Since I’m doing this anyway, I’ll report any responses I make on PBS Game/Show episodes. Here’s my latest on their video on game reviews:
Great stuff, Jamin. I really did like your passionate yelling, though. It kind of became the feel for the show. I’d yell because I’m passionate about this stuff too. If you ever get back to yelling, you have my support!
I think you’re right on many levels with reviews, that its methodology is broken, but also that they are still important on a few levels. Here are some ways I think can improve the process:
1) Since games are experiences, why not have multiple reviewers take a stab at reviewing the game? Journalists become a trusted voice, a personality with their own likes and dislikes. Bob, Jane, and John all review the same game and share their thoughts. Bob likes RPGs, Jane hates RTS, and John loves casual. How will each person react to the game they were just assigned to review. In a sense, it is sort of like user reviews… but this time you build a relationship with each journalist and understand their thought process. I like to review restaurants on Yelp a lot (and get Elite perks) but I always start off with what I tend to look for and the expectations I have before writing. E.g. I will always bash NYC restaurants for trying to cram way too many tables in a way too small of a space. A restaurant that has ample room to walk around and no butts in my face immediately gets more stars.
2) While games are experiences, those experiences are created from a static system. Reviews could go the academic route and try to examine the systems themselves. As a game designer, I do this on my own blog and try to reverse engineer the experiences I have and see what caused them. This kind of writing seems to be much more objective. The system is then compared to the current trends and historic systems. It’s a much harder review to write since you’ll need to be extremely knowledgeable in many game development related fields from programming, design, to art.
On a closing note, I really need to call out MetaCritic for being terrible. Their review system is completely opaque (the non-user side). Some sites are arbitrarily weighted higher than others. They even accept reviews during beta. And as you said Jamin, at what stage of the game should a review be done? However, MetaCritic’s user reviews seems pretty honest. Although the x/100 rating is fairly arbitrary still. Like/Dislike ratio seems to make a lot more sense.
So Irrational Games is essentially shutting down. It’s finally time to say goodbye to the Bioshock franchise. The franchise heralded a new way to design first person shooters and taught us how to take advantage of next gen hardware like no other series. With the creative mind of Ken Levine behind the helm, the series accomplished a fair amount. Levine is now moving forward and leaving Irrational behind him. He and about 15 employees will continue on in a new adventure (still backed by Take Two) that he claims will be more entrepreneurial. What does this mean?
Even a few months ago, Levine stated that he wanted to work on narrative games that were highly replayable and that’s exactly what he’s doing with his significantly smaller team. We all know that mainstream games these days, especially narrative ones, have highly limited replay value. Sure, you can try romancing different characters in Mass Effect or join the opposite faction in Skyrim but I’d a argue that at these points replay is for the completionist—the systems that these narrative games have are ultimately predictable and don’t provide significantly new experiences for players. While the system is too big for you to have explore it all in one go, you kind of get an idea what would happen if you were to go down other branches even if you didn’t decide to pick up the controller again. Things are oftentimes too black and white, which is the reality of making these kinds of branching games since the labor involved is always so great. I think true replay only exists in the, mostly online, competitive space, or with a pure mechanic focused games (rogues may fall into this area). When you play another round of Counter Strike or League of Legends, it’s not about discovering uncharted areas of the system but instead about mastering the system. A system that has built a good kind of mastery is being able to express yourself in infinite ways through its mechanics. Playing Dragon Age: Origins multiple times to romance different characters, to me, is not replay—although choosing different classes and origins did a good job at shuffling the order of the story arcs, so that kind of thing is a good start. The good kind of mastery from DA:O might be its combat mechanics. Again, infinitely expressing yourself. Minecraft rings a similar bell.
