Saturday, February 27, 2010

children’s games

Looking at this article reminded me of my childhood, but not because I ever played Quake.

I wasn’t allowed to have videogames as a kid. I didn’t have an NES or SNES or Genesis, only my trusty x386 PC, running DOS 5.0 with a small collection of educational games.

My parents held 2 beliefs on the subject – that videogames were a brain-draining waste of time, much like television (Did I also mention I wasn’t able to watch TV, except for PBS, from 4pm until my parents came home at 6:30pm?), and that computers were the future. My father was in the computer business, working at a research institute in the IT department. My mother cut her teeth in the Math department learning assembly and Fortran on the mainframe (She later decided to go to grad school, and chose between becoming a florist or becoming a physician when she got accepted into med school). So my parents had no problem plopping me down in front of the x386, on loan from my father’s workplace so he could work from home, from a very early age.

Very early. In fact, my earliest memories are of the computer room, playing Reader Rabbit (the original) and Tom and Jerry (lord knows how that got past my family’s violence standards – I couldn’t even watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Power Rangers. Yet by the tender age of 5 I was dropping sticks of dynamite on a cat). My father later admitted to railroading my childhood so I would go into the extremely lucrative field of computers like he did.

ANYWAY – no videogames, except for the approved list. Yet my friends had videogames – Eric next door had an NES. Ray two doors down had a Genesis.  My cousin had a SNES with Super Mario World (still one of my favorite games of all time – every holiday we’d brave Long Island traffic to go visit, and I would camp the television, replaying Yoshi’s Island 2 and Vanilla Dome 3 over and over again, handing the controller off to my cousin so she could beat the ghost houses and Bowser).  I eventually recieved a Game Boy Pocket for my 11th birthday, with a copy of Pokemon Red – and as time progressed I was able to sneak in a few PC games without my parents really noticing or caring.

All our parents limited our game time, though. So when we were run out of the house, we ended up drawing our own levels on notebook paper, which ended up looking extremely similar to Romero’s sketches of Quake.

Historical documents -- okay, sketches -- reveal Quake\'s earliest stages

It’s funny to think of adults doing the same things children were doing, around the same time, and making themselves famous from it. As children, we didn’t really understand what was coming: internet connectivity, AAA titles produced by hundreds of people, media controversies over violence, social & casual gaming, the iPhone. I’m not sure adults saw the future either – they just had an empty space to explore, and the child-like urge to make their own worlds. I don’t think they looked at the world where I called up a friend on one telephone line to negotiate a TCP connection for our second telephone line so we could co-op Descent together, and saw achievements and friend lists and voice chat.

The shape of the industry has, obviously, changed over the past 20 years. The trajectory for the next 20 has been set up: touch & motion controls, massively social and persistent gameplay from your phone and your computer, ferocious competition from both global corporations making AAA platform-exclusive titles, and small developers making flash games. Yet in a lot of ways, the industry & community are still children. We have that sense of wonder and creativity, but also the limited vision, the simple themes and conflicts, the moral clarity of good v. evil. The technology will progress at the rate of industry, but our minds require more time and space to nurture.


I don’t want to cast technology vs creativity as an arms race. That false dichotomy is already prevalent – the “indie” community, who are supposedly on the forefront of making games for adults that deal with complex or artful themes, almost always cast their creations in a “retro” aesthetic, pixilated graphics, chiptunes and all. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic, I understand it’s much easier for a single person to do than AAA 3-d graphics, and sometimes it can even be justified as an artistic purpose (I’ve seen one person claim that retro graphics force your brain into processing at the symbolic level, preparing you for the symbolic elements of the game – whereas 3d graphics don’t make you think, so your brain isn’t primed for taking on high-level concepts. I don’t think it’s true, but at least someone is trying to justify the movement). I just think that Mass Effect or Modern Warfare 2, or any triple-A title is capable of more than what they’ve shown. The real issue is design by committee, not technology vs creativity – although complex technologies do require more people to work on a project, there is nothing stopping a strong-willed creative from taking a directorial position and ensuring all components fit her vision.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I’m fascinated with the idea of an RPG without combat.

RPG Combat is, 90% of the time, a chore. The trend really started with Final Fantasy (yes yes I know about your “basements and demons” and “random encounter charts”. shut up, nerd) on the NES which was so underpowered that keeping track of what enemies you had already defeated was impossible, so it was easier to either respawn all the enemies (a la contra or mega man) or, for jRPGs, have a “random encounter” every couple of steps – essentially invisible enemies stalking the map.

