My parents took me to see Groundhog Day while it was in theaters, and at the time I didn’t think much of it. This is to say that too cool for elementary school Ben Johnson thought it was kind of a dumb movie about a guy who can’t die or something. So imagine my surprise when years later it kept coming up as an example of Great Comedy.
Older, wiser Ben Johnson regrets the error. It’s a good movie. But even I came away with a deeper understanding of just how well the gears in that movie turn by listening to the Scriptnotes Podcast discussion of Groundhog Day.
The PixelTron is a project Liz and I created for the 2012 Northern Spark outdoor lighting festival in Minneapolis. Originally called the PixelTron150, it is a 15 x 10 grid of pixels, each measuring 6” on a side, leading to an overall screen size of 7.5’ x 5’ x 8”, housed in a custom-built arcade cabinet that stood 8’ tall and 8’ wide, with a total depth of about 4’.
Each pixel is lit from behind by a single color-changing LED, similar to the kind used for the lights on the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland.
The PixelTron accepts an arbitrary video signal and can be used to show absolutely any image, game, or video imaginable. However I created a custom game for the festival, a 3-player racing game called Low-Rez Racer that was designed specifically for a resolution of 15 pixels by 10 pixels.
As part of Northern Spark, the game was installed on the Minneapolis Riverwalk near the Stone Arch Bridge between sundown and sunup, and was played near-constantly the entire time by people aged 5 to 65 and of varying levels of sobriety, totaling about 2000 players in one night. We received kind words from many passers-by, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, representatives of the Walker Art Center, and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
I’ve been playing a couple of games that have gotten me thinking about maximalism in video game design recently, Blizzard’s Hearthstone beta, which is a collectable card game, and the iPad port of Full Control Studios’ Space Hulk, an adaption of the Games Workshop board game.
Both of these games are obviously influenced by AAA videogame aesthetics. On top of a base of a fairly well established gameplay tradition (Magic: the Gathering, and Space Hulk / skirmish miniatures, respectively) they layer on 3D animation, character voices, and lots visual effects. These are, of course, unnecessary for gameplay, since both games could comfortably be played with cards, dice and paper. They’re entirely spectacle.
In particular, my experience with Hearthstone was to install, play for about 2 hours until I thought I had a pretty good sense of the game in my head (Magic: the Gathering, but built for speed, and with slightly larger numbers), and then uninstall. I uninstalled not because I wasn’t having a good time, but because it didn’t seem to be doing anything to resolve the basic tension of collectable card game design: the promise of putting together a strategy only to be surprised when it is undone by playing against someone with cards you’d never seen before, versus the reality of dominant strategies evolving and being available to anyone willing to spend the effort to put a dominant deck together.
I think back to times in my life when I was more interested in spectacle: mostly when I was a teenager. I don’t think it was so much that I was easily distracted by shiny objects and now I’m somehow more resolute, but rather that a lot of gameplay was still brand new to me, and given the option to explore a new idea a couple of ways, I’m happy to pick the pretty one. These days, I’m less interested in spending time on something that seems new, but really isn’t, and so I’ve developed an attraction to sparer aesthetics that make it easier to tell whether I’m dealing with something new or not before I spend a lot of time with it. Maybe that’s because I’m a game designer, and so finding clever things in games is a big part of my life, or maybe it’s because I’m just older and more aware of my own mortality.
In any case, I can understand why the sort of maximalist design choices that make me and a lot of my jaded game-literate peers roll our eyes are still so effective at pulling in new players, even if they turn folks like us off.
NYU Game Center professor Eric Zimmerman wrote a manifesto to appear in a forthcoming book, The Gameful World. In this manifesto, Zimmerman lays out an argument that the 21st century will be a century of ludic revolution as the 20th century was a century of information revolution.
About a week later, MIT Game Lab researcher Abe Stein publishes a retort on KillScreen. His fundamental concern is that Zimmerman’s manifesto relies too much on digital technology, and as a result marginalizes cultures and persons who aren’t privileged enough to participate (the poor, the non-coastal non-urban, the developing).
I think both are fundamentally flawed, for different reasons. However, there are things being addressed here that are scratching at a breakthrough, and I am of the belief that “it’s complicated” is more than a relationship status, but the way of the world.
“The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.
The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius - a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in in general circulation.
