Eight years ago we moved into this house...and I was 13. I was very happy to have a TV with a Gamecube hooked up to it, but the TV was about 20 years old and had...issues. Lot's of them. I'm telling you this, because I want to put what you are about to see in context.
Last night I finished the month-long process of completely reorganizing my room. It is no longer a bedroom: It's the best damned bombing room that I can make without quite a lot of money. There are one or two things that need doing, but they aren't things that you can see.
And that's it. You're all welcome to come down and play some...well anything really. This is Giant Bomb's room.
I finished Mass Effect 3 yesterday, and I got a big important paper done today, so I was sitting about deciding what to do with my afternoon. I just did a complete reorganization of my living space, and playing all my consoles had become a lot easier, so I decided to break out my Atari 2600 and work through the massive pile of games that I had for it. I recently read the book Racing The Beam, which is all about development for the 2600, so I thought it might be interesting to approach the system with the insights I had gained.
Unfortunately I had used this A2600 exactly one time since I got it for Christmas last year, and that was on a kind of busted TV. When I plugged it in, I was disheartened to see this:
Note the lack of any colour whatsoever. Well, there is some yellow, but that doesn't show up in this image. Obviously I had checked the colour/B&W switch, so I was forced to the conclusion that my A2600 was broken. Fortunately there is no silly security nonsense that prevents you from fixing consoles from the 70s...so I did just that. I had to do some searching, but I found a tip on the interweb and cracked out my screwdriver.
It became immediately apparent that I wasn't the first person to do this...2 of the screws were a few centimeters too long, and one was outright missing. Unfortunately, whoever had opened it before didn't feel the need to clean it.
Look at how small that board is. The A2600 could easily have been the size of a DVD case, but this was a time when bigger always meant better (he says not really knowing anything about it because he wasn't born until 10 years after the 70s were over). Anyway, below is the relevant component.
It's a chroma dial, which does exactly what it sounds like: it controls the level of colour in the image. I adjusted it (while the game was running by the way) until the Dig-Dugian sky was blue, and presto-chango, working Atari. I'm not really sure why this dial was necessary in the first place, but if I'm going to have a problem I would prefer that it be one that is easily fixed. While I have this thing open, I also wanted to point out this:
The coaxial cable isn't soldered or anything. It's just a regular old cable plugged into the...mainboard? sure, the mainboard. I know that some people have modified this to output s-video. Those people are crazy, and I'm only saying that because I'm not brave enough to do it myself.
As a postscript, this got me wondering if I could fix the same problem in my Commodore 64. I've had that for about 8 years, and it has always displayed black and white. I cracked it open...and found out that it ALSO was previously opened and very dirty. My C64, however, did not have any kind of dials on it (though it looks like switching between PAL and NTSC might be fairly simple). I ran a Google search that suggests that I might need to figure out some different cables, but for now I'm leaving that one alone. I'm just happy to have my Atari working.
I say this is episode 1 because I think that I'll do another one on replacing worn analog sticks in a 360 controller...with a twist.
I just ordered a new motherboard and i5 2500k to replace my aging Q6600. "so what?" you might be thinking. Normally I would be right there with you, but this is different. I think that the Q6600 is going to be ranked one rung below the Motorola 6800 in the pantheon of computing hardware.
For those who don't know, the Q6600 is a quad-core Intel processor in their "Core 2" line which included both dual and quad core chips (as well as single cores for laptops). Released in 2006, the C2 processors marked Intel's move into a performance lead against AMD that has gone unbroken to this day. The Q6600 itself was released in January 2007 at $850. Obviously at that time it was an enthusiast part, and even then you had to be pretty crazy to buy one; software multi-threading was still in it's infancy for consumer software, so most of that power was going to waste.
However, I didn't buy my Q6600 in 2007. I bought it in 2008, when the price had gone down to about $300. And THAT is why the processor is so important. A Q6600 bought in 2008 was, to quote a Tested.com user, "one of the best tech purchases anyone could have made."