One of the biggest gripes for Levine is that he’d spend several years crafting this perfect experience for a player and after 12 hours the player would be done with that experience. That’s pretty soul crushing. Thing is, almost every other medium suffers the same exact problem. You watch the film, you read the book, you do it once and you can’t do it again for a long time otherwise it feels stale—no mastery, no infinite expression. Sometimes revisiting the same story when you’re older allows you to understand it differently, but these kinds of narrative games are so young and the technology so outdated that it’s hard for us to reach. Games are the first medium to make narratives infinitely consumable and this is just the beginning. Wait, let me rephrase. Games are the first medium to allow its audience to express themselves. Now it’s a matter of finding out how we can allow them to do it continually with a narrative context. We’re still grasping to see how to produce these kinds of things. AAA has always known what their strengths were and it’s in the labor. Just the amount of people to make something look great, to even create a Bioshock experience, is unfathomable. Teams of hundreds of people. Millions of dollars. But it seems like they’ve been throwing their cash to fight an uphill battle now that the indies have begun take chunks of the industry as their own.
Levine is moving towards this indie model with a dramatically smaller team. Entrepreneurial, he says. Come on! Be straight with us, Ken. You meant to say ‘indie’. Thing is, he’s probably still got the cash since Irrational is still going to be backed by Take Two. Major plus. But with smaller team means being able to move quickly and spend more time refining and iterating on systems. It’s the kind of systems like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, where enemies remember what you do to them and therefore react differently, that get me excited. I said in a previous post that that kind of system was possible due to AAA labor and cash, so what will this kind of game look like on an indie scale? It could very well be the same kind of game with simpler graphics and tightened gameplay experience.
In fact, I’d argue that Levine’s new Irrational will succeed in this because it’s the tight and fast gameplay experiences of these competitive games that makes them so attractive to play over and over again. Again, the faster and more varied the feedback loops can be the greater degree and more opportunities for the user to express him or herself. If you win, you play again to win by a slightly different strategy—a different expression. If you lose, you’ll play again so you can successfully express yourself. So in a narrative game you’d play to learn something different? Play to tell a different story? This is sounding like playing Wiki-roulette or a good ol’ fashioned game of Dungeons & Dragons (or Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death). Those are exceedingly complex systems. This is good, though. Someone who gained their wings in the trenches of AAA, with the suits throwing cash at you, doing something insane like this is the best thing for the games industry. Any designer that’s on their 3rd sequel needs to quit their jobs and start an indie studio with their core team to do something new and tackle questions like these. God, I hate sequels so much.
Let’s talk about those people who won’t be a part of Irrational’s second chapter. It’s terrible that they lost their jobs and it’ll hurt the Boston games scene for a little bit but there’s a silver lining here. Another studio in Boston opened their doors to those laid off and provided free office space to allow fellow developers get back on their feet while finding other jobs or starting their own indie studios. Not only do we get Levine freed from his seawater rusted shackles but now we potentially get a swath of other small ventures sprouting too. Think about the the kind of innovation that can happen with that. In the next few years, Boston might explode with incredible indie talent.
So, what is the cost of innovation? It can cost a lot. It can cost you a lot of broken hearts, broken dreams, sweat, tears, and wads of AAA cash shoved down your pockets but it’s AAA’s belief that these risks are worthy of pursuing to allow Irrational to do what it did that’s exciting. The cost of innovation is great, but it’s very much worth it.
I am truly excited to hear more about what Levine is doing. If it’s anyone, it’s probably him that will be able to take us into the next era of narrative experiences.
Another one of Jason Rohrer’s mind-blasting games, Castle Doctrine, was recently released. I love what Rohrer does. Oftentimes, he’s credited with being the person who took games and put them in the limelight as far as “games as art” goes with his most famous title, Passage. All of his games are very meta. Everything about them subverts our normal understanding of what a video game is. Save the princess? Nope, she just dies. Experience a story? No, tell one yourself. Exposing the nefarious trade of blood diamonds on the Nintendo DS? Yes, please. Make a game that’ll be playable in thousands of years… to aliens! Yup, he did that too. Jason Rohrer is a nutjob in all the good ways.
