Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Reality" in Question

Apologies to those who may have been checking this space once in a while. Mid-semester has been kicking in full gear lately, and extensive coverage of a great film festival here in Montreal has effectively ate up all of my free time. That and playing Far Cry 2 ; )

Actually, it might be another month before I write again, so I hope you indulge me as I dive into this, my most ambitious piece to date.

(*Full disclosure: this essay was written at two very distinct moments by a novice practicioner of the form, which may explain a certain disparity in tone and subject.)


One of the greatest films of 2008 (and indeed of this closing decade) is Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs, better known as The Class to English audiences. Mostly taking place "between the walls" of a multiracial French classroom, it lacks in common elements of spectacle but more than makes up for this by presenting a forthright, passionately observant portrayal of its chosen subject. Carefully planned with the cast of ordinary students, long scenes play out in improvisational manner, and provide a fascinating snapshot of life as it plays out for a definite group of people over a given period of time. With boundless patience and absolute modesty, The Class simulates an inside view of a world which remains out of bounds for most of this planet's dwellers.

Conversely, few would argue that one of the greatest video games of the last couple of years is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. With it, developer Infinity Ward has pretty much pushed every technical asset of the first-person shooter arsenal to its limits. Explosive sound effects, aggressive AI, weapon physics ; whatever, it's all there. But moreover, they also managed to imbue their product with a genuine sense of place and tension, crafting scenes of seldom-equaled intensity ; depictions of pain, confusion and terror, all absolutely relevant to the subject. While still taking place in a fantasy version of history and politics, as well as including narrative turns that revert to the most elementary conventions of action storytelling, it's an impressive achievement for this particular form and genre, and representation of war in a video game has probably never been so close to that of authentic documentary footage... or actual human perception, for that matter.

You may be starting to grasp where I am heading with this, but let's not get ahead of ourselves and carefully define our question. Yes, both creative efforts I just described share an apparent willingness to depict a given phenomenon with certain verisimilitude. They also share the aspect of not being assembled from actual documents of the events on which they are based, but fully constructed from the bottom up. However, the crucial point on which they differ (apart from their obvious disparity in scale and intensity) is that of their respective materials, and namely of the essential divide between photographic and digital media. But does that prevent one or the other to strive for a plausible image of the world?


While this alterity may appear self-evident, it seems appropriate to point out specific distinctions between the mediums. Whereas a movie essentially consists of a series of camera movements and angles deliberately sequenced and paced by a film editor, a game played in first-person perspective such as Modern Warfare allows the user to be in command of the viewpoint at all times. The actors of a live-action film are gifted with free will and spontaneity, and thus never fully manageable by the director, while the procedural behaviours of a video game cast are hand-crafted by a team of specialists capable of anticipating their every move (at least in theory). Where does that leave us with regards to both instruments' capacity of evoking life as we know it? Perhaps, despite these major discrepancies, in a common abstraction that precedes any artform: the concept of scenes unfolding, beheld by a gaze.

Mankind's ability to see, hear and otherwise feel is without a doubt one of its greatest blessings. While some details will always escape our awareness, it is by "sensing" things that we receive the world and give it meaning, order, purpose. At the same time, the history of the arts has seen our techniques of representation drawing ever closer to actual perception, with film as a crowning pinnacle of sorts (Janet Murray and Marie-Laure Ryan, among others, have greatly elaborated on this topic). It is a fallacy, however, to believe that photographic film stops at providing impressions of the world as is, without mediation ; with ever more sophisticated means of manipulating and associating images, filmmakers have found ways to orient "reality" as they see fit, even when the acts on screen are basically out of their control. Some even craft entirely fictional spaces that can still be enjoyed by the common mortal soul, due to recognizable traits beneath the artifice.

In short, to watch a film essentially amounts to a contract of sorts: that of submitting to an artist's vision as something that can be trusted, and expecting it to surprise, to provide insights, to reflect our world in a different light. Which doesn't deny the fundamental "reality" of the objects filmed, at the most basic level of existence. The introduction of the video game, on the other hand, completely alters the manner in which we relate to moving images and sound.


What do I see when I gaze off the top of a hill in Shadow of the Colossus? I contemplate a deserted landscape which, in my mind at this precise moment, possesses an undeniable reality, and which has been designed to make me feel deeply, deeply alone. When I attend a conversation between two non-player characters in Half-Life 2 (a game which may have nailed the "scene" template better than any other), I am witnessing careful choreography that stirs up dramatic tension, or is at least intended this way. But if I prefer to hug the walls and look for power-ups while the action is taking place, or to rush to my next target without pausing to take the world in, I am basically free to do so. Unless particular measures have been hardwired in the program, none of this behaviour prevents the rest of the game world from existing, nor its particular events from unfolding with me completely missing out. It might be my loss, but it might on the other hand cast the piece in a different light. One that develops from my own input.

More so than a film, a work of interactive media is the result of intensive construction. The fact that an object is even admitted in the isolated reality of a video game presupposes a deliberate creative effort, rather than a simple selection of pre-existing materials (see Bordwell and Thompson's take on the "profilmic" layer). But does the very presence of an item or system in a gameworld entitle the player to consume it at all costs? A common criticism of the Grand Theft Auto games is precisely that they are filled with so much content that they end up having no meaning at all, apart from their embrace of total anarchy ; one needs only to compare with the lack of distractions in a game such as Ico to emphasize Rockstar's "maximalist" approach. But even the most focused of games will require the player to make choices ; in other words, to act as co-director and -editor of his or her performance.

Despite some meandering (see the title of this blog...), we are getting closer to my initial thought, which is that video games, to a further extent than film, demand some measure of pacing and prioritizing, if only on a psychic level. And I am not speaking of "moral choices" and other "big" game moments, but of the actual manner in which the content is experienced. I personally happened to spend upwards of an hour with each girl of The Path, and to plod through Assassin's Creed (twice!) mainly by leisurely walking from station to station. Did this significantly alter the basic narratives the designers were trying to communicate? No, not exactly. But it absolutely did change my perception of what could be deemed "important" within these particular game environments and systems. It compelled me, sometimes bored me, made me pay attention to the small details and the larger tone ; but most of all, it never failed to absorb me in the self-contained reality of these virtual universes, despite the failings of their fictional components.


With all this in mind, I ask frankly: why don't video game developers at least try to approach the kind of "trivial" topics depicted in The Class, or countless works of cinema over its century of existence (to stay within the French output of recent years, Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain is another great example)? It appears to be accepted that by its very nature as an "artificial" medium, the video game is much better suited to expressions of the abstract and fantastical, and I have no problem with this admission. But when I see the magnificent efforts deployed by the studios in creating believable textures and lighting, animation, physics, procedural behaviours, I can't help but feel that all this energy could be dedicated to subjects of such greater human interest. We already had the brilliant Façade, but no one would argue that this was a flawed and over-ambitious exercise in dynamic, first-person communicative gameplay. Meanwhile, several independent developers exhibit their interest for the seemingly-mundane through projects of great quality, but with lacking resources and obsolete design tropes (see Back Door Man, one of my personal favorites this year, about a night in a male prostitute's life).

Through some cosmic alignment of conscience and technology, I want to be absorbed in a space my body will never occupy ; to experience a down-to-earth story from the inside ; to choose what and how I want to perceive and, through this freedom, to look closer, and deeper ; and, hopefully, to fill some role in the scene...

I realize that with all this talk of feeling and immersion, I may have underplayed the importance of engaging mechanics in video games. Cinema will never have this problem (it has enough of its own...), but there is no doubt that smartly-implemented gameplay can go a long way in actually making the user care about what is happening on and off the screen, and possibly alter its meaning and weight. However, I believe this piece has drawn long enough for now, and that this crucial aspect of the "communication problem" deserves a dedicated post. In preparation of this topic though, let me ask this question: what will you do when personally confronted with the leaked scene of Modern Warfare 2?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Out of your Mind

When it first occurred to me that I should write a little piece on Out of this World, my thoughts turned to pulverizing it, ripping it to shreds ; anything to get some revenge for the feelings of unabashed anger it was awaking at the time. The experience I was getting out of it was that of being utterly condescended to, and the only reason I had to keep playing was out of personal curiosity and respect for the artform. And yet, when I finally arrived at the end... the only thing I could think about was playing it again. And again the next day. And again some other time. It felt as if the game had put me under some kind of sick spell, and indeed it had conditioned me into learning its punishing patterns by heart. Naturally, I began to see it in a slightly different light, and gave it some more thought.

The core property that emerges from my experience of Out of this World is difficulty, but not difficulty of any old kind. This is not a game that tests one's ability to calmly reason through abstract situations, nor one that throws relentless reflex challenges and asks the player to adapt. It is a little bit of both, and a lot of something else: the unpredictable barriers it places in the player's path are always of a solid, physical nature, but are presented in such a way that barely offers any chance to react properly. Rarely have I seen a game allowing so little room for error on the part of the player, nor have I stumbled upon so precious feedback on the current state of my progress. To put it bluntly, getting through Out of this World by oneself requires a level of unmatched skill, patience and discipline ; one that I clearly wasn't able to muster.