The Q6600 was many people's first Quad-Core processor. You could justify the steep price tag with the knowledge that the chip was incredibly overclockable, easily able to run anything that was coming out at the time, and only going to become more useful as people figured out how to use all those threads. What you couldn't have known at the time was how long those qualities would last.
The Q6600 has had a much longer usage-life than most processors. This is for a few different reasons:
1. It's stupidly powerful, especially when overclocked past 4 Ghz
2. Games have become more GPU dependent than they used to be.
3. Games have also moved to be more console-centric, and the Q6600 was an $850 chip AFTER the 360 was released.
4. We now tend to run more, not particularly intensive programs at any given time. An old dual core chip couldn't handle this, but the Q6600 has all of those threads to play with. Keep in mind, Quad-Core has only recently become the standard.
It is a perfectly suited processor to anything a typical user wants to do on a modern computer. If you need more evidence of that, just consider my own case. I'm not replacing this chip because I feel like it's hampering my performance (except in very poorly optimized games *cough* L.A. Noire *cough*). I'm swapping it into another machine because my brother is coming home for the summer, and I need him to have a decent computer to work with so that he can help me with the game I'm working on. That's right: my Q6600 is STILL going to be used, and not just in a media center PC.
This is the version of my game that I brought with me. Even if you've played it when I posted it previously, this has a bunch of improvements and additions.
I’m sitting on the last leg of my plane trip home after GDC, and I figured there was no better place to write out a nice little summary of my experience this year. This was my second year, and it could not have been more different than the first.
Last year I came in having just realized that I didn’t know the first thing about how games got made. I therefore saw the conference purely as a learning experience. This time around I had a portfolio project, Horizonticality, which had been eating most of my spare time since August. My goals were threefold:
1. Learn More
2. Get an internship
3. Get feedback on my project
Horizonticality was initially conceived and developed as a learning exercise and portfolio piece. I had no plans of developing the idea further after GDC, preferring to go back to working on narrative problems instead of spatial-reasoning games. In fact, there was a period during work when I was seriously concerned that I didn’t know enough about the minutia of action games to develop something worth pursuing.
I only spent about half my time at the conference going to sessions, since I needed go out of my way to get Horizonticality in front of people. This meant running around the career expo and stopping speakers after various panels. A special thanks goes out to Wes at the Microsoft booth who was the first to sit down and take a look at the project, and who also pointed me in various useful directions to get feedback. Anyway, the response was fantastic. As far as things that need changing, some features received consistent criticism (the controls), while others were more divisive (the “suicide” mechanic). I also encountered some surprises, like the emphasis that players placed on melee combat. However, one thing that everybody could agree upon was that the game has “good bones” as one onlooker put it. One designer went so far as to say that the game should have been showing at the IGF, though I think that’s getting a bit ahead of where the game really is. I’m still using character sprites taken from Contra III, and the game is still woefully under-iterated.
With all of that feedback and a lot more, I have decided that Horizonticality deserves to be built for real. This is a serious commitment: the game needs to be completely recoded to work on the 360, a much more logical home for the multiplayer twin-stick shooter. I have a few people I’m going to talk to about joining me in the endeavour, and I’m on the lookout for a good artist to give the game the visual life that it deserves. This is one hell of a commitment for both me and whoever comes along for the ride. Wish me luck.
Oh yeah, the rest of GDC was awesome too. I shook the hands of many Volition employees, and I made several friends. People who like video games are great.
With GDC coming up in a few days all of my time is spent on either schoolwork or my big portfolio piece Horizonticality. However, I have a couple of extremely awesome things that I'll be doing by the end of the month and I wanted to jot down a quick record of them before I take off for San Francisco.
A: The Large-Audience D&D Session
50% of my Philosophy of Art grade is wrapped up in a group presentation, which take the form of any medium we desire. My group has agreed to do a D&D session with the entire class, and I'll be DMing. The thesis of the presentation is twofold. Firstly, that experiencing a story is a more engaging process than reading or observing it (The logical extension of "show don't tell"). Second, that D&D follows in the footsteps of classic theatrical styles that use a blend of real props and the audience's imagination to create the complete scene.
