Some VR thoughts…

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

So, my last post was definitely reactionary. Though at this moment I have not went back to read over it so I’m not entirely sure what my feelings were at the time. But as for now, I have still not cancelled my DK2 preorder, and it is now July, the month when it is supposed to ship out.

My thoughts on the Facebook acquisition now go something like this: I think it’s good for VR, but ultimately bad for Oculus in the long term. Facebook is no less creepy, and I still think they will do bad things if they have access to retina or iris identifying information through a HMD. Or even if they only get gaze tracking. Facebook has not shown discipline when it comes to handling a large amount of personal and private information, so I don’t expect that pattern to reverse itself.

I am also disappointed with the way that the VR community (particularly in the oculus subreddit) has finally joined the rest of the internet in consisting primarily of entitled morons and assholes. I may be excited about the concept of VR, but I maintain a healthy skepticism about the reality of it. Oculus has a lot of challenges ahead of it.

They still don’t have a good input solution, for one. And it’s impossible to say what the level of VR that a general public will accept or consider valuable enough to overcome the dorkiness will be. Is a 1440p screen enough. Is a seated experience enough? Is a gamepad enough?

Certainly for a small audience of enthusiastic and hopeful techy people, we can put up with a device with a lot of shortcomings. I mean, we’re willing to dismiss when a device makes us physically ill, for Christ’s sake!

But we are not normal people. We are dedicated and frankly, at this point, a lot of us are crazy. We believe so strongly in an idea, that some of us can’t stand the possibility of disillusionment. We don’t want our bubbles burst.

So what is VR going to be? Not the holo deck, and not the matrix. At least not anytime soon. Instead it’s at least going to be a box you strap to your head that some people think is too heavy and too low resolution, and too expensive, and whatever else.

If that’s all it is, then it won’t succeed. But the jury is out on what Oculus will bring to the table as far as a consumer product, and what ultimately will be enough to satisfy a general public.

Even still, it’s not satisfaction that counts for mainstream success. It’s not novelty. It’s applicability. It’s utility. The average person needs to see how it is too difficult to live WITHOUT VR in order to convince them to live with it. So it needs to have practical applications that outweigh any downsides.

And there will be downsides. It will either still make people sick sometimes, or the resolution will still be impractically low, or the tracking will be a bit…unreliable. Or something. Nothing is perfect, especially when it has to be designed as a one size fits all device.

So this is all a bit ranty, as it’s quite early in the morning at this point. But I felt it would be worth while to follow up on my last post about VR with some of my later thoughts. Still haven’t even tried VR, so it’s just musing anyways.

Rooting For The Little Guy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 26, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Facebook, you probably have one, you may even use it every day. You probably kinda hate it too. Don’t feel too bad, you’re just like everyone else on Facebook. Remember when we were excited about social media? Now it has become a basic utility we use to keep in touch with each other. Nobody is excited about Facebook, just like nobody is excited about the power company.

What is it that keeps us using it then? Thumbing through our news feeds with glazed eyes and a sort of blasé attitude? Is it the dopamine release you get from seeing a new post? Is it that little squirt inside your brain’s reward center when you check a notification, only to find out that it was so-and-so’s birthday for 12 hours today and actually you just don’t care? Why are you Friends with him anyway? Randomized schedule, randomized rewards. It’s the definition of a Skinner box.

Or maybe we really do just like staying connected to people. Even if in a strange and ethereal way, maybe it’s totally good natured friendliness. If it is, you have to admit that rummaging through dozens of personal pictures of all your friends would’ve sounded pretty creepy about a decade ago. Now it’s an afternoon’s leisure activity. They posted those pictures expecting you to look at them. It’s a strange mixture of desperation and honesty.

On top of all this mostly harmless but potentially creepy windowing into our personal lives and thoughts, Facebook is building an empire. They are logging all those status updates, geotagging your pictures, and using facial recognition to find you in others. They are mining through your “private” messages to friends to find keywords that might, just might, suggest that you’d be the type of person who likes to “Eat Fresh.” You may know this, you may have come to accept it, but I guarantee that you have friends, real life people you care about, that are oblivious that they are being spied on by Facebook. Or that anyone, anywhere, can read their posts if they know their name, including the government.

