Saturday, November 30, 2013

Journey and the Epic

Journey, developed by thatgamecompany as part of a partnership with Sony, is one of my favorite games ever made. Despite being short, simple, minimalist, and offering virtually no challenge, it has had the biggest impact on me of any game I've ever played, and I'm hardly the only person to say things like that. Among the many reasons already given for why Journey is so great, I'd like to add a new one: Journey is actually the simplest, most universal epic poem ever written.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Romantic Dead

I wrote a little bit last week about my experience with TellTale's The Walking Dead and the rise of what I've come to call "film-games." In that post, I also talked about The Last of Us, another of my favorite games of all time. The two games share a surprising amount of similarities (while feeling like entirely different games), but one that particularly catches my attention is that both are works of Neo-Romanticism.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Moby Dick, Democracy, Participatory Culture, and Games

"Call me Ishmael," Moby Dick begins, establishing the identity of our narrator for us and giving us an introduction to his character and particular voice as he will be telling us this story for quite a while and we should be comfortable with him. Moby Dick is a book full of strong characters--Queequeg, Ahab, Flask, Starbuck, Stubb--each of these character seem particularly individual and powerful in their own right, just as we feel we "get to know" Ishmael, we can "get to know" the other characters and understand their desires and quirks. However, the story isn't about any one of them, its about (and exists because of) all of them combined.

Not only does Melville craft each of these characters expertly to allow each of them their own voice and personality, but the very form of Moby Dick is broken up into distinctive "voices" of different literary genres. Interrupting Ishmael's regular narrative come dramatic monologues (ch. 37), encyclopedic articles (ch. 32), affidavits (ch. 45), as well as histories, articles, and more. Indeed, Moby Dick is designed on a formal as well as a textual level to break up any overpowering voice. In fact, freedom of speech and choice may arguably be what Moby Dick most values, as the ultimate tragedy of its ending comes from Ahab drowning out everyone else with his power and desire.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"That's Not a Game!"

A couple nights ago around 2 a.m., I finally finished season 1 of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games. When I credits stopped rolling and the epilogue tag showing little Clementine alone in the countryside faded out, I stumbled in daze back to my bed. Before I could roll over to sleep, I couldn't resist the impulse to put my arm around my sleeping wife and hold her tight for a moment. Perhaps more than any other media I've ever encountered, The Walking Dead opened my eyes to my relationships with other people, especially my wife and family. I was intensely grateful for the love I've been so lucky to feel throughout my life, and the forces of order that have made the path of my life relatively smooth and easy. As I felt all this, I concluded that The Walking Dead is really one of the greatest games I've ever played.

Except there's one problem. The Walking Dead isn't a game.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Plaid Hat Had My Same Idea

Image from Plaid Hat Games
On Wednesday, August 14, 2013, I opened a new page in OneNote and wrote the beginning ideas for a post-apocalyptic survival game that I tentatively titled From the Dust. I recently posted this in my new tumblr Every Day a Game, where I post a game idea every day.

In that concept idea, I wrote this:

Co-op--goal is to rebuild civilization in the city (build all the shelters), but have separate motives? Could lead to personal+co-op victory double win condition? 

Yesterday, Plaid Hat Games, one of the coolest tabletop game companies around, really, announced a new game Dead of Winter. Look at this from their announcement post:

Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means players are working together toward one common victory condition--but for each individual player to achieve victory, they must also complete their personal secret objective.
With this and the AC4 Moby Dick reveal, I'm feeling pretty good about my game design ideas lately. I'm very intrigued with what Plaid Hat is going to do with this idea. This next quote has me especially excited:

Dead of Winter is an experience that can only be accomplished through the medium of tabletop games. It is a story-centric game about surviving through a harsh winter in an apocalyptic world. The survivors are all dealing with their own psychological imperatives but must still find a way to work together to fight off outside threats, resolve crises, find food and supplies, and keep the colony's morale up.

Dead of Winter looks and sounds amazing. I'm glad Plaid Hat is making something so similar to my idea so I can play it without having to make it myself! It'll be interesting to see how it works out.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I Was Right!

A couple months ago I posted an open letter to Ubisoft about how and why they should put Ahab and Moby Dick in Assassin's Creed 4. Well, turns out either they listened to me, or they had the plan all along (probably the latter, but still).