"A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."
The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find; a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.
"A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shaped should be."
The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger.
"Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”
Our world is so much less magical than I wanted it to be. Like many teenage weirdos, I spent my adolescence grasping at the usual straws in hopes of uncovering one last portal to an adventurous, hidden, cooler world: tarot cards, auras, Wiccan girlfriends. All to no avail.
I want to tell you about a game called 3 in Three. It’s a puzzle game, not in the Free-To-Play, Bejewelled sense, or the Wander-And-Wonder, Myst sense, but the Mind-Wracking Eleventh Hour sense. That’s the book by Graeme Base, by the way, not the CD-ROM. 3 in Three was set in a world inside a computer, and follows the exploits of an adventurous digit, 3, and her efforts to explore and restore a virus-laden Macintosh.
Released in 1989, the development of 3 in Three would have been in parallel with the Cyberpunk movement in science fiction literature (Bruce Sterling’s influential short story collection, Mirrorshades, arrived in 1986, while Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash debuted in 1992). Despite predating Cyberpunk’s transition to film, 3 in Three’s visuals were full of the black and neon, geometric landscapes that would form early “cyberspace.”
Cyberpunk provided my teenage self with one last vector for arcane mysticism: computers. Sexy boxes of daemons and light, operated by console cowboy-wizards, tools for both self-enlightenment and world domination.
Can there be a less Cyberpunk-toned game about the world inside a computer than 3 in Three? Our heroine, 3, is cast as the only sane woman in a world gone mad. In working to restore the system via a series of logic puzzles, hints are provided via running commentary from 3, who displays the put upon straight-man wit of Adam Scott’s character Ben Wyatt on Parks & Recreation. Gone are noir’s shadow, and the techno-shaman’s fetish.
3 in Three tames the wilds of cyberspace with the order of a spreadsheet. It reminds us that every sorcerous dragonslayer eventually winds up a practical magician, whether that means controlling the elements to avert village droughts, or exploiting fundamental physical forces in a controlled reaction to power a closet light bulb.
I eventually gave up my doomed rebellion against mundane reality. Perhaps I finally started to see that there were things about the world that dedicated weirdos could change without magic. Or I discovered that there was no Wiccan girlfriend who could transform my world better than I could transform myself?
3 in Three is free these days, but you’ll need either a working computer from the 90’s, or an emulator. The designer, Cliff Johnson, has instructions for getting it running on Mac and Windows.
It’s Knutepunkt time in the Nordic countries, and that means it’s time once again for the Nordic Larp Talks. If you’re interested in game design or experience design, you really should spend the hour and thirty minutes it takes to watch the whole thing.
However, given some of the recent conversations that have been going on in the American game development community lately, I wanted to highlight a couple of the presentations in particular.
What Does Nordic Larp Mean?
Jaakko Stenros, game researcher at the Game Research Lab at the University of Tampere, Finland, was given the challenge of writing a definition of Nordic Larp that was 50 words or less. He talks about the problem of definitions, but why they still matter anyway. This is going to be of interest to anyone who’s been following the recent “formalism” debates within the American gamedev community.
Three Ways to Make Games More Inclusive
Lars Nerback of the Swedish edu-larp company LajvVerkstaden creates larps that are usually played by children or employees who, unlike in recreational larps, did not individually seek out the experience. As a result he has to create scenarios and narratives that welcome participants regardless of their ages, genders, ethnicities, orientations, religions, or disabilities. In this short presentation, he shares anecdotes and lessons learned that may be of use to the broader larpwright community.
If you’re interested in representation issues within game development, it’s also worth noting that more than half of the presenters at the Nordic Larp Talks are women, and that this is not unusual.
You might also be interested in this year’s Knutepunkt book, which has expanded versions of most of these talks, plus a lot of other information, and is available as a free pdf from the Knutepunkt site.
I want to tell you about this game called Slave Of God. It’s by a guy named Stephen Lavelle who also made the puzzle game English Country Tune. He’s the kind of guy who will make a game and just call it whatever.
Slave Of God is the sort of game that makes some people ask “is that even a game?” which usually just means that it’s reminiscent of Myst, which was definitely a game, but was also incredibly commercially successful, and that sort of tacit popular approval gives you a lot of leeway.
