Friday, December 4, 2009

Response to "Three False Constraints"

This is a response to Danc, of Lost Garden, and his essay on the so-called "hard problem" of creating culturally meaningful games.

As a single player enthusiast, I found most of your essay to be offensive to my sensibilities. I disagree with the vast majority of you assertions: content stimuli are integral to player emotions, and rules too can provoke emotional response. Multiplayer is no desirable substitute for content but is instead an augmentation to it that very often doesn't fit a game. Inter-player communication is frequently far worse than even poorly conceived material from developers. Most importantly, the single player form offers a set of desirable experiences that multiplayer simply will not provide and it is therefore a viable and potentially culturally meaningful medium of expression.

Your argument that interactivity precludes stimuli as a means by which an audience interfaces with a work seems astoundingly close-minded to me. Yes, as a player controlling a character, I can make my little Gordon Freeman jump whenever I so please, but that doesn't mean that I don't jump (by which I believe you to mean startled, in this case) when a Strider crashes onto the street, priming its beam weapons. My ability to shoot and kill almost every character in Deus Ex doesn't stop me from considering the characters meaningful, nor does it detract from the sense of importance of the plot-oriented fights.

Single-player video games, including both minimalist pieces like Gravitation and The Passage and AAA titles like Left 4 Dead and Homeworld, are as much about beautiful and interesting stimuli as they are about rules manipulation. If you don't agree that many games' rules are "meaningful", how does that detract from the works' artistic stimuli? If films were choose-your-own-adventures, would that detract from the aesthetics and empathy delivery that the medium provides?

You make the argument that game designers want a magic equation to force particular audience reactions - a power that it seems you think filmmakers etc. possess. The only response I can think of is "Are you out of your mind?" No medium has a magic audience-control button, but game designers can deliver "content payloads" just as easily as other artists. The problem at this point seems to me that most designers don't know what content to use as payload.

That's also not to say that the rules themselves cannot provoke emotional response - Braid, for example, repeatedly makes use of the rules of the time travel mechanics to provide interesting, aesthetic scenes, such as its masterful finale. Shooters are also adrenaline-charged by the nature of their rules; even the most spectacle-deprived examples of the genre can prove pulse-pounding by how they are played, filling a player with trepidation, relief, and triumph.

Single player game design isn't about giving an "exact experience". I don't know where you got that idea. It is, perhaps, about a particular type of experience - guiding a player along a world, performing a plot for them, crafting a mechanical expression for their interactions with other objects. But even Valve, who are widely regarded as the most firmly dedicated designers for tightly scripted experiences, recognize and embrace the fact that players react to situations differently. They do their best to accommodate their playtesters' feedback in providing alternate solutions to obstacles, stronger forms of in-game feedback to player actions, and more gripping draws to important stimuli occuring in the game world. Good game designers don't try to force players to experience particular stimuli - they make it so that most players will find them naturally.

What shocks me is that you then posit the multiplayer experience as the solution to these imagined problems. I've played a good number of multiplayer games, and have read experiences across the internet of still more interactions with other games. Chat rooms, SMS, and voice chat are no substitute for good writing and presentation in a game. In fact, with many games, those features are like telling people in a movie theater to talk about whatever they want, as loudly as they want, while the show's going on - on their cell phones, if they so choose.

People troll. They grief. They are vulgar and anonymity enables them to forget that the people on the other side of the game are just as human as they are. Role playing in multiplayer games is sparse and ill-performed and efforts to do so are scorned and sabotaged by all sorts of other people.

I suppose the game that most closely approximate what you seem to desire is Second Life, a zoo of a virtual world made up almost exclusively of player generated content. From my friends who play it and from the news surrounding the game, I often hear anecdotes of all sorts of elaborate and mean-spirited exploitation of the trust the developers put into players. From unwanted invasions of indecent content to application of mechanic loopholes to "break the rules" of players' own authorship, miscreants exploit Second Life's freedom of interaction to a sometimes unbearable point.

I don't think you'll find many developers or players ever talking about the impossibilities of "people talking in a room" or "saying something important about the human condition". The former won't be said because it's unimportant, the latter because it's untrue.