“So how did it get this way?” An outside observer might ask. “Who would ever choose this dystopian nightmare?”

We were never really given that choice exactly. It happened through a long process of accretion, like water wearing away a boulder. The argument was never “Do I want a Facebook that spies on me and sells my identity or no Facebook at all,” it instead became “well, Facebook with ads is better than paying for Facebook, I guess,” and, “well, Facebook with targeted ads is better than Facebook with more ads, I guess.” If you make the damage smaller and dose it out over time, it becomes easier to accept. Frog in the pot with the heat slowly turned up. You stick around instead of running because there’s no shock.

So why does this matter? Why care? I mean, it’s just Facebook. Don’t use it if you don’t like it. (Full disclosure: I do have a Facebook, bear with me) Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Facebook has a profile for you, even if you aren’t a member. They are gathering data on you from wherever they can get it. Shadow profiles. Once you come, you can never leave, they keep your profile information indefinitely on their servers.

So all this seems pretty creepy, not exactly a “Friend” you’d want to hang around with, you know, virtually. Related or not to the creepy factor, they have been bleeding users in the past several years, particularly young ones. They’re moving on to Twitter or whatever the Next Big Thing is. So this puts Facebook, a company in the business of owning your online identity, in a bit of a bind.

The natural thing for a large company to do at this point is to start “diversifying their portfolio.” Or buying up smaller companies in order to broaden their income base. Thus far, Facebook has primarily been buying up other social media platforms. More or less trying to just own the Next Big Thing before it becomes even bigger than Facebook. It’s like MySpace buying Facebook while it still required a .edu email address.

So far that seems to have worked out fairly well for them. After two years, you still wouldn’t know Instagram was a part of Facebook unless someone told you. (I didn’t) And the strategy of not micromanaging has allowed it to continue to grow slowly. But the management style may change with time. In fact, they announced recently that they will be replacing foursquare integration in Instagram with Facebook Places, their in-house solution. So perhaps it has already changed.

All this has somehow lead up to a $2bn acquisition of Oculus. That’s right, Facebook, a company which makes a product which your Mom probably uses every day, is acquiring a hardware company. Not only that, but one that is currently targeting hardcore gamers who want to feel completely immersed in a video game. Don’t see the pattern here? Most people don’t, and Facebook’s stock dipped accordingly.

As with Instagram, Facebook has made the bargain with fans of Oculus that “they won’t change a thing.” And that’s great for VR, but probably not so great for Oculus. Because although I believe them, it’s only to a point. They won’t change anything as long as they believe that they can’t improve their profits by doing so.

Oculus is going to be huge. VR is going to be huge. There’s no avoiding it. It’s a revolution in the way that we consume media, and it has the potential to change the way we think of “reality.” And Facebook is ready to ride this wave to the top. They will be building their version of the Metaverse, the virtual world inside the real one, where we keep in touch with our old friends and loved ones.

But even though VR will stick around forever, Oculus will not continue growing forever. They will slow down. It is the nature of business to grow until the market is filled. But Facebook is a publicly traded company which answers to many disinterested investors. These people want a return on their investment, they want year-over-year growth. If the percentage growth goes down from last year, they want to know why.

Of course this is preposterous, as maintaining a solid percentage growth every year is an exponential curve, and nothing can grow exponentially forever. This is why markets bust and bubbles form. People are terrible at estimating complex non-linear equations. It’s just not something we’ve had to be good at, evolutionarily speaking. So they make bets on the future of businesses expecting the trend of the moment to continue longer than it will.

So once Oculus plateaus, or begins to plateau, or looks like it might possibly maybe be thinking about plateauing, the squeeze is on from the investors. This is the point at which Facebook gets involved in Oculus. This is when we get blue Facebook branded headsets with the “thumbs up” on it. This is when you have to implicitly sign an invasive EULA just to open the box.

This seems to be the major concern of many of Oculus’s fans, that Facebook is going to ruin Oculus. That they will need a Facebook account in order log into Oculus Share. That games will require advertisements overlaid on top of them.

This is not my concern however. That will all be happening a while after VR is officially “a thing.” So if you’re worried about that, please stop.

