Sam Crisp

24 Nov 2013

The Week In Hypertext

Today I played these three things:

1. Mashkin Sees It Through by thecatamites

thecatamites has been making a game every day of the month this month. In this, his first Twine game, literary capital takes center stage. I don’t have much to say about this except that it’s a Twine game with good, Pynchonesque writing. His games almost always feature a narrator or two, and here the distinction between reader, player, and narrator blurs (at first Gaussian, then a directional lens blur, then a Photoshop swirl filter). Remember the Twine revolution? Oh yeah, looks like that’s showing no signs of stopping.

2. The Entertainment by Cardboard Computer

Regrettably, I was unable to play this in its native Oculus Rift format, but perhaps it’s a good thing I didn’t because I might have died on the spot. Remember when I kept talking about how you choose the dog’s name at the start of Kentucky Route Zero Act 1 in lieu of explaining why the game is good? Here’s something which resembles a real reason: Cardboard Computer displays rich literary and theatrical influences and their motifs of intertextuality are sublime. And they Know How To Do Graphics.

I’ve been lucky enough to use an Oculus Rift twice and I love the way you can see the pixels. The hypermediacy of virtual reality is far more fascinating to me than the prospect of being subsumed in immersion. If you’re using new technology to make new games and you’re doing things the right way, you look at the affordances of the technology and find a creative way to design a game to those affordances, rather than plastering existing designs onto it and softening the edges. (And you’re probably making a first-party Nintendo game.) I think the Oculus Rift is going to do wonders for the verb of looking in first-person games, in ways 7DFPS game jammers couldn’t dream of.

The Entertainment knows looking.

And that’s not the half of it.

The Kentucky Route Zero games have not only spun the adventure game structure (point-and-click movement between stages and dialogue trees) into something cool (relinquishing preciousness and glibness), they’ve now done the same for the adventure game’s self-awareness. And now The Entertainment marries the hypermediacy of the Oculus Rift and its early-VR aesthetic, with the theatrical and hypertextual hypermediacy of the games in the Lula Chamberlain mythos (if you don’t know what this is, play Limits and Demonstrations again).

This game dropped the same day John Carmack announced his leave from id Software to work full time on the Oculus Rift. John Carmack seemed to be the only public figure who knew what was up with computer graphics. Don’t fall into the trap of associating him as an icon of the game industry’s technological drive for photorealism. He was one of the good guys. Now he’s at Oculus. And The Entertainment is as much the future of video games as the Oculus Rift is. And the future is fucking cool.

3. Writing by Tully Hansen

A fierce literalisation of neurotic, tangential, stream-of-consciousness and the hesitant self-editing process into mutable prose. Long enough that the novelty wears off, which turns out to be a good thing. This is a very Tully thing to write. I have failed to take it as a cautionary tale of editing esoteric flourishes and in-jokes out of my writing. But at least I no longer consider drawing attention to them.


2 Nov 2013

The End

The release of Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture in 1915 marked the beginning of film criticism. Now, almost one hundred years later (has it really come so soon?) we close in on 2015, which will mark the end of film criticism. In the wake of Roger Ebert’s passing, it has been on all of our minds that film criticism’s allocated century is almost expended and that the pens will have to go down soon. No doubt writers are frantic, trying to get their books out the door before their words are unusable. Academics will have to struggle finding new areas of work. These liminal periods are always difficult.

Many texts have made reference to “the first fifty years of film criticism” and “the last fifty years of film criticism,” neatly dividing the two acts. I will be sad to see it go but I try not to forget that we have still gotten out of it a rich, one hundred years worth of writing; an abundance to draw from. It will be a while yet before I exhaust it all. But it is time for film criticism to move on and make way for a new medium’s century. A ludic century. See you all in 2015. Game on.


1 Oct 2013

Who is Steve Swift?

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Here is the full text of the talk Marigold Bartlett and I gave at Freeplay this year.

I was hesitant to put the text of this talk up online because with text, as opposed to a presentation, everything is laid bare and can be scrutinised for criticism. I make some outlandish stretches like suggesting the words “ludonarrative dissonance” suggests a utopia which can be oppressive, or that, you know, video games don’t exist.

We tried to talk about a lot of things but have it all reinforce the same message: that indie game culture is dominated by a narrow perspective which makes opinions, aesthetics, and even language all politically charged even when they seem neutral or innocuous. We show how outsider games and outsider criticism can reveal how artificial what we consider video games to be. We highlight how everyone is complicit in suppressing certain games and criticisms from existing, and to reveal how we can work against it, using the power and voice that people have (the most iconic example being Hofmeier giving his booth to Porpentine at this year’s IGF).

Most of the things we were saying were curated from the blogs of writers who have been saying this for a long time. These conversations seem to be happening overseas, at No Show for example, but not here. Ideally, people we cite, like Merritt Kopas, Samantha Allen, Porpentine, would come here to expose the Melbourne scene to these discussions, but so far that has been unfeasible.

It’s not my place to be talking for these people. But nobody else was in a forum like this. And saying “it’s not my place to discuss these issues as a white male / as someone without mental illness / as an able-bodied person” and then weighing in on them anyway doesn’t make it any different. And ultimately, I don’t know if we said the right things or if we were acting in accordance to what we were preaching. I don’t know if the right people in Melbourne are at all receptive to this. To be honest, I don’t know how to destroy everything.

Games conferences and festivals are typically run by people who have industry experience and who have advice to give. Marigold and I are game students with no industry experience, but we thought we had stuff that needed to be told. But more importantly, we felt like people needed to learn to listen differently and to voices like ours. The polemic of our talk wasn’t at all something we intended people to agree with, or to find insightful. We wanted it to be confusing and frightening and contradictory. We wanted to train people to think differently.

Also at Freeplay this year, an audioclip of Katharine Neil was played during the microtalks, in which she called out people who confidently tell others how they should go about doing what they do because of the successes they’ve found, appending “but there’s no silver bullet” as a patronising way to cap off their advice. I agree with Katherine, and see that as a way of avoiding responsibility for what you say and to excuse the stultifying nature of such teaching.

When people give advice, they’re usually addressing themselves in the past. Someone who comes from the same place as them, with similar ability and background. Most advice is bullshit, but sometimes it can be revealing to read into why that advice is being said and what that reveals about a person or the culture they’re from.

As games students, we weren’t there to give advice. It’s up to everyone to learn what they should do with the unique positions and voices they have. People don’t realise that they are accountable or that they have the power to do things.

Every Freeplay, people give passionate talks and show off their cool stuff and give everyone a much-needed jolt of energy and inspiration. This energy quickly perishes and people wait until the next conference. I suspect no one will remember this talk in a week’s time. I don’t know if I accomplished anything but stroking my own ego. But at least I got everything that had been on my mind over the last year out there in some format. Maybe now I have more of foundation for where to move from here.

I intended to break from things that were being said, to attack indie culture directly, instead of attacking whatever indie culture imagines they’re running counterculture to; preaching to the choir. The target of that attack includes many of my friends and colleagues. If I at all gave a shit about developing social capital in this scene, you could say I made a lot of enemies that day.

The talk is deliberately extreme, but I wanted to be clear that we weren’t inviting debate. There was to be no compromise. Everything must be destroyed. It also gave us an excuse to add a tirade on ableist language (which was relentless at Freeplay even after our talk), and to praise games we like in a kind of anarcho-anti-formalism.

By attacking everything, no doubt people dismissed us outright. I saw some tweet that said something like “I don’t know if it’s okay to say anything at all about games anymore.”

Well, that’s the point.

In the conclusion to the talk, we plead for the audience to give up ownership of video games, and to take responsibility for what they feel like they don’t own: the problems with our culture.

