Posts Tagged ‘Blogs of the Round Table


#BoRT: The Control Environment


If you were to travel back to a time before the iPhone (seven years ago) and asked gamers what they thought about mobile, touch-driven games, you’d probably hear complaints about how they are a gimmicks for Nintendo DS games.  Their explosive growth and adoption on mobile devices in the past several years has been a surprise to many gamers.  Their appreciation of games is tightly coupled with the nuanced control schemes and level designs for console and PC based games.  A touch-driven game meant sacrificing too much of that nuanced control.  The opinions of the core gaming community can’t be projected onto the larger gaming public though.

For most people, touch control games weren’t about giving anything up, it was about having games that were accessible to them without a high barrier to entry.  An activity that used to require them to purchase special hardware, wire up TVs, wrestle with PC drivers, and pick one place to play to enjoy games became an activity that they could take anywhere, at little cost.  Core gamers can grouch about on-screen controls and how the market is catering to a “casual” gaming audience or trying to cash in on free-to-play games, but the concept of gaming grew tremendously during this time.  And it has reached far more broad audience than any one single console or PC game has been able to.

There are few mobile, touch-driven games that I can think of that I don’t think would be better on a game console or PC.  I can’t deny the value that they present to the larger gaming public though.  I also think it’s just the beginning of a significant shift in how we think about games and how we play them.  The concept of “next generation games” is now meaningless.  The technology driving games is improving continuously, and isn’t restricted to how graphics are presented.  The technology surrounding games and the way we play them is now about technology and how it surrounds us.  Augmented reality games, GPS-enabled games, and RFID-enabled games, are all examples of how this trend reshaping the gaming landscape.

One concept that interests me in particular is the idea of second-screen apps.  We’ve seen them used to augment gaming experiences in trivial ways, but think about how this technology may begin to integrate non-video games.  If you’ve ever played the Battlestar Galactica board game, you know just how fun it can be to compete with your friends, deceive them, and try to fulfill your own goals.  It’s an incredibly elaborate game that includes many sets of cards, game pieces, and rules.  You’ll also know just how long it takes to set the game up, tear it down, or teach someone how to play.  It’s appealing to consider how the game could be digitally managed, but it is not well suited at all to being played via mouse and keyboard, controller, or PC monitor.

However, this sort of game could be translated to being played across phones and tablets which share a game board on one large display.  Each player could use a device to manage their decks privately, and to interact with the game board.  You’d no longer have to wrestle with the rule book or worry about finding a space that’s large enough to fit several people and arrange a game board.  And, most importantly, it would allow you to just enjoy the game rather than spending all of your time managing it.  It’s a scenario where it utilizes technology and interfaces that people are already comfortable with to make games more accessible to those who might enjoy them but can’t get past the barrier to entry.

Going forward, the technology driving games will be about how we control games through our environment.  Right now, phones and tablets are a key part of that environment.  And soon, perhaps wearable computers will expand the concept of how we play games even further.  The ways that we think about controlling games shouldn’t be limited to half-attempts by console and PC gaming companies.  There will always be a need (and an audience) for classic game pads but we are no longer limited to them.  PC and console games are now a subset of a larger gaming market.  And we’re no longer forced to consider alternative control schemes through the lens of a gaming market that caters to that subset.

There’s been a great deal said about the recent purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook.  VR gaming is interesting and will no doubt have a place in the future of the market.  But there’s (in my own opinion) a far more interesting development occurring in the second-screen development space.  The Google Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle that acts as a simple media receiver.  When initially released, it was just another device that could stream shows on Netflix from your phone.  But in early February of this year, Google released the SDK for developing your own apps that utilize the Chromecast.

What makes this device interesting is the small footprint of the platform.  It turns your TV into a canvas that’s driven by computers, tablets, and phones.  So, instead of the platform (Xbox, Blu-ray player, etc.) driving the user to setup an app on a platform, and then another app on another device, the user can simply setup the device and then “cast” whatever needs to be on the screen.  To go into technical detail for a moment: the app detects a Chromecast that’s on the same network, connects to it, and then tells it to download a single-page application that handles messages from the first device and any others that connect to it.  Devices running iOS, Android, or the Chrome browser can all simultaneously connect to it and interact with each other.  The simplest example of this is a tic-tac-toe app.  It’s HTML5 driven, and platform agnostic.