But let me put this differently, in the form of a question: at what point does this brand of "discipline" cease to be a virtue, and becomes a simple act of foolish submission? It bears asking, because Out of this World contains an awful lot of instances which are way too demanding to plow through, even when the procedure is perfectly clear. Conversely, it also forces the player to endlessly repeat long stretches of empty gameplay, neverminding that the closing portion of each is the one most likely to end in a fatal misstep. Separating his rare checkpoints by increasingly complex chains of events, designer Éric Chahi has clearly wanted failure and frustration to be part of his game's experience, and his attention to scenes resulting only in death is further proof of this. But in this wild pursuit, has he overestimated the stubbornness of his potential audience? Did people even care about this in 1991?

Difficulty and tedium in games has been the subject of many discussions of late, not the least being Lewis Pulsipher's recent overview of the question on Gamasutra (some very interesting comments there, too). While the commonly-referred solutions proposed by Prince of Persia and New Super Mario Bros. have sparked some justified controversy, other appealing alternatives have been noticed in the smaller-scale indie space: Nifflas' games wisely spread save spots every few screens, allowing the player to concentrate on navigating one step at a time ; similarly, Terry Cavanagh's amazing Don't Look Back evens out its hardcore difficulty by making every screen a checkpoint with self-contained challenges. In most commercial PC games, this "problem" has been mostly resolved by the omnipresence of quick saves, allowing to refine and correct one's performance at will. But still, despite these tweaks and concessions, developers insist on making their games somewhat challenging. Surely there must be a good reason for this...

Following my time with Out of this World, and curious to further experience an era when challenge was a gameplay factor of utmost importance, I dove into some classic NES titles that I had never played before. Mega Man, Contra, Ninja Gaiden... ; all of these yielded great fun, and provided an eloquent snapshot of then-state-of-the-art game design. But what I discovered is that, while clearly presenting high levels of difficulty, these platformers still mostly unfolded in fair and consistent patterns, according to their respective rules. Throughout these series and other, equally regarded titles (Blaster Master, Bionic Commando...), this consciousness of the player's progression and learning process is ultimately the argument that justifies what some would claim to be a hostile and restrictive approach to game design. Unlike the arbitrary manner in which Out of this World spreads itself out, it is expected that the player might be skilled enough to bend the mechanics to his will upon first encounter of an obstacle, and that practice will only result in a better, cleaner, brisker performance. What these games lack, however, is the sheer abandon of Chahi's play with space and mechanics, which boldly screams confidence.

Indeed, there is just about nothing that resembles a near-perfect playthrough of Out of this World. While practically impossible to pull off, to do so is to witness a feat of interactive storytelling that few games would equal until the original Half-Life. It is the flexibility of Chahi's environmental designs and core interactions that, invariably, dazzles ; the basic blaster is made to serve a surprising number of purposes, while the few variations in the means of navigating, such as the brief "duct-rolling" segment, all turn out clever and memorable. On occasion, the obscurity of certain solutions even works to his advantage, such as having to dive back in the depths of a cave to section a power wire, which makes the game world fold back on itself and appear even more thought-out. But as I said earlier, the threat of death never ceases to hang over the protagonist, and often remains much too hard to avoid even after several runs. Thus, the experience of replaying Out of this World becomes curiously paradoxical: failing to replicate the confusion and despair of the initial exposure, it is replaced by a mastery that never feels quite complete, but allows the game, ever precariously, to expose its narrative drive and grace more transparently. Whether this response was anticipated by the author remains a mystery, but it certainly is this intriguing sensation that kept me going back to it.

And so I must wrap up this personal account of Out of this World, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating pieces of software I ever toyed with, and one that changed the way I look at other games, for better and for worse. While I was firmly intent on claiming its design to be one of the most appalling ever conceived in the beginning, people more knowledgeable than me have previously made a case for it as "the best video game of all time" in fairly convincing manner. Chris Lepine, in a now somewhat-famous essay, has thoughtfully praised the spirit of independence at play in the game, which does ooze freedom and creativity. By its very design and delivery techniques, Out of this World is a work that feels daring, focused, personal, even urgent. That those qualities manage to pierce through such a daunting and ruthless exterior is almost a miracle in itself, and one that is sure to have people talking for years to come.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intimate Moments

I've been going a little nuts over Tomb Raider in the last couple of months ; first in the company of the excellent Anniversary, followed by that of Legend, which proved to be a worthy companion piece (even though it came out before). It might seem strange to bring up these two games now, let alone to play those rather than 2008 update Underworld, but what I take away from them is that they represent a fascinating dichotomy in terms of tone and aspirations. At the same time, the traits they share remain very indicative of a certain approach to 3-D game design, and I will try to dig into those.

My sudden enthusiasm for these titles came as something of a surprise, as my only prior experience with the franchise, about ten years ago, had been that of hopelessly failing to perform anything right in Tomb Raider 2. A quick spin of the Anniversary demo, however, was enough to dispel any suspicion I may have had concerning the present state of the series: without a doubt, I was willing to dive into a full package loaded with adventuring as fluid and good-looking as this. Of course it played almost exactly like the recent Prince of Persia efforts, and I reckoned that this revamped model was not representative of the previous entries' failings. But even so, there was something downright inviting about the way the game played and presented itself, and it probably didn't have much to do with the attractive character on display. At least I hope so...

In a twisted fit of counter-logic, let's start by describing the look and feel of Legend, which was clearly intended as a franchise reboot. This is pretty much blared right from the outset, with a lively FMV intro and a brief athletic prologue announcing that this is Tomb Raider "as-you've-never-seen-it-before" ; a game taking place in a variety of colorful locales, boasting moves you could have only ever dreamed of, peopled with supporting characters you couldn't care less about. By all means, this is an action-movie of a game ; not the first of its kind, yet certainly not the least, and one that may allow newcomers to familiarize themselves very quickly with the driving concepts of 3-D platforming and environmental puzzles. In terms of distilling an atmosphere of excitement and hooking the player instantly, Legend is an absolute success, maintains a good pace for most of its modest running time... and also, with its well-worn genre tropes and overall tone, manages to feel completely impersonal.

Juxtapose this with the opening of Anniversary, which can only be described as austere in comparison: Lara, sitting alone in a hotel lobby, is seen reading a book, then offered a contract, which leads to her claiming that she "only plays for sport". In a few minutes, she is established as calm, somewhat caring (for her foreign guide), crafty (in finding alternate routes), and only after that as an action heroine able to take down a pack of wolves. Remarkably, these subdued preliminaries act as the perfect set-up for the majority of the game, which features no chit-chat with stock partners, few "action button" sequences, and only a handful of human adversaries. In short, this is not a game about a physically-privileged female "doing stuff", but about such a woman engaged in... tomb raiding. A fantasy rendition of tomb raiding, certainly, but still exploration first and foremost. As such, the focus of the game is not placed on keeping things moving, but on the design of the tombs themselves ; creations which incidentally include "St. Francis Folly", one of the most amazing levels I have ever played.

Having gone out of my way to play it three times now, I can safely stand up for the belief that, save for a routine opening involving standard pillar action, "St. Francis Folly" incarnates everything there is to like about Tomb Raider. There is quite simply no way to describe (and certainly no way to reproduce) the experience of facing the dizzying vertical core of this level for the first time, and to start puzzling the way to circumvent its endless supply of obstacles. There is, however, an important point to be made about how its design requires the player to summon every navigational skill imaginable. Observation, memorization, association ; those all come subtly into play here (and are facilitated by the game's clear identification of the various structural elements). Successful feats of path-finding are also rewarded, in a way, by accessing separate rooms containing their own discrete systems, which are also a joy to piece together (at least for the most part). While other levels, such as "Midas' Palace" or "Obelisk of Khamoon", propose similar ways to structure the progression, none of them quite approach the scale and complexity of this one, which feels autonomous and full.

Still other levels, like "Temple of Khamoon" or "The Lost Valley", unfold in a completely different manner, guiding the player through a series of carefully-crafted challenges, sometimes looping back to a previous location that was altered somehow ; closer to an obstacle course than to a puzzle box, we could say. This approach, while very commendable when executed well, has a way of soliciting attention in much smaller bursts, and its prevalence in Legend is the basis of a distinct kind of immersion. What I believe, in short, is that this approach sets up a loosening of the level of investment not only in any given scenario, but in the series of exercises as a whole. In the case of Legend, this effect is reinforced by the constant stream of information, color and variety that is thrown at the player ; quite simply, inserting motorcycle rides to spice things up every so often, as brisk and fun as they are, doesn't make for a very focused adventure. And so, almost subconsciously, this game is likely to spark a much less involved engagement on the part of the player, and an overall experience that doesn't feel nearly as rewarding.

