Games with (Sports)Friends

Hipster Shit

“I've always thought that Joust thing looks like boring non-game hipster shit.”

That was someone’s comment on a forum thread created to promote Sportsfriends, a collection of games (including J.S. Joust) that has an active Kickstarter campaign as of this writing. The thread was started not by someone involved in Sportsfriends, but by a user of the website who was baffled by the lack of funding being sent the project’s way. I know about this thread because I was ready to start one of my own. I’m not affiliated with any of the Sportsfriends folks, but I’m compelled to support their work.

J.S. Joust has been an incredible phenomenon, but also an oddly inaccessible one. As someone who has yet to have the opportunity to experience it myself, I’m among the many people who have spent vastly more time reading and hearing about J.S. Joust than playing it. It’s probably the most popular game that the fewest people have played, but now that there is a viable path to playing it (along with some other fascinating games), the interest level is disturbingly low.

As is to be expected from the internet, the aforementioned forum thread has produced a number of unreasonable responses. However, alongside these responses are different, more intelligible objections to backing Sportsfriends, the most notable of which is that people simply don’t play local multiplayer games anymore.

I think it could be a wise decision for some of those games involved in Sportsfriends to offer online play or computer-controlled opponents. The games other than J.S. Joust could realistically have these features implemented (given the necessary resources), but I completely understand why these games are presented as featuring local multiplayer only.

The Sportsfriends crew wants to bring people together through video games. I think what we’re discovering, however, is that the market isn’t interested in that. It may be that the average gamer and perhaps even the average internet user are both interested in the opposite. I think the Sportsfriends crew and I would agree that this is a tragedy, and I don’t consider that an exaggeration given the history of play.

The spirit that the Sportsfriends package is trying to highlight is the one that defined gameplay for all but the past 30 years or so. Yes, there have been non-digital single-player experiences throughout history, but games–by and large–were collaborative, social experiences (even at their most competitive). It seems like people just don’t want that anymore from their games, though.

It appears that Sportsfriends may have been fighting an uphill battle from the outset. In its very title are two concepts that the gamer is averse to: sports and friends, and I don’t mean this as a cheap insult.

Non-Gamer Shit

If you enjoy sports video games, you’re not considered a real “gamer”. Only obsessively killing animated characters counts as playing games in our culture. Nevermind the dexterity, strategy, and focus required for mastery of a game like NHL 13, it just doesn’t have enough killing to count as a game. There’s too much emphasis on teamwork (even if it’s virtual teamwork) and not enough emphasis on fighting (not that it’s entirely absent). We can consider winning the Stanley Cup “beating” NHL 13, and this climax is followed by an animation of the customary handshake line between opponents. One side is very disappointed and the other is elated, but overall it’s a civil resolution. Compare this to beating most other video games, in which an uncompromisingly evil being (the likes of which has no real-world analogue in the slightest) has been destroyed and hundreds (if not thousands) of corpses lie in the hero’s wake. Which one of these do we typically celebrate, again?

Finally, the “paid roster update” economic argument that is commonly levelled against sports games holds no water when compared to the actual games in question or, more importantly, “legitimate” gamer pastimes. Buying a new EA Sports game once a year is cheaper than a 180-day Game Time pass for World of Warcraft, but it would be anathema to gamer culture to suggest that World of Warcraft is a waste of money, lining the pockets of exploitative game developers.

Speaking personally: one of my favorite things to do in games is to try and put a virtual puck past a virtual goaltender. It’s offensive to me that this is considered a lesser gaming activity than dismembering zombies, eradicating entire civilizations, obsessively collecting equipment and money, shooting “terrorists” in the head, or even jumping on Goombas. There is a serious lack of critique of violence in games, even though non-violent games like Tetris have historically been very successful.

Furthermore, if the sort of episodic arcs of game narrative that emerge from sessions of sports games, traditional games (including sports themselves), and the titles featured in Sportsfriends continue to be ignored in favor of progressive, plot-driven structures, we will (or already have) found ourselves in a poverty of true play. Too often, play in modern games feels like work. As has been lamented by Steven Conway, we’re simply not given permission to lose in games anymore. The paradigm of contemporary single-player computer game progression is “win, or win later” and the reward is not a “well-played game” (to borrow the title of Bernie DeKoven’s book), but an immutable experience handed down from the game developers. It is this kind of game that is a “boring non-game” if anything is to be attacked as such.

Social Shit

As to the aversion of gamers to friends, this is something that I don’t even need to prove myself. Gamers’ assertions that local multiplayer is dead is an endorsement of such an argument, but it’s not that gamers don’t prefer to have friends.

What seems more correct to say is that gamers like to “have” friends. They like to possess friends as objects, particularly objects in a database. This isn’t exclusive to the kind of “gamer” illustrated in my previous argument, either; this extends itself to many more people than the stereotypical gamer. While we can definitely see this trend in “hardcore” gamers’ tendencies to want friends primarily as cannon fodder or leaderboard entries to surpass, the “casual” gaming space is no stranger to such a phenomenon, and what better way to discuss friends in games in 2012 than by way of the 2012 Facebook game, The Friend Game?

