Friday, April 11, 2014

Blips: Moments of Silence

Source: Myst uses emptiness to calm you; its sequel uses emptiness to provoke you
Author: John Teti
Site: Gameological

This week over at Gameological, John Teti has begun a series of posts about empty spaces in games. He sets up the series by pointing out the disconnect between images of games that depict them as all-out action while the reality is that games allow for many quiet moments as well, often at the player's discretion. Of course there are games that are largely devoid of action, no matter how you play them, and two of those games, Myst and Riven (it's sequel), are the first to go under the microscope. Teti's argument is that while Myst uses emptiness as a way of ensuring that the player doesn't feel pressure to complete puzzles quickly or shame in failure to do so (no one is watching), Riven presents people on the fringes of your view. In Riven, you don't feel extra pressure because there are humans elsewhere on the island, but finding out why they're running away from you serves as a kind of motivation for puzzle solving. I'm excited to see where this series goes next as there are many games that offer moments of silence or emptiness that are often glossed over in favor of more frenzied moments.

While there are certainly a multitude of games that position characters in empty worlds, I hope that pause menus are spoken of at some point too. When I think about menus, I think about RPGs, and how much time I spend navigating them compared to "playing" the game. Whether it's arming characters in Final Fantasy games or navigating deep space in Mass Effect, my time spent in menus has offered me a solitary, introspective space. How do I want to engage in this next scenario? What should I wear? Time collapses in pause menus, and nothing proceeds without you (unless you're playing online, of course). Sometimes the official game clock even halts while you're in menus as well, as if to say that time spent amongst the upgrade paths and equip screens is somehow separate from everything else. In a way, it is separate, but that shouldn't diminish its influence on the tone and pacing of the game as one, whole experience.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Recap: Jeff Gerstmann at NYU Game Center

Earlier tonight (April 9th) NYU Game Center hosted a conversation with long-time video game critic and Giant Bomb co-founder Jeff Gerstmann. During the talk, Gerstmann discussed a wide range of gaming-related topics, covering his involvement in the critical sphere across past, present, and future. One of the main points of emphasis was Giant Bomb's position as a website that covers video games from a personality-driven angle. Gerstmann and company don't discuss every game on their site, and production of actual reviews has dwindled in favor of video "quick looks" where two editors play through part of a game and provide commentary and impressions through voiceover. The website has a friendly, conversational energy that contrasts with Gerstmann's previous work at Gamespot, which he described as a much more solitary, review-focused routine. As a frequent Giant Bomb visitor, and because of that site's transparent tone, a lot of what Gerstmann had to say sounded pretty familiar to me, but hearing it all at once painted a clear picture of where Gerstmann sees himself in the current industry and where things could be headed.

As engaging as the conversation was, there's not a great through-line to easily sum up what was discussed. One of Gerstmann's strongest qualities is his adaptability. In his career, he was unjustly fired from a job at Gamespot, a job that was, more or less, the entirety of his professional experience up to that point. He was then at a crossroads: either figure out some way to continue getting paid to talk about games or start over from square one on some new path. Ultimately, Gerstmann created Giant Bomb, which served as both a fresh restart, but also a way to remain within a familiar field. Being fired was an opportunity of sorts for Gerstmann to reevaluate how he was covering games. The controversy brought him into the public spotlight in a way that had people interested in hearing his side of the story, but not only that; all of a sudden, people didn't just want to know Gerstmann's opinions on video games, but also his point of view on all manner of subjects in the vicinity of game journalism in general. While personality-based game coverage has certainly gained widespread popularity due to a number of factors, Gerstmann's situation positioned him to move ahead of the curve in a way that probably couldn't have existed without the debacle that preceded it.

It's Gerstmann's adaptability that gives him the confidence that he'll make out alright going forward into an uncertain future. This isn't to say that he's completely got the games thing all figured out, but rather that he's put himself in a position where he can be flexible. This, opposed to older, bigger outlets struggling to keep afloat as traditional revenue streams dry up. An audience member at the talk asked about the significance of Twitch and YouTube personalities, and while Gerstmann acknowledged some of the tremendously exciting things happening in those spaces, he also noted the issues with rights-holders looking for a cut of profits, and how this will likely only get worse. In contrast, Giant Bomb is in a unique position where they can dabble in livestreams, in "let's play"-style videos, in news reporting, criticism, and yes, even game reviews without fully committing the ship to any of them. There's a certain level of celebrity status at work, but without the phony sheen that permeates most public figures who perform in front of a camera for a living. Gerstmann has cultivated a following that's genuinely interested in what he thinks about things, not in an image or fictional persona (or at least as much as that's possible on the Internet).