In a recent column for Resolution Magazine, Fraser McMillan has written about "isolation" as one of the recurring themes in the freeware platformers of late, as well as one of the key emotions that their authors are able to convey through mechanics and aesthetics. In Fraser's words, "these indie projects are able to do so because they’re unrestrained by profiteering marketers and, to revert to appropriate modern vernacular, the general bullshit the mainstream industry’s creatives have to put up with". But while I mostly sympathize with his views on the restraining factor of business, I don't see why, at least in principle, a fully-financed studio with proper 3-D tools couldn't achieve the sort of intimacy with oneself described by McMillan. Tomb Raider: Anniversary, while still including much of the "bullshit" ascribed above, perhaps provides a glimpse of how this can be achieved: through its core design and aesthetic choices, be it the overt fragility of the heroine, the sudden appearances of the animal foes, or simply the way that light pierces through the cracks in beautiful particle showers, Crystal Dynamics have crafted an atmosphere of disarming loneliness. Unlike most of Legend and many other contemporaries, much of Anniversary does not feel immediately empowering, but rather unfolds patiently, often frustratingly, matching the player's focus every step of the way, until one crucial advance is made, and what remains is the satisfaction of a job well done. As such, while I would not exactly place it alongside Lunnye Devitsy as far as "isolation" goes, there is little doubt in my mind that this particular game contains some of the most well-considered and -- dare I say it? -- artful design a major development studio could hope to conceive.

"All those satellites and computers just to perfect the science of talking to oneself", utters Lara during one of the rare moments of Legend in which she is deprived of communication with the outside world ; an oddly perceptive line in a game that otherwise doesn't bother too much with insight, and one that creates an interesting moment of suspense. In fact, you could argue that this earlier game succeeds much better as a narrative experiment than its quieter successor (I was especially impressed by a certain "flashback" portion fairly early on), even if the actual development of the fiction turns out to be just as run-of-the-mill and anger-fueled as any action story of its type. Anniversary, on the other hand, manages to instill the character of Lara Croft with some genuine feelings of guilt and concern through its smattering of hammy cutscenes, and offers just about as much narrative as you should expect from a game about a curvy woman skipping around piles of rock (sculpted or not). But is it possible to do better? Is there a middle ground to strike between pompous verbosity, insistent banter and muted restraint? Is it even requisite to fill any game's crannies with bits of fiction, as gripping as they might be? Those are questions I shall not tackle now, but suffice to say that those elements of presentation, coupled with the layouts of the levels, can play a large part in establishing widely differing tones and levels of engagement, even when the underlying mechanics are basically the very same.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Knytt Picking

I have noticed some kind of trend emerging from my recent playings. Over the last few weeks, I have been working my way through The Lost Vikings, strangely obsessing over Out of this World (on which I will have more to say), dabbling with Blackthorne and Flashback, and juggling with Tomb Raider on the 3-D side of things ; all games that would arguably fit in the "required readings" of any aspiring level designer. Now, I have never seriously considered this profession for myself, and it might be too late to even start thinking about it. But seeing as prolonged exposure to a certain activity is almost guaranteed to spark a more pointed interest in the workings of said practice, I just might be having what we commonly call a "phase". I also felt that this sudden fascination with video game architecture had to be vented, and what better solution could there have been than to learn the ropes of a basic creation tool?

And so, a couple of days ago, I have created my first level using Knytt Stories' built-in editor. It is small, easy (I made it with my mother in mind), and I am fairly proud of it. "Hoo, wow, big man you are now", I hear you think. Well... maybe not, but it was nice to stretch some ideas that had been brewing for a while. Sketching a bare-bones skeleton before decorating more extensively, I had a great time measuring the jumps, thinking the atmosphere over, and especially constructing the level as a series of "gates" that would hopefully open in flowing, intuitive manner. The best part of the process, however, was to see other people of differing abilities try out the level, mostly progressing as intended, sometimes inspiring me to tweak a few tiles or shuffle a power-up. In the end, I got a basic idea of the elementary steps involved in game development, and I definitely intend to flesh out this little level.

But enough about me. Immediately after completing a satisfying build of my own, I started going through Auntie Pixelante's list of selected levels for Knytt Stories, which she designates as "recommended reading". I like the connotation implied by this title, because it stresses the fact that 2-D platforming truly is an artistic language of its own, albeit one that somewhat requires feats of dexterity, navigation and visual association for the communication to take place. If anything, the selected levels emphasize this idea of a common language: varied in pace, tone and difficulty, they all employ the resources offered by the editor in ways that feel distinctive, yet still of a piece with their fellow user creations. "A Walk at Night", for example, distills a clear and strong aesthetic arc over no more than a few dozens of easy panels, while the designer of "Flipping Out" thought it would be good to reinforce his vertigo-inducing core mechanic with a little extra challenge. Both evoke different types of engagement and levels of frustration while still sharing the same unmistakable basis, and I believe that is a testament to the creative flexibility of the Knytt Stories engine.

The irony of my relationship with this game is that I never even bothered to finish the included tales of Nifflas' own. Being such an admirer of the first Knytt, I always took it for granted that this follow-up couldn't have much more to offer, and that Stories' addition of power-ups was somewhat superfluous ; a treason of sorts towards the original's stripped-down perfection. I now realize that these collectibles allow for a more pronounced sense of progression, and that the game's subtle upgrades to the visual engine are for the better, but mostly I come to appreciate Knytt Stories as an exquisite foundation for greater things. What Nicklas Nygren has crafted is no more and no less than a toolset for beautiful things to emerge, with a certain air of lightness engraved in the physics themselves. Level crafting, then, becomes a way of confronting a user's vision with the inescapable core dynamic intended by the author of the software, and thus a collaboration towards a goal as yet unstated. I might come around to clearing "A Strange Dream" and "The Machine" someday, as they do seem to exemplify what makes Knytt Stories such a great achievement. For now, though, I come away from my brief tinkering with a better understanding of level design's main concern: to exert spatial variations on a preset tempo.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Standing up for my Bros.

There is an outspoken assumption that seems to be shared by many "hardcore" gamers (read: people who have been playing video games for more than twenty years), and it goes something like this: you don't mess with Super Mario Bros. 3, King of 2-D Platformers. Admittedly, it is "It" that introduced such concepts as the "world map" and "hidden secrets" to a genre not especially known for depth and latitude, and perfected platform physics to a stupendous degree of immediacy. But still, that kind of information is hard to process for someone who has grown up on Super Mario World. As expansive and ambitious as its predecessor may have been, the gorgeous and sprawling SNES game seemed to have it all at the time, whether or not we may still be able to enjoy it to its fullest (as Chris Lepine briefly discusses here). For me, the war between the epitomes of Mario games is one that never ended, and one that I needed to tackle head-on in this later age.

I had been meaning to dive back into Super Mario Bros. 3 for some time, but it is Tim Rogers' dense and rambling, wildly entertaining review of the game that finally convinced me to give it a shot. And yet, for all its passion, quirky insights and odd fixation with terms such as "friction" and "common sense", the review fails to explore one aspect of SMB3 that for some reason seems to be neglected by enthusiasts everywhere ; namely, the multiplayer. "Why is it", I asked myself in puzzlement, "that we tend to dismiss the adventures of the Super Mario Brothers as those of Mario alone?". Why is it, although there might be solid arguments to support that position, that we automatically associate every "canonical" Mario game with a single-player experience? And so it is with these questions in mind that I prudently approached SMB3 once again, with a couple of friends in tow. Little did I know that I would soon find myself in complete fascination with the game's subtleties.

In short, what I found is that, apart from its obvious achievements in level design and character handling, Super Mario Bros. 3 may well contain one of the most ambiguous multiplayer components of any video game to date. This "ambiguity" that I speak of is never explicitly stated and may have not even been intended, but it is present nonetheless, at every step of any game session. Consider these elements that enrich SMB3's gameplay, but that we have come to accept without much thought: the mushroom huts that contain helpful articles, the gates that crash once a mini-boss has been defeated, the pipes laden to zip throughout the map, and so on. Now, consider how these additions affect gameplay with another person ; without diving too much in the details, let's just say that they play a large part in the strange mix of competition and collaboration that naturally emerges from the game's design.

Plainly, the first thing that one might do at the outset of a two-player session of Super Mario Bros. 3 is pressing the B button to initiate a "battle" stage. The reasons for this are left to the players: do they duke it out as a way of determining who "deserves" to go first? Or simply as a way to warm up? There is little concrete motivation for doing this, but some might be tempted anyway. After that initial phase, the game informally takes the shape of a race to the first hut or slot machine, with more opportunities to engage into battle, and a certain incentive for the players to smartly manage what they do with their respective turns. Each is responsible for his or her own stock of lives, items, and level-end "cards", and a defeated player might benefit from a pipe or pathway unlocked by the other. And so, gradually, the innovative nature of Super Mario Bros. 3 might come into view ; while the addition of a world map may have proven compelling for a single adventurer of the time, its combination with a pair of fairly competent players turns into an entirely new form of board game, one that is tightly dependent on the electronic nature of video gaming, and devoid of strict rules concerning the unfolding of the session.