This has the side benefit of turning your 20 hour game into a 60 hour one at minimal cost to your programmers/scripters. It was such a winning convention that I don’t think it was significantly overturned until Chrono Trigger, which had the groundbreaking innovation of letting you see enemies before you fought them.

In my mind, RPG combat is forgettable and skippable. It’s filler. It doesn’t achieve anything besides maybe letting you see your character grow when you hit level 60 and can kill sand crabs in one hit (Expressed best by Earthbound, where lower-level enemies ran away from you, and if you caught them you just got your loot without even going to the battle screen. No one has done this since, which irritates me). Otherwise they’re just containers that make you trade time and hp/mp for a splash of exp and currency/items/ rare loot.

Anyway, I tried to make a combatless RPG once for a SA Gamedev competition. I had a month to do it. I spent most that time trying to get my custom menus to work, instead of doing game scripting or making interesting maps. It didn’t work out so well, although a few generous people saw what I was trying to do and encouraged me.

The premise of the game was simple: You woke up as a newly created robot, sent off to explore the nearby forest. As you approached, you discovered humans, at which point you black out and end up in “heaven”. Then you reappear – at the same point in time that you were originally created. And you are sent on your task, but some glitches occur. You hear things out of order, the world seems a bit different. And then you meet the humans, and black out, and you are in heaven. And you can complete this cycle endlessly, trying to determine what happened before the humans gave you a virus to wipe your memory in order to preserve their hiding place, trying to distinguish what was “real” from what the virus was doing to you. Or you could go to heaven, and enter the gate, and sink into peaceful oblivion, ending the game.

It wasn’t executed very well. I’m not a good writer. I’m a worse programmer. Scripting was clunky and difficult, even using a toolset. I’m waiting for the right tools to come down, something that integrates map design with character design and a better flow for scripting events. I didn’t have the patience to put in all the triggers my story needed. This is my common failing with projects – I give it my all for 2 weeks, or a month, and then I lose interest and get distracted. This is my fear for this blog as well.

The point is, combat wasn’t necessary for this game. It was an RPG, but you didn’t need to fight forest animals or humans or anything, because it served no purpose to the story. The sole mechanic (barely implemented – god I’m such a lazy ass) was collecting information for the robot’s central database by examining items – and learning about humans would allow you to query the DB about them, which would trigger a catastrophic event.

I think there are a lot of stories that can be told without combat. Imagine a small town where you went from door to door, helping people with their problems & learning about the dark secrets hidden beneath the town. A great horror story, better if it ends with your inevitable death.

Or taking the combat mechanic and fitting it to something more suitable to a turn-based blow-by-blow. Like a conversation RPG (NOT OBLIVION).

* You used: angry tone! It’s super effective!

I think we can all agree that the best parts of Fallout3 weren’t the combat (although there were some great combat moments!), but exploring the new world laid before you, trying to make sense of it all, entering a convenience store to find elaborate traps laid out, hacking into computers to read the last words of a dying family… There are a ton of things you can do without assuming an unlimited army is assailing the player every 15 steps.

I guess I’m essentially asking for “short story” RPGs instead of sprawling 60 hour epics. Bundle them up and sell them as a package, like we do for books. It’s a great way to break out of the sci fi / fantasy rut the genre is currently in.


As always, there are a few games that break the rules completely. Deus Ex made combat almost like a puzzle, if you wanted to play stealthy. Fallout3 used limited ammo and shaky aiming to create the impression of being dumped in a hostile, scary world where every shot is critical (and has a 10% of being critical, hoo hee hah hah). But by the end of it, you took 100 skill points in your favorite weapon and several perks to create more ammo, and you were a damn god of the wastelands.

Plus the first time I entered the metro system, I got bullrushed by a horde of feral ghouls, at least 10 or 20. I pulled out my shotgun and blasted away furiously until I discovered i had backed into the wall and had run out of ammo. I died, but it was one of the most pitch-perfect moments in gaming for me. I have never had such an experience with a jRPG – unless you count the time I spent an hour grinding a boss’s health to 0, and then his minion healed him back to full health before I could deliver the killing blow. Wait, no – that was the wrong kind of emotion. god damn you, shin megami tensai series!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Global Warming Post

I am sympathetic to the claim that it’s hard to understand the science of global warming. It’s one of those things that sounds like it should be simple (“Earth is warming / people are causing it / we need it to stop warming”) but can easily get bogged down in the details (What’s the mechanism it’s warming by? How are we measuring that? How do we know it’s not one of a million other factors?), and that weakness is easily exploitable. Unfortunately I spent like 12 days straight learning every detail and nuance of the major concepts (while staying as far away from the math as I could) so this is my brain dump.

