Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monthly Game Club #2: The Short Works of Jason Rohrer

For our second Monthly Game Club, we'll be playing a couple of short games by Jason Rohrer, an independent developer who makes all of his games by himself and releases them all for free on the internet. First up is Passage.

What it is: A five minute indie game. I'd go into what it's about, but a lot of the fun is figuring that out for yourself. I promise that it's good.

Price: Free

Where to get it: Here

The Assignment: Play the game a few times. Try different things.

I'll be out of town next week, so you have until two weeks from now, Tuesday July 14th, to play through the game a few times and think about it. I'll post some questions for discussion then.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Death and Waiting 30 Seconds

Francis’s gone. No one ever really liked him, but he was one of us, if not the best of us. We didn’t see the tank coming until it was nearly on top of us. Francis was running rear guard; the damned thing threw him into a train before we could put up any kind of defense. Zoey and Louis were nearly a block ahead picking up supplies, by the time I’d gotten their attention Francis was a blood slick on the tracks. I’ve seen those tanks at work before, seen ‘em tear a man apart at the waist. This ain’t my first time to the rodeo, after all. But man, did that thing do a number on him. Then the witch showed up. We didn’t have them back in ’57, and sometimes when I lay awake at night – Hell, who am I kidding? Ain’t like I ever sleep anymore – I wonder what happened to make ‘em what they are. Everything else about these monsters I feel like I got some kinda handle on: they’re just mouths, I figure, mouths and stomachs and guts without much else to keep ‘em human. But those witches – what kinda thing has to happen to a deadhead to make it cry? So Zoey and Louis are running back, and I’m shouting to ‘em that Francis isn’t much more than a stain anymore and there isn’t much of anything we can do about that and for God’s sake give me some cover, and then I hear that noise, that sobbing that never fails to raise the hair on my neck. And it stops, and I know it only ever goes quiet before the damned thing attacks, and I hear Zoey scream as something knocks her off her feet. I didn’t have time to warn them to shut off their flashlights, it must’ve seen them coming a mile away. Here’s where I’m ashamed to say I started running. Call me a coward if you like, but between a tank and a witch there’s no winning. Everyone’s gotta go sometime, and it’s gotta be said that Zoey and Francis made it longer than most. I just hope Louis is smart enough to make the same call. I made it out of the train yard before I turned around. There were a few dozen of the bastards closing in on Louis from the north, plus another twenty he hasn’t seen yet pouring into the tunnel from the east. He’s doing a fair job keeping ‘em off Zoey, but she’s done for and he has to know it. I can’t help but think that – What the fuck? Ok, Francis is back, I guess. Uh, I think he got better from being, you know, turned into paste. Maybe he had a med pack? Or…pills? Can pills do that? Oh, ok, and Zoey isn’t really dead. She was…uh…hiding inside the switch operator’s office. Ok, so that’s good for her. Louis? Is he still – no, he looks pretty fucked. There are about thirty zombies around him, and they’re working on – scratch that, they are finished tearing off his arms. We’ll have to pick him up later, he might need to walk that off. Anyway, as I was saying, Francis is fine. Here’s where Left 4 Dead went from being a terrifying survival-horror game to a pretty standard multiplayer romp through the woods. I was fully immersed in the pants-wetting crisis before me – seriously, a tank is no laughing matter – and then we found our dead friend hiding in a closet. This is not the sort of development that generates emotional resonance. I’m a little frustrated with games that offer easy re-spawning. We were talking a little while ago about the obstacles still standing between today’s video games and tomorrow’s “narrative engine” (to paraphrase Mr. Guillermo del Toro), and with a little reflection I think I’ve hit upon one of the biggest ones: games want you to live. I think this struck me first as I was playing one of the Resident Evil games, maybe 5. I’d played through one scene about a half dozen times, I’d discovered the glut of uniquely flavored deaths I could experience at the hands of an undead tribe, and I got to thinking: what if this is where my character was meant to die? What if this is just the dramatically logical end to his journey into hell? (Ok, the Resident Evil games probably aren’t the best examples of sound storytelling. Still.) I can count the number of great works of literature with happy endings on one hand, and I’m including Calvin and Hobbes in that estimate. So it’s frustrating that the video game, that narrative medium that is meant to afford us entirely new vistas to behold, has yet to really include any titles where failure is a real, dramatically realized option. What about the elf who confronts his arch-nemesis and finds himself grossly out-matched? The Sith Lord who cannot betray his master? The plumber who gets stuck in a pipe? Who will tell their stories? Romeo and Juliet differs from, say, a Harlequin romance novel in both superior writing and the willingness to delve into tragedy. (To clarify, both belong to the former, though I guess that’s a matter of taste.) So when will we see tragic video games? Games where failure is a scripted, developed option? I’d like to see a game where you can’t re-spawn; where there are not save points before boss fights; where, in short, every challenge offers the possibility of success and the very real chance of failure. I think it’d add a lot to a game’s appeal if the player wasn’t certain of success; I’d worry more about my character’s safety, but be equally pleased if he died and his death was honored with more than a “Game Over” screen. Dulce et decorum, and all. I want to see Link fail once in a while. I think it’s the only way his story can really succeed.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reflections with Jonathan Blow

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Having finished Braid this week in the Monthly Game Club, we're left with many questions about the meaning of the game. One thing is certain, however: Braid stands as a profound example of the quality and polish possible in the world of independent games, and the level of intelligence possible in all video games, independent or otherwise. Jonathan Blow, the developer and designer of the game, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us on being an independent game developer, the role of interactivity in games, and the inspiration for Braid.