The details of the plot aren't worked out, but we have our framing device in place. Another member of the group will be playing the role of an author who is writing a work of fiction based on the audience's exploits. I am a wizard who observed the events, but I have brought this band of adventurers in to describe events from their perspective. In this way the D&D session is contextualized, and we have injected the necessary themes to work our thesis' into the production.
Of course, getting a random audience of people to become involved in an interactive presentation is a challenge. We have a couple of ways in place to do this. Firstly, we have props that will be handed out to the audience that are designed to remind them of their characters. Second, we are going to seat the audience in the front of the house instead of in the regular seats (if possible given space requirements). We are also going to work in a great deal of direct addressing early on with an eye to force players to flesh out their characters. Once we have at least a few people ready to engage us, we start handing out contextualized rewards (read: chocolate) for doing things, with the hope that this will bring everybody else on board.
There are some serious concerns about production that we are a little concerned about (we are trying to use a lot of different theatrical techniques...including a smoke machine and our own lighting...), but the biggest fear that we have is that we won't get anybody engaged. The solution is an alternate thesis: that the benefits of interactivity as a medium come with the price of audience pacivity. It's important that we can't be criticizing the audience with this thesis, but rather demonstrating a tradeoff. We are prepared to do this, but we would rather that everybody get involved and (most importantly) have a good time!
B: Bastion, the Dramatic Reading with Music and Stage Direction
For the second year running the Classics department at my university is holding the "Pythian Games", a public speaking competition. Last year I did a dramatic reading of select passages from 1984, but I wanted to do something a little more impressive this time. I decided that a dramatic reading of Bastion would be both an interesting exercise, and a way to introduce the game to a new audience. I have the script transcribed and edited, and I have somebody in place to sing Zia's song as part of the production. My hope is that I will be track down enough people that I can simulate the "carrying of Zulf" with real actors, but if not I'm going to talk over a video.
The neat thing about this is how well it works (with an appropriately edited script). The only really tricky bit is the ending, because the Rucks is describing events differently from how they actually occur. This is why we need to have a visual component of the kid carrying Zulf: It's one of the most interesting parts of the game, and any kind of interpretation MUST include it.
This is never going to be a full retail product, it's merely a portfolio piece and learning exercise. My whiteboard is packed with things that need to be changed or added, but the core gameplay is here. It's reading week, which means my crunch-time before GDC.
Controls are as follows:
Left stick + left bumper: Hookshot
Left stick + right bumper: walk
Right stick + right trigger : shoot
A button: jump-dodge
X button = readies a sword that will block incoming bullets, or act on various objects if you are near them when you press the button.
I thought about writing out all the instructions, but it occurs to me that getting feedback about things that don't become clear after playing it for 5 minutes would be very useful. The more thoughts you give me, the better! I'm particularly concerned about the controls, because some people find them intuitive and others have trouble breaking our of Geometry Wars mode.
I hope you like it!
Attributions: Background music is Hazy Shade of Criminal by Public Enemy, character sprites are from Contra 3 for the SNES, sounds are mostly taken from freesound.org
As many of you know, I am attempting to break into the field of professional game design. I have done, and am actively doing, many things in service of that goal. One of them is reading Jesse Schell’s “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.” It sat in a place of prominence for months before I was finally presented with large sections of time in which I had nothing to do but sit in a dark room and not make any noise. Having finished my most recent Orwell I decided to finally take the 464 page book and finish it. I just did so, and given that I have some time to kill anyway I felt it was worth doing a little write-up. This isn’t a review as the book is an industry standard and I don’t feel qualified to judge it. Instead, this is a short commentary on 4 subjects: What it covers, Its general attitude, how it has been useful to me, and the perspective that it can give to game players who are NOT trying to actually conduct game design
What Book of Lenses Covers
Schell doesn’t do this, but having now read the book I feel comfortable breaking it into 4 general sections:
1. How do think about design
2. How to think about designing games
3. How to get games made
4. How to get games made given the current nature of the industry
We could get into some discussion about where each of those sections starts (again, these are completely my creation) but if you only wanted to know about one I would feel comfortable telling you which chapter to start on. The titular lenses are paradigms for looking at each of these topics (why he felt the need to make exactly 100 of them I don’t know), each of which are summarized in little boxes that one could easily pepper about their workspace for inspiration.