Just upfront: I don’t think there’s a middle ground here. I have spent a lot of time reading skeptic sites and scientist sites, and I am firmly convinced that the earth is absolutely warming at a rate unseen in the history of the planet, and that the causes of the warming coincide neatly with human activity. I am also convinced this will have dangerous, disastrous results. My great fear is that the people who will go unaffected by global warming (ie rich white people ie me) will live through the consequences, watching too many people die – and we will promptly forget about it, shrug and wash our hands, convinced it was never our fault to begin with.

The global warming “debate” has gone on for so long that a lot of people think “both sides are wrong”, a product of American centrism that leads us to hate Democrats and Republicans nearly equally. And yes, there are some idiots on the internet arguing global warming exists without really understanding or knowing why. But hey, you can find idiots to argue any position. The science, however,  falls squarely on one side.

FIRST: The basics.

Skeptical Science has a list of basic arguments you probably have heard before, ranging from “It’s the sun causing the warming” to “we’re heading into an ice age”. I’d start here to get some of the specific arguments used by skeptics cleared up. just launched and has a nice “climate change dashboard” at the bottom of the page that lets you play around with the numbers and see what’s actually happening.

SECOND: The Case Against Skeptics

Open Mind has much more in-depth debunking of other skeptical arguments. It seems at least one prominent skeptic blog (Watts Up) doesn’t understand graphs, making a chart that correlated years to time in order to prove a point.

A prominent writer who does not accept global warming science was recently accused of misrepresenting existing research in his book. Another was found to be hiding large amounts of money he was taking from various pollutant-producing companies.

Real Climate goes pretty in-depth on a lot of things, from Climategate to “Daily Mail makes up a bunch of shit to claim global warming is over”. They also feature raw data and code to tide over your nerdy proclivities.

So between this and the skeptical science guide to debunking arguments, I have a real problem with how skeptics are presenting their case. I see a strong parallel to the attacks on evolutionary science or vaccines. Mostly claiming scientists are “silencing the truth” while never providing any actual evidence to support your own claim (and refusing to comment when scientists debunk the little claims you make).
Also claiming science is “just another religion” which fucking infuriates me. I don’t see scientists pretending there’s a magic sky faerie controlling the weather, do you?


There’s an intersection here between science and politics… again. Just like there was for evolution (please, please, please don’t get me started. On a pilgrimage to the Jack Daniel’s refinery we drove past a billboard for the Creation Museum, and my friends thought it would be funny to tease me by suggesting we visit. I clutched my collector’s edition JD bottle and informed them in no uncertain terms that I was prepared to construct a molotov cocktail and burn that fucker down).

A lot of the arguments against global warming science also happen to line up nicely with positions in the interests of companies that are producing pollution. I think that’s a much more likely source of the fear, upset and denial in the global warming “debate” than “global cabal of scientists, led by al gore, make up global warming”. Much like the arguments against evolution line up more neatly with “religious leaders struggle to keep control of their flocks” than “global cabal of scientists plant dinosaur fossils to trick us”.

The human brain isn’t always designed to keep us able to track the complexities of rigorous science.  Peruse this list of cognitive biases and see just how fucked up the human mind can be.  But when you start to look at the reasoned, careful arguments made by scientists, heaped up against the sketchy, shotgun criticisms of professional skeptics, you start to see a pattern of skepticism for skepticism’s sake, a defiant “You can’t tell me what to believe!” that overcomes all evidence and trumps any argument.

I believe scientists about evolution. I believe scientists about vaccines and homeopathy. I believe scientists about global warming. In my mind, you can’t pick and choose what products of the scientific method you agree with and what you don’t. They’re a package deal.

As a final note, however: Scientists aren’t perfect. They are, as a rule of thumb, extremely terrible at communication with a public that is largely uneducated about science (Thanks, Texas! Hope you sink into the sea before that next bit of textbook revisions go out!). The Intersection has 2 scientists who are on a mission to improve communications between scientists and the public, along with the extreme difficulties that entails.

Incidental link because I couldn’t fit it in: Never trust an engineer.


PZ Meyers has a great dissection of a paper claiming to take evolutionists down a notch, including a wonderful digression into the golden ratio. This further illustrates how difficult it is for the layman to parse the subtle errors introduced by skeptics.

