Tuesday, June 28, 2011

SPOILER Portal 2 has a happy ending

Adam and I finally beat the co-op on Portal 2 so I feel like I can discuss the game. First, the good things. Co-op works pretty well, at least splitscreen, and it's fun. Sometimes it was frustrating that I wasn't always the one to find the solution to a puzzle, but that's the tradeoff when you play with someone as smart as you. It was a relief to be a robot and not be afraid of dying; funny how much that affects my game experience. I think there's room for more co-op puzzle games in the world.

Of course Portal 2 is very fun, and the puzzles are just hard enough that you can keep feeling smart (and that takes some subtle scaffolding, let me tell you). The only parts I struggled were the "guess where to place the portal" puzzles, and I don't feel bad about getting stuck there. This is definitely a great game, but it 's not as narratively tight as Portal (see that discussion over at the Brainy Gamer). It's also not as experimental as Portal (full disclosure: still working on my thesis about Portal and House of Leaves).

Portal's narrative is exciting to me as a literature student because Chell doesn't win, but you as the player "beat" the game (and you get your cake). Meanwhile, GLaDOS sings about how she's definitely still alive. This overt acknowledgement that we don't actually care about the protagonists, but it's our experience as players that should be awesome, feels new and exciting (or post-modern, take your pick). Are there other games where the protagonist loses while you the player wins? I can't really think of any, but please comment if you think of one.

Portal 2 went for a happy ending for almost everyone, and that disappoints my post-modern heart. I can see that it's the best way for the franchise to close the Chell chapter and for everyone to feel closure, but the themes of the work completely change. In Portal, players come away feeling that physical rebellion might not be the best way to solve a conflict with a manipulative, powerful authority. Maybe if we could have negotiated with GLaDOS things wouldn't have ended the way they did. But Portal 2 keeps reinforcing the idea that since the player is the protagonist, the protagonist can "win."

I might be reading too much into it. What was your experience with the Portal games like? Did you feel like GLaDOS won in Portal, or was that just an excuse to have a sequel?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Thanks to my sister for letting me guest post here!  As a mother of three who still makes some time for video games, I thought I'd post about kids in video games, not kids consuming video games (which is a much more popular topic).
Some (totally random!) kids playing video games

Children make up 20% of the U.S. population, and account for almost 16% of gamers.  Without them, there could be no future for the human race.  Everyone has been a child at some point.  But in most games, they don't even exist. 

It's pretty common to talk about sexism in the video game industry.  But what about the fact that almost every video game character is between 18 and 30?  Kids make up a big portion of video game players, but how often can they play a main character their age, even in games aimed at kids?  While I'm not suggesting that we need kid avatars for Halo or Dragon Age, childhood is a large area of the human experience that has been virtually ignored in video games.

In some games, there are no children at all, and while part of that is because of the types of stories that easily translate into games, part of that is due to technical and legal difficulties.  Oblivion, for example, is detailed enough to have geologically-appropriate terrain for the entire world, and each of the hundreds of characters has their own schedule for each hour of each day of the week, but there are no children in the world.  Assassin's Creed has meticulously recreated historical cities with thousands of people populating them -- but no children.
What's missing from this picture?
Part of the reason for this is technological -- adding children means more 3D models and game resources, which do use time and money.  Part of it may be ethical or legal -- in open-world games like Oblivion, where you can kill characters in the world if you want, some would undoubtedly attack children, which is one taboo that still holds a lot of weight in our society.  As one designer for Fallout 3 says about their decision not to allow killing children in their game, "It wouldn't have been socially responsible". 
Kids have their own town in Fallout 3
As gamers are more and more likely to be parents themselves (53% of gamers are between ages 18 and 49), they are more likely to appreciate settings that deal with children and parenting.  Fallout 3, a postapocalyptic open-world game, does have some children (who are unkillable).  They even have their own little kids-only village, which is a neat idea, but ultimately unrealistic.  How do new kids (babies?) get to this village?  Would the teenagers really allow themselves to be kicked out on becoming adults?  There are some great issues about children that could have been addressed in other parts of the game, too -- how does nuclear fallout affect people's decisions to have children?  If infertility is a large problem, perhaps the culture surrounding children would change -- would people value children more, either because of their rarity, or as another gun to defend against the monsters?  What happens to the culture of childhood?  While the game explores some interesting questions about science and sacrifice and revolution and karma, sociological and familial issues are still largely a wasteland.

