretted it, reloaded, then it's judging the second-draft person I want the game to think I am.

The game tells me that the fate of the universe depends on my actions, but I don't appreciate that gravity, and my moral decisions are made with no conviction. If I don't like it, I'll change it. It's never a real choice if you know you have infinite chances. Choices never lead to last-ditch fights to the death where you will persevere even as the situation takes the slightest turn for the worse. Games construct that artifice but instead of overcoming the odds, you'll reload instantly.

Checkpoint saves are one way to enforce long-term consequence but they pay a price, mostly because the player is accustomed to the convenience of the quicksave. If the player screws up in a boss fight, and has to replay through a lengthy section of game, it'll diminish their interest rather than strengthening their resolve to meet the challenge.

It's very hard for single-player games to compel fight-or-flight responses in the player, and they don't need to, either. The problem is that it's their aspiration. Games are trending towards realism and simulation and every step forward towards a "living, breathing world" invokes the rhetoric about life-changing choices with real-world impact. Any progress made towards some nebulous "realism" goal is uncomfortably ignoring that certain elements of games are fundamentally unreal.

Quicksave abuse is something we assume to be an inherent video game limitation, but the rewind features of Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time co-opt that weakness and institute game impermanence as a feature. They acknowledge that games are intrinsically about infinite variations and constant revisions, and that there's this disparity between austere presentation and safety-net mechanics.

There have to be additional solutions. Bioshock thought it had one with its respawning chambers: it knew that players would reload anyway so it gave them a canonical reason not to fear death, but the internet hardcore yelled that they hated it. It removed the challenge, they said. It's 2008, let's stop pretending that challenge is still there. Finality is not permanent anymore. Difficult choices are meaningless. Instead of living with it, let's work with it, and decide now where games go next.

October 16, 2008

The Man Behind The Curtain

[Alex Ashby works at the London-based indie developer Beatnik Games. In September, he attended the Game Developers' Conference in Austin. In October, he finally reports back. Written by Alex Ashby and Duncan Fyfe.]

As if overnight, the Game Developers' Conference erected itself in Texas. It swept into the Austin Convention Center under the cover of darkness, and when the lights turned on it would attract thousands of developers, programmers, journalists and enthusiasts to meet in this place and talk about video games. They, joined by Bruce Sterling, Harvey Smith and speakers from BioWare, Blizzard, Square Enix and Disney would circulate around the three floors for three days in a frenzy of activity. Then they would vanish, leaving no trace of their presence.

The category two hurricane that had ripped through the state mere days before had not been so insubstantial. Generally, the government were better prepared for Ike than they had been for Katrina, but there's only so much you can do in the face of a natural disaster. Over 90 were killed, many more were displaced, and hundreds remain missing to this day. The city of Houston had gone dark; wet streets littered with torn power cables and shattered glass.

The city being proclaimed Out Of Order, our flight to Houston was cancelled, a fact that we were not apparently fit to know until we were physically turned from the departure gate at an already unpleasant hour. We could have tried our luck with a Sunday flight, but British obstinacy and general unwillingness to return to work prompted us to seek alternatives. In a fit of adventurousness and half-formed aspirations towards Hunter S. Thompson, we decided to fly as far as we could and drive the rest of the way. Armed with a specious awareness of American geography, we chose our destination, the closest place to Texas that we knew: Los Angeles.

By the time our folly was discovered, we'd already committed to the journey, but it gave us plenty of time to consider why we'd wanted to go in the first place. I'd attended previous GDCs, but this was to be my first visit to the one in Austin, and I was longing to draw comparisons. The conference in San Francisco had continued to astound me year after year, not with high profile sequels but with the creative strength and business cache of the independent developers. I couldn't help wondering whether Austin, with its online focus, would similarly draw my attention to areas of video game culture that I might otherwise overlook. These fringe discoveries were the most fascinating thing about GDC no matter in which city it occurred. Stories of success and failure are commonplace in the media, but at GDC futures are made and lost all around you, all on the shake of a dice. Not every Narbacular Drop gets to be Portal. "Austin," said its Chamber of Commerce's Tony Shrum, "is a very entrepreneurial town."