The Friend Game (currently in beta) is the first game from Zynga New York, and–much like its reviled cousins–it essentially asks you to treat your friends like resources. Strictly speaking, any multiplayer game can be criticized for this, but traditional games make clear demarcations where the game-self begins and ends. That’s part of the beauty of even a violent first-person shooter: we can sincerely want to kill each other in one moment, and then feel something completely different once the round is over. We may understand that the first feeling was wholly dependent on certain conditions, and it has no foundation without these conditions. The conditions in question are the rules and fiction of the game that we were playing together, and these conditions can hopefully evaporate gracefully to allow for healthy social relationships when we’re done attacking one another with deadly weapons.

The Friend Game offers no such demarcation. The game is about the actual people that you have relationships with. When The Friend Game asks you a question, it is not about an avatar, but a human being. That is, a human being insofar as The Friend Game can acknowledge one’s humanity.

There isn’t a whole lot to playing The Friend Game. The primary mode of interaction is answering questions, and there are basically two types of questions in the game: questions about you and your friends, and questions about pictures. Neither of these escape striking me as completely poisonous.

The questions about pictures gleefully perpetuate the worst kinds of judgements: ones based on appearance that are not solely concerning appearance. These picture-questions have two separate components: one aspect is asking players for their opinions and the other asking a single player what he or she thinks the popular opinion among other players is. Depicted below is the latter.

Dancing skill is a relatively innocuous conclusion to draw from a set of photographs, but it is not without harm. These three people exhibit very different visual characteristics, and–unlike similar sociological studies that can be done responsibly–there is no space afforded for critical reflection on one’s adherence or nonadherence to superficial cultural biases. If you answer this question correctly, you are unflinchingly rewarded by the system for your mastery of and subscription to stereotypes.

It goes without saying that the best way to judge who would win a dance contest is to see the contestants dance. Anything else is presumptive, and all we need to do to highlight the offensive nature of The Friend Game is to retain the same structure while offering a different question. Who of these three is most likely to kill someone? Who is most likely to be unemployed? Who is most likely to be HIV positive? Who would you trust most with your children? It’s the same jumping to conclusions, just with different stakes.

The game’s effort to define the personalities of you and your friends is also incredibly disconcerting. Having only gotten to Level 3 myself, I’m still being teased with the “Unlock your Personality Type at LEVEL 5” message, which obviously acts as the carrot-on-a-stick for an unsuspecting user, who is being preyed on for their insecurity regarding their identity.

The game constructs a personality based on a number of characteristics, and gathers information for such a construction through its questions regarding specific people. Many of the game’s questions are about your own preferences, or what you judge your friends’ habits to be, and–based on your answers to these questions–certain characteristics may increase for the person in question.

The questions tend to be very consumeristic in nature, which is reflected in the absurd progression structure of the game. At level 1, you and your friends are standing around in a public park. Levels 2 and 3 are a café and restaurant respectively. Clearly, better friendship (or friend-gaming) is tied to more expensive habits.

Once you’ve upgraded yourself to level 5 (which I can only assume is accompanied by an Apple Store or country club setting), you can finally understand your personality. Judging from the questions I answered, I expect my personality will largely be based on my willingness to precisely calculate tips, follow the rules, get a date, be a strict parent, win on Survivor, watch TV, send text messages on an iOS device, watch The Avengers, be professional, and–of course–be prepared for a zombie apocalypse. This final example earned my friend a point under “practical” when I answered that, yes, he would probably fare decently well in a zombie apocalypse.

Other than the absurdity of zombie preparedness being labeled as “practical”, the most impressive thing about this system is its eagerness to define people by means that only serve to alienate us from each other. The Friend Game largely becomes an exercise in promoting marketing rhetoric and an introverted critique of your friends’ mundane tendencies. What’s worse is that the game presents your friends as loving this dehumanization, giving them an on-screen presence that reacts with ecstasy when the game says “You changed your friend’s personality!”

Peoples’ personalities are determined by the game’s algorithm, and there is no buffer given between the game-self and the real self. We’re taught to understand ourselves by means of Facebook logic and the parameters of The Friend Game, and our on-screen representations seem to love it. The bribes of in-game currency and Skinnerian progression certainly don’t do anything to dissuade us from defining ourselves through such unhealthy trivia, either. And, of course, The Friend Game utilizes the tried-and-true method of “social games... destroy[ing] the time we spend away from them” as Ian Bogost correctly argues.