While I may not have made my point entirely clear, compare this mode with that of the original Super Mario Bros., or even of the more sophisticated Super Mario World: two players, alternating turns, working towards the end of the current level. While the latter may at least have the players share a consistent map (and thus general progression through the world), the fact is that these games are simply not set up to allow any interesting interplay to occur between the participants. Given the lack of reason to mind their individual avatar, a pair of players is much more likely to fire up a solo game and to pass the controller, whereas the rarefied "special spots" on Super Mario Bros. 3's world map act as anything but idle distractions ; they are milestones to look forward to, to anticipate and orient one's play in the immediate, and represent much more than a way of accumulating extra lives and puffing up one's arsenal (as they are in the flawed, conflicted New Super Mario Bros. for the DS). Branching paths call forth a choice, usually between levels of differing challenge, and the mobile "Hammer Bros." constitute the dynamic element that keeps the playfield lively. In other words, every turn in Super Mario Bros. 3 represents a gamble towards tangible and fluctuating stakes, while every other Mario consists of a steady climb, with only minor bumps along the way.

As the difficulty ramps up (and it does start to ramp up really fast), the competitive mindset of reaching the next milestone or simply getting more playtime than one's partner may begin to fade in the background. Naturally, through increased danger and level complexity, the incentive of getting through the present world becomes of prime importance, and Super Mario Bros. 3 delicately turns into the kind of collaborative experience that its brethren proposed without applying much thought to it. The elements of interplay, however, are never exactly suppressed, and logically meld themselves into the structure of the game in ways that can be taken advantage of. From this point on, the process of surviving the ordeals of ever-greater magnitude can become rather involved: one player might work through a difficult portion to open a bonus stage for the other to refill his stock of lives, while his partner may try to obtain an item equally helpful to breezy progression. At all times, it is important that one player doesn't go and clear every stage, because his expiration would entail the resetting of said levels. And still, unlike games such as Donkey Kong Country (which effortlessly and quite brilliantly integrated collaboration in the core of its design), this strange, unspoken sort of co-op gameplay manages to work despite the avatars almost never sharing the action. At the end of the day, every player remains responsible for his or her performance, and in this regard the game may not appear so different from other Mario installments ; but in the sense that every mistake is an opportunity for learning the nuances of the game and to flex some oblique teamwork skills, to share the experience makes it that much more rewarding.

For motives undoubtedly pertaining to their large scale and completionist nature ("kleptomaniac", as Tim Rogers would put it), the Mario games have been traditionnally associated with single-player enjoyment. The excellent Yoshi's Island would be a solitary affair through and through, as would Super Mario 64 and the rest of its 3-D progeny. They have been turned explicitly into a "virtual board game" by way of the abysmal Mario Party series ; one that nearly reduces playing to being a spectator, occasionally stirs the pot with afterthoughts disguised as "mini-games", and fills the blanks with cringe-inducing bells and whistles. And yet, even while granting multiple users the occasion to "share the screen" at several points, it doesn't really seem to allow them to "share the game" in any way that doesn't imply greed and otherwise selfish dispositions. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, subtly walks the line between being an individual and a shared experience, with shifting, elliptical goals that don't interfere with the main act of clearing the levels. As such, by assigning a series of general destinations without imposing on the proceedings, it frees the players to experiment with the game, together, in whatever crazy manner they want, and fully embraces the playful "wiggle room" that the best video games allow. Surely that must deserve a little approving nudge, right?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Garden in Review

From the get-go, everything aligned to get the hype kicking around IGF victor Blueberry Garden: the early, enigmatic trailer, Erik Svedäng's crazy hairdo, the unveiling of a launch date on Steam, and of course the agonizing last-minute delays. Some people responded to this sequence of events with heightened expectations, ready to lash out ; others, like Destructoid's Anthony Burch (he of the excellent but hard-to-browse Indie Nation column), took it as a genuine "happening" of indie gaming, and seized the opportunity to fully engage with the piece, albeit not as critically as might have been the case with a lesser title. It was an odd, confusing encounter, but one that ended up yielding a peculiar sense of reward for the right people. Not since the release of Tale of Tales' The Path back in March had the community seemed so divided.

Declaring my time with Blueberry Garden some of the most pleasurable I ever spent in front of a personal computer would come off a little naive, so let's just say it delivered one of the best gaming experiences I had this year. It was very interesting for me, then, to witness the game's public bashing on GameSpot, courtesy of Kevin VanOrd's review (assorted with a rather aggravating score of 5.0). Interesting because, as defensive as I was of the game, I found myself mostly agreeing with the writer's main points, especially regarding technical issues. I would even go so far as insisting on the game's very spotty collision detection, which can lead to some awkward situations. What I didn't share, however, was VanOrd's apparent bafflement at what he refers to as a general "shallowness".

Contrast this with Burch's early appreciation of the game, obviously written in a spur of sudden admiration. Quickly, the writer notes the "focus" of the game's design and layout, as well as the solidity of the exploration mechanics that "make the blueberry garden an enjoyable place to explore on a purely mechanical level". Soon, it becomes clear that Burch took great pleasure in the piece's "big reveal", which completely changed his approach to the game on subsequent tries. And this, I believe, is the defining morsel of these impressions: whereas the aforementioned review criticized the game as a whole package, after the fact, Mr. Burch writes of his interest in the process of discovery, of his personal feelings while piecing the game's admittedly modest "enigma", but also of his encounter with the game's world and dynamics. Is this an aspect that Mr. VanOrd failed to appreciate? Is this factor even relevant at all?

Intrigued, I took this conflict of opinion with a site I have always held in high respect as an opportunity to risk a look at Gamespot's reviewing policy. What I found there was quite illuminating, not so much concerning Blueberry Garden's harsh treatment, but about the outfit's approach to criticism as a whole. Apart from the expected statements regarding the all-important money and time of the player (surprisingly, the term "value" is not insisted on), one criteria that stood out from the rest was that of the "rising standards" of game reception. Bluntly put, this means that "each time an excellent game is released, it becomes incrementally more difficult for another game to be as good in the grand scheme of things." While pretty consistent with my knowledge of Gamespot's activities over the years, I couldn't help but be slightly shocked by these words ; I suddenly pictured a gaming press that will never, ever be satisfied, and whose sole nods of approval will only ever mean: "Good job... for now". And while a severely critical attitude will never do any "harm" in a strict sense, it will remain the prime rival of one of art's most important abilities: to delight and fascinate.

Gamespot claims to cater to the "discriminating player", which seems reasonable enough, albeit still a little vague. And yet, as "discriminating" as I consider myself to be, I couldn't help but be absolutely taken by the Blueberry Garden's pacing and presentation, and spent an inordinate amount of time toying around with the widely-claimed but seemingly underappreciated "ecosystem" thought up by Svedäng. Fraser McMillan of Resolution Magazine also wrote of this peculiar pleasure, comparing the game to Takahashi's Noby Noby Boy ; despite the game's rather limited expanse, there simply isn't anything quite like attempting to keep the garden lively and well-spread, totally disregarding the completion of the game. And it is precisely this kind of personal enjoyment, this kind of autonomous goal-setting, that formal reviews of any game will fail to acknowledge. Especially in a medium where "meaning" isn't as esteemed a factor as in film or poetry, reviews are bound to hit a wall ; there is only so much words that one can apply to the technicalities of what essentially amounts to a toolset, and from then on it's up to the player to make up his own mind. Such are the limits of traditional game criticism, and the reasons why we need more personalized, oriented writing on the subject.

As a surprise ending to this story, I was thrilled to find that Gamespot had finally gone ahead and published a highly-favorable review of The Path just a few days ago (complete with 8.0 rating) ; a game that is sure to cause a great divide among the readers who choose to follow the reviewer's advice. Especially worth noting is that the man behind this risky text is none other than Kevin VanOrd, who goes on to examine the game's unusual merits in clear, literate language. To me, this makes one thing clear above all else: that Mr. VanOrd is an opinionated, open-minded critic capable of nuance and bold partiality. After all, one doesn't go championing Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid 4 on the same terms as Flower and Everyday Shooter without some sense of purpose (or at least of passion), and I believe such virtues are valuable to the growth of the art form as a whole. At the same time, this just goes to show that one's opinion remains just that, and that a critical mind will take it to heart to scan various sources before making a stand of its own.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Playing Catch-up

From what I have posted thus far, you may have gathered that I have spent a fair bit of the summer "catching up" with some of the most acclaimed and/or discussed video games of the last few years. It's a funny thing, arriving at the party late and having a go at the left-overs ; a bit like waiting for a movie to come out on DVD, once everything has already been said. At the same time, playing from such a Critical Distance can prove a wonderful occasion to sift once again through the discourse surrounding the games and to tackle the origins of some current trends in game design hands-on ; in short, to experience the works in a way that was perhaps not intended, but that can still shed light on certain overlooked aspects.

