Monday, March 29, 2010

The Delightful Absurdity of Just Cause 2

Most video games are absurd. The problem is, few games acknowledge that they are absurd. Just Cause 2 not only acknowledges its absurdity, but embraces it wholly. Self-aware absurdity is present on all levels, from grappling hook to the insane writing ("I am happier than a man after colonic irrigation" is an actual quote). And this aware absurdity makes Just Cause 2 far more enjoyable that a whole raft of self-serious games that refuse to acknowledge they are equally absurd.

Sparky Clarkson recently discussed camp in games, which I couldn't help but think about in regards to Just Cause 2. But I'm honestly not sure if it's really appropriate to call JC2 "camp." It seems that intentionally crafting something campy is undesirable. Susan Sontag's canonical Notes on "Camp" essay posits, "The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious." and "Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful." Below I'll touch more on why I find this claim problematic, but sufficed to say, I'm nearly certain JC2 was built with full awareness of its tone.

What then is Just Cause 2, if not camp? I'm content calling it simply "delightfully absurd." Whether or not this possesses sufficient overlap with camp sensibilities to call JC2 campy is at the reader's discretion. A pair of qualities that make Just Cause 2 and similar games distinct in this way- they must have solid mechanics and they must eschew self-seriousness without descending into overt parody.

The first of these is the most important and where games differ most from campy forms of other media (Clarkson touches on this a bit as well). We tolerate games with solid mechanics but a poor story far more than the reverse, e.g. see the relative disappearance of adventure games. An absurd film rarely fails on a functional level. The fundamentals of filmmaking are well established, so technical flaws that severely impact the viewing experience are rare, even in low-budget titles. Games, however, are interactive things that must be used by people. Even big-budget games from successful studios possess flaws that can dramatically impact their usability. To delight in the absurdity of a game, playing it must still be enjoyable. Absurdity can exist at the aesthetic level, and perhaps in a game's dynamics, but not in its mechanics.

Just Cause 2 very much succeeds in this regard. The core of the game is moving through this sprawling, rich environment and doing so is a joy. The vehicles are diverse and control well. But more importantly, you can "stunt jump" and anchor yourself on the roof of any vehicle, in motion or not. From here you can leap onto other vehicles, deploy your parachute or simply fire upon other vehicles.

And of course, there is the grappling hook. It affords so many amazingly absurd possibilities, both in terms of movement and combat, I almost don't know where to begin. You can tether an enemy to a tank of compressed fuel, shoot the tank and watch it and your foe careen madly about. Just as easily, you can tether a piece of broken metal to the back of your vehicle and swing it about like a terrible wrecking ball. The grappling hook's uses abound and all are phenomenal.

The gunplay is nothing special (and god damn, I am constantly running out of ammo), but it is certainly competent and sufficient for these purposes. Similarly, the AI is nothing special and have very few barks, but they do that is required. Regardless of other themes and presentation, moment-to-moment, Just Cause 2 is a pleasure to play.

Second, these delightfully absurd games are not self-serious, but they cannot be overt parody either. If there's any single offense game creators are guilty of, it's taking our space marines way, way too seriously. Gears of War is a solid, innovation game on a mechanical level. But no amount of "Mad World" can make homoerotic 'roid-ridden gruff men with buzzcuts and guns made out of chainsaws into something to take seriously. Yet the entire tone of the game, and its creators' presentation, leads to exactly that. For every studio that produces a game that can be taken as seriously as its tone, there are at least a half-dozen that cannot.

(That I feel humour is an important companion of drama and the two existing side by side has many interesting applications is a post for another day. But it does make me glad I work on the projects that I do.)

So, delightfully absurd games cannot be self-serious. This is where I take issue with some of Sontag's primary camp sensibilities. If camp cannot be created intentionally, that makes all camp take on a derisive, mocking tone. We may appreciate something for being campy, but only because its creator failed to produce anything legitimately good. That kind of camp feels like scoffing, telling someone 'You made something awful, but we were able to find it likable anyway." I'm just not sure I'm really comfortable with that. I find those works, both in games and otherwise, that embrace their absurdity so much more enjoyable.

E.g., there are countless 80s slasher flicks (usually appended with Part 3 or simply a VI) that are campy, but were created seriously. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, however, were created knowing full well that they were absurd. Rather than descend into parody, they embraced their absurdity and ran with it. So while Friday the 13th, Part VIII can be enjoyed irreverently with some beer and friends, Evil Dead is legitimately a fantastic set of films. So too with absurd games.

But the absurd is not parody. Parody in games rarely, if ever, works. Parody games like Matt Hazard and Pyst (starring John Goodman, remember that?) seem to fall down because they try for easy, mocking parody. I think that acerbic tone doesn't hold for long. The player's input makes them complicit to the actions being mocked, in a way. Parody of this tenor seems to say, "Hey, isn't that thing you're doing stupid?" Even if the mechanical interactions are enjoyable (which often they are not, as many seem to think parody games simply means making a bad one), there still is an overture of derision directed at the player. We can enjoy the parody in campy films because we are wholly outside of the experience. The player is never wholly outside the game and thus, I'm a bit skeptical of all but the most nuanced and intelligent parody in games being successful.