The genre identifiable as “social games” mostly includes games that are, in fact, antisocial (a quality shared by the video games most “gamers” approve of). In a recent Kotaku piece about the game, Creative Director Frank Lantz reported that the game is “testing how good you are at putting yourself in the shoes of another human and knowing who they are and what their likes and dislikes are.” This statement is dishonest, at least in its first half. The game asked me about my opinion of my friends, not how my friends feel. The Friend Game does not put you in the shoes of another human, but rather asks you to inhabit something more akin to the algorithms of Facebook’s advertising apparatus. Everyone’s personality becomes determined by consumeristic likes and dislikes, rather than something more fundamentally human.

“Does your friend suffer from fears of old age, disease, and death?” is a question that The Friend Game would never dare ask, because the answer unites us rather than divides us. The Friend Game is far less a game than it is a social anxiety generator. It will mostly serve to make us (continue to) worry about what our friends secretly think about us and our patterns of consumption. It aspires–as a perfect microcosm of Facebook–to manage not just our relationships but our very sense of self.

Tough Shit

Sportsfriends is offering a number of truly social experiences, and the general gaming community seems not to be supporting it. The projected failure of Sportsfriends (according to Kicktraq.com and my own suspicions) is a confirmation of the historical transformation of the gaming experience. Grandmothers playing cards around a kitchen table are not considered “gamers” and, to the delight of gamer culture, they will be dead sooner than later.

Playing games is now an individual, consumeristic pastime. There is a lot of potential in the single-player experience and there exist a number of triumphs of that form, but Sportsfriends, which is easily identifiable as an earnest attempt to advance the local multiplayer experience, looks to be rejected by gaming culture. J.S. Joust is apparently just a cute novelty to be remembered fondly as an accessory to certain events; it’s a little too meaningfully social for people who play games in the 21st Century to feel comfortable investing in.

“I've always thought that Joust thing looks like boring non-game hipster shit.”

J.S. Joust is nothing if not a game. It is the complete opposite of a non-game, but a perversion of terms in the past decade or so has made the above sentiment less surprising. J.S. Joust is revolutionary by being conservative: it is a pure game, devoid of fiction or spectacle (other than the admittedly impressive glow of PlayStation Move controllers at night). It offers no screenshots, no pre-order bonus weapons, and no sexy women or tough men in its packaging. It lacks all of the signifiers that gamers crave in their consumption routines.

Ultimately, Sportsfriends is a radical, prosocial gesture, and we can now see that gamers aren’t interested in true games or real people any longer.

Feel free to prove me wrong.

Edit: Thankfully, I've been proven wrong (to some extent)! Sportsfriends got a surge in funding in its last few days.

3 Comments

Why Hotline Miami?

Quite simply: I’m baffled.

I haven’t played Hotline Miami. I’m not going to buy Hotline Miami. I’m not going to pirate the game, either. I have no interest in playing the game because I don’t see what there is about Hotline Miami that isn’t pure adolescent nonsense. Feel free to correct me on any details, but I’m not giving the developers of this game the time or money required to play it. I don’t feel bad about that. I have better things to do (including writing this).

I am quite literally embarrassed by the overwhelmingly positive response to this game. We keep talking about how video games are a young medium and how we’re eager for it to grow up. Then we see what is, as far as I can tell, a wholly immature work named Hotline Miami, and its ultraviolence and gore are greeted with the stereotypically uncritical responses of “Awesome!”.

I’ve read two reviews of the game, watched one trailer, and watched the Giant Bomb Quick Look of it. From this information, all I can gather is that it’s an unstable game about killing people. Oh, and it has music that some people seem to like.

And it might be somewhat anti-feminist judging from this line of the Rock, Paper, Shotgun review: “There’s even a strange vein of sweetness, as a female presence introduced into the player’s apartment in an early mission sees it gradually evolve from dingy cesspit to clean, decorated home.”

Yes. How sweet. A female presence cleaning and decorating a home. This is exactly the kind of representation of women that we want in games, right? No!

Are we ever going to get serious about representations of women? About making games that aren’t just blood-soaked murder simulators? Why is it okay that Hotline Miami's cover art has a scantily clad, unconscious woman who is ostensibly being rescued by the male protagonist? Why does Hotline Miami get a pass for being about nothing but killing other people, when everyone is reportedly sick of first-person shooters that do the same thing? It’s completely offensive to me, and I think we should all be ashamed of it.

Keep in mind that I am mostly criticizing the reaction to the game, which is why I’m so comfortable talking about it without having played it. When the Giant Bomb Quick Look ends with the sentiments “This game is awesome!” and “This game seems really great” based almost entirely on the game’s violence, this is exactly the problem with the discourse surrounding games. Why is killing a bunch of people great? We sound completely mad when we exclaim stuff like that!

I’m not even strictly opposed to killing or violence in games, mind you. I can appreciate it as a means to an end in a game. However, Hotline Miami is apparently nothing but a crass celebration of violence in itself, and I’m not into that at all. None of the coverage I’ve read has convinced me that it’s much more than that, and everyone seems to be transfixed by the amazing bloodstains you leave on the environment (even if blood can apparently spray through walls). I watched people play this game for more than 20 minutes, and I was still left with the impression that it’s simply about how great it is to kill people.