There’s a saying that no one will recognize you as an artist, your talents, or know who the hell you are until you’re dead. This clearly isn’t true because plenty of people know who Jason Rohrer is. There’s another saying where artists will always be poor. Now this is the biggest question as far as creating something that is marketable to the mainstream while still trying to support yourself. Of course, this can be done. Heck, Rohrer has a family to support (albeit they live in some crazy self-sustaining tall grass growing hippy property, it’s nuts).
I was checking out Castle Doctrine on Steam when I came across a really hilarious review that prompted the idea for this post. But first, let me explain to you what this game is about.
Patents and trademarks can be a very good thing because they can protect innovation. We can’t patent game designs just yet (although I’m told you can definitely patent processes) so developers are always potentially going to fight off clones like poor Vlambeer. On the other hand, I’m glad you can’t patent game mechanics otherwise you’ll get stupid shit like King.com’s troll crusade on Banner Saga for the usage of the word ‘saga’. All I have to say to King.com is just a diarrhea spew of expletives. The same thing happened when Bethesda’s parent company, Zenimax, sued Mojang for his new game ‘Scrolls’ because you know Elder Scrolls.
These are all trademark issues and protecting a brand. I guess ridiculous stuff happens here all the time. OMG you’re using the word ‘zombie’! SUE YOUR ASS. Okay, I’ll concede that if I use the word ‘coke’ in my product’s name I”ll get in deep trouble, but ultimately that’s just the wrong thing to do. I’m being stupid by thinking I can use ‘coke’ and that’s okay. But just innocuous words like ‘saga’ and ‘scrolls’? WTF.
I call this quick post “Never Lose Touch” because I ultimately think that most people will find all these lawsuits stupid. I bet most the people at Bethesda thought suing Mojang would be the wrong thing to do. As an indie developer, the dream is to get larger and have multiple teams working on multiple projects. As the company gets larger, lots of things can go unnoticed. You’ll suddenly have a marketing arm and a law leg. Who knows what the leg is doing! This is why you can’t ever lose touch with what’s going on in every aspect of your company, especially if you started small. This is just one of the advantages indie developers have over larger studios. Everything gets noticed.
Don’t lose sight of what’s right. Don’t let the wrong slip out.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has been on my list of games to play for quite some time. When I heard about it I was really excited because of its potentially rewarding control scheme but quickly leapt off a building because it was only going to be released on the XBox 360. I quickly forgot about it. I tried to ignore all the rave reviews. I was doing a pretty good job at it, too.
Then I exploded when I saw that it was going to get a Steam release.
I finally finished it recently and all I can say is that I wish more games were like this. The team at Starbreeze Studios and Josef Fares took all the right risks but constrained themselves in several ways to create a very streamlined, polished, and emotionally powerful video game. You really don’t get to see this type of work in the mainstream and it’s frustratingly unfortunate. Why is that?
The short answer is because us game makers are too scared to admit that we don’t know what we’re doing in game land and just trying to do what people seemed to like (sold well).
We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic.
The long answer is more complicated… a lot of it has to do with business and another big chunk of it is that games are still very young. Being young is fine and it’s not to say that we don’t have our fair share of hotshots and pros but we’re all still groping within our own little worlds. We’re still trying to explore what it is to be an interactive experience, what it is to be a game. However, there are elements that have been infused into games because games end up being transmedia experiences. We’re also focusing on the wrong things. In other words, next-gen tech is never going to save us. Ultimately, a game is just a set of rules that the player abides by, a safe space where the player can explore a given system, so we can all forget pushing graphics any further. We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic. Chess is a simple game but its pieces take on the meaning, and even shape, of real world things like kings, queens, and knights. These things can look like random bits and pieces but the game would still be fun. So do we really need dynamic sub-surface scattering to be fun or impactful? These technologies can surely add to an experience but the power of the mind—suspension of disbelief—is still the ultimate tool. It’s funny to think that the Queen has complete movement and is a very powerful unity while the King can hardly move and is the most important. What were the designers trying to say?
