Friday, September 30, 2011

Utah Indie Game Night September 2011, part 2: Games in progress

Here's some information about the games in progress at the Utah Indie game night. Obviously, I haven't been able to play through each game, and most of my blurbs focus on the superficial. That's kind of how demos go. I'll have another post for the completed games (the ones I can play from the leisure of my home).

-Faerie Alchemy (play video; company) is falling-block puzzle game. Three or more adjacent suns turn into a leaf, leaves turn into blue pyramids, with new elements gradually adding themselves (the chain effect reminded me a little of Primrose). Ben had added some shiny effects that aren't in the video, and it looks very pretty. The game is pretty playable in both casual "this feels right" and intense "I'm thinking about every block" ways of playing. Ben's hoping to release it on iPad and then everything else.

-Multifarious is a game for mobile devices that is a tricky multitasking game. After balancing a ball on a seasaw through the magic of accelerometry, the game adds more and more tasks (touching the screen to jump at the right time, etc.) until you mess one up. Kind of like a cooking game, in that you have to keep track of multiple things at once, only a lot harder. I'm pretty sure this is their blog.

-Cthulhu Island, a Crysis mod, is a horror game with really good lighting (you use a flashlight to find your way, there are fires and things, it just looks good). I admit I am a complete sissy when it comes to horror games, and just watching someone play this game is enough to scare me. Josh and Michael have been working on it for years, and if you ever wanted an opportunity to slay Cthuhlu cultists, this might be your best chance.  Screenshot:

-March to the Moon is a top-down shoot-em-up with abilities and experience, set in a bar where you kill lots of rats to start out with. Curtis has been working on the graphics and it looks good (you can wear a skirt and hats!), and he's been working on balancing the abilities so it should be possible to get past the fourth boss. He's planning to sell it on XBLA. Here's a screenshot from a previous build:

-Bullet Train Hill is a delightful little puzzle-platformer where you're jumping around on top of a bullet train, so the wind affects your jumps. I liked the levels I played, and I'd like to play more. Chris hopes to make use of the concepts in another game.

There were a few games I didn't get much information about. Smote is an old school action-RPG, from the looks of it, and has online multiplayer. I'm very curious about how that is or will be going. There was also a UVU flight simulator, which has local Utah geography, which I think has the potential to be uniquely Utah.

Utah Indie Game Night September 2011, part 1

About every other month, the Utah Indie Game group meets in person. My husband wants to work on a game to bring at some point, but for now we just looked at the games people are working on.

Tracy Hickman of Dragonlance fame came and did a presentation on plot structure (some of it seemed straight from this Dramatica theory). We came a little late; Greg describes his lecture in a little more detail. It was interesting, but his complaints about games not doing anything new with narrative in the past 20 years did not seem accurate. Specifically, he said that games lack "impact characters" that players have an emotional connection (and story) with. I think ICO has a pretty clear impact character that you have to drag along and that many players felt emotional attachment to. From the little I've played of Dragon Age: Origins, it seemed like my party members were constantly feeding me their opinions of the choices I made. I agree that games could use some work on narrative, but I disagree with Hickman's complaint.

Afterwards we talked and played games people are working on. There were lots of games! The room looked a lot like this:
Playing Vazor's experimental text-based game, Cardwood
In avoiding a megapost, I'll post about individual games in the next post.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alternatives to grinding

Repetitive elements in games (e.g., grinding) make players feel like they've "earned" their triumphs. Making a game take a long time to beat seems like a cheap way to make players attached to their progress in a game. A better way to make players attached to their progress might be to a) make gameplay really difficult, b) create engaging characters, or c) have players come up with their own story.

Making gameplay difficult doesn't have to make a game frustrating; I think Portal's puzzles are sufficiently difficult to make players feel smart and that they're really learning something (they're learning to think of physics in a different way). I'm sure there's a way to effectively teach more complex tasks through games, and I think learning is a ritual worthy of repetition and the challenge is enough to make it interesting. Adam and I have long discussed a kanji-learning game where instead of pushing A, you're reviewing kanji through flashcards. You can still get the boring/comforting thing, but maybe with a bit more brain involvement (also, if you want to help make this game, I only know so much about computer art).