But apparently it’s fun. And if something’s fun, that means we don’t have to think about it. It means we shouldn’t criticize it beyond its ability to be fun or maybe “trippy” in its audio/visual components.

Knock it off, everybody. Stop making so many games that glorify violence and stop praising the developers who do it. And yes, if a game calls you a “winner” for being more violent than not, it’s glorifying violence. It’s not interesting anymore (if it ever was), and I swear it makes us look sociopathic (at best) for continuing to enjoy it. In the Polygon review of the game, Chris Plante praises the game by saying, “Playing Hotline Miami made me feel like an empowered homicidal maniac.”

What a unique, positive feeling for an action game to evoke!

Honestly, take any well-regarded single-player computer game about killing (and there are plenty to choose from), insert its title into the previous quote, and I think you have a perfect encapsulation of the general state of game criticism. It’s terrible, and it’s completely discouraging for me, personally.

Update, October 28th: I played Hotline Miami up through Part One. Don't feel any different, except I didn't think even it was fun as an action-puzzle-stealth kind of game. Really didn't feel like I had a good reason to be doing any of the things I was doing.

Update, October 29th: I've now been educated on the narrative arc of Hotline Miami. I stand by all of my previous arguments with one small qualifier: yes, it seems like the creators of the game tried to comment on this ultraviolence in the game itself. However, I sincerely think it's a case of them trying to have their cake (violence) and eat it (comment on it) too. I don't think the game's structure supports the kind of introspection that everyone is giving it credit for. The vast majority of the Hotline Miami experience seems to be killing people and/or pressing R to try killing these people again. The non-gameplay elements are not inconsequential, but they seem completely overwhelmed by the gameplay elements. My response to the gameplay was one of disgust and, both before and after playing, abstention.

Finally, let the record show that abstaining from gameplay is not the same as abstaining from completing a book or movie. This will likely be my last word on Hotline Miami. I quite honestly just have too much work to do to let a game I disapprove of consume my free time.

Thanks everybody for reading and/or participating, even if you aggressively disagreed with me.

298 Comments

Music, Art History, and the 'Dumb Games' Debate

“Let’s face it: Games, in general, suck.” Jason Rohrer said this in his wonderful “The Game Design of Art” article from 2008. Obviously, we haven’t faced it and such an indictment still rubs people the wrong way. Earlier this year, Taylor Clark wrote a portrait of Jon Blow that many saw as an ignorant slight against the medium they love so much. Though accusations of exaggerations in Clark’s writing may be valid, attacking the sentiment that provided the foundation for the piece is far less so. Still, the Twittersphere and such exploded when computer game fanatics (and ‘fanatic’ is certainly not an exaggeration in this case) defended the honor of their $60 murder simulators.

So, Clark followed it up with a piece called “Most Popular Video Games Are Dumb. Can We Stop Apologizing For Them Now?” Apparently the answer to this question is a resounding “no”.

Dumb games are the modern-day rock music” by Jason Killingsworth makes no mention of Clark, but can not be read as anything but a response to his ideas. While he makes no clear attempt to say which band games should emulate, the artists he refers to are far from obscure. He tries to characterize games as having a spirit akin to the unbridled passion found in popular rock acts, and—while I hesitate to make such a direct comment—this is an utterly glib appreciation.

Most of the anti-establishment sentiment found in “impassioned” rock music is completely superficial. Bands that act like they refuse to follow the rules (punk bands specifically come to mind) actually adhere to well-defined conventions. Their musical structures and styles are not inventive, despite pretensions to the contrary. Tattoos, piercings, and wild hair become a standard-issue uniform for legitimacy. The lyrics and appearances of their performances become nothing more than hand-waving.

This is where I’m perfectly comfortable having violent games and rock music compared to one another. How many games have you played that can be summed up as, “You, the indispensable hero, must save the world from the moustache-twirling forces of evil, mostly by killing creatures who don’t look like you”? How many rock songs are just a predictable I-IV-V chord progression? If you consume either of these forms often enough with a critical eye, they become completely stale.

This isn’t to say that violence has absolutely no place in games, nor does aggression have no place in music. However, having a truly rebellious spirit doesn’t mean regurgitating conventions angrily with no further comment. It means creating something new because the existing paradigm doesn’t satisfy you. To draw upon my own musical tastes, Meshuggah (alongside groups like Cynic, Exivious, Animals as Leaders, and the like) exemplify this in a way I find particularly relevant to this discussion. Meshuggah is intelligent, violent music. They eschew traditional rhythmic patterns and incorporate jazz fusion flavors into a style that could superficially be disregarded as unsophisticated. Meshuggah’s regular homages to Allan Holdsworth are interesting in themselves, but you also need to take a look at what makes Allan Holdsworth so unique.