I co-presented this talk under the pseudonym Stephen Swift. That name was first born from an amalgam of two misremembered versions of ‘Sam Crisp’, each half from one of Dan Golding and Brendan Keogh, from when I met them for the first time. I adopted it as my online persona soon after the fatigue of the games discourse zeitgeist took its toll.

Steve Swift is my attempt to give up ownership of what I do without evading responsibility for it. I don’t know how well I succeed at doing that. But putting this talk out there, naked, is the very next step, at least.

Responses to the talk have so far been divided. Friends of ours praised it and thanked us for saying something that they thought needed to be said for a long time. Some people felt affirmed for being an artist. Some people, who are used to being in charge of the conversation, felt very unwelcome and threatened. Some jealous that games with “awful texture work” were getting attention instead of theirs.

At least one person felt like they were unable to respond, but didn’t want to dismiss it out of hand, nor readily agree with it. Their response was simply a strive to be better (and btw, Stephen Swift isn’t the one you have to answer to). And perhaps that is the best provocation we could hope for.

As for how to know what is okay to think anymore?

Well, all I can say is there’s no silver bullet. Lol.


How To Destroy Everything, Or, Why Video Games Do Not Exist (And How This Is Great For Everyone)

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This is the transcript of a talk given by Marigold Bartlett and Stephen Swift at the 2013 Freeplay Independent Games Festival.

Read More


22 Jul 2013

Detail to attention: The continuities of Gunpoint and considered use of maximalism

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A game design challenge that has been on my mind for a while that I’ve been curious to solve is how to create a game that runs in real-time but plays as though it is turn-based. Ideally, this game would have the twitch-free, cerebral planning and problem solving that is attractive (to me) about a turn-based game, and reconcile this with the tactile pleasure of moving an avatar through a live space, and the narrative affordances of such interaction. Turn-based games lock themselves into a an oscillating timescale: a moment is stretched to eternity for the player to make a series of decisions, then time snaps back to motion and the player is relegated to a role of observation. On the other hand, real-time game design is often seduced by challenges that ultimately boil down to the player’s speed of reaction, or how well she can handle problem-solving under a time pressure.

Gunpoint (Suspicious Developments, 2013) reaps its story from the gameplay interface it sows. The game opens with the player character crashing out of a window of a high-rise building. The player is immediately given control and must move through a short scene in which someone is murdered and the killer escapes before the player has a chance to intervene. This is followed by a flashback to the actions that lead to the defenestration, prefaced with the caption “X seconds earlier” where X is the time it took to play through the previous scene. Gunpoint is timing you. This sequence also establishes the game as one which plays in real-time. There is no explicit distinction between the player character being ejected from a window and the player being allowed to make her move. There is no HUD to fade out, no widescreen letterbox bars to descend, no “end turn” button to push. Yet with the revelation that the game is timing you, there is also the revelation that the game is only timing you in retrospect. The surprise of the “X seconds earlier” quip is due to the stillness the game evokes when not touched. There’s no hint at the ticking of passing time. The game only pushes when the player pulls.

The game is about sneaking through buildings, knocking out guards, and rewiring electronics for the player’s own nefarious wants. It’s also about holding enemies at the eponymous. In classic action movie fashion, gunpoint is a stalemate. A delicate state where both parties are waiting on each other to make a move. This sense of a standoff is what it is like to play Gunpoint: a game neither entirely turn-based nor exactly real-time.

All of these actions take place within the same, continuous system, using the same set of verbs. Jumping, an action that is conventionally predicated on in-air correction, and the timing and reflex of platforming, is instead interpreted with something deterministic, yet still real-time. The player draws a dotted line on screen, projecting the trajectory before she makes it, and knows exactly what the limits and force of each jump shall be. There are no arbitrary resources such as “action points” or “time units” to be exhausted and these calculated jumps can be made at any point in play. As opposed to a turn-based game where the player would select her move and “finalise” it, action in Gunpoint is an organic process that doesn’t divide modes of play into a transparent, finite state machine. Within a given level, the player’s actions are not selected from a menu. Everything is done live within the game system. Choice is an abstract concept, delegated to the mind of the player. The game doesn’t interpret choice, it interprets action. In other words: Do, not choose to do.

Gunpoint introduces its temporal continuity by revealing that it has been counting the seconds since the player has started the first level, and uses this information in a meaningful way, beyond a vapid stat screen or debug menu. When the player dies, she can load any of the last three autosaves, which occur every five seconds. This system effectively lets the player reverse three discrete chunks of entropy that led to her death at any given time. These chunks are represented as “x seconds ago”: a point on a continuum, not a “turn”.  This is also a significant distinction from the continuous, mistake-reversing rewinding of a Braid (Number None, 2008) or Zineth (Arcane Kids, 2012). Jumping back in time at fluctuating intervals would be disorientating in a game with a sense of rhythm, timing, or twitch reaction at its core. But Gunpoint doesn’t have the hectic pacing of an action game where downtime implies an opposite to gameplay. Rather, Gunpoint has the pacing of a stealth game in which an avatar darts between shadows: semi-safe spots where the player can think about her next movement, punctuated by intense, performative actions that can succeed or fail at her finesse.

thinking thinking thinking ACTION thinking thinking thinking ACTION thinking…

However, the safe spots in Gunpoint are not necessarily shadows, which imply darkness, obscurity, uncertainty. In many stealth games, the player can never be sure what to expect and must always be ready for improvisation. But Gunpoint is more calculated than that. It has the predetermined pace of a turn-based game, and an omnipresent perspective. If you miss a beat, or miss a piece of information, it is entirely on you.

High-level Starcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998) players realise that attention is a resource, arguably the most important one a player must manage. This is true of many games to varying degrees. Gunpoint is unique in that it is designed so that attention as a resource in any given scenario is abundant—almost unlimited—and generally irrelevant  This is commendable and no small design feat for a real-time game. It’s also the only way to pull off the maximalist presentation of the environment and the storytelling hidden within.

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The visual structure of Gunpoint lays all of its information bare at all times. There is no artificial limitation of spatial awareness. No fog-of-war. Everything that is going on in a level is always on screen and the distribution is spatially uniform. No visual indicators deliberately attract attention and the screen doesn’t, for example, zoom in on points of interest. Even animation can be easily ignored if the player isn’t already scrutinising that local hotspot (everything which moves in this game is significant, mise-en-scene is static). This is because in the game’s levels, everything within the confines of a single building blends into each other with a consistent palette and density. In each level, the player must parse what initially seems like visual chaos. The key exception to this is Gunpoint’s Crosslink mode: an underworld of circuitry overlaid onto the existing level, in a starkly minimal diagram which allows the player to manipulate the electronic devices in the world. Both Crosslink mode and “normal” mode have an equally monotonous look, but in polarising styles which reinforce each other.

Much like the game’s flat, interactive continuity, the lavish visual detail works because it all exists in a continuous space, but can easily be distinguished as discrete chunks. There are fantastic details in the art which hint at a story beyond what is narrated and played. For example, at the start of the game, the apartment directly above the player’s is strewed with Chinese takeaway boxes and there’s a telescope aimed towards the opposite building, directly at the room where the initial murder takes place. The game respects the player to deduce that this must be the murderer’s apartment, and makes no other explicit mention of it. I missed many of these details the first time because they often occupy a screen real estate of no more than a handful of pixels.

Deliberately ostentatious maximalism in environmental art doesn’t always work, as in the case of Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007). I found Bioshock to be constantly throwing information in my face all at once in a careless manner. Since it’s an action game that is constantly keeping the player on her toes, it lacks the consistent, calculated meditation of Gunpoint.

