Jun 5 2009

Dante's Inferno: The Age Of Anti-Intellectual Property

First and foremost, I need to say that I adore Leigh Alexander and very much consider her a friend of the podcast. She chatted with us a few weeks back about social media, the future of print journalism, and how sentence-and-paragraph writers are quite possibly as important now in the digital age as they have ever been. Alexander consistently creates some of the most thoughtful writing about video games out here on the blogosphere, and she routinely forces me to rethink my attitudes about those who make, play and care about them. A lot of times, these moments are triggered by something that on the surface might initially seem insignificant, but it’s usually the little thing that tends to get stuck in my craw. What can I say, though? I’m a fickle little bird.

Alexander has been posting and tweeting all week from the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Among her impressive amount of info-relay is this column up over at GameSetWatch, in which she makes the argument that Electronic Arts’ upcoming video game Dante’s Inferno need not worry about trying too hard to adhere to its literary namesake. In describing the game as an “action title set in Hell,” Alexander asks a certainly appropriate rhetorical question: “Why not have fun with it?”

Dante's Inferno

Fun is almost always the baseline value by which we evaluate something we might call a “video game” (tangentially: if you want to get really semantic about this term, check out the latest episode of Big Red Potion, where Sinan Kubba, Joseph DeLia, Eddie Inzauto and yours truly get into some interesting territory about what we might mean or assume when we use that particular word). By nature, we are creatures who prefer the warm fuzzy over the cold prickly, and activities which require us to focus for long stretches of time and draw more than summary conclusions about what we’ve experienced are made more difficult when we aren’t having a pleasant time doing them.

Games and fun might go well together like chocolate and peanut butter, but let’s be careful not to assume that these aren’t incredibly subjective things we’re talking about. And yes, I know all of this nit-pickery about terminology can get incredibly tedious and annoying, but these acts of definition are nevertheless important, because when we talk about games as a medium, we are essentially talking about how game designers communicate ideas through building artistic vehicles for those ideas, as well as how game players receive and react to those ideas. When we whittle these efforts down to whether a game is “fun” or not, a lot can get lost in the trimming.

Case in point: Dante’s Inferno. Alexander writes, “The Divine Comedy, after all, is largely a poem about two guys walking and talking, not exactly the core gameplay of an action game. In that way, the liberties the [design] team took were intended to create a stronger video game, a more reasonable priority for, well, a video game, than focusing on a strong epic poem adaptation.”

These “liberties,” Alexander reports, include depicting Dante as “a former Crusader armed with a giant scythe that looks like it’s made out of a monster’s spine,” who embarks upon “a vaguely risque subplot about rescuing Beatrice from the devil’s seduction.” Some of the obstacles blocking this digital Dante’s path include “the imagination of Chiron’s [sic] boat as a living entity with a head to be twisted off at the neck,” and “unbaptized babies running around with weapons.”

"There are unbaptized babies running around with weapons."

“Gleefully gruesome and literally hellish,” Alexander continues, “the game seems to use the poem’s backbone and references to enrich an action game, rather than use the game as an attempt to emulate an epic poem in video game form…Audiences would like a game that uses the medium’s potential to correspond with other cultural sources, and that’s an excellent goal.” She punctuates her astute observation in asserting, “Dante’s Inferno is not that game — it would rather be an action title. And that’s okay.”

I am lockstep with Alexander in seeking out connections video games have to other artforms. I, too, believe that finding the places where these media (“sources”) intersect (“correspond”) is worthwhile. For me, whether a game is “fun” or not is almost always secondary to me deciphering what it might be trying to tell me, and then deciding what I ultimately think about that particular argument, issue, or aesthetic. How “successful” a game is has everything to do with its coherence as an artistic expression and nothing to do with its NDP numbers. For me, games are an interactive conduit for ideas, arguments and meaning, and “action” is that thought, deed or utterance inspired by the experience of playing the game.

