Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

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You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?

-Tom

Braid, WHY YOU (sic) SO HARD!

I must admit, I don’t play online games very much. The last time I played a “legitimate downloadable game was when I was about 13- a game based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Other than that, my extent on gaming are mostly non-fictitious gaming titles, such as the Madden NFL Series. However, I have delved into the world of Halo when I used to play Halo Wars quite often. This game seemed noticeably different right from the start. Fairly quickly, you can tell that there is going to be a puzzle/strategic objective to the game when you find that your main objective is to collect puzzle pieces. Furthermore, once noticed that it’s a puzzle of usual means (putting actual pieces together), you’ll also eventually notice that there are quips here and there that add to the complexity of the game. Being used to just pressing X, Y, A, or B- having to deal with rewinding the game in ORDER to successfully complete each task was certainly not an easy task. In fact, I found that to be one of the more challenging aspects of Braid.

In being such a difficult game, my mind wandered to an academic write-up by Jesper Juul on the topic of what indeed makes up a game. Specifically, I thought of  the part referring to this idea of pleasure versus challenge. What is an appropriate ratio of pleasure, or- in better terms, level of easiness, accessibility and challenge. I mean, I would want a game to be challenging so that there is some worthwhile experience while paying the game, but making one so hard that it, again- at least for me, seemed nearly impossible to complete? That just didn’t seem sensible. Juul wrote, “Playing a game is an activity of improving skills in order to overcome these challenges, and playing a game is therefore fundamentally a learning experience.” I don’t mean to barrage you with quotes are academic jargon, but Juul went on to say that gaming is also a progression. Essentially, a game is needs to be challenging, yes, but not so that there can be no progression, no learning.

I will say that even if you are not an experienced gamer like I am, you may be able to tell that the narrative seems a bit grey. I mean, it’s basically the premise of almost every fantastical game in the history of the world. That is, a man trying to save a princess. You’ll notice there’s more to that- but I won’t give anything away.

Overall, I’m glad this was one of the first games I’ve played, as I’ve appreciated the level of difficulty of how some games could be- something that I think Juuls would appreciate as well.

 

 

 

 

Romance and The Hero’s Journey In Ready Player One

By: Sparling Wilson

In Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces, he outlines the stages of the hero’s journey. Of these elements, he does not fail to mention romance, which he calls the “Meeting With The Temptress”. Campbell explains that in traditional stories of the heroic kind, romantic encounters serve as a kind of sidetrack or distraction for the hero from his journey. In the sense of accomplishing his mission, these encounters are definitely seen as negative. Ready Player One reflects this view in its portrayal of romantic relationships within the novel.

A comical and salient parody of Campbell's model for the hero's journey.
A comical and salient parody of Campbell’s model for the hero’s journey.

In many young adult novels, one can expect to find romance to be at least a part of the story. In the age of young adult novels that center their plots on romance, but combine their genres (so they are more like YA + dystopia, YA+ paranormal activity), it is strange, but also refreshing, to see a novel take a more classical approach to romance. Ready Player One steps away from the modern notions of romance in novels (hello, Twilight) and moves back towards a more classical approach towards this topic in terms of the hero’s journey. As we talked about it class, yes this novel contains romance, but the whole plot does not center itself on pursuing a relationship or finding love in the midst of dystopia. Like more classical hero’s journeys stories, such as The Iliad or The Odyssey, Ready Player One includes romance as a part of the journey, but does not make it the purpose of the journey.

The basic plot of Twilight and other current YA literature. Also, let it be known that this photo was entitled, "Who Is The Hottest", which I think is very telling of the genre.
The basic plot of Twilight and other current YA literature. Also, let it be known that this photo was entitled, “Who Is The Hottest”, which I think is very telling of the genre.

In fact, the story really emphasizes the classical view of romance in stories of this kind by making Art3mis be the protagonist’s “femme fatale”, if you will. The author literally brings this point forward by having Wade confess his love to Art3mis at a club called the “Neo Noir”. I found that point to be very funny in a film-geek kind of way. In noir, the femme fatale was the love interest of the protagonist that lead him to ruin, and the author makes it clear that Wade’s obsession with her is doing just that (at least in terms of his standing in the competition). Anyway, this reference makes a really salient point that while there is romance, the author does not take a positive stance towards it. Perhaps things will shape up positively for Wade in the end, but so far the author is placing romance purely in a classical view. Ar3timis is the “temptress”, if you will, that puts our hero off of his course.

To me, it is refreshing to see a lovesick teen in a dystopian hero’s journey not have the girl fall right into his lap. I love that in this modern, YA novel, being a borderline stalker does not reward the character. Also, I applaud the author at realizing there are so many interesting aspects to this universe that need exploring rather than just Wade and Ar3mis’s relationship, as well as his clear understanding of the proper structure of literature. You go, Ernest Cline.

Kill Me Later

By A.A. BENJAMIN

 

Braid seems like it was made by some guy who was slighted by love and needed a place to vent.

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And…I like that. The idea of a forgiving game creates a zone of warmth and comfort that propels game exploration. Braid is an escape and an innovative game style that has the potential to inspire other games to step out of the stoic guns-bared emotionless realm and into the hearts and minds of our everyday life. After all, game making is art. Just as the writer can lament in her journal, and the painter can brood in an attic and let his heart bleed paint, so should a game maker be able to get his heart broken and then construct a platform game that makes him feel good.

Aside from my judgmental assumptions, there is more magic in this game than the narrative. The creators not only say, “to hell with un-forgiveness” but take it a step further to say “you must make mistakes to win this game.” The gamer must take the stick out of their butt and do it again, and again, and again until they figure it out, or until they so-called “cheat,” snatching that magic key and rewinding themselves to victory. This piece of fictional media opens up our minds to the different realities of life, just as every good piece of fiction should. I read an article once that challenged the idea of multiple lives and checkpoints in video games. The writer wanted to know what would happen if games became more realistic and eliminated the multiple lives syndrome that desensitized us to death.