We add additional meaning to games because sterile rules are like hard edges and we want that sleekness of Apple products. Too much focus on graphic fidelity is just a marketing and money earning machine. They don’t want you to know that good games don’t need next-gen. In fact, your dad’s-gen is fine. Caveman is fine. Chess is fine. We add story and meaning so the thing is easily consumed and experienced. Thing is, we’re terrible at doing this. The state of games is that there are many extremes. The mainstream is focused on pleasing the little sociopaths that resides in each of our soul’s with mind-numbing first person shooters (yes, I’m totally guilty here too) with so much realism that it’ll blow your eyeballs out but it’s these games that really help the bottom line. On the other side, we have a lot of ‘casual’ games that appeal to a wide variety of audiences but at the same time to don’t offer the depth or gravity that some hardcore games have been known for. The fact is that being casual has also helped the bottom line tremendously because they’ve taken advantage of people who aren’t accustomed to gaming tricks and snatch their coins like a slot machine in a Vegas airport. In between the two polar opposites is a weird space where there’s a lot of noise. You can get a lot of nonsensical stuff as people try to experiment or attempt to become appstore superstars but every now and then, probably as people get tired of the monotony from their jobs at the poles and backup to the middle-ground, you get really interesting things.
In this gray space, you get people who do weird things. Essentially, you get people who take risks. In many cases, these people come at games from the outside and bring with them a fresh perspective. A famous European director, Josef Fares, decided to make a game and somehow managed to find someone to fund his team. From the very start, Fares brings some very interesting things to the game development table:
A unique upbringing (from war torn Lebanon)
A master of his original craft, film and storytelling
Willingness to take risks: unusual control scheme that was probably there from the beginning
Most importantly, though, Fares came with an open mind because he was new to game development and probably didn’t have a good grasp of what language—the verbs we have in game design, the tropes that exist in most games—he had at his disposal. Instead, he was familiar in a different language and adapted from there. That translation was magnificent. There are things that are done in well known mediums that still aren’t being done in games because us game developers don’t spend enough time talking to outside people and trying to convince them to help us (God, help us, please!) or we alienate those outside (because we all know that popular games teach kids to kill each other).
Some may say that the strategies involved to create some of the most riveting moments in games this year were set-ups or even disingenuous. The two links in the previous sentence are both to the same article but what’s really interesting are the comments in both. Many agree that the tactic of putting you through panic (like a roller coaster or rickety bridge) in order to heighten your arousal (not just sexual, mind you!) and manage your perception about a person or situation isn’t good. Wait. Why does this mean a game is overrated or lying to you? Truth of the matter is that stories have been doing this for so long. It is a set-up! But it’s not trying to lie, trick, or steal your money. These kinds of strategies are there to provoke a particular emotional reaction. This is the art of storytelling. It’s about the pacing, empathizing with characters, pulling the rug from underneath you. What can cheapen it is how heavy handed the direction is. Subtlety is the trait of a master and on many occasions Brothers was a masterpiece. It becomes more relevant in the games because it is an interactive—active and not passive experience that may make this feel like we’re being cheated but that’s okay! Reading a book or watching a movie is a suspension of disbelief and so is games. Hell, we even made up a new name for that called the magic circle. Suspend your disbelief, step into the circle, do whatever you need to do to relax and know that you are on a journey. Yes, a game allows you control but you are interacting within the designer’s system the same way you are reading the author’s words and looking at the director’s uhh… moving pictures. In all these mediums we are going through a curated experience, a story is being told to us whether.
The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.
