Experiencing narrativity

There’s a philosophical article that talks about the way that people experience their own lives, if they reflect on their lives as they live it, turning it into a story, or if they live day-to-day, not really connecting their present-self to their past- and future-selves. He he refers to them as diachronic and the familiar gaming term, episodic.

While the article focuses on the ethical impact those differing points of views can have, it’s interesting to consider how these two types of people could approach gaming differently. Likely the narrativistic folks would enjoy role-playing games and first-person games with a story-focus as well as sim games that involve development and growth or strategy games like chess that involve thinking many moves ahead. Versus episodic folks who might prefer more abstract content who might lean towards in-the-moment fighters and shooters, games based more on twitch reflexes or puzzle-based games.

On the other hand, it could affect their play style if they did play the same games. I have friends who don’t really enjoy RPG games because they can’t play as characters other than the type of person they see themselves as. They don’t like playing evil characters they can’t separate themselves choosing an “evil” option from a character being evil. Maybe the people who play FPS shooters and prostitute-beating games need to be able to just play in the moment and separate that from their past- and future-selves.

I’d be interesting to see some studies in this area, I’m sure they exist…

Playing easy, working hard: Making games difficult is fun

[This is my July entry to Corvus’ Blogs of the Round Table. This month’s topic is Hurts So Good, where we look at Difficulty in Games, why we sometimes set these games aside permanently, sometimes we forge ahead.]

The difficulty level in a game is inversely proportionate to the amount I enjoy it. I don’t play games for the challenge. I play for distraction, for relaxation and for entertainment. I do NOT play games to take on something akin to having a second job. I don’t want any additional frustrations in my life, I play games in order to escape from my problems.

When I started gaming, I didn’t really care about getting to the end or winning. Heck, most games back in those days were designed to be unbeatable! The furthest I got in Mario was as far as the secret warps would take me. I couldn’t actually play it through with any degree of skill. I didn’t really have any desire to do so either because I didn’t know of any winnable games.

Then with our first PC, adventure games burst into my life. I still love the genre to death! Even now, Day of the Tentacle leaves a lasting impression on me and Grim Fandango is currently installed on my PC. But to actually play them to completion? Ha! Playing DotT is how I discovered this amazing new thing called a walkthrough that I downloaded from a BBS. (You do what with the wet noodles?)

These days, I can’t imagine making my way through most games without one! At the slightest frustration, like not knowing which gym to hit next in Pokemon, forgetting how to blow out candles in Zelda, not figuring out you can hit the gimps back in No More Heroes, I can check quickly online and then get back to my relaxing pastime. Even for games like Bioshock, I’ll set everything on the easiest setting so I can blow through it, enjoying the story and having fun blowing shit away.

The funny part is that now I AM a game designer. I get to have my say in how these things are made. Currently, I work mostly on casual games, so games that are right up my alley. Games that are fun, distracting and easy. And yet frequently the feedback I’m getting about my games is that I’m making them too punishing and too hard! I’ve been amused to hear this, given my stance. But it’s frustrating. I’m trying to figure out why this is, why I want to make games that are more difficult than the kind that I personally enjoy.

Maybe I feel like I should enjoy the challenge more. There are a lot of gamers out there who play for the challenge, especially the old school hardcore gamers. I’m certainly old school, but my title as hardcore would depend on your definition of that term. So because I don’t like being overly challenged in games, I don’t feel like I fit into that crowd sometimes. And maybe by trying to make games that are outside my comfort level, I’m fixing my targets on the type of gamer I *think* I should be.

Or am I trying to assuage guilt over having more fun with simple repetitive tasks rather than solving intricate puzzles? Most casual games these days have a “zen” setting, where you can just immerse yourself into the gameplay without thinking at all about challenges. But really, as a designer, I think that might something rather boring to make. Balancing difficulty and creating variations is part of the fun of design!

I think that’s the really the reason why there’s a difference between what I like to play and what I like to make. I find certain types of games more fun to play because of the stories, the characters or the flow. However, designing games provides me with a different kind of fun, balancing difficulty, coming up with variations and that schadenfreude feeling from messing with the players. I think it’s ok to enjoy making different kinds of games so long as you’re willing to familiarize yourself with the type of game you want to make.

I guess that means I oughta start playing more punishing games, dammit. Stupid revelations, ruining my fun!

REVIEW: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I wrote this review for a gaming website. Since they seem to have stopped running reviews on the site and now that the editor I was working with has left, I’m going post this review on my own blog, damnit.