So what’s the problem, then? It’s simple: caught up in the never-ending cattle rush among other videogame publishers to acquire and trademark new brands of intellectual property, Electronic Arts have marginalized Dante Alighieri’s Commedia as little more than a crudely-painted backdrop for a yet another insipid action adventure. And as much as I respect Leigh Alexander, I’m not at all sold on the And It’s Okay argument.

detail: Domenico di Michelino, Dante and The Three Kingdoms (1465)Dante Alighieri’s Commedia is an epic poem written in three sections, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. The 33 cantos comprising Inferno are a lavish litany of revenge, and serve to settle a host of scores with his personal enemies. A messy civil turf war in Alighieri’s home city of Florence landed him in exile, and it was during this angry period late in his life that he began constructing his Commedia. He largely created his own game structure in the epic tradition to have his way with political enemies in Florence and Rome. Dante was certainly capable of designing his game in the linguistic engine known then as Latin, but his deliberate choice to cobble together an epic in a new Tuscan-Sicilian engine of his own design, “Italian,” made it clear: he wanted to communicate his ideas to a more diverse audience than what the old engine afforded him. A powerful way to think about his Commedia, then, is as one of Western literature’s most elaborate mods.

Since Electronic Arts’ attention span for Dante’s Commedia begins and ends with Inferno (dare we imagine what its take on Paradise might look like?), it’s important to consider the “recognizable symbology and references” from that particular section of the epic that so-called “literature buffs…[will] still get a kick out of.” More precisely, it’s important to consider those references in their proper contexts. This assumes that we are indeed sincere about finding those places where different “cultural sources” do that “correspond” thing they do; of course, part of the problem is we already know that old colloquialism about what an assumption makes out of you and me.

Enemies for Alighieri aren’t Beezlebub, Minos or Lucifer, fantastic creatures (with totally awesome dropitems, natch!) who refuse him passage unless he pulls their brains through their noses ala David Jaffe. Enemies for Alighieri have real names, and they’ve committed real crimes, and in his estimation, they deserve real punishments for all of eternity. Where Electronic Arts’ digital Dante is on a collision course with an abstraction called The Devil(TM) (seriously, now, can a game studio ever top the sheer aesthetic and philosophical bliss of Neversoft capping Guitar Hero III with a down and dirty tête-à-tête with “Lou,” that dark prince of psychobilly?), Alighieri’s conflicts are with real people—chiefly Benedetto Caetani, b/k/a Pope Boniface VIII—who made real enemies through the buying and selling of abstraction itself.

See, here’s the rub: to even begin approximating the underpinnings of Alighieri’s 14th century text-based adventure, Dante’s Inferno’s executive producer Jonathan Knight would need to conceive and deliver anti-papist imagery so graphic and severe that Dan Brown’s conspiracy theory novels would truly pale in comparison. But this assumes (there’s that word again…) Knight and his development team at Visceral Games (1) understand Alighieri’s justifications for all the savagery depicted in Inferno and (2) actually care about pulling them all the way into the 21st century; on both counts, this could be assuming far too much.

I submit for your consideration this recent interview with EuroGamer’s Kieron Gillen, in which Knight explains:

“The poem is fiction, is fantasy,” he says. “Arguably Dante is the first fantasy writer of Europe. That’s basically what piques people’s imagination – that his imagination was so insane…

…The game operates on two levels,” explains Knight. “If you’re really into the fiction, the mythology, the literature, that’ll be there for you. As you punish and absolve these shades, you can just jam a cross in their head and absorb their solve… or you can see each one has a name. As you absolve them, that name will be called out and you can go into the menus and read about them, as all those names have been drawn from the poem. Virgil is in the game as a narrator, but he’s optional – you don’t have to listen to him if you don’t want to. If you just want to kill demons and have a great time, you can do that. But if you want to have a little more a narrative, literary experience – with fighting – then it’s there.”

That he would supplement the “literary experience” (meaning…???) “with fighting” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about Dante Alighieri’s agenda as a game designer. His Commedia—and especially the 33 cantos he called Inferno—is pure agon. It is The Fight itself, given body and force through text. If there is fantasy in Dante’s epic, it is very much a fantasy of the real; if there is insanity, it is only so due to patience and lucidity.

