Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exploring ludodissonance

Readers of my previous post on ludonarrative dissonance may have noted that formal dissonance and moral/ethical dissonance didn't sound all that bad.  Defying genre expectations?  Putting two ethical systems into conflict?  It sounds more like art than bad game design, right?

To be quite clear, ludodissonance can be quite bad--bad meaning that it creates effects contrary to the desires of the game designer.  If the goal of the game designer is to make a serious game, but the mechanics of the game make the characters look ridiculous, the game designer has unequivocally failed.

However, "bad design" is not all ludodissonance has to offer.  Dissonance is a very useful tool in the creation of art, so I want to survey examples of dissonance outside games, within games, and then speculate on ways to think about ludodissonance going forward.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Schell School

To me, the most important part of the test is the final task: turning it in to the provost.  You have to look confident, almost dismissive, but not too much or they'll think you're fronting.  I don't know if they actually have a hidden score sheet somewhere grading my "attitude," but it's not really about the points at that moment.  It's a sense of propriety--an affirmation of what you are and what you stand for.  It's a test of who you are as a person: too arrogant and you're a bully; too timid and you're a coward, unfit for your position.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

coupla links

This is why we make games.

And this is why we read the comments section.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Going deeper into dissonance

Way back in 2007, Clint Hocking proposed the term ludonarrative dissonance to describe the disparities that often occur between the "story" elements of a video game and the rules that govern its gameplay.  The example he used to put this idea forward was Bioshock, but it has since been applied to many games to understand where they fell short.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Violence, part 6: The spinning top

Like the rest of the multitudes, I enjoyed Inception very much.  Not only is it a intricately crafted work of cinema, it also creatively synthesized new findings in neurobiology, several strands of post-post-modern philosophy, and that familiar alien world known to all of us as dreams. 

And it was much to my chagrin to see that top spinning at the end of the film.  As soon as the credits began to roll, I knew what the conversation would be about on the way out of the theater, and sure enough, it was insipid debate over whether or not "It was all a dream."  I don't want to get too bogged down in the foolishness of wondering whether the events depicted in Inception really happened or not, but I do want to use this as a shining example of people getting caught up in the wrong debate.  And shame on Christopher Nolan for placating whatever studio boss who suggested that ending.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Violence, part 5: Its role in art

At least as far back as 1915, there has been concern over the graphic violence depicted in film, as evidenced by the "Plea for the art of the motion picture" that prefaces D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.  It reads, in part, "We do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue--the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word..."  D.W. Griffith, as video game enthusiasts would do around a hundred years later, was recognizing the double-standard his new medium was being held to.  While the clearly violent works of Shakespeare and Holy Scriptures were held in high esteem, his works were in jeopardy of state censorship merely because they were new.

Violence, part 4: Names for it

The main reason I believe it's important to view everything from riddles to your sense of sight as acts of violence is that I want to make a case that violence is a necessary part of art and expression.  But obviously, there's a difference between a conversation and someone being brutally murdered, and in this part of the series, I want to sketch out the beginnings of something like a taxonomy of violence.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Violence, part 3: Its usefulness

Defined as two or more objects attempting to exist in the same space at the same time, it is fairly easy to see why violence is bound to occur.  One of the laws of our physical universe is that two objects cannot exist in the same space at the same time.  Therefore, even if two objects both came to the same space honestly, there will be conflict between them if they reach it at the same time.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Violence, part 2: What it is

I want to make the case that no art can be successful without violence, but to do that I will have to address the obvious and countless counter-examples you already have floating around in your head.  Like many things I've talked about on this blog, a lot of confusion can be mitigated if we take a hard look at how we define violence.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Violence, part 1: Introduction

The video game industry is well-known for its controversial violence, with legislators attempting new ways to tamp down on the graphic violence in flagship games just as they were fifteen years ago.  Meanwhile, I'm starting to feel this swelling undercurrent of concern from video game sympathizers that perhaps, maybe, video games have to be violent to be successful.  Though the history of video games is certainly pockmarked with wildly successful titles such as The Sims that at the very least do not feature violence as the main focus of the game, these successes have been more difficult to replicate than those involving mass murder. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dimensional conflict: diversion vs. expression

While I mentioned in Three-dimensional games that games with the greatest magnitude in all three dimensions will be considered the best, this isn't to say that dimensions won't occasionally come into conflict with each other.  In other words, it is possible that attempting to increase the magnitude along one axis will decrease the magnitude along another axis.

