Sunday, February 28, 2010

Skip Week (for Canada!)

Another skip week, I'm afraid. I've got a mountain of things to get done before I depart for GDC in a week. I did finish Bioshock 2 and the prevalent sentiment that the last two hours of the game are bloody brilliant is dead on. There will be at least one post about that before I go.

And ... Canada plays the US for gold in men's hockey in four hours. I'm not particularly one for sports but I've been absolutely taken in by the Canadian performance at these Olympics. I was pretty uninterested during the lead up to the Olympics, as were a lot of people I know. But as soon as the game started, a legitimately palpable energy manifested. The pride and support shown by Canadians, both here and across the country, is outstanding and I'm glad I was able to be here in Vancouver for it.

Canada has already taken more golds than anyone else at these games, and should the men win today, Canada will set the record for most gold medals won at any Winter Olympics. It's just a cherry on top though; as far as I'm concerned, Canada has already brilliantly exceeded anyone's expectations.

The intersection of competition, performance, scoring and shared success also gave me some interesting things to think about in terms of digital games. Maybe I'll be able to condense those into a post as well.

In the meantime, go Canada go!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pilfered Pastries and Purloined Pies

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom lacks any real harmony between its mechanics and its aesthetics. And it is absolutely delightful for it. Released on XBLA on Tuesday, P.B. Winterbottom features a dastardly pie thief abusing the time-space continuum in search of sweetened spoils. The puzzle-platformer gameplay will inevitably evoke Braid (Jonathan Blow advised the Winterbottom team when they were students, in fact), with a bit of Time Donkey thrown in. But what immediately stands out about P.B. Winterbottom is its art direction.

Reminiscent of Edward Gorey's artwork and Keaton/Chaplin era silent films, P.B. Winterbottom has a genuinely distinct look. The metred verse which bridges each level winks quite Victorian. The soundtrack would feel appropriate coming from a scratchy gramophone or ragtime player piano. And, of course, nearly the entire game is black & white. It's a fantastic look and one of the game's strongest aspects.

The gameplay is also quite strong, due to an evident focus on creating a small suite of very polished mechanics. The eponymous protagonist has only a few actions at his disposal- jump, strike with an umbrella and, most importantly, created clones of himself. By recording his actions, Winterbottom creates looping clones that perform the recorded actions in sequence ad infinitum. It's somewhat similar to the 5th world of Braid, except multiple clones can be recorded and interacted with. Using this bundle of mechanics, the player must guide P.B. in his Sisyphean quest for more pies.

What does this gameplay have to do with Vaudeville aesthetics? Little. Delightfully little.

Laudably, there has been a lot of effort, in indie games especially, to marry a game's mechanics with its message. It's a important and fascinating pursuit and I do not mean to imply it is misguided. P.B. Winterbottom demonstrates that clever gameplay combined with a unique, pleasing aesthetic is a success by itself. It's possible that the developers might have been able to find a message that fit with both their gameplay and aesthetic, but rather than run the risk of compromising both, P.B. Winterbottom is content to excel in two domains orthogonally.

I haven't finished the game yet, but thus far, P.B. Winterbottom has demonstrated an important measure of restraint when it comes to mechanics. It's easy to see where feature creep might have set in and it is commendable that the creators beat that foliage back. If P.B. Winterbottom has a weakness, it's that it opens a bit slow, especially if one has played the demo first. Rightfully, the demo showcases several different levels out of sequence, illustrating the complexity of future puzzles. Unfortunately, should one complete the demo and then purchase the full game, they still start the game tabula rasa. Having completed the demo, the introductory levels are certainly charming, but of no challenge. It's possible that an approach similar to Braid where the levels can be approached by the player out of sequence, but remain completed. Still, this is minor quibble about an otherwise excellent experience.

P.B. Winterbottom was created by The Odd Gentlemen, an eight-man studio consisting primarily of current and former students of the University of Southern California's Interactive Media program (the same program that spawned thatgamecompany, creators of Flower). The game began as a student project, eventually winning a spot in the 2008 IGF student showcase. A postmortem of the student project is a great read in light of the final game. It appears The Odd Gentlemen were able to take to heart the lessons of rapid prototyping, focusing on a small, tight set of mechanics and managing a team. A great many developers learn this lesson the hard way, trying (and possibly failing) to ship their first game on time and on budget. It's commendable The Odd Gentlemen resist the temptation to use their IGF success to justify bloating P.B. Winterbottom with new features. Rather, they polished and gracefully expanded what they had, eventually delivering the best XBLA title 2010 has yet to see.

Seeing a student project evolve into a commercial release is very enlivening. Doubly so when that release is as pleasing an experience as The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. I suggesting giving this mustachioed pastry thief a few minutes of your time, and hopefully more. Having progressed so far as developers in such a short time, it's clear The Odd Gentlemen have a lot to offer. I can't wait to see what they do next.