When you finally leave school and head out into the world of adulthood, one of the difficult things you have to learn is how to make friends when there’s not a scheduling computer throwing you into a room of strangers with similar interests every few months. I left school and fell directly into the world of AAA console game development at Electronic Arts, which left me with no free time, just outside of San Francisco, where I knew no one, so it took me nearly a year to figure out that I needed to own my own social life. I had been getting more into hip-hop recently, so I decided to go clubbing.
Every weekend, I would take the N train all the way from the Outer Sunset where I lived to Milk, a small hip-hop club notable for being directly across the street from what had once been a bowling alley, but is now Amoeba Records, which if you’re unfamiliar, is one of the best record stores in the country. Once there, I would stand awkwardly in a room of strangers who all seemed to have come in groups (I always went alone, since I didn’t know anyone to bring with me). Saying nothing, I would wait until the music got too loud to talk to any of them, drink a vodka Red Bull, and dance by myself until close.
I did this every weekend for a year. The music was cool (Diplo and Prince Paul came through regularly, which was awesome), but I wasn’t solving my fundamental loneliness problem. Today I still have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. I legitimately enjoyed the dancing, but it was also an incredibly isolating experience to be around those other dancing people, but feeling like I couldn’t interact with any of them.
Slave of God is like that, but it’s free, which is a lot better than a $10 cover ($7 before 10pm).
Some Italian developers have gone to crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to ask for funds to make a game about riots. And to bite Sword & Sworcery’s art style, apparently.
I think this is really fantastic, and seeing this coming out of Italy, which is itself undergoing some popular civic upheaval right now, is really exciting. Part of their pitch reads, “Living in a country drowning in debt and corruption, it is practically impossible for Team ‘Riot’ to find way to fund the project in Italy and we are therefore asking for your help.” (emphasis theirs)
I have some reservations about whether they have any idea what their core mechanics are. I also worry that their dedication to representing “the protest experience” by “attempting to depict both sides of the fight without bias, only objectivity and facts,” may not lead to the most compelling gameplay, even if it might be an interesting approach to journalism.
The fact is that you’re making a game about civilians getting their skulls cracked by armed representatives of the state. In real life, protesters “winning” an encounter after it turns violent is extremely rare. In the end, The Man almost always has the bigger weapons. If the public gains any benefit from a riot, it’s usually in the aftermath, when governments react to public outcry over cracked skulls. This just isn’t how popular strategy games work, so in order to succeed at their stated mission, Team “Riot” may be forced to make some pretty fundamental gameplay innovations, lest they be reduced to a dismissible fantasy that overlooks the reality of power imbalances on the street, or a game where The Man always wins.
Back when I went to Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests, I started thinking about how you could adapt the experience of protests and riots into game mechanics. A bit of research revealed that there have been a handful of tabletop strategy and war games that take protest as a model.
Quick Reaction to David Cage's Controvercial Prescriptions
1. Make games for all: Time to invent interactive experiences for adults.
This is already happening.
2. Change our paradigms to something other than endless violence.
This is already happening.
3. We should make games that “say something.”
This is already happening.
4. “Become accessible: Let’s focus on minds, not on thumbs!”
This is already happening.
5. Bring other talents on board.
Yes. Game developers need to learn how to collaborate with other creative people.
6. Establish new relationships with Hollywood.
Qualified yes. This is a specific example of number 5, but should not imply that successful Hollywood creatives are necessarily the only, nor the best source for these collaborators. That said, I can’t expect anyone but myself to create the sort of collaborations I would most like to see; that’s my job.
7. Censorship: the marketplace’s gatekeepers are too conservative.
This is basically only a problem for big commercial games, and it seems likely that changing attitudes about this will have to come from a surprise hit bubbling up from the weird fringes. Think “Freaky Minecraft.” The conditions for this happening already exist.
8. Criticism: more analysis, less numerical scoring.
This is already happening.
9. Gamers need to vote with their dollars.
Capitalism predates the videogame industry. This has never not been happening.
“… you really can’t control who and what people are and when and how many show up - so it’s better not to plan for much in general at least as a first step. You can just make something consistent … and the story builds from there.”— Kunal Gupta, speaking on the subject of starting a public gaming space
Back in November of 2012, Keita Takahashi gave a talk at the Games For Change Festival in Australia. In it, he reprised a 2006 talk he gave at GDC, and talked about a vision for the future with a rebirth of the arcade through installation games.
