Story of Suspense: Adapting Witness for Prosecution in an interactive medium

Group Eight

We all love Agatha Christie’s Witness for Prosecution. While it has any graphic scenes of violence, the chill down the spine after exploring the twisty, well-conceived plot will not likely be cast away shortly in our memories. Thus, we are interested in improving the story’s plots, especially in making them more interactive.

Considering all the alternatives, we decided to remediate the story into a text-based video game using Twine. As a story belonging to the detective genre, Witness for Prosecution places greater emphasis on a persistent plot rather than “slowing down” to provide the readers a close-up of specific scenes. In other words, progression plays a great part in the detective story. A text-based game is thus most suitable since it has greater focus on the procedural aspects of the gaming experience. Furthermore, it retains some level of fidelity, and even achieves some sort of homage, to the original work, since its main medium is still textual.

While the original story can be roughly divided into three scenes, we decide to focus on the scene where the lawyer meets the “old woman”, which is the climax of the story. Many aspects of the scene provide an atmosphere of suspense. Taking place in a poor neighborhood where the lawyer would generally not frequent, it gives an unusual setting, conveying the unsettledness the lawyer would feel in an unfamiliar atmosphere. The woman’s peculiar language and erratic behaviors also add to the suspense, as we are made to wonder why she would do such things. Since we do not have a lot of time, we focus on it to yield a quality we would be most satisfied with. We also set the lawyer to be the playable character. In an ideal condition, we would like to remediate all three scenes of the story and have both the lawyer and the woman as playable characters.

First, we identify the main “conflict” in the story to be between the lawyer and the woman. The woman, marking herself in disguise as a much older woman, tries to make the lawyer accept the forged evidence she provides. The lawyer, on the other hand, is obsessed with finding the “truth” behind his client (the suspect), so that he can rest the case well. We remediate such conflicts in our rules. Clues possible to debunk the woman’s lies are hidden in the game, and the player should try the best in discovering as many of them as possible. When the player discovers a clue, a message—starting with “Evidence Received”—would notify such a partial success. With enough evidence, the player can unlock either a good end (clues gathered to show the woman is lying) or a bad end (fooled by the woman’s plots).

Our original draft sticks mostly to the original plot of the story. However, the original story does not give much “clues” to imply how the woman is lying, so we have to take a bit of creative license. A specific clue we considered was in the style of handwriting. We looked into how, according to the writer’s personal preferences, some letters could still look similar despite attempts of forgery. In general, we expand the number of clues by creating more small details the player can pick up. The player can choose to examine the bed, table, and some of the woman’s personal belongings.

Besides focusing on diversifying the clues, we have also enriched the plots to provide much more options than the story’s linear narrative. Freedom of choice is something we try to strengthen in the gameplay’s rules. Particularly, we give the player the possibilities of saying different things. For example, when inquiring from the housekeeper where the old woman lives, the player could choose to be either nice or rude to the housekeeper (the former earns the player one of the clues). The ending is also no longer a binary opposition of finding or not finding enough evidence, but more complex scenarios besides whether the lawyer succeeds/fails in his job. For example, the lawyer could gather enough clues but still receive a “bad ending” if he chooses to ignore them with a guilty conscience or his sympathy for the woman. In such ways, we used creative means to expand the linear narratives of the original story with many branches of possibilities.

Our work goes beyond the textual form. A lot of descriptions covering the lawyer’s thoughts were given in our original plan, but they—being words in large stanzas—lack the nervous immediacy the lawyer would likely feel. To make the player feel more immersed in the game, we look into adapting hypermediacy, finding many pictures to complement the story’s background. While words require the intensive workings of your own imaginations, images give the player a much more direct sense of the surroundings. For us modern people, it might be a bit difficult to imagine the decrepit neighborhoods in a 19th Century London, but the pictures convey such historical scenes in a clear fashion. Furthermore, we apply filters to some of the photos, making their overall tones suitable for conveying a variety of emotions. We have also looked into giving the game background music for different scenes, so that they subtly convey what the lawyer feels in such situations.

We learned the process of remediating a literary artwork to the platform of a computer form in this project. We not only familiarized ourselves with software available to make a game (Trello), but also paid a lot of attention to the process of remediation between artistic platforms. Most importantly, we enjoy the possibility of expanding and adapting the story’s thrilling plots to a new media. If we were to continue on and create a full game, we would not only remediate the whole story, but also allow players to play from multiple perspectives. For example, once you complete Mr. Mayherne’s storyline and unlock the right ending, you can play as Leonard Vole and try to get away with murder. Additionally, you could play as Romaine and try to pull off the disguise. Other than more endings and choices, we also would create more detailed evidence, such as designing handwriting for each character. However, overall we are proud of how we were able to turn “Witness for the Prosecution” into an interactive game and enjoyed the process.

Finally, this is a link to the html file which houses Group 8’s game. To view the game, just copy and paste this link into your browser:

elizlekah.github.io 

The link to the Trailer:

Credits:

Programming and digital work: Elizabeth

Story script: Avery, Jack, Qingyang, Zhixian

Finding Photos/Music: Avery, Jack, Qingyang, Richard

Document: Avery , Zhixian

Trailer: Richard

Ozymandias Remediated

Game Design Document: Ozymandias

         Creating something new is one of the great abilities of mankind. Stories of creation are some of the oldest known to man, as they can even be traced back to the Old Testament. These stories of creation have long captured our imagination, and authors have realized this for generations. From Pygmalion, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to Shelly’s Frankenstein, people have always been enthralled by the idea of something new being made, and the consequences of such creation. However, with creation comes the consequential and often disappointing understanding that nothing built by man can last forever. The great human desire to create magnificent things, coupled with the knowledge that those inspiring creations will ultimately crumble caught the attention of our group. Thus, we turned to the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelly. This poem highlights the finite window of human creation and importance, and our group knew that it was the piece we wanted to recreate.