Monday, February 15, 2010

We Will Never Save the World

I talked about Palahniuk's Haunted last week, but I wanted to make a more general observation about horror themes now. This occurred to me thinking about Haunted and Palahniuk's comments during book tours promoting the book. The book consists primarily of poems and short stories with a meta-narrative situated on top. Palahniuk says that all the stories in the book are inspired by anecdotes told to him. Reading how gruesome and bizarre the stories are, this seems outlandish. Reading it, I was a bit incredulous about this. Except when a reached a story late in the book and realized I am personally familiar with one of these anecdotes.

The story told about the character Baroness Frostbite involves a man perishing after falling into a natural hot spring. I grew up in Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. In Yellowstone, several people have died after accidentally falling into a hot spring or jumping in to save a pet. Over 250 people have lost their lives in Yellowstone, with author Lee Whittlesey documenting many in his book Death in Yellowstone.

It was unsettling reading that story in Haunted. Unsettling because it was so familiar and so real. And doubly so thinking about the implications of all the stories being based on similarly true anecdotes. It made me think about horror in general and why a good horror story is so intriguing.

When done right, horror is personal.
We all feel afraid sometimes. We all feel vulnerable. Loss will be a part of all of our lives. These are universal emotions and part of the human experience.

So this is where it comes back to games. A great many games have epic stories about saving the princess/country/world/galaxy. The scope is grandiose; the stakes could not be higher. It's interesting, but it's also fundamentally unreal. These actions, these decisions will never reflect decisions we make in our lives in anything but the most distant, abstract way.

I've been playing Mass Effect with Mass Effect 2 on deck (well, right now I'm technically taking a Bioshock 2 interlude) and while I'm definitely enjoying the game quite a lot, it's not ultimately relatable. The decisions Shepard makes will literally affect billions. The consequences are usually clear and the decisions are made in a moment.

Again, it's interesting and I enjoy it, but it really is escapist. It asks us to consider what it would be like if someone could make decisions of that magnitude and act on such a grand scale. And it's interesting because it's something none of us will ever experience. But it's a "What if?" of massive proportions.

The film Paranormal Activity violated the safe, comfortable space where we are most vulnerable. It did so extremely slowly and with great restraint, something games rarely do.
The worst thing horror can do is put a concrete image to what disturbs us and expect that to be sufficient. Dead Space is gruesome, but the flesh chimeras can only remain unsettling for so long. Doom 3 can startle you, but it's really just closets full of spring-loaded cats on loan from every 80s B horror movie.

A game like Penumbra that all but insists on you hiding out of sight in extreme darkness makes you feel extremely vulnerable. The ultimate reveal is not that unsettling. But the anticipation, the moment where you crouch hiding, hearing whatever is it breathing and slowly padding by is merciless. Similarly, The Many in System Shock 2 terrify as they beg you to kill them. Losing who you are, either literally to mental sickness or more figuratively, is universally horrifying. Being unable to save the person you care about most is the terrible heart of Silent Hill 2 and nothing I could imagine in my life is more unsettling.

So many games that try at horror imitate the trappings, but neglect the essence. Horror is about being personal. It's about being real. While fictitious, horror is more honest and more relatable than any save the world epic. Palahniuk's Haunted works because it holds up a lens and asks us to stare at what we don't want to see. I'd give anything for more games to hand us a controller or a keyboard and ask us to do to what we don't want to do.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Haunted and Games

This is a portion of Chuck Palahniuk's afterword to his novel Haunted:

"My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book you wouldn't want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover.

Because only books have that power.

A motion picture, or music, or television, they have to maintain a certain decorum in order to be broadcast to a vast audience. Other forms of mass media cost too much to produce to risk reaching only a limited audience. Only one person. But a book ... A book is cheap to bind and print. A book is as private and consensual as sex. A book takes time and effort to consume - something that gives a reader every chance to walk away. Actually, so few people make the effort to read that it's difficult to call books a "mass medium." No one really gives a damn about books. No one has bothered to ban a book in decades.

But with the disregard comes the freedom that only books have. And if a storyteller is going to write novels instead of screenplays, that's a freedom you need to exploit. Otherwise, write a movie. That's where the big money's at. Write for television.

But, if you want the freedom to go anywhere, talk about anything, then write books. That's why I wrote "Guts." Just a three-act short story based on true-life anecdotes.

People write to say this story is the funniest they've ever heard. People write to say it's the saddest they've ever heard. And "Guts" is by no means the darkest or funniest or most-upsetting story from the novel Haunted. Some I didn't dare read in public.

These are the places only books can go.

This is the advantage that books stilll have. This is why I write."

Reading this, I couldn't help but think games straddle the gulf between the breadth of mass media and the intimacy of books. Or rather, there is space for both in a way that isn't as supported in film/TV. Just as Haunted sits just down the shelf from The Da Vinci Code, so does Braid sit next to Battlefield 1943 on XBLA and The Path is beside Dark Void on Steam.

While not as cheap as a book, independent games can still be quite inexpensive to create. They can be exacting, requiring time and effort from the player. But most importantly, they have the freedom to be about whatever the creator wants. We exploit this freedom far too rarely.

