Feb 23 2009

FWR Episode 016: Flower

In Episode 016 we focus on Flower, downloadable for the PlayStation 3. The game has been described as a poem, and we use that classification to analyze the emotions it communicates through visual, audio, and interactive cues. We talk about the game’s unique structure, player character, and control scheme, and aesthetic parallels to pieces in other artistic mediums.

Don’t forget to check out and send us your thoughts on Gamer Theory for our upcoming Book Club episode, and thanks for listening.

Feb 19 2009

Looking for Love

GDC (the Game Developers Conference) always plays host to a wealth of interesting game concepts, and this March GDC will feature a talk from independent developer Eskil Steenberg, whose indy mMO, Love, will take center stage. This will be the public’s first real look at the game of Love, which is an enigmatic, artistic project from an enigmatic artist who puts the devotion into development.

I call Love an mMO, because it begs comparison to mainstream MMOs, but it only allows 200 players to inhabit each server. It’s just a little less massive. The concept of Love is brilliantly simple: Players enter a world that has been procedurally generated and populated with AI inhabitants and various resources, tools, and other objects. Players can then find tokens which enable them to make or use objects, or they can engage in combat with each other or the AI inhabitants.

A player character in Love.

A player character in Love.

Steenberg intends the narrative of Love to be built by player actions. As players find tokens, build settlements, create ad-hoc alliances and civilizations, battle AI inhabitants, and alter the landscape, all of these actions are noted in the history of that instance of the game world. As other players move through the world they are informed of the actions of their predecessors. Steenberg insists in several ways on the Love website that when players return they will be just as interested in seeing what other players have done to alter the world as in taking part in some battle or adventure.

To enhance the community aspects of the game, all found resources are shared. If a player finds a token that makes a weapon available, they must use that token inside their settlement, which then gives that weapon to anyone in that settlement. To add to the complexity of the world, each object is controlled through an in-game mechanic that can be intercepted and manipulated. That is, some players can become good at “hacking” the objects in the world, thus increasing their overall social capital and assisting their chosen social circle.

A city in Love from a distance.

A city in Love from a distance.

These are lofty, engaging ideas that gets game art fans interested. However, and in a disappointingly predictable move, most of the gaming press has focused on the graphics. A lot has been written about the visual appearance of Love, which does look a bit like an impressionistic painting mixed with early computer animation aesthetics. It has a visual style that is not at all mainstream gaming, but also not low tech or old-fashioned. It is utterly unique and wonderful because of it. That such engaging visuals can be created algorithmically is an accomplishment.

However, as with so many great ideas in the gaming world, Love so far does not really exist. Steenberg showed demos of his game engine to other developers and some media at GDC 2008. The tools Steenberg has used to build Love are interesting because it is an conglomeration of open source tools readily available to anyone and tools that Steenberg himself has created (those are open source, too, so anyone can play with the technology of Love).

Another city shot from Love.

Another city shot from Love.

Steenberg speaks eloquently about the development of Love. Heck, he even speaks eloquently about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Whether we see the milestone build of Love that Steenberg is hoping to produce in time for GDC 2009, or not, his talk is sure to be a fascinating discussion laced with both innovative ideas and a pure love of game development. And even if you’ve never been interested in an MMO before or you’re that MMO serial-monogamist, Love is something to look for in March.

Feb 18 2009

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

The XBox 360 I bought back in spring 2005 died its inevitable death the first week of January of 2009, and I finally received the refurbished unit back from Microsoft last Friday. I hooked it back up over the weekend just to make sure it actually does work, but I found myself with a dillemma of sorts that I’m sure is becoming a more frequent occurrence as console gaming continues to become more and more mainstream with each passing year.

I’ve had plenty of friends go through Redmond’s red-ring-around-the-rosie routine with their XBox 360s to know that I wouldn’t be receiving my unit back within much less than a month’s time (and to the person they were all correct…). With a substantial backlog of games still unplayed from the gluttony of last fall coupled with the fact that I have a shit-ton of prepwork to do for my upcoming Games & Literature course that starts in April, I rationalized buying a stripped-down “Arcade” SKU of the 360 that would allow me to keep on truckin while I simultaneously awaited the return of my recently-departed.

You already know where this is heading: it’s an embarrassment of riches, right?  Two XBox 360s! No problems there, right?

Umm, not quite.  I mean, it’s a nice problem to have I suppose, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Anyone who has had a matching pair of anything will inevitably feel this way, I think.