My concern is for my own self. My own moral integrity. It shows a lot about who you are as a person or a company by who you choose to partner with. And Facebook, regardless of how they are “planning on ruining Oculus” or not, is a company that has shown a willingness to be deceitful towards it’s users if it’s in Facebook’s best interest. They are not, in my opinion, a company that has shown moral fiber. And now Oculus is associated with them.

So what does that look like? A company with moral fiber? Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of big ones. It seems that when companies reach a certain size, they are seduced by the Dark Side, so to speak. But a few that come to mind from the gaming space are RAD Game Tools, Mojang, and until now, Oculus.

So what has changed at Oculus when they insist so deeply that “nothing has changed?” They have chosen to associate themselves with what I would consider an immoral company. And not just in a superficial way, they are literally part of that company now. Facebook and Oculus will forever be synonymous. So if I don’t trust Facebook, I don’t trust Oculus.

So why do I care? Why do I feel betrayed? Because I believed in Oculus. I thought of it like a group of friends, not just another company, even though that’s really all it was. I should’ve known better really. After they accepted Venture Capitalist money, the writing was really already on the wall. VCs are always looking for a quick buck, a ROI, a buyout.

I ordered a Developer Kit with big plans on making content and helping Oculus “change the world.” Now, I don’t want to help Facebook change anything, certainly not the world. I’d rather they just rot into the dust and go away than reshape the world in their image.

The thought of a company with shaky morals putting it’s weight behind the most significant technological and social revolution since the internet kinda turns my stomach. So it’s scary.

It was nice rooting for the little guy for a while. It was nice feeling able to trust a company like Oculus who was changing the world. Now they are part of something bigger, something scarier, and I don’t trust it one bit.

So the question is, what am I supposed to do about it? I still have my DK2 on order, but I am not sure why. I don’t know that I feel comfortable actually developing anything with it. That makes me just a consumer buying a product, and as Palmer and Nate so earnestly pleaded, “Consumers shouldn’t buy DK2, we don’t want consumers to buy DK2.”

Muck-rakers

Posted in Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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When I wrote my original thoughts about Bioshock Infinite, I was worried that I would be the only dissenting opinion among a sea of praise. A couple of weeks later, turns out my fears were pretty unfounded, and many others have joined in creating a real dialogue about the game. I’m glad to see this happening, with lots of diverse opinions and thoughts being shared. This has honestly been the best thing about Bioshock Infinite’s release; it seems to have been very thought-provoking to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion seems to have be boiled down to a question of if the game is too violent. Although the level of violence in the game is certainly a cause for concern, and arguably limits the audience of potential players. I feel as though there is a certain amount of nuance that has been lost. The game is a hodgepodge of things that just don’t fit well together, namely ultraviolent power fantasy and a strong but naive heroine with whom we empathize. There is nothing wrong with the violence, but because it is nothing new for a game to be ultra violent, and it is very new for a game to have anyone with whom we empathize, the empathy element is what most gamers will find most striking. Still, for the sake of engaging the current discussion, I will try to address the violence argument.

Jim Sterling wrote an excellent rebuttal of the desire of a player to “turn off” the combat or have alternate methods for getting through confrontations. He is absolutely right about this not really being what should be reasonably expected from a sequel to the previous Bioshocks. He is also very right about the game being “about violence,” which is a fact that anyone who is unapologetic about game storytelling can plainly see. It is impossible to tell a story about anything but violence when 90% of the story consists of blowing people’s heads off.

However, I feel like his assessment suggests that the game actually has anything interesting to say about the violence. Which, apart from some scripted violent cutscenes, it doesn’t. Nearly all of the violence in the game has absolutely nothing to do with storytelling, and is simply feedback for the mechanics. The combat sequences aren’t “about” anything. They are simply there to give the player something to do.

Is Bioshock Infinite a game in a series of shooters? Yes, it is. Did I suddenly expect that Infinite would stop being excessively violent to the detriment of effective pacing or character development? Not really.

But I hoped.

For me, the promise of the Bioshock series has absolutely nothing to do with Carbines or Vigors or Motorized Patriots. The thing that reached me about the first Bioshock was the setting and the themes. Rapture was just a great place to be in, it felt like there was so much atmosphere to soak up. It was very compelling, in a Dear Esther sort of way, to just explore that world. Using my Plasmids on Splicers only occasionally fit into this experience, but was mostly a diversion from my grand archaeology dig through failed utopia.