The player must wait for downtime in Bioshock to explore the world’s detail, and downtime is never guaranteed. Pacing is entirely at the behest of the level and encounter design, which is determined by the strict, guiding hand of the designer. Yet this storytelling content is often not presented during downtime. My experience of playing Bioshock was a cacophony of signs and architecture I had no chance to scrutinise because I was being attacked by monsters, while someone was trying to tell me important information over a radio, while the monsters themselves were saying things, while diegetic music played in the background, while I walked underneath running water to trigger a blurring effect that obscured my screen, while the whisky I just swigged tilted and blurred the screen… and so on.

In an article from Irrational Games’ From the Vault series, a sequence of screenshots displays how, over the course of Bioshock’s development, decorations are added to what is initially a boxed blueprint of a scene. This culminates in the final product: a game with up to nine different signs on screen at any given time.

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additive additive additive

I’m not bemoaning a lack of restraint, but I think that the trigger-happy structure of Bioshock doesn’t lend itself to facilitate this type of world building. When the player is conditioned to abstract visual information to what is immediately relevant to not being killed, the scenery will be ignored. This is a result of a trajectory of design that can be traced back to System Shock (Looking Glass Studios, 1994). Back in those days (1994), there was little detail in live environments due to technical restraints. When developers reinforce a conservative iteration to a genre’s ancestry, technology progresses over time, disinterested, and paints those games with more and more detailed graphics, the original designs of which were never initially intended to contain. By doing this, we feed the misconception that gameplay and story are inherent enemies. It’s no wonder that we end up with games like Dear Esther (thechineseroom, 2008, 2012) which adopt these games’ downtime and elaborates those parts into a work all in itself. In Dear Esther we have no choice but to pay attention.

Now, sure, I can clear a room of enemies in Bioshock and then go back and look at all the detail and replay the audiologs, but this rigmarole is arbitrary and a contrived way for the game to have its cake and eat it too. It comes off as though Irrational hadn’t put thought into the presentation of its detail. As opposed to, for example, Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012) which channels its visual ostentation into excessive gore and destruction, and deliberately makes the player walk back through each level after she has killed all the enemies. The point is that the player isn’t paying attention to the detail until after everyone is dead. This gels with the conventional action game combo of bloodlust and reflection. Backtracking to behold the environmental detail in Hotline Miami is meaningful, and downtime is a considered aspect to the structure of the game, whereas in Bioshock, more often than not, downtime is happenstance. The environmental art in Bioshock isn’t artistically elevated in the context of the player’s clearing an area of enemies. Hotline Miami derives its meaning from it. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that this is the only meaning we are capable of imbuing in a real-time game about violence.

Fixation on focalizing psychopaths aside, there are other ways for action games to pick up on player attention to contextualise their decoration. In an article for Gamasutra, Quintin Smith recounts an experience he had in Red Orchestra (Tripwire Interactive, 2006):

Another war story. I was playing a machine gunner on a heathery, flat map with a massive maze of trenches making up the centre. Through luck and more luck I’d managed to slink through to the far side of it undetected, and found myself and my enormous gun standing some twenty feet behind several enemy soldiers who were lying on their bellies and shooting down at my friends in the trench.

Feeling empty, I lay down facing them and tapped the key that began the laborious process of propping up my machine gun on the ground in front of me. As I was lining up the first shot I noticed a scrap of colour between me and the man I’d chosen to die first. Pulling back from the ironsights, I saw it was a single flower. Gee. It was a pretty thing. The rest of the landscape was so ugly.

That was when one of the soldiers turned around, saw me, whipped up his gun and shot me dead before I could have breathed a word. Some of us don’t have it in us, I guess.

I love that story, because it’s too saccharine to appear in a piece of war fiction. A soldier dying because he was totally absorbed in the captivating beauty of a single flower? C’mon.

The flower is an innocuous detail. It wasn’t orchestrated by the Environmental Storytelling Department. Had Quinns killed everyone first, and in the subsequent downtime observed the scenery and listened to some audiologs, the effect would have been lost. Red Orchestra is very much a stressful, real-time game, but one in which incidental detail is appreciated through the player’s habit, not in spite of it. Perhaps the developers didn’t intend this exact scenario to occur, but it is certainly a game where the player is often required to lie down in grass to snipe an enemy, and the grass certainly happens to have flowers in it. Like the gory devastation of retracing one’s steps in Hotline Miami, it is with respect to the context of player’s attention that the flower in Red Orchestra derives its meaning. Environmental storytelling doesn’t exist in a vacuum of gameplay (unless, in the case of Dear Esther, we put it in one).

Although Gunpoint’s uniform visual style and moment-to-moment play work well, the game stumbles by assuming this uniformity on on a holistic level. After pulling it off, it doesn’t do anything with its maximalist art. Apart from the opening, it doesn’t do anything with its timekeeping. The game doesn’t evolve, but merely iterates. It’s certainly not obliged to, but I would have liked to see something interesting done with the game’s framework. For example, the minimal art of Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) exists in the context of its narrative structure. The white, clinical walls eventually give way to a stark contrast of the grimy, industrial complex behind it, to which the player escapes in the final act. Would it have been possible to contextualise visual maximalism in the way that Portal does with minimalism?

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Howling Dogs (Porpentine, 2012) concentrates its maximalism to a single scene, in which the protagonist is at an extravagant party described in deliberately and overwhelmingly excessive detail. Spoilers for Howling Dogs follow in this paragraph. It’s striking to the player because it’s unlike the rest of the prose in the game, just as the party is striking to the character within the fiction. Yet the monotonous texture to the structure of this particular scene highlights the banality of this decadence and this, too, is mirrored by the protagonist’s apathy. When the player clicks on any of the keywords in this scene, all the protagonist can say in response to these details is an empty “How interesting!” These details likely pass by most players overlooked. Attention, Starcraft’s paramount resource, is lost. A resource which is abundant to the point of irrelevance in the economy of a Twine game (or any turn-based game), is squandered, in the same way the exorbitantly wealthy would squander their wealth on such a party. But hidden in the labyrinthine paragraph is one particular detail that is unlike the others: a suspicious character running to the bathroom. If the player (and thus, the protagonist) has the attention to notice this amongst the spectacle (by clicking on one specific keyword), it is revealed that this character plans to murder the protagonist, and this leads to an alternate ending.

The empty extravagance of Howling Dogs’ wall of text houses a secret which awakens a queen from her slumber. The dreariness of Red Orchestra’s washed out warzone houses a flower which stops Quinns in his tracks. The monotony of Gunpoint’s visual tapestry ultimately houses nothing more than a Where’s Wally of narrative tidbits and in-jokes, but it is at least more at home than Bioshock. The key to all these experiences is player attention. In the case of Gunpoint, attention is guided by consistent spatial, temporal, and interactive continuity. The visual uniformity is a distinct fashion that is still readable thanks to time not being a threat. But time still moves forward at a uniform pace and allows steadfast player agency. It’s a delicate dance between player and designer well worth pursuing.

Because there are some things you will only notice at gunpoint.

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Illustrations by Marigold Bartlett


15 Jul 2013

Floor 3

This post contains hairy spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero Act 2.

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There’s a scene in Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) when we’re still in the early, shiny exposition stages of a David Lynch movie, where plucky protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont is talking to his blind boss and his boss’s helper. At the end of the conversation, Jeffrey holds up his hand.

"How many fingers?" Jeffrey asks.
There’s a short pause.
"Four!" his boss correctly replies. (He’s blind, don’t forget.)
Jeffrey says “I still don’t know how you do that.”
This is the end of the scene.