The first section is a general introduction to basic design concepts like unity and various ways of analyzing design. This section is very short and is more of a basis to work from than an in-depth account of design.
The second section is by far the longest and gives you enough of an understanding of everything that it talks about that you can go off and learn the intimate details on your own. This includes creating unity of design among all of the different elements of games, thinking about players, mechanics, game balancing, designing spaces and a wealth of other things. I don’t know that anybody who doesn’t know much about pre-existing video games would be able to make much of any of these things, but I could instantly apply things that he was saying to games that I had played, heard about and worked on. If all you care about is the nitty gritty of game design, chapters 10-21, but the preceding chapters are vital to a complete understanding of the subject.
The chapters dealing with “getting games made” are primarily about working with teams, staying organized, communicating ideas and keeping everything working given available resources. Finally, the fourth sections are about the business realities of the games industry and how to realistically manage the impact that they have on making games.
The last few chapters are a space where Schell can bring the rest of the book together. They are more about the social impact of games than they are about how to make them. They include the responsibilities that he perceives game designers having, the way that games can affect social change, and the possible future of the medium.
Schell’s Tone and Attitude
A recent issue of Game Developer listed Jesse Schell as one of their top video game evangelists of 2011, with an emphasis on his push for games as a catalyst for social change. This comes across strongly in the book. He deals with game design on a very broad level, taking it to mean the crafting of complete experiences that can deeply impact player. Each section is geared towards developing the best player experiences possible, except for those in the final section that deal with how to do that while still dealing with outside pressures.
This holistic attitude requires that he reference sources from a wide variety of fields. This ranges from obvious things like architecture and theater to more esoteric things like people he worked with when he was a professional juggler. As much as this can occasionally feel a little contrived, it does give quite a bit of credibility to Schell’s statement at the end of the book that video games are “the medium that will subsume all others.” If you have any love of video games, it is hard to not get excited by this approach.
Fortunately Schell does not forget that this is a practical book. He does not act as though the realities of the industry don’t exist, hence the third and fourth sections of the book. He could easily have written a book about game design without these sections, but it would not have been the complete text that made it an industry standard. It also serves to let you know that Schell’s ideas can be implemented, and that his advice is not pie-in-the-sky rambling.
How Book of Lenses Has Affected Me
As a philosophy major, I have come to have certain expectations from texts that I plan to actually think about and use:
They will reinforce and hone some of my ideas and viewpoints, hopefully giving me new ways to use them
They will convince me that some of my ideas are misguided, preferably by giving me a way and a reason to alter or replace them
They will contain a few points on which I respectfully disagree and which I can formulate complete and non-obvious arguments against
Book of Lenses has all of these features. Part of the reason that it took me so long to start reading it in earnest is that I found the early parts to be so blatantly obvious that I wasn’t learning anything, even though I knew that the later sections were full of useful tools and information. However, immediately after the section that I had originally stopped on the book began to take ideas that I had and really hone them. It was a very satisfying feeling to know that many of the ideas that I had independently come up with about game design were in the book, but it wasn’t until I saw them organized in this methodical fashion that they went from general notions to proper analytical tools.
To the same degree, I had to sacrifice many notions that I had. For example, I joined many in believing that multiplayer games aren’t really as much work to design as single-player experiences (with the obvious exception of games balanced for high-level play). Schell convinced me otherwise fairly easily. This ultimately caused me to change the goal of my current project in both tangible and subtle ways.
The book also taught me a great deal about how this industry works. I now feel much more confident that I can talk to somebody within the industry and understand what they go through. I can also see the component parts of games and how they came to be the way that they are. Perhaps most importantly of all, I have a greater appreciation for the fact that games which appeal to the tiny niche that we occupy get made at all.
