Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Epistemology of Kong

So, apparently this month is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Super Mario Bros. for everybody, and next month is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which mostly matters to us Americans. Fantastic!

All I've been able to think about is The King of Kong. That may seem appropriate because the movie is about Nintendo's first super-hit arcade game, the game that was the debut of Mario, but that's not why it keeps popping into my head, so I'll explain.

I'll start by making a generalization that's probably kind of platitudinous. Do we mostly think that documentaries are educational, informative, credible, straightforward, and authoritative? I think a lot of us do make that assumption. Some documentaries are designed to inform and educate, and some of those are honest about the limits of the information they can provide.

A lot of documentaries, however, are designed to persuade or simply to entertain, and if they do inform, that is either a secondary aim or a thing that they do in service of their greater agenda. Information is filtered so that what serves the director's or the writer's argument is included, and what detracts from it is, in almost all cases, excluded. Information that detracts from the argument but is still included is almost always discredited in some way. Michael Moore's films are known for presenting commentary from or footage of his opponents that is selected to make them seem unreliable. Lengthy footage of George W. Bush being prepped by makeup and hair people is included in Fahrenheit 9/11 as if to suggest to Moore's audience that this man is surely too ridiculous (and vain?) to be leading the country. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the 2008 documentary that portrays intelligent design as a legitimate scientific theory whose exponents have been persecuted by the academic establishment, seeks to create a chain of association from evolutionary theory to social Darwinism to eugenics and thus to the Holocaust. The film scores one of its points on this count by excising, without acknowledging the alteration, crucial lines about the importance of sympathy and its status as one of humanity's noblest tendencies from Darwin's otherwise clinical account of the tendency of humans artificially to resist the ravages of natural selection. The result is that Darwin seems, to those unfamiliar with the passage, to suggest that we should do away with the mentally and physically infirm.

Anyone who works in television, film, or theatre will dismiss the footage of Bush being made up and coiffed as indulgent and misleading; hair and makeup are always applied before major on-camera appearances, even in times of crisis, for better or worse. The footage therefore isn't relevant to the film's argument that he is a poor leader. Likewise, anyone who has read Darwin will likely remember his gentle and endearing observations and his obvious compassion for humans and animals alike—Darwin's capacity for finding wonder in life in all its variety was far too large to coexist with any cold tendency towards eugenics.

This is to say nothing of the inevitability that the process of filmmaking itself will come between a documentary's evidence as it was originally gathered and its argument as it is ultimately presented. All documentary filmmakers film many more hours of footage than can fit into a feature-length film, and even the most earnest filmmaker will have to edit something out, and not every piece of relevant information does or can be caught on camera, anyway. Every documentary film editorializes with its content, even if the intent of the film is purely to inform.

No documentary film is objective. When it comes to a movie like The King of Kong, it's completely obvious that we're watching a reconstructed account—not to say a reenactment, just a heavily edited remix of real footage—and I probably seem to have belabored my point. Sorry. However, what I've been trying to do is to undermine in several ways the assumption that we can rely on this genre, which we often simply take to be the film equivalent of non-fiction literature.¹

The King of Kong isn't much of a documentary, frankly. In what I think is an obvious way, it transforms actual events involving Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and the bureaucracy of Twin Galaxies into a kind of epic duel between the just underdog and the conspiratorial agents of wrong. We Red Sox fans watch this transformation happen, and we contribute to it happening, all the time.

Anyway, Billy Mitchell marches, Vader-like, to the resentful teeth-gnashing of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," through a world that seems to cater to his every whim. Steve Wiebe slumps and smirks through a world that is completely indifferent to him to a stirring little piano tune he composed himself. Everybody in the retro-gaming community falls all over himself—not to be sexist, but these dudes are all dudes, with the sole exception of the adorable Doris Self—to get his ass to Billy's lunch thing or to watch Billy's latest high score video or to type that high score into the Twin Galaxies database without a second's hesitation. Everybody aside from Steve Sanders seems content to ignore Steve Wiebe altogether or to condescend to him, notwithstanding the fact that whether he is Billy Mitchell's equal at Donkey Kong or not, he is hella better than anyone else at it;² wouldn't you agree, BRIAN KUH.

See? I can't even talk about the movie without getting worked up. It doesn't inform; it tells its own story. And predictably, there is a debate about the story, too. Walter Day says that the movie makes everyone in the Twin Galaxies side out to be bad people when they aren't, the movie misrepresents the facts, and so on and so on. Seth Gordon, the film's director, has said that his treatment of Billy Mitchell in the movie is in fact overly charitable. The movie even simplifies the high score race to the point of distortion: while it looks like a huge defeat for Steve when the Twin Galaxies referees reject his video, what actually happened was that a previous score of his, which had already beaten Billy's 1982 high score, remained the reigning Donkey Kong score. That controversial taped score of Billy's was also eventually rejected.

Anyway, all of this is just to point out that not only is The King of Kong a representative of a category of things that by their very nature are subjective products, but it also claims to present evidence of another reliability breakdown, this one on the part of the vaunted organization of Twin Galaxies. Walter Day spends a lot of time in The King of Kong talking about the importance of Twin Galaxies, presenting it as an indispensable piece of the video game subculture. But the film also shows Twin Galaxies' referees extending privileges, at least initially, to Billy Mitchell that they deny to Steve Wiebe, despite their insistence that they are an organization dedicated absolutely to fair treatment. The film also shows that it is not out of the ordinary for gamers to lie about scores or otherwise misrepresent their skills, through cheat codes or hardware or software alterations or video trickery. Even video games don't necessarily tell the truth!

So King of Kong is an unreliable film about an organization that is also unreliable that chronicles high scores won by people who might also be unreliable. Where do we go when we want to know who holds the high score in Clu Clu Land? How do we know that person didn't cheat? How do we know Twin Galaxies really put the screws to that person and sufficiently vetted their score recording?

We can't know anything, readers, as I discovered this week. Nintendo has released a timeline of the Super Mario Bros. series as well as a video (now fixed on the official website, those sneaky bastards!) showing footage of most of the major titles in the main series. So what? Well, every game from Super Mario Bros. 2 to Super Mario 64 is listed as being released a year later than it was actually released. Not even Nintendo can be relied upon to give us information that it should be wholly within their ability to give us! How do we even know that this year really is the twenty-fifth anniversary of SMB? Maybe next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary!

Maybe it was last year. Maybe it was last year.

¹ Actually, I don't believe in non-fiction literature, either. Surprise! I kind of sort of wrote about editorializing in the biographical genre in a previous post, and I should have pushed my point further and said that it is inevitable that all literature, deliberately fictional or deliberately non-fictional, is written by a limited person with limited access to limited information.

² Excluding of course the very charming Dr. Hank Chien, whose humility is surpassed only by his Donkey Kong score and apparently Billy Mitchell's latest score, too.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review of Nintendo Magic by Osamu Inoue

Nintendo Magic: Winning the videogame wars
by Osamu Inoue
translated by Paul Tuttle Starr
published April 27, 2010

I'm not a businessy kind of person. I am a video-gamey kind of person. So, no surprise here, the first time I heard the phrase "Blue Ocean strategy," it was in connection with the Nintendo Wii.