For the chance to be part of that, to witness the nurturing of a fickle and fragile industry, a twenty-hour road trip across four states was a small price to pay. Also, the car rental at LAX promised half-price on all SUVs, and so we bombed down the interstate to Arizona in a car the size of a modest guest room with no regrets.

The closer you get to the centre of LA, the danker it gets; the closer to the center of the Arizona desert, the whiter. A culture shock, coming from heavily-urbanised London: our road trip was characterised by stark swathes of white nothing. There was something satisfyingly uncluttered about the empty plains stretching to the horizon. No distractions, no worries; with land this uncomplicated, you can predict the future up to 20 minutes in advance. As the satellite navigation tells us to "turn in 277 miles", we flip to cruise control and count the miles between roadsigns telling us we are approaching the desert centre, in the desert centre, and leaving the desert centre. Evidently everything else in the state is a bonus.

In Texas, we passed towns, gas stations, car dealerships, all empty. Roadside novelty "western-style" commercial strips, in a strange twist of irony, were abandoned and boarded up like movie ghost towns; saloon doors gently swinging in anticipation of a showdown. As we crossed the Colorado River into Austin, I thought about that disrepair and whether anyone still cared about any of it or if it had been left to fend for itself.

The convention centre itself inspired similar thoughts. I was used to civic buildings with high ceilings, soaring sheets of glass, arches and windows strategically placed to encourage the spreading of natural light. The one in Austin lurked; squat and dark like the world's largest one-bedroom apartment. A registration booth was sequestered in a corner and a small wall displayed the day's schedule but little else about the place was recognisable as GDC other than the many hairy men.

The immediate follow-up was a weak keynote by Lane Merrifield of Disney's Club Penguin (the key to customer service, he said, in so many words, was to not be a prick -- the audience nodded appreciatively) that left me wanting for some human insight. Something deserving of the GDC myth. Traditionally, my interests always lay in the actual sessions, but after enduring an hour of slides featuring lolcats and other post-ironic internet memes, I was ready to bow out. I wanted to meet fellow indie developers, talk to them about their work, but there were less of them to find than there had been at San Francisco. The IGF booth was not only smaller, but also located in an otherwise abandoned corner of the building under, of all things, a staircase. It was ridiculous to see people with such obvious concentrated passion and talent being hidden away like Harry Potter; having to hope that someone might stumble across their dedication by accident. They formed campfire circles on the carpet, sat on the stairwell gazing listlessly out of the window like stoop kids, and idly played their games for hours on end, all to the thrum of the tradeshow bustle reverberating through the building from miles away. It was the only place I wanted to be.

On the other side of the building, another group of people were having to deal with the same thrum. Behind a loose curtain, reminiscent of a hospital ward, hurricane refugees were being quietly shepherded. They came in every day, waiting outside for unmarked white vans to pull up and distribute refuse bags of clothes and personal items rescued from the flooding, hopefully those that actually belonged to them. Beds and soup lines were forming, while next door they talked about MMO synergies and why "synchronous worlds need asynchronous communication features".

Bruce Sterling paced the stage at his keynote, pretending to be a time traveller. "Creative disruption, radical innovations, provocative cultural change," he said, and then he sprinkled a shaker of salt over the floor. Maybe that meant something.

Outside, an elderly man wandered the halls, stopping to stare into the expo hall, and became rooted to the spot. He looked in at the blaze of lights, high end consumer electronics and the booze flowing from the EA stand. He stood there and stared until finally his vision was finally obscured by the door being quietly and purposefully closed. He continued to stare.

Elsewhere, other evacuees made their way to the non-restricted IGF under the staircase and attempted to interact with the games on display. One man watches a demo of Pillowfort Games' Goo; when asked for his opinion, he says it is too yellow. He says he would like to press the "20" button. Another man presses down on the keyboard at random, then he touches the monitors, the equipment, the booth. The indie developers watch in silence, noting that this is the most attention their work has received yet. The computer isn't turned on. They let him stay there, the man with no home, and he presses another button with an expressionless face. He doesn't want to leave. The old saw echoes uncomfortably down the hall: I play video games to escape from real life.