I’m curious to know what ya’ll have to say about this, and even more curious to hear your suggestions for what can be done to maximize a 2-XBox household.  (Besides, of course, shoving them up my ass…I already gave that a spin when the towel method failed, but that’s already a lot more than you needed to know.)

Feb 15 2009

Flower, Game Literacy, and Experiential Play

Color me impressed. Flower, available for download on the PlayStation 3, has me giddy. The game has been raved over a fair bit by the journalistic community prior to its release, so my expectations were high. I am happy to say that Flower has exceeded my expectations — and given me a lot to think about in the process. This is a game so beautiful in its sentiment and execution that I found myself moved nearly to tears on more than one occasion without the game ever introducing a word of spoken or written text after the title screen. In many ways, Flower can only be compared to thatgamecompany’s previous release (available for the PlayStation 3 and PSP), flOw. These two games take a different approach to the concept of level progression and interaction than most titles available for wide commercial release. flOw is something like an evolution simulator, with the player character beginning the game as a small organism and growing through the consumption of plankton-like materials and other organisms. Flower has the player character directing the wind in order to carry along a petal to “pollinate” other flowers while collecting a petal from each one. Both games use motion controls extraordinarily well, and in my opinion offer the best instances of such controls currently available in any game.

To my knowledge, there is no way to fail in flOw or Flower. Certain interactions will produce negative feedback: in flOw through backward motion across 3D planes; in Flower most prominently through force feedback from the controller. Many recent games have eliminated the possibility of outright failure, leading to a more relaxing if less challenging experience. However, the majority of those games still carry the old fail-state paradigm, being constructed around that concept but removing its teeth. I am thinking here of infinite continues penalized only by minor steps backward in environmental progression. flOw and Flower disregard this structure entirely, keeping the player in one continuous experience.


Aside from these structural similarities, the two games are quite different. flOw is harrowing at times due to the mechanic of eating other organisms in order to grow the player character. Flower produces similar visceral responses by simply varying the speed required for successful or optimal play. By removing the combat, the developers have exponentially increased the game’s accessibility. The experienced, goal-oriented gamer will probably tend to approach this game as has been taught through years of games with similar structures, but Flower must be approached in a way that is unique. It must be experienced rather than analyzed.

I generally find myself to be an experiential rather than an analytical gamer, and often fighting game design in order to play in this way. Flower is a mixture of open-world and on-rails play, with the sandbox portions being the larger share. The environments beg to be explored, and easily achieved goals allow progression to later levels. Although there are secrets to be found, encouraging multiple playthroughs, the game moves the player along with visual cues that prevent the motion from stopping unless the player directs it to. Nods to the gamer mentality such as this are appreciated and provide a comfortable apparatus for a community that might otherwise find itself totally lost in the experience. Flower utilizes game standards in order to create an environment that is recognizable, yet different and more welcoming than any other title that comes to mind.

Michael Abbott wrote this about Braid last year (and he is having a similarly enthusiastic reaction to Flower currently):

The tragedy of Braid, to me, is that it bars the door on what might have been its most receptive audience. I understand that one game can’t be all things to all people. I get the fact that Braid is, in many ways, a gamer’s game with homages to iconic aspects of gaming history. And I’m sensitive to the fact that Braid relies on our collective sense of games and our experiences playing them as part of its meaning. But when you consider how small that audience really is – and when you subtract from that number “hardcore” types like me who found the game severely unyielding – what you’re left with is a relatively small group of devoted gamers who truly love the game and find it meaningful to them.

I agree, and I think that Flower hits in ways that Braid will probably miss for most people other than select gamers. I intend to show this game to anyone who will look as an example of the potential for narrative in interactive space. I love both of these games, but Flower is clearly the more approachable of the two. A non-gamer would probably be confined to watch Braid being played, as the mechanics are technically demanding and require a significant level of comfort with a game controller. By using motion controls Flower bypasses the most daunting of obstacles to participating in game space.

Flower is about an intermingling of two worlds that begins on a grey desk in a large urban environment and immediately transports the player to an open, pastoral setting. This narrative seems quivering with metaphor, allowing diverse and inclusive readings. I have to believe that Flower will follow a similar path, merging gamers and non-gamers through an experience that both will appreciate for different reasons.

Feb 14 2009

FWR Episode 015: Ruben & Lullaby

In Episode 015 we talk about Erik Loyer’s excellent new iPhone game, Ruben & Lullaby. R&L makes us think about hardware potentials and limitations, methods for emotional investment, and player roles in interactive art.

We are preparing for a new Book Club episode on Gamer Theory, so take a look at it and send us your input. We have invited the author, McKenzie Wark, onto the program, so your thoughts will hopefully be conveyed to him. We look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for listening.