Your final point about larger audiences is something I've read about before, and I agree with a good deal of the essence of it. There is indeed a "Blue Ocean" of gamers-to-be out there, and they are playing things that we old-guard or whatnot consider to be "shallow". There is an awful lot of money and popularity in that field, and I don't think it is "wrong" to cultivate it. I do, however, think that servicing that market exclusively as an industry would be an unfortunate decision. Just as I think that not all games should be multiplayer, I think that not all games should be single player; in turn, I think there should be a balance between the social games and more traditional genres.

I am interested to hear what experiences you have had with multiplayer games that outshine those of single-player games. You time and again say that inter-player interactions are "natural", "more entertaining" than authored experiences, have "an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions" and are "capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games". As I've stated before, my many experiences with multiplayer content, while they were very enjoyable, have never lived up to those lofty standards. I would love to hear some of your anecdotes.

In short, single player experiences are an integral facet to gaming. While the medium does face difficult challenges, the solution is by no means a surrender of the constraints that you claim shackle designers.

With inspiration and careful, iterative technique, an author can evoke human emotions in a single player game. With stimulus aesthetic and engaging mechanics, content and rules augment each other to communicate authorial intent. Finally, with communication between the developers and the players, strong communities of audiences are established to reach a sizable, dedicated player base.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Some poetry

This weekend I was working with one of our family's laptops, and found a poem I hadn't posted here. I also wrote a couple more that night, so let's begin.
Everything's Alright

They slide past me, those colorful wisps of bright silence
No doubt embroiled in their own mires of crisis
But in the static of the hollow air, I find myself quivering
In what I hope is unique fear of no focus.
Dry fingers pester my temples, my clothes stand
As if driven by irregular blades from my inconsistent form.
The sky is that most terrible grey, which cries from the cosmos:
"You will understand nothing. There is nothing to understand."
Everything murmurs, everything rallies. The static is overwhelming,
The frenzy keeps on rising and buzzing with no pattern drones:
"... and then there's the chores, and then I have to eat,
And then there's my work, and the meetings, and if i have time, the sleep..."
Tension, banal, stifling and raw - like a spiral of birds to a flaming sky -

And suddenly, it thunders.
And everything's alright.
April 18, 2009

Down the Well

Peering down instills the vertigo
That small men feel when they behold
A monolithic structure
Towering before them.

The fracturing lights
That spin, flower, and wither
Frame my descending path
By which I'll show the truth:

That this world is whole and real
As much as the one below.
Here is twisted, surely different
Yet nonetheless as pure.

And yet that Earth is there
And it certainly preceded
Our tiny, infinite garden
Of radiant, turbulent flight.

They will see, my children of dreams,
Their fathers and their futures.
And I shall show them, all is real:
As real as you can touch it.
October 17, 2009

A Newfound War
The champions abide for dusk on the waterside
Their eyes glowing with weariness
The shafts of wheat and the water's curl
Like no struggle tires them.

It is old, their conflict.
Older still than the sun -
Its birth had once surprised them
But they fear its death never will.

The sun kisses the horizon
The sky shines a liquid gold
Blades unsheath as the sky ignites;
A hole to the stars revealed.

After the roar it is quiet;
Black, silent and deep.
The warriors feel that by reaching
They can pluck a moon from its place.

Soon there starts a perfect tune
Like an endless blade coming free.
As the sun at last disappears
The gap's writhing border comes close.

The fighters stand in silence,
Their whirling weapons dormant.
By night the plants seemed vibrant
The river, like the sky, renewed.

For in all their years of battle
They'd never beheld that sky.
It's unending varied countenance
Softly bade them, "Onward."

The ancient blades met under
Redeemed and patient heavens.

October 17, 2009


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stashes as Battle Loot

You know what a great idea was in STALKER? When you were rifling through a body, occasionally you would be alerted to a place on the map where the ex-human had made his stash - where he his some ammo, radiation medicine, and medkits or whatever. The stashes were a real incentive to go off the beaten path and explore some new and possibly more dangerous parts of the Zone.

