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The Philosophical Basis of Exploration Cues in Game Design

Republished from The GameSaver, whose purpose it is to use objective philosophical analysis to save the video game industry from imploding.

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…it’s your game. You decide how you want to play, I mean, we’re not the ones who are going to tell you how to play...” – Mathieu Ferland, senior producer at Ubisoft Montreal, describing the design philosophy of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

Obviously you can’t instruct people on how to enjoy art.” – Lisa Foiles, video game commentator (and former “All That” star) stating what she believes to be a truism relevant to a gamer’s choosing how (and whether) to explore a game world.

Together, these two quotations represent a malignant viewpoint stretching from video game designer to video game player. The second quote comes from one of Kotaku’s (few) intellectual features now roughly a year old. It is the perfect encapsulation of the average person’s view of art. Because this view is so widespread, what I am about to say is tragically controversial: there is an objectively correct way to read books, watch movies, view paintings, and play games. Read the rest of this entry

Interview With Eitanya

Garrus and Shepard

Have you ever wanted to cuddle up with your favorite character only to discover hugging the game box or dvd case is just uncomfortable and not very fullfilling? Then you need to drop Eitanya an e-mail. Her plush version of the fan-favorite character “Garrus” from BioWare’s Mass Effect series was first posted in Game Informer and then made its way around the web. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing her on the creative process and finding out why she started making soft and squishy versions of characters.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure thing. I’m 26 years old, currently living on the gorgeous Emerald Coast with my husband, my brand new baby girl, and one spoiled rotten dog. I work from home designing plush toys, hats, and doing whatever other random creative things strike my fancy. When I’m not playing video games, of course.

How did you get started making these plushes?
My husband is a huge fan of the Strider video game series. I wanted to get him something related to the series for his birthday a few years ago, but finding something Strider-related that he doesn’t already have is getting increasingly difficult. So I got it in my head to make him a plushie. Mind you I had never attempted anything even remotely like that, but hey, I’m all about panic-learning! After making a few simple ones for myself I managed to plushie-fy Hiryu and then it was all over. I was hooked.

What did you make before that first plush?
Before Hiryu? A poison rice ball from Tenchu, a small Weighted Companion Cube, and my first human plushie was Faith from Mirror’s Edge.

Do you have a favorite plush that you’ve made?
Oh that’s tough…probably Aphmau from Final Fantasy XI, I was really happy with how all the details turned out.

Read the rest of this entry

Mass Effect 3 Aiming for Mass Appeal

Central to my criticism of Dragon Age 2 was that it was a game made by people who didn’t seem like they wanted to be making big Western RPGs. Rather, it felt like they would have been more comfortable making God of War with a flimsy conversation system attached.

At the time, it was disappointing, but we were confident, especially because of some early reports, that Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t suffer the same fate. It’s their “most ambitious title to date”! How could that possibly be disappointing, especially if they’re working in more RPG elements.

Well, leave it to EA to wipe away some good feelings. Eurogamer gave us the potentially bad news, with John Riccitiello saying they are “are purposefully shifting it to address a larger market opportunity.”

If that doesn’t sound like bad news, I don’t know what does.
Read the rest of this entry

Polymorphous Perversity

Nicolau Chaud holds Randy Pitchford’s “there is no line to cross” mantra to heart–if it wasn’t obvious with the controversial Beautiful Escape, which put you in the shoes of a serial killer, then it should be cemented with his latest project called “Polymorphous Pervesity.” Chaud describes the premise of his latest endeavor as follows,

“You are a young male with an unknown sexual disorder captured by some mysterious agency and thrown into a bizarre parallel reality where everything gravitates towards sex. You’re set on a sexual quest to explore unknown lands, meet strange people, and learn more about your sexuality.”

Ultimately the purpose is to take us on an exploration of sexuality and the many facets of the libido–this includes fetishes, paraphilias and perversions. To this end, the game has mechanics like “fuck” instead of “attack”, with skills relating to sex to be included, a “horny meter” which you must keep low in order to stay alive, and an adaptation to your “performance” and sexual preferences, just to name a few things.