Another PZ Meyers post establishing the strong bond between evolution and global warming "skepticism" through legislature.
And a brutal, but perhaps useful, attack on the divide between being a skeptic and being a denier.
And a NYT article linking evolution skepticism to climate change skepticism in no uncertain terms. The strategy is to demolish science education and replace it with “scientists says this, JESUS SAYS THIS, who will you believe? Man, or LITERAL INCARNATION OF GOD”.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

game mechanics & conventions

you know what’s a really good game mechanic? creating a boss battle that centers around your inability to do damage. you have to play tug-of-war in order to put the enemy into a damagable state, and you have to play a stupid minigame to prevent him from escaping every turn. once he recovers he can force you to blow a turn to prevent him from healing. and then he launches a massive attack that requires you to counter every move he makes or else you lose the tug of war and get a ton of damage dealt to you. which, by the way, you can’t heal unless an enemy is randomly spawned carrying such an item, and you don’t accidentally kill that enemy.

oh, and all your moves including that critical counter-attack is based on a finicky touchscreen control you previously used once, about an hour ago, and have had no chance to practice the timing on. and as a much more minor complaint, the entire plot reason for you fighting this thing is incredibly flimsy.

this game, made for children, is incredibly difficult and frustrating. or i’m really bad at it. either way.


incidentally, i’ve really been losing my taste for jRPGs. The battle mechanics are always repetitive (except for Magical Starsign which was dynamic and challenging), the plot is always cliche and threadbare or else meant for children and goofy without being funny (Except for Baiten Kaitos whose prequel was, in conjunction with the first game, challenging and wonderfully revelatory). 

I can’t see myself picking up Final Fantasy MMXIV for more than twenty minutes, because even though Lost Odyssey was by all measures a very impressive example of its genre, I still haven’t finished it (or any of the other jRPGs mentioned above, actually…).

Here is my experience with Magna Carta 2, a JRPG that  I returned after playing it for 10 minutes (Fuck you gamestop clerk who told me it was amazing and revolutionary):

  • Expository text about kingdoms and princesses and oh man, a war. this certainly isn’t like every other game I’ve ever played.
  • Cutscene of an epic battle. Incredible! I’ll bet the gameplay is exactly likehahahahahahhaha
  • Ambigious-gender enemy does something bad to girl with boobs popping out and short skirt. oh, right, yes, the princess, who is in the middle of an epic battle because who fucking cares jesus.
  • PC wakes up with… amnesia. This is going to be bad. I fish out the shot glass but hesistate to start a drinking game. I might not survive that.
  • Expository dialogue about how this simple village is such a wonderful place to be. I begin taking bets on how long until it is attacked, except the very next line of dialogue is about how it’s being attacked. I hand myself $1. Thank god I put the shot glass away.
  • I am given an errand to kill sand crabs.
  • I run through this gigantic empty town to a gigantic empty beach via a gigantic empty path.  This is where I started to get really pissed off. This is wasted space. Nothing is going on. I’m just… running. Eventually I will kill some sand crabs. Then I will assume I kill some slightly larger sand crabs, then I’ll get embroiled in some stupid conflict I don’t care about, then I’ll turn out to be the chosen one and by the end of the game I’ll kill god.
  • The combat system sucks. It’s “real time”, combining all of the excitement of clicking your mouse in diablo (minus the skill tree) with the awesome loot of a jRPG (You got: 5 xp, 5gp, a crab shell!)

Look, I understand why these plot devices were originally created. The amnesia is because the player is blind to this world, and we want to learn about it through the eyes of the character to learn and bond with them.

Mass Effect handled this really well by having the PC not be a blank slate.  when you selected a dialogue option, Shepard would fill in the blanks for the player. you could still role-play, but you weren’t role-playing a clueless hero who didn’t know what your own name was. 

(Incidentally, do I really need to learn every single detail about the world upfront? Can’t I just learn by observing your well-written NPCs at work instead of having it explained to me letter by letter that elves are distant and untrustworthy but noble and the wookie-looking guys are noble savages who will swear a blood oath to me if I save their lives?)

Planescape: Torment blew the fucking lid off the amnesia cliche by having the PC be aware they were about to have amnesia, so they tattoo’d instructions onto their own back. So you keep the joys of having your character learn along with you, but the plot isn’t just putting blinders on some stupid fucking revelation you’ll have halfway through the game, which will tear you and your party apart until you brood for thirty seconds and then everything will proceed normally.