It’s a bit of work that will require opening multiple browser tabs, but I recommend taking in the half-hour talk by listening to the audio while reading the text of the talk combined with the content of its slides.
News broke earlier this week that Zynga would be shutting down underperforming games CityVille 2, Party Place and The Friend Game. While I’ve never been more than a dabbler in Zynga’s Facebook titles, there’s a disappointment over seeing the rather innovative Friend Game shelved after launching only in December.
When I was little, I was surrounded by weird board games like Dungeon and Zaxxon that my grandmother would pick up from the weird second-hand store around the corner, or a church rummage sale. My uncle was a constant source of Apple ][ and Atari 2600 titles of dubious providence. These memories still inform what I think of games today when I try to make my own.
The dark side of the Game-As-Service model is that when something appears and fails to find an audience, it’s probably just gone. Swallowed up like it never existed. There’s no finding a beat up old copy at a garage sale. There’s no picking it up again in a few years and finding how it informs games that went on to greater success.
For reasons of foul language and admittedly blatant copyright issues, I did not officially submit my game to the GGJ13 archives. But my experiment, using “Visual Novel / Dating Sim” engine Ren’Py to adapt Telltale’s Walking Dead conversation mechanics to cringe-humor HBO series Girls, seems to prove out my theory that it is at least technically possible.
This is based on a scene from season one’s “Vagina Panic” episode. I picked it because I think it works reasonably well, even if you don’t know anything about the characters when you start.
I had plans to replace all the visuals with my own art style, but 48 hours is not a lot of time to learn a new scripting language and make art, and I had to at least attempt to write branches of the script that approximate Jessa, Hannah, and Shosh’s voices.
I’d like to spend more time on this and do it up right.
Drew Toal over at The Gameological Society interviewed me for an article about the L.A. Game Space project that recently met its goal over at kickstarter. He did a fine job distilling my raving logorrhea into something vaguely resembling informed opinion.
I got to help organize another game jam over the last weekend. This time it was with the Game Research Group at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center on the west side of Manhattan.
The games are posted up on the jam’s site (scroll down a little). We had 8 from jam teams in NYC and another game from a special satellite team in Mexico. There’s some really fun stuff on there, so you should check it out before some of the links are inevitably lost to the churn of the net. Each team was assigned a JCVD movie at random and told to run with it.
Given the reputation of movie-based videogames as unimaginative cash-ins, it was really exciting to see people go as far as they did: dating sims, novel physical interfaces, and pseudo-larp weirdness.
I think I’d like to try a jam where all the teams are working from the same movie. Maybe we all go to a film on opening night, and then jam all weekend. Imagine: Dark Knight Rises Jam. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World Jam. The Descendents Jam.
So I was perusing States of Play, the book of essays published for Solmukohta 2012, the Nordic Larp convention going on in Helsinki right now, and I came across Lizzie Stark’s essay on larp as metaphor for American identity. In the essay, Lizzie considers the question of why American live action roleplaying culture works the way it does. In Nordic larp, rules systems are
all about portraying physical situations that one doesn’t want the player to experience and vice versa.
Meanwhile, in American games,
rules cover far more eventualities than situations that make players psychologically uncomfortable or physically unsafe. There are skills allowing players to charm other people, to disguise themselves, to pick locks and pockets, to gain bursts of speed, to climb, to hide, to read and write, to translate, and many, many more. These rules aren’t necessary for safety, nor do they compensate for the limitations of the real world the way that a mechanic for magic spells does.
Complex rules are required in order to smooth away our differences as players so that our characters can be born equal. The RPG hero’s journey is also fundamentally the story of the immigrant. Our first level character shows up with little money or equipment, but plenty of grit and a desire to seek out opportunity, and just like in the immigrant myth,
power, wealth and influence inevitably accrue to players who simply show up; leveling up is the perfected, democratized version of the American Dream in which everyone is exceptional enough to ”make it.”
The exception, of course, being the case of character death, but as we look to videogames, especially modern social games, even that risk is removed in the gradual distillation of the rags-to-riches story.
I start to wonder if the fad for endless progress and inevitable success is coming from the continued struggles of young people and the middle class. When the American Dream is suddenly out of reach, how consoling is it to maintain a little digital garden where the only prerequisite for greatness is effort?
