Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mass Effect: Future of PC Games

My brother, Lance, is a fan of the Mass Effect series, so he's doing some guest posting for me (also, I'm struggling a tiny bit to say something interesting about the games I've been playing, so his timing is perfect). This first post is a reminder about what makes the Mass Effect games awesome, which is sometimes easy to lose sight of. His post:

Now that Mass Effect 3 has finally come out and the outrage over its ending has subsided a little, this is an excellent time to reflect on what a great game series it has been and why. While Mass Effect has many elements of gameplay that attract a wide and varied audience, I believe the greatest strength of the Mass Effect series is that it captures the epic feel and prepared script of a movie while still giving the player a relatively wide range of narrative power and control over the events in the series.

I have been a fan of the series since I played the first game, and what really grabbed me about it is the story-centered nature of it and the narrative power it gives to the player. Shepard shoots aliens, there's no way around that, but you get to decide when, where, and how he does so. You get to decide what he looks like, who he's attracted to, and whether or not he's actually a she. This level of narrative power is not completely unprecedented, but it is rare in visual media. What's even more rare is that Shepard's lines are fully voice-acted, despite the fact that you get to choose what he says. You get to decide whether certain characters in the game live or die, even including some of your own team members.
Commander Shepard (center) prepares to enter Dantius Towers with Grunt (right) and some incredibly boring human male soldier (left).
One of the big strengths of this series is that we all ended up caring about most of these characters. All right, so I didn't think much about Kaidan Alenko from the first game or Jacob from the second. But then I got to chat with Tali and Wrex, hear Mordin sing, spar with James, and flirt like Captain Kirk. I cared about a lot of these characters, and I was emotionally invested in their well-being... even though I didn't do anything to think them up or bring them about! This gave the player a sense of really being a part of the game, even if you're just the angel and devil on Shepard's shoulders, telling him what to do. Once you're done talking to your crew members, you get to explore the world around you and the game even awards you with experience points and credits for doing so.
Even if he doesn't say so in game, the mercenary on the right definitely thanks you for playing Paragon.
Mass Effect crafted a detailed, unique, and interesting game world. Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Mass Effect includes many pages of details on the planets in its galaxy, the creatures that live in it, and the technologies that have been discovered by its peoples. While some of the races and creatures strain believability and other seem to lack depth, they are consistent much more often than not, and I forsee the Mass Effect universe will have plenty of spin-off merchandise. When you enter, you feel that there is still much more to see in this universe than has yet been seen, and that Shepard's journeys are but the tip of the iceberg. And when you feel you've reached the limit of your desire to explore, there's plenty of alien bad guys to blow up in creative ways.

There are lots of games in which you get to shoot monstrous creatures or save the world. Plenty in which you save humanity, the galaxy, or even the multiverse. None of that is new or particularly innovative. Some of these have rich and well thought-out worlds in which to play, although many don't. Some of these have reasonably well-written dialogue, and some of them have challenging yet engaging gameplay. Very, very few games have player choices that actually alter the flow of the game, or the story events. Most of the time, the player character's actions are effectively determined ahead of time by the game's writers and the game progresses along the only path they provide (and when you don't make progress on that line, you have to load an old game). In some of these games, that's not such a bad thing, but every now and then it's good to have something different. When Bioware made Mass Effect, they were prepared to write some lines, record some dialogue, and craft some missions that you, the player, would never see. And that means you have power, if only a little.

In most games, if the developers make something, they expect you to experience it. You progress through the levels at a predetermined order, and often through a predetermined path. This isn't bad or wrong, but it takes all the power out of the hands of the player, and tells the player that his or her decisions are completely irrelevant to the game itself. A few games break out of this mold completely, and all of these (that I know of) have been recognized as great in some way or another. Star Control 2, Deus Ex, and now Mass Effect all give you the sense that you are stepping into a very real and very large world, and that your actions will have consequences, sometimes far-reaching consequences you can't predict. This was an exhilirating experience for me in all three cases, and all three of these games occupy a very special place in my heart.
This is a loading screen from Mass Effect, cleverly disguised as an elevator. Some of these loading screens would actually give you missions that showed up on your journal via the news.
Personally, I believe that this is the future of computer games, and it is how these games will identify themselves as a unique medium with very special advantages. Games like Mass Effect could be made into movies or television shows, but the experience would be completely different. I believe no medium yet discovered can possibly capture the Mass Effect experience not because of its immersiveness, its rich characters or background, or even because of its action. The reason Mass Effect cannot be perfect duplicated elsewhere is because of its interactivity and player power.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rise of Video Game Zinesters a demand for more amateur and individual expression in games

Anyone can make a video game, and it is a little harder than drawing a doodle. But amateurs should make games, because it's fun and fulfilling, and because we need more diversity in video games than the cautious, often predictable games big studios put out. These are Anna Antropy's ideas in Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form.

