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.

Echoes, Quests, and Neekerbreeker Nests

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Among those quotes that send shivers trailing down my spine, few have had as lasting an impact as these words, spoken by the wizard Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The same lines, barely altered, appear in the wildly successful film adaptation of the novel. The raw power and beauty of Gandalf’s speech seem an inseparable part of the Lord of the Rings experience, yet not all storytelling mediums are equal where emotional attachment is concerned.

In the gaming world of Lord of the Rings Online, though the creators gave a valiant attempt at staying faithful to the book, an observant player realizes quickly that some things simply cannot transfer from page to computer screen. This fact is seen clearly in the Midgewater Marshes, a key stop in both Frodo’s quest and the player’s. While the consistent presence of physical action in the game’s rendition of the marshes engages the player’s thirst for adventure, both the novel and the film provide the audience with an enduring emotional connection, stemming from a persistent atmosphere of loneliness, a setting which highlights the plight of travelers in the marshes, and the use of central characters filled with a haunting fear of the unknown. While the memories of virtual victories eventually grow faint, the passions excited by novels and films grab hold of the audience and refuse to let go, ensuring that the magic of the stories, as well as the lessons they teach, will never fade with the passage of time.

In the game, the first item that the player notices is the convenient map residing in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen. Whenever the player doubts his sense of direction in an area akin to the Midgewater Marshes, he can simply look to the map and follow an unambiguous little arrow towards his quest’s goal. If moused over, it will even reveal how far away the goal lies. The dense fog becomes all but irrelevant, for the player’s eyes watch the arrow, not the ground before his feet.

In contrast, the novel depicts Frodo and his companions slogging through the marshy waters alone and arrowless, forever wondering where and when their dangerous travels will come to an end.  How can a gamer develop a sense of Frodo’s terror when the player can never be lost? One is never truly alone, for one can always turn to the handy arrow and make off swiftly towards home. This lack of fear and loneliness prevents the player from truly appreciating how it feels to wander the spider-infested marshes alone, despite the fact that his avatar traverses those same bogs. The action is the same, yet the feeling is vastly different. The game is forever leading you gently by the hand, while the novel and its cinematic counterpart drag you blindfolded into the gloom of the unknown.

If it is clear that the game’s helpful features bar it from evoking raw emotion, how then does the novel differ? The secret lies within Tolkien’s ability to not only relay the action, as the game does, but to relay the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters’ endless interpretations of the two. As the hobbits struggle to follow Aragorn through the bug-infested marshes, Tolkien provides the reader with a glimpse of their agony by commenting that “the hobbits [are] nearly frantic” as they hear the eerie cries of the swamp beasts, the Neekerbreekers. He describes their exceedingly unpleasant night, a sleepless one thanks to these unseen, yet not unheard monsters. This fear of the unknown permeates the Midgewater section of the novel, giving the reader a taste of how it feels to be alone and hunted in such a dismal place.

Here one discovers the true difference between the player’s avatar and the hobbits of the book. In the game, you play the part of a hero, a hunter. You blaze a trail through the marshes, destroying hordes of Neekerbreekers and taking trophies from the fallen beasts. You fear nothing, and why would you? Forever helpful, the game supplies a detailed analysis of your opponents’ strengths, even color coding them based on the probable victor of a theoretical battle.

In the novel, the likelihood of success versus defeat is not so clear. There, Frodo and his companions are not the hunters, but the cornered prey. They struggle to travel through the shadows, desperate to avoid the eyes of the Black Riders and their power-hungry master. No helpful floating names identify the whereabouts of their enemies; no color coded rings attempt to gauge their power. Thus, the reader experiences the terror of the hunted in a way that the player cannot hope to comprehend, for one medium provides an intricate world of fear and uncertainty, while the other merely depicts the action, like a rough pencil sketch devoid of color.

