Sitting in the Cosmodrome

30 July 2014

Destiny

That’s me, sitting on the ground in the Cosmodrome in Old Russia.

The Cosmodrome is an environment from Bungie’s Destiny. I played it during its public beta last week.

One of my favourite things in Destiny is its sit down button.

The directional pad is used to ‘emote’ in a very limited manner in the game. Two of the emotes are very specifically non-verbal forms of communication, useful for players without headsets: you can wave, either into space or at another player, and you can point. I used these quite a lot with both strangers and friends.

One of them is daft self expression: the dance button. This is probably the most popular emote; it feels like many players hadn’t played enough MMOs to have had their fill of daft emotes, and so the idea that one can just dance – not just on your own, but with other people – for no reason other than you’d like to is a new and exciting one.

It’s actually how dancing ought to be, when you think about it: a fun thing you can do whenever. There was lots of dancing in Destiny.

My absolute favourite emote, though, is sitting. And the main reason for that is the sitting down animation.

If pushed, I’ll take the female sitting down animation over the male one for one simple reason. Male characters look more like they’re sitting down to kill time, staring either into their hands, or just above them – it’s hard to tell, and it feels critical. It’s how you might sit by a campfire with friends (if you were looking up) or in a dreary queue for a gig or festival (if you’re looking down).

The female characters, though, always look like they’re sitting down to look at something. Which is so apt, for Destiny; the skyboxes and vistas the game presents (when it’s not throwing Dregs and Thralls at you) are beautiful. They’re the sort of things you want to take in with friends; pass time watching the day-night cycle. I love seeing the massed Guardians in the Tower, all sitting at the edge, watching the clouds roll across the sky. What are they doing? What are they talking about in their Fireteams and Private Parties?

The idea that sitting is active – that you might sit to do something with your friends, not to indicate an absence of activity – is a lovely thing to be reminded of. It applies tenfold – no, far more, hundredfold at the very least – to the world outside Destiny.

I like that my Guardian reminds me of this every time she sits down.

But sitting down also had a functional purpose for me: I’d also sit down in Destiny to indicate I’d wandered away from my games console.

There’s no pause button in Destiny – it’s always online – but there are enough quiet areas of a map, especially when you’ve cleared out enemies, that you can just sit down and wander away with few ill results. You might even discover how lenient Destiny’s respawning is (as long as you’re not in a Darkness zone).

I was playing with some New York friends at the weekend. They were playing pass-the-pad, and I was on my own. They didn’t have a headset, so we IM’d on our phones to explain the things we couldn’t show with a point or a wave.

Could we pause 30 secs while I put the kettle on,” asks my friend. And why not? There’s nothing around threatening. I say that I’ll go and do the same and wave when I’m back.

I push down on the d-pad, and I/my Guardian sit(s) down for a break. I wander into the kitchen to make tea and toast.

I’d been meaning to write about how much I liked the sitting in Destiny – the “looking into space” aspect of it. And today, somebody else reminded me the other reason that its sitting felt important to me.

Jenn Frank is right when she describes how infuriating her husband’s behaviour is when confronted with a game that has no pause button.

She’s entirely right to be annoyed. Reading her post, I recognised a kind of bad behaviour it’s easy to slip into – and remembered what I used to do about it.

I know that whilst online games of all shapes and sizes encourage you to keep playing – and have no pause button – they also have a reasonable number of safeguards against it in their systems. Or, at least, they should. World of Warcraft has towns, safe from attack; PVE servers, where other players aren’t a threat. Lots of ways to park your character (although not, say, in dungeons or raids, just as all the multiplayer shooters I played lock you in for the scope of a single game). I had no idea how anybody played on a PVP server – it seemed to require permanent, always-on concentration.

Back in the months I played WoW, whenever I wandered away or alt-tabbed for a bit, I’d make sure my character sat down, showing the world they were absent. A little bit of playacting – something better than afk.

I’m glad it still works in 2014.

You can do it almost anywhere. Take a step back. Find a quiet corner. Down on the d-pad. Your Guardian will sing a campfire song, and you can sign that rental agreement, hold the step-ladder to the loft, and talk to your relatives on the phone.

Sit the heck down.

First Read / Second Read

30 January 2014

Drinking a beer having finished playing records at the last Wild Rumpus, I got talking to Cara. She asked me a difficult question. Later, she would write this up in her embedded look at the London indie scene, and make me sound more profound than I think I did. It’s a very good article; you should go and read it.

Still, with the advantage of time, I wanted to write down the two things I said to her for posterity, because they’re worth bearing in mind, and I want to remember them for myself.

Disclaimer: like so many of the so-called “smart things” I’ve ever said, this is basically a Matt Jones paraphrase.

Jones once explained, talking in the studio one day, a theory that had come from car design: First Read / Second Read.

What I remember him saying:

to design a really memorable car, you need a strong first read. A really strong first read. That’s the single shape, barely a single line that you remember at a glance. Like this:

Beetle1

You know what car I’m showing you already.

But: it’s not enough to have a strong first read. Then, when you’re closer, or double-taking, you need a strong second-read: that detail echoed, firming up the original shape, but making the coherence clear:

Beetle2

And then, on the third read, once you’ve encompassed the detail therein, you still need something to satisfy the eye: details to take in, subtleties and shapes.

Beetle3

The Beetle is an obvious way of showing this, but it really works: it’s not just that strong first read that makes the Beetle so beautiful; it’s the strong first, second, and third reads all co-existing at once that make it work quite so well. Detail that you never get sucked into won’t work; a striking first impression that goes nowhere won’t work.