Allan Holdsworth didn’t originally want to be a guitarist. He wanted to be a saxophone player like John Coltrane. This is why his music is so original: he was influenced by something outside of the form he was working within. His guitar solos sound more like fluid saxophone runs than the clunky blues-rock rigmarole that is more recognizable as normal lead guitar playing.

The people who make and play games are often woefully ignorant of the culture outside of their own, leaving us with an echo chamber of game design conventions. If they’re not ignorant, they tend to cling to this idea that games aren’t art and, as such, should not take any cues from art. This may be the only reason that the “games as art” debate is worth pursuing at all, to convince people who like games that their medium does not exist in a vacuum. Somehow game aesthetics are something like a century behind the larger discussions about vital issues of representation and the like. Photorealism is still a concern in games, 140 years after Monet’s seminal Impression, soleil levant launched a tradition of visual art that allows itself to proceed outside of strictly photorealistic representation. In addition, we’ve learned nothing from Duchamp’s Fountain as a community. We refuse to acknowledge our medium as art, maybe because art isn’t fun to most people who like games.

I don’t want games to be rock music, unless we’re talking about something like Rush or Frank Zappa. These people legitimately had a passion for pushing boundaries, and not simply technological or financial ones. Killingsworth is right: computer games are an awful lot like rock music. They’re popular, commercial, uninteresting, and formulaic. Their participants objectify women and glorify addiction.

As Pippin Barr once said, “We need some Duchamping in game making.” When we lash out at people like Taylor Clark for wanting more out of a medium with so much untapped potential, it’s embarrassing. It’s not pompous to be tired of immature, derivative, kitschy wastes of time. It’s pompous to act like games couldn’t use every kick in the pants they can get.

3 Comments

A quick, reactionary blog in favor of multiplayer in ME3.

I'm still waiting on my copy of the game to show up, but I just read something that I feel an urgent need to comment on.

My opinion may change after being better-informed by, well, actually playing the game, but knowing that people are skeptical about the inclusion of multiplayer in Mass Effect 3, this RPS write-up about its influence on your playthrough's ending has me fascinated (the article talks about it in an abstract way, don't worry about spoilers).

So, apparently the end of Mass Effect 3 is kind of bleak, and there are only two ways to make it not as bleak as some reviewers seem to be saying it is: play multiplayer or do side quests.

This seems to strike a lot of people as annoying. Maybe it is. However, on paper, I think it's a beautiful decision.

I'm kind of an artgame snob. I think games should be expressive through their game mechanics (a la Jason Rohrer's Passage and Gravitation), not through cinematics.

My understanding of the game may be completely glib, but if BioWare is communicating that you need to help other people (side quests) and co-operate (multiplayer) to save the world... we have the biggest-budget artgame ever to be released.

I may be giving them too much credit. Maybe it's a shallow cash-grab. But I'm terribly optimistic and really proud of them if I'm right.

1 Comments

Wanna test my new puzzly-kinda game?

For once, I'm making a game that's primarily for fun (no artgame pretense D:).

I think it's pretty cool, but I could certainly use some feedback to make it as good as possible.

You can find it here: http://www.devinwilson.net/WP/pit-chess-test/

The password is pctest. Thanks!

Edit: playing it some more on my own, I think it needs to be more difficult. Maybe drop pieces on every move, but only increase the number dropped when a piece isn't captured?

Edit 2: I've changed some things to make it more challenging (which is to say, challenging at all).

Edit 3: I've made even more changes!

Edit: It's on Kongregate now! http://www.kongregate.com/games/devwil/pit-chess

19 Comments

I just made something ridiculous. A game. Check it out!

I don't know.

So, there's some game jam thing this weekend. Pirate Kart V. I don't totally get it. It seems like an opportunity to make ridiculous games, but even if it's not, that's what I did.

Maybe you've heard of Mad Dog McCree. Well, now there's Man Dog Macree. I hope you like it?

Yeah, I hope you like it.

Wear headphones. Maybe don't turn them up extra loud.

Oh, by the way, IT'S SUPER DUMB.

1 Comments

Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) raped me.

I just finished playing Indigo Prophecy. Well, Fahrenheit, to be totally accurate. Now, seeing as this is a blog on a website about video games, I'm going to espouse my opinions of said video game.

I really didn't like it!

I completed it in basically one sitting, so it had my attention for a good while. Most of the time I wasn't way into it, but I was certainly interested in seeing how things turned out.

Here comes the part where I spoil a six-year-old game.

Things turn out super lame! I'd heard from various sources that the story takes a really crazy and fantastical turn, but that's not exactly how I would describe it, I don't think. You can tell from the very beginning that it's going to be a supernatural thriller, so I was game for all sorts of magic, sci-fi, whatever. But I totally wasn't game for a boring, poorly written supernatural... adventure?

You start out the game controlling three different characters, Lucas Kane, Carla Valenti, and Tyler Miles.

