Complex Interactivity, and the Future of Games

 Sleep is Death, or Geisterfahrer, as it is also known, is a game created by the incredibly talented Jason Rohrer, on his own time. And it is very unique, in a few ways. First of all, it only takes two players. And, second of all, it finally enables the sort of storytelling and free-form, ever changing plots seen in tabletop role playing games like dungeons and dragons. Bold statement, right? But this game does no less, than allow two players to create an entire story from whole cloth. Allow me to explain. In Sleep is Death, one player will play the role of “Controller,” while another plays, well, the “Player.” It’s very similar to the Dungeon or Game Master and Player roles seen in so many tabletops. The Controller will generally (but does not need to) set up a number of “Scenes.” These are maps on which a player can walk, with any number of features of them, for example, an outdoor lake with some trees. The Controller can set where the player’s sprite can and cannot walk, what their sprite looks like, and so on. As a matter of fact, the game is very much 8-bit in its artistic quality, and features a fully functioning pixel editor, so that a Controller can make any number of sprites from scratch, as well as modifying others. Anything you can create, you can add to a map. But that’s barely where the fun begins.

See, the game is entirely turn based. First, a connection is established. Following this, The Controller gets just 30 seconds to set a scene (which is why it’s recommended that a Controller makes a bunch of different sprites and maps ahead of time, much like a Game Master rolling up stats for any number of characters who may never even be encountered). Then, it is the player’s turn. Assuming they have been given a sprite (as they may just be viewing a dream sequence at first, or something, imagination being a fantastic thing), they can move anywhere in the scene where movement has not been disabled, type anything they want in a speech bubble, or create a “verb” bubble and point it at something in the scenery. They have thirty seconds to do whatever they want to do (respond to another player, light a tree on fire, dive underwater, dig for treasure, jump up and down, whatever). Then, the Controller reacts, placing a fire sprite over the tree, replacing their sprite with a swimming sprite of the same character, typing out more dialogue, whatever. You can literally create any sort of world or dynamic you want to in this game, and run with it. Because the graphics are so simple, incredibly outlandish things can be dealt with by simply quickly rotating an image, changing hues, or whatever else you can think of and execute in thirty seconds. It creates a fun and wit charged game, a storytelling experience for two that can go as far as you please to take it.

So what might this mean for game designs? At the moment, it’s hard to say. The game made some waves in the Indie community when it came out, but it still sits, with most of Rohrer’s works, as a cult classic. The game is limited by its inability to handle more than two players, and the market is choked down to indie gamers by its retro graphics and requirement for intense interactivity. Still, it’s a new and refreshing idea that hasn’t really hit video games yet, and it has a great deal of potential. Indeed, working more interactivity into multi-player games is an important concept in the indie gaming community. So I have come up with a term for this sort of game mechanic, that is, the “reactive level editor.” The ability to edit a game’s structure or layout in real time, remotely, to deal with and further challenge players, is a fascinating concept. What if, for example, you had a dungeon crawl in which floors were randomly generated (layout wise). You fill the first floor with traps, monsters, npcs, whatever. Then, while players are tangling with that floor, you receive real time notifications (both player statuses, as well as chat and dialogue so that they can provide real time feedback). And you use what you see to work on the next floor, filling it out with elements of its own. When offline, you can create more complex systems, traps, and npcs, to drop into your dungeons later. Perhaps you can even allow floors to populate themselves with your creations (monsters whose stats you have decided, npcs, etc.) and then operate on the floor the players are on, controlling npc dialogue, making up new quests, and ensuring endless interactivity. Think about it, it’s not that far off! Are game mechanics like this part of the future? You’ll decide. I’ll lock myself in my room and get to work!

McElroy, J., (2010) Hands-on: Sleep Is Death. http://www.joystiq.com

Sequence and Incredible Genre Mashups

Sequence, Iridium Studios’ first game, has done some intriguing things with the mixing of separate genres. They managed, somehow, to successfully mash up a rhythm based, “push-the-arrow-when-it-scrolls-down-the-screen” game, with a traditional RPG, and stuff the whole thing with fantastic visuals, excellent music, and a hilarious and snarky cast of characters. So the question this raises is this: What else can we stick together? Don’t get me wrong, genre mixes are nothing new. In fact “what happens if we throw A at B?” is probably, I’d imagine, one of the biggest questions raised in any board room that deals with creative ideas, business or otherwise, indie or executive. The point is this: that they were able to do something new, fun, and fresh with a couple old ideas. I think that this should give everyone a little hope and inspiration for the future, both within game design, and within education.