The Q/A segment of the talk was extensive, and more than anything, showed the fondness and respect that people who follow and care about Gerstmann's work have for him. The room was undoubtedly packed with Giant Bomb fans and followers. When asked how many in attendance subscribed to the site, what felt like an overwhelming majority of hands were raised. What do you think about VR? What do you think about sexism in games? What do you think about people who say Proteus isn't a game? What do you think about academic game design programs? Do you have any plans to get back into music production? Many of these questions are only tangentially related to Gerstmann's "job;" they're questions for a guru. And as a clear sign of his adaptability, Gerstmann was able to address all of them. However, there's a chance this amicability could just be an echo-chamber in action. If everyone knows what everyone likes, within a staff, between artist and audience, between game developers and players, then where's the challenge? I went into the talk with a pretty solid understanding of what Jeff Gerstmann thinks about VR, sexism in games, and Proteus, but I learned just how much effort he spends hunting for those challenges. It keeps him up at night, he says, but it also certainly keeps things interesting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Blips: Infinity x Threes!

Source: Meet the Clones
Author: Patrick Klepek
Site: Giant Bomb

The Threes! cloning story has been pretty well documented at this point, but I found Patrick Klepek's report on the issue particularly enlightening. For a quick update on the issue, the super-popular free mobile game 2048 is a clone of another popular mobile game 1024, which itself is a clone of the popular-but-somewhat-less-so mobile game Threes!, which retails for $1.99. All of these games are tile-sliding puzzlers where each tile has a particular number and certain tiles can be combined to create a new tile that is the sum of the two numbers being combined. While some of these games use different number combinations and color pallets from Threes!, the game mechanics are pretty identical, right down to the size of the game board.

What's great about Klepek's piece is how he tracks through the cloning narrative and actually gets the points of view of the accused cloners, where possible. This is an enlightening approach to the subject where it's all to easy to talk about offending parties without them present (note: depending on the issue, sometimes offenders should not be brought to the table, but this is one where there's potential for good to come out of it and minimal chance of increased harm). It's not really a surprise that none of the clone developers see themselves as doing anything wrong as they each have their own explanations for why they made their version of Threes! the way they did, sometimes ignorant that Threes! even exists. Gabriele Cirulli made the web version of 2048 as a copy of 1024, unbeknownst to that games direct lineage to Threes! It's not really a surprise that the creator of the mobile, ad-enabled version of 2048, which is #1 on the App Store declined comment, since his game is the most unabashed clone of the bunch (a carbon copy of Cirulli's take, plus ads), but since Cirulli released 2048 as open source, there's no legal precedent to prevent this from happening.

Hearing these sides of the story serves to inform the public as to how a situation like this could arise in the first place. You can point to the creator of the ad-filled 2048 as the "bad guy" in this situation, but it's a string of events that made his clone possible. The App Store is a place where opportunists can thrive, and in doing so, they'll throw whatever informal inter-developer honor code may exist under the bus to do so. Where "open source" might mean a constructive, creative environment for experimentation for some, it's just free code to others. Whatever ends up happening on the "clone wars" front will be interesting, but I don't expect much in the way of action from Apple or Google. Instead, I think the fallout of this could potentially have a negative effect on open source game development, with studios deciding to be more protective of their source code than before or striving for more complex, less copyable designs. Or at least these were the views expressed by Threes! dev Greg Wolhwend in Klepek's follow-up interview.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Blips: Filmic Layers

Source: What does it mean when we call videogames cinematic?
Author: Chris Priestman
Site: Kill Screen

The word "cinematic" is tossed around a lot with games, but what does that label really entail? Well, since it's often coming from a marketing department, "cinematic" is somewhat of an empty phrase in games, taking for granted that people like movies and hoping that they'll enjoy this other medium if it seems similar. I believe a lot of the use of "cinematic" in games writing is derivative of marketing speech too, which has been allowed to inform and shape the perception of the medium. If I look at the games that are called cinematic, I see a couple things: film-like cinematography (at least in the cutscenes shown in, you guessed it, commercials), realistic looking/sounding characters performance-captured by movie actors, and a 3-act narrative arc to the game's central plotline. Of course there's more to film than just these elements, so it's worth considering other games that offer cinematic experiences, but aren't generally considered as much.

That's the premise of a recent piece by Chris Priestman for Kill Screen wherein he argues that a game like Papers, Please uses cinematic split-screen visuals as a means of dividing player attention. In the end, no one medium stands totally alone, and as Priestman admits, even split-screen itself isn't born of film, and the visual style we typically associate with cinema in games often owes as much to painting, theater, and photography as its moving pictures cousin. And as far as I can tell, David Cage is already making "interactive movies" as much as something like that can exist, which is likely not wholly a game or a film, but something somewhere in between. Now he just needs to use that interesting middle-ground to tell an equally interesting story.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Blips: Raggedy Dismount

Source: Why are ragdoll physics so funny?
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

In my most recent piece for Kill Screen, I focused my thoughts about the virtues of physical comedy in video games onto one particular element: ragdoll physics. Essentially, when game design moved into a polygonal 3D space, a more realistic physics engine was also needed to make characters and objects more reactive to one another –more able to negotiate and interpret contact and what occurs afterward on a relational basis. Since many games still had such a large emphasis on killing enemies, death animations we actually rather prominent. Ragdoll, where a regular human figure turns into a boneless, floppy mass, was born out of this situation. Though ragdoll has gotten better over the years, it still often shows its flaws in moments where body parts can't find a settled resting place and spasm in perpetuity.