Like its written companion, the film is also able to draw out emotions in its audience that are beyond the scope of the online universe. While briefly touching on the fear of the hobbits, the cinematic version of the marsh scene elects to focus on the guide, Aragorn, and the pain he feels for a love left behind.  As the hobbits attempt to sleep amidst the cries of nighttime animals, the ranger softly sings the tale of an elf maiden who fell in love with a mortal, letting his voice carry through the lonely darkness of the swamp. Though his young charges do not know it, the haunting song, which ends in the maiden’s death, reflects Aragorn’s own love for the elf Arwen, as well as his fear that their love will destroy her.

Enhanced by the gloom of the surrounding marshes, the mixture of heartbreak and longing exuded by Aragorn grows to fill the audience, as well, and thus the pain of a single man becomes the pain of an entire crowd. This miracle of empathy simply cannot exist in the game world, where both written and visible emotions are brushed aside by the importance of the central adventure. Amidst the endless stream of quests to be fulfilled, the player cannot waste precious time on a woeful tale of lost love, nor a quiet song in the nighttime of the marsh. Though the powerful scene fits perfectly into the fabric of the movie, filling its viewers with both love and despair, it has no place in the realm of gaming, where emotions are a frivolity distracting from a player’s ultimate goal.

Though computer games currently lack the potential for emotional investment, this by no means suggests that the Lord of the Rings game is irrelevant to Tolkien’s fantasy world. Rather, the game was simply not engineered for the same purposes as its written and filmed counterparts. Whereas these forms of storytelling reach one’s imagination by means of the heart, the game is meant to feed on a player’s desire for adventure, entrancing one’s mind with events that are visually rather than emotionally stimulating. The online universe calls to those who desire battles and balrogs, not subtlety and suspense. The very reason the game cannot compare to the novel or film is the reason why it succeeds brilliantly in fulfilling its own purpose: to entertain, engage, and challenge its players.

While one may lament for marshes drained of their mystery or beautifully written characters depicted as static NPCs, you cannot deny that the game achieves the goal for which it was created. It brings the player into Tolkien’s world and weaves him into the story, filling him with excitement, anticipation, and a thirst for what lies ahead. Where the game falls short, where plot becomes side note and battle becomes routine, the novel and film are there to pick up the slack, adding life and color to supplement the game’s limited storytelling abilities. If the game were an outline, written in dull greys and blacks, the others would be vibrant dyes; whereas the game alone would be a poor excuse for the real story, the mixture of all three creates a tale that is beautiful to behold.

In the end, though, why does any of it matter? Whether boxed, leather-bound, or projected on a screen, are they all not just different forms of entertainment? Not quite. Though games, books, and movies all have a component of pleasure, the latter two occasionally provide a more permanent benefit. Of course, the flash of swords and the cry of an angry cave troll, whether heard or imagined, will always bring excitement. Without the thrills, who would pay for the ticket or purchase the book? Yet every once in a while, a novel or film comes along, and it does not just amuse—it teaches.

Like the words of Gandalf resonating in the reader’s mind, or Aragorn’s soft voice echoing in the darkness of the theater, the story begins to take on a life of its own, entrancing the audience with joy and fear, love and hatred. Aragorn’s pain becomes the pain of all who have ever loved; Frodo’s fear belongs to any who have ever felt afraid. When Frodo laments over his bad fortune, wishing that evil had never touched his doorstep, Gandalf’s famous next words are spoken not only to him, but to us: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Suddenly, the story is real, and the battle is our own. We feel Gandalf’s words in our very bones, and they return to us, lovingly, whenever we feel despair looming near. While the crashing excitement of adventure must always fade into silence, the softer passions of the novel remain attached to the heart like a living organism, a symbiotic being that retains life while we do the same. And long after the last pages have been turned, Tolkien’s words remain, echoing like a song in the night, growing soft, but never quite fading away.

 

–The Humblebug

Nightmare Chess and the Hall of Heroes

Though I think of myself as a ‘gamer,’ I have never played very many arcade games. My experience is limited to the Space Invaders machine at the Dave & Busters back home, and one highly unsuccessful attempt to save my cities while playing Missile Command. On the other hand, I have lots of experience with board games. From Monopoly to Nightmare Chess to backgammon to the War of the Ring, board games have been a part of my life since I was very young. And equally present there is another, very different type of game: the online games, those notorious MMOs that so many love to play to the exclusion of all else.