I think a lot of people who played Bioshock feel pretty similar about it. The little sister choice, the drama of failed dreams, and the beautiful disaster of Rapture were what was interesting, not shocking and wrenching splicers until the genetically-modified cows come home.

It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is about Infinite that makes it more egregious than both the prior games in the series. My first guess is that it’s the presence of Elizabeth. The team at Irrational actually succeeded at making a companion that “you care about.” So when she reacts so negatively to the violent outbursts that the game forces you into, it is a really uncomfortable place for the player to be seated. Most gamers, believe it or not, are not sociopaths, and would much rather not kill people if they are being called “a monster,” for doing so. This immediately puts the player at odds with the game design, which is obviously built around a power fantasy of zapping dudes with force lightning and then blasting them with a shotgun until their heads explode.

Half of the game wants me to feel like a monster, and the other wants me to feel powerful and awesome while mowing down waves of nameless people. The thing is, the half that wants me to feel like a monster is Elizabeth, a character who is purposely designed to be easy to empathize with. She is cartoonishly adorable, which has led many people to call her “a Disney princess.” However, no matter how hurt I am that this princess is cowering from me, I have no choice but to tell her to suck it up because “what did you think was going to happen, it’s a shooter!”

I have to kill hundreds of people in order to finish the game. I want to enjoy killing those people, or else this is going to be really tedious. But Elizabeth wants me to stop killing. Even if the story is somehow about the inevitability of violence in this situation, that still doesn’t explain why the violence is so excessive. I don’t just shoot one guy in the face when Elizabeth first calls me a monster. (Though that would be quite enough for most people to see me that way.) Instead, I mercilessly clear a whole room full of people.

If this were an isolated incident of mass murder, it might not be a problem. But it is not only repeated many times throughout the game; the encounters actually increase in the number of enemies and decrease in their narrative reason to exist.

A good example of a completely unnecessary combat sequence is in the boardwalk area, right before you get to the entrance to the Hall of Heroes. Booker and Elizabeth are walking towards the entrance and the story is moving at a slow but deliberate pace. Tension is being built because we can only imagine what will happen in this new location. However, the tension is broken prematurely by a fight with a dozen or so people who come out of nowhere and start shooting at Booker. Booker dispatches them with some gusto, while Elizabeth cowers behind a statue. Once the last skull has been exploded, Booker and Liz walk in silence into the Hall of Heroes.

If you don’t see how this is pointless in regards to storytelling, and simply tedious as a gameplay segment, then you must be blind. Who were those people Booker killed? As far as I can tell, the game never explains who the people you are fighting are. Maybe they are militant citizens, maybe police of some kind. Either way, the violence at this moment served no storytelling purpose whatsoever. If the goal was to remind us that we are not safe just standing around the boardwalk, why did we just have a sequence in which the player can do just that? It’s not only a useless moment, but in context it actually undermines the pacing of the story.

As the game goes on, the combat sequences increase in frequency, and the length of time you can wander without running into trouble from nameless people with weapons consequently decreases. Although this shift in pacing actually helps the game to feel less tedious, because a player can start to feel comfortable with the incessant onslaught of murder. It is actually a move in a direction that is, I believe, less interesting. The emotional core of the game resides with Elizabeth. The player wants to get to know her better and relishes quiet moments where some real character development happens, like the infamous musical scene in the basement of a bar.

However, quiet moments with Elizabeth are few and far between, and become increasingly more so as the game goes on. We get separated from Elizabeth, so that we can find our way back again. The designers know that the desire to see Elizabeth is the best motivator for the player, so they use her as the carrot on the stick multiple times. She is part character, part damsel-in-distress. Part a real breathing human with wants and desires, part an object which exists as a maguffin for gameplay.

There is clearly a lot going on Infinite, and I feel like many of my criticisms are less about this game, and more about games in general. Is Bioshock Infinite unusually violent for a videogame? No. Does it have a well-paced story with good character development compared to most contemporary videogames? Yes. Is it pretty intellectual and heady with its themes when most games struggle with even having themes? Certainly. The problem is that Infinite is surrounded with a sea of games which are too dumb and too violent for any normal (read: non-gamer) person to have an inkling of interest in playing them. It only stands out because it is surrounded by dog-food.