The concept behind the game is Freudian in nature; children are “polymorphously perverse” –meaning that they do not attempt to restrain or repress their sexual desire like adults who have undergone societal conditioning. This conditioning “suppresses the polymorphous possibilities for sexual gratification in the child, eventually leading, through repression, to an amnesia about such primitive desires.” These concepts are in line with Freud’s many hypothetses on  societal-wide repression.

The reaction on the forum is woefully predictable, which only goes to show the necessity of such a game pushing buttons which we are uncomfortable with. Chaud, a psychotherapist with 4 years of experience under his belt, responds to the skepticism as follows,

“sex is very powerful;
sex is very strange;
sex varies immensely among people

I just felt like approaching these things in a game. Why not? You’re right, most people don’t know anything about sex other than what their own hand tells them, or beside what they see in standardized porn movies. They like this aspect of sex, while they think rapist and pedophiles and corpsefuckers are sick people, even though their drives are very similar.

But no, this is not an educative game at all.

And yes, it may come out funny. Sex is often fun, so I don’t see why the game shouldn’t be. Sex is not “OMFG SO SERIOUS”, and neither should the game be. But I can’t help if people think dicks are funny. I mean… it’s just a dick. If you’re a guy, just drop your pants and you’ll see one.”

C’mon sushi dick. You can run over hookers, indulge Kratos in a QTE fling, or bed an Asari but you can’t handle the idea of something like this?

The game is still in development though the release date is uncertain. The development blog can be found here. Further reading: Jordan Rivas has also written about the game in a thoughtful writeup here.

Morality, consequences… and Heisenberg!

Well, considering everyone here is talking about it, perhaps I should jump in as well and pee inside this “moral choices and consequences in games” swimming pool.

While Patricia focuses her attention on morality and the disconnection between action and consequence and Tom rages on about the idea that there isn’t truly any real consequence, I’m still stuck with the word “choices”. When games already have a hard time delivering those, why do we even expect them to deliver anything more elaborated like “moral choices” or “real choices”?

First thing’s first: definitions. A real choice is nothing more than a decision. A decision is an irrevocable allocation of resources that may or may not involve uncertainty. There are two key words here that are systematically ignored by game developers: IRREVOCABLE and UNCERTAINTY. Irrevocable, because a revocable decision is not a decision at all! Imagine you decide to eat a banana but change your mind and decide to eat an apple. Have you really decided anything? Of course not. No resource was allocated. Now imagine you want to eat a banana and drive all the way to the supermarket to buy one, but then decides to eat an apple. Have you decided anything? Yes, you did. Two decisions, in fact. They have cost you time and, depending on how far the supermarket was, gasoline you won’t be getting back anytime soon. Right there, you see the consequence of your decisions: those resources you have allocated are gone for good.

Meanwhile, uncertainty is important because rarely we face decisions that doesn’t involve some degree of it. In fact, no deep decision is 100% certain because, if so, the decision would be reduced to simply picking the option you want more (and then the problem with would be merely not knowing what one wants). This is what justifies the disconnection between action and consequence that bothers Pat: a good decision doesn’t imply a good outcome and vice-versa. I could drive drunk (bad decision) and arrive home safely (good outcome) or I could drive sober (good decision) and get into an accident because of some other drunken driver (bad outcome).

Now, explain to me how can games feature any decisions when players can simply reload their save files and try again? In fact, this was one of my biggest dissappointments with Mass Effect 2. I first imagined the fact that actions and consequences were separated by different games (i.e. the choices I’ve took in Mass Effect 1 would only come to bite me in the ass in Mass Effect 2) would allow for real deep decisions to take place. Alas, the only consequence for not killing a given extra in the original game ended up being merely a cameo by such character in Mass Effect 2.

But then again, maybe this dissappointment was caused exaclttly because I was absolutely certain my actions would have consequences. But why should they? Or perhaps it was because the decision points were so insultingly apparent? I mean, really, when was the last time everything stopped until you decided which wire to cut: the red or the blue one? When was the last time you were asked whether or not to save a Little Sister and you couldn’t even move until such decision was taken? Most decisions we take in real life, even the important ones, are usually done in trivial circumstances – and sometimes people choose without being even aware that a decision had just taken place.

