Testing Chambers

22 January 2012

Robert Yang recently did a series of interview with game designers over at Rock, Paper Shotgun. Entitled “Level With Me”, it examined designers’ approach to their work, whilst culminating in them adding elements to a Portal 2 level that Yang was designing with them.

Having realised the completed level in a mod – bookended by two of his own – Yang has written up some commentary on the reaction to it. He’s a bit frustrated and sad. And I think I would be too, if I were him.

I was shocked, then, by the most common line of criticism I saw: a refusal to read, an insistence that a level without a puzzle-y Portal puzzle is a bad level. It’s like the rhetorical equivalent of donkeyspace. I literally can’t go through the mental gymnastics required to conclude that challenge is the only interesting thing about first person single player games. Comments like that make me miss all the people who said it was pretentious; I want a higher level of criticism.

That’d be a nice enough quotation in Pinboard, but the whole piece is great, and had enough meaty thought in it that I had to break it out a bit more. It especially chimed with my beliefs around games as mechanical systems, and a literacy in those systems being what emerges from learning how to read them.

I don’t think I’m demanding much of players because we all already have the ability to read just by virtue of playing. Frank Lloyd Wright could read houses; as Portal players, you know how to read Portal levels, and you know when Portal levels don’t make sense. What if we used the “words” of a Portal level in different ways, to say different things? What if we used the “words” that form video games, and used them in different ways?

I think I agree with that. And Yang goes on to talk about materials a bit:

Puzzles and mechanics (like narrative, graphics, or sound) are just different materials you can use. (I think Dan Pinchbeck said something like that.) It’s the house you build in the end that counts. If that house uses wood but not concrete, that’s okay.

But if you want to argue that the resulting house isn’t actually a house, by your narrow reductionist definition of “house,” and it’s “totalitarian and unamerican” like Frank Lloyd Wright said about the Farnsworth House, then just know that history, if it remembers any of us at all, will think you were a silly person. Or you can ignore how architecture had the same debate we’re having right now.

One of Yang’s great disappointments is one of literacy. At the end of the mod, you walk into another Test Chamber. Not one of the many Test Chambers in the Aperture complex – but the Black Mesa Test Chamber, from the very beginning of Half-Life. And so many players just didn’t notice; didn’t get the reference; didn’t see the point being made. They were illiterate in the medium they enjoy.

…maybe it’s a problem of education. We force kids to read Shakespeare; we should also force kids to play Myst, Fallout 2, Half-Life 1, Planescape: Torment, etc. and their ability to read and ask questions will be much richer for it. A “Game Studies AP” class might assign System Shock 1 and X-Com. I mean, if you play Battlefield 3 for hours every day, shouldn’t you, at the very least, know that its core design is practically untouched from the original Quake Team Fortress mod nearly 15 years ago?

Or, you know, I guess we could just keep letting those players get upset when a game calls them out for thinking / studying so little about this thing that they invest so much time into.

And I think that’s important. In the comments on Yang’s post, readers have pointed out the “difficulty” of doing that – that the medium restarts itself every n years or so in a “hardware generation”, that only players “actively engaged in critical play” care about that sort of thing.

I don’t think that matters. Very few works are solely referential: they may call out to history, but by dint of existence they are also their own thing. So some players are, of course, going to miss the Black Mesa reference. Level With Me still exists, still has something to say, but those players will have a different – perhaps, lesser – reading of it. But that doesn’t mean Yang should stop trying to make the point he believes players can read; he’s right to assume the level of literacy he does.

We have to fight the “forgetting every seven years” a little. We need to make sure that somehow, we talk about old games, educate one another on things they haven’t played. Fifty-odd years into electronic gaming, we shouldn’t already be at the Fahrenheit 451 point of having to each take it upon ourselves to memorise particular works, particular publishers. This isn’t retro fetishism; this is basic history – and basic historiography. And that’s important to a work.

So, you know, keep on reading games. Keep on reading games that didn’t come out this year. It’s all useful.

This year, my Games of the Year got rolled into Kill Screen’s end-of-year countdown. It’s a fine list.

