A link to the past

I’ve had some mixed reactions to the leaked details of Skyward Sword, the upcoming game in the Legend of Zelda franchise. According to Destructoid, via series producer Eiji Aonuma, the game will be “something like a school drama” with “Link, Zelda and their other friends all go to the same boarding school, and you’ve got teachers and a principal as well.” I’m not sure I like that idea. Where has my Link gone? Where is the mighty warrior and bane of Ganon?

“A boarding school? What are these… children?”

For someone that has tried in several different settings to argue that video games are both serious and can be art, the fact that I get even upset at all about a setting that has Link and Zelda in a school is rather humorous. After all, while I’ve been off pounding the drums of conversion to draw in others, I’ve forgotten what drew me in the first place. While I have grown up with and into the idea of Link of the green-clad sword-welding badass, I’ve forgotten that he had a very humble beginning. He did not start as the man slaying demons, the knight crusader or wandering paladin. He was an innocent once.

A boy. A cave. Endless adventures.

Although it has not gone up yet, I speak about about what I found so fascinating about The Legend of Zelda in Episode 46 of At Play. When I was younger, I explored the neighboring woods around my house. We lived at the end of a road and, if you looked only in one direction, it would appear as we were situated in the middle of a wilderness. It was in these woods that I had my own adventures. With my friends, we explored every nook and cranny finding our own caves, lost objects and once even a gravestone. I would come in from all the adventuring and then sit down to the same actions, only now via the NES. For hours, I would look for all the secrets in the game. With that same tenacity as in reality, I would find the hidden items, caves and, yes, even gravestones in the game. When thinking back over those times, I remembered something very simple: he started with nothing.

It is dangerous to go alone. Take this.

I don’t know when it started, but I have in my mind some image of Link as champion, some dashing do-gooder. It’s wrong. Really wrong. He was not some conscript into a battlefield but a reluctant hero. In order for Link to do anything, you, as the player, must push him into it. Link does not go marching off for glory, he must face the darkness alone. Although often guided by spiritual and mystical forces, they expect Link to do every deed, vanquish every evil. Link starts, in the very first game, without a weapon, a goal or even memories.

He is just a boy in a world that fight against him. The first action a player must take is to plunge into the darkness on that first screen, to enter into the unknowing abyss. With that first voluntary action to push Link into the darkness, a second choice appears. A sword and a message waits for Link. You must force Link into picking up the blade, joining the battle and being the hero the world wants. Each step must be taken and it must be taken alone.

With these reflections, I realized that the series I loved, the series I have invested thousands of hours into was actually really, really depressing. Sure, yes, the story is about saving a world but the cost to the hero, which I had never considered before, is terrible. In order that an evil be vanquished — not destroyed, never gone for long — a child must be sacrificed. In each titled game, the player directs a child, an innocent, to go get a sword and confront soldiers of darkness. In this, the childhood must end so that the warrior begin. Wind Waker has Link lose an island of paradise, Ocarina of Time has Link lose years of his life.

The weight of all these choices came sudden to me. Of course, they all started with a child. Of course, this one, this Skyward Sword, must as well. Just as I started with the first Link, so too must each generation of players come to the game as innocents to the world of Zelda and grow as Link does. My Link is not their Link, at least not yet. But, we are all part of a chain of players, each one joining to the next in our own battles and adventures alongside our hero Link. In that, both he or us are not alone. Each experience we take with us on our own adventures.

Buyer’s Market

There have been many publicized attempts in recent days to make a splash and, in the returning wake, draw new people to their alluring shores of new monetary strategies First was Valve with their announcement of Team Fortess 2 moving to the Free-To-Play model. Next was Mortal Kombat with its own Pay-for-More-Play model to entice players for longer. The latest, and potentially more meaningful, is that World of Warcraft is moving to a “First taste is free” model. Each is trying, in their own way, to approach the hardly new but increasing common idea of Games as Services.

Each of these moves is trying to make the player stay longer with the experience. With the plethora of games available to even the most causal gamer, the industry is trying to entice the gamer to spend that little more time before moving onto the next game, the next experience. The companies know that the gamer will move on eventually. More than any other time in the history of gaming, there are choices for any time, place or skill level of gamer. With that understanding close in mind, these companies have moved to keep the player entertained, to keep the player with the product, but on the player’s own terms.

We are moving beyond the ability to just buy a game and have a singular experience. (Well, for the most part) Games, by the small and large, are moving to a model that allows the player to fund their experience and stop whenever they want. The authorial control, in part, is moving to the player. They buy into the experience for as long as they want to and, when they grow bored, can move on without additional cost, having only paid for what they want… or can afford.

