Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is Marriage too Boring for Video Games?

This month's Blog of the Round Table (BoRT) is about love: can games communicate love? This means OPINION time.

The games that try to communicate deep romantic love are piddling at best, because they are based on a fantasy. The closest thing to a real relationship in a video game is a dating sim where your character builds up a gradual relationship over time and they have conversations and help each other with problems. I still haven't finished Dragon Age but I can believe that it includes these aspects of a romantic relationship. Even in these games, it seems like every conversation option makes or brakes the relationship (or gets you favor points).

In real life, romantic relationships contain more instances of mundane activities and conversations, like what to have for dinner or what kind of car insurance to get. Obviously, in a fantasy world, players don't have to worry about these things. The most mundane part of the relationship, in a video game, might be travelling together, or buying something for the sake of the relationship (self-improvement objects or gifts). In video games with conversation options, the player has time to contemplate them--nothing is said in the heat of the moment, and I don't think I've ever seen a game where a character's crankiness changes based on hunger or tiredness.
Maybe it's more accurate to say that initial dating relationships can be simulated fairly well, but games have yet to simulate a believable long-term or married relationship (Skyrim marriages don't count). I'm not sure why there isn't more marriage in games; marriage is a fantasy for a lot of people. I think a simulation game (not just for a relationship, but with a job or something too) with various scheduled activities and stats ("relationship health meter") could be really fun. Do you know a game that simulates a romantic relationship in a way that's satisfying? Would a marriage sim be too boring? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dear Esther's setting matches its emotional push

The most memorable part of Dear Esther is its setting: an island off the coast of the UK containing a cave and some abandoned buildings. Walking through it felt a little like watching LOST--hope for some awesome, supernatural explanation, and disappointment with an ending that brought up more questions than it answered. And like LOST, the setting is a mysterious island often described in metaphorical terms. 

In my Western-American literature class, we often discussed the importance of the western setting. Wide open plains and awe-inspiring mountains evoke a fear and respect for nature, and feelings of freedom but also oppression (it's contradictory. It's literature). The island and cave had a different significance. The narrator explored his own feelings about being on the island and towards Esther, and such introspection seems even more fitting inside the earth. Climbing up the island and the final descent accompanied the rising realizations and letting go. The focal point of this game at every moment is the place, places which evoke memories and hasten death. 

At the same time, it's not just an island. It's hyperreal; it is more beautiful than real nature. And, like the setting, the story is better in my imagination than it is in the script. When I actually looked at the script, the story lost its mystery. It became an impressionistic, surreal kind of rambling, whose allusions shed little light on the actual events leading up to the narrator's arrival on the island. But at the same time, the experience of the game/hypertext was highly evocative of loneliness, loss, and confusion. The island is not a place in the physical world, it is a digital medium to evoke the bittersweetness of cold beauty that is completely unsentient, matched by memories of a loved and dead person. In this way, I believe Dear Esther succeeds in connecting its setting to its story. 

And, this is completely changing the subject, but if you're curious about how to classify games in the literary scheme of thigns, Aarseth has an interesting system:
Aarseth's ergodic literature chart, which you can read more about here
Some people have noticed that Dear Esther isn't really a game, or what game there is is purely evocative. The above chart comes from Aarseth's book Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. A branching path (even if it's not branching for very long) qualifies as explorative; if the text's appearance is in part chosen or created by the user, it is configurative, and permanent user additions make it textonic. 

The interesting thing to me is that, because of its randomized sections, Dear Esther is a configurative cybertext--less pre-determined than other games like Portal. The difference is that with Dear Esther, there is no puzzle or non-story part besides walking. Also, I don't really think the randomization of text improves my experience with Dear Esther. It seems like a gimmick to make me re-visit the game, which I will probably do anyway next time I miss seeing the ocean.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What visual novels should learn from sequential art

Recently I've played a few visual novels, or games with visual novel elements (999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Katawa Shoujo, Re Alistair++, and Trace Memory). I understand the focus on story and having lots of text is from the visual novel tradition. I just don't understand why it isn't better.

I think visual novels qualify as sequential art, and should start acting like it. Here's some things visual novels need to work on (I had ambitious visions of side-by-side manga and visual novel screenshots, but please do some imagining in your head):

-Visual and textual information should be complimentary, not redundant. 999 drove me crazy when a character would appear on-screen looking surprised, and the text itself would tell me this character was speaking and felt surprised. We're familiar with the convention that the person on screen is talking, or if there are multiple people on screen that their speech bubbles have their name on them. Even picture books can get this right--little tidbits of additional information should be contained in the accompanying illustrations.
can we please just show all the refinement and dignity in the artwork?
-Replace redundant visual information with relevant. Most visual novels are pretty good with showing people in a flashback. But how about more closeups of salient details (people were always eating in Katawa Shoujo and I almost never got to see the food)? I also like seeing what character I'm playing and how they react to conversations (Touch Detective uses the entire top screen for this, and it is darling). I like it when my character has his own ideas about choices I make, though granted many visual novels have limited options. I don't like seeing the same artwork over and over.
maybe a whole screen is a little much to dedicate to your character's reactions... but it's soo cute!
-Pace text faster than a novel. I know it's called a visual novel, but if I'm going to the trouble of reading on a bright screen, I want a polished, fast-moving story. Conversations and plot/action should alternate--my least favorite comic books are the ones with talking heads (and sometimes just one head, for those inner monologues that seem to be endless). Trace Memory did an excellent job of steadily revealing more and more information about the game's mysteries and alternating with action--a puzzle, or discovery of a person or secret passage (the best part was when a puzzle revealed something about the plot). If you don't read manga, think of Calvin & Hobbes--even if the entire comic strip is just a dialogue, at least they're sledding down a gigantic hill.