Only games create such drama around decision points. Read the rest of this entry

Truths and Consequences

Developers love talking about making their games full of moral choices with consequences, but that’s a crock of shit: no one makes games with consequences. I’d even say moral choice is an illusion, like a linear world designed to feel open: most moral choices are choosing between being a petulant child and being a noble savior, and even if they open different branches of plot, they do not effect real change, or real emotional depth.

The fact is, in the environment gaming is now, there is no such thing as a moral choice. They cannot exist. Video games of the moment place morality on that superficial spectrum and ask, “Are you a paragon, or are you a renegade?” It doesn’t matter which one you choose, so long as you choose one: there will be no major changes, regardless of what you choose.

This is the realization I get as I replay Mass Effect 2: nothing matters. You have a number of options, but there is no reason to think about them. They are superficial, meaningless choices designed to make the player feel good about themselves regardless of whether they are good or evil rather than insightful plot branches. Being “evil” is never the wrong choice, and being “good” is never the right choice: they are just paper thin moralities for the player to cling to in an attempt to streamline character development.

Patricia wrote about Don’t Take It Personally, Babe a few days ago, and I wanted to take that game’s concept of choice and run with it. Specifically, the choice of whether or not the player gets with Arianna. It’s possibly the moral choice I spent the most amount of time thinking about ever, and this got me to thinking (once I chose to begin a relationship with her): why was it? What did it have that the litany of choices in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioshock, inFamous, and countless others lacked?

And there’s something. There’s definitely something.
Read the rest of this entry

Love Game

Oh god, not the Lady Gaga song.

I stumbled upon the Digital Romance Lab this morning via this week’s Sunday Papers over at Rock Paper Shotgun. As Rossignol suggests, it’s a beautiful post so I wholeheartedly suggest you read it. More than that, it provides some context for this post.

There’s one bit in that post that intrigued me, a bit that is obvious but has interesting implications if taken at face value.

“Games create meaning through the gap between its rule-based procedures, and the player’s subjective response. This is what Ian Bogost calls the simulation gap. Therefore, in playing video games, we are able to critically reflect; to learn something about not just the game’s creator, but about ourselves.

Videogames are, then, excellent tools by which we can explore what it means to be human; to help us to explore, and unravel our subjective selves.”

Earlier the post stipulates that reading Pride and Prejudice allows the reader to learn something about Jane Austen, how she saw the world and, more specifically, how she saw romance. Objects like books are ”expressions of the way we see the world; or, at least, of how we want to represent it.” However, unlike books games are structured, easily quantifiable objective based systems. Romance often follows suit in that regard. Games tend to enumerate or somehow represent exactly where you stand with a possible romance.

This is where one might be inclined to criticize such a dehumanizing, inaccurate representation of romance. How can a game like Dragon Age Origins, for example, give you a special achievement for sleeping with specific characters? What does that say about how Bioware sees romance? Further, what does that say about what they think we want out of a romance?

It’s here that my mind recalls a recent conversation with a friend regarding relationships. He made a crack about how girls tend to look at the title ‘girlfriend’ as an objective that rewarded them with a type of ‘ascension’, a type of elevation in both status and treatment.  Romance unlocked!+5 kisses, +10 cuddles, etc. This came to me as a shock, initially. I’m not much for titles myself, I’m not sure I ever see myself getting married. What does a title or piece of paper prove, after all? Neither is necessary to have an understanding of monogamy if such is your thing. Thus I can’t help but wonder if its function is primarily a social one, like achievements (evidence of your skill and accomplishments to your peers) And yet for me the title had a facade; an expectation that came with it. An implied level of intimacy–we’re not talking purely physical here–which was exclusive to the title.

The expectation is somewhat furthered when I play games. Most of the time, I obsess over the romance aspect of games. At first this worried me–am I some maladjusted socially inept person or something? Perhaps! But I also realized it wasn’t just me, it’s the way some of the relationships are structured. If I wanted to get to know someone better, if I wanted to experience intimacy, romancing them was inevitable. A requirement, even. In Persona 3, getting to know any girl meant you were making them your girlfriend. There is no other choice. In Mass Effect, being cordial to someone is the same as romancing them. Romance unlocked! +5 deep conversation. Congrats. Often times, even when I’m not shoehorned into a relationship I still seek it out anyway: I can’t help but feel like writers only allow you to know characters the best if you pursue their love. A level of intimacy which is exclusive to the romance.