While both are enjoyable, they present very different experiences to their players. The first, obviously, is the real life interaction present in any board game. When you play a game of chess, or Monopoly, or any other traditional board game, you sit across the table from your opponent (s) and interact with them directly–you speak to them, watch them roll dice, and unnerve them when you study the cards you’re holding.  In addition, the vast majority of board games pit players head to head–they are competing directly against one another to win the game. In gamer vocabulary, board games are purely PvP–player versus player.

In contrast, an online game presents no inherent direct interaction. You can’t physically see anyone else who’s playing, or talk to them (with the advent of applications like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo this has changed, though). Players instead interact through their avatars–the characters they create to play in the game. Though the character represents the player in the game’s world and can interact with other avatars and the game’s environment, the avatar is not real and does not compare equally to the face-to-face interaction present in board games. Lastly, online games in general do not force players to play against each other. Even in World of Warcraft, where the conflict between the Horde and Alliance is central to both the world and storyline, players can opt not to fight other players. Most MMOs present head-to-head competition as an option through PvP servers and arenas; however players can instead choose to fight the challenges presented by the game designers in the game (and indeed must if they wish to truly experience the full game, eg. leveling up and completing endgame content). Players are also encouraged to work together through the forming of groups, guilds, and friendships to beat the game. Thus, online games are not primarily PvP focused; instead they present both PvE (player versus environment) and PvP as options for their players, with most of their content being PvE.

Furthermore, board games are almost always rules-based emergence games, where no ‘heavy’ fiction is presented to the player . Board games sometimes provide a ‘light’ fiction along with their rules, like the tycoon fantasy of Monopoly or the battle for Middle Earth presented in War of the Ring, but these are thin veneers and nowhere is the player of a board game subject to the same ‘heavy’ fiction found in online games. Board games focus instead on simple rules that nevertheless provide variations in every game played. Thus, they are emergence games. There is nothing fixed about a board game except the rules–any twists and turns, and especially the outcome of the game, are determined by the players themselves.

Online games are almost the opposite. They rely heavily on fiction, though rules are important as well, and are generally progression based. The fiction of an online game is almost certainly its most important component. The player must suspend at least some disbelief, and enter the world created by the game designers. In this world, there are quests to do, villages to save, mythical swords to forge, and worlds to conquer. But, in any online game you’ll find that there’s a certain order to these many tasks. Before you can conquer the world, you have to forge the sword, but to do that you’ll have to save the village, but before you can save the village you’ll have to do some errands for the townspeople to gain their trust. Online games present a story, a predetermined path for you to walk, and are therefore strongly fiction and progression based. You can only do the quests they allow you to do, and deviating from the storyline isn’t really possible–should the hero die halfway through, he’ll be resurrected.  If he fails the final boss fight and doesn’t destroy the evil wizard, he can always try again.  There is no emergence aspect to the PvE side of the game. The final outcome doesn’t depend on your actions or the actions of your opponent, like it does in a board game. In an online game, the story always ends the same way.

But, like a board game, an online game could not function without rules. Not only are there rules governing how a player moves about, interacts with objects, and communicates, online games restrict a player’s actions in-game. For example, in Star Wars Galaxies you cannot kill Darth Vader, and in LOTRO Gandalf is equally immortal. Killing either character would drastically change the story each game tells–and so, you cannot attack them. In both types of game, rules play an important part–for indeed, what is a game without rules?

The only real emergence aspect of an online game is its PvP side. In an arena, players learn a set of rules (eg. Movement, special attacks, etc) and play against each other. There’s no story, and though the fiction is heavier than any board game’s, it’s still lighter than the PvE aspect of the game. This is where board games and online games ‘intersect’–in the PvP arena. Here, players of both games have a similar experience in many ways, as some of the trademark characteristics of board games described above display themselves in the virtual world of the online game.