Hopefully, the low cost of the Chromcast combined with the ease of building second-screen apps for it will lead to the proliferation of non-video games like Battlestar Galactica on the platform.  It’s too early yet to tell, but even if the Chromecast were to fail, other devices will emerge that facilitate this process of integrating more games into the digital space.  Expect games to break out from classic formats, which rely less on singular platforms and more on the technological landscape surrounding you.  There won’t be any one control scheme, but it will continuously evolve and diversify as much as games themselves do.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the April/May 2014 theme: The Right Touch.


#BoRT: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave the Story.


It’s easy to look at the latest Call of Duty and movie blockbuster side by side and say “Wow.  video games have come a long way since Pac Man and Tetris.”  Media attention to the financial success of these titles compared to the film industry makes that contrast even more relevant.  By looking more like movies, games are quickly mirroring elements of the film industry that command respect in culture, something that the gaming industry and community has long strove for.  And of course, it’s routinely noted that video games hold even more storytelling potential by virtue of their interactivity.  This idea is what renewed my interest in games, and has held attention steadily ever since.  But does it really matter, or is it just seen as the quickest route to cultural significance?  What advantage does it provide to the video game storyteller?

I see storytelling as another tool at the creator’s disposal.  It’s probably my favorite of tools but I can enjoy games without story just as well.  Of course, storytelling can also become a hindrance to gameplay as well (as many who’ve played a Metal Gear Solid game may attest).  Game stories can be the most direct path to evoking emotion from players.  They provide a trajectory for character arcs and a vehicle for player attachment.  A good game story can deliver an otherwise mediocre game as a moving experience.  The Drakengard series and Nier are my go-to examples of this.  (Spoilers ensue for Nier.)  Emil’s character arc and goodbye in Nier were absolutely devestating and meaningful.  Having to conclude the game while contending with the loss of Emil makes the final confrontation and revelations momentous.  Games like these and other, more popular, examples of storytelling in games illustrate the potential of the medium.  So what, if anything is holding holding games back from fully embracing storytelling, or stopping games from creatively overtaking films?

Video game stories are expensive (like most other things you find in a game).  The challenge, in my own estimation, facing a game’s creator is trying to tell a story that your development resources will be able to support.  Of course, if you’re a smart writer with a keen sense of how an audience will be playing your game, then you can tell an entertaining story without requiring an entire development team and millions of dollars of technology.  Portal demonstrated this with its reception as part of the Orange Box.  With a relatively smaller budget compared to Half Life 2: Episode 2, it was a breakout success with a subtle approach to storytelling.   Conversely, many time if enough money is thrown at a game the outcome will at least be palatable and entertaining in the “turn off your brain” sort of way (e.g. the Call of Duty Franchise.)

The numbers represent levels, I guess.

It’s not that I’m trying to over-simplify game development, but sometimes a simple picture goes a long way.

Every variable that goes into a game’s formula for storytelling interactivity can increase the amount of work required to complete a game exponentially.  This is why it’s common to use a “foldback” structure in interactive storytelling.  Each time a game introduces a variable which causes the story to branch, it will at least double the number of storyline threads that must be written, designed, and implemented in a coherent manner.  It’s a risky approach that still requires more resources than with telling a linear story, and can ruin the experience for some of the audience if the diverging threads aren’t brought back together carefully.  (See reactions to the endings of Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution for examples.)  Other means of minimizing the resources required to tell an interactive story include creating illusions of player choice or giving the player a broad array of shallow choices (or choices that do not directly affect the storyline) that can be made.  The difficulty of integrating interactivity into a storyline is only compounded when the work must be coordinated across growing teams of developers.

Now, a game creator will be faced with how to balance these competing factors, and at some point, he or she is going to be faced with another question: can I make my game more entertaining with the same amount of effort if I didn’t try to tell a story?  Many would say that a game’s story is told by the player as they experience it, in which case no story necessarily needs to be explicitly told.  But this question applies to those who are more interested in telling the story as part of their game, and is more relevant to how the medium can advance.  The video games industry has most certainly taken an approach that’s consistent with the right side of the above chart by trying to mimic the success of blockbuster films.  Indie developers are far more reliant on making up for their lack of resources with novelty and wit in storytelling.  But they are also more sensitive to the question of whether or not a story is really needed in the first place.  I believe that indie developers are willing to minimize or eschew story in favor of creating an experience more resembling games from a period when storytelling was far more difficult in games.  This is to say nothing of the proliferation of games in app-driven communities where there isn’t the incessant need to create games that can go toe-to-toe with Hollywood.  When it comes to player engagement, a story isn’t a fundamental element of good game design.