I can’t help but think about the seemingly rat-raceish nature of it all. Finding ‘the one.’ Settling down and getting married by age 30ish, have a kid, what have you. Do it and you’re playing the game right, you’re winning. Love becomes a marker of a successful maturity into adulthood, as the NYT puts it, ”Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.” Of course, what that article ends up conceding is that such milestones and the way we go about achieving them is currently being redefined. Some might acknowledge this as an inevitability given how archaic and arbitrary they are as markers of…anything. Will we start seeing this cultural shift reflected in games?

By no means am I implying this is a standard parsing of the human experience. Not everyone treats life as a series of achievements. Nonetheless it’s interesting to look at that approach when thinking about the way games position love–can we truly say it’s a completely off-base representation, speaking structurally? Or is it actually representative of the ‘real’ underbelly of love? Let us not forget that romance doesn’t have to be be structured as just another game mechanic.

MASS EFFECT 2 – Review

MASS EFFECT 2 is a videogame developed by BioWare, published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by CASEY HUDSON.

Isn’t it weird? We have written 28 (TWENTY EIGHT!) articles about Mass Effect 2, but not a single tiny review? It’s time we corrected that.

So! Although I knew it from the start that liked Mass Effect 2 a lot, it took me some time to figure out exactly why I liked it. I knew what I disliked in it, though. I also knew it was a near great game; basically, for the same reasons ActRaiser was a near great game: the game’s main mechanism had to be diluted in order to hide its flaws.

I’ve only became aware of where the greatness of Mass Effect 2 laid after examining Mass Effect 1. The original Mass Effect tried to play it as much as a new IP could possibly do, for it was, at the end of the day, essentially Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR – also developed by BioWare) sans the “Star Wars” part. The plot structure, the moral choices, the items, allies and quest mechanisms surrounding the adventure of the newest Jedi of A Galaxy Far Far Away were all basically the same stuff we would relive during the tale of the first human “Spectre” agent of Mass Effect’s Citadel Council. Stuff like these usually leave me raging mad – after all, if I wanted to play that same game again I would… play the same game again! (Coming up next… our merry review for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood!)

Despite that, Mass Effect did manage to deviate from the mold, and during those times it shone – even if such deviations were eventually unpolished. Most importantly, instead of the tired old Light vs. Dark Side bickering involving lightsabers, furries and that same old desert planet that appears to be omnipresent despite being “the planet that it’s farthest the bright center to the universe”, we have a whole new – and incredibly fleshed-out – galactic lore involving xenophobia, the revolt of technology, the frustrating shackles of official regulations versus the abuse and the calamities caused by unregulated environments, all tied up in a neat bundle rich with background details.

It’s from this new, fresh universe that the greatness of the Mass Effect franchise emanates. It’s that mythos that elevated what would otherwise be a trite conflict involving Commander Shepard, the new sheriff in town, and Saren Arterius, a veteran Spectre agent from an alien race whose role is pretty much to serve as proxy Klingons, into something whose meaning and consequences we cared about. Read the rest of this entry

The Mixed Messages of Dragon Age 2

No game has ever inspired such vicious debate, such polarization, as Dragon Age 2. As the sequel to the enormously popular Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Awakenings, there are some big shoes to fill, and only so much game to fill them with.

Generally, in pre-release, there aren’t a lot of dissenting opinions on games. Previewers are not, generally, reviewers: they have little room to assert how much they dislike a game, because if they do, they’re stuck not getting any work. Generally, previews are separated by degrees: a good preview is one where the previewer says that a game looks good, the bad preview is where the previewer stops short of making predictions and (usually) emphasizes an upcoming review.

So this makes the absolutely opposite coverage coming from two respectable gaming sources, Destructoid and Rock Paper Shotgun, so utterly baffling. For the record, if I had to name two sites as the best, most noble and independent of publisher pressure games sites on the web, it would be those two. Both pretty frequently provide pre-release information on games, and both don’t generally stray too far from the noble paradigm.

With Dragon Age 2, it’s different. Rock Paper Shotgun is decidedly pessimistic, beyond what any preview would possibly say. Even the trailer designed to reassure long time fans missed the mark with them, as they still found reason to be skeptical. On the other hand, you have Destructoid, who’ve recently launched the most marketing speak tinged preview of a game I have seen outside of Gamespot, and this from a blog that rarely does that sort of thing.