In the short pause before he answers, the helper taps Ed on his back four times. The movie doesn’t draw attention to it, the sound and movement are subtle. Jeffrey certainly doesn’t notice it. It’s never commented on again. When I saw it, I had a similar sensation I get when solving a puzzle in a video game. I waited for the movie to acknowledge it, so I could revel in my preemption. But the acknowledgement never came.

Lynch knows what’s going on in his movies and has the restraint to give us the scraps to piece things together. This is taken to extremes in the final scenes of Blue Velvet, which this blogger hypothesises in detail.

Of course, the pleasure of intellectual mastery is not the point of Blue Velvet, and knowing exactly what is going on in a David Lynch movie is impossible. He has mastered the art of mystery which is not intended to be brought to its conclusion. Due in no small part to necessity, since much of his work is often unfinished, cancelled by networks, etc.

*****

There’s a scene in Kentucky Route Zero Act 2 (Cardboard Computer, 2013) where you move between floors of an office building. The receptionist tells you to go to floor 5, but you can press any button in the lift. They’re labeled ‘Conference room’, ‘Storage’, etc. Floor 3 is labelled ‘Bears’. Others might have been tempted to select floor 3, but I didn’t. I went where I was told, not where I was tempted.

As I move up the building to floor 5, I pass the third floor. The camera pans up across the floors which the player peers in on though horizontal strips. The scene is a continuous space that you see from the one angle and the camera never pulls in. Floor 3 is full of bears. There’s nothing else to it. 

I pass the bears on the way up and down, choosing never to set foot on the floor. I didn’t even want to know what would happen if I met them. This detail was so special that I felt like visiting floor 3 would spoil it.

How does this make its way into a game? I imagine the conversation between Tamas Kemenczy and Jake Elliott went something like this:

"One of the floors of the building has bears on it."
"Yeah."

Actually, it probably happened like this:

"We’ll open Act 2 with an office building."
"Why?"
"So one of the floors can have bears in it."
"Right."

No, wait, this game is so tight that it was probably just:

"Which floor should the bears be on?"
"Floor 3."
"Cool. Also, let’s call the game Kentucky Route Zero."

The creators had the respect to put that in their game—the type of detail that would astonish me in its apparent incuriousness. I couldn’t help but reciprocate such incuriousness—to receive it in the same way such a detail would be received in Blue Velvet. Not going to floor 3 was more valuable to me than whatever being there could promise.

If we pretend that this was the intended response, how does a developer make sure the player doesn’t go there? If the game doesn’t present the option, the absence would be fishy, jarring, and immediate. I can go to other floors, why can’t I go to this one? Players love complaining about restriction. Perhaps the elevator button is broken. Perhaps it’s a restricted floor. This would feel cheap and unsatisfying. The only solution is to let the player go to floor 3 and hope that they choose not to. It’s a risky design decision. It’s just as risky for the player to ignore it. It’s so risky that I shake this entire train of thought from my mind. This couldn’t have been the intent. How could a developer be so opportunistic?

Yet I still have the feeling that I did the “correct” thing. The structure of KRZ doesn’t privilege any aspect of its content. It’s happy to let players ignore swathes of conversation and, by design, it cordons off most tendrils of its conversation tree. So much of the conversation is ephemeral and can’t be revisited, leaving the player with threads of what-ifs. The words that aren’t said are just as important as the ones which are, which not only makes the game feel larger from the limited perspective of the player—in the way a mirror makes a room seem roomier—but it also deemphasises the notion of canon. That so little of the information is essential to player progress allows the game this liberty.

Many Lynchian themes translate aptly to the metaphysical affordances of hypertext. Parallel universes are something games get for free. The fundamental narrative axioms of Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001), for instance, are revealed to be unstable by the end of the movie. Lynch suggests a nonlinear causality inside a linear medium. KRZ behaves similarly as a text, but it isn’t as disorientating to the experience since the player only actualises one of these possibilities. One of the very first actions that the player takes in the game is when Conway talks to his dog, the outcome of which retroactively determines its name, gender, and the relationship they share. Characters’ intentions, relations, and histories are transient and are decided by the player—presented as a choice in the same tone and with the same reverence as other, innocuous decisions of conversation. But what most distinguishes this from a similar humiliation of causality in Mulholland Drive, is that this is happening constantly throughout the game to the point that the player becomes accustomed to it. What Lynch presents as a twist, KRZ embodies as a core game mechanic qua leitmotif. The visual and aural atmosphere certainly contributes to a superficial unease, but the canonical instability is completely at home. Where Lynch is at his precipice, KRZ is at its most mundane. For the most part, the hypertext is a lyricism of the transience of conversation.

Anyway, congrats on winning Excellence in Visual Arts.

*****

I still don’t know what happens when you go to floor 3. Maybe I missed out on a wacky conversation with some bears. Maybe it leads to a whole new area, or reveals secret coordinates on the game’s cyclical overworld. I don’t care. Even if any those things were true, I wager my abstinence was more valuable. My speculation is that nothing happens if you were to go there, and that some people have and were disappointed by this. I don’t blame them. Only discontent lies at the systemic resolution of the mystery of floor 3. And this resolution only sublimates the more interesting mystery worth ignoring of why the bears are there in the first place. People lost interest in Twin Peaks (Lynch/Frost, 1990) after they discovered Who Killed Laura Palmer. A television show can’t leave this indefinitely unresolved; viewers and network executives become restless. Similarly, a series of interesting choices (a game!) can’t hide its permutations. A player can always replay a game and it is not my place—nor the developers—to say a player shouldn’t. If we proceed too hastily to the thing we desire and show the thing itself, we overshoot, its charm is dispelled, and we lose what we are after, to paraphrase Zizek.

As a game that doesn’t fall prey to overexplanation, KRZ becomes bigger than the sum of its possibility space. It’s a game in which choices resonate beyond their explicit outcomes. To visit floor 3 would have been a perversion.

I couldn’t have gone to floor 3. The knowledge would have been an intrusion on what I had internalised as the game’s diegesis. The game demanded that I not. Just not in game logic.

Here are some questions that I would prefer to ruminate upon than “What would have happened if I went to floor 3?”:

  • How many other players, like me, abstained from visiting floor 3? 
  • Does the structure of the KRZ foster this type of restrained play or is the game truly opportunistic?
  • How many players slowed down their walking in the forest at the end of Act 2 after a certain conversation between Ezra and the dog?
  • How many even had that conversation with the dog?
  • How many never ran in the first place?
  • If they never ran, would the same conversation had taken place?
  • How many Blue Velvet viewers noticed the back-tapping?
  • How many of those who noticed decided that they were unique in noticing it?
  • How many of them decided that Jeffrey knew the trick and was playing along, versus those who believed he really didn’t know how it was done?
  • If the Oracle never told Neo not to worry about the vase, would he have still broken it?

7 Apr 2013

Water

The room slowly filled with goop. It reached eye level and for a fraction of a second the angle was just right and he saw beneath the surface in perfect clarity. A momentary glitch, before the screen effect suffocated his vision and the viscous noise muffled the ambient sounds. The background music seamlessly dropped into a muted harp rendition of itself. Isn’t it funny that Grant Kirkhope had written an underwater version of his apartment’s theme music even though it was never meant to have water in it—at least not enough water to be submerged in. This he mused just before the blackness enveloped him.

Water, water, everywhere, not an oxygen meter in sight. He could rest at the bottom of this river forever.