And Jones, astute as ever, would point out this applied to many forms of design: often, getting the strong first read would be hard, sucking someone into the detail we’d made – but sometimes, you’d also have to focus on backing up that first read with detail.

(Fashion does this well, for instance – the emphasis on understanding form often coming from a silhouette, and then the eye taking in more than just the outline.)

I think the best games do this. Cara mentioned the FPS example, but to be frank, it applies to anything: card games; beat-em-ups; sports; real-time-strategy. The first read has to be clear, broad: grokkable, and also aesthetically enticing. Once enticed, you need that detail to repeat, to be fractal, to be backed up by substance. And then, as you delve deeper, into expertise and experience, there’s still depth to reward you, but it never clashes against that first read you had, the thing that sucked you in.

As I write that, I realise: it’s not so far from MDA. But I’m aware I can get a bit hardline about MDA, and actually, first/second/third read speaks to everything: that moment you discover depth in the aesthetics of a game that echoes the surface; or similarly, a first read of why a mechanic is fun (‘we’re all sharing the same resources, but have our own goals!‘).

I suppose the real point is: designing for depth is not about neglecting the surface. It’s about leading the player on that journey to expertise, satisfying them at all turns of the path. It’s no surprise my favourite beat-em-ups are both simple on the surface and the most beautiful. It’s no surprise my favourite card games have the simplest surface rules, but a deep path to expertise, usually based on inter-personal interactions – fakeouts, Yomi.

I used to say that I really liked the idea of being able to recognise a game at 20ft – you see someone with a phone on the Tube and you just know that they’re playing something different that far away. Is it through the aesthetic? Is it through how they interact? I don’t know – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can read it that far away. And then, you get closer, and you want to read more detail: not just clearer graphics, but also clearer interactions, clearer mechanics. We start to suck players in when they see a screen in a friend’s house and say “What’s that?” And that’s the real challenge, I reckon: designing that path in.

There’s another side to this question though.

The original question Cara asked me, standing in BL-NK, was “As a games designer, what do you want players to do?

I thought for a bit, and said: well, follow the rules, of course. Play the game as intended, and enjoy it. Then, I realised that was the wrong answer. So I correct course.

Because what I’ve learned about some of the best games I’ve worked on, designed, or played, was that they design well for failure states. I’ve designed games that were fun if you played them right, but terrible if you didn’t get the rules.

They were not good games.

By contrast, games that are great if you play as the designer intended – but also great if you play them your way, if you get lost in the components and the systems and recompose them in some other form that still excites and entertains you: well, that’s good too.

Good games are resilient. This is why people sometimes have house rules for Mario Kart, for Catan. This is why people play in large sandbox games without completing missions. This is why RPG GMs will throw the rulebook out to tell a better story.

So I said that, first of all – that I’d like to design for resilience.

And then I added an addendum: whilst it’d be good if games were resilient to misinterpretation, to being played with, the best games afford that but you rarely go down that path, because they lead you on this great journey, from surface read to deep expertise (and frequently back out again, as you show a new friend the surface of a favourite game).

And I told a story about the Volkswagen Beetle.

Making Game “Feel”

22 October 2013

Game “feel” is hard to explain. It is, literally, something you have to feel for yourself: the tactility of a feedback loop that just works. And yet it’s not magic; it’s made, by a person, or by a team, and refined. There’s a good book on the topic. And no developer hits game feel right the first time, every time; it takes work.

I really liked this interview with Jan Willem Nijman from Vlambeer over on Rock Paper Shotgun. Graham Smith pins him down a bit and asks him to talk about why Nuclear Throne feels so good. Vlambeer always have great feel to their games – just think about Super Crate Box! – and it’s something they’ve become practiced at.

Nijman explains, and Smith presses him more and more for specifics. Which is great journalism, as Marsh Davies points out: if you want to talk about the “magical” responses of a technical system, why not interrogate those technicalities? Why not try to understand the medium in its own terms?

In the end, Nijman breaks down the various routines – primarily related to visuals and rendering – that happen when the player fires a single pistol bullet:

When you fire the pistol in Nuclear Throne, first of all the Pistol sound effect plays. Then a little shell is ejected at relatively low speed (2-4 pixels per frame, at 30fps and a 320×240 resolution) in the direction where you’re aiming + 100-150 degrees offset. The bullet flies out at 16 pixels per frame, with a 0-4 degree offset to either direction.

We then kick the camera back 6 pixels from where you are aiming, and “add 4 to the screenshake”. The screenshake degenerates quickly, the total being the amount of pixels the screen can shake up, down, left or right.

Weapon kick is then set to 2, which makes the gun sprite move back just a little bit after which it super quickly slides back into place. A really cool thing we do with that is when a shotgun reloads, (which is when the shell pops out) we add some reverse weapon kick. This makes it look as if the character is reloading manually.

The bullet is circular the first frame, after that it’s more of a bullet shape. This is a simple way to pretend we have muzzle flashes.

So now we have this projectile flying. It could either hit a wall, a prop or an enemy. The props are there to add some permanence to the battles. We’d rather have a loose bullet flying and hitting a cactus (to show you that there has been a battle there) than for it to hit a wall. Filling the levels with cacti might be weird though.

If the bullet hits something it creates a bullet hit effect and plays a nice impact sound.

Hitting an enemy also creates that hit effect, plays that enemies own specific impact sounds (which is a mix of a material – meat, plant, rock or metal – getting hit and that characters own hit sound), adds some motion to the enemy in the bullet’s direction (3 pixels per frame) and triggers their ‘get hit’ animation. The get hit animation always starts with a frame white, then two frames of the character looking hit with big eyes. The game also freezes for about 10-20 milliseconds whenever you hit something.