Just Cause 2 again succeeds here. From the atrocious dialog to the bizarre mishmash of cultures that inhabit the island of Panau, it's clear the game is not taking itself serious. But it's not doing so in an excessively comical fashion. It creates an absurd universe, but then allows the player to act completely consistently within that universe.

In fact, by creating a structure where the player's likely goals are to destroy things and perform insane stunts (which seems to be the modus operandi of anyone playing a sandbox action game), there are significant aesthetic advantages. It avoids the narrative disharmony of a GTA 4 where how the player behaves and how the protagonist behaves are wildly opposed, which I discussed briefly at the end of this post. It also avoids the unsettling overtones of insurgence that Red Faction: Guerrilla possessed (it's a Sparky Clarkson linkfest today!).

A great many games are unintentionally absurd, but few have embraced their absurdity and truly exploited it. Titles before Just Cause 2 have certainly done this (Serious Sam and Crackdown, I'd say), but I've never played a game that has done it better. It's a contrast against ridiculous melodrama that few truly take seriously. But it never compromises its playability in doing so.

It's the result of Avalanche Studios asking "What happens if we turn everything up to 11 and add a grappling hook?" And I couldn't ask for anything more.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Poor Tools Make Us Shoddy Craftsmen

GDC, as is to be expected, was excellent. I'm still catching up, both on things missed while I was away and processing everything I took in at GDC (also why I wasn't able to post anything last week). I imagine the next several posts will be inspired by talks seen or conversations had. This being the first is more nuts & bolts, but I think it's a very important issue that's often overlooked.

On the first day of GDC, as part of the Indie Games Summit, Slick Entertainment gave a talk about the creation of their XBLA racer Scrap Metal. Scrap Metal is reminiscent of old R.C. racers like R.C. Pro-Am or Blizzard's (yes, that Blizzard) Rock N' Roll Racing. Slick Entertainment is actually just two guys here in Vancouver and they built the entire game, soup to nuts, themselves. The only outsourced content was the music and a small amount of 2D art. They're great guys and you should click on this link and try out the demo, at least.

The focus on their talk was exactly how the hell only two guys were able to build this game. One objective they mentioned as contributing to their success was building all their tools to support quick changes and iteration. A game like an R.C. racer lives or dies by how good it feels to control and to get that right, there are a lot of variables that need adjusting. Slick built their tools to expose all of these values and allow them to be tuned live as the game was running. Adjusting something like a vehicle's suspension can instantly be felt and tweaked until it's right. Similarly, pathfinding on the tracks for AI cars can be adjusted live as the AI drives that track.

Kees Rijnen (Slick's art half) made a very salient observation during the talk. He said that previously, without the ability to live tune values, he would subconsciously find excuses to avoid all the export unpleasantness necessary for a single small change. Upon hearing this, I realized that I have absolutely done the same thing in the past.

For most games, changing a value means: make the change to the data, compile the change, load up the game (including waiting for all the loading screens), restore the state (load a save game, debug checkpoints, etc.) and test the value again. A change that should take two seconds ends up taking five or ten minutes. And you have to remember how the original value felt to compare against the change. Despite best intentions, it's difficult to justify (and tolerate) more than a few spins of this cycle.

And that presumes you can make the change yourself. If a designer or artist has to get a programmer to change some value, there's only so many times you feel okay asking them to tweak and submit a change. Eventually it gets to the point where it seems close, but feeling bad about continuing to bug someone else outweighs getting it that last 10% of the way there. In an interview about the process of making God of War III, producer Steve Caterson discusses how important it was for them to build tools that empowered designers. It's the first question on this page, but I'd actually recommend reading the entire article. I usually don't expect much from conversations about huge blockbuster games like GoW, but this one was actually surprisingly good.

Slick said, "Polish = Iteration + Focus." By decoupling their data to minimize exporting, they said their polish actually became fun, not to mention efficient. I think many projects would benefit from finding a way to similarly decouple their tunable data. It's easy to get used to the status quo, but it's important to revisit old assumptions. It is fine to be wrong (another GDC theme I'll touch on later) and recognize data that appears to be relatively static is actually being adjusted frequently. Even if they don't realize it, the cost of adjusting this data is likely quite significant. The time taken finding a way to enable making faster changes will almost certainly be drowned out by the efficiency and polish gains that will be earned.

"A shoddy craftsman blames his tools" may be the idiom, but for physical craftsmanship, a hammer really is just a hammer. In game development, some of our tools feel like hammers that only work between 7:14 and 9:46 PM when the barometric pressure is below 101.4 kPa. And only when held at a 37-degree angle.

We can talk forever about the importance of iteration, but to actually reap the benefits of heavily iterative game production, the ability to iterate has to exist on both a macro and micro level. Having a high-level process that supports prototyping and testing matters little when actually executing on those prototypes isn't similarly efficient.