This is the service model: there is some initial fee or offering and, once the player is hooked, they need to continue to pay for more and more content. Like with other service industries, the model is make the experience likable enough that the patron continues to come back again and again for a delicious morsel of content. The key then to how this would and is changing the video game industry is in that selection process. Certain wares are cut into unit, tiny digestible units that the gamer consume but without them being sated.

The dark side of the player having to buy into and just getting what they want is that developers could plan for that. In other words, that the developers will market the game as a unit and then additional content, additional downloadale content, additional content to be bought as more units. Not just as personalizing options but as narrative locked behind a paywall. “Give us money,” says the developer, “and we will show you want happens next, we will give you the better weapon.”

These are not all bad for the player though. These options, right now, are not setup in such a way as to prevent the player to but to enable them. However, each does come with a cost. For TF2, it is in getting items faster. For Mortal Kombat, it is in getting things sooner or at all. For WoW, it is in getting more access. None of these are created in such a way as to harm the player but the potential is there more and more. Gone are the days of Horse Armor, we have moved onto Episodic Content. Each bite costs some more.


“[Don’t] play it again, Sam”

In all the cries for meaning in video games, a frequent word has come to the forefront: permanence. Whatever choices I make in the game, whatever actions I take, they should all be part of my personal narrative experience. They should be permanent, says the gamer.

It seems as if an answer to that cry has arisen from an unlikely ally to the cause. Capcom, in their just released game Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, is including a feature where “all mission progress is saved directly to the Nintendo 3DS cartridge, where it cannot be reset” reports Ars Technica via GiantBomb. Permanence is here, at least for this game.

Although “clarified” to GiantBomb, Capcom’s statement said that “Secondhand game sales were not a factor in this development decision”, meaning that development is probably not talking to marketing. This kind of permanence hurts only those that sell or share their game with others. While the first play-through may be pristine, any others playing that same game cart will never get a fresh experience.

More is at risk than just secondhand games, the ability of a game to become “retro” could also affected in that no second playthrough could be attempted. You cannot go back to see that memorable boss battle or beautifully rendered scene. The game has decreed that you are now locked out. While access to areas from your last save is available, you cannot go back to the beginning and try another path. For many role playing games, such a system would be a rude awakening to those who might try several different endings or even beginnings of a game.

Looking even further into the bleak future, a worst case exists in being locked out of content completely. Although not addressed in either article, the threat that the game could very well land itself into a place where the content becomes unplayable due to a bug or glitch that is then saved permanently to the cartridge is real. In my own personal experiences, I have had game saves glitch leaving them unusable. It would be catastrophic to the experience — maybe even ending my play with it — if the game glitches during a save and permanently locked me out of the game. That kind of permanence is not what those who cry for meaning want. But it might well be both the outcome and the cost of a personal, unique narrative experience.

The Impossible Garden: Emergent Play

[A little while back, I wrote this for a special reason. I was in a bit of a mood that day. It gets a bit Walden-esque in places but has some good ideas. At least, I think it does.]

You will never have an experience with a video game that was completely planned by the developers. Sure, they can block your path, slow your growth or restrict your options. They can completely remove your agency and even end your experience outright for making the wrong choices. But they can never completely predict your actions. In this, every participation is organic and new.

I like to jump in games. If you give me the option to jump, I will probably exercise that right as frequently as possible. I will have my character hop around haphazardly. Like some crazed rabbit, I will spring, leap and bound my way through any story that a game might present to me. I will mock any serious situation with my absurd and energetic antics. I will skip through every dark and dreary forest.  Though expressing the joy of the moment, I overlook the story. It is an abrupt beauty that fades quickly in the overall narrative of the game. In essence, every experience I have is a flower, a quick flourish of bloomed deliberation.

Maybe flowering is not your thing. Maybe vines are. Thick and strong, they wrap around every tree trunk of game mechanics. They squeeze the rules with a strong will and, given time, find ways to bend them to their needs. Creeping with time, they find every nook and cranny, every secret place. They explore every crack and crevice. In pursuit of their goals, the vines crawl under, around and through every area. They are ever expanding but frequently suffocating. Although they have knowledge of the entire domain, they often miss the artistry of the moment. Direct that growth though and it will pattern and branch out.

A bush is a modeled thing, a planned structure. Even wild growth will have some type of serendipitous symmetry. Bushes start with a plan and branch out. They might explore some option but retreat if does not reach their goal. A bush shapes the journey to the goal. Secured in twisting tributaries, growth happens only as it pertains to the mission but possibilities are ever-present. A bloom of frivolity might be allowed from time to time but always on the outside, the part easily dropped off and dismissed. A bush stands tall and its growth is massive but it all happens in small steps, in premeditated actions. Bushes stand aloof from the other growth, alone in multitudes of sameness.