You just have to watch Nuclear Throne in action to see how meaty it is, how chunky it feels, and how clear the link between action and outcome is. The reason for that isn’t magic; it’s all the decision-making – both human and code – outlined above.

I’d argue that it’s neither science or art – it’s something more profound, that combines the two. It’s craft: the desire for a particular, sensual outcome as an artist; the technical capability to implement it; but above all, the craft of adjusting and readjusting, taking time, taking care, understanding that every possible detail is a thing under your control, and then just doing the work until it’s right.

Evo 2013: your very, very vague guide

12 July 2013

So, here’s the thing: I really like fighting games.

I like lots of cerebral, slow games, and I grew up playing competitive FPSes, so have a taste for speed. But I grew into fighting games very late in life – in my 20s – and it turns out I love them.

Everything Frank Lantz writes in this post is true:

When we host fighting game tournaments at the NYU Game Center we are inspired by a continued interest in this intensely cognitive experience happening behind the cartoon surface of these games. I don’t think many members of the fighting game community think of themselves as intellectuals, they don’t typically wear corduroy jackets and smoke pipes and thoughtfully scratch their beards while talking about Hegel. But this thing they do, this thing they love, is an intellectual exercise, it is a strange, fascinating and beautiful form of thinking about thinking and it deserves to be studied, celebrated, and supported.

I’ve often explained Street Fighter as “Chess at 90 miles an hour” – it has the depth, the huge decision trees of a complex board game… all running at 60 FPS in real time. It requires precision of execution along with a depth of knowledge, the ability to read an opponent, the knowledge of every “match-up” between your chosen character and everybody else’s… it’s a vast balance of technical skill, practice, and (most notably) how you perform on the day, with another human player sat next to you.

So, Evo.

Evo – the “Evolution Championship Series“, but to everybody, Evo – is the world’s premier fighting game tournament, essentially. It comes after a string of other major tournaments, but this is the big one. Three days in a Las Vegas hotel, where the world’s best players come to take one another on across a string of games. How many players? Last year, there were over 3,500, before spectators (who can attend for free).

You might not know Evo, but I bet you’ve all seen Evo Moment #37:

in which Daigo Umehara, fighting Justin Wong in Street Fighter 3, down to a pixel of health (where any damage, even if he blocks it, will knock him out). Umehara parries every single hit of the super – not blocking, parrying, hitting forward with precise timing – and then cancels into a super of his own.

The crowd go wild.

I’ve seen this clip a lot: rightly, it gets shown as a demonstration of what social play can be, what the community around digital games can look like. But I’ve also seen it misattributed as a “Street Fighter 2″ match; I’ve seen people point at the crowd without explaining what is actually happening on the screen (the answer being something that is insanely technical, very, very risky, and then, just when it gets pulled off, turns into a piece of showboating). And of course, we’ve got to mention the commentators! EVO is commentated throughout on the live streams, It neatly captures all the things happening at once at the tournament: two players at the top of their game; a live audience; live commentary; an amount of pride on the line; moments that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.

That’s Evo. But what’s brilliant about Evo is it’s not all about 5 seconds of Daigo being amazing. There are fights like that in the pools, surprise upsets early on, great finals from old rivals trying new characters, players branching out into new games. Evo is three days full of stories, those things everyone loves banging on about, but here we have so many of them: from Daigo/Justin to Noah Solis, the eight-year-old who placed in the top 48 in 2011 for MvC3. Fighting games are dripping in old rivalries, long friendships, all the makings of great sports narrative.

And Evo’s particularly notable because it’s one of the few tournaments where there’s a sizeable Japanese contingent that flies over: so often, the US and Japanese scenes are kept separate (because network lag is no substitute for sitting next to somebody). Evo is one of the few points of the year where old scores can be settled.

So: what can you see this year?

First, a quick note on the rough organisation of things:

The format is fairly straightforward: most games run “pools”, where players compete for positions in the various finals, which then function as a “Double Elimination Bracket” format: if you’re beaten in the first round, you transfer down into the ‘loser’s bracket'; if you lose in the loser’s bracket, you’re out. The grand final of any tournament, as a result, comes down to the fight between the winner of the winner’s bracket, and the winner of the loser’s bracket.

You can see the schedule here, and I thought I’d wrap up with some notes on what you can tune into, live, on Twitch.TV (at the URLs on the schedule), and what you might like to see.

What’s On

King of Fighters XIII: The latest iteration of SNK’s 2D fighter. It’s pretty and technical, but I don’t get on with SNK fighters and can’t tell you much about it. Sorry.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Tekken’s very popular, but has been fairly low-priority on the Evo roster – the final’s today, which tells you all you should need to know. High-level Tekken is entirely fine, but unremarkable, to watch. I’ve always found it very… jumpy and juddery, with all the side-stepping and wave-dashing.

Persona 4 Arena: I actually know nothing about this – it’s the fighter based on the popular Atlus RPG. I’ not going to pretend to know about it.

Super Smash Bros Melee: for the first time, Smash makes it to Evo (after the players campaigned for it). Not Brawl, the later Wii version, primarily because of that version’s “random trip” – in Brawl, characters will randomly trip after sprinting, which is a nightmare for any competitive scneario. So the competitive scene mainly focuses on Melee, the Gamecube iteration

If Smash Brothers is the knockabout game you remember from the N64 and Gamecube… well, yes, it is – but it’s also got a big scene capable of really quite technical play. See this example for more details:

Anyhow, Smash! I’m quite excited to see how Smash turns out; it’s full of characters you might know, the scene is fun, and the commentary should be entertaining.

Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3: Capcom’s big, OTT, 2D fighting game. UMvC3 is full of huge combos, crazy supers, long unbroken hits, and lots of yelling commentators. Lots of “hype”, as the community would call it. Underneath it is a meaty game that rewards bravado – and requires careful selections of mix-ups. It’s also got lots of systems going on; one of the most important being X-Factor, a one-time bonus a player can play in a match to boost damage (and which boosts damage more depending on how few characters that player has remaining); you’ll see a lot of last-minute X-Factors that turn things around, lots of whiffed combos that turn into huge reversals, and probably lots of artefacting on your stream. It’s great fun, and looks spectacular – but explaining the game going on underneath is quite hard for newbies.

Mortal Kombat 9: Netherealm’s reboot of this fighting franchise has a surprisingly big following, primarily in the US. It’s not the mashing game of prior years, and is probably the pinnacle of the franchise from a gameplay standpoint. Yes, it has a lot of blood, and the characters you’ll remember from MK3 and earlier, but it moves at a nice pace – fast, but not too fast – has great commentators, and has pacy, exciting matches. You won’t see many fatalities – they take up too much time in competition – but you’ll see a lot of long combos, some great character knowledge, and some tense match-ups.

Injustice: this is Netherealm’s latest game, based on the MK9 engine, but focusing on DC Comics’ characters. Despite the aesthetic similarity, it plays very differently to MK – different button layouts, systems more in line with a Capcom game (such as the EX-meter, as well as character-specific powers). You’ll probably recognise many of the characters, and Netherealm have done a great job of making them all interesting to play as – and all resemble their roles from comics. It’s also been growing fast, with both MK players moving over, and others coming in; this is under a year since its launch, so it’s the first Evo for it, and it’ll be exciting to see how it plays out.

Super Street Fighter IV: SSFIV is the premiere game at Evo: it’s the final final on the last day, and has the longest run-up to it. It’s the premiere game for good reason: not just the impact of that brand, its long history, but because… it’s genuinely the best. SF3 is a long love of mine, but it’s a very, very technical game: it’s unforgiving, and hard to read. SSFIV is a very immediate read – if you’ve played SF2, you’ll have a feel for what’s going on; its few systems (EX moves, where a bar of “meter” is expended to power up a move; Super moves, that use an entire meter; and Ultras, that use a separate meter, charged by taking damage) are fairly legible and quick to learn; the art and animation is delightful, bold, and readable. But best of all: the scene around it is huge; rivalries are deep rooted, players have now been playing for years, and SF4 (and later Super) were logical progressions for both Super Turbo (the last version of SF2) and SF3 players. Compared to MK9, UMvC3, and even Injustice, it’s in some ways quite stripped down – and yet, like the best games, it’s rich. If you had to pick one thing: I’d watch some SF4.

Absent this year is Virtua Fighter 5, probably the pinnacle of the 3D fighting scene, and a beautiful set of systems. Using only three buttons, VF5 manages to still be the deepest fighter I know, emphasising knowledge of movesets, frame-counts, as well as the other player, the match-up, and your own skills; it seems to punish improvisation more.

Oh! One last highlight. At 9PM PST on Saturday, you’ll be able to see Divekick streamed live. If I had to pick one game that truly summed up Lantz’ description of fighters… it’s probably Divekick. Divekick began as a parody game, with custom controllers (featuring two buttons: Dive, and Kick); two characters (Dive, and Kick, though there are a few bonus ones) – and yet it takes its simple moveset and design, where one hit will win the round, and builds a deep game out of it, full of everything the best fighters have: great yomi, an emphasis on spacing and positioning over being brilliant with buttons and frame-counts, and a lot of hype. Best of all: when played by high-level players, and commentated on by good commentators, it’s great fun.

If Evo emphasises one thing, above all else, it’s that these are games designed to be played with other people. Not just the second player with their own pad or arcade stick: but in a room, full of a braying, cheering crowd, egging you on, booing cheap moves, spurring on the underdog. That used to be the arcades, but, with a few exceptions in the US, the arcades are dying. At Evo, that experience isn’t only alive – it’s alive at giant size. It’s the world’s biggest arcade – thousands of players in the room, more online, all watching, cheering, yelling, and many of whom will then take their own turn shortly. The live commentary is a huge part of this. You may have enjoyed commentary on Starcraft 2 matches, recorded in a private room, with a replay of the match – but it’s got nothing on realtime commentary from two excited, knowledgable players – who themselves might be playing later. Evo emphasises all these elements: the audience, the players, the commentators – and hurls them at you, live in Vegas, or streamed online, for three days.

There are so many holes in this piece of writing: I haven’t got time to explain the games in enough detail, especially the ones I know well enough from playing them (I play, or have played, moderately badly, SSFIV, Injustice, VF5, and SSMB, out of this list). But it’s a whistle-stop tour, and if any of this sounds fun, you should try tuning in at Twitch. The time-offset doesn’t help, but you’ll be able to watch the last session each day over breakfast, which is a not bad start.

I’m not by any means knowlegable here – I’ve left out anything about the characters involved, the players themselves – the rivalries and the personalities involved in the scene, which are as fascinating as the games themselves, simply because I’m out of touch there. But a good commentator should catch you up, and, if you get the bug, by next year, you’ll be up to speed.

In the meantime, with the first Test nearly wrapped up, and Wimbledon long gone, I can thoroughly recommend Evo for your fix of a competitive sports tournament, even if you’ve never considered it. Yell if you’d like any more information. This is clearly too much, too rambly, and poorly edited, but as a great man once told me: that’s what blogs are for.