As he waded through the cave in Dear Esther, the water pushed him. He strode against the flow—it wasn’t stronger than his movement speed. It wasn’t a gating mechanic. He pushed to the edge of the cavern, moved the mouse forwards until his vision locked upwards, and then let go of the controls. Lying on his back, he watched stalactites drift by as the facsimile of the current took him, approximated by the sound samples of gushing water and the subroutine updating the variable storing his position each frame. Eventually his character stopped moving. He stood up and left the cave.

Nathan Drake’s shirt is wet.


21 Jan 2013

Difficulty setting philosophies

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

"Tell me a story" or ”Give me a challenge” or ”Give me Deus Ex” or go away.

You are this sort of person. You will be categorised into our player stereotypes.

System Shock

"Tell me a story" and “Give me a challenge” and so on…

Mix and match. More granular wiggle room. Express yourself.


27 Dec 2012

Games of the Year 2012

5. Dear Esther

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Dear Esther didn’t click with me the first time I played it. I loved it on the merit of its visual art alone. I liked that the beach was filthy and the sand was full of rubbish. You don’t see a lot of non-idyllic landscapes in video games outside of warzones or post-apocalyptia. I liked that the environments were directed to ensure the player is always in the best position to appreciate their beauty. It does this so successfully that it renders Dead End Thrills obsolete. All of the photos in Duncan’s Dear Esther set look exactly like I remember from playing the game (except those first two which are manipulated in Photoshop for stylistic effect). His photos bring nothing to the game’s art that the game itself doesn’t already afford, and I mean that not as a slight to Duncan, but as praise for the game. I thought Dear Esther was worth playing for this alone, but I never engaged with it on any deeper level. After reading what Cameron Kunzelman wrote about its story, I played it again. The more I reflected on it, the more it grew on me.

I’m amused by people who say Dear Esther isn’t a game. I can’t see it as anything but. It’s not a story, but a possibility space of stories. Who was driving the car? Were they drinking? Are Esther and Donnelly the same person? These details blur, change, contradict across playthroughs. What would usually be considered important plot points, aren’t. But this isn’t the type of game where players excitedly exchange stories about what happened in their personal playthrough. Did your FemEsther kill the rachni queen? Did you bring Clementine with you into the cave, along with 17% of players?

Take a cross-section of any game—one person’s playthrough—and you get a linear narrative. But a game is as much a series of narratives as a film is simply a series of images. Dear Esther requires its three-dimensionality to tell its story. Or non-story, as the case may be.

Some games are worlds to explore and exist in. Some are simulations. Puzzles. Stories. Dear Esther isn’t any of those things, but it has traces of most of them. The game’s challenge is to interpret the story. And like coin-op games, or like Canabalt, it’s the type of challenge where you will never “win,” and the goal is to last as long as possible. All interpretations of Dear Esther are wrong, but the fun is in tweeting how many metres you ran before hitting a wall and falling to your death.

The game also has actual, quote video game unquote challenge, which people seem to overlook. There are details in the environment—contrails, ghosts—that activate extra monologue from a different narrator when the player uses the focus button on them. But you wouldn’t really call that a ‘challenge’ or an ‘easter egg’. If the game had guns, we might.

When discussing video games, common vocabulary is limited to the cultural construct of what dominates the medium. Dear Esther breaks down those barriers. We need to think of these things differently.

But best of all, Dear Esther not a game about video games. It’s not an explicit critique on the way we think about games. Dear Esther doesn’t give a shit about any of this. It just exists as a compelling thing in it’s own right.

And, honestly, it’s not the game in direst need of defense. Dear Esther was backed by Indie Fund, and has stunning visual art by Robert Briscoe which was made in Valve’s Source engine, for which it won Excellence in Visual Art at the IGF.

The creator of the next game on this list might have been able to afford the entrance cost for an IGF submission if his game weren’t still straggling for audience votes in Steam’s Greenlight game show, and if he had known they were going to finally introduce an Excellence in Narrative category this year.

Further reading:

  • Cameron Kunzelman on Dear Esther (1, 2, 3, 4)

4. The Sea Will Claim Everything

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There’s something magical about Verena Kyratzes’ drawings. With absolutely zero animation, this game world felt more alive than any other I’ve played in recent (selective) memory. Saying individual goodbyes to every single character at the end of the game filled my ‘feels’ quota for the year. It made me notice how attached I’d become to all of the characters—not just as individuals, but as a family.

To make the world feel lived in, Jonas Kyratzes wrote unique descriptions to accompany every single object in Verena’s maximalist art. You can talk to every sentient creature in the game, down to the smallest spider. Mushrooms have political persuasions. Flowers disagree on whether Robert Frost or William Wordsworth is a better poet. Maltalonos' Twitter persona (circa his nymphal 'A Thoughtful Bug' phase) feels like a character straight out of this game.

RPGs like the Elder Scrolls series have been utilising the bookshelf of an NPC to give flavour to backstory for a while. Mages own spellbooks, cultists have demonic texts. But Jonas has this school of environmental storytelling down to a T. Unlike The Elder Scrolls, in The Sea Will Claim Everything, you do not open the pages of any novel, but only glance at the titles. Some books are fictional, some are real. Some are from other, existing fictions. Such is the nature of the Lands of Dream. Enter the offices of the various mayors of the lands—the villains of the game, driving the populous into debt and poverty—and you’ll find books titled:

  • How Greed Helps Everyone, by Flora Mendacium
  • How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, by John C. Maxwell
  • The Great Chain of Industry, by Andrew Ryan

The doctor has a collection of medical books, the lighthouse dwelling octopus has books on adventure and exploration. The characters in this game are more well read then that of anyone in Tamriel, and this is evident not only from the sheer volume of books in the world, but from the way the characters think and speak and act.

It reminds me of Dan Marshall’s brute force method of writing a unique joke for every possible combination of items in Time Gentlemen Please. A writer sees a genre trapping as a writing challenge. When you hold a hammer, every problem’s a nail, and all that. I think both games succeed, even though it would have been a ridiculous amount of work and will never catch on. And that just makes a unique, evolutionary dead end of a game more special. It means it will never feel outdated.

I’ve always wanted to play a video game that has all the awe and wonder of Adventure Time. The Kyratzes’ Lands of Dream is all of that, plus an abundance of literary and philosophical ponderings, and writing that provokes thought and poignancy.

Further reading:

  • Eric Swain’s review on Pop Matters
    "Living, breathing" are common adjectives to describe an achievement of a game world. For this game, Eric aptly appends "thinking" to the platitude.

3. Analogue: A Hate Story

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One blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Oh, *Hyun-ae. At first, I felt extrememly uncomfortable with her. Then I loved her. Then I pitied her. Then, in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to break her heart.

Analogue is a feminist hypertext essay in the form of a story of a teenage girl living in modern Korea, who is transported back in time to the Joseon era, a state run on the corruptions of Neo-Confucian ideals, in which society was most oppressive to women. But that’s not literally what the game is. Rather, it’s adapted to a science fiction setting—a colony living on the space ship Mugunghwa—and instead of a girl sent back in time, this girl is sent forward in time to a dystopian future aboard the ship where society has regressed to a Joseon-like state.

I’m going to spoil some of the plot from here on out.

Placed in stasis by her family in the hope that her incurable disease will be curable sometime in the future, the girl—named The Pale Bride, a mistranslation of The Sick Daughter—is released by her descendants who plan to marry her off to a royal family. In the time that she was dormant, something caused this societal regression and you never find out what it was (but this will possibly be revealed in the upcoming DLC).

