• "…let's not kid ourselves. If you sell a game that's a first-person shooter, then no matter how many RPG elements you shoe-horn into the game, the shadow that hangs over every character interaction that you have, no matter who they are, is the question in the player's mind of "What happens if I shoot this person?" And that's our own fault! We've sold the player that; we've made a contract with the player that says it's okay to kill people. Why would we then chastise them for exploring that?" Patrick Redding is brilliant. This interview, with Chris Remo on Gamasutra, is great – Remo asks some smart questions, and Redding gives some really smart answers.
  • "The game insists that I focus, even for mundane activities like carrying groceries, on carefully following directions delivered to me visually on-screen. The simple act of carrying groceries is subsumed by the mechanical procedure of executing a series of prompts _for no apparent reason_. This, for me, is the primary disconnect in Heavy Rain. My mechanical game-directed actions don't amplify or add meaning to the in-game behaviors they execute. They don't pull me in; they keep me out. " Hmn. I've been thinking about something similar recently. Time to fire up the blogpostmatron…
  • Lovely, lovely article explaining just how the PeepCode Blog works. The blog itself features unique layouts for every post. There's no CMS, no database, but what's going on under the hood is at least as clever – and the flexibility makes the beautiful and clear pages much easier to build.
  • "…for reasons that baffle me, my TV can only receive the four terrestrial channels, plus a grainy feed from the building’s security cameras. Easy choice."

On reading eBooks

26 February 2010

I didn’t read enough books last year, and I planned to fix that this year.

My commute these days is a bit longer than it used to be, but involves a lot of standing, especially on cramped trains and tubes. That makes it hard to read a book, doubly so if it’s a hardback. So I decided to see what it was like to read a book off a screen.

I decided to read Cory Doctorow’s Makers, mainly because a few friends had recommended it, and it was free, and that seems a good price point for an experiment. I read it on Stanza, a free iPhone ebook reader that I’d used before.

As for the book: I liked it. I really liked the short tory it clearly sprang from; I wasn’t so keen with how the novel panned out, but that’s because I’m really not a theme park person, and Cory clearly is a theme park person. The “making” parts were great, though.

Anyhow, this isn’t a book report; it’s a report on eBooks.

I enjoyed the experience, overall. I liked being able to pick up and put down the book far more easily than a paper one. I’d read it for 2, 3 minutes at most sometimes – when waiting for a sandwich, on a short bus ride to the station, and when I was on the way home from a late night out – just because it was always with me. I didn’t even need a bag: if I had my phone – which I always do – then I had my book. I really, really liked that – that was easily the best part of the experience for me.

I was worried that this stop-start approach to reading would lead to a more fragmentary experience of the book, but I was surprised by how well I always picked up the thread of the book when I returned to it.

It helped to get the page length and font size right. Making the text big enough to read, but not so big that I’m always tapping to move to the next page, dramatically improved the experience of using Stanza. (To begin with, I’d had all my type far too big, and I was “turning the page” way too often). Also: although Stanza will let you flick pages left and right, tapping on the left or right side of the screen is a much better bet.

To begin with, I missed having obvious progress indicators; I only noticed the horizontal bar at the bottom of the Stanza screen that fills to indicate progress quite late. Also, the “page X/Y, % of the way through” indicator was quite confusing: the latter represents progress through the whole book, but the former, this “chapter” or section. Sections weren’t always clearly defined – they were dependent on the book in question. defined. That said: once I understood the blue progress bar, it felt more like a real book again to me: a book that I was making progress through. And in the end, I was pleased with my pace of reading: not bolting, but not too slow. The only problem was that once the bar was clearly very close to the end, I sprinted for the finish line, bombing through pages to fill the bar and complete the book.

There weren’t many downsides to the experience. The big one was the same problem I have with all touchscreen devices: it’s very hard to commmunicate what you’re doing to people sitting opposite you. Unlike a push-button phone, where the difference between reading, fiddling, texting, scrolling through a contacts book, playing a game, are all reasonably easy to ascertain from the way a user taps buttons… on an iPhone, they all look the same. It was difficult to communicate “I’m not fiddling with my phone, I’m reading a book.” Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive to external judgments, but I certainly was less likely to read in certain company – especially less technologically-savvy company.