On Wednesday night, convention staff arrived to dismantle the displays. For us, slightly sullen and cynical, it felt like nothing had changed. For our erstwhile roommates, the change was irreversible. Spending those three days among the outcasts and witnessing their indifferent treatment first hand, I realised how easy it was to pretend that things were getting better, that more attention was being paid, that we were building upon foundations more solid than mere opportunism. The idea of any significant reform disappeared with the desert in the rear view mirror. We were leaving.

The ride back was more sombre than the journey in. To break up the route, we spent our last night in Vegas. I'm sitting at the blackjack table; a semi-circle of high-rollers. The dealer's hand touches the felt table, cards laid out. A game of luck, though the odds are rigged. Do I really have a chance? He looks in my direction.

"Hit me."

October 13, 2008

What Happened

Imagine a game that begins strongly, propelled by ambition and purpose, and in the final act totally deteriorates. That's not interesting to me anymore, even as a process story. It happens with such frequency now, it's way too familiar. The entire project, probably, was inspired by a single concept, but as a game it needed levels and plot, and as the designers strayed from that initial flash of brilliance to build the basic structure necessary to support it, they lost interest and it turned out workmanlike. Or maybe they worked on it for too long, got tired, stopped trying. These games run out of steam, time or money and bashfully crawl over the finish line or don't finish at all.

Games try and open with their best foot forward and shove the mechanically weaker stuff at the end. Bioshock's failing is a fundamental disagreement between story and game, but it still ends on its worst two levels: an escort mission and an overly conventional boss fight. Crysis dramatically narrowed its last-act focus to forbid the freeform strategy the game previously encouraged. Far Cry and the original Half-Life are classic examples: aliens showed up and abducted the quality.

I wonder if the opposite is possible: bad start, outstanding finish. Not like a slow burn, but like the developers went through the same declining creative trajectory all the above games did, but happened to build the game back-to-front. As if the designer envisioned a wonderful ending set piece, executed it flawlessly, but couldn't conceive of an interesting game leading up to it. Letdowns, broken promises and missed opportunities but in reverse. From trainwreck to transcendence. I want to know what that game would be like.

First impressions would be very different. They might improve because we wouldn't have the game's best moments for comparison. It would certainly exit on a perfect note: an alternate-universe Bioshock would conclude on a sequence of astonishing and sustained theatricality and Crysis would expand its possibilities instead of restricting them. The bad levels would not disappoint since the game wouldn't have built up our expectations. Nobody cares about an awful conclusion to an awful game, it's when the weaknesses are preceded by greatness that they really sting. Invisible War was only reviled because it was Deus Ex: Invisible War.

More likely, first impressions would be fatal. If the beginning is abjectly horrible, that will characterise reviews and player opinions. No one credible has anyone ever advocated suffering through ten hours of video game misery on the basis that later the sun starts shining a little bit. The game would hook nobody and its wonderful ending would go largely unseen. This is almost surely why all the worst parts of a game find themselves at the end. The levels are too expensive not to use, but the game's too expensive to risk opening with them. When Obsidian had to cut content from the second Knights of the Old Republic, they took it from the ending. They couldn't get away with a similarly unfinished beginning. They'd be called on it instantly, and fortunately for them reviewers are less likely to mention a disappointing ending because they think it's spoiling.

Assuming players could stomach the whole thing, would it be like the game only got better? Or would it be like watching the game fall apart backwards. Imagine you got through the uninspired and undetermined opening, then saw the game hitting its stride, and you know at that point in their development they've got lightning in a bottle. But you've seen how it turns out for them, you've seen the inadequate levels they make next. You know they end up losing it. Like flipping through a photo album from the back; every part of the game is a snapshot of the development team, and the beginning, the last thing they did, is beaten down and marked by failure. Somewhere near the sequential end of the game, though, they're on fire and they know it. Basically, imagine experiencing Bioshock or Crysis or the discography of the Rolling Stones or Elvis Costello in reverse.

That's what it is to play Bioshock or Crysis for the second time, when you know how they end. You're not watching them escalate anymore; this time you're not along for the ride. You're an observer, not a passenger, and you know all the goals and grandeur don't end well. For all your agency, it's something you can't prevent. They're going full throttle but you know they're about to crash. It's going to break your heart and theirs.