Of course it is hard for me to sort out exactly what changes in perspective have come from Schell and which are a result of my own work and having had a chance to interact with real game developers. In reality is a confluence of all these things. I saw my project before as being developing games with an emphasis on narrative. I now have a very different goal: to learn as much as I can about traditional game design so that when the opportunity presents itself I can begin to violate rules to make something that is unique, compelling and hopefully changes the people who play it. Of course, in an industry that moves this fast I’m not sure that there is such a thing as traditional game design anymore. If not, that just means that there is more of an infrastructure out there to help me do something new!
How Book of Lenses Might Affect You
I have allowed my more design-oriented self speak, and now I’m going to give the microphone to the part of me that just likes playing games for fun (he himself has been relegated to a tool for some time now, but he does represent a typical audience to some degree). He will tell you briefly how you might find portions of Schell’s book interesting and useful even if you don’t give a sod about actually designing games.
To begin with, the most obvious: if you see a design element you can actually figure out why it’s there! This is especially helpful if it is something that annoys you, because it might allow you to actually enjoy the feature. Of course this is a double-edged sword: That other design oriented guy that lives in my head is always running my fun by stressing over design elements. If you don’t think that you can shut him up and just enjoy a game you should tread carefully with this, or really any game design book.
Another double-edged sword is what this book does to your perspective on how games get made. On the one hand, it’s depressing to know that when games get to you they have gone through all these business filters that can potentially make them worse. However, Schell gives the impression that really great designers are doing everything that they can to circumvent these forces and give you what you really want. People who care enough about games to actively educate themselves about them are a small group. It is only because the people who make games love them as much as we do that even games aimed at the mass market are designed to appeal to us. I cannot envision a day when this isn’t true, so there will always be games out there for us.
Perhaps the most important thing that Book of Lenses might do for you is to bring you closer to the people who make games. When you understand the details of the process, you suddenly have shared knowledge with the people who make the things that you love. That knowledge becomes a shared experience, and through games you can develop a stronger (though of course still one-way) relationship with those people. And hey, if you know what they have gone through you can provide more thoughtful and useful criticism when a game designer makes a decision that you disagree with! Good designers care about what you think, and if you can provide meaningful feedback you might actually make a game that you care about better!
With All of that Said
God damn this has gotten long. If you actually got through all of that I thank you for taking the time to listen to me. This book left a strong enough impression on me that I felt the need to write a bit about it, I didn’t realize that I had this much to say! I tried to keep this as broad and cursory as possible, so I’m ready and waiting for any questions or comments. If everything goes according to plan, after Christmas break I will be ready to show some material about the project that I referred to.
As somebody who is determined to enter the video game industry from the design side, I spend a great deal of my life thinking and talking about games. The conclusion that I have reached, which I think is a relatively common one, is that there is little agreement about what video games are. When the medium was born, it was fairly clear. A video game was a challenge completed by interaction between a player and a computer. As technology and design have become more complex we have seen some people retain this definition, but the vast majority of people who have put some thought into it have come up with rather more complex sense of what video games are. Today I intend to put my definition up for examination, and to look at the relationship between players and designers that this should ideally lead to.
My Definition of a Video Game
Well, to begin with the term “video game” is an extremely underdeveloped one. I equate it to the term movie, which really just means “moving picture.” Movies are more than moving pictures, and video games are more than electronic games. However, I really don’t see any need to develop a new term so long as we can all agree that our definition of “video game” need not be tethered to the discussion about what constitutes a “game.” It is for precisely that reason that I’m not even going to get into trying to define what a game is, a fool’s errand.
In my mind, a video game is not the actual software being run by a computer. Rather, it is the experience that said game creates in the player’s mind. This sounds strange, but we can get a clearer picture of it if we consider a game to only exist while it is being played.
Consider the lily. I mean, sorry, where was I…right, consider some RAM with a piece of software written to it. Under some definitions, that piece of software is a video game. Under my definition, that is only the software component of a video game. When a player begins interacting with that software, the game is constituted by the entire system of software, player, and the devices through which they interact.