Single-player games are private like books, intimate in a way most other media is not. The movie theatre is a shared experience, as are concerts. TV is shared live with spouses/roommates, discussed with friends/co-workers (and canned laughter even provides faux company). But by their very nature, books can only be consumed alone. And while a single-player game can be a shared experience, most often, I would wager it is not.

There is a lot of time spent staring across the gulf. Small games want to be like AAA games, AAA games want to be like movies. But we can make games about a hunk of meat harried by a nefarious fetus, about the joy of floating on the wind, about a purgatory where colour is everything. We should not undervalue the freedom we have to do these things.

As Bruce Sterling said at the keynote of the Computer Game Developer's Conference way back in '91, "Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal." I think Bruce and Chuck are on to something.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

The Problem with "Original IP"

A common criticism of the games industry is that it lacks original IP and innovation, a claim especially common in 2009. While there is certainly some truth to this, I feel that many beat this drum simply because others do. The question of innovation, what it actually means and how much of it the audience really wants is a contention for another day. Today, we discuss original IP, why it is not a ubiquitously positive quality and why we should be careful what we wish for.

The announcement trailer for Shinji Mikami's new game Vanquish is what set me thinking about this. Based on this trailer, you play a space marine who must kill aliens to save humanity. It's likely you'll have a gruff voice, dour demeanour, a dark past and a buzzcut. This is so striking coming fresh of the heels of Platinum Games's latest release, Bayonetta. Bayonetta is a fresh, interesting and even empowering game (even though the gameplay isn't to my taste at all).

Vanquish may be original IP, but at least thus far, it resembles the most exhausted game tropes of the last two decades. People clamour for new IP and whinge about sequels, but I'd rather see a follow-up to Bayonetta (or another Viewtiful Joe or Godhand) than yet another game with terse marines blasting aliens in a rubble-strewn ruined city. I'm trying to keep an open mind about Vanquish, but even if it turns out to be quite fresh, I'm sure there will be another ostensibly original IP title to fill in.

In 2009, we saw much anticipated original IP fall somewhat flat. Brutal Legend was brilliant in setting and gorgeous in environment, but mediocre as a game. The aesthetics and characters totally carried it for me, but I can understand why others would get caught up on the gameplay. Similarly, Scribblenauts is truly unlike any other game out there ... but the concept was ultimately more appealing than the execution.

In contrast, Arkham Asylum was an incredibly strong game. It succeeded masterfully even though its ancient IP has seen countless instantiations, a good deal of which were universally terrible. The sequel to Assassin's Creed visited a time and place wholly unexplored by games and recreated a beautiful and fascinating era. Uncharted 2 not only attempted to create a believable, adult love triangle, but actually succeeded.

It's counter-intuitive, but I think part of the reason why these games succeeded is because they were not original IP. If Arkham Asylum had been "sneaky ninja guy fights crazy mutants," I very much doubt it would have been anywhere near as successful. The Batman IP provided Rocksteady with a set of constraints that they were able to leverage. It gave the audience a set of expectations. This common language lowered the production and marketing hurdles all games must overcome.

The truth is, marketing a new game is hard. God damn hard. Way, way harder than most people think it is. When creating brand new IP, not only are you wrestling with this amorphous creative thing, but you have to find a way to make it immediately appealing to those who know nothing about it. Film/TV has famous actor/directors they can use to appeal to audiences; a much smaller number of designers/studios have the same cache.

Often, seemingly "original" IP ends up resembling other familiar games, partly due to risk mitigation and partly due to simply designing what's familiar. In some ways, original games may have less freedom to be creative. When a previous success can basically guarantee free marketing and sales, there's sometimes more room to do things differently. Of course, many studios want a sequel that's the exact same thing in a different shirt. These sequels are toxic and ultimately dwindle, but it's a shame they taint any follow-up for many.

Sequels, or at least good sequels, tap in to the intrinsically iterative nature of making good games (and good software in general). Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Mass Effect 2 and hopefully Bioshock 2 have all learned from their previous incarnations and improved upon flaws.

And it's not just sequels. While countless low-budget, braindead movie tie-ins have despoiled the idea of translating existing IP into games, some of the strongest games of all time have been adaptations of other media. There's fertile ground here, as long as you're not just looking for a quick buck.

And note, I saw all this having spend the last year working on original IP. Really original IP. IP that's unique in look and tone compared to nearly every other game on the market. But I see "Where's the new IP?" bandied around too often.

New IP, unless it's just a reskinning of another popular game, means doing something nobody has ever done before. Given how nascent games are, this probably means not everything will be right on the first go. We either have to appreciate new games for what they are and not hold them to the game standards of the well-tred AAA ground, or we have to accept that sequels and ported IP can still be excellent. When it comes to existing IP, we all know there are dead, hollow titles that bring nothing meaningfully new to the table. But there are also IPs that while not original are still "fresh." New ideas, refined mechanics, polished interactions; these things are not incompatible with existing IP.

Rather than hold newness up as the ultimate positive quality, we should really appreciate "fresh" IP and basically, great games. What makes them great can vary, but the experience they provide ought to be where we demand originality, rather than the material it is drawn from.

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