Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Procedural Rhetoric and SPAZ

Procedural rhetoric is the idea that the execution of a series of rules (such as in a game) creates a persuasive argument. Space Pirates and Zombies (hereafter: SPAZ) is a 2D top-down action RPG in the vein of Elite, Escape Velocity, Space Ranger, etc.

SPAZ puts you in the role of a space pirate. A galaxy is generated on demand, populated with star systems inhabited by factions (initially Civ and UTA to represent civilians and military) who are always at war with each other, and may or may not be at war with you. Each faction has a random value from the subset {Hate, Dislike, Neutral, Like, Friend} assigned to you, where anything below neutral becomes “shoot on sight” and can be altered through bribes or missions at the expense of the other faction’s relationship. Each star also has gates leading to other stars, gates protected by the UTA.

There are three resources: goons (essentially hostage humans), rez (money), and data (experience). All three can be obtained from destroyed ships, but goons can be bought for rez and sold for rez or data, or to buy faction rep. Goons and rez are required to make new ships when your fleet is destroyed during combat.
Unlike other Elite games, you can’t ferry trade goods back and forth to make a profit. You can mine by exploring asteroid fields or hanging around mining bases to pick up spare rez (and if you run out of resources, this is your only recourse) but once you have built up a fleet of significant size, it’s quite a bit easier to tear down a few UTA blockades and scavenge their remnants for all three resources. Each star system also has starbases that can sell techs if your relationship is high enough, but those techs also are yielded when the starbase is destroyed as well. Hint, hint.

In any given star system, you can either spend resources in bribes or gain resources by playing the factions against each other. Resources can be gained peacefully but slowly, or quickly and savagely. Factions can help you out, but their destruction would grant you equal benefits. To top it all off, it’s much cheaper to blow through low-level blockades than to bribe your way through them.

Ergo, SPAZ essentially gives you two options. The lawful trading game, which is tedious and low-reward, and the pirate game where you get to have exciting space battles (the mechanics of which are beyond the scope of this post for now) that reward you with plenty of resources and as a side effect, grant you a few Steam achievements. These two mechanics aren’t even, and end up forming a compelling reason to be the titular space pirate. Thus, the mechanics create meaning.


I think it’s important to continue cataloging how games create meaning. Once again, the Fun/Not Fun argument is rearing its head and is reinforced by the constant re-visitation of the ludo-narrative experience. There’s not anything wrong with it, but you know how this goes. Stand on empty beach, draw line in sand. Stranger shows up and asks, “But what is a line, anyway?”

Someone else appears and holds up a ruler, and yet another person drops in to say, “Rulers are hegemonic instruments of coercion, and do you even know how that ruler was made?” All of a sudden a thousand people are defining a thousand lines.

You look down at your feet to find that you are enclosed by a hundred tiny scribbles. You wonder how to even begin building something out of this mess, this shared illusion of our metaphorical beach. You look up and imagine a beautiful sandcastle that we can all agree is a beautiful castle no matter the definition of “castle”.

You look down at your feet again and those lines are still there. Straight, slashes, dashes, sinusoidal. You pick up your Game Boy and tell yourself it’s not just a distraction. There is something here. You are giving away your time and receiving something precious and ineffable, and you are in no way fooling yourself, right?

The beach collapses. Only the screen exists. You are absorbed. You feel something come into you from the screen. You want to explain your journey, depict and delineate it so others can follow. You draw a line.

Friday, September 16, 2011

PAX Panels 2011

PAX is always a great opportunity to collect your thoughts and reflect on the industry. Last year the themes I saw crystallized around the changing demographics of games: the takeover by casual gaming, the encroaching territory of free to play, the failure of developers to reflect the diversity lurking beneath the surface. Those problems haven't been "solved" by a long shot, but now those ideas have baked for a while and don't seem to terrify as many people. The message this year, if I may blithely condense 3 days and 80k people into a single concept, was taking these new developments for granted and focusing on the best methods for moving forward.


“We Study Games...Professionally: Academic Research and Game Studies”:

This seemed to be a repeat panel from last year. A few people talked about their research, some of which involved creating games to collect data from users. Lots of focus on MMOs and player models. One panelist was involved in using games for education. I asked why older edutainment games were largely ignored and got several dismissals: they weren't fun, they weren't educational, etc. I'll have to explore that myself, I guess.

“The Harridan's Guide to the Game Industry”:

I thought this was more focused on women's issues on getting into the industry but instead it was just issues in the industry that happened to be discussed by women. Which is fine! Actually better than fine, right? Because not all women need to talk about women issues all the time, and there were other panels that were more focused on feminist perspectives. One touching moment came from a questioner who said she was in grade 11 and unsure how to tell people around her she wanted to be a game designer. The advice: "Ignore people who tell you otherwise. One day your game will be in the news, will have a trailer or a commercial, and you will be able to point at it and say, ‘That's what I do.’ You are good enough to be in this industry.”

“It's About All of Us: A Follow Up To PAX East's The Other Us Panel”:

This panel was moderated by Abbe Heppe, who wrote a critique of Metroid: Other M that focused on Samus' shift from strong warrior that happened to be a woman to a weeping, weak tool used and controlled by men. (Obviously, Abbe got a lot of shit for that review.)

