Monday, August 31, 2009

Beware the Gorgnard

There's a grognard in all of us, or at least the seed of one. "Grognard" comes from the French grogner, which means "to grumble." Originally it referred to old guard soldiers in Napoleon's army, and now it's used to refer to old guard gamers that are generally, well, grumblers. (Sometimes it may refer to wargamers in general, but that's not what I'm talking about here. You guys are great ... if a little obsessed with tape measures.)

If you've played games for any length of time, you've probably run into a grognard at least once. They're characterized by griping about how good things used to be and how poor they are now. There's a nearly tangible cloud of cynicism about them. Conversation is mined with sarcasm and bitterness. The Internet has served a vast breeding ground for the grognard.

While the lack of perspective is a bit silly, the grognard isn't particularly harmful in isolation. But the grognard is poisonous to gaming with others. Between the dismissive attitude and the emphasis placed exclusively on "winning," the grognard can easily torpedo an otherwise excellent game (either digital or tabletop).

In digital games, the grognard is the person screaming through their headset about where to go and what to do. Rather that encourage exploration of a suite of abilities, they point to the optimal configuration and mock any deviations. In tabletop games, they're the person that sees the tentacled monster and instead of recoiling in horror, they declare with great boredom, "It's a mind flayer. You two have the best Will defenses, get up front."

This contrast became especially pronounced for me when a friend of mind started playing D&D for the very first time. He played with some of his own friends and with my weekly group a bit as well. Having never played a tabletop RPG of any sort, they came into 4E fresh. The interaction with the rules wasn't particularly noticeable (although how quickly they picked it up was a bit of a testament to 4E), but their attitude at the table was night to day compared to some folks I've played with.

The grognard wants to "win." They have a seen-it-before attitude that reduces nearly every moment of interaction to its most ludic qualities. They tend to be unnecessarily paranoid and suspicious to the point of absurdity. Metagaming is very likely. There is no sense of wonder and little excitement.

My friend new to the game was excited, scared, curious, etc. at all the right moments. It was honestly quite refresh and I think it inspired the rest of us to get a little more invested. I actually think my current group is pretty good at staving off the grognard-ness, but previous assemblages most certainly have not been. I ended up talking to some of the veteran players about the fresh eyes they were seeing the experience though and I think we were all a little envious.

There's a little bit of grognard in nearly all of us, but I think we should do everything we can to silence it. Try to approach the games we play, digital or tabletop, with a fresh eye and attempt at being excited. When experiencing feelings of sameness, and this is definitely something that can be observed about 2009's digital games, perhaps it's time to look elsewhere. I've actually been pretty content with '09 being a bit quieter, as I've had great opportunity to experience fantastic indie games, older games I missed on the first go. And I've been genuinely surprised by a few things that might have been passed by at another time.

I play games because I love them and I imagine most of you do as well. I try to approach new gaming experiences with as few biases and preconceptions as possible. Hell, I might even try to be excited. If disappointed, I'll accept that such is occasionally inevitable and try to find something more rewarding.

Rather that succumb to cynicism and dismissiveness, I know I'll be looking for other ways to deal with those grognard feelings and I challenge you to do the same. Those that play games and talk about games with you will certainly thank you for it.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Say No to "Fun"

Seriously folks, we need to stop talking about "fun." Or at least talk about it less. I've made this comment in various locales, but I thought given the resurgence of the topic, it would be good to put my stake in the ground here.

I think we should stop saying games should be "fun" when we really mean games should be "engaging."

This is the example I usually come back to, but there are plenty of films that I wouldn't call "fun," but I still enjoyed watching them. Requiem For A Dream isn't a fun film. Not in any way. Certainly not like Drag Me to Hell is fun. But Requiem is still very much a rewarding experience, because it's engaging. Similarly, is listening to Tom Waits' The Black Rider really fun? That seems ... inaccurate. Now is Movits! and their mad Svenska jazz/hip-hop fun? Without a doubt.

The Path, at least to me, is an instance of a game that's engaging but not necessarily fun. It's dark, slowly paced and obtuse in a Lynch-esque way. But I certainly didn't feel my time playing it was wasted or feel I didn't get anything from the experience.

I've got lots of respect for Raph and his book, but wow, I wish he wouldn't have said "fun." Because the satisfaction that he describes arising from discovering, internalizing and utilizing systems is equally valid if we label it as "engaging."

Fun has a lot of contextual baggage. As game designers, we can converse about "fun" and have a relatively decent chance of people understanding we mean Koster's fun, not ice cream, cake and clowns fun (okay, maybe clowns aren't fun for anyone). But many players, and nearly everyone that's not a core gamer, does not think of Koster's definition when they hear "fun." Their perception is largely that fun is a quality of shallow amusements, of toys. And while that's fine, Candyland isn't going to show up in the MoMA any time soon.

