Game Eaters

Friday, May 27, 2005

My Game Studies, Part 0 - Intro

I am starting a series called "My Game Studies." I've spent the last 5 or 6 years if my life studying videogames in academia. I'm on a first name basis with many of the key figures in the field, and I've studied with them. And guess what.

I still feel dumb.

This is why I've decided to revisit Game Studies, one article at a time. Whenever I read an article that is Game Studies related, I will blog about it, and hopefully this will help me remember what the hell I've read.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Doing the "right" thing in the games industry, Part 2. just posted an interview with Clint Hocking, lead-designer, head-writer of Splinter Cell 3. I spoke to him at GDC and he was really friendly. We didn't talk much, so I didn't know some of his more complex opinions until this article.

I didn't conduct the interview myself, but as a writer at Gamecritics some of the questions were mine. One of my questions was about--surprise surprise--what the politics of Splinter Cell 3 were. I was struck by the game's contemporary political setting, where enemy soldiers curse you as an American imperialist before you either knock them out or, more satisfyingly, stick a knife in their back.

Clint's answer was much what I expected--that he wasn't trying to make a political statement so much as populate his world with people whose motivations and beliefs seemed real.

I can respect this. I also respect (and actually agree with) Clint's assertions that it isn't helpful for people to whine about "evil corporations" squelching creativity in the name of profit. He's right that there are plenty of hard working creative people expressing their personal visions in this industry right now, some with more success, some with less. That's just the reality of any artistic medium involving big money and multiple investors. Art has always been commercial, and anyone who doesn't see the art in the current commercial landscape of games doesn't know what art is.

That said... there's a part of me that is disappointed with Clint's answer about politics in Splinter Cell 3. Maybe it is because I think compelling artistic expression exists in games that SC3 feels lightweight to me. It's not that I necessarily want the game to be more leftist and more anti-American (although that's certainly how I would have made it.) I guess I just want more depth to its ethical and political subtext and I want that woven into the interaction in a more meaningful way, regardless of whether it leans left or right.

For Clint, it seems like the real world politics and the ethical dimensions of Sam Fisher was just the spice of Splinter Cell 3.

If I had my way, they would be the whole meal.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Doing the "right" thing in the games industry.

I had an interesting conversation yesterday.

My company is finishing work on a mobile sports game, and the way the art is done each player is the same body with different heads placed on top to create unique characters. It occurred to me that with very little programming time you could simply leave the player's heads out and replace the ball with a head model. Then you'd have a game where headless players where playing with a severed head.

To me this is obviously a much better idea than a normal sports game, so I jokingly suggested we include this "mode" as an easter egg. My colleagues liked the idea, but one mentioned that you need to watch out what you do with a license. He then mentioned something I'd never heard of, a case where a designer was fired from Maxis for putting male "bimbos" in SimCopter. This is a game I haven't played, but from what I gather SimCopter was already full of female "bimbos" so there was already an element of exhibitionist sexuality in the game. This designer, who was gay, wanted equal opportunity eye-candy, so he put some men in. Maxis freaked and fired him, allegedly for "putting in unauthorized content."

This really pissed me off. I told my colleagues that this was totally different from putting in severed heads in a game. They were using it as an example of how one has to be mindful of working on someone else’s IP, that you can't just exploit it for your own agenda. I can agree with that, but as a socially conscious individual I also think it depends on the agenda. If a publisher wants a family game and you fill it with blood and guts, that's one thing. But if they have a game that is already sexual and you merely include another sexual orientation, it is a clear case of discrimination for them to fire you. The fact that this man added the content without authorization is just a convenient excuse. If he'd added, on I dunno, people of mixed races without "authorization" do you think he'd have been fired? I somehow doubt it.

When I was at GDC I asked Warren Spector a question that has been bothering me lately. "Can you be an iconoclast and a nice person in the videogame industry?" I asked. He said, "Of course. All the people I know who are innovation-minded are some of the nicest people in the industry."