It’s pretty delicious, for dog-food.

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 2

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This essay is part of a series, you can read the previous part here.

Please bear in mind that this is not a review and is criticism based on only having played the first 6 hours of the game. Things may change as I continue though the game, in which case I may write more. But I do feel these are valid points regardless.

Bioshock Infinite is a deeply conflicted game. If you listen, you can hear the reverberations of earthquakes rumbling deep below it’s lush exterior. The different composite parts of Infinite, as we rarely think of them inside the gaming bubble, are rubbing together awkwardly and generating friction like a poorly engineered machine.

Individually, these parts are all quite beautiful and well crafted. The gameplay is unique and groundbreaking for the shooter genre. Skylines are a joy to interact with and feel exhilarating. There is a ton of shit to collect that feels valuable, plenty of skills to discover, and lots of unique ways to engage in combat; more or less effectively. The story is very impressive for the genre, but also for games in general: it actually draws on interests and ideas which stretch outside of the mainstream science fantasy and fantasy fantasy wells that give life to most other games. It delves into issues of racism, and explores “what if” questions that have circled inside my brain for years. The game is a picturesque place, every inch of Columbia is screenshot-perfect. Every scene looks like a postcard painted by Norman fucking Rockwell. It is gorgeous and lush, an undeniable aesthetic experience.

(As an aside, I’m sure the audio is actually good if I have one of those fancy surround sound systems, but it seems increasingly as though developers are just dumping decent stereo mixing by the wayside as “old-fashioned.” That’s probably our industry’s undeniable tech lust speaking.)

But all these beautifully polished parts don’t fit together quite as well as the mainstream games press would have you believe. Or rather, most critics seem happy to ignore how these parts of the game feel completely separate and hot-glued together. They feel like different games.

Bioshock Infinite represents a turning point, definitely for the first-person shooter genre, but possibly for games in the large. It is the first shooter I have played that ACTUALLY has me spending more time walking around than shooting at anything. The reason that you do this is because every time you get into combat it completely undermines the story that Ken Levine wants you to hear. So what are we doing instead of fighting? Looting the shit out of everything. Walking around and staring at people. Hoping Liz has something to say about anything. Anything. Is this much better than shooting?

I’ll would like to leave that as a rhetorical question, but I will say that I personally believe it does much less to damage a story than randomly having action scenes spewed about because “we were afraid that players might get bored,” or for no reason whatsoever. But I am not certain that the actions that we are doing in Infinite are serving an ideal of actually helping tell the story. They seem mostly unrelated.

Bioshock Infinite is the first shooter that I have seen to actually have another character react to your prescribed psychopathy. Elizabeth is just too naive, too innocent to not call you out for the monster you are. “I might as well get used to it, I guess,” the invisible hand of the writer waves away all emotion and empathy from Liz in less than 2 minutes, because “Sorry, you might’ve gotten bored there.” At least Lara Croft fucking cried when she murdered somebody for the first time in the new “gritty” Tomb Raider, even if it is ultimately just as hand wavy about getting on to “the fun stuff.”

Bioshock Infinite is so great in all of it’s disparate parts. Elizabeth is probably as great as she can be in a game that is trying to let you shoot lots of different kinds of things in different kinds of ways with different amounts of auto-aim. The story is about as good as it could be in a game which is arbitrarily having you shoot at people every 15 minutes because, “well, that’s just what games do.” The shooting is about as good as it could be in a game that is trying to tell a story all the time, and that takes away your guns or locks you in a room to convince you to pay attention to the story, or is just generally spending an exorbitant amount of time not giving you things to shoot at. The setting and art about as great as they can be in a game that cannot define interactivity with the world or characters in it unless it nicely ties into the loot grind or “core gameplay” somehow. “Look, but don’t touch the specimen.” “Don’t talk to the specimen.”