Concentrating on those big, "important" games, however, has led me to neglect the freeware brewings of the independents for some time, which upset me a tiny bit. Part of the reason for this was that the last "big" indie, IGF winner Blueberry Garden (on which I will have more to say), had satisfied me so completely. Another part of it was that, although I seemed able to keep track of which efforts were garnering buzz at the moment, I simply couldn't get into the wholly different mindset that these little games require from the player. Still, the best part about following indie gaming is that a few months or even weeks of absence is likely to spin as many single interesting titles as a few years in the mainstream market ; games of much smaller scope, obviously, but definitely not lacking as far as design or creative chops are concerned.

Here are the links to a few games I have caught up with in the last couple of weeks, each followed by the reason that I think you should play them for.

Alabaster - Led by interactive fiction guru Emily Short, this fascinating take on a familiar tale features acute and suspenseful writing, impeccably managed by a smooth interface. Multiple plays recommended.

Aubergine Sky - Confident and carefully written, this promising "true story" from Jonathan Whiting follows in the wake of Daniel Benmergui, attaining intimacy through simple design and elegant mechanics.

The Beggar - Dropping from out of nowhere, this microscopic webgame slightly reminiscent of Passage turns out to be one of the most eloquent and smartly-conceived "gamey" works of the year. All the best for developer Scott Brodie.

Heed - As close to theater as a video game could get without selling its soul, this short AGS effort touches on themes of esoteric spirituality through appropriately austere puzzles and art design. Hypnotic work from Ben Chandler.

MoneySeize - Probably the less "arty" title of this bunch, Matt Thorson's latest is one of the most inspired exercises in pure, infuriating platforming since... Matt Thorson's own FLail. Excellent layouts and sense of flow throughout.

Rosemary - This short student project from MIT, as flawed as it is gorgeous, almost fulfills the potential of a truly novel mechanic in gaming. Polished and expanded upon, one could see the concept taking on tremendous dimensions.

Tanaka's Friendly Adventure - Too small for a Game Boy cartridge, more expansive than a virtual pet, this portable-style "game" turns mindless navigation, compulsive collecting and instant characterization into a strangely compelling experience. Would be sickening if it didn't look so sincere in the first place.

Upgrade Complete - Time will tell if the so-called "meta" games, turning the conventions of gaming into one big joke (see Jesse Venbrux's mind-bending Karoshi 2.0), manage to make the slightest dent in our habits. In any case, Armor Games' second take on the trend (following the lighter Achievement Unlocked), takes no prisoners, deconstructing the dynamics of cheap reward-driven gameplay with pin-point accuracy.

Use Boxmen - Every once in a while, a charming puzzler turns up and toys around a fresh concept with such style and effortless grace that you wonder why it hasn't been done before. Greg Sergeant's latest is one such aimless endeavor, and pays you back with merry humor and irresistible music.

When Pigs Fly - Last but not least, this expertly-crafted lesson in physics and level design from Anna Anthropy/Dessgeega/Auntie Pixelante is bound to keep you glued to your keyboard, pondering the meaning of life for minutes on end (or not).

Many other indie games of 2009, especially from the first third of the year, would be absolutely deserving of any gaming enthusiast's attention. And even though my personal favorite and top priority for a write-up would be the unbearably fine Glum Buster, I hope to start featuring the sparkling "class of 2009" on a regular basis.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Now "Open for Traffic"

Today is the day that I start publicly sharing links to this blog, and I must confess to being a little nervous. I have worked hard over the last week to polish these first thousands of words and make them into a good read, and I hope that you enjoy what you find. I will now take a few days to collect my thoughts, and I hope to continue posting regularly, although perhaps not as often (or in shorter form). Feel free to let me know what you think!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sailing the Aesthetic Seas


I have played The Secret of Monkey Island up to the middle point since its recent release on digital services, and have been enjoying it about as much as expected. As a newcomer to the series, I was not only interested in the puzzles and humor, but also in the quirks of design and writing that would probably never find their way in today's commercial productions (but that the re-issue tactfully doesn't attempt to resolve). And as I suppose was the case for many other gamers, I have also treated myself to the delightful first episode of Tales of Monkey Island, whose synchronized release was a move of genius on the part of Telltale and Lucasarts. This particular game contained hints of decidedly modern design sensibilities, but also played without a doubt to some old-school conventions that I felt worked to its advantage. Curiously enough, these two gaming experiences did not inspire thoughts on the evolution of graphic adventure games proper, but more specifically on their use of sound and visuals. Let me elaborate some more.

One of the biggest selling points for The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, of course, was its complete aesthetic make-over ; one that would propose a fresh look for the classic game, but retain its special brand of quirky charm. I don't know how it is for returning players (especially those who experienced the game with a functional brain back in 1990), but I find the greatest pleasure in systematically comparing the screens and trying to understand the stakes of the adaptation. What I didn't expect, however, was how clearly I would come to gravitate towards the old packaging, occasionally resorting to the new one for sensory enjoyment but not so much for gameplay purposes. I think there are several reasons for this, but suffice to say for now that I think the original version of Lucasarts' game was perfectly fine as it was, and that it may have actually lost some essential bits in the translation.

Tales of Monkey Island, for its part, confidently casts the graphic adventure series in the intimidating world of modern 3-D, just as Telltale previously did with its delightful Sam & Max episodes. But as great as this bound seems (computer graphics having come a long way since 2000's polygonal Escape from Monkey Island), what is especially pleasing about this rebirth is how understated it really comes off as: clean, unadorned textures, sparse environments and simple special effects constitute a visual design of minimal clutter and maximal efficiency. While budget concerns and limited technology were no doubt a factor in this output, there is a restrained mastery at work in the details and general tone ; an expertise that also transfers to the sound design, and more specifically to the voice work. In this regard, one need look (or hear) no further than the amusing prologue to witness the nuance and liveliness in Dominic Armato's performance of Guybrush Threepwood, accompanied by formidably expressive character animations. Some facial mannerisms may be overused, and Flotsam Island's denizens may look a little too alike, but there is a definite current of cohesion emanating from the game's overall presentation.


How ironic is it, then, to realize that this first episode of the series (subtitled Launch of the Screaming Narwhal) possibly didn't even need polygonal graphics and sophisticated sounds to function on the most basic level. Its camera angles are preset and passive, while its puzzles do not require advanced tridimensional navigation ; its few audio-based trials, apart maybe from a clever treasure hunt, could have been reduced to a few select cues, while its dialogue could have been just as easily read as text. It may be a slippery slope to step on, and this theory might shatter under the slightest bit of scrutiny, but let's throw this out anyway: in purely mechanical terms, I have no reason to believe that this modern-day Monkey Island wouldn't have sustained to be made using the founding SCUMM engine. Heck, it could probably function as a text adventure game and still retain much of its comic and ludic qualities. But that would turn it into a pretty different game now, wouldn't it...

The fact of the matter is this: all manners of graphic adventure games, from the early Sierra classics (also re-issued lately), to the 3-D iterations like Grim Fandango or Syberia, to the more recent gems authored in the Adventure Game Studio engine, rely on the same basic principles of cinematic language. Panning of the camera (be it horizontal scrolling or actual rotation of the virtual viewpoint), cuts from one space to another, shot-countershot exchanges for dialogues, high- and low-angle shots, scaling of depth ; all these figures have been employed to varying degrees of prominence over the history of adventure games, and mostly for the same purposes. On the one hand, in the same way that cinema and other representational mediums, the best uses of these features have enabled developers to yield images of evocative form, lifelike portrayals, and other manners of optic stimulation. Moreso than film, however, the basic requirement of the picture in adventure games is to efficiently transmit useful information to the "viewer" ; a role that the film image clearly shares, but not to the point of interrupting the story's progression in the case of fallacy. Both of these functions depend mostly on the inventive and capable use of computer graphics software, regardless of which techno-asset is presently deemed to be "state of the art".

Production values, then, mainly serve the purpose of crafting a compelling aesthetic experience for the user, which is probably not as negligible a component as I make it sound. While it will occur that a game's engine influence the core design of its puzzles, the usual goal will be to add style and form to what initially amounts to a cold mechanical construction. The only condition to this creative effort is that the art do not get in the way of the gameplay's unfolding ; in this regard, one need only look to the hugely-buzzed Time Gentlemen, Please! for an excellent example of a project's flow and tone being unobstructed and even complimented by "limited" resources and abilities (to say the least). As for any works of art, graphic adventure games demand to be judged on their own terms rather than according to the standards of the present day, which is exactly why the original Secret of Monkey Island can still be considered a great success of visual implementation: reduced to the top half of the screen, the playfield allows for denser images and less chances of missing information, while the bottom portion, unquestionably showing its age today, still proves to facilitate interaction with immediate feedback and effortless browsing. From this simple but solid foundation, it's really all about peppering the game world with fanciful touches that make it come alive, or signify, or otherwise amuse and dazzle.