The other surprising thing was the effect of the screen. Reading is a private experience, and I was surprised just how legible big text on a backlit screen is – not just for me, but for other people around me. This came to a most noticeable head (so to speak) during a reasonably, erm, detailed sex scene within Makers (the literary merits of which this is not the place to discuss).

I’m not a prude, but all of a sudden, I felt very exposed: the screen was so bright and clear that I was sure anyone else could see what was on my screen as if it was in their face. Given I was reading it at 8am on a crowded train, I felt awkward; I’m not sure I’d want other people to see that, or think that all I was doing was reading, you know, smut. “It’s a fun book about technology and themeparks! Not smut!

By contrast, books and newsprint are much harder to read at a distance, and more easily kept to yourself through careful bending or angling. Also, I think people are more nosy about screens. Screens light up, they beg to be looked at, and that feels more ostentatious than print. This is one of the advantages of eInk: because it’s not backlit, it has similar privacy to print, and reading it seems more intimate.

I’m glad I read a book on a screen though, because I know that with only a little effort, it’s perfectly easy to read a full novel off a screen. I’m certainly less sceptical of ebooks as an application for portable devices, dedicated readers or otherwise, and I’m likely to read more books in this format. Although, right now, I’m unlikely to start buying eBooks. I’ve already paid for enough books in print, and most of them were secondhand (and I’m a big fan of secondhand books). I don’t think I’ll ever get the feeling of a well-loved, secondhand paperback from my iPhone – but it’s still got a lot to recommend it.

  • "The demo of Dante's Inferno provided absolutely the stupidest gaming experience I think I have had since possibly Ultimate Combat Mission on the Spectrum +2. I don't think God of War can meaningfully compete, because… well, because it isn't based on one of the most famous works of literature produced in the last thousand years. Dorothy L Sayers translated it, for God's sake. Kratos never really had to get past anything more culturally embedded than Clash of the Titans." Dan has been playing Dante's Inferno, and the end result is this lovely post, about classics, and living stories, and Just Plain Stupid Games. It's very good. "…there's nothing to stop an incredibly silly game being a very enjoyable game, but there's something about the abandon with which Inferno is being used art direction for a slash-em-up that is killing the joy of it a bit for me"
  • "This is the S2H replay; an activity monitor/pedometer thing that does a similar job to the fitbit. Except it feels way more like the future than the fitbit because it's cheap, fashiony and simple. And you they'll actually deliver one outside the US." I like "fashiony" as both an adjective and a watchword. The S2H sounds pretty nifty, too, and Russell's write-up is great…
  • "Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray. Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don'ts." Huge, two-part article (presumably from Saturday's Review) with a great deal of advice – some sensible, some common sense, some insightful, some entertaining – on writing. And: much of it applies to other creative disciplines, too.
  • "Schell took this game-life integration to the extreme, describing a world chock-full of sensors, where you could earn experience points from a toothpaste company for brushing your teeth, or points from health insurance companies for walking to work instead of driving. Companies and even the government would have a vested financial interest in engaging consumers and citizens through game-like elements. It would be a world fraught with "crass commercialism," Schell said, but it would also be a world of opportunity for game designers." Hmmmmn.
  • "I'm imagining that Curling is project management: sweeping in front of the stone to both clear a path and influence the direction, but without touching it; a good curling strategy is to both knock the competition out of the way and get closer to the target, sometimes with different stones; …plus you can drink and smoke while you play"

The most compelling case should be for game-ness

23 February 2010

bioshock2-doll.jpg

There is an ongoing argument about whether games can be considered as literature, and this one presents by far the most compelling case yet for "yes".

A quotation from the Guardian review of Bioshock 2. It’s a cracking example of a style of games writing that I hate.