         The goal of our project was to remediate the poem into a first-person controlled video game environment. The first question we had to ask ourselves was what we wanted our project to encompass. We decided that we wanted to create a desert landscape with the ruins of Ozymandias laying strewn across the overworld. The other aspect that we decided on very quickly was that the centerpiece of our game was going to be a puzzle. Just as poems need to be taken apart and solved in a sense, so does a puzzle. Only when all of the pieces are seen together as a whole does one fully understand the purpose of either the poem or the puzzle.

Once these preliminary decisions were made, the tasks had to be split up between group members. Luckily for our group, we had a variety of skill sets. This allowed us to divvy up the tasks to those who would do them best and most efficiently. Creating and coding the game, writing the game design document, and making the trailer/review video became our main tasks. So we started working, and here is what became of it.

Choosing what we would create

When starting to create the game itself we needed to decide as a group what we wanted the end project to look like. The basic idea was to create a desert landscape with ruins of a great statue and other structures strewn across the visual plain. This sort of grand setting filled with the remains of an older world was the type of aesthetic our group was looking for. Once this was decided we realized that there were two different scenes we needed to create: the desert landscape and the puzzle itself.

The desert was easy to decide on because it is laid out plainly in the poem, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Having exact imagery to base our project off of made things a bit easier in terms of decision making. This wording allowed for us to decide on a simple flat landscape for our project. The textures would be made to look like sand so as to imitate our desired desert landscape. In the far background the sand appears to slope upwards to give the feeling of being in a real desert, with the end of your field of view blending into the sky to create a realistic feeling horizon. This expansive and empty feeling is taken from the line “boundless and bare” as it should feel like there may be no end to the desolate land around them. You are alone in this destroyed and empty land which should help elicit a similar feeling to the one you gain from reading the original piece.

After deciding on our setting, the first object was chosen. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert” is the first mention of physical structures in the poem. As it is the first thing the traveller talks about in the poem, we knew that the scale of these legs needed to be very large compared to everything else in our scene so that they stood out immediately to the player when they entered the game. In the poem itself Ozymandias says he is “King of Kings”. This is quite a bold statement, and signifies that the setting that we were going to create needed to be grand and on a very large scale. For this reason, our group decided to use a model of the statue of King Ramses II to depict what a statue of Ozymandias might have looked like for real. King Ramses II, along with many past leaders of great empires, loved grandiose creations, especially those created for him and in his image. 

Along with these “trunks” of King Ramses, we felt that the player would gain more from seeing what happened to the top half of the destroyed statue so that the true scale and size of the sculpture could be seen and experienced by the player of the game. In order for the size and scale to really make an impact on the player, other pieces were needed in the landscape of a size more similar to that of the player. For these objects our group chose what looked like the remains found in an archaeological site of an old egyptian/mediterranean civilization. The ruins strewn across the landscape near the statue highlights the eventual collapse of previous grandeur. In the poem, the pedestal of the statue reads, “…Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” However, now, “Nothing beside remains.” The player can see that everything here was once grand and beautiful, and yet sadly nothing beside remains are left.

The second part of our game was the puzzle aspect. This was created originally in a separate unity scene that we would incorporate into the larger desert scene later. This puzzle is a six piece 3D puzzle that when put together depicts an old illustration of what life may have looked like back in the time of the great King Ozymandias. This part of our game is in first person also, and was initially coded with a Virtual Reality control scheme so it should feel even more like a hands on exercise in a lost and forgotten world. Once the puzzle is successfully completed, a pyramid rises out of the ground as a “reward” for the player and acts as a testament to the rise and fall of different empires and civilizations, and a dramatic reading of the poem begins. As we learn from our past, we should be so lucky as to create more grand structures and creations for mankind to marvel at. It is a (hopefully) never ending cycle of creation followed by destruction. The knowledge that nothing will ever last forever should never impede our ability to create beauty. Ozymandias and our game stand as reminders to the importance of having history to look back on in the first place.

Creating the individual Objects and Puzzle

The first things that needed to be created were the puzzle pieces and sand terrain. To create these objects we needed to start with basic cube shapes. These cubes heights were decreased and textures were imported in order to give them their appearance. In this case we imported sand textures from an asset pack for Egyptian style topography. In order to make a large desert landscape, copying the same object over and over and repeatedly adding it next to each other was necessitated. The difficult part of this process was determining the correct height for each of the objects relative to one another in the game. Not only did the objects need to physically make sense next to each other, the textures needed to be applied to each of these objects in order for them to look appropriate and uniform in reference to one another.

The next set of objects that needed to be created and configured were the pyramid and sand dunes. The pyramid was a little bit more simple to create as the model is entirely made out of cubes. This set of cubes was turned into a prefab which is a function of unity that allows you to create and store properties on a multi-part object with all of its components, property values, and so on. The sand dunes were more difficult to construct because they had to be rounded into trapezoidal-esque shapes in order to resemble their real life counterparts. The modification of the initial cube shapes into these more rounded ones was done in blender by modifying the vertices on the object. Once it was put into the desired trapezoid shape,the appropriate textures were applied to the pyramid and sand dunes in a similar manner to how we did it with the puzzle pieces and original sand terrain.