In the end, the concept of interactive game stories shows us how much potential video games have as a medium, but they aren’t necessary to the experience.  The fixation on storytelling in the games industry as a means to demonstrate value is a red herring which causes resources to be squandered on lousy scripts and leave the core gaming industry less relevant to the broader gaming community.  Chris Crawford has been attempting to slay that dragon, in earnest, for over 20 years.  Video games can represent new opportunities for breadth and depth in storytelling, but they don’t make it any easier for the creator to tell a story than any other medium.  The story shouldn’t become a noose around the creator’s neck.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the August 2013 theme: What’s the Story?.


#BoRT: There’s only one way out of here…

I love frightening movies and games.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve sought out entertainment that would provide me with years of nightmares fuel.  I’m really not sure why I do that to myself (or why anyone deliberately subjects themselves to frightening entertainment.)  I’ve written previously that maybe frightening games are a way to ask ourselves “what if…?”

If I had to guess why we enjoy being scared, I would say that it is because it’s a pretty good way to elicit a candid reaction.  You can spend your entire life getting to know yourself, and it’s a task which we aren’t always thinking about.  The difficulty in this lies with reconciling the person you are, and the person you want to be.  When you’re scared, there’s no room to think about who you want to be.  It can be a liberating experience to have the living daylights scared out of you.

One of my earlier experiences deliberately trying to frighten myself was to watch the movie Alien.  I was a grade-school age kid who had stupid action figures based on the movies from the series, but I knew from commercials like that one there was something far worse that I hadn’t yet encountered.

The video clip shown above shows Tom Skerritt’s character, Dallas, who must enter the ship’s air shaft system to attempt to flush an alien creature out of his space ship with a flame-thrower.  The scene captures so much of what makes a movie frightening for the audience and is one of my favorite from the movie.  He is completely vulnerable in the pitch black compartments with no easy escape route.  The only way he can know where the creature is located is based on what his crewmates can describe to him over a radio while looking onto a motion sensor with a display that’s smaller than your phone’s screen.  It becomes abundantly clear that the creature has the advantage, and when Dallas decides to leave – well, just watch the clip.  It is revealed afterward that in searching the air shafts for Dallas, they found a flame-thrower, but no body.

Alien is a fantastic movie and it scared me like nothing else up to that point.  But when things got dicey (and boy, do they get dicey) I could turn away or shield my eyes.  Eventually, I would find that I could have similar experiences with games, and that first one was Silent Hill.  I would also find that, unlike with movies, I couldn’t turn away from a game when things went bad.

I’ve written about my experience playing Silent Hill for the first time before.  It left an impression with me that’s hard to forget, and I feel safe saying it’s the scariest piece of entertainment I’ve yet consumed.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I was sitting in front of the TV, trying to psyche myself up to open a new door and find out what lay behind it.  And there were many times that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it and wound up just turning off my Playstation.  Silent Hill, and frightening games in general, excel where entertainment tightly controlled by its author falls short.  Ridley Scott couldn’t tape my eyes open for Alien’s infamous chestburster scene, but Team Silent was counting on the fact that I knew that unless I was giving the game my full attention, the protagonist would surely die and his daughter would be lost.

Games like Silent Hill create an intensity like no other kind of entertainment because because they create such a strong sense of cognitive dissonance in the player’s mind.    I remember each and every location in Silent Hill because of how much I didn’t want to be there.  Each and every new location was like being Dallas and climbing into that air shaft to find a creature that most certainly would kill me.  But I memorized them in order to solve the game’s arcane puzzles and to try and find out what was happening there.  If you let yourself get caught up in Harry’s plight, then you’ll feel just as trapped as he does when you consider that the only way he gets out is with your help.  There’s no covering your eyes and waiting for the credits to roll.  When you turn off the game, you are abandoning Harry and Cheryl in that town.  It’s such a simple premise – find Harry’s daughter and get right the hell out of there.  But try telling yourself that when you’re randomly phasing in and out of consciousness between two worlds which can be accurately described as bad and worse.  There’s only one way out of Silent Hill (and all other good survival horror games) and that’s to force yourself to face some disturbing scenarios while still managing to effectively play the game.

Silent Hill made the survival horror genre my favorite.  I can’t say for certain what it is that makes games like this so compelling, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.  For those who haven’t played it before, it probably looks and sounds like a very silly game.  But I eagerly anticipate when I will have the chance to play through scenes like the one above from Alien (in Colonial Marines, perhaps?) and am looking forward to nightmares yet to come.  If you’re looking to have a good Halloween this year, go track down a copy of Amnesia, Dead SpaceSlender, or even pick up Silent Hill on PSN.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the October 2012 theme: Fear and Loathing in Game Spaces.