Your game was independently made, but first released on Xbox Live Arcade. Would you share a few thoughts with us on being an independent game designer working with a huge corporation like Microsoft?

Whenever dealing with a company like this, you usually work with a (relatively) small division. I don't really know what kinds of politics goes on there, because for the most part Microsoft is good at isolating developers from that. Usually I would be dealing with just 1 or 2 people, and spending most of my time making the game. Because they had done a lot of Arcade titles before Braid, they did a pretty good job of ushering games through the approval and certification process with minimal BS. I did have one episode late in development where someone on the Microsoft side who I had never talked to decided to monkey with the game at the last minute in an unexpected way, and that was a very negative experience, but ultimately I decided to go ahead and release the game on XBLA anyway. Largely, though, it was a hands-off experience: my job was to make a good game, and the job of the guys I talked to at Microsoft was to help me get that game onto their service.

How do you think services like Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and WiiWare are affecting the independent gaming world?

It's definitely a positive thing that independent game developers have these places to sell games where they can find a large audience and where the piracy rate is relatively low -- it means that it's much more feasible now to make a living as an independent developer than it was 10 years ago.

Braid has been cited as an example in the continued debate about whether video games can be art. What do video games need to do to be taken seriously as an artistic medium?

All that needs to happen is for game developers to do more-serious work. The appreciation will come from that, naturally. Right now, the work isn't there. Most of what we do as an industry is about pandering and infantilism. If enough of us just stop doing that, we will find that there is an audience out there that takes us seriously.

How does interactivity change the ways ideas or stories are explored?

It just leads to the contemplation of a different field of ideas than something like film or music does. I can't say how that is "changed" from another medium because they aren't necessarily related that closely. There are connections, sure, but each one is in its own right a wide and deep body of stuff that can't be easily summarized. That's why we use these media to explore these things! If I can just say what the point is, then we don't need games in the first place.

Braid uses a number of innovative game mechanics; did the story inspire the gameplay, or vice versa?

The whole thing came to mind at roughly the same time. I would say that maybe the gameplay idea came first, by a very thin hair, but it was a very general idea -- that the way time behaves would change from world to world, though I didn't know what those behaviors would be, and in fact had very different ideas about these time behaviors initially than what ended up in the game. But as soon as I had that concept, I knew that I wanted the game to be done in the tradition of Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman's book Einstein's Dreams, and that there would be textual pieces introducing each world.

One thing a number of people have said, when being critical of the game, is that they wish that the story parts happened in cut-scenes or were otherwise integrated into the gameplay. When they say this, I detect some kind of sentiment that, hey, now that we *can* have cut-scenes or pieces of story dribbled to us during the primary gameplay (as in Bioshock), that these are the only valid way to do things, that somehow text is obsolete. But that is a bit silly. The book has not gone away, and the way subjects are explored in literature are different than how they happen in dialogue or in pictures. It's a different medium, it has a different grain, and it's perfectly valid to use that grain if you want to. (And if a designer does not know this fact, then he is going to work with an incomplete toolbox!)

From the very first day, Braid was conceived as a videogame with its story presented in the tradition of a few books that I respect, and maybe a film or two.

Do you have any advice for aspiring independent game developers?

The most important thing is to make games and get them done. The second most important thing is to ensure that those games are the best things that you can make, whatever that means to you. Unfortunately these two goals are in conflict.

Would you like to share with us what you're working on now?

Every time I answer this question, it's something different. I have four different games that I have taken to the prototype stage since finishing Braid. I keep changing my mind about which game is really my next project, so I would just be misleading you if I gave a concrete answer here!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Immaturity and the Wii

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

The Wii has started an interesting phenomenon: while almost singlehandedly turning video games into a more widely-accepted form of entertainment, it has simultaneously lowered the bar for video game narrative and maturity. The most successful games on the Wii are those with little to no character development, narrative thread or control complexity. There are piles of mini-game collections, cutesy children’s games, and sports titles that sell extraordinarily well to the casual gaming crowd. Hardcore gamers, however, feel left for dead. One of the major complaints voiced by hardcore gamers is that so few games for the Wii are rated M (for mature).

A few developers have listened: No More Heroes, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Madworld and House of the Dead: Overkill have all attempted to win over the hardcore Wii audience. From the sales numbers on these and other M-rated games on the Wii, however, it seems that Mature-rated content is not in high demand on the most family-friendly console on the market. So if hardcore gamers keep demanding these more mature game experiences, why aren’t they selling?

While I can’t address why others aren’t buying these games, it’s easy for me to explain my own reservations. I, too, crave more mature games on the Wii, but I haven’t bought any of the games listed above. Before I’m blamed for keeping the Wii bereft of mature titles, allow me to explain why Mature-rated titles are often just as immature as their E (for everyone) compatriots.