Because here’s the heart of the matter: Electronic Arts would no more have us butcher Boniface than miss their annual Madden ship date. The National Broadcasting Company still has never rebroadcast arguably the most incendiary 9 seconds of live television ever shown in the United States, wherein after performing an a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” singer Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and urged everyone watching to “Fight the real enemy.”


If you thought the Catholic League came unhinged over Kevin Smith’s Dogma, just imagine their reaction to a video game wherein the player-interactor willfullly exacts corporal punishment upon a pope.

And this, friends (for you are truly a friend if you’re still reading this…), is part of the reason why venturing into that wasteland of conversation titled/trademarked When Will Video Games Have Their Citizen Kane Moment? is still largely a waste of time. For Orson Welles, making Kane wasn’t about exercising a studio’s intellectual property rights, but exorcising his personal political demons. Kane is a work of art perfectly and hermetically sealed within its historical moment, yet it’s an expression so precise, poisonous and personal that its angry energy still infects us, a white dwarf high-beaming us from light years away.

still: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)

Like Virgil and Dante, Welles’s voice refused to be ignored (which has to be disappointing for Knight, probably. One should just be able to listen to what they want, right?) because of its arrogance, audacity and white-hot brilliance, and he himself suffered great injury for his inability to darken or cool it. (Adding insult to injury, Welles’s original negative of the film was lost in a fire at his Spanish villa in the 1970s.) Art endures, convulsive, twisting itself into the future.

Not unlike the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the video game industry has a pantheon of studio-beholden stars who make compelling work, but still work that is primarily (a lot of times only) produced to be consumed, not considered. And frequently the attempt to seriously consider these expressions is met with that familiar anti-intellectual ditty titled “Oh Let It Go Already, It’s Just A (insert medium here)!” As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, we do not live an age of ideas or even an age of information. We are living in The Age Of [Anti-]Intellectual Property(TM).

And but so, Alexander’s final analysis in this, our Glorious Age Of [A-]I.P., is prudent and pragmatic. Things Are What They Are. Everything That Is Is What It Is. And That’s Okay.

I mean, Right?

You tell me.

Apr 28 2009

Shane Drinks the Big Red Potion

I was invited to appear as a guest on Episode 11 of the excellent Big Red Potion podcast. Friends of FWR Sinan Kubba and Joseph DeLia are the normal hosts, and Jennifer Allen also appeared as a guest. We settle in for a nice chat on how games age, parallels and differences between aging games and other forms of media, and some issues associated with archivism and access to the gaming corpus. I had a blast recording it and I encourage everyone to subscribe to their feed. Thanks to all involved with the podcast, and thanks to you for listening.

Apr 28 2009

Critical Distance going the distance

Just making a quick plug here for the brand new Critical Distance blog and podcast. Critical Distance isn’t another aggregator for games coverage, but instead offers up insightful criticism of the coverage itself. If you enjoy and care about the kind of conversations we have on FWR, give Critical Distance a listen.

Mar 27 2009

Wolfenphone 3D

It’s officially all downhill for me from now on, seeing that Wolfenstein 3D has officially arrived on the iPhone. If you are a friend/loved one, I am especially sorry.

John Carmack has written a detailed overview of this port project on id Software’s website. Here’s a bit of the timeline:

Late last year, the mobile team had finished up all the planned versions of Wolfenstein RPG, but EA had suggested that in addition to the hundreds of customized versions they normally produce for all the various mobile phones, they were interested in having another team do a significant media quality improvement on it for the iPhone. While Wolf RPG is a very finely crafted product for traditional cell phones, it wasn’t designed for the iPhone’s interface or capabilities, so it wouldn’t be an ideal project, but it should still be worth doing. When we got the first build to test, I was pleased with how the high res artwork looked, but I was appalled at how slow it ran. It felt like one of the mid range java versions, not better than the high end BREW as I expected. I started to get a sinking feeling. I searched around in the level for a view that would confirm my suspicion, and when I found a clear enough view of some angled geometry I saw the tell-tale mid-polygon affine swim in the texture as I rotated. They were using the software rasterizer on the iPhone. I patted myself on the back a bit for the fact that the combination of my updated mobile renderer, the intelligent level design / restricted movement, and the hi-res artwork made the software renderer almost visually indistinguishable from a hardware renderer, but I was very unhappy about the implementation.