I want to focus on a specific conflict that can arise when trying to maximize the magnitude along every dimension: the conflict between the demand of diversion to fill time and the demand of expression to reduce the time filled.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A worthy opponent

The video game universe is awash in heroes, but the noteworthy villains could likely be counted on two generous hands.  Often, the "main villain"--the hero's true adversary--feels more like an endnote than a palpable force in games.  Players rarely form a connection to their characters' ostensible opponent, most likely because they can recognize that the villain of the story is not their opponent.  Rather, villains are mostly MacGuffins--merely excuses to "go on the quest" or create a wake of corpses behind the titular character.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Difficulty: Slow it down, don't dumb it down

Sitting down to play Super Smash Bros. for the first time is an overwhelming proposition for the average adult.  The game is a flurry of action, a camera moves in and out constantly, and the winner appears to be randomly chosen at first.  To top it all off, all characters start out at 0% (you're not told of what), a percentage that is increased every time they are hit.  Without instruction, most adults would give up on this game fairly quick, resigned to the fact that it's something they'll never get.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Grokking in three dimensions

Even if you accept that the notion of grokking and grok-tests play an important role in understanding games, you may doubt that winning is an indication of grokking in light of games such as foot races and lotteries where grokking the rules is clearly not the sole requirement for victory.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grokking and Games

The term "grok" comes from Robert Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land, and is a Martian term that roughly translates into "to drink," which also describes the Martian's take on the act or state of understanding fully--"to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed."  If you haven't read the book yet, you probably should, as this idea of grokking alone is worth grokking.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Versus Series 5: Toys vs. Simulations

Chris Bateman recently concluded a series on game design as make-believe, kicking it off with an interesting view of games serving in part as props for imaginative play.  Of course, games aren't the only props that are used for the purpose of play, and Bateman lists different examples of items that can be used as representations during imaginative play.  At the top of his list is the first class of object we think about when it comes to props for imagination: the toy.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Choice-management in the aid of building tension

At present, the word "tension" is almost exclusively considered negative.  The quest of the modern man is to reduce tension, or stress, which are known causes of disease and emotional distress.  The desired state is one of complete relaxation.

However, in the artistic world, we find that many descriptions of good works imply tension: taut, solid, robust.  Likewise, many descriptions of poor works imply the opposite: loose, unfocused, flat.  It seems that while we prefer our bodies to be relaxed, we prefer our books, movies, music, and games full of tension1.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The unimportance of writing

The idea of a writer as a “crafter of narrative” is an idea that is entrenched, understandable, and I think very misleading in our discussion of video games.

In most creative endeavors, when we talk about writers we are talking about storytellers.  They write the scripts and the books that have a beginning, middle, and end; with a protagonist and antagonist; an inciting incident and a climax—all the things a good narrative ought to have.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Comment round-up #1, 15 May 2010

One of the great things about blogs is that they allow people to voice their opinion of an idea in the exact same place where the idea is first given expression.  I've been very happy with the conversations I've had in the comments section of the posts, but I get the feeling that a lot of these gold nuggets are passed by because they occur in older posts and I imagine few of my readers obsessively check all of my old posts to see if any new comments have been written.  I figured it'd be worthwhile to an first Interactive Illuminatus comment round-up, where I collect my favorite discussions so far and put them up to give people a chance to review what's been said since they last read the post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The importance of writing

It was recently announced that God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk will be lending her talents to the upcoming game Shank.  I thought the God of War games were above-average in the video game narrative department and Shank looks like a well-done update to one of my favorite games, Metal Slug.  However, instead of making me anticipate the game even more, the news has left me perplexed.  Why?  Because this game was announced last year and has already been previewed by game reviewers.  The game is done and now it's time to get a writer on board.  As a writer, this strikes me as odd.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Luck: the spoonful of sugar

Mainly due to my increased conscious thinking about game theory, I've started playing more chess these days, mainly against the computer as chess enthusiasts are few and far-between.  The reason for this is fairly straightforward to me, now that I've been playing the game more.