I can't recall what happened—either some games journalist actually said it, or I constructed the story in my head¹—but sometime in 2007, I became convinced that Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo Co., Ltd., had read Blue Ocean Strategy, the book, and inspired by its wisdom, decided to take Nintendo's business model in a different direction with the Wii. He'd have to be quite a fast reader to have pulled that one off, it turns out; Nintendo was in the thick of the Wii's development process already in 2003 or 2004, and the book was published subsequently, in 2005.²

Nintendo Magic is just the book to dispel misconceptions of this kind. I've read a lot about Nintendo and how it does things over the years, but in Nintendo Magic, Osamu Inoue presents a new picture of the company I hadn't completely understood before, although I had seen pieces of it in the past.

To hear Inoue tell it, Nintendo is a company that has been guided towards the modern day by a cadre of philosopher-kings, all of whom have complementary (and sometimes almost identical) visions for how to make good games and good game machines.

Astonishingly, to me, three of the four lights at Nintendo profiled in the book—the fourth is deceased—consented to interviews with Inoue that originally ran separately in Nikkei Business. Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata, and Hiroshi Yamauchi all personally helped Inoue to put together the cohesive picture of Nintendo that Nintendo Magic paints.

This means that the book holds a few surprises. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Iwata's predecessor, is someone I knew best as an overbearing shadow in David Sheff's Game Over. It feels silly to say, but by the time I'd read through the early years of Yamauchi's relationship with Minoru Arakawa, his son-in-law and former president of Nintendo of America, I was scared to death of the man Sheff was describing. Every scene with Yamauchi played out—for me—like a scene featuring Darth Vader: the instant Yamauchi entered the room, the air grew colder, everyone's pulses quickened, and every last shred of authority and power was surrendered to this overpowering, incalculable man. Not to dwell on Sheff—and I should concede here that Game Over is an incredible book, with the most detailed and comprehensive account of Nintendo's history I've seen in print, in one place, in English—but in all fairness to myself, Sheff does open his description of the Yamauchi estate thus (and this description opens the chapter on Yamauchi):

The gate, which has survived for five hundred years, locks shut with a heavy cross-bar. In the year Heisei 4 (1992), the gate is still flanked by a high fence that winds around the perimeter of the Yamauchi property. The fence is crowned with coils of razor wire, iron spikes with dagger point, and deadly-sharp bamboo spears. Their purpose is unambiguous (12-13).

That, however, is Sheff, and I apologize for my digression. The point is that I have been conditioned, by Sheff and others, to think of Yamauchi in a certain way, and there is no question that Yamauchi is a hard man. As both Sheff and Inoue point out, his opening act as president of Nintendo in 1949 was to purge the company of all his relatives, eliminating any potential challenges to his authority and possibly, I suppose, potential inducements to partial decision-making. However, what Nintendo Magic shows is that Yamauchi is a wise business leader, one for whom humility is a necessary attitude for doing business. Inoue sums Yamuchi's philosophy up by elaborating on the latter's interpretation of the kanji in Nintendo's name (任天堂, nin-ten-do, which he reads as something like "leave fortune to heaven"):

The future is unknowable; luck is the purview of heaven—simply focus on doing your best at what you can do..."Composure in failure, humility in triumph"—Yamauchi's motto. When not favored by fortune, stay composed and work hard. When blessed with luck, remain humble and put forth your best effort (170).

I'm still intimidated by Yamauchi—anyone who can bring himself to fire all the members of his family from his corporation, all at once, simply because they are family, is someone whose perspective I will never be able fully to understand—but I can certainly respect his philosophy. I'd stop short of calling him Buffettesque (Warren, I mean, not Jimmy), but I wonder if all business leaders would not benefit from more humility in times of success.

The philosophy of fun above technology, which is, um, the guiding star that has directed Nintendo's ship into the blue water of motion control, is one that has been put into practice at Nintendo for a long time. It is an approach that all of the Nintendo luminaries covered in the book have taken in some way. One of the keystones of Yamauchi's humility-in-success approach is his acknowledgment that Nintendo is a company that produces amusements, and whether it pursues the cutting edge of technology or not, if it stops creating products that consumers enjoy, it will fail. Yamauchi is clearly aware that no one needs Nintendo. Inoue shows how a failure to put fun above technology is largely what went wrong with the Nintendo 64 and the Gamecube. Conversely, this is what was so right about the Game Boy—and that is why it was a bestselling platform for more than a decade.

Although I certainly enjoyed the chapters that were based on Inoue's interviews immensely, my favorite chapter by far was the one on Gunpei Yokoi. Jeremy Parish has written a fair amount on Yokoi's philosophy of "lateral thinking" and "seasoned technology,"³ so it came as little surprise to me that Yokoi fit Inoue's thesis perfectly. Yokoi believed strongly in using somewhat obsolete, cheaper technology in creative ways to produce gaming devices that would differ from the competition in interesting ways while still remaining affordable. What surprised me was Inoue's gentle treatment of the Virtual Boy and Yokoi's subsequent departure from Nintendo. Granted, Inoue strikes me as more of a business journalist than a gaming enthusiast, but he doesn't waste time making jokes about how awful the Virtual Boy was. What he focuses on is what Yokoi did with the Virtual Boy, which was to produce an admittedly innovative platform that did something with older, inexpensive technology that no one else was doing. The Virtual Boy suffered from several missteps, not a few in design, and some others in marketing, but it was a distinctively Yokoiian creation, and looking at it from the fresh perspective Inoue opens up leaves me wishing that I could play Mario Clash or Mario's Tennis just once.⁴ It may be a testament to Yokoi's vision that Nintendo is now following up the most successful handheld of all time, the DS, with the 3DS. Nintendo's introduction of a new 3D system is unquestionably a calculated risk after the notoriously poor performance of the Virtual Boy.

The other new part of the Yokoi story—new for us non-Japanese speakers, at least—is Inoue's claim that Yokoi was not forced to leave Nintendo but left on his own. According to Inoue, Yokoi had been planning for some time to retire and go into business for himself, and the coincidence of the Virtual Boy's failure with his departure was unfortunate but not significant. I haven't heard every available take on the Yokoi story, and unfortunately the book on him is not available in English (see note 3), but every account of Yokoi's departure from Nintendo I have ever heard or read has been negative. The usual narrative is that he failed the company with the Virtual boy and so, despite his many successes, especially the Game Boy, Yamauchi forced him to retire. This seems not to have been the case, to judge from Inoue's version of the story. Those comments of Yokoi's which Inoue preserves here are not negative at all, in my opinion. Yokoi seems to have regretted the circumstances surrounding his departure, but he does not seem to hold any ill will towards Nintendo.

On this point, I do have one comment about the unique tone of Nintendo Magic. Without going into too much depth, and while I am no expert, I do understand that there is a difference in Japan between honne, one's actual feelings on some person or issue, and tatemae, what one feels free or qualified to express about her feelings. I do not know to what degree the importance of distinguishing between the two guides Japanese journalists and their writing,⁵ but I will say that Nintendo Magic always presents a much more restrained and respectful picture of Nintendo than most other accounts I have read. For instance, while Inoue is straightforward in telling the story of the shifting legality of cards and card games in Japan over the past few centuries, a history that I for one appreciate having been informed of, he never alludes to the Yakuza, which I was under the impression was an important source of revenue for Nintendo, particularly given the company's location in Kyoto. Then again, Nintendo does not make its money by selling cards anymore, so this is hardly an essential detail, but I did register its absence. At first, I wondered just a little if Yokoi's story had been embellished with a more positive tone, and if Inoue's treatment of Yamauchi had been, as well, but ultimately, I think that Inoue simply offers an alternative, more balanced view of these narratives and the people involved in them. Given the negativity of some accounts, I think an alternative perspective on Nintendo was a valuable and an important thing.