At this point it is not unreasonable to be sceptical that I am just dealing in semantics, but I have good reason for proposing this definition. The software of a game is ultimately a set of rules. Under the early definition of video games that I mentioned earlier, a set of rules constitute a challenge and it is therefore reasonable to call the software itself a video game. The problem comes from the fact that video games now consist of things that do not have inherent meaning to the machine that they are running on, but which drastically alter the player experience. A computer does not understand the significance of something occurring in a cutscene, but the player does. Therefore, when we refer to a game has having emotional impact we are really referring to the whole experience as having an emotional impact. I do not think it’s unreasonable to propose that we consider the game to be the experience of interacting with the software, and not the software itself.
This new definition does not just encompass games that break the simple “challenge” formula. Attempting a challenge is, in itself, an experience. This is why we can have preferences for challenge-based games. If engaging a challenge were not an experience, then we would have no basis to say that we enjoyed one challenge and not another.
This new definition need not change the normal way that we discuss games. It does, however, change the way that we should design and interact with them. I think that both players and designers have certain responsibilities to each other that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent when considering games as mere challenges or pieces of software.
Of the Designer
The responsibilities of the designer stem from the fact that players are, in some sense, making themselves quite emotionally vulnerable when they suspend disbelief, interact with the designer’s system, and create the video game. This is true of most art, but the interactive nature of games has the potential to take this vulnerability even further than is typical. If designers do not respect this vulnerability, then they risk violating that trust. These are not tips for making good games, these are moral responsibilities.
1.Games should never demand that the player think outside of established confines. Players need to suspend their disbelief to play a game. As such, they are deliberately choosing to filter out certain information, and sometimes solutions to puzzles. For example, in Fable 3 the player must leave the software running idly for hours if they wish to get the best ending. By forcing the player to introduce a system from outside of the software (in this case walking away for a period of time) the game destroys the experience and punishes players who are trying to play along with the designer. It is worth noting that there are no mechanics which are off-limits, but a designer cannot suddenly broaden a game’s scope to include something like real-world time unless they deliberately justify it to the player as being an acceptable way of thinking about the game.
2.Games should not “addict” the player.
This one seems likely to be controversial, because many very popular games do it. Regardless, I maintain that games which literally addict the player are unethical. Take the analogy of a friend inviting you over for coffee and secretly slipping nicotine in it. I fail to see any significant difference between the two situations. Addiction in some games (such as WoW, CoD and Diablo…hi Acti-Blizzard…) is chemically similar in the brain to drug addiction. Player’s should not be expected to defend themselves from this type of permanent harm from a game designer that they have entrusted with their minds.
Of the Player
The player has only one responsibility: to submit to the game designer and engage with the software. If they do not do this, then the designer can no longer be held responsible for the player’s experience. This is why designers need not spend much time reigning in players who are deliberately breaking their experience. If Video Games are the interactive experience, and not just the software, then the designer and player must work together to produce a good one.
To take that high level concept to something more manageable, here are a few ways that the player is responsible for engaging with the software.
1. Players should approach all games in a “mechanical vacuum.”
Game players are often guilty of not enjoying games because they expect them to be something that they were never intended to be. While a gamer cannot be expected to wipe themselves clean before they start every new game, they are at least responsible for approaching each game as an individual set of components that can and should behave differently from other games. If a game does not include a common mechanic, or introduces a weird one, the player should not simply dismiss it without observing the entire system in motion. For example, many people complained about how players could not use both a gun and a flashlight at the same time in Doom 3. This was a problem of players projecting what they expected the game to and not considering what it was trying to be. If players assume that a game is going to behave a certain way, designers are limited in what they can do to provide a new and engaging experience.
2. Players should not approach all games as “play to win” experiences.
Many, if not most, modern games are designed to make the player feel like they are doing something. If the player spends all of their time trying to find the most effective route through the game, they risk missing the more rewarding experience that the designer has tried to create. The onus is on the designer to ensure that the player knows how to get the best experience out of the game, but they can only open the door. The player must walk through it.