Feb 4 2009

The Non-Violent Path: Mirror's Edge

I finally finished Mirror’s Edge over the weekend and loved it, for a number of reasons. The fiction is mostly forgettable, but the title really shines in the gameplay and visual design departments (read an interesting interpretation of the visual aesthetics at eatsleepgame.net). I’m not a reviewer, so I won’t try to convince you to buy the game. If you’re interested in a unique experience, though, do consider it.

During and after this playthrough, one element is prominent in my mind: the combat. The game uses both melee combat systems and first-person shooter gameplay. The combat is not the best part of the game, and it even leaves the gamer wondering whether it should have been included. I think that the designers made the right decision, despite the technical shortcomings of the system.

In games like this, where combat is an integral and yet avoidable part of the experience, there is a burden laid on the player. Another game that comes to mind from the recent past is Metal Gear Solid 4. In both Mirror’s Edge and MGS4, the player is offered incentives to complete the game without use of the combat system. In Mirror’s Edge, the incentive comes primarily in the form of achievements or trophies, whereas in MGS4 it comes in the form of unlockable in-game content. If the player decides to forgo these rewards and engage in combat anyway, the implication is that he or she is not getting the full range of the experience on offer. The problem is that playing through either of these games without harming anyone is seriously HARD.

Both of these titles offer a non-violent, or at least non-lethal, path to the end of the game. To me, the question then becomes: in what ways is the game actively directing the player’s decision making? In MGS4, it is possible to play the length of the campaign without an enemy character ever even realizing that the player character is in the environment through the use of stealth techniques and camouflage. Mirror’s Edge, however, puts the player character into situations where direct confrontation is inevitable and only barely escapable without engaging in combat. It seems that the designers of Mirror’s Edge regard combat as an inevitability, and if the player is able to escape without participating, then he or she is considered to have gone over and above the requirements of the game. Perhaps the player (like myself) that chooses to shoot it out with the Orwellian police force from time to time is hurting their experience by not using the environment to circumnavigate enemies, an interpretation that the game seems to foster through overwhelming enemy encounters.

In MGS4 and Mirror’s Edge, the player characters (Snake and Faith, respectively) take on the characteristics of the player behind the controller. Whether that player chooses to engage in combat or not is a decision that must be made based on environment and circumstance. It is difficult to ignore the feeling that any moral ground these characters may at first have quickly falls away during combat as the divide between player and non-player characters grows smaller. When the player chooses to engage in combat, a parallel is instantly drawn between friendly and enemy characters, forcing the player to examine his or her actions more closely. In either of these titles, I think it is arguable that a violent playthrough is tantamount to failure. Of course, the designers must make it a viable option for commercial purposes, but that does little to mitigate the feeling of resignation produced by picking up an unwieldy, inaccurate weapon to more easily traverse an enemy-cluttered environment in Mirror’s Edge.

If Faith has to resort to gunplay the weapon hinders her movements, eliminating her skills as a “Runner.” The reason she is interesting to the player — her gymnastic ability — disappears. Melee combat is effective but tricky, and is usually implied to be non-lethal (I think). Faith is interesting until the player decides to fight under terms other than her own, and then she becomes dismissible. Her shooting skills are sub-par, and any player looking for a shooter should look elsewhere. Faith is good at what she does, but I’m afraid many people will only notice where she falls short.

Feb 3 2009

Games and the New Administration

The past few weeks in Washington DC have been incredibly surreal. Hell, the past few months have been pretty odd. The two topics I hear about most in my daily social circles, apart from our immediate task needs, are videogames and politics. And with the way that gamesmanship pervades the political realm, I can’t help but see them in mixed terms. First, it was the hordes of political activists campaigning for their candidate. Then Fallout 3 started promoting in the Metro, and the game forever changed my mental map of the DC Metro area. And then the election and subsequent inauguration — both of which created real, palpable chaos on the streets. Fear! Uncertainty! Disbelief!

And then, calm. A feeling of relief has swept into the city, and I can visibly notice an upswing in mood that is not the mania of the inauguration, but is certainly is elevated. The dog days of the Bush administration are over, and the future is much brighter than it has been in a long time.

But it is still unclear exactly what the new administration means for videogame legislation. We have gotten few glimpses of what Obama brings to the discussion, and the Democrats have a rocky past with the subject of videogames and freedoms of speech in general.