First thing's first: ignore that Tyler Miles was ever in the game. That's certainly how the ending of the game treats him. He practically only exists to be the black detective who plays basketball, listens to funk, and decides whether or not to move to Florida with his girlfriend. Okay, that's a bit reductive. Regardless, I decided to have him stay in New York City and keep being a cop, but it was totally meaningless because I didn't see him again for the rest of the game. He doesn't die or anything; he just sort of isn't mentioned again even though he was one of the three most important characters for the majority of your time with the game. He doesn't help Carla any longer, and I don't think it was ever really made clear why. If there was a reason, it definitely wasn't a good one.

Before that, however, Tyler and Carla are NYPD detectives who are trying to solve the murder that Lucas Kane is apparently guilty of. The player is put in a fairly interesting situation, as you're keeping the suspect away from the authorities when you control Lucas, but you're also trying to track him down when playing as Tyler and/or Carla. That is, until the end of the game.

By the end of the game, you're just trying to save the world (OH HOW ORIGINAL). You (as Lucas) are no longer a fugitive on the run, and Carla is no longer interested in having you arrested. She's awfully interested in your penis, though. Completely out of nowhere, she decides that she wants to have sex with you the night before your (anticlimactic) final encounter with the moustache-twirling forces of evil. She wants to have sex with you in a subway car where homeless people live. Did I mention that you're a zombie? No. I didn't. You're undead, and you're so cold that your breath doesn't make water vapor condense in front of your mouth.

I'm not a woman, but I don't think many women would be turned on by an ice-cold corpse in a hobo's makeshift shelter.

This is also one of the more graphic sex scenes in video game history. It's no hardcore porn, but you see Carla's breasts (nipple included) and I wouldn't say it's especially romantic. I'm not scandalized; I actually think that there need to be more games with sex in them for games to develop into a more mature medium. However, when it's a previously-independent-minded woman just absolutely needing to get it on with a zombie man because he's got a chance to save humanity the next day, it's not progressive at all. It makes games look even more like sophomoric nonsense. When mediocre comic books have better writing than games that focus on their story... we're in bad shape.

Oh! You also don't have a choice in the matter. It's video game rape. Yes. I said it. Video game rape. Now, before the boys roll their eyes and the girls yell at me for trivializing rape, hear me out. The game forces sex upon your female (player controlled) character. I think it's less than crazy to call that rape. After you fix a radio in one of the game's many poor attempts at real gameplay, your only remaining option (other than let the game idle indefinitely) is to sleep with Lucas. There's an empty mattress in a neighboring car, but no: you have to press down on the analog stick and get down with an undead dick. But he's magical hero something so whatever yay humanity!

So the sex is awful in Fahrenheit, but what about the gameplay? Yeah, that's bad too. It's mostly oddly complicated quick-time events that really feel like they're only there to make sure that you're still awake. There are some puzzles here and there too, but they're not good. Sniffing around a crime scene is kind of fun, I guess, but overall it's not fun.

I bought Heavy Rain a few weeks ago, and wanted to play Fahrenheit as a lead-in to it. Man, I hope (and expect) that it's way better. I was impressed by the demo. I felt like it was really immersive, actually. However, I won't be completely surprised if it's just as lame as a whole and the story is about how there's a flood coming to take out all of humanity.

(But Quantic Dream can't really be that shamelessly awful, can they?? Please don't spoil Heavy Rain for me, even if I should return it while it's still in the shrink-wrap.)

P.S. Lucas Kane reminded me a lot of Francis York Morgan.

P.P.S. One thing I did appreciate about the story in Fahrenheit was that there was a gay character, and it totally wasn't a big deal that he was gay. He's just Carla's gay neighbor, and they're friends. He's not the butt of gay jokes; he's not giving Carla a makeover; he's just a dude who likes dudes and drinks wine with the cop lady across the hall.

Edit: Well, then. 25 user reviews have this game averaging at 3.7/5.0 on this site. Bracing for blowback.

18 Comments

Do I just not like video games anymore or something?

I recently wrote a blog in which I kind of called out game designers for making uninteresting games. You can find it easily if you want to, but I'd like to open another thread to discuss a broader concern I have, one that certainly informed my wanting to write that blog in the first place. This isn't me trying to spam; I just wanted to open up a less formal discussion about it. see how informal i'm being? not even capitalizing the first letter of a sentence or 'i'.

Seriously, though, I wanted to talk about this without starting off by shoving my opinion down people's throats. I want this to be more of a question posed to a games enthusiast (AKA 'duder') crowd.

The main question is right there in the title of this thread: do I just not like video games anymore now that I'm at the ripe old age of 22? I'm becoming increasingly disenchanted with how similar games are to one another, and how much time they take to complete. I really almost feel like it's more fun for me to make a game than play one.

Some relevant biographical stuff to get out of the way:

As someone who was born into middle class America in 1989, of course I spent a lot of time playing games growing up. I would never claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge/background of games, though. I really don't think I ever beat a game until I played Metal Gear Solid 2, and I really didn't own or rent that many different games before I got out of high school. On the other hand, games go on sale so often for so cheap now that I have dozens of unfinished games in my library.