Kill Screen have also put up the individual participants ballot, and you can read mine here. I also wrote some notes about the list of ten:

Here’s my secret: I’m shamelessly mainstream. When I get home from a day at a desk, designing or programming, I like to play games on my sofa. And so: lots of major console releases there, from the advanced hiking simulator that is Skyrim to the elaborate team sport (disguised as a military shooter) that is Battlefield 3. It’s not all AAA-ware, though. The fact that games like Bastion and From Dust saw release on major platforms makes me enormously happy, and they deserve their place.

What binds all these titles together? Perhaps it’s just about wonderful worlds to escape to. Wonderful for their aesthetics: the cold mountains of Tamriel; the endless greyboxes of decades of Aperture Science; the silhouetted landscapes of Outland; the spectacular 17th century Mars of Jamestown; the steely glowing cyberpunk of Frozen Synapse; the rich, detailed decay of Arkham City.

Flip that around, though, because they’re also wonderful systems to get lost in: Skyrim‘s bottomless, endlessly free systems; the careful addition of gels to the Portal formula; the binary-coloured bullet-hell of Outland; the marvellous Vaunt mechanic in Jamestown; the perfection of turn-based (and play-by-mail) strategy in Frozen Synapse; the bottomless gadget-belt and inventive environment of Arkham City. At heart, I’m an escapist, and I escape into beautiful worlds and deep mechanics equally.

Ten was hard to pick, and I wanted to represent some potentially overlooked gems (oh, Outland) as well as some obviously great mainstream games. Two games slipped off the list for me: Deus Ex: Human Revolution just slipped off, but was a surprisingly lovely way to spend the middle part of the year, and Crysis (in its re-released, updated downloadable XBox and PSN port) wasn’t eligible for inclusion as it was a remake. It was, however, definitely one of the ten best games I played last year, and the Games on Demand version is worth your time, if only for the bottomless tropical sandbox of fun it offers in its early stages.

Go read my list, and, indeed, the whole Kill Screen feature.

The language of difficulty

03 January 2012

Chris Dahlen on Dark Souls and, in particular, how it uses “difficulty” not as “a club the designers bash you with, but the palette with which they paint the experience.“:

In music, film, and literature, difficult works provoke the same kind of response. We talk about them in terms of whether we can deal with them: War and Peace is too long, Ulysses is too opaque, Lars Von Trier’s films are too disturbing. Audiences may balk at a work because it’s unfamiliar, complicated, opaque, taboo, exhausting, unpleasant to the senses, and so on—but in every case, the audience has to think about that barrier and make sure they’re ready to cross it. We wonder, are we the problem? Or is the work failing us? Is it challenging because the challenge is key to the form, the message, and the experience—or is it challenging because the artist is a jerk? If the artist has a message to send us—well, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, why couldn’t they just send us a telegram?

Games shed new light on this old debate, because here, challenge is understood from the get-go as being integral to the experience. All games test their players, and the players accept that they are taking a test and they will be graded. By comparison, if you read a great short story, your failure to respond to it happens in the privacy of your mind.

The primary language of Dark Souls is difficulty. The game paces and varies that difficulty with the same craft that goes into its character builds, sound effects, and environmental design, and with the same purpose: to explore distinct, exquisitely-realized variations on one unified experience. What starts as a dare is revealed to be the reward.

Too long a quote to go into Pinboard, so onto the blog it goes in full. And do read the whole article; it’s thoughtful and as with all Chris’ stuff, well-written.

My latest Game Design of Everyday Things column is now up at Kill Screen. It’s about the relevance of landscape gardening to game design.

We talk a lot about the influence of architecture on game design. Indeed, it’s something Kill Screen asked me about in the original formulations for this column. We can all see the influence on games of a medium in which geometric form and structure is used to influence behavior and manipulate the movement of people through space. It feels like there’s an obvious comparison between architecture and the design of three-dimensional game levels.

But I think landscape gardening is perhaps a much more interesting comparison point for the structure of game spaces, and one that is oft-neglected.

Landscape architecture shapes the behavior and intent of its observers without walls or markers. Instead, it focuses on surprise and delight: as your eye follows the gentle slope of a path down to a lake, it should feel like you discovered this. It feels like a coincidence of marvellous proportions, a secret that you discovered, that the eye is led so gracefully. In fact, it’s a carefully designed experience.

Also, it’s been illustrated by Trip Carroll with an illustration of John Marston in front of Broadway Tower, which is really quite something.

Anyhow: rather pleased with this. You can read the full column at Kill Screen.