Children, when they appear in games, usually occupy stereotypical roles, such as the Crying Little Kid or Heartwarming Orphan, with little to set them apart and make them a living character.  But surely in kid's games there are sometimes realistic kid characters, right?  The truth is, even in kids' games, they usually play as robots, anthropomorphic animals, teenagers, or adults. 

Do kids identify with these guys?  Maybe . . .

The only child main characters (under 14) I could think of were in Pokemon games, Gau & Relm from FFVI, and Sora from Kingdom Hearts (Wikipedia has little else to add).  But Sora is a great example of a child main character who is not merely a story prop or stereotype.  He has relationships and problems similar to other school-aged children, but with the added responsibility of trying to remember his past, save worlds, and survive.  His struggles are not just physical (beat the bad guys!), but emotional and psychological as well. 

It's okay, Sora, we all feel a little emo sometimes...

Sometimes we forget what it's like to be a kid.  It would be hard to do well -- to capture the learning and naivete and the sincerity and intensity of being a child.  But I think accurately portraying children would help video games feel more realistic and be more true, as well as having stories that mean more to both children and adults.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My experience with Heavy Rain

When I played Heavy Rain for the first time, I felt impressed by the actual role-playing aspect. Oh, I'm a father, I should help with the groceries. I even got nervous when I couldn't find the dinner plates. This went on, except I grew frustrated by the limitations of the game. The game wouldn't let me leave a house to avoid killing a guy. I couldn't role play too far out of character; that option wasn't given.

I can chalk up lack of choices to realistic game limitations (you can only have so many branches), but the game did something I found unforgivable. My characters made decisions off-screen, without my knowledge. I felt this betrayed some unwritten rule of adventure/role-playing games: that when you play this game, your character's world is what you make for them. The ending is kind of like if you turned on a Zelda game and suddenly Link had betrayed Zelda and the world has ended. That just doesn't happen. I appreciate that the developers are trying to change what games can be, but I didn't feel that it was fun.

Part of the game asks how far I'm willing to go for someone I love. Well, my character will do anything in a virtual world where he doesn't get caught! Everything looks real, yet it's still in this weird game universe where you can do crazy things and not get in trouble. So the question of what I'm willing to do for someone I love turns into this meaningless quest-fulfillment (especially when I'm screaming inside, "go to the police, dumbbutt!"). I cannot deny the game's ability to creep me out or get me tense, but upon further reflection, my intense emotional reactions seem stupid.

Lastly, I was annoyed at how they seemed to try to fit every adult piece of content they could into this game. I guess I get tired of "gritty" games after a while; all the shooting, illegal drugs, swearing, and that one scene with the creepy guy were not my cup of tea. I know, it was rated M, what did I expect? I think I just associate "mature" with artful discussion of adult matters and not just reveling in them, but I think that most M-rated games are not really concerned with a serious discussion of adult issues. I wonder: if the game had been more carefree would I have enjoyed it more?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Women Gamers

Over at Your Critic Is In Another Castle, Kate complains that game developers don't believe that she, a female gamer who has always loved gaming, including first-person shooters (FPSs), exists. I'm interested in this problem, and I have a few ideas about why there seem to be few "serious" games aimed at women (which felt a little overkill for a comment).