The next task that needed to be accomplished was scripting the gameplay. This meant that every scene that we were going to make had to flow into one another seamlessly. The script that needed to be written was such that when the puzzle was completed the pyramid would emerge from the ground and the reading of the ozymandias poem would play out of the game’s audio. A puzzle panel script was developed that ensured if the pieces were placed in the correct position on the panel, the pyramid would appear. It is important to note that the script was added to the pyramid and not the puzzle because the pyramid is the object that was being affected by the completion of the puzzle. This script included trigger events that would cause certain actions to unfold on screen. In this case, the pyramid was raised out of the ground a certain magnitude in the y direction as soon as the puzzle was completed.

There is also a first person controller on the game which allows for the gameplay to feel like you are walking through the game yourself. The first person aspect allowed for a more immersive experience when exploring the ruins and desert landscape. In the puzzle portion of the game a VR system was incorporated to allow users to have a “tangible” experience with the canvas user-interface (the puzzle). Several scripts were made to allow the player to face the canvas from where the VR camera was positioned and move the camera accordingly based on the position of their gaze.

The one real issue our group ran into was the fact that we had two separate games created that had to be integrated into each other. In the end we could not get the puzzle to work in the larger first person controlled environment so we had to keep them as separate programs.

What we took away from the project

The best thing our group did was split up the workload. We realized quickly that the skills of our group members varied, and thus making each of us do equal amounts of the same work did not make sense. Naturally, we decided that giving each person individual tasks would make the process of making our game, and subsequent parts of the project, much smoother. There were three main tasks our group had to complete: the coding and creation of the game, the trailer/review video, and the creation of this game design document. Once we had this organized, the creation of the game became much easier. With two of our group members working on the hands-on coding and object creation, the rest of us were able to give outside ideas and suggestions on what we wanted in the gameplay. Also of note is that our video creation was more difficult than expected as our group did not have access to the iMovie video editing software. This, then, resulted in a manual creation of composite shots, transitions, and title cards, which is much more intensive and difficult than using the premade iMovie templates.

Throughout the semester, we have played a wide variety of games, with each game teaching us something new about the world (and worlds) of video games. Lord of the Rings Online introduced us to MMORPGs, while simultaneously offering an incredible remediation of arguably the greatest fantasy epic in recent history. Braid shows us the potential for video games to serve as symbols and metaphors for our humanity and our flaws therin. Papers, Please exemplifies the concept of procedural rhetoric by plunging the player into a world where morality is defined by laws of authority. Gone Home illustrates the lush storytelling power and potential of video games, and Portal combines many of these elements in an argument against the growth of human dependence on technology. However, despite the vast differences found in these games, they all have one thing in common that was impossible for us to ignore: they were all made by someone else.Creating Ozymandias gave us the unique opportunity to create something of our own. Although none of us thought it would be easy to create a video game, we naturally feel a newfound sense of respect towards professional game creators and of pride in our creation. This assignment gave each of us invaluable insight into the challenges and (sometimes) consequent triumphs of game making. Whether we were on the creative side of development or the programming side, we each now have a much greater understanding of and appreciation for game design, and we are excited about our future endeavors in the exciting and ever-changing world of video games.

Game Trailer:

Credits:

Game Development: Max Beck, Justin Yu

Game Design Document: Joseph Finkelstein, Peter Taylor (additional)

Trailer/Review Video: Alex Leroux, Pat Demarco

Audiovisual recording: Peter Taylor

Trello Board Operation: Peter Taylor

Video Games: Making Fools of Us All

A video game’s first job is to fool its players. We have talked at length about how games have their rules and procedures for players to follow. What we have not discussed is how these rules can differ completely from our reality, yet we are made to believe these rules are real and important. In my fiction writing class we learned the same thing, just in a different medium: the more a fiction deviates from reality, the more novel truths the creator must convince their audience to accept. A world unique from ours still needs to be a sensible one. If the creators fail to make us believe in their world, the game fails, but if it succeeds…well, we as players get to enjoy a whole new reality.

Few games have been as exemplary of this as Thomas Was Alone. Upon starting, the rules of this world are simple: you are a red rectangle by the name of Thomas, moving up and to the right to reach the next level. That is the core game structure; you take control of various rectangles and get them from one side of the screen to the other, dodging obstacles along the way. This world is easy enough to accept, but the creator, Mike Bithell, throws in an extra rule: these rectangles are self-aware with their own personalities.

Thomas Was Alone Trailer

On the surface, these rectangles differ by no more than their color, shape, and jumping ability, but through these differences the creator spins a story in which these attributes shape how the characters interact with the world and each other. In this long journey from one side of the screen to the other, they learn what makes them unique, what their life purpose is, and even how to love one another. Yes, that’s right. One of Bithell’s rules is that these rectangles can fall in love, thus we see a short, cynical square named Chris fall deeply in love with the thin, horizontal Laura who lets him jump higher than ever.

Chris (bottom left) and Laura (upper right) getting ever closer

The craziest thing about this? It works! Bithell convinces us that rectangles are ready and willing to take on these human attributes through brilliant storytelling and character development. Of course, this could have all been much easier with humans, or maybe even some talking animals, anthropomorphizing familiar objects to bring the rules that much closer to reality, but no. In this world we are taught to invest in and empathize with shapes.

Claire (bottom) saving John (left) and Thomas (right) in proper superhero fashion

Now why does it matter that we believe in rectangles that eventually sacrifice themselves to offer others their freedom? Bithell had a perfectly fine game full of problem-solving and coordination, so why don’t the rules stop there? To answer my own question with another, what’s the point of moving a rectangle across a screen? This is not Tetris or Mahjong, other rectangle-based games with high scores as the goal. In fact, there is no quantitative value for actions beyond making it to the next level (and collecting the occasional floating square for an achievement). The value lies within the story. With each level, you learn a little more about the world you are jumping around in, and the partners you are jumping around with. If Bithell failed to make you believe there is value in this, you likely would not be playing.