Looking towards education, let’s see a similar idea in action. Most classes teach multiple things, or at least, work multiple skill sets, simultaneously. For example, algebra classes teach math, while also teaching logic, symbolic logic, puzzle solving, quick thinking (if they are good algebra classes that disallow calculators), and sometimes, when they try to be fun, they throw in little factoids that are relevant to nothing, to show us how relevant math is, instead of just being up front and pointing out that logic is a cross-applicable skill whether or not you will have a calculator strapped forever to your person. The fact is, classes teach us a lot of things at once. But what about cross-curricular learning? Science classes that comment on phenomena touched on in the literature that students are reading, or math classes that teach the deeper mathematical implications of the formulae being studied in chemistry or physics? At the collegiate level ,where we take classes ourselves, this is nearly an impossible feat. But, at the grade school, middle school, and perhaps even at the high school level, this becomes much more probably. Are such endeavors refreshing and successful, adding variety to a learning experience? Or are they as likely to detract from it? After all, if you hated RPGs and Rhythm games, you probably wouldn’t much care for Sequence.

So where do the dice fall? Is the old genre mash up still viable for games? And what happens when subject matter flows and blurs together in the classroom? These are questions that the future needs to answer. I, however, want answers right now, so I’m going to go play more video games and reflect on why middle school was unfortunate. Wish me luck!

Iridium studios. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.playiridium.com/

Meaning Versus Morals

What follows is something of a sensitive topic for me, but I feel it needs to be discussed. You see, I have engaged in several conversations in another course pertaining to games here, about games with meaning, and what it means for a game to have meaning. Everyone seems to be convinced that for a game to have meaning, it must have a clear message, something it’s trying to tell you either explicitly or implicitly. This is, to me, a problem. It is a problem because it stifles change, and it stifles change because as long as the majority of people are convinced of this, game design companies will give their games heavy ethical skews whenever they want to be deep or artsy, leaving the player with, essentially, three character builds: Saint, Antihero (read: person who completes the main story as a good guy and randomly slaughters towns during side quests), and Horrible Monster of the Year. This is not innovative. Nor are “propaganda” games like Darfur is Dying, though I support their cause. (By propaganda games, I mean games which are pushing a particular real world cause, like shutting down oil companies, or any of the many, many vaguely unnerving games PETA puts out).

You see, there is in my mind a difference between a game which has a dichotomy in its view of the world (this is the way things should be, and this is the way they should not), and a game which simply presents the user with a dilemma which they must seek to answer (this is the way things are. Is this right?). Games are intrinsically interactive. Does it not stand to reason, then, that those games which engage with tough issues should do so interactively? I’m not saying all games have to or should do this. Sometimes you just want to shoot people, or throw a ball, or collect rings and be a blue furry mammal. These are normal human drives, or something like them. And sometimes, propaganda games are not too bad, after all. Though a bit heavy handed in its delivery, Darfur is Dying seems like it does a fairly reasonable job of raising awareness about crises in Darfur. That’s awesome, and I love that. But there seems to be a misconception that all games which handle deep issues should do so in the manner that titles like this do, as far as I can tell from my conversations with people. So, what is the consensus here? Do games need to deliver the truth to you, one bite at a time? Or should they make you do the digging yourself? Perhaps, what we need, is more of both.

And in case you need examples of games that present serious issues without answering them, I’ll leave you with a few, drawn from personal experience. Bioshock deals with the philosophies of Ayn Rand and their feasibility, as well as what it means to have free will, and what it means to kill another human being. The Path deals with growing up, and the sometimes violent realizations we have about our future, and who we are. Limbo deals with… something. I wish I could tell you. But what it does do, is it forces you to think, and to me, that’s the point. So, hopefully, I’ve done the same, and running with it, what do you think?

Dwarf Fortress and Learning Curves

Some of you may have heard of a game by the name of Dwarf Fortress. And if you have, unless you’re crazy (like myself) and have played it, you’ve probably heard that it is nigh-impossible to actually learn to play. This complex, Dungeon Keeper style Rogue-Like (a genre of games similar to another game called, you guess it, Rogue, which use ASCII art for their graphical displays), has been in development by Zach and Tarn Adams since 2002. Tarn, the game’s chief designer and coder, has made it his Magnum Opus, the creation he wishes to leave behind, after having graduated from Stanford with a PhD in Mathematics. (Weiner, 2011) Let me tell you, it’s quite complex.