Another important lesson I learned came from Inoue's discussion of Shigeru Miyamoto's famous tendency to upend the tea table (chabudai gaeshi, translated here as "flipping the table"). The internet is a funny place, and whenever I've heard of Miyamoto upending the tea table, it's been the assumption of the person telling the story that Miyamoto was actually throwing a fit, which is the traditional meaning of that phrase. Either that, or the people I've heard these stories from were joking about Miyamoto throwing a fit and I simply failed to understand the joke. At any rate, someone's Japan filters, probably mine, are turned up too high, because while an actual chabudai gaeshi amounts to abusive behavior and is usually associated with angry husbands dissatisfied with a meal or upset with other members of the family, Miyamoto and those working with and under him use the term jokingly to describe his habit of throwing troubled projects into chaos as he often does late in production schedules—perhaps like a Tim Gunn with horribly painful timing. This has resulted in the late releases of many Nintendo games, supposedly including The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was supposed to be a launch title for the Nintendo 64 but ended up coming out two years later because of one of Miyamoto's upendings. So I've read, anyway.

Obviously, Miyamoto isn't an abusive person; I just assumed the stories about his chabudai gaeshi were literally true. Inoue gives Miyamoto the opportunity to have some fun with the joke, however, as he strains the metaphor delightfully further: Miyamoto jokes that while he does upend the tea table from time to time and throws all of a project's elements into chaos, he often borrows things from other tea tables and helps to set up a new, better meal.

I should say one more thing, and that is about the translation. This book was written for a Japanese audience and brought over directly from its Japanese version; with the exception of a short update at the end of the book, nothing has been added specifically for non-Japanese audiences, as far as I could tell. In one or two places, therefore, there may be concepts that would otherwise be unclear to readers who were not at least a little versed in Japanese culture; however, these are few and far between, and the ones that are important (flipping the tea table, the different kinds of Japanese playing cards) have either been explained fully or have been integrated into Inoue's discussion in such a way that their meaning is never unclear. While, as someone who does not read Japanese, I can't attest to the accuracy of Starr's translation, it is almost always excellent, and it is highly readable. I think we are very lucky to have gotten a translation of the book here.

I've passed over the figures, charts, and graphs that are so professionally presented, as well as Inoue's meticulous reporting of Nintendo's fortunes over the years. A particularly stunning timeline of Nintendo's stock price and operating profits charted against notable moments in the company's history appears in the book's appendix. This is all handled very well, but there's much more to the book, in my view. More than anything, Nintendo Magic is a much-needed addition to the available literature on Nintendo and its business practices. Inoue has had a rare opportunity to speak directly with Iwata, Miyamoto, and Yamauchi about the company's operation, and the insights their discussions with him have yielded helped me to understand much better what has guided Nintendo's successes lately. Together with the regular Iwata Asks (here too) interview series at, Inoue's book makes the typically quiet corporation much more transparent, and the chance to look inside and see how things work is a rare opportunity.

The picture of Miyamoto upending the tea table comes from a presentation by Eiji Aonuma at GDC 2004; the photo is borrowed from's Gamecube section.

¹ Quite frankly, I suspect the former.

² But would you like an article about the Wii in which Iwata points out the prescience of Nintendo's business model and the relevance of the blue ocean strategy to that model? Here you go.

³ Parish uses the more common phrase "withered technology," which I take it is the usual translation for Yokoi's mildly famous phrase. Readers of Japanese will find more information in 横井軍平ゲーム館 (Yokoi Gunpei Game House), a book about Yokoi's approach to design—recently reissued, if you don't mind paying the high international shipping rate!

⁴ Oh, but my astigmatism! Oh well.

⁵ The voice of the press is a complicated thing, of course, since it involves concerns about bias real and perceived, concerns that figures will not communicate with the press if they are handled with too much candor, and most obviously concerns about covering stories that will win sponsors. I am often surprised at the number of taboos the American press works hard to avoid breaking and the number of conceits it is committed to maintaining. In other words, I can't even begin to guess what members of the Japanese press have to consider when they report on stories, but I wonder if after all it is very different from what American journalists have to consider.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Bad Reviews

So! I have not seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie. As you may have read here, my wife and I had a baby a year and a bit ago, and having shaken many a fist at parents who've tried to get away with taking their children to the movies, we took a vow long ago never to take our child to the movies until he's absolutely, unquestionably old enough. The consequence if we break this vow? Synchronized seppuku. Baby Alan becomes an orphan. We'll make sure he's in good hands first, of course. He wouldn't have to watch, if that's what you were thinking.

Ha ha ha! Okay then. So, I have not seen the movie, and it will be a while before I do. Unless anyone from the studio would like to send me a screener? Yeah, I thought not. I have, however, read the books several times. One thing I've noticed as I've read the internets and their consensual response to the movie (and, often in passing, the books) is that many people seem to think that Scott Pilgrim, the book, is not a work of any real value. In particular, they believe the video game references are deployed simplistically, the whole lacks any emotional depth, and there's absolutely nothing interesting going on between Scott and Ramona.


On the contrary! As to this idea that there's no emotional depth to Scott Pilgrim, I would have to disagree. First of all, I have heard comments to the effect that none of the characters learns anything by the end of the series. Well, sweetie, if that's your criterion for quality literature with emotional depth, you're barking up the wrong tree! But as it happens, the whole sixth volume is pretty much dedicated to what the characters learn. As it turns out, Bryan Lee O'Malley (BLO from here on out, a nickname I'm sure he loves) gives up the whole video game conceit in the final volume and shows that much of it is Scott's skewed viewpoint on events. It would be weird to have to imagine that everything video gamey that happens in the books is just Scott hallucinating, so you have to be a little bit flexible and accept that to some extent, this story is happening in an impossible universe. Creative license and all that. Or you have to accept the whole series as all-the-way pomo, so that Scott's bizarre way of parsing and reconstructing events in his head is all we get. Whatever. I'm not here to explain all of that, except to say that BLO does tip his hand and reveal that the bizarre, hilarious, and recently animated River City Ransom-esque flashback from volume 1 was actually a narrative constructed by Scott to cover over an ugly reality: he humiliated a kid from another school and, apparently, stole his girlfriend.

Volume 6 gives us a series of similar, though usually less involved, deconstructions of Scott's bizarre misreadings and misprisions of his past experiences. What we learn, and it's hardly the first time we've gotten the impression, is that he drifts through life doing what he wants without the burden of emotional consequences. Well, without the burden of emotional consequences for himself. As it happens, he's hurt a number of people over the years, including Natalie "Envy" Adams, the character who seems to be given the sobriquet "bitch" almost as often as she's called by her actual name, often with some intensifier added to it. Personally, I have to admit that Envy may be my favorite character in the series, because I think BLO's done quite a good job of making her real and giving her depth. She's very difficult to like, as the one character throughout the first three volumes who seems capable of causing Scott any pain at all, but the reader also knows, whether from personal experience or from the mounting hints in volumes 2 and 3, that Envy has been wronged, too, and not just by the villainous Evil Ex-Boyfriend she is seeing—as, unbeknownst to her, is her fellow Clash at Demonhead bandmember. By the end of volume 6, it's completely clear that she's suffered, too, in her relationship with Scott, and it's revealed that, for all her apparent power, she's become a sort of pitiable tool for Gideon, the Evilest Ex-Boyfriend. I realize that the series is supposed to revolve around Scott and Ramona, but if there's one thing I wish there were more of, it's Envy Adams—just a little more of her would probably have made Scott's growth a bit more meaningful to me.

