Morlock Mash

Presenting Morock Mash, the debut game from CDE Games!


Morlock Mash is a kinetic, beat-the-clock tablet game that draws inspiration from H. G. Wells’ novel “The Time Machine.” Gameplay is similar to other tablet games such as Fruit vs. Zombies, Max Axe and Airport, and all art is produced in the Steampunk aesthetic. The game is marketed for 18+ casual gamers and Steampunk enthusiasts; we anticipate the game will attract a large female audience. (Note: CDE Games is a fictional studio and this is a mock pitch. Morlock Mash is not in production.)

Our video presentation was successful in many ways. Making it forced us to be concise and to divide our information into manageable segments. As a result, our presentation was focused and organized. Video format also allows the presenters to act a little more; in person this would seem cheesy and insincere, but it helps engage the audience on screen. While video presentations added some in-class technical concerns (checking sound beforehand, etc.) I think that overall, it was a success.

However, there are several things that we would do differently in our presentation:

Structurally, it was effective to break the video into three parts: game design (inspiration and gameplay), art, and selling points. However, the game design segment is by far the most complicated and largest amount of information. Several people in the audience seemed confused by:

  1. Physical swiping gameplay. We should have explained the gameplay (one finger path-swipe and one attack button) more clearly. However, people’s confusion also caused us to rethink our gameplay; it might be too complicated for a single set of hands.
  2. Levels. We should have included a level-by-level breakdown in the video, rather than explaining them in person after the video. Not only was the in-person explanation relatively unorganized, but it also lessened the punch of our closing pitch.

Additionally, given more time we would have amped up the original art and gameplay mockups. While the mockup animations in our video were effective, we could have designed all original art in Photoshop and also included an actual simulation of the gameplay.

Overall, I think our presentation was organized, concise, and effective.  Maybe someday you’ll see Morlock Mash for sale on the App Store!

-Emma, Carly, Diana


Ha……………………… (will video games ever be funny?)

In regard to The Stanley Parable and video games at large, we discussed how players form attachment and gain pleasure from the tension between fate and free will. The characters are caught in between this two way pull, and so are the players: most of us agreed that having infinite options leaves us paralyzed, while more limited gameplay allows us to track our own progress, which is satisfying. We choose to sacrifice [some? all?] of our control in order to make quantifiable goals, to feel purposeful in a virtual world. We’ll “push arbitrary buttons” if we think we can eventually win.

The idea of “creativity through constraints” is nothing new.  I’m sure most of us have experienced this phenomena outside of new media — think of a class project where you’re “instructed” to “literally do anything.” (At least, more often than not this makes me feel totally lost.) So where The Stanley Parable fails to unlock any new ideas about the lack of true free will in video games, it is (or tries to be) something we haven’t seen yet: funny.

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Humor is hard, for any medium. But I think exceptionally hard for video games or any type of interaction media. Where people might play video games for a number of reasons including entertainment, people generally seek out humor purely to be entertained. How does “being entertained” change if you’re required to create some of the humor? How can game developers hard-code laughs, give space for user interaction (choice), and still guarantee that players will laugh? Maybe, I’m a critic, but I don’t think this is possible. Of course, you can never be sure how a joke will be received in any medium, but definitely not when you hand over a piece of the control to the viewer/user/player.

But The Stanley Parable has been successful: it’s sold over a million copies. And there are other “funny” games out there, too, like Aura of Power a game satirizing contemporary politics. (This game is particularly interesting because the only way you can “win” or exit the game is by losing. This gameplay aspect is supposed to mirror politics, in particular the former premier of Alberta, Canada Alison Redford–who the player plays as– after her turbulent term which ended in resignation earlier this year.)

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While these games are humorous, however, they are unlikely to induce belly laughs. But what they share is social satire. And satire is awesome! Truly, it is. But are other brands of humor possible in video games? I sure hope so.

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-Emma B.

Gimme hold of that narrative!

Narrative ambiguity is a central feature in Journey; a pro for those of us who enjoyed playing/watching the game, irritating and inconclusive for those who did not. But many of us felt connected to the character(s), sensationally aware of the setting, and personally invoked in the story–whatever we manipulated it to be. Not surprisingly, Journey’s critical response also centered on the game’s open interpretation aspect. Joel Gregory, a game reviewer for Playstation Official Magazine writes that “its [the game’s] brilliance . . . comes down to the fact that the symbolism is left open to interpretation” and describes the game as an “interactive parable” (2012).  And as Gregory notes, the interpretations of the game are infinite, but a definitive answer isn’t the point here. Rather, the game invokes the player on an intellectual level and allows (or forces, for those who didn’t find joy in it) to engage with and in many ways, complete the story by his or herself.

In class, we wondered if this type of game–one that requires intellectual reflection and analysis–might be limited in audience. Many people, it seemed, might be turned off by the mental gymnastics required of the player. And Gregory echoes these concerns, writing that “some think it’s pretentious nonsense.” But the game’s critical reception overwhelmingly suggests otherwise: Journey is currently the fastest selling game on Playstation Store to date, won multiple Game of the Year awards (in categories ranging from story to gameplay engineering), received a Grammy nomination for the score and garnered 92% approval rankings on both GameRankings and Mediacritic.