You, the unnamed player, have a spaceship of your own and are tasked with the job of logging into the computer of the ship—which is now long-abandoned—and downloading any logs you can find. The game opens similarly to Spec Ops: The Line (GOTY #8) in that your mission is simply to get in, gather intel, and get out. But as soon as you discover the ends of the threads of what happened on the space station, curiosity (or something else—perhaps just the motivation to exhaust the game content that was payed for) takes you on the scenic route of this routine op. (Unlike Spec Ops, you can choose to simply do your job to the letter, bypassing the entire story and still receive one of the multiple, canonical endings.)

The game unfolds across three different modes of interaction which you move between as appropriate to the story. Initially, you have a textual terminal that you can use to directly interact with the ship’s computer console. You soon boot up the ship’s AI—*Hyun-ae—and speak with her. She gives you partial access to the ship’s logs, curating them as to what is relevent to help you get up to speed. Eventually, you’ll discover that she’s also using this curation to withhold some information from you that you’ll have to tease out of her.

Eventually, *Hyun-ae reveals that she and The Pale Bride are the same person—she uploaded herself as an AI to the ship’s computer before dying along with everyone else six centuries ago.

As you read the logs—in the ballpark of 500 words each, usually emails sent between characters, sometimes resembling journal entries—there’s a heavy sense of *Hyun-ae’s presence watching over your shoulder or waiting to see your reaction and tell you what she thinks. The game’s literary-heavy nature enables the story to unfold on multiple, nested layers: your mission and the relationship between you and the AIs happening in the present, and the story of the denizens of the Mugunghwa 600 years in the past.

While the ship’s text logs are where you piece together most of the story, the dialogue with the AIs is a significant part of the experience.

Games often abstract conversation into a game mechanic—usually dialogue trees—and lose the nuance of interacting with another human. It’s inevitable. When a game tries to give us agency through loaded, discrete—sometimes binary—nodes, we have to suspend our disbelief or else become incredibly frustrated: whether it’s Mass Effect giving us three different ways to say the same thing, or L.A. Noire, which has you bracing every time you make Phelps speak for fear that he’ll fly off the handle and entirely misinterpret the tone you would have gone for.

Analogue sidesteps this problem, and by doing so, creates an effective and unique dynamic. The UIs and proxies through which the player is interacting with the game world are diegetic. (The Sea Will Claim Everything sort of does this as well, but it’s more of a novelty and it eventually becomes invisible to me, like the UI of any typical game, with occasional exceptions.)

In fact, the game teases you with a text parser in the opening, but regardless of what you type in it, *Hyun-ae discovers it isn’t working properly. Instead, she must resort to asking you a question and presenting you with two responses that she has written and that you may choose between.

When the game forces me into making a loaded choice, or I say something that comes off the wrong way, I no longer see it as the game’s fault, I see it as *Hyun-ae’s fault. Which means I no longer see it as a fault at all because she’s so cute and insecure, and I don’t want to blame her for something out of her control, especially after everything she’s been through in life.

She’s trying to figure out what I’m thinking, but all she can do is offer me a choice of two options of her diction. On top of that, she’s also gradually falling in love with me because I’m the first person she’s spoken to in a long time, and the first person who hasn’t treated her like shit for even longer.

And now these extreme, loaded, binary choices start to make a whole lot of sense. There’s a part of her that believes so hard that I could love her, but there’s a self-doubting realism which almost already assumes I don’t. Our relationship was mostly taking place in her head. She’s excessively introspective and I am the quantum observer which must collapse her wave function of cognitive dissonance.

When I realised that’s what she was doing, my reaction was a sharp sense of pity. In her, I saw the insecurities and infatuations I’ve had in the past. The game held a mirror up to my neuroticism. Not that I’m as bad as *Hyun-ae, but leave me alone on an empty spaceship for a few hundred years and then let me write the cards with which I communicate with others and I don’t think I’d fare much better.

Although not all of the binary dialogue choices were extreme as I’m making it sound, they all played the same dissonant tune: You could never love me (but maybe you do?). I could only choose between between fulfilling her fantasies or confirming her pessimism. If I just had a text parser, maybe I could have talked her back to reality, but that was never an option.

In many RPGs you’re given the choice to be good or evil—usually incredibly banal choices, unless you find pleasure in being a bastard (which I don’t). Or perhaps they are bleak worlds like Dragon Age II or The Walking Dead where there are no right answers, or something that you thought was right turns out to have unforeseen ramifications. Both of these examples do excellent things with dialogue and player choice, but even those shades of grey can be limiting and trite. I always play the good guy in RPGs, and usually stick up for my party members. I just can’t help it. And I’m used to RPGs making it too easy for me. Analogue is a game that plays right into my empathy and made the easy choices of being the “good guy” complicated and confusing.

At one point in the game, when you’re starting to dig beneath the surface of the story, *Hyun-ae is clearly starting to having fun helping you uncover the plot, and enjoying your company. She gives you a terminal command that will change her appearance, telling you that cosplay is a hobby of hers. This sounded fun, and I figured her schoolgirl outfit was a bit inappropriate, so I looked at the list of costumes. Scientist, maid, detective, and one I didn’t recognise: hanbok. I chose that one because I wanted to see what it was. It turned out to be the traditional dress that she was forced to wear as The Pale Bride.

"Oh," she looked incredibly hurt, "Where did you find this?"

She thought I was telling her to know her place and that she should wear what a girl in her position is supposed to wear. She’d spent the worst parts of her life in that outfit and wanted nothing more to play dress-up in all the fun clothes she couldn’t touch. And I had just given a severe insult by inadvertently making her wear the one thing she never wanted to wear again.

I was mortified at what I had done, and immediately swapped it out for her detective outfit. She cheered up after that, but I still felt horrible for the misunderstanding. What I love about this moment is that this kind of miscommunication—unlike the miscommunications of Cole Phelps—didn’t break the game at all, but evoked an honest guilt that supports the framework of the narrative.

The limitations of communication in Analogue create a nuance of human interaction with an NPC instead of removing all nuance. And for her weaving of good writing, good game design, and a subject matter that is significant, Christine Love deserves to be commended.

Some people take their sci-fi romance with a side dish of third person cover shooting. I take it with a history of women’s literature in Korea.

Further reading:

2. The Walking Dead

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In contrast to everything I said about Dear Esther, I don’t know if I even want to play The Walking Dead more than once. Some details change and others are static, but here the distinction isn’t important.

Regardless of how the game’s code discriminates an action that will be ‘remembered’ or one that will only trigger an immediate dialogue response before being forgotten entirely, my real investment in this game takes place in my mind, not a save file. That’s not to say there isn’t a whole lot of work being done on game’s side to keep this up—which it does masterfully, right up to the game’s final, somber moment.

Where many games take pride in offering a smorgasbord of narrative choice, The Walking Dead prefers to focus on reflection. It gives you a voice to judge, defend, or apologise for your own actions and the actions of others. A consequence isn’t a slap on the wrist. It’ll haunt you for the rest of the game.

While the choices are important, what Telltale gets so right are the consequences. Almost every decision in the game is made under pressure. You never have time to think things through and and you’ll often make bad calls in the heat of it all. This means the game is not about adopting an ethical stance; making the choices is arbitrary. They’re there for the story to explore themes of blame, grief and humanity. Right from the start, the player character, Lee, is introduced as a convicted murderer and you are never sure whether he is guilty or not. Lee’s past is brought up frequently throughout the story as one of the key examples of this motif.

When a character died in the final episode—I won’t say who, but it was a male—there was nothing I could have done about it. He made a decision which I couldn’t talk him out of. I stood behind a locked fence, hopelessly clicking on it—the only action available to me, but which didn’t bear any consequence—as I was forced to watch his death take place. When I returned to the rest of the group and informed them of what happened, it felt appropriate for Lee to say something about this character who just died. Or rather, the game presented me with the option to eulogise him.