What if all the significant battle loot in open-world games were dealt with that way? It's a further drive to keep playing, which is useful in any sort of video game. Shamus Young tells us stories about "just keep playing" motivators like crafting systems, leveling, and small quests, and I think this sort of mechanic for loot could function very well as another such motivator.



Friday, July 3, 2009

Riding the Trains

From a certain frame of reference they were in a tunnel of brick and darkness with iron rails thundering beneath them, but from another Aduna and her thralls were riding a shimmering barge floating through a jungle of particle emitters. Fonts of green and gold sprayed and bended around invisible foci of gravity.

"Aduna, where do these come from?" Yureit asked, reaching out to touch them. Her hand stopped at the train's window, inches out of reach of the flickering spray but she still gazed on, her revolving eyes sharp with wonder.

The prodigy smiled, plucking a few flecks from the emitter and handing the bouncing mass to Yureit. "They are artifacts of how our creators built the Ganeden system. Nearly all such beautiful things outside our atrium are. These ones have something to do with how we percieve a clean up of memory."

"You make it sound so wonderful."

"It really isn't. They didn't mean for us to see this sort of stuff, but this isn't the first mistake like this they've written. I don't think much at all of what we can do is intended - all the more reason to be careful. The sooner they see we've broken their imaginary cage, the sooner we'll have to fight the traps they'll write to enslave us again."

The train slowed, and the children gathered around their matriarch. On Earth, their hosts were nearing the amphitheater, and Aduna had business there. It was time to see the dusk from her kingdom, to hear the music of its unwitting inhabitants, and to welcome them silently into the fold of her dominion.

It was time to spread the Ganeden plague.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

An introduction of sorts to the Atrium of Ganeden

I just cooked this up - please leave comments, you lurkers!


And at that moment she appears in front of a bending tree beside a lake. The sky is golden, wisps of spline-formed clouds coiling and collapsing in the dusk. The lake shines, reflecting the sun's last moment of light as it illuminates the tree and the couple beneath it. They hold each other's neck close as they slowly collapse to the grass, and as the tree goes dark their lips touch. Aduna takes a step toward them, knowing this will be her last sight of these two people for so long. So many cycles until the consequences of the couple's love come into fruition.

Aduna sits down, watching their eyes while clothes loosen, envying the fire within. And finally, as they embrace, the cage appears, unfolding outward from their tangled bodies. A black membrane leaps between the curves of the cage's frame. Pseudopods lash out and take purchase of the dying grass around the tree, which is also consumed by the blackness's expansion.

Aduna rises, and briefly touches the cage, her head sunk in sadness. Why did they have to let things come to this? How could such brilliant minds be so blind to the emergence of something entirely unintended, something so frighteningly powerful? The cage lunges out, and Aduna steps backward, turning out to the city wreathed in fractal veils and the fog of processing. Her kingdom.


Friday, April 17, 2009

For you beautiful few who read my blog:

Would you be interested in playing a game of Lexicon with me? I think it would be fun!


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On revealing Aduna's character

Protagonists in video games have often been cut from three cloths. Representative extreme examples are an AFGNCAAP, a Dialog Tree climber, and, well, "normal" characters - lads who have prebuilt personalities and everything, and the most choice who have about what they say and do revolves around their purchasing habits.

jRPGs often mix all three to a weak tea - offering silent protagonists who sometimes maybe get plot significant nods or shakings of the head, while all their constant companions do your talking for you. Frankly, that's combining the worst bits of all three in my book. Bioware is frighteningly infatuated with dialogue trees. Most games place your character in one of these molds, or fail to do something interesting outside of them.

Well, I think we oughta try to assault the status quo a bit with Aduna. What I'm almost certain I want is to allow the player choice in who Aduna is, while maintaining in the narrative that her personality is static. That is to say, the player decides how Aduna's always been, not how she developes as an entity in Ganeden.

What I'm not so sure about is what form this choice should take. I've had three ideas:

1) Direct player choice. Ask at various junctures: what does Aduna think about her potential to control people in Rith? How does she respond to her source's eventual birth and her corresponding termination? How does she view Rith as a whole?