Although Bioshock Infinite is impressive relative to it’s peers, it’s easy to imagine the possibilies if the design limitations of making what is currently seen as a “commercially viable” game were lifted. Elizabeth could be much more interactive. I could talk with her. We could have meaningful conversations. I could show her all the amazing things she’s been missing by being trapped in a cage. I could maybe hug her after a short firefight instead of having to convince her that it’s okay because she’ll be forced to watch me murder 15 more people in the next room. I could really try to not be a monster. We could be friends. Or whatever. The story could be well paced with great twists and turns, an interactive drama where every step in the story has a dramatic point and is not just a gameplay maguffin. (See Telltale’s The Walking Dead) The skylines could be running all over the city. I could always have interesting things to fight. The loot grind could be just incredible. I could really enjoy a challenging action experience. (Dark Souls) The world could be rich and beautiful but also interactive. I could pick up all the individual items for sale at a vendors stand. I could talk with the people around Colombia and get to know them a little or a lot. I could watch kinetoscopes just for enjoyments sake, without feeling like they are cut short so that too much time won’t be spent on exposition. (See Skyrim, almost.)

That’s the dream right? Well, I’m glad to say that I believe we can have all these things in our medium and more. You don’t have to lose the things that you love about games, but I am certain that we cannot effectively have all of them in the same game.

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 1

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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There is a great division in games, well several actually. There is a division between the press and gamers, between gamers and developers, and between the press and developers. There is a division between how we, as gamers writers and developers, think about games and how we *think* we think about games.

We make and play games and imagine we are evaluating them as objectively as possible. But instead are almost always looking at them with a radically warped perception compared to “more developed mediums.” We celebrate minor differences and upgrades. A touching scene where there previosly was none. We don’t see the forest for the pixels.

Games exist in a bubble culture. An environment in which fans of games often find themselves apologizing for the mediums obvious shortcomings and peculiar stubbornness about growing up and actually having something important to say. We are so keen to praise the things that we know make games good, that it seems like we are often forgetting to actually think about the experience of playing games at all.

Can you really blame us? Games have been training us for the past 15 years to not think. To disconnect the gameplay experience from the story one. “Never the two shall mix.” We very rarely think about how a total stranger to games would view the activity in which we are engaging. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter if they don’t see how great games are, because they will keep on being great even if nobody likes them. But that’s just not true, the way that a “non-gamer” experiences a game is the reality of that experience. If you truly care about games and games criticism, then you must stop treating games as some sort of deformed and mentally handicapped younger sibling to the other storytelling mediums that needs you to stick up for it and coddle it and love it despite how ugly and dumb it really is.

The sad thing is that game designers often don’t think of games very differently. And even worse, they share the same coddling and protective attitude towards the players of their games. We, as gamers, are routinely treated as complete idiots. “Oh no,” says the strawman game designer, “you won’t be able to handle this game unless you have some serious hints, or a giant arrow constantly pointing you to your next objective.” Designers are so scared that you will hate their game that they come up with virtual doppelgängers to follow you into your home and nervously watch you play. “Don’t forget to use your Vigors!”, Bioshock Infinite’s doppelgänger reminds you, like an overprotective parent trying to coerce a child to eat more veggies. “It’s good for you!” But is it really? Bioshock Infinite is a game for adults, not for children. If children could make it through the crushingly difficult The Legend of Zelda 25 years ago, and our modern gaming collective recently tackled the similarly difficult and very adult Dark Souls, cursing and loving every minute of it, then surely you can trust the players of your game to figure it out eventually, right?

Oh, wait. I forgot. We’re trying to tell stories here. “Eventually” just isn’t good enough. It’s impossible to pace out a story effectively if we only know that the player will “eventually” make it to this point in the game. This is precisely why both the original Zelda and Dark Souls are so light on their story, having what essentially amounts to a maguffin or two. But now we are telling these grand and epic and dare-I-say “cinematic” stories. We don’t want players to get stuck before they get to “the good part.”

So what do we do? How can we tell effective stories and also be respectful of players and games as a medium which can stand proudly beside the others.

It’s simple. If you want to tell stories in games, just tell stories. Don’t worry about trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what constitutes a “game.” It doesn’t have to have any more shooting than necessary to tell the story effectively. Don’t feel like you have to have “core gameplay” just because “that’s what games do.” Don’t be so afraid of players disliking your game that you compromise your vision to try to please everybody. You don’t have to be conflicted if you just believe in what YOU find interesting about your project and have faith that your players will find that interesting too. If you want to have a scene of dialogue that is relatively non-interactive (or completely non-interactive), feel free to do that. Just don’t try to tell a story with “believable characters”, and when partway through writing it you get scared that some players are not actually interested in paying attention to all that cool stuff you wrote, you panic and take out most of the dialogue and all of the believability. Those players are not worth catering to, they don’t actually care about experiencing what you find meaningful. They are not your real fans, and trying to please them will destroy you and your game.