What’s really amazing is that the masterful storytelling, the subtlety and the use of delicate strokes, was evident in the game mechanics as Brothers progressed. Each consecutive challenge that the two brothers encountered built upon their relationship as well as exhibited growth in each character. This is not the do X to get cutscene reward. That kind of division between game and narrative is the antithesis of collaboration. There are some cutscenes in Brothers to set the story up but it’s interesting to note that there is no understandable dialogue in the game. The people in Fares’s world speak a different language. Much of our understanding is based on our basic knowledge of human interaction, gesticulation, and intonation in the voice acting. It’s incredibly refreshing to see and even more impressive to see how language barrier really doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t really work in a film and obviously not in a book. Because we rely on the characters’ physical movements and guttural sounds to derive meaning, the unique interaction that games afford bridges that communication barrier in a profound way. Each brother can perform some kind of physical action based on context and each time they must interact with each other in a cooperative manner. The older brother helps the younger by hoisting him up to high places, the younger helps in return by dropping a rope down. Holding down the trigger button to perform these actions and the dual thumb stick navigation becomes the words between the two brothers. The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.
As mentioned, another strength of the game was that it didn’t try to tell too much in its story. It’s simple and can be universally understood. It’s so simple that I believe it crosses all cultural barriers, too. Fares was brought up in wartime Lebanon and left for Sweden the moment his family was able to in order to escape the violence. It’s these personal experiences that can truly make a work connect with a large audience because it speaks to the essence of humanity. But it’s also the auteurship and the willingness to take risks (of telling such a personal story or using a new way to tell them) that enables a work to transcend its peers. This is why Telltale’s The Walking Dead does so well. Season One focused on the player’s paternal/maternal instincts in taking care of a child who becomes the symbol of survival, hope, and innocence despite the protagonist’s own sullied and violent past—a representation of the present and the past. Yes, the game took advantage of heightening your emotions creating tense moments and seemingly difficult decisions but Telltale did with great success. Brothers and TWD both look towards the future by constantly creeping out of despair and tragedy by honing in on very basic human concepts. The focus in both these games is like a small nugget of gold hidden in a sieve full of dirt and muck, but as you progress through the game that nugget is polished by the stream’s cold running water and the dirt and chunks of sand are washed away. By the end, you’re rich. Rich with meaning and catharsis.
A lot of games have too much muck sticking around.
More often than not, we game makers are insulated from the outside world and even when we do ask outsiders to join us the outsiders, too, begin to lose touch with what’s beyond the bubble. I suffer from this a lot myself. Coming from a creative writing background then learning how to make games from an artist’s perspective to be bogged down by the realities of game development and being a business disheartens me at times. It’s hard. Experts from the outside and even specialized experts (like a game writer) on the inside must try their best to keep their minds open. A willingness to collaborate is key but so is the drive to convince others to take risks. Who cares if you bring in your novelist friend when neither party says that a novel’s format is no good for a game. It’s no good when you take that novel form and do something crazy and interesting with it but back down when the higher ups say ‘no’.
To learn, in the most general sense, is always to keep an open mind. In our case as master game developers, master film directors, master writers, master whatevers, we are learning and must learn from each other. As a developer, when I invite a writer on board I have listen to what they have to say bu at the same time they must be listening to me too! A true collaboration doesn’t happen when one side dominates the other. Everyone needs to be taking a risk to make something new. Like a good marriage, good collaboration is about learning to give and take—compromise. As developers, we’ve only just begun to open the dialogue to outside experts to come help us. However, there is still a lot that can be done to make it more welcoming and to have these masters want to come work with us. The only way is to start reaching out to them not by business card but by allowing the work speak for itself. Popular media already has a certain perception about our industry and our wares but the tides are slowly beginning to change with the Brothers, Walking Deads, Kentucky Route Zeroes, Gone Homes, and Journeys coming out. If we don’t strive to keep the momentum up by creating these interesting games (or almost games), the tide will die and we’ll never reach shore to save ourselves from being forever locked up and forgotten in Rapture.
In a previous post, I mused about how cultural differences could influence narrative and game mechanics. I mean, they obviously can and do influence a lot of different things. Another example popped up with the upcoming release of Bravely Default‘s North American release.