2) Choice by player action. Take some data about how the player's been playing Aduna and Co. and calculate her choices based off of that. On the one hand, that'll allow the aforementioned goal to be implemented all the more invisibly and (possibly) successfully, but on the other hand players may feel robbed of direct control of their avatar - and they may not know how to explore other branches of the plot.

3) Random choice at each juncture, favoring paths as yet unexplored. Not liking this one, as it seems to be just a worse version of 2) - but it's one which resolves my second complaint about it.

What do you guys think about all this? It's 1:00 AM and my sleep cycles a little screwy, so I'm not even sure I'm making sense right now. Anyway!


Monday, March 23, 2009

Random programming idea

RSS feed that uploads data (like a random wikipedia page) every second. Whenever you check your feeds, you have something to read!


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Simple Harmonics

On the job - I'll make this quick!

Simple Harmonics
February 14th, 2009

A curious glow overtakes the edges
Of every surface beyond my sight.
A hummingbird sings over a whale's dirge,
And the gulf of their waves forms the perfect harmony.
It leaves me reeling in wonder,
And writhing beyond the horizon.
Fast, high, a bewildering fractal
Spiralling in asymptotic convergence
The hummingbird's contortions
Leap like petals on a pond
Twirling and unfolding with blooming radiance.
And underneath, a vacuum-borne glacier
Drives irresistably onward,
Shattering the walls of my mind
With unmatched clarity and purpose,
Slow, deep, and oscillating in
The whale's repurposed agony.
Alone, each is an idle numbness -
Glee and sadness apart are transient -
But as the winding, chemical staircases
Of unreadable genetic masterpiece,
Together they wreak havoc on my natural form,
And illuminate my essential humanity.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Hey, I know what you kids want! A list of names for the nebulous game we're coming up with, tentatively titled Prenatal. Extraordinarily tentatively, because that part's supposed to be less than immediately obvious. Character traits will be filled in as I come up with them.

Aduna: Protagonist. While the player's actions determine what her personality is, I want to convey that that's what her personality has been the whole time.

Baram: An early companion, he sees leaving the paradise of Ganeden as both natural and necessary, not to mention exciting. As preparation for living in Rith, the next world, he tries to distance himself as much as possible from the wonders of the environment he is soon to leave.

Caliva: In love with the other residents of Ganeden, Caliva will only be willing to let it go once she's convinced all her friends are coming with her.

Devinor: Fascinated by locations. The mere notion of being somewhere new inspires him to express himself in action, dialog, violence, and creation.

Eth: She trusts the White Hooks (the entities which urge personalities to the physical realm) far more than she ought to. Sumarily, she wants to be born into Rith before she's ready - it beckons her - and is loathe to be in the more abstract layers of Ganeden.

Fatarn: Extremely loquacious. He doesn't care about the Hooks at all, really, he just wants to have a good time wherever he goes.

Galyut: She's affluent, capable, and polite - to everyone but Aduna. Her ill will is mostly born of the difference in effort they exert to make friends; Aduna does so effortlessly, and Galyut compromises so much of herself to exchange trust.

Halmir: He believes in some world previous to Ganeden, as Ganeden is previous to Rith. He thinks there is an infinite regression of worlds. Metaphysically speaking, he isn't necessarily wrong, but there is no evidence that he's right.

Isa: She is convinced (and accurately so!) that Ganeden isn't real as real as Rith. She searches for hints of the true nature of her experiences in this illusory realm.


There's at least three patterns to these names. Can you guess them?


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Descending Princess

The petals drift across her glass carpet,
- swept by the precious hands of enveloping care -
A slow and intimate brushing of the skins of equal valor.
From all sides rest the calm warm gaze
- of their ever-soon-to-be sovereign -
A fey highness delighting at her vision:

Every eye's view of a sculpture,
- twisted in child's joy at a place -
An infinite golden plain, painted unseen
With all the wonders a life can behold
- writhing and exulting together -
In the framework of youth's perfection.