Sure, MadWorld and House of the Dead: Overkill are not games for children. They are brutal, bloody, and filled with explicit language, but they don’t look like games for adults either. While there may, in theory, be some commentary about society’s fascination with violence present in these games, this does not counteract the problem that they are still games built entirely out of that same savagery. What plot is present is undecipherable amongst the missing limbs, splatter effects and profanity. In fact, the games bear passing similarity to mini-game collections: players shake their remotes to rip off heads instead of chopping trees, and aim carefully at an enemy’s groin instead of at a pretty pink balloon.

Maturity in games goes far beyond simply making the content unacceptable for children. Games like BioShock, Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3 resonate with mature gamers because they have more than brutality and gore on display. There are social themes, philosophies, and profound ideas present. There is choice and consequence. To make a truly mature game on the Wii means more than adding buckets of gore and a few hundred f-words, though that will earn it an M rating. It means adding depth. It means adding thought.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Monthly Game Club: Braid Final Discussion

Well, that's it. Since last week, we've collected our final puzzle pieces and completed the final world. I'll ask a few questions to get us started, but feel free to discuss anything about the experience.

1. How did the final level change your perspective on Tim's pursuit of the Princess, if at all?

2. How about the text in the epilogue? Did the text behind pillars and other objects give you any further perspective on the themes of Braid?

3. What are your thoughts on the way the final world made use of time? How did that play with your understanding of the game thus far?

4. Do you have any theories on what the plot of this game was? Who was Tim? Who was the Princess? What did it all mean? Was there just one meaning, or more than one?

5. Did you find any stars?
Thoughts! Reflections! To the comments!

(What's the Monthly Game Club? Click here for details.)

FOR NEXT WEEK: That's a wrap for Braid. Next Tuesday, I'll be announcing next month's game club! As always, feel free to e-mail Monthly Game Club game suggestions to presspausetoreflect AT gmail DOT com.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Jim Raynor Vs. The Lernaean Hydra

by C.T. Hutt

To many gamers out there, the name Jim Raynor is immediately associated with the game Starcraft. To those of you who don’t recognize the moniker or have been living as a hermit for the last decade of games, let me give you a little back story. In 1998 Blizzard Entertainment released a real-time strategy title with an interesting little sci-fi setting. The game was very popular in its first year, selling a record-breaking number of copies. This early success was dwarfed in later years as Starcraft grew to become one of the most popular online games in history. It was so popular in South Korea that it became a national sport, complete with televised competitions and corporate sponsorship for popular players. To this day it remains one of the most widely played online video games in the world. Starcraft has been on the shelves for eleven years in an industry that has a collective attention span of about two months. Only a select few books, songs, and movies produced in our lifetimes have enjoyed such longevity. That puts Starcraft in a very elite club amidst modern entertainment media, and it’s practically alone in the video game section.

Because gamers have such notoriously fickle hearts, dynasties in the gaming world have been kept alive by sequels. The iconic Mario, for example, has been in more than seventy titles since his inception in 1981. Starcraft sits aloft as one of the most bizarre phenomena in gaming’s short history, having been popular for such a long time as a stand-alone game. I would submit that it was the unique feel of three playable races and continuous balancing for competitive play that pushed this game into its double platinum status. The superior voice acting and detailed back story couldn’t have hurt either.

Blizzard, flush with cash from their success with World of Warcraft and merger with software megalith Activision, is now poised to launch a sequel to its flagship title. Starcraft II is on its way and I find myself wondering if it will have what it takes to outshine its lofty predecessor. If it does, I wonder what that will mean for the medium. Further, I wonder what that will mean for history.

Let’s take a little step back and talk about a fellow from ancient Greece called Hercules. The original superman, Hercules was the central figure in many a folktale, religious group, play, and scroll found in the fantasy section of Barnex and Nobelponte. People liked Hercules so much he appeared on all sorts of B.C. merch like pillars, vases, and coins. I don’t need to tell you his stories, I’m sure you’ve heard a few already. That’s how popular this guy was, thousands of years later people are still talking about him. The best part about him is that he never really existed. He is a myth, a fiction, a loose collaboration of tales cobbled together over the centuries and passed on to each new generation.

This is what I am getting at: our stories outlast us. In two thousand years no one will be talking about Barack Obama’s election or Angelina Jolie’s latest adoption, but maybe, just maybe, something of this generation will continue on. All we have to pin our hopes on is stories and it is the stories that touch more of us that have the best chances of lasting the longest. Starcraft has been translated into dozens of languages and spawned multiple novels based on the game’s back story. It has the potential to go down as one of the most popular video games in history. I truly believe that video games are going to be the defining artistic medium of this generation; even still, it’s going to take a true aberration to stand the test of time. Will Starcraft II have what it takes? No pressure, Blizzard.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chrono Trigger Was My First Love

transcript of an actual conversation by Daniel and Josh 

Josh: You know, I never actually finished Final Fantasy VII.

Daniel: Really? But you loved that game.