The above image depicts the costumes in the original Japanese release on the right and the NA counterparts on the left. The most gratuitous is the top-left—I think that costume change is pretty reasonable. Seriously, who the hell goes out and fights in their underwear? Come on, guys. The BDSM outfit, borderline for me although I do like the covered up one more… it’s doesn’t bash me over the head as much.
The year is closing so I’d like to take a step back and look at some of my own writings more closely. In particular, I’d like to look at my response to Spec Ops: The Line.
What I wrote earlier this year about The Line was very angry, but it was truthful. I felt betrayed at what was being held as an example of what great games could be and how the barrier to more meaningful games were being broken. Maybe The Line did indeed do some of that. However, to me, even now, it didn’t do enough.
I slowly came to the realization that the main problem is that the main audience that consumes games are oftentimes children. Not to say that gamers are young but the mindsets of gamers are young—gamers act like children. This is a very broad statement here and it doesn’t mean that all gamers suffer from this generalization. However, it accurately describes how corporate marketing sees their audience and how this group of people may react to things happening in games and in the business of games.
In fact, I’d go as far as to call the entire medium of games and game making child-like when compared to more seasoned mediums like books or film. We have so much more to understand about what games can be and how to use them to convey completely unique messages that no other medium could. At the same time, games and game designers face a difficult obstacle to overcome in that the player has agency. The player has the ability to control, to some degree, how they interact with the world that designers create.
There are opposing forces at work in the traditional game industry. The business side wants to sell a product to as many people as possible. However, it’s up the designers to hold the golden standard of what games are and should be. It’s a constant war between the cold coin of finance and the creative endeavors of auteurs. There has been some success with independent development that breaks away from the traditional publisher-developer relationship but it sacrifices a great deal at the same time. Reach and influence is drastically reduced.
The audience consuming games have not grown greatly because the products that are sold to them are still catering to a child-like mentality. The overt sexism, hyper violence, the list can go on. It’s what sells because it’s been selling for so long. The only way to solve this is to produce games that elevate above the muck. Spec Ops: The Line tried to elevate and did so respectfully but at the same time lost the fight, probably, against their publisher’s marketing arm.
The Heart of Darkness is classic high school literature. If not, it should be. Maybe I place high expectations on those around me because I place the same on myself. How hard do we have to fight to rise up above all else? What can a designer do against the pressures of financial stability? What can an independent developer do to be seen as not just an indie title?
I don’t think games and gamers have found the secret to eternal youth. Growth and maturity will inevitably happen along with society as a whole. Games, and what sells, is but a reflection of our own society and its never-ending cycle of over-advertised products for our consumptive desires.
Every opportunity we have as developers and designers, we should try to improve and do right in some way. As an indie developer, I think we’ve made strides in combating toxic behavior with strict social policies and also created an image that you can actually talk to developers by being open and accessible to the community. Was there more we could do? Of course. Would it have been feasible? Maybe not. In light of bringing my game to consoles, that means greater visibility, reach, and influence. As a developer and designer, I have the duty to ensure that my product is raising the stakes and helping the audience and industry grow.
Everyone should ask themselves those questions: what are they doing to grow the audience and industry, and if they fully took advantage of the resources at their disposal.
I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, but I wonder how much the developers behind The Line really fought publishers, if they did, or how much was their original intention. Was there more on the cutting room floor? Or did this game simply have have shoes too big to fill? It seemed to me that there was a lot of opportunity that was missed and instead stayed too conservative.
Are there any other games out there you felt betrayed by? Felt that they could have done more? Thought that it was held back by an external force?
Everyone is complaining that Sony’s PS4 reveal earlier this week was stupid because they didn’t show the console. Instead they focused a lot on the new games and the DualShock 4 controller. Maybe a few loose specs were thrown around for good measure. I think a lot of people are missing the point here because the console and home computer are reaching a converging point.