Who’s right? Who’s dead? Why the hell is this game that few of us have played so god damned divisive.
Read the rest of this entry

For the Ugliest Bastard Alive

I was planning to start it by telling what my first impressions of the game were, but because they were too much focused on the face generator aspect of it, I’ve decided to make a dedicated blog post about it.

In short, I despise the face generator in Mass Effect 2. I don’t have the patience Bioware’s dull and minimalistic face modeling parlor. Besides, it took out the only two features I liked about Mass Effect 1’s face creator: the scar gauge and the ability to make your avatar oddly similar to my Jedi from Knights of the Old Republic.

Other than that, the game still asks you to determine stuff like “cheek gaunt” and “eye depth”, which only ever works for making a character uglier. Never prettier.

Time to save the galaxy, Quasimodo!

On the other hand, they are Bioware’s efforts are still years ahead of Bethesda. The more I toy with the faces of my Elder Scrolls guy and Fallout 3’s Lone Wanderer, the more they look the same: generic. At least Fallout 3 offers me a nice selection of facial hair to choose from. Remember kids, facial hair can make one’s face epic no matter how bland you actually look like.

Oh, but if you don’t like generic or Commander Shepard’s–whose eye sockets are so protuberant you might think they were modeled after a Marty Feldman on a caffeine high–Mass Effect still has , distinctive standard faces. Well, while I’m fine with Female Shepard’s (FemShep) face (though I like the idea of giving her a ridiculous tan even though she practically lives inside a spaceship with no natural sun light), MaShep’s face still leaves me unsettled. Those dead blue eyes of his are buried deeper in the uncanny valley than a teen Haley Joel Osment!

But you know what grinds my gears? Is that, theoretically, this was a problem was already solved back in 2000. Back when Perfect Dark was released for the Nintendo 64. During its many previews, Rare kept talking about a feature called “Perfect Head”, which allowed a played to take a photo of his face with the Game Boy Camera, use the Nintendo 64’s Transfer Pak to upload the photo to the game and then “glue” it on the face of a multiplayer character. Then, after a little manipulation like changing the skin color and adding hair (the Game Boy Camera only took black and white pictures after all), you could start playing as yourself

This feature was unfortunately ditched. Allegedly by technical reasons, but many people wondered if that wasn’t only to avoid any kind of political controversy (the Columbine High School Massacre had just happened the previous year, after all).

Now, when Perfect Dark was about to be released for the XBLA this year, lots of site started to post rumors (without any kind of research, obviously) about a possible return of Perfect Head’s mapping feature. Meanwhile, nobody wondered why were we waiting only for Perfect Dark to do this. I mean, with the EyeToy and the Kinect, this feature is finally feasible. Consoles are already bugging us to create console versions of ourselves only to sell us cheap Tennis games where an avatar that looks like me can mercilessly defeat an avatar that looks like my girlfriend (chivalry? what’s that?), so why not a Mass Effect where Shepard actually looks like me, instead of a scary albino? Or perhaps a drag queen version of me…

Besides, where is the controversy when we limit face mapping to the main protagonist only? I mean, any kind of complaint would be redundantly meaningless considering the very definition of an avatar is to be a digital surrogate of oneself: any act of violence made by an avatar wearing your face isn’t any different than any other avatar’s act of violence.

It took me 1:30 hours before I finally settled down with a face I was comfortable with and started, you know, actually playing Mass Effect 2. I welcome any solution that will solve my problem more quickly and effectively. And hey, if this solution grants me at least one good reason for buying a Kinect, the better for Microsoft, eh? So what are you waiting for, Don Mattrick? Make it happen!

 

Update: my buddy just told me soccer games like EA’s FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer games are already venturing in the face mapping business – which a quick Google search later confirmed it. Considering EA also owns Bioware, I’m wagging my finger at them! It’s high time those features showed up in real games! “Real games”, of course, meaning “games I like to play”.

Update 2 (Christmas Update!): As HotChops says below, another game with face mapping Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas. Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIR8HOvXjrU&feature=related. If anyone else knows of any other game with face mapping, please tell me so I can add them to article too! Thanks! 🙂