Anthropy's book is related to academics, but it's written in an accessible style. The chapters don't build on each other for a linear, climactic thesis, but highlight different aspects of the history and present of self-published games and mods in a collage that makes for a bigger-picture understanding. Anthropy tells her own story of dropping out of college, struggling for a while, but succeeding to make games by herself like Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars.
Her passion and self-confidence are infectious. The last section on how to make a game was filled with (what seemed to me, the currently non-programmer) excellent advice on storytelling and just getting something on screen.

I liked this book so much that it's hard for me to criticize it, but there were some things I found puzzling. None of the images had captions, though their relevance was usually intuitive. I was also annoyed by the inclusion of a certain ubiquitous Tolstoy quote. The history chapter seemed linear and obligatory, but paid special attention to the role of deep-pocketed publishers and shareware entrepreneurs. The book succeeded in heightening my awareness of how games can be so much more than men shooting things, and in inspiring me to make my own game (which I might describe as craptastic, and I'm proud of it!). If you don't read this book, at least go out and make a video game! Set aside two hours and just make something in Scratch (that's what I did)!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Designing games for 5-year-olds

Many five-year-olds can't read. They have smaller hands and attention spans. They hate dying. We know these things, but I think designing games for the kindergarten age group is more about making deathless constant action games. Children at this age are content to explore even if they aren't "winning." They play their favorite levels over and over. Because of these tendencies, I believe in some ways it's harder to design for small children and difficult to predict what they will like about video games.
about two years older than this. But still, tiny hands!
I have been babysitting a 5-year-old, whom I'll call Pepper, and he plays video games about half the time, sometimes with me. I'll use his experience to back up my suggestions for designing games for five-year-olds,  which can probably extend to 4 to 6-year-olds.

1. Have custom avatars: Kids want to pretend they are in the game, and they want to have an avatar that looks cool, preferably that they can change at will. Pepper's favorite part of Little Big Planet is selecting the "random costume" button and saving them, and decorating his pod. He was reluctant to play Kirby's Epic Yarn because Kirby is pink ("I want to be a guy" "He is a guy").

2. There doesn't have to be a big bad boss, it's good enough to just have a fantasy world to explore. Pepper's favorite LBP levels involve driving, roller-coaster riding, and pretending to swim with the sharks. The cantina in Lego Star Wars, where you can just run around attacking anyone at random, is also a favorite. I'm bored by roller coaster levels ("I'm just pressing down R1 this whole time..."), but he thinks they are fun. I think other kids are similarly motivated by fantasy in the video games they play.

3. Make it really easy. Kids this age can learn to do things more complicated than jumping, but they don't have a very high frustration tolerance. Many of the puzzles in Lego Star Wars are too hard for him to figure out without my help. Not just puzzles, but basic controls should be simple. I feel like the wii is a little nicer for this, but when you add in the nunchuck there are still lots of buttons, which might explain the popularity of ipad games with this group. Having the buttons doesn't mean you need to use them; point-and-click PC games are also really fun.

4. Potty jokes are hilarious, but it should also be exciting (but not actually dangerous)! Things like playing house, pretending to cook, eat, and sleep, come naturally to pretend play without a video game, so it feels natural in a game setting. That said, there should be something attention-catching about a game for this age group--something they already like, like monster trucks, dinosaurs, trains, roller coasters, Mario, sharks, jungles, etc. They want the feeling that the game is dangerous, but they don't want to die in the game (so, some kind of fire-y background is great).

It's easy for adult gamers to keep insisting that video games should be taken seriously and want more serious games, but I think it's also important to remember kids in video games. THEY LOVE THEM.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Portal as Postmodern Journey: My never-completed thesis

Of all the current arty things going on, video games seem to replay the journey myth the most. A young, attractive protagonist is called to save the world, descends into the demonic realm, and receives a boon after his dragon-battle. Ocarina of Time seems to follow it the closest, and even has a literal "belly of a whale" dungeon. Link ends triumphant, probably with some sort of princess (I never finished, sadly).

Not all video games are content to replay this classic scenario. In Portal, the game ends with the enemy definitely "still alive," and Chell's continued existence is ambiguous. This along with other elements mark it as a postmodern journey (want to know them all? Go ahead and read it...). 

I dropped out of my graduate school program because I realized that my professors had a completely different vision for my thesis than I did (among other reasons). Here's a link to the last draft of my thesis, which, oddly, has been stripped of most of its citations (I was to "add them back in"). It has many problems right now, and I don't really want to ever look at it again, but suffice to say that I'm painfully aware that it is incomplete. I think I wanted the ideas to be somewhere on the internet, and for my years of work to not go completely to waste.

Alongside Portal, my thesis discusses Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves as another postmodern journey. House of Leaves is both ridiculously pretentious and delightfully experimental (and has some super scary parts), and I recommend it for those interested in ergodic/interactive texts. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Hardcore gaming is focused on becoming proficient; casual gaming is playing for diversion (this study cites a few more motivations, that is, excitement, fantasy, and interacting with others. I believe proficiency/diversion is the distinguishing motivation between hardcore and casual). There is a lot of overlap between casual and hardcore gaming, but some games are only playable and fun with a hardcore mindset. 