-Use animations resourcefully. If we classify animation as many static images linked together, it can still technically qualify as sequential art, and I think that qualification makes sense in the context of visual novels, which sometimes include small animations like head nods and toe-tapping. Animations in a character, when reused in the same contexts, make mannerisms. Mannerisms can be part of an interesting and dynamic character.

I know that many of my complaints are because of budget/time constraints on visual novels. But not all of them are! I like the idea of the visual novel and I think it is a genre that is a little neglected. It's possible that I should give up on visual novels and concentrate on finding a really good simulation game--do we have a modern Princess Maker 2, and is it something other than The Sims? I like my simulation games to have some story to them (edit: maybe Cherry Tree High Comedy has what I'm looking for? I'm stoked!)!

Let me know in the comments if you agree that visual novels need to reformed, or if I'm completely misunderstanding the genre! I love having conversations about this kind of stuff.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Academic Interlude: Attributes of Older Gamers

This time in Academic Interludes I'm summarizing and discussing "Never too old to play: The appeal of digital games to an older audience" by Bob De Schutter. It is available online here and I've uploaded the PDF here.

Interesting background: ESA estimated that about 24% of North America's digital game audience is over 50. We don't know much about this elderly game population (but I can tell you my dad is part of it, though I don't think of him as "elderly"). The article discussed "uses and gratifications theory," a theory that argues that we consciously choose what media to consume.

One study the article cited found that preadolescents prefer games that give them social and physical powers they don't have in real life, adolescents preferred games they could use to interact with their peers, and young adults "are troubled by the social unacceptability of the games among their peers and therefore revert to the less social motives" (I'd be interested to know what those motives are--fantasy?). The authors of the article continued to discuss motives, and generalized that females wanted games that appealed to their desires for inclusion, affection, and control (like The Sims?). They hypothesized that older gamers would have these same needs, would feel that video games weren't "socially accepted", and prefer technologically uncomplicated games. Basically, they predicted that elderly gamers would be more likely to fit the "casual" gamer stereotype and play simple browser-based kind of games.

Not actually a game, but a folk dance.
The Survey: The researchers surveyed Flemish residents over 45 who self-identified as gamers. The survey was online. They found that 80% were casual gamers who played puzzle games and games based on board/card games (specifically, Tetris, Spider Solitaire, and Zuma [Zuma came out of nowhere for me]. Oh and "Mahjong games" were most popular of all). Most participants played games on the PC or cell phone. The older people who played "hardcore" games (ones you have to download with a larger file size) were more likely to be male and in the younger set. They found that female casual players played more hours per week than male casual players. Respondents played for the challenge, excitement, and diversion of video games--not really for fantasy or interacting with others. Challenge was a bigger motive for females to play than for males, which the researchers weren't sure how to explain. Hardcore (yes, they used that term) players were more likely to play for fantasy and arousal motives (arousal as in excitement).

My discussion: As the researchers note, there are big limitations to their survey. I know at least two older people prefer the DS, but I wonder if DS players a less likely to web surf than older PC players (I suspect yes). I love playing on my DS, if someone randomly comes by I can just close it and I don't have to look like a huge nerd, but if I'm playing my PS3 suddenly being a gamer has to be like part of my self-identity (not that that's a bad thing, it's just how I feel about it).

I was initially surprised to find that hardly any of the players played for social interaction, but I often play by myself in games that have online modes--it's easier to play by myself, I can quit whenever I want, and no one will laugh at me when I mess up. However, I rarely regret playing with others, and I wonder if games had a better online matchup system if social gaming would be more popular with the 50+ group. We all have heard about the adolescent cursing and penis jokes of online spaces, and I think that scares a lot of people off, even if it's rarer in some spaces. I don't think I've been offended by any Little Big Planet level!

What would a video game aimed at an elderly population look like? I know older people are under-represented in games, but does it really matter if you're playing a puzzle game? Perhaps more games based on already-familiar games? It's hard for me to feel creative about it, since it feels like design-wise, puzzle games are pretty simple, but I know that coming up with a new puzzle game (that is easy to pick up but difficult to master) is actually difficult. Thoughts?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Anecdotal evidence for short-term cognitive effects of video games

This is the second part of my discussion of how video games affect how we see things, but I'm not sure if it's in line with the BoRT theme--instead of discussing how video games allow us to have virtual experiences we wouldn't otherwise have had, I want to discuss how video games can alter how we see the physical world.

Anyone who has played a Katamari game for several hours knows this feeling: you're on a walk outside and you imagine rolling up those fence posts and scooters, moving on to cars and dirt clods. You can kind of feel in your head how the fence posts would pop out of the ground and make the Katamari a little unbalanced.

Sim City does a similar thing: after a few hours of play, fans of the game start "seeing" the water pipes and flow of their own city's urban planning (the one they physically live in). Stealth games make me see dark alleys and twisty passages in an entirely different light. Games with diverse characters that show the personal side of the character along with their public persona helps me see other people as more complex individuals instead of the simplistic reductions I remember them as.

Have you noticed this in your own video game play? Even after playing Minecraft for a few hours I keep thinking I need to line my staircase with torches. :-)