By tricking us into believing that this two-dimensional world is one with a rich history and dynamic characters, Bithell leaves you with values to bring back into this mundane world. He teaches you what it means to be a friend. He teaches you the value in serving a higher purpose. And more relevant than ever, he teaches you that we are never truly alone. With lessons like these, who cares that you had to be tricked to learn them?

The Last of Us: Pushing the boundary between cinema and video games

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WARNING!!! This post contains heavy spoilers for Last of Us part 1 and 2…

I recommend watching all of the clips in this blog post to get a better sense of what I am discussing, but they do include a heavy use of language and violence which might disturb some people.

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WOW! The Last of Us has to be one of the most remarkable game series I have ever played. With the release of The Last of Us Part II this year, my mind was absolutely blown. This series redefined the line that separates a game from a movie. Now I know that’s a very bold statement to make, so here is some background for those of you who don’t know the game:

The Last of Us was released in 2013 by the video game developers Naughty Dog who were previously known for their games Uncharted and Jax, which told these grandiose stories of adventure. The Last of Us follows Joel, a father from Texas who is impacted along with the rest of the world by an outbreak of a virus that turns people into these zombie-like creatures called “infected.” The opening is this devastating scene where we see Joel trying to escape with his daughter, who is fatally shot by a soldier who is given orders to shoot them since they might be infected. This heartbreaking scene ends, and the title card cues just like a movie. Already with this 20-minute long opening scene, the player is shown something that was so unique and never seen before in a video game. The graphics are beautiful, the music is powerful, and the emotions and despair in these characters can be felt by the player.

A screenshot taken in a cutscene from the first game

The whole game plays like a movie, and throughout, the player witnesses more moving moments as the characters develop and change along the seasons (separates the four acts of the story). There is a lot to the plot, so I obviously can’t talk about all of it, but the main idea is that Joel is sent to deliver this girl (Ellie), who might be a possible cure to the virus to the fireflies (a group trying to find a cure) who are stationed across the country in Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie begin to bond as the seasons change, and Joel begins to see Ellie as the daughter he lost. Then after many heartbreaking and heartwarming events, the game reaches its final scene.

This is the last act of the first game in the series

This last scene left players with so many emotions and wanting MORE. The Last of Us instantly became critically acclaimed, won multiple Game of the Year awards, became one of the best-selling video games of all time, AND is often referred to as one of the greatest video games ever made… Now that’s a lot…

I mainly have not talked about gameplay so far in this post, and that’s because this game is unique in that I don’t think the gameplay is as essential or revolutionary (still an exceptional achievement in the game) in the effect that the game leaves on the player. This leads me to the primary point of this blog.

The Last of Us plays like a movie, which is what makes the game so powerful to watch and play. This game redefined what it means to be a video game and moved past the importance of gameplay and focuses primarily on the artwork, cinematography, voice acting, and everything else, which makes a movie come together. This game alone introduced a whole new genre of games that goes beyond the typical gameplay formats and focuses mainly on the story and cinematic experiences. Since the release of The Last of Us, many games have followed this design and you even have games like God of War (2018) which changed genres and follows The Last of Us’ storytelling format. All of this has further pushed the question of when does a video game become analogous to a movie.

Then along came The Last of Us Part II…

With a least six years in the making and a budget of around 100 million dollars, The Last of Us Part II pushes this boundary to the next level.

To get an idea of this budget and the team that went into making this game a reality, it cost as much to make movies like 1917, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Deadpool 2. Like 1918 and The Wolf of Wall Street, which grossed over 300 million dollars in their box office runs, The Last of Us Part II broke records of being the fasting selling PS4 exclusive by selling over 4 million copies in its first week. Assuming that every copy was a standard edition game valued at 60 dollars (which is inaccurate since there are limited editions ranging up to 300 dollars), the game made over 240,000,000 million dollars in its first week of launch.

Aside from the numbers, every scene in this game is beautifully crafted and brought to life with the intricate level of detail in the artwork, character expression, and the soundtrack. The landscapes and cinematography displayed in this game rival films and even surpass them knowing that it is all digitally created through lines of code. On top of that, the story is this harrowing and captivating tale of revenge and retribution where, as the player, you question every decision you are forced to make as your character until, at the end, you are left with nothing. These dark and gritty moments are contrasted with relaxing scenes that give you a sense of ease until being thrown back into a ruthless, unforgiving world.

A scene in the game where Ellie plays an acoustic rendition of “Take on Me”

Unfortunately, I can’t write out the entire plot the the game since it is over 20 hours of content, but here is the last scene to get a better understanding of the story and meaning that this game paints for the audience.

Gameplay and cutscenes from the last act in the second game

Even without any context of the game, this final scene alone shows the emotions and struggles that the characters face. It also demonstrates the game’s wide range of locations and scenery, just like a movie. With all of these components that have now been laid out, what makes this game different than a movie? In my opinion, nothing. Of course, it is a little different since the story is over 20 hours long and still follows most game designs in that you interact and move the character outside of cutscenes. Other than this, The Last of Us Part I and Part II are no different than a movie you would see in theaters. Both forms of media lay out masterfully crafted stories with real life applications, character development that allows the audience to empathize for the fate of these characters, and cinematography that paints these magnificent portraits that place us in the world that the story revolves around.

Just as The Last of Us Part I was a perfect ending to the PS3, The Last of Us Part II is the perfect end to the generation of the PS4. These games have opened up the doors for future games to choose to transcend the traditional format of quests/missions and instead become a complement to the art of films.