And take that replay experience and translate it to the first play. I don't think that's ever happened. Bring that on.

October 8, 2008

Missed Connections

Does Hideo Kojima need an editor? The internet thinks so, to the tune of 98 Google hits for the phrase "kojima needs an editor" (now it's 99).

I think that Kojima is likely aware of the criticism, but because of his success is free to dismiss it and continue in his over-expository ways. I think, also, that there is someone close to Kojima, perhaps a brother-in-law, who happens to be a professional editor and really could use the work. He thinks it would be a dream to work in video games, not least because he is currently employed proofreading ad copy for toilets. He has never discussed the matter with Kojima, who has always remained silent and impassive despite repeated and insisted hints. At one family dinner, the editor has his laptop on the table and pulls up a negative Metal Gear Solid 4 review that highlights Kojima's problematic verbosity. He plans to casually yawn and swivel in his chair, and with his outstretched arm push the monitor around to face Kojima, hoping to draw his eye and make it look accidental. He misjudges his velocity though and the laptop flies through the air and hits Kojima's wife in the neck.

If Kojima had asked him to join the team then it would be a very different story, he thinks. A collaboration with Kojima would be like a first-class ticket to genius city. The editor would be able to unleash his full potential, and Metal Gear Solid would be all the better for it; focused, tighter, incisive. He would accompany Kojima on whirlwind press tours, sitting in on interviews and game signings, and when Kojima is asked about his copious narrative talent he would demure and sing his editor's praises. And the editor would erupt with delight. Coquettish cheerleaders dressed as Meryl Silverburgh and Naomi Hunter would whisper in astonishment: that's the editor. He would get his own interviews as the press began to grasp the full measure of his intellect. Eventually the city would celebrate his contribution to gaming by throwing him a parade and driving him down Main Street in a convertible. The crowd would cheer and he would stand up in the car with his arms wide, letting the waves of otaku appreciation lap at his feet. A squadron of fighter jets roar overhead.

That's what he thinks when he's sitting in his cubicle watching smokers and pigeons out the window. He looks back to his work, which reads "The 2008 Vanguard model has sleek aerodynamic curves and a porcelein finish which makes it a keeper for any bathroom." He crosses out 'aerodynamic' and notes, "A toilet has no wings to fly. 'Porcelain' has one 'e.'"

October 6, 2008

Travel Advisory

I don't know how much of Fallout 3's hypothetical audience I represent as someone who's read multiple previews of the game over the last year and a half and has a reasonable idea of what to expect from the game's content. Fallout 3 is a major title of interest to a lot of people, so there will be a lot of stories written about it, and because journalists can only write about what Bethesda's ready to show them, these stories are mostly going to cover the same ground. I'm wondering now how many people besides myself are a little too well-versed in the Fallout 3 level called Megaton.

Megaton has been Bethesda's vertical slice for a while now to illustrate how choices and consequence work in the world of Fallout 3. Megaton is a small town built around the site of an unexploded atomic bomb. Exploring Megaton, players are approached by a mysterious businessman who wants you to help him detonate the bomb. This will permanently obliterate the town, its characters and its quest lines. Alternatively, you can decide to save Megaton and refuse.

I think about journalists at Bethesda press events being given another Megaton demo and wondering how to put a new spin on it. Each of them thinking about how they can possibly retell the Megaton story in an interesting way. The moral dilemma of Megaton has been pretty thoroughly explained, and I imagine that everyone at this point knows how they will respond to it before the choice is even presented. It will be an odd experience to finally play it because the experience will be on terms unanticipated by the game's design. Players are going to be walking in with preview-derived extra awareness, already knowing exactly what to look for and how to behave.

I've compared game developers to travel agents before, and it's not the worst metaphor. What the developer and the publisher do in the pre-release press cycle is educate the potential consumer about a foreign place, towards the eventual goal of selling a plane ticket. They make sure to promote the most attractive qualities and the kinds of activities the game world exemplifies, while providing advice about how to act vis-à-vis cultural rules and customs, so that people will feel secure and confident about visiting a strange land. Bethesda have been good travel agents in the case of Megaton; informed players are indeed well-equipped for that trip. However, that can't help but create an unfortunate information gap between the player and his representation in the game, and undermine Bethesda's design strengths, which are mainly to facilitate daring adventures in unknown territory.