Josh: Sure, but once I got to the last section of the game, when the whole world opens up and there are all those ultimate weapons to find and chocobos to train and areas to explore, I just kind of stayed there, flying from place to place in my airship. I guess I didn’t want it all to end.

Daniel: Sort of like not finishing a good book?

Josh: Yeah. I liked the anticipation of it. I mean, playing that game was like a relationship for me. We’d spent so much time together, I didn’t want it to be over. It was kind of like sex, so much of it was the buildup.

Daniel: Although you missed the climax. That’s sort of a big deal.

Josh: I guess. Most games sort of climax before the final scene, though. You know, prematurely.

Daniel: And once you beat a game, there’s nothing much left over. I mean, you don’t really cuddle up to the credits. You could play it again, but who wants to do the exact same thing twice? Some really great games, sure.

Josh: That’s why Chrono Trigger was so great. The “New Game +” isn’t just replaying the game. If most games are one night stands, Chrono Trigger is like a really good girlfriend. You can play over and over again, and it just gets better and better.

Daniel: And you learn more about it each time. More of its little quirks.

Josh: Exactly! Honestly? I still don’t really know what the Nus are about, but that’s ok; I have my life and Chrono has its life, and we’re happier that way. Plus, if we’re talking about a video game behaving like a girlfriend, Chrono lets you, um, try out different endings.

Daniel: Yeah. New, happier endings.

Josh: Sometimes with more people, or in different places.

Daniel: What?

Josh: And different angles of approach.

Daniel: You’re making me uncomfortable.

Josh: Also, a frog.

Daniel: …ugh.

Josh: What a great game. I think I’ll go play it again.

Daniel: I’ll leave you alone for that.

Josh: Yeah, might be for the best.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Monthly Game Club: Braid Discussion #2

Since last week, we've traversed worlds 5 and 6 of Braid, and collected as many puzzle pieces as we could. I'll ask a few questions to get us started, but feel free to discuss anything about the experience.

1. Do you think that the game presents a single coherent narrative? Are the levels and the text presenting different stories? Is the text all presenting a single story? Are the levels presenting a story at all?

2. How is the ability to rewind time in this game different from in other games with the same mechanic, like Timeshift and Prince of Persia? How does that affect the game?

3. In world 6, you are given your first new ability: dropping a ring. What significance does the ring hold? What does the power it grants represent?

4. At the end of world 6, the dinosaur asks you if you're sure the princess exists. Are you?

5. How do you think this game would be different if it weren't made by an independent developer?
Give us your thoughts in the comments.

(What's the Monthly Game Club? Click here for details.)

FOR NEXT WEEK: Collect the last puzzle pieces and play through the final world.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Humor!

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

A couple weeks ago, I spoke about some less-than-stellar trends in horror games - tendencies that make the genre less scary when it could evolve in more interesting directions. This week, I want to focus on something I think is improving: humor in video games.

Just in the last four years, we’ve seen more and more games try to be funny and succeed. Psychonauts was hilarious. The first Overlord game displayed a quirky sense of humor. And the dry wit and humor of GLaDOS helped make Portal one of the best games in recent memory. And with BrĂ¼tal Legend, Overlord 2, and rumors of Portal 2 on the horizon, it looks as if games with a sense of humor are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Hopefully, the trend will expand beyond these developers and franchises.

I grew up on funny games. King’s Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island (getting remade!), and similar early adventure games all had a sense of humor clearly present. I appreciated that in my games. I didn’t stop appreciating it, but it seems that game developers lost interest in funny ideas for a time. There were hints of hilarity. I could tell that Alyx Vance had a sense of humor, but she and I were rarely able to relax for long enough for me to be sure.

Now, writing humor is notoriously difficult, so it’s no surprise that most games either don’t try to be funny, or fall short on their attempts. When games like Gears of War can be wildly popular with almost nothing to show in the writing department, it’s follows that most companies won’t shell out the cash to hire talented writers. I think the Gears of War series even has a few weak attempts at humor, though I can never be totally sure:

“There’s a shitload of Locust down there!”
“More like 10 shitloads.”

Funny? (Is there any series that we’ve ragged on more than Gears? For the record, I played and enjoyed both of those games, which just goes to show how much good gameplay can get us to ignore.)

Humor’s return to popularity in games is likely related to the fact that talented writers are actually being seen, more and more, as an important part of game development. All of the games I mentioned at the beginning of this post are associated with a strong writer or group of writers: Tim Schafer is the creative mind behind and lead writer of Psychonauts and Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of the also funny Terry Pratchett) wrote the script for Overlord. Valve has one of the best writing teams in video games in Marc Laidlaw, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw. Besides the stellar humor on display in Portal, there are moments of genuine hilarity in their more action-oriented games, like when Bill mumbles in the middle of Left 4 Dead, “You call this a 'zombie apocalypse'? This is nothing compared to the Great Zombie Attack of '57!”

Displays of humor in games serve a greater purpose than mere amusement. They show that games aren’t just all about aggression and violence: an intelligent game, like any work of art, evokes a wide variety of emotions. Humor is just another world that games should feel comfortable exploring, and it will take more good writing to make that happen.