Essentially, the game has three different modes of play (Dwarf Fortress, Adventurer, and Legends), but I’ll be talking about the first one here, since that’s the most fleshed out (the game is still in Alpha after 10 years!) and the one that everyone generally plays. Essentially, you control a group of dwarves (seven at first, but more come later) and try to get them to the point where they are self sustaining. What happens after that? You die. No, I’m not joking, and the game’s fan motto is, aptly, “Losing is Fun.” (“Losing,” ) There are any number of goals you could set for yourself, from making your fortress goblin proof, to trapping forgotten mega-beasts and building a gladiatorial arena for them, to building (I kid you not) a Schrodinger’s cat based doomsday device and seeing how long your fortress lasts. Seriously, you could build, for example, an incredibly massive room full of pressure plates. Link one of those to a floodgate that’s keeping magma from flowing into your fort, or to a support that holds the weight of the entire fortress. Then throw a kitten in the room with food and water, seal it off, and never look back. You cannot see the state of the kitty, but you can infer it from the surrounding environment.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, excellent question, nameless 4th wall based narrative device! Because Dwarf Fortress is a special kind of game. It’s not like Minecraft, an indie game that has a massive following, rather, it is a cult classic even among cult classics, due to its inaccessibility. Yet, it is this very inaccessibility, its incredible and sheer complexity, that makes its fans love it so much. So here is the question: Can a game with a terrible learning curve, but a dedicated following, make enough waves to change the game industry? Or, perhaps, to play with the way we generally construct learning curves? I can say that while getting to the point where Dwarf Fortress was playable was a struggle, it was also one of the most satisfying and baffling achievements in my life. So then, where do we put the balance of difficulty in learning games? Too hard, and nobody will play. But, too easy, and it seems like there’s hardly a point. Or ought we cast our nets wide, and perhaps have a bit of everything in the spectrum, accessible to everyone, so that a gamer can, for example, play a game at various levels of complexity, taking control of as many details as they wish? Games with level editors are a good example of this, but still somewhat stunted.

And now to drive it all home: What could this mean for the educational system? What if a class let you have as much control over its complexity, and over its structure, as you wanted and were capable of handling? And what would that look like? In a world where games are shooting primarily for the casual audience, is education doing the same thing? And do we need to compromise? I don’t honestly think we do. Now if you’ll excuse me,

My fortress is flooding, and I’m pretty sure some monkeys just broke in.

Yep. Definitely monkeys.

Losing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/Losing_is_fun

Weiner, J. (2011, July 21). New york times.

Choice in Bioshock

Warning: There are significant spoilers ahead. Now, you should totally read this article, so rather than telling you not to read it if you want to play Bioshock and haven’t yet, I’ll tell you to come back and read it when you’re done. Because, you know, that’s the point of throwing words down at a page like this.

Bioshock is a rather unique, first person “shooter” with some RPG elements (namely, an enthralling narrative, and a unique protagonist) which throws you into an underwater city full of hints towards the philosophies of Ayn Rand. I could talk all day and night about this game, but nobody would read it, so I’m going to look at how the game forces the player to question what it means to have free will. You see, all throughout the game, the player is presented with a slew of “decisions” which must be made in order to progress. Yet, after a certain point, you find that the man who has been aiding you over the intercom all along was, in fact, leading you along as part of his own evil plan. In fact, you are genetically engineered, and programmed to respond to the key words “Would you kindly…” with such powerful impetus that you cannot refuse commands featuring this combination of words in this order. Throughout the entire game, he (Atlas, that is), subtly exploits this fact, such that on your first play-through you likely don’t notice what has been happening until the game reveals it to you during what you thought was going to be an epic boss fight, but what is, in fact, a prolonged cut scene in which you beat a man to death with a golf club while he repeats the words: “A man chooses… a slave obeys.” Eventually you break free of this code and go off to kill the Big Bad, with the other choices you have made during the game determining the ending you receive.

Inside of all of this grim and dark storytelling rests a deep ethical and philosophical issue: what does it mean to be truly free? In a very real sense, the game gets the player thinking about this issue within its own context. But I would wager that I was not the only one who began musing on this outside of the context of the game, in a sort of meta-philosophical thought train. I’ll explain what I mean: as players, are we free? Do we really make the choices we want to in a game? Well, no, no matter how procedurally generated the content or how complex the player interactions, there are always limits to the things we can do, even with modding. Let’s bump it up another level. At what point are we really free, as players? I mean here, that at any point we could get up and stop playing the game. We have that power, yet, we don’t. We choose to continue playing, for however long. Yet within the scope of the game, we are limited, and within the scope of a particular character we are often all but put on rails. So how is it, then, that games are seen as a form of escapism, when they so blatantly limit our freedom? Sure, you can do outlandish things in a game and be someone you never could outside of it. But that person will be severely limited compared to you. The same is true of literature, and music, and television.