While both the board game and the online game are very different in many ways, they are both fun and enjoyable for the many players who take up their challenges. Their differences merely help to make the world of gaming the dynamic and multifaceted place it is.

So, anyone up for a game of Nightmare Chess? If not, we can always head out to the Hall of Heroes.

Dacia

PS: I totally forgot to post this on time with the math test and everything today….forgive me!! >.< I had it ready yesterday and everything. Oh well, that’s life…

Harry Potter 6 or The Lord of the Rings 1

by Theo Dentchev

Which movie is better?

Some might say that the answer is entirely subjective, and so you cannot conclusively say one is better or worse. That’s true enough, but I’m not asking, “which one do you like more.” Rather which one is objectively better? I suppose to make that kind of judgment we will need to define a set of criteria for determining which is indeed “better.” I propose we look at and compare the following four characteristics commonly used when evaluating film: coherence, intensity of effect, complexity, and originality.

Let us omit discussing complexity and simply assume that both films are sufficiently complex. That is, they both engage us on several different levels and have relatively intricate systems of relationships. Let us also omit intensity of effect, as that covers a range of subjects which are more subjective than I would like, such as how vivid or emotionally powerful the film is.

Then let us begin with coherence, or unity, which refers to how well or clearly everything is presented in a film, and if all the loose elements are tied up by the end. Now, being installations in a series, both of our films don’t conclude their stories and naturally leave certain things unaddressed (left, we assume, for the sequel to pick up on). Though we have to keep that in mind, we can still compare the way the rest of both films are structured. In The Fellowship of the Ring all of the characters and events clearly and logically relate to each other and serve a purpose. Those that don’t are either being left for the next film, or are negligible and require careful viewing to catch. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince it is more fragmented, as though not fully completed, and in a way unrelated to the fact that it is to have a sequel. There are scenes and places which, in the context of the movie, make little sense and are unclear. A striking example can be found at the end of the film, when Dumbledore is confronted by Draco Malfoy atop the astronomy tower and eventually killed by Snape. Harry is hiding in the vicinity the entire time yet does nothing until after Dumbledore is already dead. His inaction does not make any sense and is completely dissonant with his character as well as with the nature of his relationship with Dumbledore. In the book his action is explained by Dumbledore immobilizing with a spell which does not wear off until either he dies, but in the movie it is simply illogical.

That last example is a good place to bring originality into the discussion. Yes, both films are adaptations of books and as such one might be inclined to say that the films cannot be original, but even in films which have a frequently used subject, originality can be found in the way that subject is presented. Likewise both these films display originality in the way they relate the story which they are adapting. Both do depart from the text, sometimes changing minor details, sometimes going so far as to omit entire portions of the book. However, the changes and omissions that are made in The Fellowship of the Ring are done so that the viewer is able to more easily and quickly understand the plot, as superfluous characters and events which serve to unnecessarily complicate the plots are shorn off (such as Tom Bombadil, who never appears in the movie, and the corresponding scene in Rivendell where it is suggested that the ring be given to him). The end result is a more streamlined work that, while differing in some places from it’s source, still tells a complete story and gives the viewer all the information they need to understand and appreciate it within the length limitations of the film meidum. In contrast, Harry Potter omits vital scenes (such as several memories of a young Tom Riddle which offer insight into his character’s motivations and also give more information about the horcruxes), while adding completely irrelevant scenes which do do nothing for the story other than complicate it (such as the burning of the Burrow, which never happens in the book and which goes on to appear again in the seventh book). The end result is that those who are not familiar with the source text will find it difficult to understand everything. While undoubtedly both have elements of originality, just being original without a purpose has no worth. The Lord of the Rings is original in a way which has a clear purpose and achieves the desired effect, while the originality of Harry Potter is haphazard and only undermines the film.

From those two respects The Fellowship of the Ring emerges as the “better” of the two films. Having not covered half of the criteria I suggested in the first paragraph, I could certainly see someone making an argument that Harry Potter is more complex or has greater intensity of effect to the extent that it makes up for its deficiencies in the other areas. Such an argument would have to be very convincing, and I myself am rather skeptical as to the possibility of such an argument existing. But maybe that is just my personal bias, and regardless of what objective judgments we might render, in the end they likely won’t be the determining factor in which film you enjoy more.