We need to start thinking about games as cohesive experiences. As designers, what is the experience that we want to give our players? Do we even need to tell a story? Do we even need to have traditional gameplay? How is the gameplay helping or harming the story? How is a pile of rotten fruit on the floor informing the gameplay. Is it?

Both gameplay and story must form a cohesive whole if a game is to remain intact as a creative and meaningful work. To artfully make games and master this medium (and to have our “Citizen Kane” moment which everyone won’t shut up about) we have to start thinking about how all the different parts of the game affect the whole. This means if you want to give the player freedom, you probably can’t tell stories that are not about psychopaths. So the reality is that Saint’s Row is probably a more cohesive work of art than GTA IV. If you want desperately to tell the story of redemption, or love, or anything even slightly specific, you are going to have to limit the player drastically. But we don’t want to do this haphazardly, we want to make intelligent choices about where we allow the player to interact with the story.

I’m not advocating for removing player freedom from games entirely. Interactivity is the only useful component to differentiate games from other mediums. But giving the player freedom has a direct and very negative impact on the ability to tell an effective story.

“What? Gameplay and story don’t mix? Ludonarrative Dissonance? You pretentious asshat!”

Gameplay and story can conflict with one another, but I’m not advocating removing story from games either. I love stories just as much as the next person. Story is important tool we use to understand the world and communicate experiences. I might however suggest exploring a different approach to storytelling than the commonly used three act structure which does not fit well in games that have much longer running times.

People tend to believe these are just difficult and intractable problems in games. Someday we will just magically realize a way to fix them. It’s just gonna be a slow and grueling path uphill towards cultural relevance. Games will find a way to make a good and well paced story that still has plenty of fun RPG loot grinding in it. We just need to stuff enough technology in there and it will happen. Better AI will solve the problem. More polygons. The Playstation 4.

The hard truth is that we will never solve these problems if we keep making the same kinds of games we are making today. It is impossible to integrate a story which values human life with a story where the protagonist shoots 960 dudes in the face. (And that’s just with the shotgun!) Think about what this means. If we can’t value human life effectively, then we cannot even tell good dramatic stories. Drama is practically the holy grail of artistic storytelling, amirite amirite? And even if we try to do comedy, we will be limited to black humor. Jokes about how gross the violence is. How crazy the protagonist is for going on such murderous rampages.

I am not here to ruin the fun. I am not here to kill the stories. But please, if you are going to make or review or criticize a game, stop treating games as a substandard storytelling medium with it’s own arcane rules that are just impossible for us to fully understand yet. Start treating it as though it’s already grown up. It is not condescending to think of how your grandma or your non-gamer friends would react to the way the game presents itself. Stop apologizing for games and start demanding they be coherent.

Look, I understand the fear and conservatism that comes with making investments that fly high of the 100 million dollar mark, and I also realize there isn’t a lot of hard data showing that players are happy with games that try to maintain artistic integrity at the expense of challenge or storytelling. But I don’t think the combined critical and commercial success of Dark Souls or Telltale’s The Walking Dead are completely accidental. And I hope they become part of a trend towards diversification in the types of games available, rather than an anomaly on the bumpy road towards complete cultural abandonment.

The large commercial “Triple-A” games space is a difficult place to be creative in. But it is just ridiculous to think that games need to stay exactly the way they have been since 2001 to keep being popular. They need to change, or else they will fade into obscurity.

This essay is part of a series, you can read the next part here.

DiveDive is Alive!

Posted in Computers, DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This picture shows some of the new artwork that I have been working on. I wanted to do typical Zelda perspective walls earlier but I knew it would take a lot of time to get right. Now I have that time.

So, I’ve decided I’m going to keep working on DiveDive for the time being. I was surprised at how much I accomplished within the limitations of the 7 day challenge, but I still think the game needs a lot of work. There were a lot of bugs in that first release, and some serious balance issues. I have tried to fix the major problems so that I can start moving forward with adding more variety to the base game. The thing with rogue-likes as a genre, is that they are designed to be as replayable as possible. Sadly DiveDive is pretty limited in this regard so far, feeling much more like a linear and finite experience.