If you’d like to know more about the systems at play here, which I have talked about before but entirely brushed over, Patrick Miller’s Educated Gentleperson’s Fighting Game Primer is just the ticket

Nostalgia for the MUD

21 April 2013

In a Belgrade bar, over a dark lager, Joanne interviewed me for Nostalgia for the Net – the oral history of people’s first encounters with the Internet that she and Melissa Gira Grant maintain.

My interview is now online. In it, I talk about my first online encounters before the Internet proper – over Wireplay, BT’s dial-up gaming service that simulated IPX networking for DOS games of the mid-nineties. And, more specifically, my time in MUD2, their recreation of the Essex MUD.

It’s a story I’ve told before, but I don’t think in public, so I don’t feel bad about repeating myself. You might enjoy it.

I have fond memories of the time I spent in the MUD. Reading old transcripts, I see player names I haven’t seen for years but have vivid memories of – as vivid as you can get, when you only have text to go on. The graphics were years ahead of their time, so to speak. It was a small community, but a tight one, and very friendly. It didn’t have the feature of MOOs, but still rewarded creativity in your interactions and encounters. And there was something about it – in the Land, in the writing, in the world, in the interactions – that felt very… British. Our own little corner of the net.

A small community still exists, playing in a Land I can map almost from memory (though I’ve forgotten the route through the mines to the Dwarven realm now).

Happy memories. Nice to share them over a beer.

Towards a canon of “hypertext literature / interactive fiction / digital narrative”

09 January 2013

Kim asked on Twitter:

“Is there a canon for digital narratives / interactive stories / hypertext literature yet? A list of accepted classics and forms?”

What followed was a lot of us going “we don’t know”. And I wasn’t exactly helpful, by pointing out that those three things are (in some ways) completely different.

But. Nobody got anywhere but not being helpful, and to do so, I’m going to express (a bit) of an opinion, and hopefully something a little absolute. I hate list posts, but let’s put something down for people to argue about.

So, specifically: if I had to draw up a Canon – a canon of the interactive-story-thingies (we all know what they are – “things that the reader/audience interpret differently by interacting” is my best explanation) what would I include?

The rough goals were: not necessarily the best, but important pillars; no bias to high- or low- brow; trying to cover all media appropriately; interpret the question as broadly as you would like; don’t take too long over it. Here’s where I am:

Things I wanted represented: pre-digital works; early, web-based hyperfiction; text-based IF, both classic and modern; things that are clearly videogames; an ARG (and the Beast still, in many ways, feels like the best); tabletop roleplaying; mechanical storytelling; a selection of Infocom writers (Moriarty, Meretzky).

I am not always picking things I like the most, nor things that are the “first” – so, for instance, Sleep No More probably is the most refined Punchdrunk work, and thus worth sharing here, but I’d swap it for one of their others easily.

What’s missing at the moment but shouldn’t be: the 1970s; more traditional hyperfiction (about which I don’t know enough); some big chronological gaps; boardgames/cardgames that touch on this (eg Once Upon A Time); anything pre-20th century; David Cage (I’m still not sure if I’d include him or not); no visual novels; no JRPGs (which are fascinating games, but there are few I’d include on this list); no Japanese adventure games (9/9/9 springs to mind, for instance).

There’s a bunch of thought that connects these; it’s not arbitrary, and like I said, not about favourites. Some things you might think to be obviously missing (especially: things from the world of videogames) are sometimes deliberate omissions (and sometimes accidental ones).

There’s definitely a particular thread I wanted to start stitching together, and these are the places I’d begin. Most items on this list are picked as representatives of categories; not as absolutes. This is definitely not the “n best interactive narratives list“.

Clearly a work in progress. But: if I had to teach this, or start writing some kind of giant thesis, I could do worse than begin here.

Making Stories: Favourite Games of 2012

02 January 2013

I don’t really have an order to the games I enjoyed most in 2012, so I thought I’d just write something about all of them (titles of games are in bold).

When I sat down to look at my list, there was a clear trend, and it was to do with the stories I got out of those games.

Many of them had something you might call a “narrative” within them, for sure. They in quality varied from poor to completely fine, and those are not the stories I’m talking about. No, what most of my favourite games of 2012 have in common is that they led to wonderful player-generated stories, and they did so intentionally, through their systems and mechanics.

FTL

FTL was a perennial this year: with its low system requirements, it came everywhere with me on a laptop, and a short burst could fit into a lunch hour or train journey. It inevitably told tales of plucky ships fleeing the Rebellion, their crews always heroic, always doomed.

Most of my adventures in FTL end in the crew being overwhelmed by boarders; some ended when, in a vain attempt to fight back, the crew opened all the airlocks and asphyxiated alongside the boarders; and, in the cruellest twist of fate, once ended having fought off boarders, but the door control was broken, and thus all the open doors would not close… and they all died trying to shut the airlocks.

And then I swore at the screen and started again.

The word “Roguelike” gets used to describe FTL; I presume for its randomness. It doesn’t tickle my Rogue Gland in the way Torchlight or Demon’s Souls do, so I tend not to use that phrase – but it does hit the “short games, played again and again” button. I still plough on, trying to “complete” a run, but I must have made many, many attempts.

And throughout, I’m overlaying stories onto the little pixelated people on my spaceship. That’s probably because FTL followed the first rule of Generate Player Empathy: you give the characters names. Every time a new crewmember, with a new name, beamed aboard, I cheered a little for their new skillset; I yelled their name whilst they desperately tried to fix the shields; I cursed them when they failed to be any good at fixing things. But they were little people (and aliens) with little lives, and the pictures it painted in my head – helped by a youth of space sims, and a fondness for Firefly – were rich. Tom Jubert’s writing is also solid, but most of the stories in FTL I loved were the ones I made myself.