A blade of grass is a strange thing in that it stands straight up. It has no branching, no crawling about and no flowering. It is a monolith of one mission, one goal. It strives for the golden while ignoring the moment, a plan or even the area. It wants one thing and despite everything else will grow and grow under it fails under its own weight of purpose. It can be easily cut down because it has little support structure. Though another blade of grass is near or far, all stand alone.

What I have described here in flowery language are different emergent play styles, the organic conglomeration of two different aspects: who you are and how you play.

The way you approach a game is a unique experience. You have some level of your past that controls your present, some part of who you are physically and mentally that was influenced and does influence your experiences. Your life experiences will inevitably bleed over into your play style. Be it for pain or pleasure, your reactions in a game will try to elicit some response in yourself.

Though it overlaps who you are, how you play a game can be complimentary or even in conflict with who you are to others. Maybe you like to role-play in a game, really become a character. Given the chance to be absorbed in the narrative, you immerse yourself. Maybe whomever you play is always you. Your character will always act as if you were in that situation. Regardless, you have a style of play that is common to your many adventures.

When you mix the cultivation of style with the innate pattern of the player, you get a seed of possibility. Every action chosen adds to the path of growth. Knowledge of the past and the goals of the present add to the structure. Time and energy are pored over and sink into the roots. Eventually, a sprout of purpose emerges. It reaches toward the goal in totally new ways. A developer might plan and try to predict the future movements of all players but each session is new, unique and utterly organic, the collection an impossibly complex conservatory of existences.

Press Start

There has been a bit of conversation since the last post. Between Ross and I, the idea of the importance of the designer and the player have been batted back and forth. Notably, we exchanged a couple different links to Another Castle and to The Escapist. It was the later that lead me to reconsider my hard stance.

I had said that the designer’s vision was the most important. Regardless of the audience’s reaction and sometimes in spite of it, I said the designer was all important in the equation for an aesthetic reaction. I had forgotten something quite obvious and important to the entire experience: the player.

It is an important to realize that the flow of control from both designer and player is a fluid one. While one game’s rules may provide a wide range of expressions and options, another may not. There is a constant pull of the wide range of responses to a work to the push that is the designer’s original intent. However, the player is always important to the equation and the balance. Without it, the designer has made something only half finished.

While it is true that the designer must try to limit the number of interpretations, the designer cannot enforce this. The work will speak for itself and the responses from the audience will, over time, congeal into the general opinion of the piece. The audience will mold and shape the opinion of the work by their experiences, moods and cultural understanding.

The push-pull of audience and designer is part of the atmosphere of many different publishing areas. Published writers perform for an audience and to get paid. Artists are often commissioned. The work is of the designer’s vision but also for a reason, for an audience. Without the money, the writer and artist cannot continue to met their own needs. In most traditional mediums, the designer works for both themselves and their market. In video games, this is true to an even more extreme.

To play a game is a voluntary act. The player must met the game on its level and continue the interaction for an extended period of time. The player must be fed experiences that produce an aesthetic reaction that will cause the player to continue the interaction. If the designer creates something in a way that the player cannot interact with it then the player cannot interact with it. Games, in the traditional sense, are meant to be played. Without the player, the game remains only one half of an experience. The player breathes in the life and completes the circuit between the rules and those following the rules.

Without players, the game is at a standstill. The game cannot operate without players. As long as players are not engaging with a game, the game is not, in a since, a game. It is a list of algorithms and rules that have been crafted but are not active. Upon the voluntary act of taking on the rules and operating with the content, the player creates the game.

Coding Controller

Who should have a greater voice, the designer or the user? That is what the first post in the series Gamer’s Rights sets out to decide in the case for version control of video games. Sets out, that is, but maybe does not get there. Not because of the good work of the author, but because of the medium in question.

My very first reaction, just upon reading the thesis of the argument, was that it was wrong: users do not have a right to a certain version. As a designer myself, the worst thing I can do is to completely listen and execute on all feedback I get about a project. While trusted opinions might matter more than others, it is the responsibility of the designer to follow their own dream and create according to what their intent is… while also limiting the number of interpretations of their work.

One of the worst arguments you can get into with professionally creative people is over the “intent” of a project. Thousands of books have been published on what certain authors intended while creating any number of famous works of art. The designer’s job then is to limit these responses from the work. Writing about the designer is fine, but a designer can never go and tell people what the interpretation is of a work is. For a designer to say “You didn’t get it” is a frequent and terrible transgression. A writer cannot go around and tell people how to feel about a novel. A painter cannot go around and tell people how to feel about a painting. If the audience for the work does not understand the message of the creation then, in some way, the designer has failed. In any other medium than video games, this would be a tragic but necessary part of the evolution of the designer. In the next work, the designer will try again to evoke certain emotions, at certain times, for a certain audience. Video games however are very different in that they can be revised.