I told EA that we were NOT going to ship that as the first Id Software product on the iPhone. Using the iPhone’s hardware 3D acceleration was a requirement, and it should be easy — when I did the second generation mobile renderer (written originally in java) it was layered on top of a class I named TinyGL that did the transform / clip / rasterize operations fairly close to OpenGL semantics, but in fixed point and with both horizontal and vertical rasterization options for perspective correction. The developers came back and said it would take two months and exceed their budget.

Rather than having a big confrontation over the issue, I told them to just send the project to me and I would do it myself. Cass Everitt had been doing some personal work on the iPhone, so he helped me get everything set up for local iPhone development here, which is a lot more tortuous than you would expect from an Apple product. As usual, my off the cuff estimate of “Two days!” was optimistic, but I did get it done in four, and the game is definitely more pleasant at 8x the frame rate.

And I had fun doing it.

That’s right: Carmack personally oversaw this project, and took less than a week to complete it. I’ve already spent a good chunk of my afternoon replaying this classic game on the iPhone and I’m blown away at how fluid and immersive it is.

But the best news of all? Carmack expects that “Classic Doom” will come out “fairly soon”. If Wolf 3D takes all but 4 days, I’m thinking we should be seeing this next weekend, right? ;)

Mar 25 2009

Giddyap! The Oregon Trail

Just a quick post here to say I am love-love-loving Gameloft’s adaptation of The Oregon Trail for iPhone and iPod Touch.  Oregon Trail was probably my first computer gaming experience when I was but a wee one growing up in the nightmare of Reagan’s America, and like a lot of us from that era, I still have fond memories of my classroom’s Apple IIe and its always-sticking left arrow key.


A quarter century later, I still find this a very fulfilling and enjoyable game, and probably moreso given the fact I teach full-time at a college in Oregon City, OR (where I teach a games studies course every spring, no less…) that—yes—is literally located on the Trail’s End Highway. Call me a goober, but last week I purposely waited to download the game to my iPhone until I would be physically there on campus, at the end of the trail, index finger poised and at the ready to rustle up some grub.

Mar 16 2009

Lay it on, Layoff

I just spent most of my morning playing and marvelling over Tiltfactor Laboratory’s new browser game Layoff. Co-developed by Tiltfactor and the Rochester Institute of Technology Game Design and Development program, Layoff is a smart and smarmy commentary on “the current state of the US financial crisis,” in which the player helps restructure yet another faceless corporation’s hapless workforce.

The gameplay is a variation on Bejeweled, wherein the player targets entire classes of workers for layoffs by lining them up in multiples of at least three; once three or more workers of the same class are arranged in a row, they are sent tumbling to the bottom of the screen, where they are instantly queued to collect unemployment.

Unlike the jewel-encrusted browsergames that partially inspired its game mechanics, there is no leveling in Layoff or warm-fuzzies awarded for clearing the grid. A tally is kept in the top right screen, showing the player how much money she has saved the company by gangplanking the workers onto the public dole. If the player matches five workers of the same class, a corporate merger ensues and a banker icon is added to the grid; bankers cannot be selected or grouped for removal in the same way that the other classes can, and are only alleviated by the “BANK BAILOUT” button underneath the player’s tally of “$ SAVED”.

What I find most satisfying about Layoff, of course, is its underlying argument. Hovering the mouse over any worker on the grid gives the player a short character sketch of that specific sprite’s personal history or situation. Mini-bios for the workers are poignant and sobering, revealing the hardships, worries, and strife that are becoming all too commonplace in our New Depression.