I had recognized this in an amorphous way previously, but Nick and Kees' talk really crystallized this for me. They have my thanks for that, and I remain profoundly impressed that just two guys accomplished what they did with Scrap Metal. That their tools so completely support iteration and polish is envious and something I (and others) hopefully can emulate on future projects. I can't help but wonder what other barriers to iteration remain unchallenged and what we can do to tear them down.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

With An Eye Toward History

Playing old video games is not very enjoyable.

I starting thinking about this after listening to Jorge and Scott's podcast this week (itself inspired by this post from Evan Stubbs). Even classics familiar to all are often quite difficult to enjoy today. Not just for those that haven't even played them before; for many of us, it seems the thick fog of nostalgia colours our perceptions significantly. There are exceptions, of course. Some games are still enjoyable despite their age, but for most people, it's not that many.

This is aside from the issue of game preservation. That's an issue that I believe is quite important, but orthogonal to this (and often conflated with the idea of creating a game "canon," which is an absurd notion). Here I'm really just discussing engaging with older games, for whatever your value of "older" is.

Like many, I imagine, when I first acquired my Wii, I downloaded a handful of old NES and SNES titles that I loved. Playing most of them was ... distressing, to be honest. Issues with presentation aside, most of them were brutally difficult. Not in the way, say, Mirror's Edge demands mastering environmental navigation and complex input. They're difficult because they're merciless, unforgiving and to be frank, unfair. A great many games of that era can be completed in a very short amount of time. They only seem long because you're going to be repeating levels over and over again. I can't help but think we enjoyed some of them simply because they were the only game in town (alright, pun intended).

It was akin to revisiting a favourite childhood park, only to find it small, grimy and poorly maintained. And then realizing it had always been that way, only you hadn't noticed until now.

The break-neck pace at which games have developed definitely factors into this accelerated aging. But the graphics (and especially the audio) has a charm that many still emulate today. What has really aged or rather, what we have improved upon dramatically in the interspersing years, is game design. Especially with regard to pacing, it took a while for games to cast off their quarter-munching arcade heritage. On balance, games are far more enjoyable now than they have ever been. The mediocre titles of today are leaps and bounds above the mediocre titles of yesteryear.

Why care about any of this, then? There are more games coming out now that anyone can feasibly play, so why care about relics from two decades ago? Because there is much to learn. There is still a lot we can take from older games. I think it's vital for developers (and even more serious hobbyists) to understand our lineage. There are experiences and moments from older games we are still unable to consistently harness. How to approach older games, then?

My recommendation is to appreciate with purpose. Don't just dive into older games expecting them to be immediately enjoyable and enlightening. Chances are they won't be. Going in tabula rasa will as likely as not simply sour you to older titles. Instead, treat them academically. Converse with others and read what you can about older titles. Find out what made them special, their salient contributions, how future games incorporated some of their decisions and built upon them and (I think this is quite important) what members of the team went on to develop afterward.

Basically, get in, play, get out. Lingering can be hazardous.

The actual method for doing so is your prerogative. Cheats are a difficult question, as the difficulty of some older games make them virtually a necessity (especially if you're playing a twitchy console platformer emulated via keyborad). But the experience won't be the same and what's important may be obscured. Save files from certain key moments in the game are relatively easy to come by, especially for more popular titles, and this help eliminate otherwise intolerable slogs all too common in older games. And while emulation can't recreate the experience exactly, their ability to save and restore game states at any moment makes them very compelling.

In closing, I'm going to throw a couple plugs in for some great readings and conversations about older games (and not just because I'm seeing these guys at GDC this week). Ben Abraham et al.'s Critical Distance does compilations of writings about various games. They haven't done a lot of older ones yet, but I could easily see that happening. Plus, recent games will be old before you know it.

For conversation, Michael Abbott's Vintage Game Club is fantastic. Basically, folks vote on the vintage game they want to play, start playing at the same time and discuss as they go. I'm sure other sites do something similar, but the community at VGC is fantastic and uncharacteristically free of Internet sociopaths. Thus far they've played: Grim Fandango, Deus Ex, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Beyond Good & Evil, Chrono Trigger, Alpha Centauri, Thief, Majora's Mask and a double-header of Bioshock leading up to the release of Bioshock 2. If you're at all interested, I highly recommend jumping aboard their next vintage voyage. My only disappointment is that I don't have more free time to get actively involved.

So, if someone says gasps when you say you've never played Final Fantasy VI (I know I would), there's almost certainly a reason for that. Try to unearth what the reason is, find some more reasons why people have a place in their hearts for FFVI and then good looking for them with Terra and crew. But do so with emulator, it makes those battles so much faster.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

We're Bound for the Bay

I'm bound for GDC tomorrow! I went last year and discovered that so many great ideas in just a week is almost beyond my cranial capacity (in a good way). I find it really recharges my creative batteries and helps remind me why making these vidja games is worthwhile. And of course, greatly looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting some awesome new folks. If you're going to be there, drop me a line!

For those remote, fear not. I'm going to have one post queued for tomorrow morning and depending, another for next week. Once I'm back and recovered, I'll try and assemble my thoughts from the conference.