The epic battle between good and evil. Fine, good, great, we all know that Hollywood 101 is “Have action within the first 5 minutes to catch interest, then slow down and introduce what’s actually happening”. But is it too much to ask that I be able to participate in this battle? So that I might actually, I dunno, give a shit about its outcome? Lost Odyssey did this to good effect by having a background of a thousand soldiers doing their thing, but the PC only engaged 1-2 at a time. It looked really nice.

Having a tutorial is fine, really. But, as a genre, haven’t we all agreed that killing rodents, vermin, and small crustaceans the jRPG equivalent of start-to-crate? Not to trot it out again, but Mass Effect’s first level had you repelling an invasion of sentient robots that zombified colonists and ended with you hallucinating so hard you pass out. Magna Carta 2’s first level started with you sleeping in a boat and mentioning your amnesia about 6 times and then killing some sand crabs.

And expository text at the beginning? Look, we all forgive Star Wars for that because Americans find science fiction impossible to understand and weird (see also: People who thought Surrogates was deep, people who were confused by the plot of the first Matrix movie (there were no other Matrix movies)). But let’s be honest with each other: Your jRPG is exactly like every other jRPG I’ve ever played. I’m not going to remember any of this shit, and when I put a damn game in the system it’s probably because I want to play it, not be force-fed your shitty “Kingdom of pure good / betrayal / fall / redemption… QUESTION MARK” arc.

(NOT TO HARP ON IT BUT I JUST FINISHED THE SECOND GAME: Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2 started with some shadowy figure discussing your fate with no context, like it was the cold opening to a Law and Order episode. This bothers me to no end because it adds NOTHING. Just let me play and find out for myself!)

Empty space is my new pet peeve. Everyone wants to make epic worlds that take 60 hours to explore, but they don’t have the time or the content to pull it off so you’re left with… nothing. Mass Effect blew this in the first game with the Mako, and in the second game with the mineral exploration. Fallout3 subverted this by having wonderful little goodies hidden around every corner. Magna Carta 2 blew this by making me run from one end of town to another without anything going on in the meantime. It took maybe 60 seconds, but it felt like 6 minutes. I want every second of a game to have a purpose, especially in the first 10 minutes. and yes, “downtime” is a purpose (like talking to your party members in between missions), but you can’t call something “downtime” when I haven’t fought a single battle yet. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

obscurity is not artistry

When are videogames going to stop playing “unambiguous good vs. unambiguous evil”? Right now it seems like game writing is mostly The DaVinci Code. Maybe a good guy will turn out to be a bad guy, but “good” and “bad” is, at most, a binary scale.

2 exceptions leap to mind:

Mass Effect allowed you to be good and bad, with one not subtracting from the other. This doesn’t stop you from making decisions with forced moral ambiguity, because someone you thought was bad turned out to be good!, but it’s a nice thought.

Assassin’s Creed titular creed is, “Nothing is true / everything is permitted”. Which is a wonderful anarchist sentiment, paired off against the totalitarian templars. It edges right up against that Nietzschean nihlism, the beyond good and evil, but falls short because the anarchists are the good guys and the templars are the bad guys.

Please note I am leaving out shitty experimental games like “The Graveyard” and “Marriage” because they literally require a readme.txt to understand. They have nothing to say for themselves and fall back on the “it’s a metaphor” defense, which served Braid (a far superior game with ultimately the same problem) very poorly.

Look, Nietzsche was a coy writer who often left out several leaps in logic as an exercise for the reader (“In the mountains, the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that you must have long legs”), but writing a game with an ambiguous purpose doesn’t make you a philosopher. Nietzsche had purpose, he had something to say, and he burned several thousand bridges to say it. Oh, games have been “edgy”, but by “edgy” we mostly mean “racist”,  or, “SUPER RACIST”, or, um… whatever this was supposed to prove. Nietzsche attacked religion, science, philosophy, governments, racism, and women (not endorsing that last bit!), he wanted to turn entire establishments on their head and to this day remains an extremely controversial figure. Show me a videogame that even tries to tackle these subjects without veering a sharp right into white privilege or “You see, killing God in a video game is controversial because God is evil” and I will promptly convert to the cult of “games are ert”.

And so help me god if anyone mentions Xenogears I will make them buy me a copy so I can play it.

the fringe

i find it kind of difficult to express my beliefs. this is an exercise in writing so i can get things out of my head, where they tend to bother me during work &c. It might get weird. Like, “I finished playing Mass Effect 2 and immediately picked up a David Foster Wallace Book, which made me think […]” weird.

I will probably abandon this idea in 2 weeks, much like i abandon all my creative projects. I want to keep this going but rarely have the endurance.