A different poignance is found in the bankers’ pop-ups, whose text frequently parrots the corporate-speak commensurate with the talking heads on CNBC or FOXBusiness. In my most recent game session, I laid off an entire row of orange-shirted workers and was immediately rewarded by the banker who took their place shamelessly proclaiming:

The gameplay is confined to the top half of the browser window, but it is probably the bottom half that is most compelling. This is where the text pop-ups appear, also where all the displaced workers pace back and forth as they wait to collect their unemployment checks, and still also where a CNN/FOXNews-style ticker displays factoids from the real world of corporate mergers and the collapse of the U.S. banking system. The total effect of this space is a powerlessness for the player that is rare to find in most games, because most games are trying desperately to distract us from these kind of issues. In other words, Layoff is by design all about the proverbial bottom line, and it does not hesitate to point fingers.

For Tiltfactor, Layoff’s competence as both a game and an argument draw immediate comparisons to the rhetorical/persuasive works of Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca and Paolo Pedercini. This is not only high praise in my opinion, but praise well-earned.

Mar 10 2009

Give Me 1000 Good Games

Every once in awhile a game really grabs our attention. I’m not even going to mention the game that has actually broken this camel’s back, if only to not fuel my inevitable detractors. But I will just simply state, as fact, that occasionally a game comes out that gets so much attention in one way or another that it creates first a bubbling discussion, then a ribald debate, and, finally, a hipster ostracization wherein snooty bloggers and podcasters won’t even mention the game’s name in a post.

Clearly, I’m above all this.

One Thing to Remember

I want to start by asserting one simple caveat. If you take nothing else away from all the writing I ever do about videogames, please accept and respect this:


Without qualification or exception, every single game that has ever been created is art. Art. ART. It does not matter what authorial intention is/was. It does not matter what consumer or critical reaction is/was. It is just a fact that every game ever created, and every game that will ever be created, is art, is artistic, is artful.

Every little thing that we as humans have created or ever will create is ART. We cannot pretend like we live in a world where Art inhabits a little petting zoo for the rich and privileged. Nor can we pretend like there is some committee or expert who can unequivocally declare a work “art” or “not art.” It is a challenge of quantum complexity and insane futility to proceed down a path that presupposes only certain things are or are not art.

Any time an individual speaks about something being “artistic” I do not read that as an argument. I read that as a personal judgement about the quality of the individual’s experience, something that is specific to a particular context, informed by a unique history of contexts.

Sturgeon’s Law + $$$ = Videogame Industry

In the gaming industry of the early 21st Century, Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect. While all games are art, they are not all “good” art. So the trick becomes to learn about the landscape of games, to examine every single game that comes out and to know what makes a game “good” or “bad” and, most importantly, why a game has that effect in a given context. It must be understood that every game must be discussed within a specific context. Contexts may be able to mix, but ultimately no one discussion of any game is going to suss out all of the interesting things to say about that game. And a game which rates very well in one context (say, the “Played while getting drunk with buddies” context) may be a real stinker in another context (for example, the “Played with wife and kids on family games night” context).

It is pointless to believe that any one discussion is enough for any given game, regardless of how “good” or “bad” that game is considered.

It is also important to remember that most games try to push the easiest-to-reach buttons. This is what gives most game plots their melodramatic flair. Mainstream blockbuster games are very much like mainstream blockbuster movies in that they are typically designed to offend as few people as possible and trace simple plotlines enacted through predictable character behaviors with very little emotional motivation. At best we get a game of Spielbergian qualities, which, unfortunately, much of the pubic is happy to brand “artistic success” and “legitimate consumer entertainment.”

But why should games be different from any other media form? I enjoy complex characters, motivational quandries, and intricately woven stories in my books, poems, movies, television shows, music, and comics. I enjoy media that asks me to figure out something about how it works. Why wouldn’t I look for those same qualities in the games I play?