The Effects of Going Free to Play: A Case Study

Free to play; it’s a fairly simple concept. Take your phone, PC, or console, load up its respective game/app store, download, and play! Hundreds of millions of people play free games, as no direct payment is required to play (other than the expensive device, of course).

But what about pay to play games?

The number of people playing these kinds of games are lower since a direct payment is required (on top of that expensive device…yikes!) Many people can’t afford or aren’t willing to shell out that extra cash for a game, which could amount to $70-$80, leaving Ashley Hemenway’s “casual gamer” behind.

My Credit Card Balance After Steam Sales

Clearly, there are two distinct communities that make up most of the free/pay to play games. The dedicated gamers might be found in both communities, but not vice versa. This split creates two different ways games are marketed and consumed, which should mean that these communities won’t interact with each other.

At this thought I came to multiple questions that have even more answers: What happens when a pay to play game goes free to play? How is the community affected? How is monetization affected? WHAT HAPPENS?!?!?

Surprise! I can tell you, as I have been a part of this community and monetary shift… twice now. Combined, I have over 1300 hours spent on these games, and I still play both to this day. Destiny 2 and Rocket League are two of my favorite video games, period. The former is a lore-filled, immersive experience and the latter is a thrilling twist on the classic sport of soccer (or football, however you say it.) 

Before I dive into the effects of going free to play on these games, I want to give a clearer definition of free to play and pay to play. All free to play games are either games that have advertisements littered throughout or are “freemium” games: a free download, but progress can be made by paying for in-game currency. Some games are truly free to play, but they offer premium cosmetics, i.e. Fortnite. Pay to play games have an asking price, but many also offer premium cosmetics as well.

Alright, let’s start with Destiny 2.

Taken from GameSpot

Destiny 2 released at $60, a standard price for a AAA title, and was developed by Bungie and Activision. In-game currency could be purchased to buy cosmetic items, and expansion packs were released at premium prices for fresh and novel in-game content. Riding the wave of popularity that its predecessor had, Destiny 2 sales were off the charts. Bungie and Activision never gave specific numbers, but more units of Destiny 2 were sold in its first year compared to its predecessor (sold from 2014-2017). In 2018, a third-party site, DestinyTracker, logged roughly 8 million users on Destiny 2, and roughly 600K played daily. In short, it was one of the biggest games in the gaming industry, competing with the likes of Call of Duty.

On October 1st, 2019, Destiny 2 became free to play. What happened to the numbers? The culture? Were casual gamers introduced into the fiercer side of gaming?

On October 4th of this year, a little over 1 year after becoming free to play, DestinyTracker logged roughly over 20.6 million players with 1.4 million active players online. That’s around 2.4 New York Cities registered as a player, and 1/8 of New York City actively playing. Holy smokes. Unfortunately for Bungie, they made no money directly from adding millions of players, but they exposed the new players to the cosmetics and the expansion packs. In 2019, these same cosmetics and expansion packs earned Bungie a whopping $300 million, with only a ¼ of the year including the “free to play version” of Destiny 2. The numbers for 2020 haven’t been released yet, but with the release of 2 expansion packs and an overhaul of the microtransaction shop, we can expect to see that number go up.

There’s something else besides numbers that are extremely important: the community. The Destiny community has been around since 2014, and it’s even stronger now. Of course, adding players will directly increase the number of avid community members. We can even assume that some casual gamers were exposed to Destiny 2 and became a part of the Destiny and gaming community. Content creators became more popular, as twitch streamers and YouTubers alike saw their view and subscriber counts soar. Hackers in the PvP mode became more prevalent. Puzzles and mysteries in the game that rewarded rare items became a team effort of millions. Overall, going free to play created a buzz around the game that hadn’t been felt before, and the sheer exposure Destiny 2 garnered will ingrain itself in popular and gaming culture alike.

Picture of a Number Puzzle that Took Multiple Days to Solve by Hundreds of People

Now, to Rocket League.

Courtesy of Epic Games

This game is the most sports-like game I know. It’s a riveting 3-on-3 soccer match with cars, lasting 5 minutes with overtime (if necessary). Rocket League was released in July of 2015, sold for the small price of $20. Like Destiny 2, this game offered cosmetics for a premium price. Rocket League did incredibly well for its small developing team Psyonix; it made over $110 million from sales and microtransactions in its first year and accrued over 5 million active players. These numbers would steadily increase year after year, making Rocket League a smash hit in the gaming community.

The numbers certainly are impressive, but I believe what truly drives Rocket League (pun intended) is its involvement in e-sports. As of now, Rocket League is one of the most popular e-sports in the world, competing for viewership with League of Legends and CS:GO.  In the Rocket League community, organizations like NRG, Renault Vitality, and G2 are household names, and superstars like Squishy, jstn, rizzo, turbopolsa, and fairy peak are the most known players around. They play for the world championship title in the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), which averages around 100K views each year. Each season includes its own storyline, clutch moment, and heartbreak.

The Greatest Moment in RLCS

Rocket League went free to play just short of two weeks ago on September 23rd, 2020. How will this affect its revenue and community?

I want to use Destiny 2 as a model here. Destiny 2 microtransaction sales are on the rise, and I believe Rocket League will experience the same effect, but on a lesser magnitude. However, Rocket League will certainly make up for it. There’s no doubt in my mind that most of the money will be coming from e-sports. Increased popularity will boost viewership, which will boost ticket sales for LAN events. Already, the average viewership on Twitch alone has gone up from around 30K to 60-80K. New organizations will flock to pick up the increased high-skill player base to compete in RLCS, leading to more sponsorship deals and funding. Prize pools for tournaments will become much larger. I believe that the already large e-sports scene of Rocket League will grow exponentially and surpass games like CS:GO and Rainbow Six Siege.