Competitive gaming: pathetic or hilarious? King of Kong lets you decide

Ten minutes into this documentary about the quest for the top score in Donkey Kong, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ten minutes after I finished watching it, I still wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. It actually took a few hours of digesting it and thinking about it that I decided in the end that, yes, I did enjoy it. While the quality of the film was decent and the story was interesting, I think I mostly enjoyed it because it made me think about whether or not I liked what I had seen.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a 90-minute documentary about two people battling it out for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the top score in the arcade version of Miyamoto’s insanely difficult first game, Donkey Kong. And just like any documentary that delves into the inner-workings of a particularly fervent subculture (such as Trekkies) you feel dumbfounded and just a bit embarrassed by the extreme displays of passion from the people involved. This is their world, it’s what they’ve built their entire sense of self around. It’s pretty incredible the way that they talk about these high scores along with the investments they’ve made to achieve them. However, in a way, it’s also kind of sad. While that aspect is downplayed for the sake of an upbeat story, the filmmakers do touch on it when they include a line from a player’s young daughter who, talking about the Guinness Book of World Records, says, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.”

That’s exactly why I felt torn about enjoying the movie. On the one hand, you have this well-crafted story about the meek and lovable underdog facing off against the egotistical, and just plain rude, blowhard of a champion. On the other hand, you’ve got these grown men acting like they’re single-minded teenagers, obsessed with beating each other in a video game. I mean, after all, it is just a game. If this was just a movie, I could have sat back and enjoyed the tense drama that was unfolding between the characters on the screen and laugh it off as being campy. But since this is in fact a documentary, the intense emotional drama that these real, living people are going through comes across as a somewhat embarrassing.

Maybe other people who play games professionally, or those who are intensely into any kind of competition lifestyle, can really relate to these people and their trials and tribulations. But I’m an outsider looking in, as I’d guess most moviegoers would be, so my experience was that I felt sorry for the people in the film. I felt bad for the villain, because I’m sure editing didn’t help his cocky portrayal. I felt genuinely bad for the underdog, who was so sincere and sensitive, sitting under the film crew’s lights, tears streaming down his face. I felt apologetic that this competition for the top score that they take so very seriously is something that’s kind of a joke to me.

As I said though, after thinking about it for a few hours, I came to the conclusion that I did enjoy the movie. I feel that maybe the filmmakers went a bit over-the-top with the characterizations of the people involved, but perhaps that’s just the way those people are in real life and that alone fascinates me! They did a great job at using the interviews and archival footage to build up the story to a satisfying conclusion. The fact that I had to think about whether or not I enjoyed it really tells me that they did a great job putting everything together, taking the players seriously but at the same time touching on the absurdity of it all.

Of course, being real life, the story doesn’t end when the film does. The DVD has a few updates on what happened between the theatrical and DVD release along with links to sites where you can follow the continuing saga of The King of Kong.

All of that being said, my favorite parts of the DVD actually had nothing to do with the documentary itself. They have some pretty neat extras on it including a really really short animated history of the Donkey Kong game along with about half an hour of 8-bit music and Donkey Kong inspired artwork from I Am 8-bit. I find myself eager to watch it again just to hear the two sets of commentary tracks that accompany the DVD version. Maybe that will help me understand the intention of the film and why I feel so torn about it.

All in all, The King of Kong gives you a unique look into the lifestyle of competitive gaming that you probably never knew existed. While being respectful to its subjects, the filmmakers still manage to point out the absurdity of the whole situation, mostly because they take it so seriously. Go along for the ride and decide for yourself if it’s serious or a mockery.

Plays well with others – Relationships in sandbox games

[This is my June entry to Corvus’ Blogs of the Round Table. This month’s topic is I Wanna Hold Your Hand, exploring the fact that it’s not the characters themselves that make for compelling stories, but character relationships.]

Sandbox games are all about open-ended gameplay. Relationships are all about narrative. One is linear, the other isn’t. And never the twain shall meet?

Sandbox games are great for creating immersive environments that a player can explore and interact with on his own terms. This way, the player has a greater sense of agency, of control, over the progress of the game. The problem, and the delight, with putting the player in charge though, is that he’ll often do things that are unexpected. And when it comes narrative, it’s really difficult to be able to predict every little thing each and every player could think up!