Much was made of the fact that Stephen King changed things in his Dark Tower series. For the first book, he added about 35 pages to “resolve continuity errors”. That is what I think of when users talk of a designer changing a work. They wish to bring the work more in line with the overall intended aesthetic experience. In order for the audience to understand the greater picture, the designer steps in and prevents confusion, limits interpretations of a work by introducing changes. Put in gamer speak, the designer patches the work.

I agree with Ross (Boss1000) that companies should fix bugs, patch multiplayer games and add content. These are all things that decrease the likelihood of invalid interpretations and bring the creation closer in line with the intended product. It is never the goal of a designer to ship a game with a bug or some imbalance of the rules between parties. These, whenever possible, should be fixed in order that play continue according to the rules of the game. We both agree with this view of version control. My problem is not with the designer but the user.

A designer creates with an intent for a user. This is where video games become very interesting in this conversation. If a prevalent interpretation of a work is in contrast to what the designer intended, the designer can often do nothing about it but get angry. Video game designers though can force an experience, if they want. The problem though is that video games, more than any other medium, has to maintain the attention of the user throughout the experience of the work. If a player permanently leaves the experience, for any reason due to the mechanical level, then the designer has failed.

Aesthetic responses can often be predicted but not controlled. If the play elicits an emotion from the player and the player, from that feeling alone, leaves the experience then the player has made the choice to disengage. If a subset complains about a feature or aspect of the experience, should the designer change it? Shouldn’t the work of the designer speak the message? This is questionable. Is enough of the audience confused about the experience that the designer should take steps to help or is a vocal minority trying to maintain something that has become meaningful only to them? This is the Runescape example that Ross uses, a certain part of the audience paid for the right to have a certain outdated version of the game experience.

I think, while I have taken a harder stance, that Ross and I agree in the end that the designer should be trusted with shaping the experience. I side much more with authorial choice than the need to just “make the game fun” though. A designer may work for a user, but they also craft the responses from their own subjective tastes and experiences. Designers get paid to work for a reason, their choices in the process of creation makes a valued product.

Frequently Coincidental

[Continuing the series of posts on dissonance in the MDA model, this post covers the totally not made up term “Falsimilitude” or un-life-likeness moments in narrative.]

You enter televisions to fight monsters in dungeons created from negative energy molded by the unrequited feelings of people in a small Japanese town.

Given that premise, you’d think that any number of things could be excused in the game. However, the fact that no one sees your team — an ever increasing number of people who join you to fight the monsters — enter a big-screen television in the middle of a department store bothers me.

Verisimilitude is the quality of which something artistic is like reality. Put another way, it is the “lifelikeness” of something. Falsimilitude then is the quality of which something artistic is not like life at all. It is entering the Uncanny Valley of narrative, the sudden breakage of the ‘fictional dream’ back into reality.

In Persona 4 (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4), you do exactly as I stated in the opening: you enter televisions and fight monsters. The game takes a fantasy bent on what crimes, unrequited emotions and small town politics has on the lives of a set of kids in high school. Quite clearly a fictional setting, story and plot, the game can excuse any number of things while in the “Midnight Channel” (alternative dimension where, as I said, the monsters are), but often annoys me with its presentation of what goes on in the town.

Through a confluence of events, the fact that the protagonist has a hidden power and some admittedly heavy-handed plot, the player is transported into a television early on in the game. Before this however, the characters are standing in front of a big-screen television in a department store. During the process of entering the television the first time, and every time after, no one seems to notice the characters leaving the store in a thoroughly unique way.

To me, this is Falsimilitude“. The narrative of the world in the game’s setting does not excuse, in my opinion, the ability for repetitive entering of an alternative dimension and no one in the town or even store noticing. (It also fits the trope of Invisible Children, a frequent plot device of media featuring children or young adults.)

This form of dissonance is an Aesthetic response directly from the Mechanics side, bypassing any self-expression through the Dynamics loop. The act of observation and consideration trigger the response without any interaction with the world as a constructed item. It is the opposite of the ‘Game as Drama’ approach to quantifying “fun” where the rejection of the premise or larger set of rules within the Mechanics side prompt the questioning of more rules.

As covered in the last post, once a sufficient amount of doubt has surfaced within the player’s mind, the ability to re-enter the ‘fictional dream’ of the world is scarred. Additional attempts to enter the ‘mindset’ of the character become increasingly and increasingly unlikely from the player side.