I haven’t even mentioned the player base. As an active player for a couple years, I normally see around 100K-200K online each day. I logged on come September 24th, a day after free to play launched, and nearly 1.1 million people were playing. That’s almost a million new players AT ONCE. Not only that, but that daily average competes with the likes of Destiny 2.  Given time, a portion of that million could become the next jstn, the next squishy, the next turbopolsa. A casual gamer now could become RLCS world champion in a couple years. Where Destiny 2 won in microtransaction/DLC sales, Rocket League will win big in the e-sports scene.

Don’t get me wrong, the growth of Destiny 2 after it went free to play was fun to watch. The community came together like never before, and, most importantly to Bungie, they made a lot of money. The Destiny franchise will go down as one of the all-time greats, facilitated by the free to play move. However, I’m even more excited to watch the growth of Rocket League. This game has the potential to amass the same player base Destiny 2 has and to grow one of the most exciting e-sports to watch. Do I know exactly what will happen with Rocket League moving forward? No, I’m speculating based on the rise of Destiny 2. But I believe that Rocket League will become a cornerstone for all gamers, casual or avid, and it will become the poster child for the e-sports scene.

After all, “This is Rocket League!”

-Alex LeRoux

Discovery and Control: How Video Games and Tabletop Games are Learning from One Another

This week, I once again found myself listening to one of Geoff Englestein’s excellent “GameTek” segments on the podcast Ludology. Geoff’s short segments cover scientific and psychological topics related to gaming, and the topic from this installment – episode 230.5 – was “Implicit vs Explicit”. Geoff’s analysis underpins a foundational struggle underlying game design, one which I feel explains many of the recent trends in the game mechanics found across both video and tabletop gaming. In case you have six minutes to spare, do go listen to Geoff’s eloquent and insightful analysis for yourself: 

Listen to Geoff’s Episode

In this brief segment, Geoff uses a case study from his historical game Versailles 1919 to describe a common tension in game design: when should designers make the systems of a game explicit for player’s to understand from the outset of play, and when should they leave parts of the system hidden such that players must learn by discovery? In his own design, Geoff wrestled with whether or not he should make the political stability of regions explicitly stated on the game board, or if he should make differences in stability expressed varying ratios of each region’s cards in the deck, the latter being an implicit way to show region’s individualities that requires repeated play to learn for oneself.

There is evidence that player’s engage in implicit learning before they can even articulate what they have learned. Geoff cites the Iowa Gambling Task, an experiment in which individuals could draw from any of four decks (each with different ratios of cards) and gained or lost money based on what they drew. Although it took forty draws before most players could articulate which decks they felt were better or worse, after only ten draws players showed stress reactions when they decided to draw from one of the bad decks. 

Geoff concludes that designers can leverage implicit information in games to reduce the cognitive load on players. He also notes how video games tend to do this well – hiding lots of information about the strengths and weaknesses of various options so that players must discover the system through play. Implicitly learned systems can likewise create a more immersive experience within the fiction of the game world by not plainly explaining their rules.

Tabletop games typically feature explicit rulebooks outlining their systems.

Nevertheless, there is a degree of control gamers can gravitate towards when rules are explicitly stated. Many board games are easier to approach competetively as a first time player than many video games, as it’s far more difficult to shortcut the learning curve of discovery than it is to efficinetly digest a rules explanation. 

As I read this part of Geoff’s analysis, I realized I saw a trend in popular gaming over the last two decades. Video games often seem to be utlilizing smaller rules systems and online communities that work to provide explicit conslidation of those systems, while new tabletop games are striving for the open-ended allure of video games, wherein systems are largely implicit and left to be discovered. 

For example, the most high-profile Kickstarter successes by board game designers in the last decade have been games like The Seventh Continent and Gloomhaven, games with massively expansive worlds and stories to be explored over repeated plays. New types of cards and challenges are unearthed as the game progresses, effectively melding the immersive discovery of video games with the tactile nature and social allure of tabletop gaming. On a personal level, I was intrigued by both of these designs when droves of reviewers called them innovative, and after trying them found myself impressed with the way in which both games put players on a constant brink of discovery, both in terms of the fictional world and gameplay mechanics.

Gloomhaven” is a massive fantasy board game, weighing almost 22 pounds and containing hundreds of hours of gameplay across branching scenarios and divergent storylines.

Conversely, one of the major genres of games to succeed in the last five years are battle royal and arcade games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty: Zombies. These games see players repeatedly playing in the same gameplay space, one which is very small by video gaming standards, and striving to improve their performance in game after gme with relatively little randomness to obstruct the player’s agency. Sound a lot like a digital implementation of a tabletop game? I think so too. Moreover, the increasing popularity of forums and write ups in video gaming communities has led to more sharing of explicit information than ever, and increasing numbers of players are flocking to these articles to find out the exact mechanisms at play behind their favorite game’s flashy graphics. In essence, video game communities are writing and sharing the rulebooks to their games, even though rulebooks are an often maligned attribute of tabletop gaming.

The original map for the hit game “Fortnite”.

I don’t foresee these trends continuing forever, but I do think they represent much needed growth from designers in both digital and analog games. Implicit and explicit systems have their place in all kinds of games, and judicious employment of each is crucial to design. As a game designer, I’m keen on identifying the strengths of various mediums, but I also love to identify where design has restricted itself based on unfounded assumptions. Why should a Skyrim fan limit their gaming to digital worlds when analog games like Gloomhaven might satisfy the same itch? Mediums should indeed play to their strengths, but all games can bring in new audiences and innovate in their respective fields by studying other game forms and rethinking hitoric assumptions.