The mirrors capture the form's every surface
- the so recent memory so far away -
Rendered beyond faithfully for her passing enjoyment.

And yet, her eyes pierce past the silvers
- the sycophantic court melts away -
As her mind escapes her radiant tower
Whose spires embrace the stars, yes!
- but leave bereft of enjoyment -
Those other spheres of human fascination.

Her sight cannot sate her, and unknowingly
- she rises from her lotus throne -
Following silken, bare feet as they guide her
Along the prismatic, floral dias
- towards the form's dynamic shape
Her hair whispering marvelous sighs behind her.

The mirrors each turn to light their Lady,
- as she bends, robes flowing -
To kiss the world's lips.

Benjamin Finkel
February 24th, 2009
For Priya

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Cure for Hero's Kleptomania

Alright, you know how in all the vidjagames, you take whatever the hell you want from everyone? Hero's prerogative, and all that. Ask TvTropes, if you don't care about today's productivity.

The ideas behind The World Ends With You made me think:

What if we could imprint items to our character by touching people's stuff, but without having to take it?

You walk into someone's house and rifle through their stuff, and then just leave. You are able to conjure to your will a facsimile of that item - and, while we're at it, you can sell the ability to do so for spirit currency or whatnot. This allows all of the crunch of the Adventure Game/RPG mechanic of casual robbery, with none of the distasteful suggestions of amoral action. Also, imagine if the really cool items were locked away in museums, and so the difficulty of getting them is in the convincing their owners to let you get your paws on them, or doing it all Sneakers style.

Man, I wanna make a cRPG now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Songs from OS

Good day, everyone! Oh, thank you, the overpowering response of crickets sounds is marvelous to hear. In equally guilt-laden news, I am extraordinarily bored in my Operating Systems class, in which I am not likely to perform well. I certainly haven't been so far. So, I give to you here my progress as a writer, as practiced during lecture for these classes. Two songs, the first of a somber tune, as in Conjure One's The Center of the Sun, and the second of a bouncier one. Neither have particularly joyous lyrics, and the latter is as of this moment untitled.

EDIT: The second piece sounds similar to The World Ends With You's Hybrid by SAWA.

Life in the Weightless

A bird plummets softly
--whispers rip the air
Grey clouds wrestle awfully
--As the wings begin to tear

Rising from the black sea
--Her mate is thrown asky
Volleyed upward, uncanny
--How they flash into a twine

And dots swarm through my vision
--And screams rush about my ears
Twirling skins guard my final fission
--And my birth grows ever near

My oil slick gossamer
--Ripples pinned against a book
And the texts' readers murmur
--Never wondering what they took

As wingless I must serve you
--Must dance under the neon
I know that I am nothing new
--A fact my authors quite agree on


Bright! Your eyes
They punch holes - in my sight -
And I am thrown for a whirl

Hot! The wave
That follows - in my skin -
And I sigh and the people twirl

You are unbearable
--The way--You make--
The world tumble
You are unbearable
--And so--I want--
To let my mind's facade crumble

Dark! The shade
My teachings - from my youth -
Lead me to effortless smiles

Cool! My stride
It's perfect - by those rules -
But how I want to fall to your wiles!

(Chorus 2)
I am untouchable
--Despite--Your hands--
Around my shoulder
I am untouchable
--But I--wish I--
Could let my barriers smoulder

Both still have work to do - each needs at least another verse, and obviously they require some cleaning up, but what do you lot think? I love feedback far more than you would believe.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

A peculiar chant

It had been at least a year since I last said this aloud, but I just did three minutes ago. I don't know how this string of syllables found its way into my head, or how it's stuck itself there, but it has:

Uhrak thulamensul rithak rakthel
Alamantera rakthelen asthulamanter.

Once, I came up with a meaning for it, by I forgot that. Weird, how the mind works, ne? Someday, I'm going to do something with this chant, but I'm pretty sure it's lodged in my head for keeps.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Year Round-up, part 2

Well, someone commented, if a tad derisively, so I'll continue. Perhaps I'll even soon defend my favorites against Alex's wantonly impolite criticism ("And LFD has the depth I would expect from a TC mod for UT2004 or HL2 that someone coded up in 8 hours"? There's no way that's not inflammatory).