So, you see, games like Bioshock can provide us with difficult questions, without giving us answers. They force us to dig, and to create our own deeper understanding of the games we play and the world in which we play them. I can only hope that this becomes a trend in game design.

Conventions in Control and Design

X button is jump. R1 to shoot. WASD to move. Wave the Wiimote back and forth like a drunkard flagging down a crashing helicopter to attack. These are the conventions in control that game design companies have established. And, I posit, with good reason. Let’s consider two cases, that of an established concept, and that of one being established. For the established concept, we have something standard, like, X button is jump on Play Station systems. If you can jump in that fancy new game, you could make money betting it’s done with the X button. Why is this? Consider a game that breaks this rule, for example, one of those rare games in which Triangle makes you jump and X does something completely different, like, oh, I don’t know, turn you into a llama. You’ll spend half of the first few levels running your stupid llama head into steps, railings, banisters, and whatever else should be simple child’s play to hop over, and the other half gracefully hopping over them in llama form because you can’t be bothered to press the X button and change back, and besides, you look oh-so majestic clearing that railing with all four legs. It’s simple logic really, we are dumb, thinking creatures who like rituals and patterns, and create them everywhere, whether they are there in the first place or not. In this same way, fixing our muscle memory and pattern recognition to adapt to a new control scheme, no matter how much sense it makes (why does pressing the lowest of four buttons make you go ‘up’ in three dimensional space, anyways?), takes a great deal of time and effort. And if you play Llama Jump Extravapalooza for any amount of time, you’ll be cussing up a storm when you switch back to some other, more sensible title. Like Spyro the Dragon. Right, so that makes sense, but what about when these conventions haven’t cropped up yet? What makes them happen to begin with?

Glad you asked, recurring banal narrative technique! It seems to me that these conventions crop up when a new controller comes out (Atari, Play Station, etc.) and the first few titles are released. The most popular titles of prominent genre builds (platformer, shooter) will be the most widely played. Why would other games copy their control schemes? For the same reasons there are tons of God-awful teenage vampire love drama books on the shelves that weren’t written by Stephanie Meyers (No excuse, seriously, the rest of the literary world ought to know better). Copying off of the work of others and running with what’s popular, sells. It smooths the transition out. Now you don’t have to work to get good at game B, because it’s like game A, and hey, we all hate working for our fun, so that’s just dandy.

Let’s think about this though, because it’s a pretty interesting concept. Games use similar control schemes so you don’t have to go to the trouble of learning new ones, so you will associate an easier experience with mastering the basics of them, so you will like them better, so you will buy them, so they can make money (where ‘they’ here refers to producers and publishers, primarily). But now let’s look at a game that uses its controls to do interesting things: Metal Gear Solid. Yeah, I mean the original, for the Play Station One. At one point, there’s a boss battle where the boss is capable of reading your thoughts. The only way to beat him (and you do receive hints; it’s not all unfair) is to unplug your controller, and plug it into the second controller slot. It’s innovative (if a bit gimmicky) things like this that we miss out on when control schemes feature no variation. So the next time you’re playing a game, consider how the controls could actually be improved, or played with, if they weren’t pandering to industry standards.

Altered State Reality and Game-Like Situations

Altered Reality and Game-Like Situations

At points throughout our course, we have discussed what it means for something to be a game, as well as the differences between a game, and play. Games are interactive, and have defined end states. I would also hold that a game in which no end states actually exist for success, but in which players create their own end goals (such as the Sims), are not games at all, but, rather, are toys. A ball is similar in nature – there is no way to “win” with a ball, though you could pop or break it, but once a game is created (kickball for example) to utilize the different qualities the ball possesses, a winning state exists. The ball is still just a toy, however. There are also games which are interactive and have solid end states, but which cut the need for choice, in other words, there are “correct” choices, which lead to an end state, and “incorrect” choices, which lead to some fail state. This is more a puzzle than a game. A game can, of course, contain a puzzle or puzzle elements, and a game can contain a toy or toy elements, but must be something other than these things, something interactive, effected significantly or changed by user interactions and choices, and something that has a defined win state.