The way that this business works, it's inevitable that we will know things about the game before we play it and that they may spoil our experience. That's not going to change, but think about the possibilities that arise from games putting the player in that position: imagine that Bethesda have set the player's expectations of the Megaton level, and can now retroactively subvert them. As in, the player arrives in Megaton and the first thing that happens is that he is arrested for plotting to blow up the town. You can't really argue the point; what do we usually think about a stranger who walks into our city weighing whether or not he wants to make it explode today? If Bethesda had deliberately set this trap for players, what a shock that would be. We assume that we have this shield of privacy stemming from in-game anonymity. We don't expect to be "caught" like that.

I'd like to see some game developers try their hand at being secretive and opportunist travel agents. For a change.

October 4, 2008

Intimidation Tactics

Is it indicative of bad design if players decide they won’t finish a game? It certainly suggests the presence of an alienating flaw in the gameplay, especially if the player had previously found the game enjoyable. There are definite measures developers can take to encourage the player all the way over the threshold, assuming they understand why the player stops in the first place.

There are two reasons why a player will abruptly stop playing a game that they otherwise liked. The first is difficulty, whether it manifests itself as an insurmountable obstacle or surmountable but frustrating. For developers whose games are explicitly about story first and foremost (Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid), the concept of gameplay difficulty is problematic. It’s an unusual contract these games have with the player: they exist to tell the player a story, but must actively sabotage their efforts to hear it. Difficulty is so integrated into the origins of the art form that it becomes, for these narrative-focused developers, like an archaic article in the Constitution that is uncomfortable in a modern environment but must be honoured out of tradition.

Many gamers, however, are very protective of challenge's place in the medium. Such is the cachet of the Halo series that its Legendary difficulty mode is heralded as a crucible for hardcore credibility rather than a masochistic exercise, and those same hardcore gamers might consider design approaches intended to help the player reach the end restrictive and desperate. It’s always a poor match when players who don't want a challenge hook up with games that provide one, and vice versa. Players who feel overly punished will resent it, so too will those who feel coddled. It’s the former group who will find games hard to play and consequently give up on them.

These gamers occasionally are offered assistance – dynamic difficulty levels, cheat codes, super-easy modes – but some games will only do so begrudgingly. Ninja Gaiden condescends and taunts before helping out and Jonathan Blow's official Braid "walkthrough" is a reprimand aimed at those who would seek such a thing. The attitudes of both those games have probably irritated even the players who could beat them.

It can happen like that, or for a second reason: believing that they have essentially got enough out of the game. The player, despite their previous appreciation, assume that they can predict the remaining experience. It’s probably, they think, the exact same thing that they have been doing, only incrementally harder. That is not a strong motivation to continue. There are other games on the table, and players feel that even without the ending, they've formulated enough of an opinion to speak intelligently about the unfinished game. Again, no one tactic will get every player to finish a game (and some players, fans of a particular niche, will endure any encumbrance for the sake of the core gameplay), but certain companies have attempted to convert the indifferent.

The Orange Box was released fifty-one weeks ago. Since then, Valve has talked about how the comparatively brief durations of Portal and the Half-Life episodes resulted in more people finishing their games than usual. That's a factor, certainly: 40 hours of more of the same is intimidating, and the player may reasonably feel quite satisfied after only 15. But the percentage of player completion has more to do with Valve's design philosophy than the length of their games. The notion of being "on rails" has negative connotations to some, but the intermittently tedious Half-Life 2 hoverboat sequence would have been compounded had the player been allowed to explore and get lost. Tight pacing and strict boundaries keep Half-Life's momentum consistently high, whereas the wide, open spaces of Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion improve agency but destroy any sense of urgency or coherence. Freedom in game worlds means the freedom to discover dead ends and get bored.