Gating In Action

29 November 2011

I went to see a promenade production of a few of Pinter’s political plays the other week, put on by Hydrocracker at Shoreditch Town Hall. When I got out of it, it reminded me a lot of the way first person videogames gate progress through staged encounters. I wrote a bit about this for the Hide&Seek blog:

The security guards weren’t just human gating tools; they were good gating tools because they were human. A marine in a doorway in Call of Duty has a couple of repeated “barks” to explain why you can’t pass him. But a human actor can improvise, responding sympathetically and organically to the situation in front of them. The gates feel much less forced when you can have a dialogue with them.

Read the full post over at Hide&Seek.

Everyday Gaming

15 August 2011

My latest Game Design of Everyday Things column is now live at Kill Screen. It’s about games and the “everyday”:

This column is nominally about looking at the relationship between design and games. But, in its title that riffs on Don Norman’s most famous book, I’d argue that the “Everyday” is as important as the D-word. After all, design is not really something most people engage with actively, either as connoisseurs or as critics. Most often, it is something people engage with without knowing it’s there. “Design,” it turns out, is usually the answer to the question we so rarely ask of the products we use everyday: “What made this good?”

Read the whole article at Kill Screen.

Evo 2011: Moments

09 August 2011

Via GameSetWatch comes this marvellous compilation of “Moments” from Evo 2011.

It’s a really nice film. It’s not a compilation of players’ faces, or screen-capture, but primarily of the audience. And it reminds me why I love fighters so much: not just for the competition inherent in the game, but the community. Not a capital-c Community, either – but the community that springs up around every screen, every cab, every website, where you can’t stop talking to other players about what you’re seeing.

Just look at the crowd. Most of them will have entered the tournament and been knocked out, and yet they’re still there for the real show – watching the best players in the world waggle sticks and stab buttons. There’s been some incredible play at this year’s Evo, and it’s lovely to see someone concentrate on the incredible atmosphere to back it up.

Just look at that crowd.


27 July 2011

So, I’ve designed a game.

Well, I’ve nearly finished designing it. Needs a little more work. But:

Next week, you’ll be able to play it, as part of Hide&Seek’s Southbank Seaside Sandpit.

It’s called Charabanc:

Ah, the race for the last seaside parking space: Mum’s tired, Dad’s lost, the kids need the loo, and EVERYONE’S COMPLAINING. A noisy, competitive role-playing team game for two or more groups of four.

It involves a deck of cards I’m still balancing, and groups of four pretending to be in a people carrier. The Clore Ballroom will be reverberating to cries of “I’M REALLY HUNGRY”, “I FEEL SICK”, and “ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?” next Thursday night. Maybe. Or it might break quite badly. Either way: it should be fun, and there are loads of other games on that night, some of which I can tell you are definitely really good.

This is my first game for the Sandpit; given I work at H&S, thought I ought to dip my toes into the more pervasive and theatrical end of game design. Charabanc is the result. We’ll see how it turns out next week…

Story Warp

26 July 2011

I’m going to be talking at Story Warp on Thursday evening (the 28th) – an event about storytelling hosted by Made by Many. It’s a great panel, and I think – given my own perspectives and beliefs on the S-word – there’s going to be some healthy and vigorous debate.

Slightly late notice – and the event’s full now, I believe. But: if you’re there, do say hello. It should be a good evening.

Being With Each Other

17 July 2011

From this week’s Cardboard Children, over at Rock Paper Shotgun:

I don’t know if Subbuteo is a great game. I’m sure it is. It just wasn’t really a game to me. It was just one of many things I shared with my da. Like Star Trek and in-depth conversations about the nature of the universe. Now, as a father myself, I realise what was actually happening when we were playing that game we didn’t know the rules of. We were just being with each other. Flicking plastic. Shooting the shit. Playing.

What’s the point of all this?

Being with each other – for me, that’s the key element of board gaming. When you get that occasional person who openly tells you they see board games as “sad”, I feel a bit sad that they don’t get it. If I want to play a board game with you, it really just means I want to sit with you a while. That’s not a bad thing, is it?

No, Rab, that’s not a bad thing at all. And this is why some of my favourite boardgame memories are from afternoons and evenings sat in pubs around the country, rattling through game after game of Lost Cities, or Blue Moon, sat by a welcoming fire or bright window, pints in hand. It’s just a way to spend some time with a friend.