 Well, Braid does that by going in the complete opposite direction (pun intended). Because like humans the main character continues to live only because he never died. He escapes death and failure only because, like humans, he is able to adapt and learn from mistakes.

My favorite part about this game is the integration of this method into actual gameplay, rather than just a cool “perk” of the game. I was delighted every time I faced a boss and found out that I could not manipulate him in my time-turning shenanigans. It forced me to dissect the pieces of my in-game reality and use what I could manipulate to win (maybe that sounds a little bit scarier than I intended, but, maybe I’m manipulative?) I did not, in fact, beat the game. However, challenges such as these make me feel that I can go back and play again at least a couple more times without the experience being one-noted. I can make different mistakes if I choose, I can accelerate the success of my strategies, and, I can make Tim dance back and forth and remix the music if I so well please.

Is borrowing content necessary for artistic innovation?

In class this past Thursday, we had a very interesting discussion on copyright laws and how they frequently limit creativity rather than encourage it. In our reading of T.L. Taylor’s Whose Game Is This Anyway? we looked at how the community of people who participate in a video game often play just as big of a role in the creation of the game’s culture and identity as the game designers themselves. Through the players’ and fans’ reapproriation of the game’s artifacts into things like fanfiction, they are building this culture. I even have a friend who got fairly well-known by recording vocal covers of popular video game songs.

While the idea of content ownership in gaming is really fascinating, I find myself more interested in how incredibly intrinsic the idea of borrowing and building upon others’ work has been in shaping the course of music history, as this is an area about which I know much more. We talked about music and sampling a bit in class, but I think it’s important to look at again, especially a few of the most seminal examples, as this is generally how entire new genres begin to form.

One of the first and best examples of how this borrowing of previous work has allowed creativity is in the 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.


The song began when someone was playing another 1979 song by the funk & disco band Chic called “Good Times”. One of the members of the Gang began rapping over this bass line, and a hit was born. Not long after, rap and hip hop began to emerge as a dominant force in music, with a huge amount of the beats from this era produced via old vinyl records of funk artists.

Later, in the mid-90s, a lesser-known but similarly seminal work was spawned by producer DJ Shadow that went on to influence the creation new genres and styles. His album, Endtroducing…, is an instrumental hip-hop album created entirely by samples.


This album not only borrowed from its predecessors’ works, but was entirely composed of them. It managed to create something new and inspire more to produce their own sample-based music. Another similarly influential and innovative sample-based work was The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, released in 2000.

Said to contain over 3,500 samples, drawing from 1960s and 70s disco and pop music to just about any other genre, the album built its own narrative while also pushing the limits of what sample-based music can accomplish. They were able to take the works of their predecessors and take sampling in an entirely new direction outside of hip-hop, paving the way for later pop music to dig into its musical ancestry for inspiration. In the past few years especially, we’ve seen a huge number of artists become popular through remixes and mashups who later go on to make their own original pieces. Electronic producer Shlohmo is a good example of this.

So while of course it’s necessary to allow an artist to retain the rights to their own music, it’s important to understand that innovation typically does not and arguably cannot come from nowhere. Artists necessarily do not and cannot work outside of historical context, so in many ways, this borrowing is incredibly important — if not necessary — to the evolution of an art form.

– Logan W

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…

Bored of the Board?

One vivid memory I have of my childhood is spending countless hours playing Star Fox 64 or Super Mario 64 on my Nintendo 64 game console, which was the first console I ever owned. That’s not to say I was a video game fanatic, however. Often times when I would invite friends over, I would suggest a game of checkers or chess, though I would often be met with the same answer of, “No, let’s play Nintendo; chess (or checkers) is boring!”

Oh how crestfallen my grade-school self would be! After spending so much time practicing against my dad on board games to try and get “good” at them (whatever that term means for a young kid), rarely would I get the chance to match my wits against my friends’ in those arenas. Looking back with the knowledge I have now, the obvious reason of video games being the hip, new thing still resounds. However, I now also see the difference in the mechanics of both styles of games, and therefore why the video games were so appealing: The idea of a progressive story line rather than just thinking of how to manipulate, work around, or work against rules was a huge pull on young kids who are in a prime age for absorbing all sorts of new stories in fantastical realms.

All games have rules, regardless of the impact the rules have on the game. In some games, like chess, the rules are just as important to defeat as your opponent is in that your skill at navigating through or around the rules usually dictates your success. However with the more progressive (games based more on an evolutionary track of skills, story, or both) orientation, the rules may just be guidelines rather than direct opposition. For instance, in Final Fantasy games, there is no ability to jump, a seemingly effortless action compared to everything else going on. With this “rule” of no jumping, the player is limited in his or her movement. However, rarely deters someone who wants to play the game; the advancement in the game overcomes the restrictions set by the rules. In comparison, if a player is upset with the sole option of diagonal movement in checkers, he or she is much more likely to quit playing due to the larger role of the rules in the game’s core conflict.

I am a video game fan, and have been since my Nintendo 64. However, I will also always enjoy a good game of checkers or chess. To those people who think board games are boring due to their lesser depth or progression, I would simply tell them to rethink how you they view the rules. They are not just a constraint, but a challenge, obstacle, even an opponent. They are called “games” rather than “chores” or “puzzles” for a reason; they have conflict, they have invested interest from those playing, and losing is not any more fun or acceptable in their mediums. The next time anyone uses the term “gamer,” rethink – is the term really being used all inclusively?

-AlecSJ