Xcom

Another game that followed the “if you name it, they will cry” maxim was XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I was really, really wary of XCOM before it was released; the original UFO is massively influential for me, and one of my favourite games ever. Fortunately, Firaxis delivered a superbly apt update: a turn-based tactics and strategy game I could play from my sofa.

Most importantly, they replicated one of the original’s key features: they gave everybody a name. Not only that: they gave them arc. Every character in XCOM starts with a name and nationality – and then they develop skills, specialities; at Sergeant, they’re gifted a nickname, as well, automatically picked for their class. The longer they live, the more useful and differentiated they become – and the more those names mean.

I was somewhat attached to my Scottish sniper; when he was christened “Garotte” after he earned his stripes (I like to think, by his squadmates), it only made me like him more. He sat at the back of the formation, terse and silent, picking Thin Men and Sectoids off from afar. He made Colonel, and I become horrendously attached to him.

And I can still remember the rest of them; Roadblock, the first Major in the group, who went down on a botched operation; Caper, the South American assault trooper with an aggressive mohawk and a barking shotgun. The stories start in their names and nationalities (such a shame we only got American voice acting) – and then flow out of the game system.

Turn-based games do two interesting things for story. Firstly, they give you a chance to take stock of what’s happening, so you have more time to brood. And then: you have to interpret what’s happening a bit, and pretend it’s all really taking place simultaneously. The turn-based structure is an abstraction.

And so a little of the gameplay of XCOM happens in my head – how I join up the little boardgame on screen into the Ridley Scott movie that’s really going on. Everyone’s lasers running out of ammo before a lucky sniper bullet takes out the Muton; the rookie that gets lucky on their first mission, before getting themselves horribly trapped – and the veteran who wades into the fray to save them; the two soldiers who go everywhere hand in hand, the buddy movie stereotype, until one of them gets hit by a Chrysalid.

I suppose there’s something to be said that my point of references are genre pieces – action movies, SF. But, well, that’s what the game apes, and genre is a great way of encouraging the player to invent within a fixed framework.

Every little skirmish in XCOM is a thrilling event, even if it plays out over 20-30 minutes, not the three it likely takes at real time.

One touch that helps this narrative generation: the “ant farm” view of the base, and, specifically, that when you zoom in on the barracks, the faces you see aren’t just generic models, running on the treadmills, kicking back in the kitchen; they’re your guys. My little guys: drinking tea, jogging, and then I’m going to send them back against the aliens.

I counted them all out, I’ll tell you that much. We didn’t have to count them back; one man down, and you could feel that the Skyranger was lighter.

Speaking of boardgames, and the invention that happens between turns: the biggest story in a game I saw this year was our game of Risk Legacy.

Kieron has already written about the game at Eurogamer, but it’s worth telling again. We began the game in February, with snow on the ground; we finished the fifteenth game in December, in the frost.

Eleven months! That scale alone makes it feel like nothing else. It’s the same reason I love test cricket: you can make an epic just by pushing at the boundaries of endurance.

Eleven months is also a long while to write your own backstories. And we did: South America was laid waste early on by Imperial Balkania, who renamed it with particularly fascistic tendencies. Mark insisted on playing the same race throughout, and the one game where we took it away from him (through a particular mechanic) was so grumpy, so painful… that the retaliation he brought in the next game (simply for taking his favourites) was almost a relief. Everyone’s tendencies and preferences were enhanced, brought out, joked about; we had time to fall into character.

And again, the game has arc. As you meet the criteria for opening envelopes and boxes, the plot develops beats: a rule change means the pace of games (which had been getting out of hand) is slowed again; another adds new layers of strategy; another turns the underdogs into heroes, briefly. And the tubs… god, when we opened the first one (in easily the most memorable game of the campaign) we yelped; it completely changed everything we knew – about the board, about the rules, about the story we were telling. It reminded us that anything was possible in the game. And then we threw ourselves into telling the new story.

There’s a final, hidden packet, in the box – much-written about – that says DO NOT OPEN EVER on it. Reader, we did. I won’t spoil what was in it, but it lent the final game a particularly apt, apocalytpic feeling.

We played fifteen games, and I think we all need a break from it, but we’re going to dine out on the stories for a while.

Farcry3

A late entry, because it’s what I played after Christmas. Far Cry 3 is a bit of a mish-mash: it has far too many things going on at once, a hyperactive HUD, the worst loadscreen known to man, and a story that wants to ram itself down your throat. It’s not dreadful, just not strong, and a bit weird in such an open game, especially compared to how Skyrim handled the same issue.

Once you get out of the starting areas, and explore, and the systems open up and the stories start dribbling out. Deep inside Far Cry 3 is a delightful hunting game, a game about hiking (just as Skyrim was about hiking before it), a thrilling stealth game, a violent Etsy parable, and a pretty great coasteering game.

These lead to exciting stories – hiding in the bushes chasing a goat (which I need to craft with; the crafting in FC3 is nonsensical, but provides forward momentum); sneaking through an enemy base with a bow-and-arrow; driving into uncharted territory, hiking across mountains, to climb a radio tower to unlock more map. It’s in those moments that the best systems – navigation, shooting, hiding – and the beautiful environment (always varied, always colourful, worth exploring to the full) – come to the fore, and the game is at its strongest. I’m still playing it, but I’m mainly playing my Far Cry 3: the great big sunny playland to make adventure stories with. I’m worried that’ll collapse when I return to the main thrust of things.

