Thursday, December 31, 2009

Interactive = Choice

I've already told Lewis Denby: I think that his mods (and stuff like "Dear Esther"), these types of "walkthrough gallery" mods are kinda boring. It's not out of any spite, and I think he's a good writer - but I think it'll be useful to open up a larger dialogue on this type of game design when I complain about it. (If anything, it'll give his mods more of the attention that they deserve, yes?)

His main claim is that there exists an interesting, as of yet unexplored space between cinema and interactive media - and his implementation, as with Dear Esther, is to walk around an environment as you read notes / listen to dialogue. He thinks something compelled you to "press W" and explore an environment, and that "something" was a narrative unfolding in real-time before your eyes. I disagree with this, and here's why:

"What happened?" vs. "What is happening?" I would argue that gameplay and interactivity is about the present, about player-centric plot; these other types of gallery mods are about the past, about what happened already. Dear Esther is largely a passive narration of what already happened, as is Post Script. And to me, that's a much less interesting question and narrative hook.

Why doesn't the player have any narrative agency? Why isn't the plot about me? Note that this isn't an argument for nonlinear game narrative because linear games focus on the player too: In Half-Life 2, the Combine signal an alarm and start searching the city because of what you did. In Ico, Yorda follows and moves because you beckon her. The world and the characters are reacting to you because in this virtual world, you matter.

Vague narrative design theory. What compelled me to explore the environment wasn't necessarily an interest in the narrative; among other reasons, it was the simple desire to "finish" the game and make sure I didn't miss anything, the completionist streak that today's ubiquitous achievement systems exploit. And specifically, as a fellow modder, I also want to see what others are doing and analyze it so I can steal their ideas and make them my own.

For example, what I got out of Dear Esther wasn't that bunny-hopping across sparsely decorated terrain is emotionally meaningful -- instead, what I realized is that I too could randomize bits of narrative and let the player generate their own meaning out of it. (Something I did with my own mod "Handle with Care," where the engine generates a random montage of scenes at a point in the game.)

It goes against where most people are heading with games. Most interactive fiction, or "IF," has moved away from focusing on environment and plot -- instead focusing on characters as autonomous agents, systems of interaction, and depictions of consciousness. Marc LeBlanc's influential MDA framework and today's hottest indie "Art games with a capital A" celebrity designers, like Jonathan Blow or Jason Rohrer, emphasize game mechanics as the message. Compelling game rules reveal the authorial intent, whether it's a moral / social commentary / whatever.

And lastly, what I consider the greatest flaw of this approach and the main reason why I think it's a "dead end"...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mod Auteurs: Razorclaw X

First a brief history: like many modding communities, the Starcraft modding community was fragmented across several sites -- Infoceptor,, the Star Alliance, etc. -- but perhaps the most prominent / controversial site (though certainly the most productive) was Campaign Creations.

There at CC, Razorclaw X came to Starcraft modding from a "fan fiction" perspective -- which would explain why his characters and universe were such an utterly impenetrable fog unless you played all four campaigns in order -- and went out of his way to create an epic mythology involving the cast of the anime Ranma 1/2. The "Vision of the Future" series was four huge campaigns, spread across 84+ maps, with a new playable race called the "Zeji Armada," all done by one man.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Games Aren't Art (a design perspective)

It's a dead horse, I know.

Wait, don't leave! Okay, video games have cultural legitimacy and an artistic component, sure -- but here's what's up: video games (especially big budget AAA commercial games) are also engineered products that go through usability testing, quality assurance, prototyping, pre-production, etc.

So I wonder: did Picasso have focus testing done for the 18-34 male demographic for Guernica?

Monday, December 14, 2009

How to Close Read Video Games

Novels, poems, plays, short stories -- they all communicate meaning through the ways they use language and how the reader perceives the work as a whole. Even though they are fixed, static texts, vastly different readings and experiences are possible.

Is Hamlet sane, or is he secretly crazy even though he thinks he's sane? (After all, crazy people rarely think they're crazy.) Both sides (among others) have been argued, yet it's all focused on the same text. The difference is that you, personally, will find one reading more convincing than the other.

Games, meanwhile, communicate meaning through the ways they use gameplay mechanics and how the player perceives the work as a whole. Even though many of them are fixed, static spaces with only so many choices / branches, vastly different playthroughs and experiences are possible.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I'm not sure what you're doing here, but there aren't really any posts here yet.

Check back in January.