When programmer Anna Kipnis idly wondered whether there had ever been a game jam based on the tweets of parody twitter account @petermolydeux the explosion of interest convinced her and games journalist Patrick Klepek to make it happen. And then, rather excited by the energy of it all, I said I’d organize a parallel jam in New York City.
I had temporarily forgotten that for late March and early April I was already on the hook for, among other things, organizing an evening of lectures, looking for a new apartment, and working on a long-term personal project. Oh, and working a full-time game industry job. I think it’s safe to say that if I had taken any time to think about it, I wouldn’t have volunteered.
But I’m oh so glad my impulsiveness got the better of me this time.
I was only to happy to accept an invitation from an old college radio friend to join the new-to-America music site, Spotify, but after a giddy installation and some poking around, I’m at a bit of a loss as to how it folds into my constellation of music services.
What is Spotify for?
An end to music purchases. Spotify would like me to stop buying CDs or digital downloads, and just subscribe to all-you-can-eat music for what comes down to about the price of 1 CD per month. That’s fine, except I like being able to back up my music. I’ve got shelves of vinyl about 10 feet to my left as testament to the value I place on music that won’t just go away in 5 years when somebody’s terms of service change in a way I don’t like. Plus, every time my Spotify subscription convinces me not to buy an album, the cost of filling in the gaps Spotify put in my music collection goes up when I do quit.
A breadth of new music to discover. Certainly, Spotify provides access to a large library of music, and it’s nice to have a place to turn when somebody mentions a band I haven’t heard of so I can give them a listen, even with just a free account. Unfortunately, since my new music tastes for the last 18 months have been largely defined by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speeds of modern electronic music (so expertly curated by Mary Anne Hobbs in her recent return to radio on XFM in London), and the underground running LOL that is Brooklyn’s D.I.Y. music scene, Spotify simply can’t keep up. As it is, YouTube remains my favorite venue for findingmusicbyanyband worried more about obscurity than piracy. As long as Spotify isn’t allowing bands to upload their own tracks, I don’t see that changing.
Shared playlists, and other social media baubles. Okay, this is actually pretty cool. Although mixcloud's slightly higher barrier to entry means that there's a somewhat more favorable signal to noise ratio, and turntable.fm's musical chatroom thing makes social music sharing feel actually social, I’m generally a fan of sharing playlists. I do wish that this could be done without connecting a Facebook account, but I guess it can’t be helped in the current environment.
In the end, I like the idea of Spotify more than its current execution. I suspect I’ll keep the application around for a little while and check to see if it turns into something that fits my needs better.
"And one of the things that strikes me most about superheroes as they currently stand, is that these are heroes, as the term implies. These are people who stand unflinchingly against tyrants and oppressors, who protect and support the underdog, who are fearless and noble in everything that they do. I’m starting to feel that the most significant part of the superhero makeup is that part which is not talked about, the fact that these triumphant paragons are being created by an industry of people who are frightened to ask for a raise, the rights to their work, and, especially after seeing what happened to Gardner Fox and the others, to form a union."
One of my favorite game interviewers really knocked it out of the park with this one. Clyde Rhoer took a train home from GenCon Indy this year and spent it recording a remarkable piece of oral history.
When you talk about the history of gaming, Gary Gygax comes up often enough to get a cameo in a Futurama episode. Dig a little deeper and you’ll probably hear about David Arneson, too. Both of these men are gone now, and were widely eulogized at the times of their passing. I have to wonder if David Wesley will get the same treatment.
Major Wesley was the referee of the fabled “Braunstein” game, which sewed the seeds that would become Arneson’s “Blackmoor” game, which in turn would become Dungeons & Dragons. That makes him the originator of the modern role-playing game, which would probably be enough to make him a notable figure, but Wesley is also responsible for popularizing all the polyhedral dice we know and love today. The Major’s traditional Midwestern humility is about the only thing that keeps him from saying he invented them, after incorrectly understanding a strange reference to a “twelve-sided teetotum” in an old war gaming text.
It’s hard to remember what “gamer culture” was like before the internet. The Major’s fantastic Upper Midwestern staccato recounts the histories of the subculture back when the only way to meet other players was to see who else had checked out obscure military history books from the university library.