-TD

The Fellowship of the Ring vs. Pan’s Labyrinth

Both of these movies are fantasy films, made by two of the best directors of our day–and even now, they are collaborating together to put J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit onto the silver screen. Here I’d like to compare two of their finest movies–Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film about a young girl living during the reign of Francisco Franco in Spain, and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in the moving picture translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.

First of all, there are many, many differences on the surface of each of these movies. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1940’s Spain, and in it historical events as well as magical ones occur. The audience knows the places, recognizes the medical techniques, and may know the language spoken by those in the film–Spanish. The Fellowship of the Ring, on the other hand, takes place in Middle Earth, where there is an entirely new set of places, events, languages, and technology (or lack thereof) to deal with. Plots for the two films are comparable, however, though still dissimilar in many ways. The Fellowship follows the journey of nine different people, many of whom are from different species, to destroy the One Ring and save their homes, families, people, and countries from falling to the forces of Sauron, the quintessential evil would-be conqueror. Pan’s Labyrinth follows the journey of one small girl as she attempts to complete the three tasks that will let her join her mother and father, and reclaim her place as Princess of the Underground Realm . However, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether or not Ofelia, the main character of Pan’s Labyrinth, is really interacting with faeries and fauns and the Pale Man, or if she is escaping her tormented life into a no less terrible, but at least alternate, fantasy world.

Each movie delivers a different message as well. Del Toro, through Ofelia’s journey and its (possibly) tragic ending, asks the audience **if** they believe her. Captain Vidal, her stepfather, cannot see the Faun, but Ofelia can. And if her mother dies when the mandrake is removed, well, do we know for sure that the mandrake was even the cure? After all, they are more renowned for their deadly screams than the healing properties the Faun tells Ofelia of. In addition, Ofelia faces trials that are vivid, dangerous, and downright revolting–trials that we wouldn’t like to dismiss as merely imagination. Everything that happens to Ofelia we see, and yet, in the end, her fate is up to us. Did she die “for real?” Or did she merely move on to the Underground Realm, to rejoin the family she left behind? While at the same time making important statements on the nature of escapism and the fantasy inherent in not only Ofelia’s mind, but the dream of the rebels, Pan’s Labyrinth asks if you believe Ofelia. There is no asking “please,” nor compromising–either what she saw and did was real, or it only existed in her mind.

The Fellowship of the Ring, on the other hand, does not ask the same question of belief that Pan’s Labyrinth does. Far from taking place in our world, where such questions can impact the audience profoundly, Fellowship takes place in an entirely different world, and so belief that the events depicted in the movie happened is not the question. Instead Fellowship asks you to believe in the characters, and in how they reflect the weaknesses and strengths, the longings and the desires and the deeds of men in this world. Boromir has many weaknesses, but also many strengths, while Frodo and Sam make sacrifices aplenty when they leave the only home they’ve ever known so that they can save it. You feel the bravery of the Hobbits when Pippin and Merry distract the Orcs so that Frodo can escape, and you cheer when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas undertake the perilous journey to rescue them. Through these characters and their commitment to destroying the ring, despite their differences and flaws, you are asked to believe in the power of good–that, though the Free Peoples whine and argue, they can band together and fight the evil trying to conquer and enslave them, and not only fight but emerge from the battle victorious.

Though both films are clearly of the fantasy genre, they cover very different ground with their stories and their characters. Ofelia’s story is a small one, that, if it happened, would go unnoticed by everyone, while Frodo’s tale is epic in scale and affected every single being that lived in Middle Earth. But both the Fellowship of the Ring and Pan’s Labyrinth ask the audience to involve themselves in some way in the story being told–to know Boromir’s pain and Frodo’s quite strength, and see them in the world you live in, or to simply believe Ofelia’s tale of magic. Both, however, are amazingly good movies, and are a testament to the excellence that fantasy films can achieve.

Signing  off!

Dacia