(I wasn’t a huge fan of Skyrim’s main plot, but FC3 reminds how good it is at balancing its “main plot” with the player-generated ones; you are the Dragonborn, but you’re also leading a civil war, or a rebellion; you’re picking flowers; you’re solving crimes in towns; you’re blacksmithing. Skyrim ensures that all of these stories are compatible. Unlike Far Cry 3, which seems to be a game about your friends being captured by pirates, and your response being to go hang-gliding and flowerpicking).

I mentioned coasteering – Far Cry 3 has perhaps the best swimming I’ve seen in an FPS. It has variable speeds, sure – a gentle paddle and a crawl attached to the sprint button. But it also has excellent jumping into water – because you don’t just land on the surface; you sink, according to the velocity you hit the water with. Leaping off a cliff, Butch-and-Sundance style, isn’t met with a gentle plop, but a huge splash, a moment of unconsciousness, and the realisation you’re 12 feet down in a pool and need to swim for the surface before you pass out. It’s exhilarating every time – and also makes you much warier of shallow pools.

And no, it’s not quite the equal of Far Cry 2 for me; for every move it makes towards accessibility, it loses some of the atmosphere, the tension. For all the fun it adds, it loses some of the immersion of FC2 – even if, at times, that was immersion in things that were not fun, like the outposts.

Dishonored

And then there’s the big-hitter in terms of Choicy Gameplay: Dishonored. I was quite excited for Dishonored, and I think, in the end, it came off admirably. I’ve got a longer piece to write about it (juxtaposing it with a Punchdrunk show I saw), so won’t say a vast amount here.

Its great success was to make its choicyness coherent: though it had a well-written story to tell, which it told as much through beautiful environment-work as through any writing or acting (and a good thing too, given how wooden its showy cast managed to come off), it was very much a tale about my Corvo. Everyone plays a different Corvo, and even though Corvo has far less control over the direction of his tale than Shepard did over the story of Mass Effect, every single mechanic in the game helps round out what kind of man Corvo is.

Is he an assassin? Maybe, though he might not kill anyone at all throughout the game. Is he a mage? Depends how far down the path of the Outsider you want to go. Doesn’t he spend most of his spare time doing chores for Granny Rags? Not if you’re my Corvo – he didn’t speak to her once in the game, and not because he was rushing through things.

As such, it’s game (like FTL) that gets richer as you return to it, not just because you can try new paths, but also because you fill in blanks from before; every level contains multitudes, and in a very nonlinear way. My Corvo wasn’t a completist – he didn’t visit every corner of every street because he was driven, trying to further the Resistance’s goals and put a Kaldwin back on the throne. As such, returning to it, I keep playing new Corvos, discover new things, and each Corvo feels as viable and valid as the others.

Also, Blink was probably my favourite game mechanic of the year – from the way it changes the topology of levels, to its sound effect, to the way time slows as you come out of it to give the player a chance to re-orient. Very nice.


Then, there were a few other titles worth a mention because they don’t fall into this category, but they were still great:

Bl2

That Borderlands 2 was very good was not a surprise; that it was as good as it turned out really was. It wasn’t just a competent sequel; it was superlative. The first game had delivered a lovely set of mechanics – randomised loot in an FPS, meaningful skill trees, fun co-op – in an unusual world that looked like nothing else. The second game took that ball and ran with it – the writing that mainly dotted quest-text in the first game now filled the universe.

One friend pointed out that whilst they might not enjoy the style of the humour and writing, its sheer consistency made it the best writing of the year. There’s a tonne of characters and dialogue here, and the jokes aren’t just limited to pop-culture references (though they’re entertaining enough); there are whole sidequests worth diving into for the dialogue alone. Every character filled out nicely, and the decision to make the previous game’s vault hunters into NPCs was a great way of expanding them from the cutouts of the previous game.

And then Gearbox re-jigged the skilltrees, giving us all manner of new stats to play with, and techniques to try. And on top of all that: they fixed the framerate issues, added even more ridiculous weaponry, and beefed up the physics and character animation – combat felt weighty and janky, like it should in the roughshod, cartoon world of Pandora.

Basically, it makes me smile every time I play it, and then it satisfies my game-mechanics gland, and it’s such a polished package – without (nota bene, Far Cry 3) being overloaded with systems and mechanics. Very, very good stuff, and the fact that all the DLC to date has been great is just a bonus for its life.

Fez

It’s nice to be able to recommend a non-violent game; now is not the time for another conversation about violence and games, but I do note that there’s a lot of Direct Conflict in the list. That’s partly my taste for technical, involved games; partly a heritage that stretches from Quake onwards; but it’s not deliberate. I played a lot of other non-violent games this year, but these are the ones that stuck in the memory. Sorry, people.

And yet: how lovely to say that Fez delighted and cheered me as I played through it in the summer.

It had been trailed so long I was a bit tired of it; the rotating of the Trixel engine looked like its One Gag. So how delightful to discover that it had far more to give than that: a delicate, minimal narrative; lots of Actual Puzzles buried in frequency analysis and lateral thinking; beautiful artistic jokes; a wonderful soundtrack, to which I only have to listen in order to be transported back; a huge, well-realised world.

For a few months, the TV had bits of notepaper with Fez-language all over them, and a pen, for when I needed to take notes. It’s a long while since I’ve played a game that needed pen and paper.

And then, on all that, there’s Gomez’ charming animation, the fluidity of navigation that you can get to when you get good at the game, the fiero when you suss a puzzle. Really, really good, ignoring all the hoo-haa that surrounded it.


Of course, a couple of games tried to tell a decent story, and had the balls to actually do it right for once.