So let this serve as a note of commendation. I’m thrilled to see these companies treat writing as an important part of game design, and I’m very excited to see that games are funny again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Here Comes a New Challenger!

by Marcello Goldberger

Hello Internet!

I'm a native Washingtonian with a mind for pop-culture and media and a major in cinema studies. My lifelong loves are film, comic books, and of course video games. I live hard. I dork hard.
I will be contributing to the site primarily as the audio/video producer. Press Pause to Reflect will be wielding podcasts and videos like they were Link's Master Sword and Hylian Shield.

I started gaming as a wee lad and show no signs of stopping. I have owned in my lifetime, console-wise, a NES, Sega Genesis, Playstation, Nintendo 64, PS2, Gamecube, Wii and PS3. On the portable front I have owned a Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advanced SP, DS lite and I hope to acquire a PSP for my forthcoming birthday. You know, that is a lot of gaming systems when you stack it up like that. Sweet!

I spent the formative years of my gaming life being primarily a lover of platformers, especially Sonic 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles. When I visited my friend who had a SNES I was introduced to the epic majesty of the RPG and spent much of my teenage years Final Fantasy-ing it up. RPGs and my love of film and comics have made me crave a strong story and characterization from games more than anything else. As I've grown, my tastes have matured a bit and I'll basically play anything that offers an interesting experience. I am always game for a solid beat-em-up like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden or puzzler like Braid or Portal. I'll play fighters but nothing gets me more pumped than playing co-op with some friends. As far as I'm concerned video games have always been a social experience and the rise in online multiplayer and a dedicated presence online has done nothing but enhance that a hundred-fold.

I'm digging into this blog because I find that there is a distinctive lack of focused critical discourse on video games in general. While there are, of course, plenty of people doing good work out there on the nets I think the more maturely we present ourselves as a group and the more willing we are to critically examine the games that we are playing, the easier it will be to make the industry grow up along with us. Hopefully with the modern tools of blogging, podcasts, and videos we can help gaming move that much further forward.

Video games, I challenge you!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Monthly Game Club: Braid Discussion #1

Since last week, we've traversed worlds 2, 3 and 4 of Braid, and collected as many puzzle pieces as we could. I'll ask a few questions to get us started, but feel free to discuss anything about the experience.

1. How well do you think the text before each level and the gameplay changes in each level relate?

2. What do you think the clear similarities to Mario do for the game? How does this affect your reactions to the departures from the Mario formula?

3. At this point in the game, do you think we will rescue the princess by the end? Do you think there is a princess? More than one? Is the princess a real character, or representative of something else?

4. How do you approach solving the puzzles that stump you?

5. So far, what do you think the game says about making mistakes? What does it say about the desire to take back the mistakes you've made?

Sound off in the comments!

(What's the Monthly Game Club? Click here for details.)

FOR NEXT WEEK: Play through worlds 5 and 6, and keep collecting puzzle pieces!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Reflections with Tale of Tales

by C.T. Hutt

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been corresponding with Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the directors and founders of Tale of Tales, about their runaway success with The Path and about video games and the arts. In a medium that is too often hampered by convention, it’s a real pleasure to see a few luminaries pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo both in the art world and in the gaming community. It’s an even greater pleasure when they take the time to share some reflections with us.

What do you feel is the principle characteristic video games bring to the art world?

That's a very big question. And also a rather ambiguous one. The "art world" could mean either the entire universe of artistic practices and the spectrum of experiences that people can have with art. Or it could mean the established community that surrounds contemporary fine art today: the galleries, museums, artists and collectors.

The distinction matters to us because we feel that the two have rarely been more opposed. Contemporary fine art seems to be all about negating the very thing that art has meant for centuries. The modernist avant-garde has turned into the new salon.

We have always been inclined towards a more traditional form of art making. We enjoy figuration, narrative, beauty, even spectacle. As a result we could never get comfortable in the gallery space. The internet, and later games, have offered us an opportunity to address our audience directly, without the need of filters like museums, galleries or critics. And we're not the only ones. If it were up to the establishment, art would have all but disappeared from this planet due to its extreme elitism. But thanks to the computer and its ubiquity, new channels have opened for the creation and enjoyment of new forms of art.

On top of that, videogames, or the interactive medium in general, offers a new way of art making that is more suitable to our post-modern sensibilities. The older media are perfect for one-directional straightforward mass communication. But this doesn't seem to fit with the world anymore. People are not that easily defined anymore. And we don't accept simple truths so easily anymore. Newer computer-based media are capable of dealing with this richness, the ambiguity and the highly personal and intimate atmosphere that contemporary communication requires.

We also believe that videogames technology offers the potential to realize the dream of many artists of involving the viewer in the artwork as an essential part of it. So far, this has always been a theoretical premise that happened mostly in the imagination of the viewer. But now we can make this a lot more real. Now we really can put the viewer inside of our painting and we really can make art that is about him or her. Artworks become collaborative environments where the experience consists of a continuous flow between artwork and viewer.

What is the greatest challenge independent video game publishers currently face?