– Dylan Kistler

The Legend of Zelda and the Silent Protagonist

Nintendo has a history with silent protagonist: Mario rarely, if ever, speaks in his games, Samus in the original Metroid games, and all the avatar characters in Fire Emblem. However, probably the most famous example of Nintendo’s love of silent protagonist is Link, the main playable character in the Legend of Zelda series.

Link as seen from Ocarina of Time promotional art

When video games were first coming into vogue, it made sense to have a main character of few words. The sound cards were only capable of making chips and chirps, and its not like the stories were so involved as to require an in-game exposition. But, as it stands now, it is increasingly more strange how Nintendo refuses to upgrade Link from a silent protagonist. The ways they have gotten around giving Link speaking roles in some of the more recent Zelda games are honestly kind of hilarious in how far they reach. In 2014’s Hyrule Warriors, all of Link’s spoken dialogue and in-battle quotes are done through a fairy named Proxi, and in 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Link is the only major character not to have voice acted lines in cutscenes.

The introduction of Proxi in Hyrule Warriors

This refusal to give Link a voice, and by extension a personality, is extremely frustrating to Legend of Zelda fans as the games gradually become more about the story and relatonships between characters. With the new Hyrule Warriors games and Breath of the Wild prequel coming out on November 20, I am curious to see how Nintendo will once again skirt around Link’s silence, especially scenes between just him and one other character.

Promotional image for the upcoming game Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Death, Taxes, and Video Games

For being one of the few things guaranteed at birth, death is a fickle thing. I am not promised how I’ll die, when I’ll die, or where I’ll die, but death is promised nonetheless. Maybe I can chalk up death’s inevitability to life being unfair, or it could be the only thing that’s fair when the credits roll on my game of life. But no matter how much I prepare for this inescapable ending, death is often unexpected. 

It took me a whole year to realize Pokemon evolution was a thing…

This (among other things) is where reality and video games differ. Yes, death is assured in video games, but it is expected at some point in my journey. Whether that is my Chewbacca crumbling into a pile of Lego limbs after losing four hearts or my Charmander fainting in battle against yet another wild Pokemon, death is a part of the contract you sign as soon as you boot up your system.

For being one of the few things guaranteed at birth, death is an unfamiliar thing… until it’s not. I knew what death was from an early age because of how innately straightforward it is; it’s the state of not living, of not being, anymore. That is obviously an oversimplification of an incredibly complex idea. But, we aren’t born with the mental capacity to understand its intricacies, and until we do, we are forced to live with this elementary concept of death. 

This is where reality and video games are similar. My mortality has and always will be easier to understand than others’. My life is finite and full of “Game Over” screens. I made tentative peace with that a while ago, whether that came in the form of turning to religion or throwing a few controllers across the room. Still, despite my internal preparation, I couldn’t wrap my head around a friend or loved one passing away.

Video games taught me to expect death, but Mass Effect broke those seemingly sacred rules. For the uninitiated, Mass Effect is the ultimate mix of a third-person, sci-fi shooter and a soap opera. In between your firefights with invading alien hordes and saving the universe from genocidal annihilation, you spend your most meaningful time convincing NPCs to join your crew aboard your equivalent of the Millenium Falcon. Over the span of three games and 200 hours, these crewmembers feel more like friends as opposed to a few megabytes in the game’s bedrock of code.

Nose goes on filling up the tank!

My favorite crewmember was Legion, an enemy robot, or Geth, that inexplicably joins your quest. Legion is a conglomerate of every Geth personality and, therefore, struggles with the concept of free will, referring to itself as “we.” Despite its steely exterior, Legion has a lovable personality, a hilariously dry sense of humor, and is always eager to help his commander. 

Throughout the trilogy, I died countless times while Legion charged through levels like a bulletproof battering ram. I was conditioned to believe Legion was invincible in the face of my own helpless mortality.

Great soldier, terrible cuddler.

Towards the end of the third game, Legion and the Geth have a chance to be freed from the chains of their code… with one catch: Legion must sacrifice itself for its race to achieve true free will. His final words before shutting down one last time are “I’m sorry. I must go.” After three games of referring to himself as “we,” Legion finally recognizes his individuality. Through tears, I reloaded the level and tried again and again and again to save Legion to no avail. Death is inevitable, no matter how many times I tried to help my friend escape it. 

My great grandma passed away later that year, and I thought I was ready. I thought I knew what death was. I tried reminding myself of my oversimplification, and that made me sick. I told myself that “she was in a better place,” but I knew I was lying to myself. I wanted to hug her once last time, or eat her homemade pie, or just hear her soft voice again. But, all I could do was cry. You can do everything right, but sometimes that’s still not enough. No matter how prepared for or familiar you are with death, the inevitable is labeled so for a reason. The most important lesson I’ve learned from gaming and life is that, after the necessary tears and mourning, I have a mission to pursue every day, whether that is saving the virtual universe or just spending time with my friends and family I am fortunate enough to still have with me today.

Pokemon Showdown: The Underground Community of Smogon University

We’ve all played a Pokemon video game before. The iconic franchise started with Pokemon Red and Green in 1996 and has since spawned eight generations of video games, a theme park in Japan, and countless Pokemon cards cherished by 8-year-olds around the globe.

Pokemon Red and Green were originally released in Japan in 1996 for the Game Boy console.