Historically, the Democrats have not done well with videogames. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Joe Lieberman co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) in 2005. This bill would have mandated government oversight of ESRB ratings, a whole secret-shopper program to catch noncompliant retailers, and stiff penalties for selling adult rated games to minors. Had FEPA passed, it would have cost the government a bundle of cash every year and would have also set a disturbing precedent. Keep in mind that at this point both the MPAA (the movie ratings board) and the ESRB (the game ratings board) are private organizations whose power comes from an agreement worked out by members of the respective inudstry. Government censors need not be involved.

Obama does not curently seem to be interested in focusing on censorship over more pressing issues, such as our economic collapse and multiple wars. However, as GamePolitics tracked throughout the primary and election process, Obama does clearly connect videogames to underachievement:

You know, I will invest in education. We’ll make sure government gets behind the schools. But it won’t make much of a difference if parents aren’t turning off the television set and putting away the video games and making sure that our children are doing their homework.

In light of the recent push for educational videogames, and building research confirming that games are educational in a variety of ways, I’d much rather hear Obama talking about creating more ways to reach students and seizing the power of all our media options to connect with learners. With games like Operation: Resilient Planet and the current wave of “pop-ed” games for Nintendo DS and other more casual platforms, the world of educational gaming is just beginning to come to life. I hope that the Obama administration will actually tend more towards the other side they’ve shown.

Never before has a presidential campaign or administration embraced technologies of communication so enthusiastically. From SMS text messaging to video blogs, the Obama administration has done a great job leveraging the power of technology. Their social web experiments have garnered a lot of positive attention and they have left no tone unturned when exploiting the power of networked communications to further their message.

They even advertised prominently during the election in videogames. Their ads showed up in a bunch of titles on Xbox Live. Millions of gamers saw Obama’s smiling mug while racing at breakneck speeds or strategizing dominance on the field. These advertisements were clearly successful and contributed to the building of Obama’s cool cred. Xbox Live also featured special coverage of the Inauguration as free video downloads.

It would be very unfortunate if these sorts of enthusiastic and strategic uses of technology were limited to increasing Obama’s political cache. We need the same kind of informed, innovative and effective use of technology in our classrooms and government operating procedure. And videogames have always been connected to innovation and adoption of technology. Games provide a lot more than the momentary respite from the day to day grind, or the proverbial “five minutes of fun” that so many markerters and apologists claim.

At this moment, another example of a hysterical political response to something lawmakers clearly do not understand is making its way through the New York State Assembly. Assemblyman Brian Kolb (Republican) has introduced a law that would require a whole lot of crazy things from NY retailers and game makers. At first blush, the requirement for game makers to provide a free demo of every game sounds like good business. But requirements for retailers to keep mature content games in a locked cabinet and for the state to impose its own ratings system sound, again, like expensive and pointless nonsense. The real comedy gold of the bill is in the required warning label mandated by the bill:


  • RAPE

The bill requires that if a game contains any one of these items it must contain the whole list on the back of the game. While we regularly see games with violent crimes, references to alcohol, and possibly even murder or morbid violence, I have never played a game involving sodomy, rape, incest, or bestiality. Even more to the point is that a general list like this is never going to be as effective as a list based on the actual content of a specific game, such as the list that already exists on every game reviewed by the ESRB.

This is just one example. There are many similar pieces of legislation in the US and abroad, illustrating just how much of a struggle it has been for mainstream society to deal with videogames. However, the pervasiveness of games increases, and all the lawmaking in the world has yet to stem the tide of games. With more powerful tools for individuals to participate in high quality game making on the rise, it is unlikely that the medium of videogames will be truly stymied in the near future. It is an eleven billion dollar industry that no country wants to lose.

Yet what lawmakers do can have a great impact on the games we see developed and the progress we make in leveraging the technology for the benefit of the culture. As White House staffer Bill Burton said, for the Obama team coming into the building was like going from “an Xbox to an Atari”. That reflects well the lack of progress the Bush administration did in effectively leveraging any kindof modern human knowledge. And hopefully it also reflects a bit more of the savvy of the new administration.

But we are gamers, and gamers always want more. We want an Xbox 360.

Feb 2 2009

FWR Episode 014: Margaret Chmiel

Margaret Chmiel, Director of Digital Media at National Geographic,  joins us for Episode 014 and a conversation about educational games. Marjee has been involved with the JASON Project, and we center our conversation on their excellent (and free!) game, Operation: Resilient Planet (you will need to make an account). We talk about the dynamics of working with non-profit as compared to for-profit organizations, possibilities for educational games as commercial releases, and Marjee’s prediction that everyone receives free giant robots within the next 3 years. Thanks for listening.