Speaking in terms of engagement is going to make conversing with two groups of people easier. One is the existing gamers that Anthony Birch addressed in his rant. While I'm sure some of these people are genuinely believe it's an anathema for games to be anything but shallow, escapist stab-fests, I don't think all of them do. I imagine when some of those people say, "games have to be fun" they really mean "games have to be engaging."

But more importantly, speaking from "engagement" will make the conversation with potential players who aren't core gamers easier. It's great that Nintendo has brought more folks into the fold via the DS and Wii. But to be honest, many of their core games are not exactly rich in emotional depth. Wii Sports Resort and Mario Kart don't exactly speak to the human condition. I don't think the Wii Horse Bag is going to change that.

Again, Nintendo's games are absolutely fine. They do not have an obligation to make more emotionally deep games. But for non-core gamers, their only experience with games is as "fun" things. Being able to say those are one kind of thing and here's another kind that are similarly interesting but won't make you smile like Frisbee Dog will be increasing important.

This subject was broached in a local design group I'm part of and one of the folks there works in more of the serious/health games space. He related that he frequently speaks with non-gamers (e.g. academia, non-profits, health companies, etc.) and he's had vastly more success when he comes at the conversation from "engagement" instead of "fun," even though he means Koster's fun when he says "engaging." It nothing more than a verbal texture swap, but without all the context baggage many have about what "fun" is, he's able to have a far more productive and useful conversation. I don't think his experience is unique.

Believe me, most games will still be fun (like mini-golf and milkshakes fun). But it's going to make the discussion about how to make and why one should play more emotive games vastly easier if we can sidestep the "what kind of fun" quagmire completely.

Ultimately, this isn't about us. We're already on board. We get what we mean when we say "fun." Speaking from "engaging" is about helping other potential advocates (or at least audiences) understand why we see so much potential in what we do. And at the end of the day, that's what really matters.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

We Need More Bookmarks

Why are most pop songs approximately three to four minutes in length? Classical compositions are rarely that short. The answer is that the original vinyl 78s and 45s could hold about three to four minutes of music per side without sacrificing too much quality. What was originally a technological constraint became integrated into the way music is created. This technological legacy can still be seen today.

There are actually many facets of games that may result from obsolete technical constraints, but I'm going to address just one here- save systems. Specifically, this was inspired by something David Carlton wrote (with Randy Smith's MIGS presentation about saving before that).

The original purpose of save systems was to allow players to finish games that were too long to complete in a single sitting. The first console save systems didn't even use storage on the cartridge, they simple provided codes (or Castlevania's weird weapon grid) that loaded the game in a certain state. Since, they've become more complicated things with numerous implementations. They may or may not be encouraging negative compulsive behaviours (I tend toward yes on this one).

Unfortunately, the original purpose of save systems and the dynamics that emerge from the newer implementations have become confounded. Their original purpose ought to be broken out, leaving the rest of the save system to be addressed independently.

Simply, players should be able to stop playing a game at any point without fear of losing significant progress. To do anything else is to be disrespectful of your audience's time. It's absurd to require the player to wall off a section of their day to play your game. No other in-home media does this and there's no reason why games should get a pass. (As an aside, all cutscenes should also be pausable. Period.)

I like the Metroid series a lot, but I still haven't played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption yet almost exclusively because of its save system. Maybe MP3 isn't as extreme, but previous iterations required about a solid hour of play to make serious progress. Otherwise it would seem like a waste of time, with much of it spent trekking out and back to the save points.

If having that save anywhere/anytime is problematic to the game's design, providing a single "bookmark" save slot that is deleted after it's loaded is sufficient. Many DS games provide this functionality and as someone who has recently implemented a save system, it's not hard to do.

It doesn't even need to load the game exactly as it was saved, but something reasonably close ought to be ubiquitous. David discusses that save/load systems that force repetition of content as a punishment for failure are the reason why he'll save compulsively. And I could not agree more. If you're forcing players to repeat swaths of your game as a consequence for failure, something has gone off the rails.

Playing Little King's Story recently, I can't help but feel that their save system is unnecessarily punishing. You can only save in one place, there are times when you simply cannot save at all and if you fail in combat, you're immediately booted back to your last save. There was a point where I wanted to stop playing LKS but had to continue for about another twenty minutes or be forced to abandon content that could not be restored. And this was just after a boss fight! I can already tell that the LKS save system is going to force me into the compulsions Randy describes because the penalty for not saving is so extreme.

Japanese developers seem worse about this than NA/European studios, but this problem appears everywhere. We've all seen it. It's the save point just before massive, unskippable cutscenes that rolls immediately into a very difficult boss fight. It's the failure that forces you to perform the exact same series of actions again and again. These things don't make the game more challenging, they don't make it more interesting, they simply make the game more frustrating.