Half-Life also makes a point of frequently rearranging the terms of engagement, introducing new toys and withholding others. The player knows they need to be relatively alert and engaged to succeed; the basic combat manoeuvres taught to them in the tutorial will not suffice. Spore, for the most part, operates on this same model: the player learns that evolution is an exciting prospect because the gameplay promises to change along with the creatures. The final space stage, however, is Spore at its most difficult and complicated – and it’s the single longest stage by far. The player knows the end of the space stage will not bring about another reinvention. All they have to look forward to is that it will eventually end – and when they think that, why not end it at that moment?

Games have also tried using story to hook the player; offering an extra incentive to the gameplay. It is not heartening to frame the contributions of game writers as added value or completion insurance, but sometimes writers are able to work well even within those limitations. Until its recent installment, Grand Theft Auto’s stories were fun but shallow. It made sense at the time, as Rockstar was inviting players to mess around in its open world; not to finish its campaign. But, consequently, it was a series whose scope made it prone to digression and easy to abandon. Evidently Rockstar agreed when they prioritised narrative in GTA IV -- even when it would, in the initial stages, restrict players from the freeform behavior that made GTA popular. Rockstar’s marriage of narrative and gameplay wasn’t flawless, but it was far from the worst case example of its type: where disconnected levels are limply bridged with cutscenes of soap opera twists and ostensibly comic characters.

Story won't compel the player to the finish line when developers make it easy to ignore. Stories in video games (and in otherwise good video games, too) incarnate as aimless and confusing Frankenstein’s monsters, created to meet the lowest of expectations. Mirror's Edge inhabits a defiantly vibrant and attractive world, and its first-person-parkour approach is intriguingly visceral. However, its story is presented in stiff 2D cutscenes that are completely contrary to the game’s primary theme of movement and therefore does not appear relevant to the gameplay. Furthermore, given the premise of the unjustly accused fighting for revenge in a white-washed, corporate future police state, DICE have done gamers the favour of making the story disposable and clich√©.

Few games will go all in and make story the reason to play the game, or argue that players who do not give it their full attention are wasting their time. Stories can't always be predicted like minor variations on base gameplay can. Half-Life weaves a Lost-esque cryptography, BioShock approximates a philosophical thesis, and their conclusions are integral. If players check out early it will not be because they think they’ve effectively seen it all. These games, using story in this manner, stand a better chance of keeping the player engaged all the way through. Compare two RPG classics: the reason to experience the entirety of Planescape: Torment is to work one's way towards a thematic conclusion; to answer the very atypical question of whether the main character will die; and to see Black Isle and Chris Avellone's treatise on morality, existentialism, selfishness, betrayal and heartbreak climax. The reason to get to the end of Baldur's Gate II is to kill the bad guy.

The stories of Half-Life, BioShock and Braid are prioritised and celebrated and thus are good reasons to finish the games -- but none of them go to Black Isle’s lengths. They are structured in layers, making sure that the player will only ever see as much as they are interested in. Further clues, backstories and subplots all exist for those willing to look for them, and all of these games give the impression that that’s the kind of player they really want. There's not much value in a critical read on Braid that neglects any narrative interpretations, and the game – and Jonathan Blow, in his walkthrough and in public statements-- implies that the only condition under which players should reach the end is if they earn it.

One final tactic – easy and commonplace – is the "game completion" metric. The ultimate statistic is a counterargument to those players thinking they’re prematurely done with the game as it distributes their meagre 51% completion available to all the player’s Xbox Live friends. Achievements and unlockables fall under this same category: temptation. They are gaming's most superficial incentive and they're aimed at the obsessive, who would likely finish the game anyway out of compulsion.

There’s no good answer. A plurality of gamer types, and of tactics to keep them on track, makes silver bullet solutions impossible, and we should also consider how many game developers even care about whether players finish their games. This is not an article that can offer practical, tested advice. It will, however, point to all of the above methods used to hold the player’s interest and identify their common inspiration. Everything, an astonishing story; an array of achievements; an arsenal of creative weapons, are there to keep the player in awe of the world. They are aware that there is always another nebulous challenge, or a secret to uncover. It’s a question of who achieves mastery, the player or the game? Who knows more about how the game is played? Because they get to say when it ends.