Scott and Ramona's relationship seems to be taking a lot of flack, and I get that. It's not a relationship whose basis is immediately obvious. This link wasn't working tonight as I wrote this, but A.O. Scott's review of the movie for the New York Times absolutely nails what I find to be so interesting about their relationship in the book: Ramona seems perpetually infatuated with Scott, at least a little bit, but she's also perpetually skeptical. She never quite lets go of her quite well-founded inhibitions about dating this ridiculous boy. And BLO has his fun with this situation, placing this important character before us, and never allowing us to learn anything really substantial about her—simply because, even when he gets to date his "dream girl," Scott still can't bring himself to take a significant interest in anyone else. Thus, in one of the later volumes, Ramona asks Scott if he's even aware of her age. He splutters and stammers for a moment before exclaiming, "Unknown! It's unknown!" And that's exactly the case: the little character-specific info-boxes we've seen throughout the series have always concealed most of Ramona's details, listing things like her age as simply UNKNOWN. Of course it isn't really unknown, and she isn't really mysterious, just as women and the Chinese actually are not. Scott is just lazy, and westerners are just assholes. Also, Scott is an asshole.

And some Chinese are also assholes. I mean, I try not to be racist or essentializing, even in benevolent ways. Are we clear? Sorry if there was any confusion.

I once had the pleasure of seeing BLO speak. This coincided with the release of volume 5, and during the inevitable "Will Scott end up with Kim Pine? Please let Scott end up with Kim Pine!"-Q&A-session, BLO was completely candid about the fact that he thought Scott Pilgrim was a pretty horrible person. He warned his audience that it was entirely possible that Scott might not end up with "the girl," and frankly, he didn't deserve to. It was satisfying to see that BLO's solution to the problem of the apparently unequal Scott/Ramona pairing was to present Ramona as a similarly callous character.

Um, so you mind if I say one more thing about the racism thing? When I said that westerners were just assholes, I didn't quite mean that. I wanted to preserve parallelism with the last sentence I'd typed, which said Scott was "just an asshole." Just as all Chinese are not mysterious and all Chinese are not assholes but some are, some westerners are assholes and some are not. You read this blog, for example, and if you are a westerner, You read this blog, of course, and so westerner or not, that makes you not an asshole in my book. Of course, you could easily be Chinese, or some other non-westerner. And "westerner" is kind of an obsolete term and sort of offensive in itself. I mean, this doesn't matter, and I'm sure no one is misunderstanding me here, but I'm just saying.

It may not be satisfying for all, in the end, but Scott Pilgrim may be the kind of romantic comedy we should get when we go seeking that kind of thing. As a 29-year-old, I remember making the transition from very late, perhaps somewhat arrested adolescence to adulthood at a point just a little earlier than Scott and Ramona do, and I remember it being a difficult, damaging time, and not just for me. Maybe what I've gotten out of Scott Pilgrim is just what I've projected onto it, but I think it's an emotionally satisfying series, certainly not the silly, shallow cartoon many of the internets' denizens have found it to be. BLO is a walking encyclopedia of video game references, to be sure, but also an able, clever, and playful manipulator of narrative. I'm genuinely interested to see what he comes up with next.

Be honest with me. Did I come off as racist up there? I really don't mean to sound racist...

The Scott Pilgrim logo in the style of the Double Dragon logo is from Comics Alliance, and the picture of Scott doing the "have you seen a girl with hair like this?" thing is from the blog 1979 Semifinalist.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Colonial War, Year 13

The following is my ridiculous way of celebrating Independence Day. This morning, Carrie and I were sort of half-watching the Today Show, and one of those "what do people on the street think?" kind of segments came up. Jenna Wolf was asking random New Yorkers about the holiday and how old the United States is today, and one man said, "Well, the war was over in 1789." It certainly was! The surrender at Yorktown occurred in 1781, and the treaties that formally ended the war were signed in 1783. But what if the war had gone on for a decade and a half or so? I couldn't help imagining the following scenario. Please understand that I'm not casting aspersions on any of the Founding Fathers nor pardoning any of our present or recent enemies by comparison; this is not really a political statement but just a somewhat over-the-top joke. Please enjoy.

As the war with the colonists enters its fourteenth year, sources close to General Charles Cornwallis say that the Commander of Colonial Forces' earlier optimism has begun to flag.

"He's started to call it a quagmire, an unwinnable war," reports one of the general's closest advisors, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Though British troops now hold New York City and much of the territory immediately east of the Hudson River, some dispute the strategic value of these areas. "Who gives a s— about f—ing Manhattan Island?" as one regional commander puts it.

On the other hand, Sir Richard Smith, a noted military analyst, argues that New York may be one of the most crucial sites now held by British forces. "With no foothold in Massachusetts and New Jersey—and don't get me started on the southern colonies—New York is as firm a stronghold as we could have hoped for. We're fighting a war with several fronts, and our backs are to the sea. New York may not seem like much, but it's held out for most of the war."

Recent talk of pushing northward to eliminate one of the war's fronts, to say nothing of securing the key port of Boston, has met with strong disapproval both among the troops and at home. "Massachusetts seems like an obvious place to push hard now, but soldiers don't want to go there," Smith says. "Stories coming from the north say that Bostonians have been holding trials and burning loyalists at the stake for months now. They must have run out of loyalists some time ago and turned on themselves. It's horrible to think about, but it would hardly be the first time."

Meanwhile, Philadelphia, under a cease fire for nearly three years now, continues to present challenges. "It's hard to know how to deal with these Quakers. Their leaders say they want peace and an end to the war, but insurgents attack convoys moving medical supplies and food from New York to Philadelphia every week. Religion of peace my a—," says Colonel David Southampton, who is in charge of the city.

Perhaps the greatest challenges have come from the southern colonies, however. Troops who haven't been incapacitated by disease have to face General George Washington's Continental Army. "They're dug in, and they know what they're doing. They know the land, and we trained these guys, for God's sake," says Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton. "But we'll find the CA. Charlie's out there somewhere, concentrated in some swamp in Virginia most likely, thick as hasty pudding, and when we find him, we'll kill him. Then we'll go after the purple-p—ing French and clean out their nest, too"

General Washington, believed by many to be the inevitable successor to the ailing President Benjamin Franklin as head of the recently formed Democratic Republic of America, has been directing operations in the central and southern colonies for several years now. He benefits from the assistance of large numbers of French troops believed to be stationed in Georgia. His tactics have stymied our troops throughout this period, as Washington's forces rarely engage in open combat, preferring nighttime raids and various other ambuscades.

Reached for comment, General Cornwallis had this to say: "I just don't know. Maybe we can win the war. After all this time, though, we realize the next challenge will be winning the peace."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell
published June 5, 2010

Tom Bissell has pointed out that the original subtitle of his new book Extra Lives was Why Video Games Matter—and Why They Don't Matter More. The snappier, more confident, sexier subtitle that actually appears on the book's cover belies a deep ambivalence that is detectable throughout the book, an ambivalence that, strange as it may sound, must have motivated Bissell to write the essays that comprise this book in the first place.

This ambivalence is a feeling I share, a sort of lingering fear that there's something wrong with this hobby of mine. Bissell reports that a friend's wife dismisses his Oblivion habit as spending time "with elves talking bullshit." It's true: a lot of games still haven't clawed their way past the elves/bullshit threshold, but honestly, they're no easier to put aside for that than their more deserving counterparts. Why is a hobby I love so much still so bad to me (and possibly for me) so much of the time?