Having a save mechanism that's respectful of your player's time ought to come easily if you're empathizing with them. Provide a solution for the original problem the save system was meant to address. Beyond that, we can experiment more with save systems, looking for ways to move away from compulsive save/load behaviour. But unless players believe they can be confident progress won't be lost to punishing save systems, we're never going to move past save/load OCD.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Autorun Engaged

Numlock has been pressed. Starting about now, Above 49 will be on autopilot for about the next two weeks.

I'm getting married on Saturday and then my beautiful new wife (!) and I will be off to the Big Island of Hawaii for just over a week. Where I'll likely get yelled at by a park ranger for standing on one foot and building a rock pile.

Aside from the post yesterday, which was late due to all the wedding prep craziness, there are two more scheduled to go up, one this Sunday and one the following Sunday.

So if some earth-shaking event occurs (e.g. the shapeshifting lizardmen that secretly control the world's governments reveal their true nature) don't be alarmed if I'm still going on about video games.

See you all on the other side!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Little King, Big Things

Do not lose a fight while playing Little King's Story. If you do, you will be treated to the most heart-breaking "Game Over" screen I've seen in ages. It's worse than the one we made for Treelings. It even says "Life Over," as if the scene itself wasn't sufficient.

The "Life Over" screen is basically a microcosm of Little King's Story. LKS is a creature of contradictory impulses- it's both whimsical and dark, inviting and punishing, simple and confusing. But the good indisputably outweighs the bad, and both people worth listening to and roiling critical cauldron agree LKS is fantastic.

It could just be because I've been playing Mother 3 interspersed with LKS, but there's definitely something that feels similar to Shigesato Itoi in Little King's Story. LKS has heart and charm in spades. It's delightful and quite simply, exciting to play. But it's also not afraid of the macabre- there's a beach where spirits of the dead wash up in jars on the shore.

It's something that largely has to be played to be felt, but I'll try to relate one particular incident. One of my very first citizens was a female named "Lefty." Lefty stood out from the others and I made her into my first soldier, along with a gaggle of other citizens. Lefty served courageously in our first few battles.

Then came the encounter with the first serious boss outside of the simple beginning area. It was a rough go, but when a message flashed across the bottom of the screen saying, "Lefty has kicked the bucket" I was absolutely horrified. Not only is the contrast of such a serious event with such frivolous language shocking, but I had no idea if Lefty would come back the next morning or if she was gone forever. I died completely before I could find out, which prompted the other horrified reaction from above.

I'm not sure if it was the named characters, X-Com style, that made this particularly resonant, or something else. Whatever the cause, that oscillation from whimsical to quite literally deadly serious is fascinating and endemic to what makes Little King's Story work so well.

Little King's Story is clearly born from a legacy, both blessed and profane. Executive Producer Yasuhiro Wada is most famous for the Harvest Moon series and LKS evokes similar aesthetics of nuturing and growing, albeit with the citizenry instead of crops.

The developing Cing was previously most notable for Hotel Dusk: Room 215, which is another very conflicted game. Hotel Dusk had a lot of interesting concepts, but it was mired in needless frustrations which at times caused the game to be nearly unplayable.

Fortunately, Little King's Story isn't as hard to love as Hotel Dusk. It still has some usability problems though. I spent a good ten minutes with absolutely no direction at the very opening of the game because I couldn't tell the two sets of bushes that were interactive from the dozens that were not. There are animations you're going to see over and over again (like the little king waking up) that are both too long and unskippable. The text speed advances far too slowly, although not quite as bad as Phoenix Wright, where I was actually unable to keep playing for that very reason.

And the save system ... gah. Needless is really the only word I have for it. Even if it was meant to make the game more challenging, all it succeeds in doing is making the game more frustrating. That it's 2009 and a save system like this can still be considered sufficient is shameful (more about that in a few days).

It's not even that these little things keep a good game from being great, they're keeping a great game from being legendary. Little King's Story is, without a doubt, one of the best third party titles that has been made on the Wii. Period. As Michael does, I only lament that some people may pass this by without giving it a chance.

If you're at all interested in games that do something very different and don't like seeing your Wii collecting dust between the tentpole Nintendo releases, I'd emplore you to give LKS a look. (And if you're in Canada, this is the only place I know of where you can order it.) There's something great going on inside Little King's Story. I hope you take the time to find it.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Mod Nation

No, not that ModNation (although their offices are just down the street from Hothead ...). I spent most of my gaming time this weekend playing some excellent Source mods. In addition to a few I'd played earlier this year, I think you should probably play them too, if you haven't.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is an atmospheric ghost story set on a barren Hebridean island. It's haunting in its emptiness, outstanding in its audio (both music and voice acting) and commendable in its focus. It's about walking where someone else did before and it does so in a very classic horror story way.