#BoRT: Games Are A One-Sided Conversation

The first time I found myself out in the open during a sunset while playing Red Dead Redemption, I quietly thought to myself “This is incredible. It’s the next best thing to actually traveling west and seeing it in person.”  Seeing those environments began to evoke the same feelings I’d have admiring actual nature.  My surroundings provided a convincing enough facsimile to communicate an idea that meant something to the player in a way that also meant something for the protagonist: that, while John Marston is bound to his past and a mission determined by powers greater than himself, this is what it felt like to be free, and it was what John desired.  Photorealism in games can create a connection between the player and their game with a great deal of nuance and thoughtfulness.  But then again so can scenes in movies,  well written passages in novels, or many other works of art.  Are games like Red Dead Redemption representative of digital artists striving to achieve realism just as artists in other mediums have in centuries past?

Red Dead Redemption separates itself from these other art forms in as far as realism in its presentation is only a part of what’s ultimately being communicated to the player.  The player can control John and explore these environments as they desire.  John and the player’s goals become intertwined.  Games are about the ongoing “conversation” between the player and the game.  Chris Crawford, in his 2004 book Chris Crawford On Interactive Storytelling described interactivity as:

A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks.

I’ve always liked that definition, as dry and simple as it is.  It captures what games uniquely bring to the creative process.  It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one though.  Anytime the games-as-art debate comes up, interactivity is hailed as being the quality that folks like Roger Ebert fail to appreciate in games.  But when you break down interactivity into its base components (listening, thinking, and speaking) it’s easier to see why people who aren’t game enthusiasts don’t entirely understand what the big deal is.  The systems we use to play games are compact super computers that can be used to search for the cure for cancer and simulate complex natural phenomenon.  So you can cross “thinking” off the list of traits found in interactivity in games.  (I might wish for better game AI, but games do a decent’ish enough job.)  Games are similarly doing a great job of “speaking”, be it in the literal sense of voice acting or in the sense that games can communicate ideas through a combination of photorealistic graphics, lifelike animations, and impressive sound design.  Are games any good at listening though?

All three game console producers have made much of motion controls over the last six years.  It was perceived that providing motion controls in games would make for a more realistic experience. More often than not motion controls are more of a struggle to trigger the correct in-game gesture than it is an expression of the player that the game thinks about and responds to.  They were more gimmicks than game-changers, but that didn’t stop people from first imagining how cool it would be able to play a light saber game that mirrored your motions move for move.  And it’s still a goal pursued by many.  Most recently, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson set out to get funding to help him build a sword-fighting engine.

"This is not a sword."

“This is not a sword.  It’s not even a knife.  It’s not a sword game if you have to pull a trigger or push a button to swing your sword.”

Stephenson’s point in creating this engine is that the unique qualities of martial arts can’t be captured and communicated to the player through use of a game pad.  Input is a key limiting factor in games as a medium today.  Game enthusiasts can spend all day thinking about what they could do if there were such a thing as a holodeck (actually, don’t think about too hard.)  “Listening” is the area where the greatest gains can be made in games.

When game skeptics look at console and PC gaming, there isn’t a whole lot at a high level to distinguish games from channel surfing on a TV or typing up a document.  There are some things that video games can do to allow players to express themselves through a game pad (aside from the basic verbs that are commonly used in existing genres.)  Mass Effect provides branching dialogue trees and Left 4 Dead has a “director” that changes the pace of the action in the level based on how it thinks the player is performing.  These are cool game mechanics, but they are the equivalent having a conversation using morse code over a telegraph.  It’s slow, deliberate, and leaves a great deal of room for interpretation on the other end.  Games are good at delivering content, but they suck at listening to the player.  Game enthusiasts know the potential of this interactive medium, but putting more effort into making prettier graphics won’t be nearly as significant as devising meaningful ways for the player to interact with their games.  It’s the weakest part of the equation, and its stopping others from seeing games as being truly interactive.

Game pads, mice, and keyboards are great, and the industry knows how to use them well.  But only when games “listen” with the same resolution that it “speaks” will the medium really take off.  I’ll close this out with a small wish list of things I’d like games to listen for in the future and incorporate into gameplay:

  • Heart rate and respiration: let the game know when I’m scared and what’s scaring me.
  • Tension: Is the player holding onto the controller for dear life?  Are they getting angry?
  • Gaze Tracking: What’s the player paying attention to?  Are they fixating on their score, or a life bar?
  • Body Language: Is the player on the edge of their seat?
  • Brain Waves: And to go for broke: just start reading my mind, video games.  It shouldn’t be hard to do better at reading between the lines than Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the September 2012 theme: New Horizons.

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