However, it isn't the case that all games are still at the elves and bullshit level. As it happens, Bissell's book unfolds as sort of a question, posed really by the first three chapters, and an answer, albeit a cautious, complex, and a slightly open-ended one, presented over the course of the remaining six chapters. Although a fair amount of what is included has seen print previously elsewhere, the material in the book works well together, and it all conveys Bissell's argument, to the extent that he has one to make, quite well.

In the first three chapters, Bissell discusses in brief a number of games that, for one reason or another, belong in the "Why Video Games Don't Matter More" category. Some of the games, like Fallout 3, are recent games that provide incredible visual, aural, and gameplay experiences but are so poorly written and acted that it's hard not to score them as misses. I'll try not to quote too much; Bissell's prose, which is always sharp and serves his purpose equally well whether he's praising a game or bemoaning its existence (and he's a thorough enough critic that he rarely does one to the exclusion of the other), works best as it crescendoes over the course of a paragraph, and I don't want to do it too much of a disservice by divorcing it from its context. However, some of his comments on Fallout 3 illustrate wonderfully some of the doubts he has about the medium of games:

Vault 101 [the game's opening environment] even has a resident cadre of hoodlums, the Tunnel Snakes, whose capo resembles a malevolent Fonz. Even with its backdrop of realized Cold War futurism, a greaser-style youth gang in an underground vault society in the year 2277 is the working definition of a dumb idea. During the tutorial's final sequence, the Tunnel Snakes' leader, your tormentor since childhood, requests your help in saving his mother from radioactive cockroaches (long story), a reversal of such tofu drama that, in my annoyance, I killed him, his mother, and then everyone else I could find in Vault 101, with the most perversely satisfying weapon I had on hand: a baseball bat. Allowing your decisions to establish for your character an in-game identity as a skull-crushing monster, a saint of patience, or some mixture thereof is another attractive feature of Fallout 3. These pretensions to morality, though, suddenly bored me, because they were occurring in a universe that had been designed by geniuses and written by Ed Wood Jr.

At the same time, he plays Fallout 3, and many games like it, compulsively. Do you remember where you were when the 2008 presidential election was called in favor of Barack Obama? Do you remember the joyful, tearful moments that followed? Bissell does: he was in Talinn, Estonia, playing his first several hours of Fallout 3.

Games are a strange medium. Somehow, the demands for mature, challenging content we make of film and literature just won't stick to them; a bad movie or a poorly written novel is easy to walk out of or put down, but a game that is completely idiotic won't necessarily be easier to stop playing than one that's brilliant. The first section of Bissell's book argues that this creates a problem: game publishers can continue to produce mindless garbage that provides wonderful gaming experiences, and we will not be able to stop consuming it, because it will do wonderfully all the things that games seem to need to do. At the same time, games might never advance artistically, because none of these things has anything to do with "thematic, moral, or emotional intelligence." As long as games are formally sophisticated, nothing else really matters, not as things stand now.

In the remaining six chapters, Bissell presents a series of responses, or attempts at responses, to the problem he has introduced. The chapter entitled "LittleBigProblems," as I understood it, only offers a shrug, but most of the material in this section gives us reason to hope that games are getting better, and not just in, well, game-like ways. In Edmonton, Austin, and elsewhere, designers, honest-to-god writers, and talented actors like Jennifer Hale, "the Olivier of video games," collaborate to create high-quality RPGs for Bioware like Mass Effect, a game that, despite its shortcomings, seems to satisfy many of Bissell's more traditional emotional and dramatic needs in ways that a comparable game like Fallout 3 does not. At the other end of the spectrum is Ubisoft's Clint Hocking, who, to judge from the book's chapter on Far Cry 2, has rejected the idea of creating a narrative game with a strong authorial presence. Hocking's comments show how aware he is that his method of storytelling, which involves surrendering the role of author to the cooperative relationship between player and gameworld, is a risky experiment. He feels that films, novels, and plays—media that typically require a strong authorial presence—have taken traditional narrative as far as it will ever be capable of going in games. He says,

We can't go beyond [that point] using the tools of film or literature or any other authored narrative approach. The question is, can we go beyond it, way beyond it, to completely different realms, by using tools that are inherent to games? To let the player play the story, tell his own story, and have that story be deep and meaningful? We don't know the limit to that problem. It could be that the limit to that problem is stories that aren't nearly as good.

"But you've got to find out," responds Bissell, and of course Hocking's reply is, "Yeah. I have to find out." Skeptics of the limited-authorship, player-driven model of narrative Hocking favors (such as, famously, Roger Ebert) would be well advised to read the chapter on Hocking and Far Cry 2. For Bissell, no stranger to the genre of the shooter, Far Cry 2 is a uniquely arresting game, "a shooter so beautiful, terrible, and monstrous that my faith was restored not only in the shooter but in the video game itself." What Far Cry 2 offers, it turns out, is a truly chilling commentary on the nature of violence that could not be conveyed through any other medium. That it should be presented in what is traditionally "the least politically evolved of all the video-game genres" is more than poetically satisfying. It is entirely natural, because the first-person shooter has long employed a set of conceits designed to convince the player that the image displayed on the TV screen or monitor is her actual point of view. The efficacy of these conceits is in evidence when Bissell describes the PTSD-like jitters he suffers after a typical night of shooter escapades. In other words, the kind of immersion these games try to create is especially suited to the kind of, yes, art Far Cry 2 wants to be, as the game exploits the genre's visual vocabulary not so much to enhance excitement as to underscore the player's complicity in the horrible things the game asks her to do.

The best thing about Bissell's style of games criticism is his facility at converting game experiences into words. What games deliver best, and this is why the dumb ones are pretty much just as compelling as the smart ones, is an experience of a particular kind—no two shooters will deliver precisely the same experience, nor any two RPGs, and so forth. The purest pleasures Extra Lives offers are its various descriptions of gameplay experiences, whether these are specific, as is the hilarious and frankly brilliant chapter on the notorious first Resident Evil game, or more generalized, as are portions of the Far Cry 2 chapter: "You will kill and do other unspeakable things. And you will do your best to ruin, burn, and otherwise destroy one of the most beautiful gameworlds ever created ... The game may reward your murderous actions but you never feel as though it approves of them, and it reminds you again and again that you are no better than the people you kill. In fact, you may be much worse." Bissell makes the most of the time he has had to interrogate and consider his experiences; none of the games covered in any detail is much less than two years old, and some are a year or two older than that. His expertise as a writer as well as a gamer is an asset, since the experiences games provide are not easy to convey verbally, and it takes an articulate and self-aware critic to make that difficult conversion.

Overall, the book offers many possible solutions to gaming's great problem. All of these solutions are suggested by designers or are glimpsed in profiles of particular games. Bissell, for his part, seems mostly to act as a liaison between his audience and the creators or their creations; his descriptions of games feel more like a conversation with a friend about a shared gaming experience than a lecture delivered by an expert; his conversations with designers often give way to brief (sometimes not brief) digressions in which Bissell chews over what he has just been told.

It is impossible for me to guess what it might be like to read the book as a non-gamer. For me, the book was an involving, often pleasantly familiar, sometimes shockingly emotional primer on a fair portion of gaming's modern canon. The final chapter of the book actually left me feeling exhausted, but its coda perfectly captured many of the things I have often wished I could say to people who want to know what the value of games is:

I do know that games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt ... So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories ... Playing [Grand Theft Auto] IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.