  • FPSs aren't the favorite genre of female gamers. In a study that looked at gamers' genre preferences split by gender, 87% of females played puzzle games, while only 17% played FPSs (compared to 74% of male gamers who play FPSs).It makes sense that, seeing these stats, developers would aim FPSs they make at a male audience (but do females not prefer them because they are so male-centric?).
  • The people who make games are mostly male. In the gaming industry in 2010, 5% of programmers, 8% of artists, 8% of game designers, 18% of producers, 12% of audio developers, and 11% of quality testers were female.2 Still, females exist in the business, and with 18% of producers being female, it seems like they'd have a say in making games that aren't ignoring or being terrible to women (sounds like that should be my next research). Gaming industry professionals make up the audience of E3, and companies want to show off, so... it's mostly guys showing off to other guys, from what I can tell.
  • There are games out there that are selling really well that are designed to be consumed by women. Last May, these were the top ten games in retail sales. Zumba Fitness: Join the Party comes in at number 7. What the heck? I've never even heard of this game. Here's the skinny: you do that dancing exercise thing called zumba while wearing a wii-belt that tracks how many calories you're burning. The female populace has spoken, and if they're not playing LA Noire or Portal 2, they are probably playing some dancing game that was designed with them in mind.

This is, as far as I can tell, the current state of games for women. The Portal games, being puzzle games and having mostly female characters, seem to be the best serious games that include a female audience. There are games out there that are aimed directly at women; they're not aimed at women who are "serious gamers" because those women will buy the games for guys. Case in point: "Girls who are frequent gamers tend to play the same games as do boys who are frequent gamers. Gender differences in genres played are found primarily in girls who game less frequently."1

1. Pew Internet and American Life Project as cited in Magerko's "Different Strokes For Different Folks: Tapping Into the Hidden Potential of Serious Games" found in Gaming and Cognition. Because I think everyone should know this, I'm replicating the chart below (authors, if you find this and object, please contact me). A "*" indicates that males played the genre significantly more than females; "+" indicates vice-versa. % of boy gamers is listed first, then % of girl gamers (sorry! too lazy to make a table). Remember, these are preferences of teens who are already gamers from 2008, so it's not representative of everyone who plays games:

*Action games 84 48
*Strategy games 83 55 
*Sports games 80 55 
Racing games 77 71 
*Adventure games 75 57 
*Fighting games 74 17 
*First-person shooter 67 29
Rhythm games 58 64
+Puzzle games 58 87 
Simulation games 46 52 
*Role-playing games 45 26 
*Survival-horror games 45 18 
*MMOs 30 11 
 Virtual worlds 11 10  

The original article looked at extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and found that "Two of the three more intrinsic oriented genres are played significantly more by girls than boys." I believe there is a typo in the article, as their chart indicated that out of puzzle games, simulation games, and virtual worlds, only puzzle games are played significantly more by females than males. Just sayin'.

2. Gamedeveloper's 9th annual salary survey, as found in their April 2010 issue (vol. 17.4). What can I say, my husband worked in the gaming industry. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two Interactive Fictions

Recently I played Don't Take It Personally Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story and Life Flashes By. They're both made by female programmers whom I admire for making cool things, and I enjoyed reading both... but they just didn't feel like games. In the first game, you're a teacher in a futuristic, anime-inspired classroom, and you get to make six or seven decisions, which can sort of affect the ending. The bulk of the game is reading your students' online interactions and trying to keep that separate from your knowledge of real life. It's in the style of a visual novel; a genre which I now understand a bit better (trying one out in Japanese without being able to read much is super boring). The exploration of LGBT issues in teens was interesting and not something I've seen in mainstream games.

In Life Flashes By, you're a dead woman looking back on her life. I believe the reactions you choose to her life scenes affect the alternate universes you can explore? I didn't experiment a lot with it; as entertaining as the dialog was, I found myself wanting to do game-like things, which I couldn't do. I could only choose the woman's reactions to the conversations and in what order to view the scenes. As a fictional character, the woman is kind of cynical but thoughtful--you know, what every indie game fan aspires to be.

Don't get me wrong! These are lovely, thought-provoking productions, and I would definitely categorize them as ergodic or interactive fiction, but without choices to make that aren't choose-your-own-adventure-like, I don't think of them as games. I don't think it's a binary distinction though; it's definitely a spectrum that contains some subjectivity on the definition of what a game is.

Edit: After chatting about this on Facebook, I think we can still count interactive fiction as games. There are games of luck that seem similar (you're along for the ride and guessing what to do) that are still, definitely, games. But I think I can safely say that these aren't exactly skill-based games (unless your definition of skill includes predicting the author's intentions, which might be possible and interesting).