Between Metal Gear Solid 2 and... say... Mass Effect 2, I had a solid run of finishing games once I started them, but now, other than when I play something for review (I make a few bucks reviewing iOS games), I tend to just not care about seeing a game through. As you could see in my latest blog, I really feel like it's the developers' fault for making boring pieces of media. But maybe it's my fault for becoming a Buddhist and learning to be extremely content with everything, including the unfinished state of all of these well-regarded games I own! Maybe being in grad school has messed my mind up but I still love her Lu-hoo-cille has messed my mind up by I still need her, you know I need her!

Ahem. Sorry. Frank Zappa tangent.

I dunno!

I bought Avadon: The Black Fortress on Steam the other day, and I just sat down and played it for like an hour or something. It seems like a perfectly acceptable RPG, but I've clicked on however-many rats to kill them and I'm just like "so this is how this is gonna go, huh?". RPGs haven't seemed to progress much past what was achieved back in the Infinity Engine days, and I'm jaded about it not even having played one of those games for more than like a half-dozen hours or so!

As such, I can't believe someone like our man Jeff Gerstmann isn't totally tired of games and giving anything even kind of familiar like two out of five stars. How much have first-person shooters really progressed since Half-Life: Counter-Strike? How much have 2D platformers really progressed since, say, Super Mario Bros 3? I mean, not to criticize it in particular, but isn't Starcraft II just Starcraft but kinda newer? Jeff has been around for all of these games, and I'm absolutely dumbfounded as to why he isn't sick of the same old mechanics being trod out in different clothes (fiction, graphics, etc).

If you know me, you know I'm way into the games-as-art movement. I'd go as far to say that my own "games" tend to (try to) be expressive at the expense of their game-ness. So while it seems like I'm totally unimpressed with games as a whole, I'd be quite happy to play Rez for a long time.

But I also spend hours upon hours with whatever EA's latest NHL game is! It's ostensibly just because like the game of hockey an awful lot, and you kind of can't blame EA for putting out such a fundamentally unchanging product every year, because the game of hockey itself hasn't changed all that much for more than a century.

Other video games aren't beholden to the rules of a real-life game, though. And I don't totally hate all games. I'll get down with some SpellTower, Scrabble, poker, Tetris, Lumines... are you seeing a trend yet? I do, just as I'm writing this blog. All of these games are... casual games? You could definitely say that, and a crowd like this might act like that's a bad thing. However, if these are casual games, then I'll defend casual games to my dying breath, because all of these games are actually pretty unique. They're not another RPG, another shooter, another platformer, another third-person action game, or another [insert genre here]. If being a hardcore gamer means playing the same thing over and over, then consider me out of the club. I don't mind.

I dunno, duders. Let me know what you think. Do I just need to ratchet up the difficulty whenever I play a game to make it more challenging? I mean, I guess I could say that it's gotten to the point that I'm confident that I can totally complete [insert objective here], so it really feels like a waste of time to actually do it. I'm not trying to rant that games are too easy at all. It's just that they feel like kind of a waste of time.

Thanks for letting me waste your time.[/George Carlin-style ending]

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In Defense of Tedium: When Fun Isn't Good Enough

Let me quickly preface this blog by saying that, in the following text, when I use the word “game”, I’m using it to describe any sort of digital, interactive thing that at least resembles a game.

I participated in my first Ludum Dare this past weekend, and managed to pump out a game within the first seven hours of the competition (and another one in the final few). Obviously, it’s not a complex game, as LD48 entries tend not to be. It’s called Expecting a Call, and I’m pretty pleased with it, especially in the context of the competition’s theme: Alone.

I’d say reception has generally been positive, but I would also place the consensus opinion around a sentiment like, “Very clever application of the theme, but it needs work to be more fun!” The problem is that my clever application of the theme is totally dependent on how much fun it isn’t.

The core conceit of the game is that sixteen different people living in a high-rise are anxiously expecting phone calls, and you click on their apartment when their phone rings to have them answer. It was meant to illustrate the arguably lonely nature of technological communication, and it’s further contrasted against the fact that these people have (at least) fifteen other people living in close proximity to them.

So, even though I’m closing the door on a lot of interpretation and I wish more games invited people to walk away with their own opinion on what it’s about, it really shouldn’t be surprising that, when I set out to make a game about the unsatisfactoriness of telephone communication, I made an unsatisfying game. Could I have made Expecting a Call more mechanically dense? Sure. I could have implemented any number of conventional gameplay systems. However, every feature carries meaning, whether you like it or not. What does it mean if I end players’ games after missing a certain amount of calls? I considered such a lose condition, but I wasn’t sure how it would contribute to how the whole of the game could be interpreted. If my game valuates missed phone calls as bad, then what’s the point of criticizing the telephone as a communication medium? These are the relationships between rules and fiction that most game developers don’t bother to ask themselves, and it may be the most significant hurdle that games face as a serious medium.