Finding humor in all this is definitely morbid, but ragdoll animations are so ridiculous, it's kind of difficult not to laugh. Lucky for everyone, games that focus primarily on ragdoll humor are more prominent than ever. I looked at Turbo Dismount for my article, which is basically the premise for a series of fatal Jackass stunts, complete with variable ramps and obstacles to hurl your crash-test dummy protagonist against. That said, I do think the scoring system in Turbo Dismount works against its humor to a certain degree. The funniest crashes aren't necessarily the highest scoring ones and repeating a level over and over to try for a better ranking eventually dulls the joke's edge. While there is still some good laughs to experience playing dedicated ragdoll games, I think my favorite instances of ragdoll are usually when they pop up unexpectedly in games that aren't trying to be funny.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Blips: Second Son, Once Removed

Source: Missing Representation and Infamous: Second Son
Author: Reid McCarter
Site: Digital Love Child

Video games are capable of rendering some pretty realistic worlds, to the point where transposing the real world literally into a virtual one is taken as an assumed goal. If you can do it, why not? But this is a school of thought that ignores all of the other ways that games can be visually designed and the possibilities for riffing on or reworking real world environments to some end beyond the literal. But when certain aspects of games shoot for 1-to-1 realism, and others don't, it raises questions as to why the line was drawn where it was.

Case in point is Infamous Second Son, the third game in the Infamous series, and the first to boast a real world setting: Seattle. While Infamous has more in common with comic books than documentary film, its virtual Seattle is meant to stand-in for the real thing, as a literal translation, more than an interpretation. Reid McCarter over at Digital Love Child brings up an interesting point then: why isn't the main character Delsin, who is shown to be of Native American heritage, also presented as a member of an actual Pacific Northwest tribe instead one made up for the game?

I'm on board with McCarter that ultimately, this is a missed opportunity. By attributing Delsin to a fictional tribe, there is no cultural backstory beyond what is presented in the game. But of course Seattle does have such a history, and it's one that is intertwined with the Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. I understand that if you're trying to tell a comic book story set in a real place, there has to be components that are on the side of fiction or on the side of literal representation, but short-shrifting the realistic setting's ethnic make-up actually renders that setting less convincingly, and denies an opportunity to cast Duwamish or Suquamish (or another local tribe) people in very visible roles.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blips: My Shape

Source: What the Next Generation of Health and Fitness Software Can Learn from Wii Fit
Author: Michael Thomsen
Site: Forbes

OK, I'm not back on normal posting schedule yet, but I'm recovering from surgery, so give me a break. Anyway, perhaps appropriately as I lie here considering my own bodily existence, I've also read this piece my Michael Thomsen on Wii Fit, Wii Fit U, and electronic fitness monitoring systems. I'd never really paid the original Wii Fit much mind, which is crazy considering how popular it was, but Thomsen's description of the way it pushes you to elaborate on simple instructions with subtle body movements is really profound notion. This especially in light of how most games ask very little of the human body but perform complex feats of virtual athleticism on screen, as Thomsen explains. This is before even getting into the angle of who has time for these kinds of tracking devices (hint: not the people who can't afford to shop at Whole Foods).

I have used video games as a fitness tool myself. In college I began playing Dance Dance Revolution PS2 games on a regular basis with the intention of lowering my heart rate. I played a lot, and burned through a couple sets of dance pads and a handful of DDR sequels, and achieved my fitness goal. Also, I got pretty good at DDR; not competition good, but still. However, one thing I liked about this was that I didn't have to guilt myself into playing, and the game never tried to shame or motivate me from a fitness perspective. I'm pretty sure there were "calorie burner" modes in some of those games, but I never touched them. DDR was a fun game to play with physical health side benefits, but I did adopt a regular workout regimen with the game, aided by the social context of a friend in college that would play along side me. It was a perfect confluence of factors to make me feel happy and healthy, one that I haven't experienced since.

Nowadays it seems like "games as fitness tools" is its own industry, so any electronic device that involves exercise is designed with the "workout session" in mind. DDR predates this, and to me, makes it more approachable. Who knows, maybe DDR is a poor exercise tool, maybe it's bad for your knees or bad for your eyes since you have to stare so hard at a screen. I'm probably better off just going out for a run, but running sucks (I've trained for and run a half-marathon in my post-college years) and, for me, requires the external motivation of training for a race. In the end, it's not just what the tools at your disposal are capable of, but how they make you feel about yourself and how they fit into your life. From my experience, physical fitness has everything to do with circumstance, and the factors that play into that aren't tracked in a calorie counter.