I was thinking of blogging about how fighting over a princess and feeding her to make her harder to steal is a kind of terrible premise, but I realized that wasn't news.
When I first started playing Fat Princess, I wanted to spend time with my husband, Acius, and his family. I was vaguely interested in doing well, but I didn't understand why sometimes my team won and sometimes it didn't. Acius got sick and played a lot more of the game, and found out how it works (getting metal early on is important for upgrades like bombs and catapults). I was playing as a casual gamer and he was playing as a hardcore gamer. Since Fat Princess is a multiplayer team game, I could still have fun playing the game even if I didn't understand what was going on. However, some games aren't as forgiving.

I started playing Devil Survivor 2 because I wanted to have a recent release to write about for when I apply to write for Pop Matters (I have some ideas! It's just going to take another two days to beat it, which I realize isn't necessary to write about the game, but I want to play it safe. Also, maybe I'm too ambitious to try writing for them, but I won't know until I try!). Firstly, I realized that I actually do like JRPGS, and secondly, I couldn't progress in the game unless I started actually strategizing about what skills to put in what teams. I couldn't play the game casually; every move mattered (and grinding was ineffective!). At first I was frustrated, but soon it felt refreshing to be challenged by the game, and it made me want to know more about how the game works. If a game can only be beaten with a hardcore approach, that's what qualifies it as a hardcore game. However, it's much more effective to describe play styles as hardcore or casual, since many games can be played either way.

Super Mario Galaxy is one of those games that appeals to either style of play, though it requires some proficiency. Players don't have to collect every star to beat the game--but the option is there. Kirby's Epic Yarn has bonus levels for doing well in boss fights, but the no-dying aspect of the game is clearly aimed at younger players. In my mind, the best "casual" games can also be played with a hardcore play style. There's also something really satisfying about playing a game intended for only a hardcore play style. Also, sometimes I write chatty-style, I think I am okay with this.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Academic Interlude: Multimedia Storytelling and Language Learning

For this academic interlude, I summarize a research article about multimedia storytelling and then discuss how I'd like to see more user-generated stories in games. I'm still playing around with formatting--I want you to be able to read about the study if you want to, but if you don't, I'd like you to be able to read the discussion on its own and have it make sense.

[Study Background] "Applying a Multimedia Storytelling Website in Foreign Language Learning," by Wenli Tsou, Wichung Wang, and Yenjun Tzeng, looks at how using a storytelling website can help Taiwanese children learn English. The background section references research that found that stories effective with children include "repetitive phrases, unique words, and enticing description." These aspects of a story encourage children to retell parts of the story. Kids like hearing and telling stories, basically.

[Study Nitty-Gritty] The researchers gave two Taiwanese classes storytelling-based English teaching. One group had the teacher trying using visual aids with the story, while the other group had Storytelling Website stories instead of storybooks (it's not clear of the children each had their own computer, or if the story was projected while the teacher read it). Afterwards the children took tests on reading comprehension, sentence complexity, and general language proficiency. In evaluating comprehension, the researchers looked at beginning statement ("once upon a time"), characters, theme, plot, resolution, and sequence. If I understand correctly, the experimental group also used the website to recreate the stories they had heard. I'm not sure how old the students were or how long they got to play around with the website, which is information I would like to have.

[Study Results; My Whining] Both groups understood the stories pretty well, but the children who interacted with the website had better overall language proficiency and sentence complexity. I think it's safe to say that telling a story in a foreign language helps you to understand the language better--which is why I don't understand why we didn't make up more stories in my Japanese classes. We used Japanese the Written Languagewhich, while excellent in building off of previous vocab, had genuinely terrible practice reading sentences. I would have loved to have a story, especially one with pictures. I think I even made a few, when I wasn't writing some form letter for homework.
this guy took this screen shot, I am not awesome enough, it is from Sleep is Death
[Game Discussion] Multimedia storytelling is good for learning a language, and I think it's good for exercising imagination. I can think of a few games that encourage user-generated storytelling: the Neverwinter Nights mod-maker, Sleep is DeathLittleBigPlanet (to an extent), and whatever that mac program was that let you make your own storybooks (a cross between clipart and paint). I love the level creation in LittleBigPlanet, but... it only allows very simple stories. I would love to see a program/game that lets users tell stories in a friendly way. It could be for children, or for authors who think with images rather than just words, or for foreign language students. It could include archetypes in the character set to get things going. I think it would encourage gamers to be creative not just in their gameplay, but also in the way they use language.

[Call to Action] Should I just go play Sleep is Death and get this storytelling kick over with, or do you think there's room for more picture-book type storytelling in video games? Also tangentially: fanfiction is so easy to make, there is already a world and characters, maybe a storytelling game could capitalize on that?