Extra Lives is, more than anything, a diplomatic account of what games are and what they may yet be. It assuages that gnawing ambivalence some gamers feel, and it shows that there's more to games than bullshit and elves. Video games do matter, in ways that are more lasting than numbers on ledgers, and the book shows that there is reason to believe that they will matter still more.

EDIT: I carelessly neglected to mention that Clint Hocking has recently left his position at Ubisoft, and in fact this has transpired in the interim between Extra Lives' going to press and its appearance on shelves. As a blogger with zero lead time between writing a review and publishing it, I could easily have included that detail in my review. Anyway, I'd like to wish Clint the best, and I can't wait to see what he has in store for us next.

The Tom Bissell drawing above is by Joseph Ciardiello for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Not a recent Sunday Book Review, mind you, but one from 2008. But then, that probably doesn't matter much to you, does it? Sorry.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spare Me Your Overquest

So, I have been playing more Dragon Age since that post a few weeks ago—I play games at a glacial pace, sorry—and I love the game, but you know what? I'm just about over main quests.

Seriously. Every time I play a game that has any sort of overworld to roam around in or any kind of exploratory element whatsoever, I find myself just wanting to tell all those NPCs to sit down and shut their yaps for a while. Let me go mess around in the wilderness and fight some goblins and find some gold and stuff. The end of the world will still be there when I get back. kthxbye.

I've noticed this before, but I think it really pulled me all the way out of the game experience for the first time when I played Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I realized that the game was pulling me in two directions at the same time: on the one hand, I was supposed to cough up some serious rupees, rupees I didn't yet have, to pay Tingle to interpret my Triforce charts, and at the same time, the King of the Red Lions kept yelling at me to get a move on and get on with the quest.¹ Didn't I realize how desperate things were getting?!

Anyway, I had to go off the main path and collect tons and tons of money before I could advance, which, amusingly enough, the best way to do this was to solve lots of sliding puzzles in my personal cabana. Although this money was integral to completing the main quest, the game didn't think that making rupees should be my priority. As much as I love that game, and I do truly love Wind Waker, that contradiction really pulled me out of the experience, to say nothing of the fact that there were tons of other side-quests I could have been working on that were far more flippant.

In Dragon Age, I want to explore the Wilds, not leave immediately and save the world from the Blight. Yet the game is absolutely railroading me. I know, I know, at some point the game is going to open up and let me play, but it's not like I'm ever going to be free of the insistent demands of preventing the damn demon apocalypse for everybody else. Oh, also, Bioware should have picked a different word for the demonic blood infections that afflict people and animals in the game. All these warnings that it's crucial to "master your taint" are just too much for me, and I can hardly be the only one.

I guess what I'm saying is, what happened to the Baldur's Gate model? If I remember correctly, and I think I do, where you went and what you did was limited only by your character's abilities, which is perfectly acceptable to me: I don't expect to sneak in the back door right off the bat and kill the final boss; if the game wants to punish me for that kind of hubris, then that's okay. Also, the quest in BG, and this is important too, the quest in BG felt so much less pressing. I mean, there was important stuff going on, but you sort of had to find it out for yourself, and the game didn't condescendingly make you feel like everything you did was either "advancing the quest" or "worthless tomfoolery." Just don't make me feel like I have ADD just because I want to explore a little.

I've played precious little Morrowind, but so far it feels pretty gentle in this regard. The goals at least at the very beginning are kind of vague enough that you can go off the beaten path without feeling like a jerk. The game drops you in this new world with no real responsibilities, and if you don't do what people suggest you do, so what? I can't say the same for Oblivion or Fallout 3, though. It feels like a cold thing to do to let those people in the one town suck it while the demons pour out of the gate to hell while I run off and find lettuce for a statue—which is literally one thing you might be asked to do in that game—and what was the point of breaking out of the vault if you're not going to track down your father after all? Again, going off the reservation feels like a thing you'd have to be selfish, crazy, or very easily distracted to do.

If you're going to call these roleplaying games, please don't force me to break character just because I want to enjoy the other 80% of the game! It's there, isn't it? Why, then, can't I access it without feeling like I'm doing something wrong? Seriously, "Western" publishers proudly stick to this "Western" RPG tradition that's supposed to give us more freedom, but I feel less constrained in some ways by freaking Dragon Quest (pick one) than I do by Dragon Age!² That's just not the way it's supposed to be.

Oh, and in case you think I'm suggesting that everything become a sandbox game, don't worry. I've got a few complaints for those guys, too. The GTA games, for instance, have done a good job of giving space and scope for messing around, and in fact, their "main quests" are generally segmented into such poorly differentiated missions that I can't imagine wanting to stick around long enough to finish them. How many people can I chase down in a car and shoot? I realize that that's pretty much about all that GTA's controls and mechanics are good for, but jeez!³

Also, side quests in RPGs still tend to be a bit on the fetchy side. Tracking down X item to give to Y character in return for Z item to give to whomever else for whatever else, ad infinitum, is not original or interesting, Zelda games. When we tolerate these kinds of quests, it is because we love the world the games create, and we are happy to spend our time in those worlds doing just about anything, but make no mistake: most of us, I think, are performing these tasks in spite of the quests' limited nature.

So why not make a game with, I don't know, several tracks for questing? I don't mind fetch quests here and there if they're in the service of something greater, but in isolation, they're just not compelling to me. At the same time, I don't want to feel like there's one thing I should be doing in the game and that's it. These are supposed to be living worlds we're stepping into; why is it that they're so limited that all they feel like are locations for the (mostly not brilliant) narratives our game designers want us to experience? There's nothing wrong with putting the story first, but let's just break it up a little bit. Every game doesn't have to be about saving the world, and frankly, I'm finding my ability to suspend disbelief sorely tested after all these years of constant from-nobody-to-savior-of-existence narratives. Every once in a while those main quests should be, well, just a little pettier. Not every death cult is summoning the destroyer of reality; sometimes they're just causing problems for the local populace. Not every orc tribe serves the incarnation of evil himself; some of them just get a little rowdy now and then. Just make a few big quests, have them stack up a little bit, let us feel that progression from level 1 to level 20 or whatever. It's not that I don't want to save the world every now and then, I just don't want to save it to the exclusion of everything else. And I'm sorry if that sounds horribly selfish of me.

¹There is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you have no idea what I'm talking about here.

²If you're not sure what I mean here, I do have a post that touches on the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs.

³I admit, GTA: San Andreas broke the mold a few times—stealing cars all the time gets boring, but stealing a combine is something else entirely—but Rockstar did a great job with Bully, which had missions that really did feel different from each other, at least enough to hold my interest. Maybe it was because you couldn't kill people!

EDIT: I forgot to add a link to this hilarious comic strip that shows the King of the Red Lions being the King of the Red Lions. Enjoy.

That nifty King of the Red Lions screenshot comes from

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Smart Game: Building the Perfect NPCs

Pretention alert! Here comes a Descartes quote, in Latin no less.

Quid autem video praeter pileos & vestes, sub quibus latere possent automata? Sed judico homines esse.
(Meditations on First Philosophy 2.13)
"But what do I see apart from hats and cloaks, under which machines may hide? Yet I think that they are men."

There aren't many things I enjoy in games quite as much as cool towns with good NPC interactions. Something about going into a town and finding people there who are living their lives and will take a minute or two out of their day to talk with you, or maybe—heavens to Betsy—go on a quest with you, just really appeals to me. I want to enter a world when I play a game, and with the obvious exception of games like Metroid, where the overwhelming sense of isolation is part of the point, I'd like that world to be populated, thanks very much.