Dear Esther was created by Dan Pinchbeck, an interactive media professor at the University of Portsmouth. His next project, Korsakovia, is currently scheduled for release this month. I was introduced to Dear Esther by Lewis Denby's excellent piece on RPS and shortly after, Gamasutra ran a great interview with the creator. Both are very spoiler-y, so I'd finish the mod first.

Lewis comments about the game being mod-characteristically broken are unfortunately quite accurate. The first version I downloaded was actually impossible to finish due to a bug and even patched, it has some usability issues. The audio voiceovers will play on top of each other if encountered too quickly. Paradoxically, there are other areas of the mod that are far too long and involve staring at the same ground texture wishing you had a sprint ability.

But despite these few issues, Dear Esther nailed an atmosphere that supports the game's core themes in a way far too few big-budget commercial games have. I highly suggest you give it a patient look, because there's something very outstanding going on with Dear Esther if you take the time to find it.

Dear Esther can be downloaded here.

Research and Development

Released in mid July, Research and Development is a mod overflowing with terrifically clever physics puzzles. Readability problems that make a puzzle seem unfair are few and far between. Over the two-ish hours it took me to finish, I only had to pull up their walkthrough videos twice. And one was just because a door was very poorly illuminated and I completely failed to notice it. It's got a bit of a sense of humour to it, especially with the microwave interactions and the final sequence in the game.

Again, RPS writes about it here and while their "FPS adventure game" description feels a bit inaccurate to me, they're also all over R&D.

All in all, it's a brilliant use of the physics-heavy Source engine. It's all the great environment action of Half-Life without any of the gunplay.

Research and Development can be downloaded here.


NeoTokyo is the Source remake of an old Half-Life of the same name. I remember playing the original mod, and maybe it's just memory fog, but I remember the original being a bit more fast-paced. This version of NeoTokyo definitely has the pacing and dynamics of Counter-Strike. If you enjoy the latter, you'll likely enjoy the former.

I'm wishing I could enjoy NeoTokyo more than I do, but I'm just not that fond of Counter-Strike's dynamics. There's a lot of camping, and by extension, a lot of waiting when you do die. I suppose it's a testament to Team Fortress 2's Arena mode, where I never feel like I'm waiting for an inordinate amount of time. But playing NeoTokyo makes me wish I had a book or my DS while waiting to respawn.

The aesthetics are fantastic, clearly heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. For a community mod, the environments are great to look at (character models don't read very well though). The soundtrack is amazing and a steal at only $10. I really like the abilities, including the thermoptic camouflage (e.g. cloaking) and heavy emphasis on squad-based play.

I imagine I would enjoy NeoTokyo a lot more if I was playing with a group of friends rather than random Internet strangers. But if you're at all a fan of Counter-Strike/Rainbow Six style shooters, I'd highly suggest giving it a look.

NeoTokyo can be downloaded here.


Radiator is an intentionally artsy and symbolic mod. The creator's plan is to release a series of volumes, each of which will contain three issues. So far, two issues of the first volume have been released, Polaris and Handle With Care. They are both excellent, but I must confess I prefer Polaris.

Polaris is striking in its simplicity. It isn't overly simple. Rather it focuses on a single (and very unusual) interaction. I was born and raised in Wyoming and literally the only thing I miss about living there is the night sky. Living in Vancouver, the stars are minimal and muted. We had a big trampoline at my house growing up and I remember one summer myself and several friends all slept on it one night, under the stars. Enough being wistful, but suffice to say, I've got a soft spot for the night sky and Polaris hit it dead centre. But it's also so very, very effective. It knows exactly what it wants to do and does it, without getting diluted as so many other games (even small projects) do.

Handle with Care also has a fantastic premise. The interaction is an increasingly devilish puzzle, with one aggravating fault. There's a vocal track that loops continually and it becomes *very* annoying very quickly. Nails-on-a-chalkboard bad. I realize there's an intended effect with that, but I wish the author had done something more interesting with it. And it stands, it's an awful accompaniment to some puzzles that themselves are a little fidgety and frustrating.

Handle with Care is fantastic, don't get me wrong. The presentation is great and the intertwining of the gameplay and metaphor works really well. And it isn't pretentious from end to end (take a look at the Id magazine cover).

Of all these mods, I'd suggest playing Radiator above all the others. There are at least two ends to each of the Radiator issues, perhaps more, and Handle with Care really makes you work for one of them.

Radiator can be downloaded here (includes Polaris and Handle with Care).

If last year was the summer of downloadable indie games, might this year be the summer of mods? If Pinchbeck manages to get out Korsakovia, I don't see how it couldn't be.

Are there any other fantastic mods absent that I should know about? If so, let me know post-haste.

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