3. Before regarding a game as “bad” the player should consider how the pieces fit together.
Even though I do not like Bioshock, I would never refer to it as a bad game. This is because all of the pieces fit together in an intellectually compelling way, and it is possible to imagine somebody enjoying the experience (as many people obviously do). Simply understanding that it was well put together made the experience more enjoyable. Different people will react to games in different ways, and it is unreasonable to expect that any game will provide all players with a great experience.
There are certainly more responsibilities along these lines that are created by the “designer>software>interface>player” chain which constitutes a video game. My goal here is simply to introduce the way that I think about video games as a whole, not to exhaustively express it.
(As a little aside, after further thought I actually think that conditioned moments occur over two PIPPs: One for the player to perceive and react to the trained stimuli and one for them to realize what they have done and become excited by it. That isn't really relevant to this post, but I thought it was worth mentioning.)
EDIT: It has come to my attention that my definition of Ludonarrative was wrong. Ludonarrative is the relationship between events in a cutscene and events in the game. My points are still valid, but when I say Ludonarrative dissonance I am reffering to a disparity between a player's motivations and their actions.
(This article was a little more timely when I wrote it, but due to a change in circumstances I figured that I may as well throw it up here)
In my view, the term “video game” has become something of a misnomer. It certainly makes sense most of the time, but at this point video games are far more than sets of rules and goals. They are designed to make the player experience things, which do not always come down to the highs and lows of tactical decision making. That said, the sheer fact that one is able to acknowledge the broad potential of the video game medium does not make for great art. Just like any other form of media, the video game still requires a focus and purpose to be truly great, and that is why The Killer can fuck right off.
A brief description is necessary, though The Killer is free and only a few minutes long. I do recommend that you play it yourself, simply to make it more clear how utterly worthless it is. The Killer is a “notgame” in which you play as a man with a gun. That gun is pointed at a prisoner. The first few minutes are spent walking through various 8-bit environments by holding the space bar. After this trek, you are given a crosshair and told to shoot the prisoner. The game then does a rather clever transition (I give credit where credit is due) from a field of dead stick figures to the credits.
To recap, the entire interaction consists of holding the spacebar to walk and then choosing whether or not to shoot a prisoner. There is no context given for any of this, and no character development to speak of. It is merely a soldier, a prisoner and the overall theme of killing.
The problem that I have, the reason that The Killer can fuck right off, is that it completely fails to make a point. There is no reason to shoot the prisoner, so most people simply won’t and that will be that. The game does nothing to put you in the place of the soldier, to make you understand your character. There is extreme ludonarrative dissonance in the game, which essentially eliminates the biggest strength of interactive fiction.
But we aren’t done yet. Perhaps this ludonarrative dissonance is the whole point. By taking this moment out of context, the game proposes that any context would simply be a post-rationalisation. When you are presented with the choice to kill or not kill somebody, not killing them is the right choice. That is a valid theme for a work of art, but making a video game out of it is an absurd thing to do. The strength of video games is that they allow us to poke and prod at a system and experience it as the characters do. The Killer does NOT allow you do any of these things. It is a linear story that does nothing to make the player feel like they are experiencing it.
Imagine that The Killer was a short film. The characters never speak; all that exists between them is the power of the gun and a subtle emotional connection. This creates a world for your mind to explore during the process of the film, and it feels natural because the characters WILL behave accurately to themselves, whatever that happens to be. This is in stark contrast to a video game in which the soldier will behave accurately to the player, not themselves.
At this point one could be justified in saying that The Killer has value merely because THERE IS a message to it that can be interpreted. The problem is that I’m still not really sure what the game’s message is supposed to be. I didn’t come up with my explanation until thinking about The Killer for the express purpose of this article. There is no way to find a message in the game without facing the extreme intellectual flaws in its design.
Perhaps there is no message. Perhaps The Killer is just a thing to be experienced, and you take away from it whatever message you want. I suppose that it serves that purpose very well, but if we are satisfied with “a thing that you can experience, ” as either artists or consumers, then video games are never going to reach their true potential as an artistic medium. The Killer is ill-conceived and poorly designed. It isn’t my ambassador to the art world, it is not the thing that I would show to somebody to expose the strengths of games as a form of expression. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, The Killer can fuck right off.