One of the game’s dialogue options appeared, offering me a choice of three options or the choice to remain silent. A bar at the bottom of the screen slowly shrank, indiciating how long I had to respond before my silence would speak for me and the scene would move on. This is how most of the interactive dialogue works in the game. In this case, I could show regret, cold indifference, anger, or silence.

It had no bearing on the plot, but it—and the rest of these moments that the game is ripe with—had a bearing on my own perception of Lee and his relationship with the other characters. For an entirely prescribed narrative, the game is still equal parts give and take.

"He was my friend," Lee said. I said.

The world didn’t care. The game didn’t care. But it was important for me to say those words, as if saying it somehow made it fact. For a game that’s so tailored to my experience, it still succeeds in feeling disinterested from the player. So much so that I cling to those moments in defiance of the game’s selective apathy.

Another character responded with a reminder that just because he’s dead, it didn’t resolve him of the terrible things he did.

"I know," Lee defended, too quickly. Or maybe that one was just me.

There’s an option in the game which allows you to have a more verbose HUD, indicating to the player whenever a decision will have an effect later on. I can’t imagine playing this way because the game was most effective when I didn’t know when it was taking notes; when it felt like the opening of Chrono Trigger elaborated into a whole game.

My favourite moment was when Clementine used a swear word in front of the group because I had used it in front of her some time in the past. There was an awkward silence and we were both embarrassed.

I feel like most games use explicit, extradiegetic indications of character affinity in lieu of putting them to any use. I don’t know if The Walking Dead crunched numbers or triggered flags to determine how people would respond to me, and I liked that. The writing in The Walking Dead was good enough that these seams—the turning of pages of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book—weren’t visible.

Punctuating each episode is a glimpse into the multiverse: a summary of the key, branching choices you made and how they compare to everyone else’s who played the game. But this screen only serves as a reassurance that yes, this game is not a cop out; the other paths you didn’t take really do exist. When I felt horrible for something I said or did, and I had to deal with the consequences: that wasn’t emotional manipulation. Sometimes I could have done something differently, other times I couldn’t. This combination of predeterminism and agency is a symbiotic relationship.

The Walking Dead is saturated with moments that feel human. Making the call that saves a life can be momentous, but sometimes it’s more powerful to have simply saved someone’s grief. It’s a step forward for storytelling in games. It’s an example of how games can cut out the fat, pull up their socks, stop making excuses about how we need deeper game mechanics, or clever puzzles, or photorealism, or meta-commentaries about problematic video game tropes, or anything else, and just be as good as they can be.

I hope Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman can take what they accomplished with The Walking Dead even further in future endeavours. And maybe next time we can do it without zombies.

1. Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube?

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Na, just kidding.

But have you seen the Wikipedia page for that game? It sure is something.

1. Thirty Flights of Loving

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1984¾

The menus and loading screens of Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving mimic the packaging and design of a vinyl record as though the game were an EP. Like a song, the game doesn’t last long and is the same every time I play it. But I always get something new out of it depending on my mood, or what I choose to focus on, or what I let wash over me. It gets in my head. Sometimes I play it on repeat. It favours being evocative over making sense, expressing feelings and events without spelling out a prosaic narrative.

And of course—underneath the raucous—it’s a love story.

The game’s B-side, Gravity Bone, which was originally released non-commercially in 2009, is similar to Thirty Flights, but begins with something resembling a traditional game, or at least a more formally structured one; a stripped-down, bonsai Hitman: Blood Money. After two levels, it throws its twist on you, beginning a rolling ball of a chase scene culminating in an inscrutable series of flashbacks while the protagonist falls to his death. Thirty Flights of Loving, the sequel, takes what Gravity Bone does with its ending and spins that experience into an entire game. There’s no buildup to a twist; instead, the buildup is every other video game you’ve played in your life, and the twist happens the moment you start this one.

Gravity Bone’s chase sequence is played to the tune of Aquarela do Brasil, a song popularised by its use in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Although Chung explains that he chose the song just because he liked it, the game’s sequel bears further striking resemblances with Gilliam’s film, both superficially and in the way its narrative complexity subverts the traditional storytelling tropes of the medium.

The three protagonists—Abel, Anita, and Borges—are on the run for a heist gone wrong in the fictional, future city of Nuevos Aires. Many scenes are inhabited by security cameras floating about from balloons marked “POLICIA” mirroring Brazil’s 1984-inspired totalitarian government. You carry a bleeding Borges on a luggage stroller through an airport as crowds of people move by without noticing, much like the apathetic crowds surrounding Harry Tuttle’s demise. ’Wanted’ posters are issued by the “Department of Retribution” and a plaque in the game’s opening room makes reference to a period of Abolition put in place by the State’s “Wheel of Morality Department”. These departments are almost a flippant, tongue-in-cheek equivalent of the “Ministry of Information” or “Ministry of Truth”.

There’s also a moment where the decidedly Orwellian phrase “FORGET YOUR PAST” is projected on the walls. Initially, I parsed this as an uncharacteristically metaphysical message to me as the player, until I took a few steps forward and noticed that the words are repeated as the assuredly diegetic slogan for Cugat Air. The words create a moment of dramatic irony, echoing the graffiti that welcomes visitors to the Buzludzha Monument, before you enter a hall similar to the Buzludzha’s interior for a theatrical shootout.

This is where the thematic similarities to Brazil end. Thirty Flights doesn’t follow Brazil as far as its use of fantastical dream sequences as counter-discourse to bureaucracy and repression, but it does utilise similar subversions of temporality, spatiality, and causality in a way that most previous works in the medium barely scratch the surface. They both require their audiences to piece together a story from a fragmented and incomplete experience, and prevent them from relying on hypotheses drawn from expectations or predictions of how games or films work. Consequently, playing Thirty Flights is like playing a video game for the first time again, and recaptures the magic that is lost once a player has an internalised a set of expectations.

The rest of the words on the aforementioned Abolition plaque stoop into nonsense, but this flavour text is meant to be parsed no more than the spoken “mwah mwah” noises that substitute for dialogue. Abel doesn’t remember what every sign says or what people say, but distinctly remembers that someone was saying something. Abel doesn’t care what the groom’s speech was at the party; his attention was with getting very drunk with Anita. He shared some words with Borges (an apology?) shortly after wheeling him under a gate to stop it from closing, but in the heat of the moment all he stores to memory is the fact that words were shared.

The story is non-linear, jumping back and forth through continuity, location, and reality, letting you piece together the fragments of what is going on, in the way that art cinema toys with syuzhet. It doesn’t reach the delusional heights of Brazil’s dream sequences, and is far less explicit with what is and isn’t real. Rather, it plays out like Abel remembering a series of events in an erratic order and cutting out filler moments. Some memories lead to other thoughts, with a logical thread that only makes sense to Abel himself.

The moment of betrayal, the heist going wrong, Anita clicking an empty gun to your face: all this is the game’s chorus which it periodically returns to. The first smash cut is shocking, and you quickly escape with Borges. When you return to that moment, your movement is limited, suggesting that Abel had hurt his legs when falling into the room from the ceiling. Did you recover between then and leaving the room, or is Abel just remembering details differently each time? Subsequent portrayals of this scene are played out differently as if the interim led to a revision to the way it plays out in Abel’s mind.

Many games have toyed with narrative logic, usually as twists or novelties. Few have been so confident as Thirty Flights. The presentation is far from realism—not only by way of the cute, boxy character designs, but the exaggerated set up of the scenes and spaces. The memories are embellished in a theatrical way, fully embracing the subjectivity of the point of view.