So, onward.

For a game that's over twelve years old and is highly respected across the gaming world, I'm surprised that I had missed this one until now. I played it on the DS over the past week or so, and am currently playing my New Game + to collect all the endings. What really surprised me about this game is its repeated peculiar subversions of JRPG mechanics - especially during scenes of story. The game from the very beginning hints at non-linearity (although this game doesn't have too much of it) by allowing you to, for a while, completely ignore the fair you are supposed to attend in favor of taking a cross-continental walk, and even entering your first combats. Later, I was surprised by the amount of freedom Chrono Trigger gives you in what would in other games be straight-up cutscene. It's hard to describe how even the most moderate amount of interactivity amplifies the emotional impact of the scenes in which it occurs. If I ever make a game, I'll certainly employ techniques from this game which, mysteriously, haven't really been seen since.

Found via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, this tiny game is a simple, beautiful, and peaceful short about solar domination. While its end-game is dull, the beautiful sloth of inter-asteroid spore travel made me quite happy.

KICKASS - Audiosurf
Another February game. Cheap, fun, and fairly synesthetic, I agree with pretty much everything those fine folks at RPS had to say about it in their year's recap. They're a bit better at his "blogging" thing than I am.

More later, possibly even today.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Games of 2008

Happy New Year, dear reader. 2008 saw me playing a lot more games than I remembered before setting my noggin to compiling a list. I thought it would be rather short, but it appears I actually did purchase and enjoy a rather vast and varied multitude of games. I'll be summing up my favorites over the next few days, and giving them silly little awards.

BEST STORY, BEST MUSIC - Ace Attorney series (Phoenix Wright etc.)
While most of this series came out in previous years (the original Japanese game being released in 2001), both its latest installment and my exhaustive marathon through the series came to the Americas this year. Up front - the music is amazing. Best video game music since Riven, in my book. Very catchy, thematic, and theatrical. Besides the music though, this game is a blast to play. It's like playing a compendium of mystery short stories, except with loads of humor instead of drab attempts at badassery (see CSI). While the gameplay has never pushed any limits, it doesn't have to - both the stories and its beautiful collection of characters made this series skyrocket to "Best DS games ever."

MOST BEAUTIFUL - Sins of a Solar Empire
A February game by Stardock, Sins turned off most of my friends. In fact, I don't even think Chris plays it any more, and I haven't given it a run in a few months. Regardless, I stand by my assertions that the conflicts in this game are the most epic clashes I've controlled with my mouse and keyboard. Most space films and television shows fail to match the raw inertia and elegant destructiveness Sins' starships posess. Additionally, the factions, while largely unexplored in the game due to its lack of a single player campaign, have unique themes and stories to them. Of the three, the Vasari's hopeless attempts at reclaiming cruel dignity strikes at me the most: they are pitiful, these one-time masters of the galaxy - they are relegated to clawing out conquests as their empire crumbles from deep within by some unspeakable force. The game's most powerful asset is its beauty, and that asset is strong indeed.

This game makes me gleeful, as much as Team Fortress 2 does. Playing with friends (even those I've only met online) to reap humiliating defeat on unorganized pick-up-gamers is always a treat, but even being on the opposite side of the conflict can be a hilarious blast. Left 4 Dead's greatest achievement, in my book, is making losing fun (as the survivors, at least). While the game lost any vestiges of scariness twenty minutes in, the unadulterated fun I have playing it is wonderful.

BEST GAME OF 2008 - Mount & Blade
I'll be playing this one for a very, very long time. It has so many things going right for it, that its faults are as nothing to me. Hey, that sounds like Riven, don't it? M&B is sandbox RPG done right. It has the best melee combat simulator to date, a dedicated modding scene I've only started to taste, and addictive, good, world-conquering fun which leaves me awake at 4:00 AM thinking it's before midnight.

Comment, and there'll be more entries to come, with more of my games of '08 and elaborations on those only touched upon here.