So rather than excluding segments of the typical gaming community, might Journey (and games like it) actually invite a larger audience? The gameplay is relatively simple, but as Eurogamer reviewer Christian Donlan writes, Journey creates a “sense of hardship” because of the vast unknowns in the world of the game. (This “hardship” is precisely what draws so many advanced gamers to the game; they still find payoff in the end despite the low technical demands of the game.) Games like Journey invite another class of people to the gaming table: maybe those novice gamers who still want to participate in the stimulating virtual world,  maybe those literature buffs who want something new to dissect and analyze, maybe those who feel most connected to a story when they make their own contributions to it. I suspect a bit of all three lies within many Journey players. (But to give credit where credit is due, the game developers have done the majority of the mental work for us plebian players by creating such a visually and sonically robust world.)

In a workshop on Vanderbilt’s campus this afternoon, game designer Evan Meaney cautioned the audience of the illusion of choice present in video games. In his words, games offer the viewer more choice than film (or other media forms) only by “better lying.” And this makes sense–of course a user doesn’t have full control over the game world, because the game developers have only coded so much! In terms of mechanics, Journey succumbs to this same critique. But by granting the player with narrative power, we’re gaining more control, and for Lamer Gamers like me, that’s pretty darn empowering.

-Emma Baker

Failure in Payoff in “Interactive” Media

This week, I was very intrigued by our discussion of the “doomed quest.” This idea is particularly pertinent to our reading of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” where the narrator sets out on his journey with full knowledge that even if he ‘succeeds’ (reaches the end), he will die. The fated tragedy is not unique to this story, however; in literature, the hero “loses” all the time. Sometimes they die in battle, other times they just don’t get the girl. But in literature the ending isn’t always a happy one, and readers generally accept this.

In gaming, however, the “doomed quest” takes a different form. Game players enter the game knowing that they’ll inevitably fail some levels, but can usually count on the possibility of beating the game, of being ultimately successful. But we’re less keen on starting a game if the end of the journey leads to failure. And this makes sense: why would anyone engage in gaming if there wasn’t a final payoff?

The concept of a “payoff” is also very intriguing, and I’m curious what you all more experienced gamers make of this notion. Payoff seems to take different forms in different mediums: in literature and film, the user (reader or viewer) wants to finish and understand the story. No one starts a book or watches a movie to be rewarded for their work. But in video games, there has to be something more, something that makes the user feel like the gameplay was worth his or her time.

What causes this distinction? Why do users feel like they deserve something ‘more’ out of playing a game than ingesting other media? One easy answer is that video games are more “interactive,” and thus the user feels more personally connected to the outcome of the game. But are literature or film (or any other medium) not also interactive? And looking forward, could literature and film (or painting, radio, etc.) not evoke these same feelings of attachment and need for “payoff”?

One distinction that should be made is that there are two (and possibly more) potential “failures” in any media: the user (reader/player/etc.) failing because of their interaction with the media, and the narrative ‘failing’ itself. I had initially thought that the second didn’t apply to video games, because in my amateur experience the character always wins (or, the character is fused with the user, so if the user “wins,” the character is automatically victorious). However, I found think listing, “13 Games Where the Main Character Dies.” (*Spoiler alert, obviously*) I’m interested in y’all’s thoughts on if a “payoff” still exists in games where the narrative “fails,” even if the user “wins.”

-Emma Baker

Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker 


I Feel For You Tim: Emotional Attachment in Braid

In the introduction to Half Real, Jesper Juul argues that “emotional attachment” is an essential component of video game construction. However, many critics argue that emotional attachment is largely missing from today’s popular games (Call of Duty, Halo etc.).  But emotional connection is  front-and-center in Braid. What’s more, the game offers multiple ways for the player to feel connected to the game. The world of Braid is visually stunning, musically compelling, and puzzling in the obstacles, mechanics and story; this makes space for any player to form an attachment with the game.

The story hooked me. We get snippets about Tim’s path at the beginning of each new level–his past romances, his parents, his own self-reflection–and we care about him just as we might the protagonist in a great novel. But the narrative is particularly compelling because it leaves so many questions unanswered–What big mistake did Tim make? Who is the monster? These questions can only be answered by playing and beating the game (or looking it up on Wikipedia, as I did). The story creates so much anticipation, and I enjoyed playing largely because I wanted to solve the mystery of Tim and his Princess. I was rooting for Tim. Learning the ending made me sad, made me reflect on the game, made me consider Tim and the Princess as a legitimate relationship that might exist outside of a video game. Deeply personal and delicate, this story touched on much larger themes than I would have expected from a game.

Game mechanics-wise, I echo others’ posts with my admiration. The rewind/re-do function extremely helpful for me as a new game player, and made the theme of multiple realities more concrete. Plus, players have the advantage of seeing other possible outcomes; if you don’t like where a certain path of play takes you, you can quite literally alter your own course. There is also a tension at play between fate and free will. The narrative is pre-set, obviously, and so although we can choose and re-do our path, all means lead to the same end. This element creates an even stronger bond between the player and the characters. Tim’s final loss made me question if anything he/I accomplished in the game was worth it. The game boasts time travel, magic and do-overs, but ultimately, Tim cannot win the princess back.  In fact,  one could argue that Tim’s use of all these technological advancements turned him into the monster that the Princess sees him as.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game because of how close I felt to the characters. Creator Jonathan Blow has spoken out about the importance of forming emotional and artistic attachment in video games, and I think he nailed it in Braid. I look forward to his next release!

Emma Baker