Twenty years ago, we were all younger and newer to gaming, and gaming itself was newer to us, so game designers often used NPCs as if they were walking bulletin boards. Think of a game like Zelda II or Simon's Quest: the other characters you meet say something simple and straightforward that advances the plot, for instance. Sometimes they'll sell you something or, as in Zelda II, they'll take you into their abodes and through some invisible, possibly dubious process, they'll restore your health. These are, in other words, NPCs who are simply means to various ends.

I don't know about you, but I was always taught to treat other people as ends in themselves. So much more interesting to me are the NPCs who have something going on that isn't just mechanical in nature. For instance, there's the crazy old man who lives all by himself in the final town before Dracula's castle in Simon's Quest. He doesn't do anything in the game except set the mood, but he does a great job of that. Here's this abandoned town where the last inhabitant has cracked just from living too close to the castle. And he wants you to stay and keep him company. Forever!


By and large, though, NPCs are vehicles. They don't set the scene, they propel the game. This is why it's both funny and true when, in Series 2 of the Penny Arcade/PVP D&D podcast (featuring Wil Wheaton!), Scott Kurtz talks to an NPC, finds himself rebuffed, and says, "Oh, this NPC has no quests for me at this time." That's what they are, usually: vending machines for quests. And sometimes stuff.

I have this theory that I'll explain some other time that the best way to create a really great game would be to teach the game how things work in the real world. Let's call it a Smart Game. The idea here is to bring computer games as close as possible to the wonderfully creative options available to players of pen-and-paper RPGs. The beauty of D&D and old school games like it is that players can opt to have their characters solve problems any way that ought to work, not just some way that the game's designers thought out in advance. I remember searching all over the worlds of games like King's Quest for simple tools to accomplish simple tasks when any damn old stick or rock would have
done the trick in real life. But see, in those games, you don't have the option of using damn old sticks and rocks. You have to look around endlessly and find the one knife in the entire game before you can solve the puzzle.

Anyway, that's mostly another story, but one element of the Smart Game that is relevant is the way I think it should treat NPCs. Again, the comparison to pen-and-paper RPGs is useful. The cool thing about NPCs in those games is that they're dynamic; the DM gets to create their responses to things that happen in the game, and even (if it's a creative DM) the kinds of lives they're leading while the PCs aren't around, and that makes for some interesting, realistic NPCs. So, I'd love to see NPCs who live in real-time in an in-game world just as they would in the real world. If you leave town and, I don't know, go kill dragons for five years, those townspeople should be up to something else when you get back. They should have died or had children or left on their own journeys. In other words, the NPCs would have their own little personalities and wants and dreams, and they'd follow courses of lives that weren't pre-scripted but were created as the game unfolded using a mixture of algorithms and random number generators. There would be tiny little NPC stories crawling all under the surface of the Smart Game, and it might be just as interesting to visit a single town over the course of a game and see what the NPCs ended up deciding to do with their lives. Maybe, maybe one of them could even turn into some sort of town slumlord whose empire of crappy properties you had to bring down, or maybe one could even amass power and become a horrible tyrant by the end of the game. Some NPCs' stories could grow beyond the scope of the main quest and become the main quest themselves.

Like I say, I love towns in games, and I want to love the people that inhabit them. What if those NPCs could live their lives for themselves and change over the course of a game? It sounds good to me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

And That's Why I Never Play Dwarves

So, an experience with a recent RPG the other day, and a session of the class I teach the night after, got me thinking about how I roleplay and how I might do it better. I try so hard to play a variety of ways to get, you know, the maximum experience, but there are just limits, I guess, to my ability to do everything convincingly. The thing is that there are two parts of my brain—let's call them Evil Genius and Softy—that vie for governance of my actions in any given situation, and frankly I have kind of a hard time following through with evil or even basically amoral actions in video games. In other words, Softy wins most of the time.

The other day I managed to get in my first few minutes of Dragon Age (yes, lttp), and I decided to play as a dwarf. I almost never play dwarves. Evil Genius said, "Let's play a dwarf. We never do that. It'll be fun. New horizons." Softy said, "I concur."

Well, there happen to be two kinds of dwarves to play in DA, nobles and commoners, and I thought the dwarven noble was a better fit for the Thorin Oakenshield (okay, Binwin Bronzebottom) flavor I was looking for. As it happens, there's a lot of room in the dwarven noble's life for arrogant, elitist ugliness. Evil Genius thought, "Awesome! This'll really let us stretch our legs!" Softy said, "Hmmmm."

There were, by my count, two major crossroads in my short play session where I made a real impact on what my character will become. At one, I was given the opportunity to chastise, punish, kill (I think), or praise a dwarven scholar writing a book questioning the authenticity of a rival house's founder. At the other, I had to decide whether to go along with a dwarven lord's seemingly magnanimous plan to restore noble rights and privileges to surface-dwelling dwarf expats. That's a big thing, I guess, because the dwarves in this game interpret moving to the surface as a fundamental rejection of the dwarven way of doing things.

My inner professor won out big-time in the first quandary, and Softy's belief that "The truth should always be known!" didn't really conflict with Evil Genius' opinion, which was "The only power this scholar's research undermines is that rival house's, and screw those guys." The scholar got a hearty clap on the back, and the angered member of the other house got a giant middle finger. Everybody won. Except the member of the rival house.

The second decision, um, turned out weird, frankly. Evil Genius' totally reasonable protests that I was playing against character in voting to help out the surface-dwellers, because that was the decision I started out making, were drowned out by Softy's whole "just think of those poor surface dwarves and the pain they must be feeling! Oh, the humanity!" thing. But THEN another dwarf pulled me aside and warned me that I was playing right into the hands of our mutual enemies—i.e., houses who'd never lost members to the surface world and stood nothing to lose if the expats' rights were restored. Our houses, she pointed out, would by contrast end up losing an awful lot of money on this thing. In other words, the lord who'd petitioned me for help was really just trying to advance his house at the expense of my house's coffers.

Well, I did what any reasonable noble dwarf would do: I marched right back to that Lord Dace and told him I was on to his paltry scheme. He basically said, "Oh, whatever. Welcome to politics, kid." So I told him his little tricks were an insult to my house. Here he was pulling this crap at my debutant ball, after all.

If this happened in real life, probably I'd challenge someone's honor, and that would be the end of it. But regardless of how dishonorable they act, nobility—like white-suited, revolver-carrying Southern gentlemen—want to appear honorable, so calling this guy out committed me to a fight to the death with his son! Evil Genius crowed victoriously! Softy collapsed in a heap on the floor.

I won the fight, because pretty much every other dwarf in town sucks at fighting, and the other lord hung his head and said something like, "My machinations have led to the death of my own son." "That's right! Suck it!" exulted Evil Genius. Softy twitched imperceptibly from his place on the floor.

As I told my students the other night, I usually can't act well enough and/or distance myself from those computer-generated NPCs enough to really start acting like a monster. I got the teensiest little ways down the path on the Temple of Shadows initiation quests in Fable II before I felt horrible and couldn't go any further. Hell, I felt awful when Sheriff Simms and I busted in on Mr. Burke in Moriarty's bar in my first game of Fallout 3 and the sheriff ended up dead. The twist of the knife came when I ran into his orphaned son later and realized this poor little guy was all alone in the world. All alone in this computer-generated, fictional world. Yeah, Softy tends to run the show.