Which brings me to the very serious problems I have with the Secret's 2009 make-over. On the surface, certainly, this reinvention would seem to have it all: its painterly vistas are lush and sprawling, while its atmospheric soundscapes inject the various maritime locales with a much greater sense of place than before. On a larger scale, it can also be credited for greater aesthetic consistency than its early-90's counterpart, which fell flat in its few attempts to depict some of its cartoonish characters as realistic figures. Try to play the game in this mode for more than five minutes, however, and you may begin to feel that something is off: names of pointed objects and possible interactions are displayed in small, pale lettering in the bottom corners of the screen, replacing the clear purple-on-black of yore ; verb command and inventory boxes are displayed one at a time, using separate keyboard buttons, which not only shatters the former iteration's mouse-only integrity, but turns object manipulation into an absolute pain. Interface issues aside, technical requirements may prevent some computers to run the game at a proper pace without sacrificing precious resolution, and make the overall manipulation overly clunky and laborious. The thing here is not so much that the "special edition" of Monkey Island features a "bad" interface ; it is simply that the contrast emphasizes the former's relative strengths.

Even the voicing of the Secret's original script, which I will not get too much into at this point, is up for debate: since Gilbert, Schafer and Grossman's uncredited lines and gags were specifically written to be read, many of them (especially those involving grunting and random onomatopeia) simply don't convert very well to sound, while the cast's readings (including Armato's), without the support of elaborate animations, most often come off stilted and laboured, as if restricted by the imperative of faithfulness. This is not a matter of being an "old school", "lo-fi" evangelist ; it is simply recognizing that the "modernizing" of certain aspects of a game can often grow superfluous, especially if it comes to the point of affecting playability, which is often the case here. While Lucasarts' talented groups of artists may have devised a pleasing cutout style reminiscent of René Laloux's films or Monty Python's animated segments, they have reduced the functionality of what was already a spectacular display of pixel drawing compensating for the deficiencies of its day, as well as the imaginative power the original required to fill its blank spots. And while their restraint was undeniably wise, it hasn't translated into the same pitch-perfect beauty as Telltale's effort: a more ambitious work, also flawed in its execution, but at least strong enough to function on its own terms. As it stands, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition contains an interesting case of internal dichotomy that is worthy of any gamer's attention, but I would be surprised if its attractive new coat of paint sufficed to turn new, rabid audiences on to the franchise's history for more than a brief stint.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Quick Note about Aquaria

It had been around ten hours that I had spent in the beautiful world of Aquaria, and I felt that my interest was dwindling a bit. Not that I thought the game was bad in any way ; it still looked and sounded like a triumph of art direction, and it still handled like a charm. But I felt that its basic concepts were starting to wear thin, and that the essential flow of the action was becoming routine. It didn't help that I had engaged in paths that I was perhaps not expected to explore at this point (although I certainly appreciated being able to), and it probably made my progression more cumbersome than it should have. But most of all, it started to get very lonely...

Fortunately, these assumptions were momentarily dispelled when I discovered a certain region in the upper parts that presented me with three surprises. The first was the surface of the water, which did not only make for a welcome change of scenery but felt absolutely great to experiment with and also had a certain narrative weight. The second was a large vertical chasm filled with "bubbles" of sorts that had me flying around gleefully for an inordinate amount of time, even though I was never able to reach the secret item conveniently placed just a little too high. And last but not least was a being named Li, of which I will say no more apart from the fact that its partly-interactive, partly-cinematic introduction was handled absolutely brilliantly and significantly reduced the "loneliness" factor without being too intrusive either. All these elements spoke of co-creator Alec Holowka's oft-professed will to craft game experiences of certain emotional depth, while still exulting the kind of simple joy that all games inspired by Zelda or Mega Man aim to evoke.

I have spent some more time with Aquaria since then, going back to explore untouched areas (and one truly feels like it could stretch forever...), but I have now hit a wall and am at a loss about how to progress further. I don't mind this, because it has happened before and I always ended up finding the elegant solutions that the designers came up with. But most of all, whereas before I was questioning my willingness to continue, the hope that there might be other small epiphanies just around the corner, added to the knowledge that my heroine is not so alone after all, makes me feel better and more confident in the authors' proposition. Although I could do without much of the click-heavy action and the occasionally extreme level of difficulty, I now have more reason than ever to heartily recommend this gorgeous and sprawling game to anyone with a taste for adventure.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Scum, Digitized

It had been a couple of years since I had seen Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and even though I never doubted its greatness for a moment, I still wondered if revisiting it now would result in the same level of delight it had back in the early days of my film geekdom. Fortunately for every party concerned, those fears were quickly dismissed as I watched it earlier this week ; Scorsese's fifth feature, based on Paul Schrader's screenplay, remains an unquestionable lesson of cinematic storytelling, and a timeless exploration of contemporary dread in North America. Constructed from a gathering of acute details, Taxi Driver builds tension from subtle observations and associations, as well as from its main character's peculiar point of view on the action. In the most admirable way possible, it constitutes a thoroughly directed, finely authored experience ; in short, the complete opposite of what most forward-thinking video game designers have been attempting to conceive in recent years.

It might seem strange or uncalled for to bring up video games while discussing Taxi Driver, but let's not forget that as late as 2005, a game adaptation of the film was still being filed as "in the works". And even without taking the poor standard of video games inspired by cult films in consideration, suffice to say that the PS2 actioner that never was didn't look very promising: a third-person shooter in the mold of Max Payne, it was set to relate Travis Bickle's nightly ventures through the "scum" nests of New York City ; the nightclubs and other venues he never visited in 1976, of course. Players would have certainly taken control of Bickle's mighty yellow cab, generating the urban havoc that never took place in Scorsese's film, and provoking the authorities that the character had only gone so far as taunting strangely in his first appearance. Without much surprise nor fanfare, the game was ultimately cancelled, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched to envision a game that would have perversely tainted every distinctive quality of its source material, and made for just another poor display of electronic gaming's profound potential.

But let's project for a moment that such a disaster would have not happened. Let's imagine that a video game inspired by Taxi Driver would have transcended the portion of the plot regarding Travis Bickle going nuts, and explored the themes that Schrader and Scorsese's opus was really concerned about: urban alienation, repressed war traumas, underworld economy, and so on. How would such a game have succeeded in conveying those ideas without leaning too heavily on cinematic devices? How would have this affected the delivery of the original story, had it still been present? More to the point, how would've one programmed a feeling of estrangement, and allowed a user to explore such a state of mind? It is fair to assume the difficulty of those fundamental questions is probably what keeps most software developers from tipping their toe in such troubled waters, but they are worth asking nonetheless.

In his 2002 anthology The Medium of the Video Game, Mark J.P. Wolf summarizes the basic conditions of electronic storytelling: "Interactivity [...] does not have to work against narrative or even linearity ; it simply requires that multiple lines of narrative be present, or the potential for a variety of narrative possibilities." What strikes me about this phrasing is how fair it remains to the most established traditions of game design ; nowhere does Wolf suggest that failure by death consists of an invalid course, nor does he propose the concept of branching plots as the ideal solution. The notion of the mere presence of "narrative possibilities" is rather left to interpretation, and may be stretched as much as one likes. What this implies, in turn, is that the way in which a designer chooses to exploit this singular aspect of interactivity becomes very telling of the nature and extent of his or her creative vision ; feeling confined within a straightforward progress template, a development team may introduce varying degrees of reward and punishment, encourage the player to craft his own solutions, or reinforce certain elements of permanence. "Lines of narrative" can take any form, but the thing to remember is that their use consists of one of games' primary tools of expression.

Over the course of Taxi Driver, main character Travis Bickle engages in several narrative paths, reacts and takes decisions accordingly, generating a plausible chain of events. The things he witnesses and the outcomes he faces add up over time and shape his perception of the world ; being dumped by Betsy, a woman he approached with confidence but courted with the wrong moves, deepens his depression, while allowing young prostitute Iris to be dragged from his cab and back on the streets clearly has an impact on the way he will address her "rescue" later on. Without a doubt, Vietnam veteran Bickle has a mind and a will of his own, and it is the pleasure of film-watching to witness character psyches evolving independently of our own. But even so, it is not unreasonable to imagine the story taking completely different turns: browsing through the corner store at night, erratic Travis could have failed to gather his guts and to shoot the robber, thus maintaining his abilities untested ; reacting more aggressively to a violent customer's plan of murdering his wife could have led to interesting (and potentially dangerous) developments, and even to a new storyline. Properly set up to support them, a computer program could prove a fascinating way of exploring such narrative permutations. Permutations, however, that threaten the fundamental order of an authored narrative, thus prompting the question: "How to preserve internal consistency while granting the player some leeway?".