I appreciate small movements as much as large movements, but small movements of concept, gameplay, or narrative do not illustrate well in a quick press release or five screens among a hundred other articles. In order to understand what is “good” or not about a game, we must examine it in depth. However, the industry is geared around the latest and greatest. It has only been in this latest generation of consoles and downloadable game services that old games were reconsidered as viable play options. But gamers know that a good game can be rewarding for years. This has been a constant tension, but I feel like gamers are finally beginning to turn the tide.

We can slow down. We can appreciate the full quality of the games we play. We can appreciate the way that context changes over time, which affects our understanding of a game. We can resist what may be the most insidious easy-button the game industry has in their back pocket: innovation.

The Myth of Innovation

When talking about easy-outs for game developers and publishers, novelty is the easiest of them all. “Innovation” has long been a mantra for the games industry, and on one hand, innovation must and will inevitably continue. It is impossible to deny that the growth of gaming is tied to the growth of technology. New tech has allowed us to realize just how important playful activity is, and games have grown as a media form to fill that niche. As technology progresses, it is unavoidable that games will utilize new tools to provide new experiences (or to rehash old ones). But, on the other hand, innovation is also one of the least useful measures of a game’s quality.

Given that innovation is a requirement of environmental success, how can it be such a commonly used term when determining if a game is “good” or not? Isn’t some level of innovation always expected? Isn’t some level of innovation often dictated by middleware tools and decisions made by hardware manufacturers? And do those “innovations” often push developers, willingly or not into new territory, forcing innovation with complete disregard to authorial intent? Yes. This is how innovation works in the industry — as often as not at the demand of a zaibatsu, not the whim of a developer. And here we remain, with an industry that creates new tools every day, yet has no problem re-releasing Product A as Product A 2: Now With 5 More Guns! and often receives critical acclaim for doing so.

It’s sad that game developers who recognize and respond to the environmental pressures of innovation, and keep in mind all the other things that make a game good, are not always the most successful. Because innovation is not really desired by most audiences (cf. the current state of Hollywood or prime time television), the really innovative stuff is often not appreciated until it has been done a few times. The most successful mainstream game publishers and developers are scavengers of the landscape, adept at picking the bones of better games and then polishing those bones and presenting them as sanitized, crowd-friendly experiences for kids and adults who don’t really want to think much about their games. And all of that happens under the banner of innovation.

One Game Proves Nothing

In short, innovation is a hollow claim to greatness, and any one standout game is not going to be enough to convince anyone of anything. I’m still not sure exactly who we’re trying to convince, or what we’re trying to convince them of. But it seems like we all want our parents to be proud of us, and in some way that means getting them to respect videogames. And I suspect more people would like their bosses to like videogames, too. And then there is that tricky “art” thing, which I feel like I laid to rest several paragraphs ago.

It probably comes down to the simple fact that when you like something, you want to share it. And people who “get” videogames tend to really enjoy them. I appreciate the different “games as art” or “this game is art” discussions because they achieve two things: 1) They get people talking in depth about games, which is something we need. 2) Participants in these discussions reveal a lot about themselves and why the games they play resonate, and those revelations are often endearing and fascinating. Don’t forget dear bloggers and podcasters that to all the rest of us, you are the NPCs in this game of life.

But any individual’s estimation of any game is never going to be representative or true. So no matter how many game critics clamor for a title, or how many fanboys petition for a sequel, nothing is going to change in the game industry or in how games are perceived in our culture until there are a lot more good ones. We have not even begun to see the game explosion; we are still in the infancy of the form.

Don’t give me one good game. Give me one thousand good games.

Give me enough good games to convince all my friends to play. And enough to convince the people I hate to play. And give me enough good games to convince my company to make games. And enough to get parents to buy games for their kids. And give me enough good games affecting enough kids for teachers to recognize the benefits. How many games is that? And over how many years?

I think it will be a long time before we don’t have to talk about games as art, or arts as game, and I intend to enjoy every discussion along the way.

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.