At Freeplay this year, Dan Golding and Claire Hosking ran a presentation named Games and Space, which was certainly the high point of the festival. They spoke about the way the Assassin’s Creed games represent the space of a city like Florence; how key landmarks are recreated in high detail and a realistic proportion, but the filler space is abbreviated so the world isn’t tedious to traverse. Many people have spoken about this before, but Dan’s use of the word ‘abbreviated’ resonated with me.

That word helped me notice how these types of games that advocate spatial and temporal continuity often portray time similarly: at any given moment, the world appears to run in real time, but when observed broadly, is clearly abbreviated. People may perform actions in real time, but an entire day might pass in 30 minutes. These tropes become internalized and contribute to player schemata and the much-coveted video game concept of “realism” (often problematically prefixed with “photo”) which can be skewed and suffocating.

Thirty Flights truncates time instead of abbreviates—a trick which is accentuated by the recurring symbol of the clock. In a room that Chung refers to in the director’s commentary as the “time hall”, time is moving incredibly fast. Crowds of people speed past you and the hands of the analogue clock on the wall spin wildly. In another scene, as you walk to the exit of your apartment, the digital clock in front of you jumps, and Anita and Borges appear to appear in front of you, ready to leave for a party. The player hasn’t moved in space, but time has instantly jumped forward and the clock is a grounding of how much time has passed.

Then when you get to the party, the dancefloor fills with people and bottle after bottle of alcohol appear in front of Abel and Anita. A post-processing bloom effect and a hallucination of floating dancers represent Abel’s intoxication. This is followed by snippets of the two of you drunkenly stumbling back to your apartment and presumably sleeping together. Thirty Flights fast-forwards and truncates time without breaking the continuous, first-person flow. It presents a combination of singular moments stretched out to eternity as well as extended periods of time condensed into a stylistic representation of them. In the same way that Brazil challenged the continuity of reality of the typical Hollywood structure of a film narrative, Thirty Flights deliberately draws attention to the jagged, temporal construction of its story.

I’m not able to make the claim that Thirty Flights is The Brazil of Video Games, and the game is certainly not trying to be that. But it was a decade after Brazil that Hollywood movies and audiences became comfortable with toying with the artificial, flawed “realism” of the medium’s conventions. It led to an environment that allowed films like Reservoir Dogs and Inception to thrive with large audiences. Although Thirty Flights is not a mainstream game, I hope it too can pave the way for more complex narrative in video games.

It’s good to explore how video games are unique but it’s important to remember that the medium does not exist in a vacuum. Some games are criticised for their cinema envy, but Thirty Flights is proof that the problem is not with the influences to which games often look, but with the lessons they should be drawing from them. Thirty Flights is one of those games that seems like it has fallen from an alternate universe. It’s so bold in its style, and feels like it’s the result of generations of iteration on the foundations of Genres and Waves and Movements.

In interviews and talks, Chung has spoken about how he puts a lot of himself into his games and that they are largely influenced by personal events in his life. I’m sure everything in the game was put there for a reason, but those reasons aren’t worth reading into. I don’t understand the meaning to all the lyrics of my favourite songs, but it’s enough to know that they mean something to the author. Something personal goes in and something personal comes out, even if the game is a black box of exegesis.

The end credits—a place where the game stops jerking you around and lets you catch your breath—is also actually where the game is at its most metaphysical and self-referential, not fitting into the narrative at all. As your car crashes at the game’s climax, you fall through the windshield into a museum in which the car, along with many other props from the game, are exhibition pieces along other artworks which serve as the game’s credits. Small clusters of generic NPCs in classy attire sip champagne, contemplating the various showpieces. It’s a self-aware mocking of its own art cinema pretension. The NPCs represent a stereotypical, snobbish museum crowd and their futile discussion of the meaning of abstract art, in the way that a player might be tempted to contemplate the game itself. It’s a wink at the player, saying ”don’t take it seriously, babe, it just ain’t your story.”

Post-credits, the game leaves you with a final image, returning to the scene of Abel on the back of the motorcycle before the crash—a fleeting moment stuck skipping like Sgt. Pepper’s inner groove.

Further reading:

Further GOTY reading:

  • Ludonarratology - The Year of Games, a collective pick of GOTYs featuring the writing of some of my favourite game critics: Brendan Keogh, Cameron Kunzelman, Justin Keverne, Eric Swain, Kris Ligman, Mattie Brice, Michael Abbott and more.

15 Dec 2012

Being Tim Rogers

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What does Tim Rogers do?

He facebooks, tweets, formsprings, writes about video games for his site and other sites, records a weekly podcast, and goes to E3. Technically, he’s also some sort of game developer, but his full time job is essentially doing PR and Community Management for himself. Oh, and he’s in a band.

In one of his autobiographical novels (I forget which), he recounts multiple occasions of meeting with his fans from around the world. These people give him money because they like the things he writes on the internet, and that’s possibly how he stayed afloat while living in Japan.

At one point he said of Cliff Bleszinski’s role on Gears of War, “He probably made the whole game himself.”

At first I laughed this off as another example of Tim’s labyrinthine sense of humour that I’ll never understand. This is the kind of thing Tim says—neurons fire in his brain and he has some kind of thought that he will explain to you, if you’re lucky.

It’s hard to know exactly what a video game personality does in day to day development. Cliffy B is the lead designer of the Gears of War series, but how much of its success can be attributed to him, and how much was he being fed by the rest of the talent at Epic?

In the Tim Rogers narrative, Cliffy B made the entire game. He’d want you to believe that, or at least as close to that as you will buy. Just like he’d want you to believe that Tim Rogers made Ziggurat.

This isn’t because he’s a jerk and he’s the type of person who wants to take credit of the work of others. In fact, Tim wouldn’t admit that he made the whole game himself. His personality permeates that idea. We like faces. We like saying Warren Spector made Thief and Deus Ex.

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Action Button Entertainment is a small team of a handful of people. Ziggurat and TNNS are his two games—both modest in scope and cost about a dollar on iOS—that we can be sure exist and are good. On a smaller scale like this, it’s much easier to get closer to that perfect narrative where the game was borne by Tim’s brilliance alone. He talks up his games more than Peter Molyneux, but without the falling flat on his face afterwards.

There are unique Ziggurat games currently in development for Android and the Xbox 360. If they ever make it to release, I’m going to buy both of them. I don’t even know anything about the games, apart from the vague promises that it will live up to the hypothetical games he dreams up in the middle of reviewing other games. He doesn’t even need Kickstarter to have me as good as preordering an intangible promise.

Tim has been hired at game companies and has entertaining stories from many of them. He’s an established economist for social games. He claimed to work as a level designer on Shadows of the Damned, but I’ve only heard him make reference to his work on levels that never made it into the final game. And I never did see his name in the credits.

I’m not doubting that any of this is true, I’m just saying that it doesn’t matter if it’s true. I’m sure Tim is very good at making games. But he’s even better at making me think he’s good at making games.

It doesn’t matter that the people who are aware of Tim are a tiny niche of games culture, because that niche includes a bunch of games journalists and developers who have the power to publicise his games and make sure they are indie darlings that aren’t lost in the sea of the App Store.

Having Tim Rogers as the face of your game is more important than having him on your development team. I don’t think he had anything to do with Dyad’s development, but he plays hyperbolic wordsmith as if it were his baby.

Because you can never tell if he is being sarcastic, he has little fear of sullying his name. He has a billion haters, whom Tim claims are the people who don’t get The Joke.

I’m not trying to call Tim Rogers out on anything. I’m saying he’s a genius. I like him far more than Molyneux, Cliffy B, David Cage, or any other public face of video games.

He’s made a career out of Being Tim Rogers.

Further reading:


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