Chess is not fun.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"All the play's a game...": Narrative as a game

Writers in the narrative formats--be it novels, screenplays, etc.--often borrow terms from games to describe dynamics in the narrative.  There is talk of "setting the stakes," "set-ups and pay-offs," "playing out his hand" or "her ace-in-the-hole."  Classic self-referential lines include, "Now it's my turn" and "Game over, man."  Certainly, writers borrow terms from wherever they find utility, frequently using such concepts as disparate as Newtonian physics and strings of thread, as well.  My intent here is not to argue that all narratives are based on games, or vice versa, but rather to explicate the two's relationship in hopes that it will surface lessons for both crafters of narratives and crafters of games.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Video games can never be art": a case of mistaken identity

To apologize would be presumptuous, but to the curious, I've been busy earning money and haven't had the huge blocks of free time that allowed me to write for this blog so regularly during the past couple months.  In this brief span of time that I've allotted to video game theory, I need to economically and thoroughly respond to Roger Ebert's direct response to my previous post.  The first mistake he makes is calling me Kellee Santiago and saying that I delivered my argument at TED instead of writing it on Interactive Illuminatus.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The case for expression

I think there's a reason two of our most beloved games--chess and poker--are also major contributors to our language.  Expressions such as "checkmate," "pawn," "playing the hand your dealt," "calling his bluff," "ace in the hole," don't have real linguistic equivalents.  They are areas of expression these games have claimed a monopoly over, and it won't take much effort to find many other expressions that find their roots in games.  It's not mere postulation that games could be used as expression--they already have been!

What is art?  I know you've heard the question a million times, but you haven't heard my answer yet.  You see, I'm utilitarian at heart.  I think in terms of utility.  Therefore, if A gives me the same utility as B, A and B are equivalent.  I get calories from pizza, I get calories from hamburgers.  While they are different in many significant ways, they find themselves identical when both are abstracted to "food."  I see no reason not to view art in similar terms.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Versus Series 4: Games vs. Play

In one of his posts, Remy77077 pointed me to Chris Bateman's blog, particularly to a post about what Bateman terms "Agon."  Bateman's musings about agon and other dynamics in play are fairly interesting, but reading him reminded me of a tendency in this budding school of game-making theory to conflate "play" with "games," as if the words were interchangeable.  I think there are some crucial differences between the two ideas, and I hope clarifying those differences will go a long way in better explaining how I view the world of games and play.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Having fun while you're losing

PC Gamer had a review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in which it said (and I'm paraphrasing), "Typical multiplayer first-person shooter--fun if you're winning, no fun if you aren't."  The reason this review sounds lackluster (even though it mentions the game is fun at a certain point) is because we all have the understanding that it's fairly easy to make a game that is fun if you win.  It's not much of a challenge.  Any game of luck fits the bill, no matter how poorly thought-out the game is, especially if winning gives you something like money (or "Experience Points").  Here's a game: I draw a card, you draw a card.  Whoever wins gets a dollar from the loser.  Flip a coin, pull on the one-armed bandit, spin the wheel.  It's all the same: winning=fun, losing=no fun.

So one way we can identify a game that is better than the rest is by saying that it is fun even when a player is losing.  This appears to be more of a challenge.  Something that is more of a challenge, of course, is more of an accomplishment when it is achieved.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rewards: the art of incentive

Jesse Schell gave a lecture at DICE that is apparently still resonating throughout the games blogosphere, and for good reason.  Schell described a jarring vision of the future where games not only become woven into our daily lives at the most intimate level, but one in which these games will be brought to us by commercial interests using them as a form of advertising.  To me, it's especially jarring because it's so plausible, but there's also an exciting amount of potential in that future that I want to discuss throughout a new series: "Creating Schell-games." 

But before I can do that, I feel like I need to investigate the idea of rewards in games.  The idea of "reward" in games has been casually mentioned in previous posts, most explicitly in Home arcades and the death of a game, but I have yet to define "reward" in a way that fits into the framework I've proposed in The definition of a game.  That's what I aim to do now.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The definition of a game

Even though I've briefly outlined my definition of a game before, I'd like to take the time to fully explain my vision of what a game is and what are the main components from which every game is constructed.

Three-dimensional games, part 4

Over the past few posts, I've briefly described how you can view games in terms of their relationship to three dimensions: diversion, sport, and expression.  The previous two parts explained how to get a visual representation of the dimensions and how to deal with some of the shortcomings this model has in it.