For an industry/community that sees immersion as something to aspire to, people seem to think I’ve made a design mistake when I make a game like Expecting a Call, which actually creates a very strong connection between the player experience and the fiction of the game. Many people have said of the game, “It was fun at first, but then I realized how empty of an experience it was.” I don’t know that I could ask for a better reaction to it, honestly. One of my primary interests as a game designer is to create models that are realistic to such an extent that people realize the unsatisfactory/unhealthy/unethical nature of certain real-world phenomena, so fun isn’t always a priority. Valuation and interactivity are.

If people play a game that is designed to reward shooting brown people in the head, I won’t argue that it necessarily encourages people to feel positive about violence towards specific ethnicities (though I think it may to some extent), but it certainly doesn’t discourage such feelings. On the other hand, if I make a game about violence and it’s not fun, people will come out of the experience feeling like violence is less fun than they did before they played my game. It’s just a theory I have, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable.

I feel like we have a great chance to have our medium mature past power fantasies, which means not treating winning or having fun as ends in themselves. When someone tells me one of my games isn’t a ton of fun (which is typically a fair assessment, admittedly), I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the more critical people in that set to those who would criticize a movie for not having a happy ending.

I don’t think it’s impossible to make a viscerally satisfying game that also has a sad and/or meaningful ending (see: Braid, Limbo), but the fact remains that there aren’t enough Ingmar Bergman types making games. Our auteurs tend not to achieve much more than someone like Kevin Smith (though there are certainly a handful of exceptions). Sure, their games may have a modicum of emotionality, but they don’t invite the same kind of scrutiny or involvement that a classic Bergman film would. At best, we’re surprised by something on the level of a Chasing Amy or Clerks (if those two are Smith’s peaks), but we really tend to be inundated with games more comparable to Mallrats. The protagonist gets what he wanted from the beginning, and that’s the end of it.

Comparing games to movies is dangerous not only because it invites developers to continue making overly cinematic software, but also because a fun movie has an inherently better chance of being engaging than a typical game that sees fun as an end in itself (while also having narrative ambitions).

If, say, Indiana Jones is in a bind and says, “I’ve got an idea”, there is going to be some narrative tension because you want to see how exactly he’s going to get out of whatever scrape he’s in, and there’s a real chance that things won’t go to plan. Compare this to a typical story-driven game, in which there’s no tension, as you know which sequence of actions will resolve a conflict before these actions are even executed. Everything is telegraphed by the goals the game gives you. Also, when a protagonist/player is assigned an objective, we can read this as not just as possible, but inevitable if the player doesn’t give up on the game. We don’t wonder if things will go wrong, because subverting player expectations is not at all common.

We shouldn’t scoff at the effort to make games that are more expressive than they are mechanically delightful. Predictable responses to player input are what make a game feel fair and I think there’s definitely room for that kind of game, but it also makes pretenses of drama incredibly hollow compared to other media.

One solution seems to be to stop treating the player and the protagonist as separate. Playing through a story should involve play in the theatrical sense. To inhabit a character that has bad things happen to him or her, sometimes it should be appropriate to make unfun things happen to the user as a person playing the game. We see this approach here and there, but it’s not nearly prevalent enough for my tastes.

Maybe this means making shorter games, or maybe unfun sections need to be mitigated by quick reversals of fortune (expressed to the player as fun). I’ve taken the former approach so far. I’m sure that a lot of people won’t like my games, but at least I’m not wasting hours upon hours of their time just so they get a complete impression of the thing I made.

As such, while this piece is titled “In Defense of Tedium”, we should be sure not to mistake tedium for laboriousness. There are a lot of games that feel like work because of uninspired level design and storytelling. I would characterize tedium as something different, something that may highlight the reality of a particular activity.

As pretentious as you could call all of this sentiment and my portfolio in general, at least I don’t throw dozens of levels at people and expect them to play through them just because they’re there. That’s not a good enough reason to play something anymore, if it ever was. There are too many people making too many technically competent games for independent game developers not to try to make unusual, personal pieces of software. If you’re not beholden to profits like a studio owned by a publisher would be, then what’s holding you back?

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I participated in my first Ludum Dare & my games are done! Both!

Hey everybody!

I'm tired! It's past 4 AM where I live, but I'm happy because I just made a video game in less than 7 hours! You guys like video games, right?

So, if you don't know, Ludum Dare is a game development competition in which game developers (including Notch, famously) have 48 hours to make a game based around a theme that isn't revealed until the competition starts. This time around the theme was 'Alone', and I made this game called Expecting a Call.

Hope you like it! Click here, then click on Kongregate or Newgrounds to play. Kongregate has online leaderboards, so I recommend that one!

Thanks!

Edit: I made another game. I hope you like this one, too! It's called Tyranny.

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