Probably remaining independent. Mostly remaining independent of commerce. In fact, not many independent developers succeed in that at all. And many, if not most, seem to consider their practice to be a commercial one. As a result, the independent scene is not doing much in terms of pushing the medium forward. We should be out there, exploring deeply in the potential of the medium. But most of us are happy to stick to tried-and-true ideas and we merrily re-use retro-genres.

Obviously it's not easy. And I'm sure many are trying to find a compromise. But we can do better. We think there should be more non-commercial support for research of the videogame medium as a creative technology.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in independent video games such as The Path and Braid. Do you think this will last? Has it affected your work in anyway?

It seems that everybody who is involved with videogames feels that the medium is capable of much more than we are currently seeing. As a result, it would only be logical that games like Braid and The Path get a lot of attention. They may not go very far or may be very flawed, but they show us a slight fragment of what we all dream of as the future of games. This interest will last as long as the dream exists.

The interest as such hasn't affected our work much. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but we know what we're doing. We have a job to do and we're doing it. We're very interested in seeing how other people respond to what we make. But we're not quite ready to change direction yet. There's a lot of work left to be done.

That being said, it's been quite encouraging to see how positive most of the games press has been in their response to The Path. We had never seriously considered a future for ourselves within the games industry. We had always assumed that the industry was perfectly content making hardcore games for hardcore gamers. But things may be changing. We used to be firmly on Chris Crawford's side when he claimed that the future of the interactive medium lies outside of videogames. But we're not so sure anymore. Maybe there is room for expansion. We'll see.

Do you agree that more mainstream publishers are, in a way, hindered by their own success?

Obviously their success does not hinder them in their goals of making money. Though it may hinder them, in the long run, in establishing a stable business.

Because, in the long run, the current practice of extreme competition in a cramped space cannot continue. It is already the case that the majority of all games published never returns on investment. The survival of the industry depends on the small amount of games that become hits. When achieving that hit status is the only way to make a profit, you have an industry that contains many more losers than winners. And that's not healthy. It only makes the big companies get bigger and the small ones disappear. And that's the straight road to oblivion.

The commercial success of the videogame format also hinders the creative development of the medium in our opinion. Contemporary videogames are the descendants of pinball and arcade games. Those were forms of entertainment designed to please the player and keep him spending money as long as possible. And still to this very day, many consider the defining characteristic of videogames to be "fun". So when everybody is enjoying themselves and paying money to enjoy themselves, it's difficult to decide to do something else, to go and explore what else this medium can do.

The kind of fun that current videogames offer only appeals to a small subset of the population. Everybody else is left out in the cold. This is a commercial disgrace for sure, but it is also simply unfair. Videogames technology has a great potential for a wide variety of entertainment and art. We shouldn't just make games with it.

What would you like to see more of from the gaming community?

We would like to see more tolerance and openness to new ideas. And we would like to see more respect for people with different opinions, especially if those opinions entail that they don't like videogames. The gaming community can be a very hostile place and seems extremely conservative, even defensive about its hobby. Games are immensely successful and yet gamers act as if anybody who expresses even the slightest bit of criticism is the Evil Demon From Hell Who Will Destroy Them All. Gamers seem literally afraid of anything that is even remotely different from what they are used to. They often behave, in fact, like xenophobes.

It is only through facing criticism that the medium will mature. But sometimes we wonder if that's what the gaming community fears. Sometimes it seems that they are delighted by the license to be childish given to them by games. And they don't want to give that up.

So more maturity is something we'd also like to see more of in the gaming community.

Would like to share with our readers what Tale of Tales is working on next?

We're currently working on a prototype for a sort of casual multiplayer game with the Brussels organization of Foam (http://fo.am/). It's a game in which every player plays a plant. And players can be humans or plants.

And soon we'll start on a new small project in the vein of The Graveyard but with a totally different atmosphere and interface. This time it's about a young woman. And she dances. For her stepfather.

E3 this year seemed more focused on high-tech controls than on upcoming titles; did anything catch your eye? Are you looking forward to any releases in the next year?

Well yes, we're very much looking forward to The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda's new game. Maybe this time he'll let us be friends with the colossi.

It was also mildly amusing to see how Microsoft takes an idea from Sony (Eyetoy) and promotes it like an idea from Nintendo (Wii). It's like they're finally doing this together. Such a show of friendship is truly heartwarming.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Path Less Traveled

by C.T. Hutt

There can be little questioning that the artistic medium of video gaming is still in its infancy. Despite this, there is no denying the existence of established genres. We have the first person shooter, the side-scrolling platformer, the fighting game, the RPG, and so on. Even games which push the boundaries of these classifications such as Mass Effect or Portal often end up awkwardly piled in with others. I feel it is one of the great failings in human thinking that we are given a sense of comfort when we attempt to dissect creative work and file it neatly away. I understand why it’s done of course; it makes the sublime more accessible, the infinite and indefinable more commonplace, and it cools the blazing power of imagination down to the lukewarm temperature of logic. Just occasionally, however, something in the art world comes along that refuses to be classified or contained in the established ways. It is these bold endeavors that truly lead us to new and wonderful frontiers in the arts. I have seen the beginnings of such genius reflected in The Path by Tale of Tales.