I don't know if it's my upbringing or not, but I think I have almost as hard a time treating NPCs like trash as I do people in RL. My inner lawman just down't let me play it otherwise. Oh, except in DA, apparently. I'm interested to see how my little duelin' Dalton (see what I did there) turns out.

The picture of the angry dwarf above comes from

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Opus of Loquacity (Part 1)

If I'm remembering correctly, Super Mario Bros. was the video game that introduced me to the concept of a level. You see, I'd grown up with nothing but the standard 1970s-to-early-1980s iterative games, the kind where you play on a single screen and, when you kill the last enemy on that screen or eat the last pellet or whatever, you're taken to another screen that's almost identical, even if the challenge is higher or the colors have changed.

My understanding at the time—please understand that I was three or four years old—was that the one screen was essentially the whole game; since the gameplay was almost identical the next time around, if you'd played one screen, you'd played them all. You could justly claim to have “beaten” the game, so I thought. This must have done quite a bit for my self esteem as a child. I can actually remember a childhood trip to a Pizza Hut where I finished exactly one screen of Centipede. When that last centipede bit exploded, I gladly turned away from the machine and beamed at my mom. “We can leave now,” I said, proudly. “I beat that game.”

Obviously, Ninja Gaiden was still ahead of me.

Anyway, since I didn't play Donkey Kong until after I'd gotten my NES, I had no idea that a game could be broken up into small segments of play that constituted only a portion of the whole. DK would certainly have gotten the message across; in its absence, though, SMB did the trick, and after I got to the end of World 1-1, slid down that flagpole, and went in the tiny castle, I was genuinely surprised to see Mario exit the castle immediately afterward and go down a pipe into another level. I mean, World 1-1 could have been the whole thing. I had no expectations for game length; as far as I was concerned, World 1-1 was quite long enough. It was certainly hard enough; my six-year-old hands had never had to work with such precision in a game. Sure, that whole “World 1-1” label in the corner of the screen should have clued me in that there might be a world 1-2 and perhaps even a world 2-1, but I guess I'll chalk that one up to the fact that it was a Christmas morning, and I was ridiculously overstimulated; not to mention, I still had this new Zelda game to play! I was in no condition to use my reason.

But as it turned out, Mario's adventure had just begun, and so had mine, and yes, that is the way I'm opening this thing.

So I learned about levels with Mario, but it really wasn't until a few years later—1990, in fact—that I learned that game levels could actually communicate ideas. If you think about Super Mario Bros., this isn't surprising; what does the level design in SMB communicate? SMB's level design doesn't communicate a whole lot. There's a clear sense of progress, paradoxically reinforced by the game's repeated use of four-level cycles, and there's a fairly vague sense of movement, as if Mario were traveling from province to province within the Mushroom Kingdom, but that really is about it.

I know I'm oversimplifying, but I'm going to try to boil level design for 2D platformers down to just two things, which I am lazily going to refer to as challenge and aesthetics. By “challenge,” obviously I mean the kinds of things that are purely related to gameplay: platforming challenges, enemy placement, that sort of thing. “Aesthetics” covers a broad range of considerations, but the ones I'm mostly interested in are those that involve the kind of real-world sense the level makes to the player experiencing it. Could this level exist in the real world, and if so, how would it work? Both of these elements are necessary, but the degree to which either one is necessary depends entirely on the kind of game a designer wants to create. Something like SMB needs just scads of challenge, because frankly that's what SMB is all about. The need for that real-world sense is way less important, since SMB is essentially a virtual playground with environments that don't need to (and don't!) make much sense at all. If the player can tell what's solid from what's not, and what's harmful from what's safe, that should just about do it. Anything else—end-of-level castles, occasional weather effects, all the other little things SMB happens to do—is just icing.

When you think about a game like Castlevania, the importance of the two elements is almost reversed. Thinking back on the level design for the first Castlevania, I don't remember anything like the sort of sophistication on the level of that “challenge” element, though CV is, duh, hella harder than SMB. It just isn't nearly as involved as a platformer. Thank god for that, too, because Simon Belmont is very nearly immobile; he might, in fact, be gaming's first asthmatic (or perhaps pneumonic) protagonist. On the other hand—and as so often I owe this basic observation to Jeremy Parish—the environments in Castlevania make perfect real-world sense. Think about it: there are so many games from the 8-bit era that are basic platformers. How many actually made those platforms make sense? Castlevania did just that; as Parish points out, “whoever crafted the levels actually took the time to make the platforms logical -- something of a first. Whenever there was a hole to leap over, it was clear by looking at the background that the gap was caused by crumbling masonry as the castle rotted with age.”

Castlevania's great achievement is that it marries these elements of challenge and aesthetics. Challenge, yes, is at a minimum, if only because the Belmonts suck at walking, to say nothing of jumping, but almost all of the challenging aspects of the game are justified by the game's strong aesthetic sense.

It's a brilliantly designed game, but it isn't the focus of this series of posts. I enjoyed the design of Castlevania when I was a child, but I also took it for granted; I could never have told you how well the game was designed, because it never occurred to me how much thought must have gone into crafting a game like that. However, there was a game that shook me from my slumber, not because it made me take notice of the way platforms were thought out, but because it got me thinking about the way levels were strung together to create a world.

This could have happened several times by 1990, but it didn't. In fact, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was the first game that really made sense to me as a cohesive collection of levels.

This isn't really too surprising; CVIII takes the already brilliant inclusion of the inter-level castle map from the original game and pumps it up a bit by adding the element of choice. Now, the player could take one of two routes to get to the innermost reaches of Dracula's castle. Further, Dracula's castle was much more varied now, with the environments covered in the first game comprising only the last quarter or so of the game. Dracula's castle was now more of a ranch, really, complete with swamps, dismal underground caverns, and even a pirate ship (!). The way that Trevor and his spirit buddies started out in a creepy ghost town in Transylvania—perhaps the same town haunted by the crazy old man right on the outskirts of the castle in Simon's Quest—and slowly made their way towards the castle, working their way in through miles of hostile territory, just made perfect sense to me. It also set Dracula's castle inside a world that felt real and varied. It wasn't just a castle that sat at the end of a tree-lined path, as in the first game, and its surrounding environs weren't the repetitive towns and wilderness areas of the second game. It was a fortress built on an island surrounded by inhospitable countryside, and suddenly, it made perfect sense to me why a game character would go through that opening town and attempt to make the straightforward crossing at the bridge only to double back to the swamp when the bridge collapsed.

In other words, the series of levels in CVIII told a story. It wasn't an involved story, but it was one that made a certain amount of sense. In games that were roughly contemporary, like Ninja Gaiden, characters bounced from place to place, and even the cutscenes that ran between levels did little to make these levels feel connected. CVIII, on the other hand, did next to nothing by way of explaining the transitions from level to level, but the game's world felt organic and real nonetheless. In fact, CVIII feels like the perfect run-up to the current “Metroidvania” school of CV design; replace the map screens (and the level breaks) with transitional areas and make it possible for Trevor and friends to backtrack, and all of a sudden there's little separating CVIII from a modern installment in the series. It isn't surprising at all that after the refinements on the CVIII formula in Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the next CV game happened to be Symphony of the Night.

I have much more to say, some of which might actually be of interest, and I have some observations on genre I'd like to explore, but excuse me, because A) it's getting dark and bad things are out at night and B) my laptop's battery is about to go dead.

The above image comes from