I dunno if I buy this. How can you be "nice" and respect the job security of your co-workers when the "right" thing to do is to make a (dangerous) statement against what is obviously an unjust double-standard? I suppose the guy could have brought the issue up with his superiors first, but on the other hand it seems silly since, had they said 'no', it would have been a clear case of discrimination all the same.

I'm not sure what the answer to this question is.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Being a gamer pays off

This article gives a fast review of the benefits of being a gamer. This is preaching to the converted, but it's a fine article you can forward to those people who still think that videogames are brainless. They can teach skills, such as resource management, planning and complex systems; skills that can are basic an necessary for any job, including management. So there.

Being a gamer can also get you money, either in competitions, such as the Cash Prizes at Twin Galaxies, or by being a game tester, as yours truly will be this summer, if the legal / immigration paperwork does not get in the way. I'll make you jealous in another entry.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I'm an addict

I have to confess it. I'm an addict. I can't stop playing LUMINES. I steal Matt's PSP whenever I have the chance and play. Yesterday I could not care less about eating, or anything else, I just had to play. I got to level 86 in single skin mode. And my biceps was sore when I finished. Then I realized I'm just completely addicted to the game.

Puzzle games tend to hook me up really badly. Before this, I had a serious Mr Driller gaming stint, and before that Puzzle Bobble 4, for which I specifically bought a second hand DC. But Lumines is more addictive that those two together.

How can yet another variation on Tetris have players so hooked up? It probably has to do with the variations on the model. There are only two colours, and you have to make squares with them. Sounds simple enough. The key is that the squares do not automatically vanish as you put them together, but you have to wait until a line sweeps them out. Still, the mechanics are very easy to get. The strategy is another kettle of fish, and that's key to get you playing anything for hours--easy to pick up, so easy that it can't be so difficult to really kick ass at it. And then you forget about eating.

The second factor of addiction has to be with entrainment. I'm borrowing this term from Brian Moriarty (of Loom fame) who in an amazing lecture(you should have seen it delivered to fully get the point) explained how games create patterns for the player to follow, this results in a rhythm that makes you flow with them. Lumines does this to perfection--combining catchy music with an addictive puzzle is lethal, even moreso if every move you make in the game also produces music. You become one with the puzzle and the music, you go with the flow and forget about the rest of the world...

Hopefully my addiction will subdue soon. I have Dai Gaissou Band Brothers coming. That's a true rhythm game, so I'll just change one entrainments for another.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Eiji Aonuma doesn't get it.

Or, rather, we don't get it. We don't understand that the designers of Zelda aren't even seeing things in terms of this "Cartoony = Childlike, Realistic = Mature" idiocy.

It's silly enough that gamers in the West split hairs like this anyway. Nevermind that the so-called "realistic" Link is still a cartoon character. We just see bodies with textures and shadows on them and think realism... which, somehow, gets automatically associated with "adult" themes of... er, well... evil dark stuff, I guess. What the hell does "dark" mean anyway?

Eiji Aonuma doesn't seem to know, based on this interview. It's actually pretty hilarious. It illustrates perfectly the gap between EGM's adolescent mindset and the Zelda team's sense of style. How's this for a telling exchange:

EGM: [J]ust the realistic graphics alone might make it seem darker or grittier...

EA: [Long pause] It's very hard to say. We're not trying to make it a very dark game, despite that impression, but we are trying to create a big contrast. For example, it should sometimes be very dark, and other times very bright, so people can enjoy the sheer contrast.

Hello? Can we say "culture gap?"

Aonuma literally thinks this guy's talking about how light or dark the game is... which makes sense since in his mind there probably is no obvious connection between the look of the new Zelda game and mature, violent, and/or elements we otherwise characterize as "dark" in the West. A paraphrase of this conversation might be:

EGM: Yeah, but... oh come on! Link is all big and cool lookin' and stuff! Not like that stoooopid Link in Wind Waker. That means the new Zelda will be, you know, dark and cool and stuff, right?

EA: [bewildered] Uh... are you talking about the lighting?