For the past 25 years, Pokemon video games have all followed the same formula:

  1. Receive a starter Pokemon.
  2. Battle other Pokemon trainers to increase the level of your Pokemon, including bosses called “Gym Leaders” along the way.
  3. Defeat the final boss, the “Champion” of the region.
  4. The End…?
Classically, every Pokemon video game starts with a battle between the player’s starter Pokemon and his or her rival’s (the in-game archnememy) level 5 starter Pokemon.

For me personally, the model has gotten stale for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Pokemon games are non-competitive; players are mostly self-contained within their own environment and the infrastructure within the game to battle other humans is mediocre at best. Secondly, the “leveling grind” to level your Pokemon to the maximum level of 100 is mind-numbingly boring. Here’s some context: a Pokemon requires approximately 1 million experience points to reach level 100. Defeating the average wild Pokemon, which takes 30 sec-1 min, will grant approximately 500 experience points…yeah. You can do the math. To many of us, these games just start to feel a little old.

I don’t know how long it took this person to get Rhydon to level 100, but it was probably too long.

Enter: Pokemon Showdown.

The days of leveling up Pokemon and defeating pre-programmed NPC’s are no more. In the span of 5 minutes, you can visit play.pokemonshowdown.com, customize a team of Pokemon by level, move set, and other traits, and then engage in battle with another user who has done the same. The Internet is truly amazing.

Gameplay of a battle with another user on Pokemon Showdown.

What impresses me so much about the Pokemon Showdown community is how creative it is. TPCI (The Pokemon Company International) created a competition circuit revolving around the official Pokemon games, but Pokemon Showdown has them beat by a landslide in popularity. Members of the Pokemon Showdown community have converged to an online forum dubbed, “Smogon University” to create their own rulesets, ban lists, and tournaments completely separate from the official Pokemon ones.

Smogon University forums: a repository of advice, competitive Pokemon battling resources, and friends.

Pokemon Showdown appeals to even casual Pokemon fans. There is a game mode named, “Random battle” where a team of Pokemon will be automatically generated for you to play against another player with a similarly random generated team. My roommate and I often take advantage of this mode during late nights, or particularly boring Zoom lectures. Further, many more artistically talented members of the community have resorted to creating their own Pokemon, complete with art, move sets, and other data given to real Pokemon. Pokemon Showdown even has a game mode called “CAP” (“Create-A-Pokemon”), made specifically for competitive battling using both real Pokemon and these fake Pokemon, something I think is really beautiful and indicative of both the community’s creative spirit and competitive drive.

“Necturna” and “Syclant” are just two examples of Pokemon that were 100% designed, balanced, and created for Pokemon Showdown. Made by the community, made for the community.

So next time you are about to switch on your Nintendo console to level another Pokemon to level 100, think again. An underground, community-generated world is available to you within just a few quick clicks of a mouse. See you on Pokemon Showdown!

Oh, and here’s a quick guide to Pokemon Showdown if you are interested:

A guide to Pokemon Showdown by a popular youtuber, “PokeaimMD”.

Rated E – Not Quite For Everyone

controllerPractice makes perfect, but do you ever wonder why some people need less practice than others? Have you ever been awful at a video game and figured, “oh well I just need to get used to it” but then you never caught on? If you never have been in this position, you can take it from me. It is very upsetting to try and try and still not be able to pick up simple moves in Super Smash Bros, or most games truthfully. For years, I have made excuses as to why I am no good at video games and now I have finally found a possible scientific reason. My brain structure may be my flaw.

The Cerebral Cortex journal posted neurological research that studies the correlation between learning ability and the size of three specific parts of the brain. The researchers took 39 healthy adults aged 18-28 years who has reported playing less than 3 hours of video games a week for the past two years. The research was to be based on their learning ability on a game called Space Fortress, developed at the University of Illinois, over a 20-hour period. These subjects were randomly split into two groups: a fixed priority group and a variable priority group.

Fixed Priority – aim to get the highest score possible

Variable Priority  – series of tasks that forces the player to improve their skills in different areas

Space Fortress
Screenshot of Space fortress from Researchgate.net

Each subject was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan to determine the size of three specific structures: the dorsal striatum (putamen and caudate nucleus), the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens), and the hippocampus. The size of each structure was recorded in comparison to the total volume of the subjects brain.

brain structures.jpeg

chart 1

The chart on the right shows that the learning curve is similar between the groups; however, the variable priority group scored 29% higher by the end of the training. This suggests that we learn better when we allow ourselves to focus on one task at a time. So maybe instead of button smashing on Super Smash Bros., I should be trying to focus on learning the moves of a specific character (but where’s the fun in that?).

 

When examining the correlation between brain structure and learning ability, the hippocampus was found to not be predictive of performance of improvement. This puts the focus on the striatum. The volumes of the dorsal striatum has a positive correlation with training induced performance improvements for those in the variable priority group. However, the fixed priority group has no relationship with the volumes of the dorsal striatum.

learning curveIn early training sessions, the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens) was positively correlated with improvements in performance, but the same relationship was not seen in later sessions.

 

The research was concluded by arguing that “preexisting variations in striatal volume can affect the rate of learning in a complex task that involves the coordination and integration of many cognitive, motor, and perceptual parameters and rules, at least when conditions of learning capitalize on flexible learning strategies.”

That was a lot of science, but basically there are two things to get out of this study (for me, the non-scientific non-gamer).

  1. The way you try to learn a game is important
  2. Some of it may be your brain structures fault

While these discoveries may give me comfort, it is obvious that while these effects may slow down the learning process, it is still possible to become skilled at a game with enough effort.

For now though, I’ll just blame my brain structure for getting kicked out of a Rainbow Six Siege round for not being able to kill a single person.