Why don’t I like this kind of writing? Because it never addresses the gameness of a game; it breaks it down into component parts – story, graphics, sounds – that feel familiar from other disciplines, and are inevitably criticised as such. “Gameplay” – a catch-all term describing rules, mechanics, the systems present in a work that is inherently systematic – is separated out from these other elements. This review simply disguises its formulaic, old-fashioned style with some breathless hyperbole and purple prose – “some of the best combat dynamics in the business” is simply a tarted-up version of the meaningless “the gameplay is really good“. This is usually – I say usually, having dipped into this style myself – an attempt to make the writing seem more “worthwhile” to a mainstream audience, perhaps even a non-games audience. But Nicky Woolf’s writing, despite its ambition, is a far cry from my favourite “mainstream” games writer: John Lanchester in the LRB. Though I don’t always agree with him, Lanchester’s writing is smart, informed, and never once defensive.

But what really, really ticks me off is that this article doesn’t deliver on its message: why is it that ‘story’ is considered the key element of games’ “maturity”? After all, story isn’t the only thing that contributes to game-ness. Bioshock 2 is a shooter – a very good shooter, sure, with some tactical elements harking back to Halo‘s balance of left-hand/right-hand, direct/indirect – but it’s still a game where you spend most of your time shooting monsters in the face.

And it is difficult to explain how such a (relatively) generic style of gameplay contributes to a “compelling case” for this “being literature“. After all, playing – or should be – the majority of what you do in a game.

I am not complaining: “involving shooting” does not make a game bad; it does not even necessarily make it immature – and I’d rather be shooting monsters in the rich, well-realized, faded-deco world of Rapture than as another identikit Space Marine. Rather, there’s a much simpler issue at stake:

I don’t want my games to be literature.

I want them to be games. I want to know why a game is good as a game, not as an alternative to reading a book or watching a movie. When I want to read a book, I will, because I like books and I like them for things only they can do. When I want to watch a movie, I will, because I like movies, and I like them for things only they can do.

When I want to play a game, I will, because I like them for things only they can do. I do not want games to become literature, just as I do not want them to become cinema. I expect Woolf’s use of the word literature was meant to be a statement of quality, rather than of medium – but I think the fact that Woolf uses it qualitatively is telling, and perhaps even defensive. And that’s why I bang on like this: there’s no need to be defensive of a medium in the criticism of an artefact. You won’t have to reach for the thesaurus quite so much, or remind the reader that the medium might be worthwhile, if you celebrate things as themselves, on their own merits. Celebrate game-ness.

  • "I hugely prefer Windows ME to anything else.  The problem is that it’s difficult to run on most of the hardware I have and no other Windows edition cuts it for me. So, I’m down to using a Mac…"

Blank sheets

19 February 2010

Rod’s been exploring writing fiction with Twitter, exploring its “office-desk rather than kitchen-sink realism“. He goes on:

Or rather: I wanted to start from that realism, because no-one, when they write “running” on Twitter, is actually running. They’re reporting after the fact, announcing an intention, or fabricating. Which is the second interesting thing – Twitter’s performativity. Twitter is as much theatrical performance as conversation. Un-realism.

So: a story empty of character and reasonable plot, and a blank-sheet MacGuffin. A story for an audience of 85, and a tentative use of direct messages that only a few of the audience will receive.

I didn’t know it was happening until it was, if you get my drift; messages from a commute slowly turning into narrative as the day went on. Seeing it all joined together is both a revelation and a dilution: a story laid out, but divorced from the trickle that made it so compelling.

(Rod also tips a hat to my Twit 4 Dead bots, which is very kind of him. I’ve slowly been poking at a new set of zombie-hunting narrative bots; the new ones have a few new features to enable better storytelling – notably, the ability to have responses specific to one another, rather than only specific to the situation. The main use is so that they can tell Ellis to shut up, but I’m thinking I’d like to apply the acting framework to an original work. That might be a long way off, though. But: thoughts worth jotting down).

Links & notes for this month