I lean once more on Mark J.P. Wolf to back up my thoughts: "Rather than creating an inherent message or metaphor within a single storyline or multiple lines lived by different characters, the author can imbed a worldview into the structure of the game itself, which is then 'lived out' by the player-character." Again, Wolf avoids denigrating the industry mainstays, denoting that a simple "kill or be killed" mentality already amounts to a thought-provoking standpoint. Several games, such as the Fable franchise or the much-debated Infamous, have also started to ingrain "good" and "evil" variables into the core of their structure, which may or may not indicate a more pronounced sense of right and wrong on the part of the developers. Things can go crazy from there, however: imagine a game presenting two choices of equal malevolence, but differing psychological impact on the protagonist ; a game about accepting that feeling bitter is part of life (oh wait, that's already been done). The key factor here is that of believability, of staying true to a character's outlook, as well as committing to surrounding the chosen actions with options of equal likelihood. But all of this doesn't resolve the previously-raised problem of consistency, which greatly exceeds the sole confines of the main protagonist.

Traditionally, the design method to implement consequences to one's actions has been to affect the avatar's material goods and physical attributes, but let's think of less tangible ways to achieve this. Imagine, for instance, this scenario: picking up random fares of differing personalities, Travis Bickle's level of immediate aggression could fluctuate according to their behaviour ; walking the streets later that night, the current disposition of the character could determine his range of possible reactions (repressed or otherwise) to the surrounding phenomena, such as the brawls and disputes he witnesses. Over the broader course of the game, those reactions, largely determined by elements of procedural selection, would influence a larger morale scale shaping the overall direction of the storyline, such as the way he ends up dealing with the female characters previously mentioned (characters the narrative may not even lead him to meet). Obviously, the stories generated by exploring this large network of possibilities would end up deviating very much from the template imagined by Paul Schrader (inspired by such tales of obsession as those of the great westerns The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) ; however, what it could retain, if done right, is the overarching and perhaps even more interesting subject of Taxi Driver, meaning the fauna of seedy New York City, its corrupting character, the fear and loneliness of its populace.

There is no doubt that elaborating a game of such volatility would involve uncommon feats of programming, as well as major skills in keeping mental track of an evolving database. One could even imagine the product consisting solely of text, or largely simplified graphic displays ; after all, one of the most phenomenally complex games ever created, Dwarf Fortress, has built a following out of simple text characters and loads of imagination power. There is an argument to be made, however, for the immediacy of elaborate graphics and the things only they can express ; the sad, pitiful sight of two elder men grappling on a street corner could hardly be put into words with the same impact, as is the strange beauty of a fire hydrant's burst arching over a city street at night. If only less resources were spent on scripted cinematics and fancy weapon physics, and more on looping, expressive animations and evocative atmospheric features, surely such an effort could see the light of day. One could even preserve the memorable, unsettling style of Robert De Niro's voice-over, coloring the sights with his unique sort of awareness, and even maintain the darkness of the film's final showdown by wielding fatality into the gameplay (for more on this, check out Nick Fortugno's brilliant analysis of the "futile" mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus). There is a balance to be struck, and it may not be so far off the corner.

In his defense of film adaptations of literary works, the great critic André Bazin once wrote that "in the same way that a child's education is done through imitation of the surrounding adults, the evolution of the cinema has been inflected by the example of recognized arts". In a similar spirit, my purpose here was not to encourage anyone to reclaim the reins of video game conversion of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but to give a second look at one of American cinema's great achievements, and to see which facets of the work could apply to the design of narrative systems in the age of electronic domination. By all means, I believe that development studios should capitalize on original creative property, and elaborate fictions that are uniquely suited to the medium's forces. But what I have discovered is that the tale of Travis Bickle is but one of many stories ; one of terrifying power and self-contained meaning, but still one of a million awaiting to be "lived out" in the same environment, with the same determining conditions, open to a plethora of outcomes. To prepare the ground for digital yarns with a life of their own: that is the future of storytelling, and one that cinema can never hope to achieve without denying its own strengths as a narrative art form.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bully like a Rockstar

I have attempted something interesting over the last few weeks: I procured myself copies of Bully and Grand Theft Auto III, and started playing them in parallel, hoping to glean some useful insights from the comparison. As expected, the contrast proved revelatory, and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

After several years away, it felt great to be back in GTA III's Liberty City. Despite the aging technology, Rockstar North's level of ambition regarding scale and verisimilitude is still very apparent, as is the definite sense of style and atmosphere not least communicated through the radio stations. Unglamorous and gray as it is, the lower opening section of the game somehow remains a joy to explore, and the extreme refinement of the vehicle physics is an immediate factor of immersion. It was pretty obvious to me that I wasn't going back to this game for its characters (although I was curious about how it handled story), but I was pleased to see that the level of polish that Rockstar's cinematics have become famous for was already burgeoning, and unveiling the "colorful" cast was a motivation for quickening progress. And so, with the easy money pouring in, the jobs breezy, diverse and all over the map, I could say I was promptly hooked. My first sessions with the game consisted of playing two to three hours on end with a big grin on my face.

Playing Bully, however, was a different story. It's not that I found the game dull or uninvolving, but I simply didn't feel the need to play it for long stretches like I did with its older cousin. And it's not either that I felt the game wasn't deserving of my interest, but rather that there was an internal factor at play that managed to put some order into GTA's intrinsic anarchy, and effectively divided game time into more meaningful chunks ; that factor being the passing of the school days. As simple as it is, this important element had the psychological effect of restraining my game behaviour and giving me a sense of purpose. And as paradoxical as it may seem, I actually liked this very much, feeling that I was getting similar amounts of gaming satisfaction in shorter periods, as well as being immersed in the discrete time-flow of the game. Add to this the interesting characters and well-directed cutscenes, great controls and engrossing atmosphere, and you had a recipe for a good time. But still, an element of playfulness and abandon was missing from what remained a pretty straightforward experience, and breaking the rules just wasn't doing the trick.

A few days with both games passed, and GTA III casually started to make me fail missions on repetition, linger for too long in the same areas and shout things that my mother wouldn't have liked to hear. It started to rub me the wrong way, often imposing completely unfair success criteria and narrow margins of error, at the same time that the narrative was growing into a clutter of trivial non-sense. Although the driving itself never got old, I began looking for the fun I remembered not only from this game, but also from subsequent titles in the series. "Why the heck is this game punishing me so hard for my mistakes?", I found myself asking as I was submitting to its mind-melting cycle of try-fail-repeat-fail-repeat-fail-SUCCEED. "How did the developers fail to see that something was wrong here?", was another of my frequent thoughts. And perhaps most confusing of all... "why am I still playing?".

This last question is especially tough, because it calls attention to the mysterious psychology of gaming and its infinite variables, the case of GTA being further complicated by its clash of wildly successful game systems and other, infuriating aspects. Thus the debate turns to how much crap a player is willing to endure, as long as he or she gets what satisfies him or her in the end. And although the subsequent entries in the series would expand the possibilities considerably, the fact remains that the gameplay offered by GTA III stands surprisingly limited, at least by today's standards ; to be blunt, you better learn to love driving at high speed, getting lost in twisty passages and looking for hidden items, or else you risk not finding much to your liking in there (especially not the shooting action). The greater potential of this basic formula is not helped either by the game's constraining mission structure: when meeting up with an employer, you deliberately choose to surrender your essential freedom as a player and to embark on a set challenge, if only to have some concrete goal to pursue. It is only fair, then, that the game fulfills its part of the contract by playing straight, which it often does not. It doesn't help, finally, that the narrative develops in unsatisfactory fashion, leaving story threads unresolved and switching allegiances in seemingly random manner, offering no significant way to spend the considerable money rewards and no solid human bonding over the span of the storyline. With all of this in mind, it bears mentioning that a study of this game's overlying and sometimes paradoxical anarchy from an economic angle would probably prove to be very interesting (heads-up are welcome).

Arriving several years after Grand Theft Auto III and even after the excellent San Andreas, Rockstar Vancouver's Bully resolves several of its landmark predecessor's conflicts in appealing ways. Starting with a somewhat compact play area, it ultimately opens up a world smaller than that of the GTA titles, albeit in more numerous stages (and thus in more directed fashion). This smaller scale allows the territory to be denser and more detailed, as well as to pack more personality ; a "personality bonus" that transfers to the characters, which are limited in number, recurrent and easily recognizable, giving the impression that the main character is part of a consistent social environment (which cannot be said of GTA). On another topic, developments to the RenderWare engine and overall technology have allowed the developers to allow for a far greater number of in-game activities. The team doesn't stop, however, at randomly mixing lawn-mowing with flirting and bike racing ; the distinct interactions are embedded into the overall game structure, some of them even facilitated by participating in the various classes (simultaneously giving relevance to the school setting). And finally, what I find most fascinating about this game is how the randomly-spawned non-player characters will tend to engage in certain social behaviours (fights, mostly) absolutely on their own, with no intervention on the player's part. If I had to name one aspect of the game that best illustrates all of these strands, it would be how it handles virtual photography, but I may leave that for another post...