This was a great panel that focused on how to build communities that aren't fostering harassment and sexism. The Naughty Dog community manager suggested being open with the community while curating an aggressive word filter: many people "don't get" that using “rape" in a casual context is actually Not Acceptable until it gets blocked, and that’s a great way to start a conversation about why some words are not appropriate for a gaming discussion. A questioner brought up the objection that word-filtering can further marginalize invisible groups that want to talk about gay issues, survivor issues, etc. The panel didn’t have an easy answer for how to eliminate harassing language without shutting out legitimate conversations. The only advice was to be open with your users, listen carefully to feedback, and continually monitor usage of problematic words. Other panelists also emphasized the need for self-moderation in communities. It’s up to community members to make sure harassment doesn’t get normalized.

Dudebro moment: an audience member asked a question trotting out, “But male characters are bad too,” a common fallacy that suggests that women’s issues are irrelevant because men also have problems. Unremarkable if ignorant until in a follow-up comment he dropped the c-bomb during a panel about harassment and diversity. He got shouted at after the panel ended by a few other audience members for that.

Fat, Ugly or Slutty: Exposing Harassment in Online Gaming

This was also a great panel that touched on some of the same concepts as above. It was recorded, and their hilarious parody video of "how to not get harassed" is well worth watching.

Change at a Moment's Notice... User Interface

This was a hidden gem of a panel in my opinion. It was led by guys from Warner Entertainment who work on a core UI team that shares its work with every WB game. It was mostly about the process that goes into creating a good user experience / user interface. (Please don’t ask about the conflation of terms. It drives me nuts.) A few insights: A UX designer needs to know everything from user psychology to the intricacies of 3D modeling. Art is not just about skinning things, it’s about communication. Mirror’s Edge uses color as representation instead of icons; Deus Ex is entirely about enabling game-play through the UI (i.e. upgrades tend to be UI upgrades).

The Agony and Ecstasy of RPG Writing:

This was a panel hosted by people who have written for Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (!!!), Alpha Protocol, Guild Wars 2, and Fallout: New Vegas. With the exception of Guild Wars, all games that had excellent writing marred by deep technical issues. They talked about common issues that writers experience - the poor V:TM:B writer had his head in his hands when the topic of cut content was raised. They suggested instead of time-to-crate metric, RPGs needed a “time-to-diary” metric to see how long a player could go through an RPG without finding an email, journal or book conveniently exposing a door code, Evil Plan, or back-story that couldn’t be exposed in a more natural manner, especially in “open” games where you can kill quest-critical characters or info-dump characters. I asked how boss fights fit into the writing process - unsurprisingly, the answer was that boss fights were something forced in by level designers as opposed to organically written in by the writers. Money quote: “Everyone working on a game is a storyteller.”

You Call That Fun?!:

Well, I went to this panel with skewed expectations due to the conversation K.Cox and I had. As it turns out, while the panel was filled with dudes who had an incredibly impressive history in the gaming industry, the talk was mostly about typical stuff in game design - game-play loops, extensive play-testing, etc. I posed my thesis on fun to them as a question and they rejected it. Oops. Maybe my response to the aforementioned conversation with Your Critic won’t be finished after all.

What Women Really Want:

This was much better as a panel where women talked about games rather than an in-depth discussion on feminism. There were a lot of instances of the word “slutty” being thrown around as kind-of-negative, which I always find weird. Bayonetta and “femShep” were both brought up, but they largely mirrored the discussions online: Bayonetta is “empowering”, beauty contests for femShep’s look, etc. However, hearing the women talk about Alistair and Garrus and playing Heavy Rain for the father-son relationship was amusing and interesting. I’d file this one under the “Harridan” category of “topics that happen to be presented by women” instead of the harassment or Fat,Ugly or Slutty category of “women speaking about definitively women’s issues” with the same caveat--maybe not what I expected, but perfectly fine and amusing in its own right.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution photojournal

No spoilers here.

Deus Ex versus Deus Ex Human Revolution review:

Did Human Revolution have a come-to-Jesus moment like when Icarus is pursuing you, or Daedalus blows you out of prison? No.

Did Human Revolution have a you-lost-all-your-equipment-because-it’s-a-breakout-level moment? Also no.

So, I call it a draw.

Some of the encounters are framed beautifully.

Human Revolution has some classy old-school loading screens. It also has lorum Ipsum text visible in the background text.

Some of the background architecture is absolute nonsense and I love it.

Shenga uses a lot of tight corridors and high ceilings to make you feel enclosed, but then you look up and see you’re under a “hood”. Oh.

A lot of shit is just weird, which is awesome. This level is kind of weird anyway. It fits.


The Most Deus Ex screenshot possible. From left to right: air vent, weird cyberpunk vision marker, goofy sci-fi concept vehicle, crates crates crates, GIANT FUCKING HAND CRUSHING THE EARTH , “unconscious” guard with a broken arm who will get up if another soldier runs over and waves his hands at him.

Just to fuck with you. No “game-play” purpose whatsoever.

Sarif’s office is very round. Round balls, baseballs, rounded corner desk. Dragon Lady’s penthouse is not.

Honestly I appreciate the showboatin’.

The lens flare is even distorted through Jensen's artificial lenses.

Fucks with your sense of scale.

I was uncharacteristically mean to the #CHAN guy because, come on.


Red is the tertiary color in Deus Ex palette to make you stop and look for a bit.

nb: All pictures can be found on my Steam library with larger versions, plus a few extra to boot (still no plot spoilers but some endgame locations).