Walking dead

I’ve not played much of The Walking Dead, but it’s clearly quite a thing – and something I definitely want to finish.

In many ways, it’s a barely-game: it’s not exactly full of Deep Systems. But it’s still very much on the game-spectrum, because at its heart are a long series of meaningful choices.

Meaningful choices, by the way, is one of Firxais’ key tenets of good game design. And they made XCOM and Civilisation, so they’re probably onto something.

What Walking Dead does so well is not, really, the choices per se; it’s how it imbues them with meaning. It imbues them with meaning simply through… good writing. That’s it. Not “good for games”, just good. Chris Remo made this point nicely on Idle Thumbs: he pointed out that whilst it’s very commendable to be trying to advance storytelling in games through mechanics and systems that inherently drive narrative, and narrative that’s assonant with those game mechanics… you could also start by putting better writing in games.

Much as I’m a systems-advocate, he’s right; there are two forks to this attack, and we shouldn’t forget that second one.

To that end, The Walking Dead (much like its source material, and like all good post-apocalyptic fiction) pushes the zombies right to the background, and focuses on its human tale. And then, through wonderful writing (and perfectly stylised art) it makes you care about its gang of survivors; it’s human, well-realised, realistic. Which means making choices about them hard. And better still: it logs those choices in the long term. This isn’t about the turgid binary good/evil decisions that dog games; this is about somebody remembering something you did days ago and it coming back to haunt you.

Also, it’s on almost every platform and playable by almost anyone, which is probably a good anecdote to the highly technical gameplay I usually recommend. Anyhow: if you’re interested in the state of commercial Interactive Fiction, this is a great place to start.

30flights

Or you could play 30 Flights Of Loving, which pips Walking Dead for my favourite game narrative in 2012 – and I only played it a few days ago.

It is fifteen minutes long, or therabouts.

And yet: look at all the things it crams in; look at the storytelling techniques it uses. When you’re using as swift an engine as the Quake 2 one, smash-cuts become a thing you can use (because you don’t have the memory pipeline issues of a modern, hi-res game). It’s the first time in ages I’ve seen a game embrace non-linear editing like film did – and yet it’s not a lift from film; in a first-person, subjective viewpoint, it’s far weirder than that.

A smash cut takes me to new geometry – have I teleported? Is this a bug? Has time gone forwards or backwards? Only by paying attention will you work it out. And, just as you do, the narrative lurches again.

There’s so much in it, such condensation, like the best short stories or movies: it takes fifteen minutes to play, but it will stay with you days (as Christian points out in his excellent Eurogamer write-up).

Maybe it’s just an experiment – but it’s such a challenging, dynamic, exciting one, it makes me wonder what a few hours of it would feel like. Anyhow: it’s just wonderful, and is probably my best counterpoint to the exciting things you can tell with games that aren’t just player-generated narratives. Good stuff.


There were many other great games in 2012 – some I played, some I didn’t, and I don’t quite have the energy to talk about SPACETEAM other than to say yes, it also leads to the best kinds of emergent stories, mainly from its spectators – but these are the ones I wanted to share. Gosh, that was long, though.

Playing In Public

04 September 2012

Quick work note, because it’s well worth pointing to:

On Monday 17th September, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, Hide&Seek are running Playing In Public: a conference about the present and future of play in public spaces.

It’s exciting to see such a focused lineup of speakers exploring this topic. I’m excited to see Bennett Foddy, Ricky Haggett, Kerry Turner and Leanne Bayley dive into what games makers make of sport post-Olympics; I’m looking forward to having my brain tickled and expanded by Pat Kane’s keynote; and it’s always a pleasure to see Kars Alfrink speak.

It comes after three days of actual public play at the Hide&Seek Weekender, which should be a lot of fun of all shapes and sizes, and you can just drop into most events at the South Bank Centre over the weekend of the 14th-16th.

Tickets for the conference – which are very reasonably priced – are available from the South Bank Centre. Perhaps see you there!

Little Clockwork Worlds

21 July 2012

Spelunky is a little clockwork world in which items and enemies behave in defined ways, but when mixed together cause a delicious feedback loops that you can, with experience, predict. My boy loves systemic games like this, games that are built on coherent systems that you can play in an open-ended way. Toy boxes like Minecraft and Plants Vs Zombies, Animal Crossing and (we play this together) Civilization – where he can tinker and learn cause and effect.

He spends hours playing them, or would if we let him. And these are the kind of games that, though they were much cruder back then, I liked when I was a boy too, especially Elite. Where anything seemed possible.

But the big games today, in which play comes fixed to immutable stories, aren’t like that. So I asked him: “Do you like games that tell stories that you follow as you play them, or do you like games that let you do what you want?”

“The second one.” My heart burst with pride.

Last Day Of School, from lovely chum Alex Wiltshire.

The big computer games I grew up with – the ones that made an impression – were Rogue, Prince of Persia, and countless flight sims (beginning with MS Flight Simulator 3.0 then 4.0, and then getting steadily less realistic through the MicroProse back catalogue). And there, really, is a lot of the things I like: deep systems, short repeated play sessions, complex things to master, coupled t worlds to do whatever you want in. I got to about level 14 of the dungeons of Yendor; I landed a Cessna 182 on a Nimitz class carrier without an arrestor wire (only just) and took it around the Michigan bay; I explored the deep 60-minute run/jump mechanics of Mechner’s early triumph.

My tendency to simplification as I grew up has a lot to recommend it – in particular, desigining for sofas or tiny bursts – but my heart swells too when I see the conversations Alex and his son have. Not just because of what they like – but because of how they like it, and, most importantly, how they talk about it together.

Testing Chambers

22 January 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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