There are, however, a handful of shortcomings that keep Bully from realizing its full potential as an interactive experience, the main one being its firmly-rooted amorality. Because even despite its nuances and improvements on the GTA formula, the game's core structure and objectives remain the same as that of Rockstar's bigger property. The main character still bows and accepts tasks from every denizen, each one allegedly bringing the hero closer to realizing his dream of social domination and independence. Some smaller "errands", in this regard, are especially disturbing: to deliver flowers right after shoving a couple of students in garbage cans is unsettling on a surface level, but the similar cash rewards and absence of consequences good or bad frees the avatar (and thus the player) of any moral sense. The activation of the story nodes also asks of the player to accept that certain narrative developments have occurred when he was not looking, which is odd because the way the game is presented leads the player to assume that he is controlling Jimmy in real-time, all the time. What all of this ultimately adds up to, in a frankly disappointing way, is that it prevents the user to play "in character", as well as to choose how he wishes that character to be. Now about ten hours in, I have tried to make Jimmy into a fairly nice boy, but the game authors seemingly have another way of seeing things, and I am not sure I like where the story is going (although L.B. Jeffries, taking from his personal life experience, makes a strong case for this idea of an imposed role in his excellent essay from the Well Played 1.0 anthology).

In a future post, I might dare the unspeakable and propose ways in which I think that a game like Bully could become a much more compelling "interactive computer program", would the developers approach it with the right mindset. It is also in full conscience that I recognize the growth of the open-world formula since the days of Grand Theft Auto III, which still remains a towering achievement of video game design. Exploring these games now, I am simply let down by how they ultimately seem to punish further and deeper investment on the player's part, rather than emotionally reward it as they rightfully should. Sure the game worlds are humongous, and navigating them is exhilarating ; but at the end of the day, these universes free of moral imperatives come off as little more than stages for enacting power fantasies, and the digital people filling them do not resonate as anything other than hollow satirical shells of human archetypes. I wish for more and I am sure I am not alone, and what these games do is tease the masses with tantalizing bits while failing to deliver on their promises. The least we can do, at least for now, is dream of a more complete package.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Shooting for the Starbreeze

I know I have never been to the fortress of Butcher Bay, but I feel like I know this fictional place from the inside out. I have never been arrested for felony, let alone convicted for manslaughter, and yet I feel like I had a glimpse of how that feels, and how people with such a history could behave and relate to each other. I have never even gotten into a fistfight, but after playing the first Chronicles of Riddick game, something tells me that it must be kind of exhilarating, in a vicious and painful way.

In a somewhat more peculiar manner (at least for a resident of the eastern part of North America), I have not yet been to New York City. Countless movies have shown it to me, many of them tried to impart how it feels to actually live there, and a few interactive programs have let me wander in various fantasy interpretations of it. But now I know that one of the first things I will have to check out when I eventually get there is... the subway network. And it has better be as amazing to hang out in as it is in The Darkness, or else I just might stick to video games for the rest of my life.

This last statement may seem a little childish and over-the-top, but the fact that a video game environment succeeded in creating expectations regarding its real-world counterpart appears to me as a testament to the power of simulation. Point being, the two aforementioned action games from Starbreeze Studios managed to transport me in imaginary settings more convincingly than pretty much any other game I can think of, and attained a degree of internal reality that I felt rendered the "gamey" acts taking place in them transparent and believable. Even though my status as an industry outsider prevents me from understanding them in practical terms, I shall try to praise their merits a little better. Surely there must be more to it than good level design... right?

Much has been written about Escape from Butcher Bay (not least because of its re-issue with follow-up Assault on Dark Athena, which is the version I have played), but I have yet to stumble upon an article dedicated to the exceptional sophistication of its first-person perspective (any heads-up would be appreciated). I lack the technical expertise to describe it in finer detail, but basic photographic knowledge allows me to appreciate that the virtual lens through which Riddick's point of view is shown is considerably wider than that of most first-person shooters. This accentuates the sense of depth in the picture and tends to distort the edges, compensating for an overload of optic information ; features that are intensified when crouching, which makes sneaking around a thrilling endeavor on a purely visual level. Subtle adjustments of the character's head upon stopping, visible limbs, motion blur, pronouced shadows of a remarkably animated character model ; such traits are all absent from many high-profile titles (Bioshock, for instance), and speak of the developer's willingness to immerse the player in the game world via striking physicality.

But how does this translate to The Darkness, which does not recount the exploits of an over-perceptive galactic predator engaged in evasion, but of an ordinary New York hitman facing unfortunate circumstances? To be sure, the "Creeping Dark" ability justifies the sort of trickery one could expect from the camera department behind Chronicles of Riddick, and the shadows, blur and limbs carry over from this title, but for the most part The Darkness employs a more classical first-person camera than its stealthier cousin. And this is where the many uses of light and color come into play, instilling the games with distinctive qualities. It is very telling that both games open with the selection of a basic contrast profile ; Starbreeze want every player to appreciate the nuances of their lighting efforts to the best of their capacity. While initially jarring, the saturated bloom effects of Riddick serve dual purposes, injecting the world with an atmosphere of suffocation and clearly associating brightness with danger ; replete with breakable light sources that also fill an important role in the gameplay, the playfield of The Darkness remains ever-visible through a stunning "contour" effect that covers the objects with a current of shifting light, underlining the supernatural force of the game's namesake. While they don't exactly contribute to the specifics of the game world proper, these atmospheric features contribute in making the games constantly stimulating to navigate, with various levels of light singling out various levels of interest, and so and so forth.

To illustrate my appreciation of its environmental design better than anything could, let me describe an episode I had very early on in The Darkness: inspecting the halls of Canal Street Station after a pretty agitated first segment, I came across a television set, sitting slightly crooked in an tramp's cart. It was broadcasting a report concerning events of the story, and I stopped to look. When the news segment was over, the program switched to a heavy metal music video. Curious, I flipped the channels... and discovered that Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm was showing. I was floored, and watched the movie for a good ten minutes, even though I had never seen it ; that Starbreeze's art directors (or whatever department thought of this) actually went so far as to include a compressed version of an American cinema classic (as well as other entertaining broadcasts) to flesh out the universe of their video game and give it style and character appeared, to me, as a remarkable display of dedication to the audience's enjoyment. In Riddick, that level of craft is apparent through the rugged textures of the walls, the obsessive detail of the machinery, the crazy architectural figures of the prison infrastructures, all combining into an incredible sense of place. In both games, further exploration of the levels is specifically rewarded with glimpses at the process behind the design and art direction ; The Darkness even has phone numbers hidden on the numerous posters covering its walls, which led me to scan its locations even more intensively. All of this seems intended to properly engulf the player in the universe of the fiction, should he simply be willing to.

But at the end of the day, the kind of immersion I am speaking of perhaps couldn't even be viable if the stories taking place in these worlds didn't warrant a certain degree of interest in the first place. To be fair, both games' plots don't exactly rise above the fare of standard pulp fiction, but it is the details and quality of the execution that renders them so effective and quickly engaging. Certainly the voice acting in them stands clear above par (at least as far as video games go), and the character models and animations are convincing without trying too hard. But there is more to it than that: the character networks in Starbreeze's efforts actually seem to fit in their surroundings, which I believe is not as easy to achieve as it seems. From the very early sections of these games (the first conversations with the inmates of Butcher Bay, the amazing tunnel sequence of The Darkness...), you get a sense that these digital people inhabit a world with rules and logic, an overarching order that is not immediately spelled out, but reveals itself over time. In narrative terms, both games lead the player to progress towards areas or characters that he has not yet seen, but that numerous comments from the supporting cast have helped shape an imaginary picture of. As such, the handling of the population becomes as crucial to the story's delivery as the level design: the "scum" of Butcher Bay, its various factions honoring different codes, know the workings of the prison and how to get things done, but have simply not gathered the will to try ; the mafiosi of The Darkness, on their end, have even more of a reason for wanting Jackie to succeed in his revenge, while the ordinary New Yorkers lurking about the stations add flavor and life to a mundane background (imagine Fulton Street without the break-dancers). And don't get me started on the few but memorable friendly denizens of the "Otherworld"...

So there you have it: my admiration-laden ode to Starbreeze's digital creations. I imagine that similar words could be applied to many other games of recent years, but these two strike me as full realizations of what unified and integrated art direction can yield. It is probably worth mentioning that I have somehow managed to spill 1500 words on two first-person shooters... without even mentioning the word "shooting". Something that I take as proof of how far a developer can take its products by polishing their delivery and making their worlds have a life of their own. The only thing we can wish for now is that comparable skills and technical assets be applied to ever more compelling narratives, or at least that they continue making tired subject matter seem fresh and relevant again. After all, if a video game can make a fellow care about Vin Diesel as much as I did, who knows what's next?