If Edgar Allen Poe had programed a video game for his estranged daughter it would probably look a good deal like this. The Path is a dark, confusing, and truly absorbing adaptation of the classic children’s story Little Red Riding Hood. Players take control of one of six sisters who are charged with the simple task of delivering a basket of goodies to grandmother’s house and are warned not to stray from the path that leads there. Any diversion from this task leads your character into a dark forest filled with all manner of strange and interesting sights, sounds, and feelings. Exploring this enchanting place is not all light and games. The more one plays, the more they get the feeling that there is something sinister in the forest, always just out of sight.

Things only get stranger when a player makes it to Grandmother’s house. No tea and cookies await your arrival; instead the player is treated to a surreal digital funhouse, made more extensive and interesting by the amount of exploring accomplished before arriving there. Rules of physics and time twist into a fantastic display of just how far the gaming medium can challenge our perceptions. All through the experience is the chilling suspicion that there is something right behind you.

Perhaps the most unique effect of The Path is the emotional cord it pulls in the gamer. It is not the visual effects of the game itself so much as our own imaginations which provide the real thrills. There are very few actual boogiemen in The Path; whatever monsters may lurk in the shadowy forest never truly unmask themselves to us. Instead of showing us the face of fear, this game evokes a long-buried ability in all of us to make every shadow into a ghost and every gust of wind into a monster’s wail. No matter how many times I checked, I was quite certain that there was a wolf hiding somewhere in my apartment Wednesday night just waiting for me to nod off.

I have been, and probably always will be, a meat-and-potatoes narrative man. I know it is a weakness to have such a limited palate, but frankly, I like my story arcs to look like mathematically perfect parabola. The Path is much more like guiding an avatar through an abstract poem than a traditional story, as such it doesn’t quite satisfy my finicky appetite for a clear beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Tale of Tales is showing the gaming world exactly what it needs to see: that there is more to this new medium then what we are familiar with, that video games can be emotionally evocative in their own right, and most importantly that we, as gamers, should expect more from developers then overused conventions.

I heartily encourage all gamers to turn out the lights and give this one a try. It can be downloaded through Steam and The Path website.

One of my favorite things about the indie gaming scene is that developers are more accessible and receptive to inquiry then their larger counterparts. Rather than post on some oft-ignored forum and wait four months for a one-line reply, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing some correspondence with Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the directors and founders of Tale of Tales. They shared with me some reflections on gaming and the arts which I will post next week.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Horror!

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I’ve been playing Silent Hill: Homecoming for the past few days (as you can tell from our handy new “Now Playing” section on the sidebar!) and it has me thinking about horror in games. Like Dead Space and Resident Evil 5, the new Silent Hill provides the player with a more capable, combat-ready protagonist. This has been the trend in recent years: horror games have been blending traditional horror elements with action and shooter sensibilities. I can understand why this evolution has taken place; the horror genre in games has grown fairly stale. By introducing more action-oriented gameplay developers bring in some much needed variation and draw in a wider audience. The unfortunate side effect of these modifications is that the horror genre is moving away from horror itself, instead of realizing its potential.

For the most part, traditional survival horror games rely on the same well-worn paths to instilling fear that movies have been using for decades: establishing a frightening mood through location and music, surprises that make the audience/player jump out of their seats, terrifying creature design, and so on. In mimicking movies, horror games have failed to capitalize on the primary promise of interactivity.

One of the only games to truly evolve the horror genre is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Looking past its horrendous title, Eternal Darkness has some incredible ideas that other horror games should look to for inspiration. Besides the traditional health bar and a bar measuring the character’s magical abilities, the game introduces the quantification of sanity: as your character encounters horrible monsters with irrational bodily structures and a hunger for flesh, their sanity meter depletes. As the sanity meter lowers, the environments in the game change, as does the game itself. To reflect the character’s developing insanity, the walls might bleed or statues might follow the character’s motion. At its extremes, the game begins to break the fourth wall, informing the player that their save files have been corrupted or that the game is over at a cliffhanger moment, and will be continued in the sequel.

What we need in horror games is more of a willingness to exploit the player’s expectations and understanding. After reaching a point in a game where you feel competent with the controls and well-equipped enough to take on any enemy, imagine a sequence where you find yourself suddenly losing all control of your character. Unbidden, your character approaches a cliff face. You struggle with the controller, perhaps slowing the walk forward and showing some signs of internal struggle in your character, but it continues. He leans over the edge, hanging onto something, and then snaps out of it. If the controller shakes every time your character is attacked, what if it shook suddenly and violently when nothing was happening? What if buttons occasionally yielded unintended results, or directions were switched at inopportune moments? A horror lurks at the end of the hallway, and moving the joystick in any direction results in you walking toward it. When you do nothing, you stand still. When you press the attack button, you call out to it.

These are just a few examples of what games can convey that scary movies never could, and we haven’t even explored thematic elements, horror tropes and plot. With so many ways for games to reach a more terrifying, unique experience, it’s a stone-cold shame that they’re either falling into step with cheesy horror movies or migrating into the herd of action-oriented games.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Monthly Game Club #1: Braid

Welcome to the first Monthly Game Club! This month, we'll be playing Braid. I'll give an assignment each week, and we'll reconvene to discuss each Tuesday.