While interactive objects, large worlds and intricate physics can make a sandbox game fascinating for hours on end, stories become a lot more difficult to tell. Stories are the basis for forming relationships between characters in games. Two characters could interact in a sandbox game without a story, sure, but people still want to know “Who’s that? Why are they here? Where are we supposed to go from here?” So is it possible to bond with characters in sandbox games if the game provides very little context for the relationship?

What about The Sims? Here’s a game that’s all about relationships! You have so many actions at your disposal that are just for building (or breaking) bonds with other characters. It’s about romantic love and friendships, vicious cat fights and heart-wrenching affairs. But there’s no story to it. The characters interact with and react to each other, but there’s no plot involved, no pre-set path to follow. Even though these relationships are nothing more than a collection of numbers in a database, the players are compelled to make it into a story.

I’m not sure if this idea started in the player community or if it was done intentionally by Maxis, but players used their in-game photo albums to create storybooks, and these days players can make their own movies. They told all sorts of stories about the loves and loses their Sims experienced. Maxis encouraged this by making a section on their site dedicated to these stories and frequently runs themed storytelling contests. They create stories where none existed, the player has taken charge of the narrative in an open-ended game.

All of this because the sandbox nature of The Sims leaves so much open to interpretation. And what’s more intriguing and interesting than the salacious relationships their Sims are experiencing? It is possible to go through The Sims without interacting with people, but I can imagine a player would get bored after a few hours, once you’ve run out of ways of torturing the little guy.

As for games with a linear story that have a sandbox mode, like the GTA franchise, you aren’t required to explore relationships you can have with the other characters. However, by maintaining very Sim-like relationships with other characters by talking to them or hanging out you can gain special extras to help you along. These relationships add an extra level of depth to the games. While the NPCs’ AI is programmed to respond in a certain way to players, what’s most interesting are the players’ reactions to NPCs. This kind of interaction adds a whole ‘nother layer of depth to the games.

One of the guys I work with was telling me how, after reading this article, he asked his wife to try the game. She reacted much like the woman in the article, going around obeying the traffic laws. But when she accidentally ran over someone, she discovered a new depth to the game that most “hardcore” gamers couldn’t have imagined. She got out of the car and called 9-1-1, asking for an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and she got back into her car and followed it. Sure enough, the ambulance took the patient to the hospital! Most players use the sandbox time to run-and-gun their way around town. But some designer took the time to consider the kind of relationships that could develop between the player and the NPCs.

So what this boils down to is that while creating meaningful relationships in sandbox games is one heckuva challenge for designers, it has such an amazing payoff for players.

Different views of the gaming world

I recently watched two series of documentaries on video games, The Video Game Revolution by PBS and Gamer Revolution by CBC. Both covered the current hot topics, like violence, virtual communities and military recruitment. But the viewpoints were quite different.

For instance, I can’t recall anyone mentioning sex in the PBS one in more than a passing mention. Yet the CBC one had a whole big section on it, talking about the sex RPGs out there in the States and how it’s revolutionizing how people are exploring their sexuality.

The biggest most glaring difference, however, was their take on the same story about one gamer called Neverdie in an MMO called Entropia Universe. The PBS story covered how this man, a single father, mortgaged his home, risking his financial future, and implicitly that of his son’s as well, to purchase virtual property in this game. Luckily, the go on, people are renting space in his new property and he’s come out on top, an instant millionaire. Rags to riches, against all odds, risky undertakings. Seemed to imply to me that maybe his wife left him because he was being so wanton with the family money.

Well, CBC told that story and a bit more. They show a heart-breaking shot of the father and the kid sitting at the table eating, this little 4-year-old saying repeatedly “Why did mommy die? Why did mommy die?” Turns out there’s more to the story. The husband adored his wife. They gamed in that virtual world together. He adored his gamer chick so much that he wrote a song about how awesome it was to have a gamer chick and that went on to become a hit song in their virtual universe. Everyone knew he was the artist and she was his muse. They were celebrities! Then one day she dies. And he talks about how hard it was for him to return to that world and break the news to their virtual, but oh so real, friends.

I found it really surprising that PBS skipped that part. They really stuck to the meat and potatoes of the gaming news. Sure they crammed a lot in and had some awesome industry interviews. But they seemed to miss out on the heart of the story. CBC really showed the Canadian-ness of their production, by not covering nearly as much, but going into each story much more in-depth and making the people much more real.

It’s a gaming revolution right now, sure, both agree on that. But I agree with CBC, it’s about more than just 1s and 0s, about more than hotshot industry insiders. It’s about the people playing the games and living out the stories.