Creating characters that you care about can only go so far. It's usually only part of the picture that makes a game addictive, and loving or hating characters seems to effect some players more than others. And if there's a character everyone likes, it only makes ending the game more painful (but impassioned fans make for good discussions?).

The last option, having players come up with their own story, is the emergent gameplay that characterizes Rohrer's art games (you're imagining the story based on what you're doing; no one is telling you in words what just happened). It feels different from playing a game where the story is in your face. It feels like you're doing the story instead of it happening to you. I agree that emergent narrative is one way to use video games to tell a story that no other medium can replicate. The types of games with emergent narratives are fun to explore and figure out their rules. But sometimes all I want is an interactive story that someone else made up. I would, however, like to see a Dwarf Fortress that is a little more user-friendly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Interactive Ritual

I've been thinking about video games and their growth from other interactive mediums. Perhaps spurred by Alternative Ending's apology for RPGs and desire for more emergent narrative, although I'm not yet sure how much this discussion will have to do with her discussion.

Interaction has been and still is a part of human rituals. So far I have categorized these interactive rituals into three categories, defining a ritual as an action that is performed multiple times in the same way, usually with pre-scripted parts, and interactive where the participant does something. I feel like there should be another classification for where the participant can do multiple things which in turn affect the outcome of the ritual, but I don't know what that word is yet:

Social rituals (require more than one person):
-Oaths. The marriage oath, swearing into court, and the presidential inauguration all require the participant to accept or reject the situation, with different consequences either way. 
I really just wanted an excuse to put in a picture of a Russian orthodox church.
-Call-and-Response.  Common in camp songs and some Christian-type sermons. The leader says one part, and the audience answers theirs or repeat what has just been said. 
-Call-and-Action. Traditional storytelling that has the audience do actions in certain parts would fall here, as well as children's finger plays. Singing with actions, like jump-rope rhymes and clapping songs might also go here. If you say/do the wrong thing everyone else will probably keep going or stop. 
-Daily living. Includes greetings, exchange of goods, pouring a drink for someone else, etc.
-Other. Everything I haven't though of yet.

Individual rituals:
-Counting off. Including counting your money, plucking daisy petals, etc. to come to a conclusion.
-Bodily rituals. Going to the toilet, eating, etc.
-Daily living. Washing hands, Sometimes combined with social rituals for extra effect. Includes quirky things like you always put your keys in your right-hand pocket, read before bed, etc.
-This is getting ridiculous and I need to stop thinking about it.

We can think of video games as rituals. In Portal for instance (forgive my constant references to this game, but I'm writing my thesis on it so it's on my mind and readily available, mentally), the structure is that of call-and-action. GLaDOS says the same things every time you play the game. If you do something other than the scripted event of an action that leads to beating the game, you just can't continue. There is no way to complete the game and not fight with GLaDOS (well, short of modding the game I suppose). But an essential difference is that the first time you play a game, you don't know what's going to happen, so it doesn't feel like a ritual. It's only on replaying a game that you feel that it is a ritual and become comfortable with it. Most games with a linear flow follow this feel.

Games with multiple endings are still a sort of ritual, or at least a set of different rituals which you have to figure out. Creating a level in Little Big Planet seems like it's not a ritual, unless you're creating the same level over and over again. Open-world games have breaks from the structure of ritual, but still within the rules and confines of the game. I also wonder how ritual works in games with procedurally-generated content or in sandbox games. Certainly exploring the dungeon levels in Persona 3 time after time seems like a ritual, even if the floor pattern is a little different each time. When playing Minecraft with zombies the first day seems to play out the same: make shelter for the night by digging materials. And I don't think ritual is a bad thing; I think it's important to acknowledge that part of the experience of playing a video game is rooted in very old experiences. Gameplay elements which become ritualistic in one playthrough of a game (like grinding in RPGs or digging in Minecraft) hold a special quality which both bore and comfort us. I hope to follow this post up with some more awesome, but this might be as far as the idea goes.
Ah, grinding. Oh, I forgot to mention FF6. Here is this screenshot I stole off the internet anyway.
Edit: Because I'm a budding archivist, I'd like to link over to Digital Ephemera's further discussion of this post and interactive ritual in games. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Handmade Minecraft Cookbook