What it is: An indie puzzle-platformer about time manipulation.

Price: $15.00

Where to get it: Xbox Live Arcade, PC (or here), Mac

The first assignment: Traverse worlds 2, 3 and 4 (the first three) and collect as many puzzle pieces as you can.

See you next Tuesday for the first discussion!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Playing with Art, Continued

I’d like to offer a sort of response today to a post Daniel wrote a little while ago. (“Response” may not be the right word. Continuation? Sequel? ...Pastiche? One of those.) In any case, here’s my take on the dramatic potential of the gaming medium, as well as my take on its shortcomings. I shall also mount a withering rebuttal against its critics; be warned, for I stand tall upon my soap box. I agree with Daniel on a key point here: video games offer a storytelling medium that in many ways differs from past disciplines, and should be understood entirely on its own terms. The genre’s detractors have unfairly maligned it by holding it up to the standards of other realms of art, asserting that it fails to claim the dramatic ambition of literature or the visual vibrancy of film. This line of reasoning is nonsensical; I could as easily point out that the Moonlight Sonata lacks Picasso’s visual aesthetic, or that Picasso himself populates his works with characters lacking the depth or complexity of those presented by a Rushdie or an Updike. In short, an apple is a thoroughly deficient orange. To ignore the proper category of a video game and lump it in with seemingly similar creations – to group it with the movie because of its presentation, or with the superhero comic because of its content – presents a misguided estimation of both its current worth and its potential for future achievement. When one judges, say, Braid against Casablanca, one’s initial assessment of the former cannot help but be overwhelmingly negative: there is not the same reach for visual metaphor, nor are the characters drawn with the same depth; Braid can be sometimes accused of naked ambition in its structure, while Casablanca earns its dramatic heft slowly and by measures. This judgment would, however, be remiss on two counts. First, where Braid has obvious shortcomings when held against a classic, it also has a manifest – if less heralded – merit: namely, the narrative moves at the pace of the player. Victory or defeat carry more weight as they are bought with effort and dedication, triumph grants greater satisfaction as it is the culmination of work. This immersion is the aspect of the video game that is irreproducible in any other medium, and it is on the strength of such an immersion that the best games expand the boundaries of the territory to encompass ground unmapped. The second point to remember is that video games remain in their relative infancy. This is crucial to any attempt to properly judge their current progress: a reasonable historian would designate the birth of the modern video game at or around 1972, when Pong was introduced to arcades. (An even more generous historian, when judging modern games, would move the start date to 1985 – when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. and popularized the platformer.) This puts the age of the industry at roughly 37 years (or 24). The movie could be said to trace its origins from the 1878 filming of the horse “Sallie Gardner,” though a more agreed-upon beginning can be found in the 1888 film Roundhay Garden Scene. The first narrative films were Christian documentaries on the life of Jesus, produced first in France in 1897; the first stab at continuity was made by Robert W. Paul’s Come Along, Do! in 1898. This means that Braid, made in 2008, is the product of an industry and an art somewhere between 24 and 37 years old. Casablanca, made in 1942, is the effort of a medium at the ripe old age of at least 44 - or even 54, or 64, depending on which “origin” story you buy for film. Braid – along with other games that have been cited for their artistic reach – is still the work of an art that has not fully grown into its adulthood. I would argue that it is following the developmental arc common to every innovation: it is still seen as a diversion, as the indulgence of the ignorant. It should be remembered that sushi, in its modern form, was considered fast food in Edo Period Japan; the novel had its start in fancifully fictional “histories” popular in the 15th century; the tragedy was, initially, the drunken culmination of the Dionysian orgy. Humble beginnings, indeed. We are still in the drunken, fanciful, fictional, fast food era of gaming. To measure these early rumblings against the heights of established art is to improperly chart the course of the future; we end by saying “Here is the extent of its progress,” rather than “Here is the promise of its beginnings.” The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro – once confined largely to superhero and fantasy cinema, now called upon for arthouse fare – spoke on the potential for the video game in a recent interview in Wired magazine. In his words:

In the next 10 years, we're going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform "story engine." The Model T of this new platform is the PS3. The moment you connect creative output with a public story engine, a narrative can continue over a period of months or years. It's going to rewrite the rules of fiction….Think about the way oral tradition became written word—how what we know about Achilles was written many, many years after it made its way around the world with different names and different types of heroes. That can happen when you allow content to keep propagating itself through different kinds of platforms and engines—when you permit it to be retold with a promiscuous form of mythology. You see it when people create their own avatars in games and transfigure their game worlds.
Heady stuff. I like the idea of promiscuous mythology, and I strongly endorse del Toro’s likening today’s games to the Model T. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we strap jet engines to the thing and see how far it can fly. In the reasonably near future, I want to discuss where I think games should be headed to better fulfill their potential, and what changes I’ll look for before I’ll be willing to call the medium mature. In the meantime, though, what are your thoughts? What do games lack now that serious art possesses, and how can they grow up?