Anyway, before I get too verbose. I will just post a new build which improves several aspects of the play experience and fixes some bugs:

Click here to download the new build.

Pencils Down. DiveDive, my #7DRL is complete! (redux)

Posted in DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , on March 16, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This has been a great week, but also a rough week. I stayed up 22 hours yesterday, and only slept 3. It’s been exhilarating, but also extremely challenging. It’s been a powerful and emotional moment in my life. I feel like I’ve leveled up as a designer, and I want to keep this momentum going. This week has reinvigorated my understanding and faith that THIS is what I was born to do. Unlike probably some of the 7DRL participants, I work a day job 40 hours a week. Being too conscious of this has always held me back from engaging with most of these similar challenges in the past, but something changed this time.

The challenge coincided nicely with my reading of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which helped solidify some of the thoughts which were brewing in my mind from being unable to work on Duet effectively. The book finally convinced me that the only road to me being a more productive designer is to start focusing on finishing very small scope things, and making that a priority above trying to polish them to perfection. Don’t think about it, just make a game!

I think you only get good at things by doing them, and I’ve gotten awfully good at languishing in the middle of a gigantic multi-year project with no clear path to completing the game. It is so demotivating to work on a project for 3 years and still not have something you are really proud to show to people. But DiveDive is that, and I only spent a week on it!

I have a tendency to be too detail-oriented when working on a project. I tweak the tiniest details before I finish the broad strokes of the game. It is SO much better to make a complete experience as early as possible and then polish afterwards. I have heard an analogy with sketching from Derek Yu: The best way to get better at sketching is to put a time limit on it. Try to capture the subject in as few strokes as possible. Limit yourself to 10 seconds, then tyr moving up to 30 seconds, then a minute. And finally, remove the time limit all together. It’s so important to not start your creative works with the details. Those don’t matter at all if you never finish the big things. My brother played an earlier version of Dive Dive this week and what did he point out? There’s no boss at the end. He didn’t even notice there were only two enemies, or that the slimes didn’t behave the way I wanted them to, or that the sprites vary wildly in color palette and rendering style. As a creator, you are the most intimately familiar person with your creation. All you will see is the flaws, but don’t get caught up on polishing the slash animation for a whole day. Try to do as little as possible to get all of your points across. The audience won’t notice that that one pixel doesn’t have the perfect color, but they will notice an experience which didn’t even have an ending!

I didn’t get everything into DiveDive that I hoped to, but I got way more done than I expected. I think this proves to me something I already thought I knew, that you really can build a functional prototype of any idea in a week. But, before I thought that meant it was “kinda working” within a week, but it actually means that by the end of the week you can have something that is really working because it either shows the potential of the idea or doesn’t. DiveDive has heaps of potential, I could work on it for years if I want, just adding more and more features and secrets, tweaking and polishing the art, writing my own music rather than using licensed tracks…but I have reached a point within a week where it is polished enough to not embarrass me and I believe it has some great ideas in it already, while certainly firing the imagination about how much more could be done.

It’s just impossible for me to overstate how satisfying it is to actually have something that feels like a complete experience so quickly, so that I can show it and feel confident if I choose not to ever work on it again. The funny thing about games (and art in general), is that you really can work on a project for as long as you like. But there eventually comes a time when you need to put the pencil down, and the sooner you can feel safe about doing that, the better.

So, here it is, DiveDive. A hopefully surprising “Roguelike ” Zelda-style game. I like it, so maybe you will to. :)

A MINOR ADDENDUM: So, the game was completely finished yesterday and I uploaded it only to find out from the first player that it was totally bugged. In the game, you start with no money, but I had put in a hack to give you $500 so I could test things. I unfortunately, in my sleepprogramming state had forgotten to remove the hack before I released. Let the lesson be this: ALWAYS BE SURE TO TAKE OUT YOUR HACKS.

Click here to download DiveDive. You will need 7-zip to unarchive the game, which you can get here

Uses music by Kevin MacLeod, and a sound effect by “RA The Sun God.” Both are used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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