I like fan art, especially unusual fan art. I took a bookbinding class last fall, and I made a Minecraft cookbook for my little brother to go along with a copy of Minecraft for last year's Christmas (it turns out my older brother was more interested, oh well). I used a coptic binding, which is the older type of binding we learned. I dyed the paper for the cover with a lemon teabag (rooibos is also great for dying, and it gives a redder color).
 For the inside paper I used a map harvested from BYU's map discards.
 I should have spent a little more time reviewing my calligraphy skills for the title page. Oh well.

 I ended up rushing to put in the recipies, so I did them in plain ballpoint pen with tic-tac-to type grids.

Not bad, for an amateur like myself. I put pictures of some other book projects I did on my personal blog. Now, if only I had a huge blade so I could cut binder's boards at home...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Video Games as Performance Art

Many people think of video games as a solitary, anti-social activity.  But 76% of game-playing teenagers play games with other people at least some of the time.  Most of this play is with people in the same room, and this figure does not take into account people playing a game while others are watching.

So, how is playing games with people different from playing alone?  In addition to the obvious social aspect, the game also becomes something of a performance art.  While this is readily apparent in games that already resemble traditional performance arts, such as Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, it also holds true for other genres of games as well.

When gamers play a game with a story while others are watching, they participate with the games creators in directing the cinematics of the game.  Recently I played Assassin's Creed 2 while my husband and a friend watched.  Our side comments added what we thought different characters was thinking or would say, something that's not usually possible in a movie without interrupting the flow of the movie.  The same holds true for other types of cinematic games.  Because a video game goes at a slower pace, it lends itself to this kind of commentary. 
"I find this is the best place to check out the local women"

LittleBigPlanet is one of the few games that allows this kind of dramatic improvisation in-character, even when players are not in the same room.  Because players can control their avatar's costume, hand movements, and facial expressions, players can add another dimension of drama and humor as they play the game.  Players might cast themselves as the aloof ninja, fearless cute slayer, or gallant rescuer as they traverse the games platforming levels, telling their own story through how their avatar reactions emotionally, waits for (or taunts) other players, etc.

How do you think video games relate to theatre and other performance arts?  What are some ways video games could make better use of these possibilities?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Misleading Title of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

I just finished reading Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. It reads a bit like a series of extended and thoughtful blogposts on how games affect Bissell personally and how they can be better narratively. Even though his taste in games is almost the opposite of mine (every time I try to like a FPS, I fail), I found his discussion thought-provoking and insightful. I completely agree that video games should pay more attention to their writers and make conversations less barf-worthy. 

My main observation of this book is that the title leads readers to believe the book will be an organized treatise backed by scientific studies about video games (a book I would like to read), when it is rather a series of personal narratives about how video games are a personally meaningful art form that has the potential to be more awesome. Its best audience might be people who already love video games, not those who need convincing (those who need convincing should just go play a game, in my opinion). I especially enjoyed the little sneak-peaks into studios he described, such as how BioWare has a reference library complete with The Celtic Book of the Dead and an idiot's guide to world religion (for lore). Last I heard Bissell was working on a video game script (as in, dialogue trees), and I'm eager to see what he comes up with.

I'm becoming increasingly aware of the strange ghettoization of gamers. It comes up briefly in the book: "More than any form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them." At a women's group activity at my church, we played a game where we would say something about ourselves and other women who had that thing in common would raise their hands. I made some clarifying point that then, we should choose facts about ourselves that aren't too unique, and an acquaintance commented jokingly that I should "leave Mario out of it." Most of the other women in my neighborhood see my gaming as a guilty pleasure, which seems odd given that, supposedly, some 40% of women play video games of one kind or another. I think it might have to be something you grow up with, like sports or playing a musical instrument, but nerdier. I don't think it should be that way, though perhaps the hardware and time commitment demand it.