So how about altered state games? Take the famous (or infamous) game, Assassin. This is a game in which players all receive marks, and then have to somehow, depending on the rules of that particular session, pick these marks off one by one, receiving as a new target the mark of their defeated mark, until one person remains standing at the end. There is a defined win state, players have a great many nuanced choices (for example, what to lie about, or not to lie about, and to whom) which change the face of the game, and the game is certainly interactive. It is fair to say that this is a game, then, by these criteria. It is not the only game of its kind. So the question I will pose is this: If you take a group of people in a real world situation and apply a set of rules to their interactions, which changes the nature of those interactions, and makes it such that at some point one of these people (or a group of them, or all of them if it is a cooperative game) will have “won,” that is an alternate reality game, correct? And if this is true, I pose another question:

Do the players of a game have to be aware they are playing, for it to be a game? Or is it, perhaps, not a game for them, but a game for others who are aware? And what if one applies rules to a situation which only apply to them, and which are only known by them. As the maker of the game, they are capable of stopping or changing the rules at any time. Are they, then, really playing a game? And if they are, and the people who are unaware of a game are not, then that begets the question: is a game not a game without our consent to play it? And what would that mean for games as we see them?

Some thoughts derived form This Blog Post elsewhere…

The Trend of Immediacy in Game Control Systems

While everyone is excited about Google Glass and the possibilities of true Augmented Reality gaming becoming a more mainstream concept, I have something to point out which I think is rather pertinent. We have barely scratched the surface, no pun intended, of what one can do with a touch screen. Or a motion sensor, or weighted magnets, or any number of other technological advances. Much to the probable smugness of singularity predictors like Kurzweil, the rate at which technology is advancing, is advancing. And we have hardly had time (or bothered to take the time) to analyze our last few achievements in any scope of science, before moving onto the next ones. In the interest of causing a bit of reflection before the next leap in game controlling technologies, I would raise the following question: How does touch affect the mechanics of games? What becomes easier, and what becomes harder? From a development standpoint, what have we learned, really?

Touch makes things more immediate, and I think this is its most interesting new feature. When I say that touch makes things more immediate, I do not mean that it reduces latency or lag, far from it. What I am saying though, is that touch screens require the player to interact physically with the interface on which the results of their interactions are displayed, and this forms perhaps the most immediate virtual physical connection we have yet implemented. Why is this important? It’s an interesting trend! Look at old school controllers. Scratch that, look at a computer. You’ve probably got one of those in front of you right now, unless you’re super cool and you’re using a touch screen. Now look down at your keyboard. Now back at me. Now back at your keyboard. Other than a vaguely amusing pop culture reference, what do you see? Buttons. A metric butt-ton of buttons. These provide a rather less than immediate flow of interactivity – we type, and stuff happens. There’s a mouse or a track-pad, too. But the overall complexity of the system makes it feel very distinct – we are interacting with the computer through this, and there is always a wall there in our heads, to the point where becoming immersed in a computer game may be harder than, say, becoming immersed in a console game. At least in terms of the capabilities of a given control scheme to aid us in suspending our disbelief. And computer gamers, bear with me – that complexity is what immerses us and what we love, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Now let’s skip console games with the words ‘less buttons, less complexity, more immediate mental connection to what buttons cause which interactions to occur, neato.’ We will move instead to systems of the most recent console generation, in particular the Wii and the PlayStation 3. On an off note, those words are built into Microsoft Word and I’m uncertain how this makes me feel. Anyways! Sixaxis and wiimotion are interesting because they enable us to move our limbs (to some extent) and make things happen. Just like in real life, kids! It’s a trend toward the immediacy of connection. Move it up another step, look at, for example, the Kinect. (that word is in the dictionary too…) There is no longer even necessarily a button here, instead, players move their bodies and are registered by a system. You move, and stuff happens. Supa-cool. And then, the touch screen! Now it’s interesting, because this also moves backwards in some ways (down to just our fingers again are we?), but overall it continues to follow the trend of immediacy of connection. We touch the screen, and things happen on the screen. And yet…

Touch screen games seem significantly less immersive than Kinect games, which are less immersive than Wii games, which hare still almost only party games… What does this mean? Are we following the trend toward immediacy because we like to make stuff happen, or because it enables us to make things simpler for a wider market? And if this is the case, what will the next step bring? More immersive, deep games where we play with the world around us using augmented reality? Or, as I am beginning to suspect, will it bring us a gimmick and a feeling that things are just going to keep on getting easier, and more boring? What do you think?

Check out this article I wrote…

…on a game called The Path, for a completely different but more official blog, The Analytical Couch Potato. Give ’em a like on facebook while you’re at it, if you enjoy the articles.

http://www.theanalyticalcouchpotato.com/2012/03/path-and-use-of-fairy-tales-to.html

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