In this part, I will add the third and final dimension onto the dimension map.  This dimension is expression, and it is the one that I care most deeply about when it comes to video games (and pretty much most things, coincidentally).  Most game-makers, game-players, and non-game-players do not think of games in terms of expression, so in the last couple posts, we were free to exclude it as I introduced this dimensional view of games.  But now we finally get to add it in our visualization, which is important, because it will reveal a hidden side to games and explain why I disagree with so many of my friends when we are talking about games.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Three-dimensional games, part 3

In the last part of "Three-dimensional games," I showed you how it is possible for players to look at games from different dimensions and that we must establish which dimension or dimensions we are talking about as we share our opinions.  Ideally, we should look at both dimensions--diversion and sport

However, looking at both dimensions still does not guarantee an argument-free conversation about a game.  The reason is that people can perceive either of these dimensions differently than someone else perceiving the same dimension.  Keep in mind that we took all diversions and all sport and collapsed them into two simple straight lines.  A straight line does not do either of them justice.

Three-dimensional games, part 2

So now that we have our definitions, we can start figuring out how to express these dimensions.  We'll start with the two that most of us agree on--diversion and sport--and leave the third dimension for a later part.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Three-dimensional games, part 1

Games can be perceived in three dimensions: diversion, expression, and sport.  Of the three, diversion and sport are the most readily identifiable with games.  Expression is the more controversial dimension, and of course that is the dimension I am most interested in.

For now, though, I'm content to keep expanding the theoretical vocabulary we can use when talking about video games.  To that end, I want to share this three-dimensional view with you so that we can have another short-hand method to communicate more efficiently and effectively when we share our opinions.

Versus Series 3: Obstacles vs. Annoyances

From the day I started this blog, I've been wanting to write about the subtle distinction between obstacles and annoyances.  The main issue is that the distinction appeared to be so subtle that I had no way of expressing it.  Mark the milestone here: the first insight I've had since starting the blog that allows me to communicate something that was formerly ineffable to me. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The softening of the hardcore

I'm beginning to see a trend in traditionally hardcore genres: the games are getting easier.  That's a lie--this trend has been going on for quite some time.  For quick examples, we can compare earlier iterations of franchises to later ones.  In GTA IV, cops vanish at the successful completion of most missions, where in GTA III, most missions require the player to lose the cops before the mission will complete.  And if we compare GTA III to an earlier game: in Driver, the cops would even try to arrest you if you were driving without headlights at night.  Have cops just stopped caring over the years?

The GTA series is just one example of difficulty being dialed back.  Bioshock 2 has recently arrived, bringing with it the inexplicably abundant Vita-Chambers from the first game.  Modern Warfare 2, with the familiar Call of Duty mysteriously regenerating health, continues to reign as King Fragfest.  With almost every new game that is release, the trend continues: games are losing their teeth.

The sandbox game

Writing the "Gated game" post got me thinking more about video game genres.  While most AAA titles are variations on the gated game, there is a particular type of game where gates are not central to the game.  Like the gated game,  this genre of video game has so far gone without a proper name--you'll find them mostly in PC RPG's, inspired by the Ultima franchise and D&D.

I don't like the genre name "Role-Playing Game."  The name itself is both redundant and ambiguous, and the definition has been lost somewhere along the line.  RPG fans can contemplate what the standard is for a video game to be called an RPG; I'll make up my own definitions.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

It doesn't matter if it's not gameplay

I'm not trying to be the blind man telling the others what an elephant looks like, but I think it's pretty clear so far that the aspect of video games I am most interested in is the game aspect.  By this I mean almost entirely the rules of the game.

The rules of a game are as central to the game (any game, not just a video game) as a plot to a novel and a melody to a song.  A game cannot be separated from its rules.  Anything that can be termed a game has rules.  The only question is, how good are they?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Versus Series 2: Games vs. Film

Since we've already established what a game is in the first installment of the Versus Series, we'll begin this one by looking at films first and then comparing the two.

The gated game

As mentioned briefly in Versus Series 1, there are four components to every game: 1) a goal; 2) a way to achieve the goal; 3) obstacles to the goal; and, 4) a way to bypass the obstacles.  Readers of that post may have wondered which video games I felt were lacking in one or more of these areas.  At this juncture, I won't fall into the trap of calling out specific titles--instead, I'm going to go after an entire genre: "action games."