Well, turns out I was right! You can indeed hunt the Great White Whale in AC4. And you kind of have to be an Ahab to ever find it. One article I read said you "may" see one in 48 hours of gameplay. However, if a friend finds one, he/she can choose to share the location with you in-game and the location will show up on your map as well. You have to act quick, though, because the location remains on your map for only 24 hours after it pops up (24 real hours, not gameplay hours).

And that's not all--once you do find the Whale, he's no easy kill. One video I found showed a player only bringing Moby down on his 16th attempt.

So no Ahab character like I suggested, but in reality, the white whale adventure in AC4 is a pretty accurate adaptation of the obsessive hunt from Melville's classic. (Just listen to the guy in that video--you can tell he's become obsessed with killing this whale.) The Assassin's Creed series has always prided itself on making history a "playground" but it's good to see them incorporating literature as well.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How to Do Things With Videogames by Ian Bogost

How to Do Things With Videogames might not be the book you're expecting it to be. It's not a game How Things Have Been Done With Videogames. As such, it reads more like a highlight reel of Bogost's blog posts on videogames than a single argument that unfolds from chapter to chapter.
design book that discusses technical solutions, neither is it a book of videogame criticism focused on the effectiveness of individual titles. Rather, it's an eye-opener book meant to show anyone and everyone what has been done with videogames so far in their relatively short history. Indeed, a better title for this book might be

Once you understand that purpose of this book, it's easy to see how well that purpose is fulfilled. The examples Bogost provides are varied and plentiful, allowing any curious reader to use the chapter on their topic(s) of choice as a starting point for a deeper study in a specific use of videogames. Rather than settling into the common and heated debate of "videogames as art," Bogost addresses that as simply one use for the medium in this book's first chapter, then moves on to much more varied and surprising uses for videogames, from empathy and kitsch to reverence and exercise.

While the individual chapters do not linearly unfold a single argument, Bogost frames the collection as evidence for one major point he wishes to make. He states this point explicitly in the introduction and conclusion: "We can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does." The collection of essays that follows this introduction proves this point, which in turn is used to argue his final point in the conclusion: "Soon gamers will be the anomaly. If we're very fortunate, they'll disappear altogether. Instead we'll just find people of all sorts. And sometimes those people will play videogames. And it won't be a big deal, at all."

It may seem contradictory to write a book about videogames just to suggest that the gamer community will die out, but really what Bogost is trying to do is show how games will only continue to increase in use and relevance in our society such that we will no longer consider those who play videogames as some kind of specialized hobbyists. It's an interesting blend of hope and submission that Bogost presents the reader; videogames will indeed continue to grow in scope and legitimacy in society, but at the same time they will lose their edgy appeal and excitement until they become just another medium we interact with.

As Bogost says himself, this is certainly not headline material. It is, however, the most realistic and all-encompassing view of the future of videogames out there. The excitement of videogames as a medium is bound to die down in the coming years as current generations will grow up with them as a fact of daily life. When that happens, the excitement will come from individuals exploring and exploiting videogames' seemingly infinite uses in innovative and provocative ways. Bogost himself has done that elsewhere, but that's not what this book is about. This book is about showing the world videogames are here to stay and inviting us all to accept this new medium like we would any other, then inviting us to get past that and start using videogames as well and as interestingly as we do any other medium of expression.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Controls Are the Font

Fonts and typefaces make for fascinating study, and we depend on them far more than most of us know. Before you even get the sense of the words, fonts shape your reaction to the content. Companies spend millions developing and picking the fonts for their marketing and packaging to make sure it sends the message they want. Steve Jobs famously insisted on the importance of typefaces, as Ashton Kutcher so kindly shows us in this clip:
Fonts are important because they aren't the content itself but they are deeply tied to the content in our minds. For longer works, the best fonts are "transparent," in this case meaning they don't distract the reader from the content itself (and in many ways the best fonts actually help the reader along without the average reader even knowing it). The most readable fonts like this are called old style fonts. For titles and design, the best fonts reflect the content in some way--think "Happy Halloween" in a font that looks like it's dripping ooze of some kind. Fonts like this are often called display fonts.

In videogames, the controls are in many ways the "font" for the medium. While this may not make sense at first, consider how the controls sit in exactly the same place between the content and the user as fonts do. Fonts aren't content, but they link the user to the content and help shape the user's experience with the content. Similarly, the controls for the game aren't the game itself, but they're the crucial link between the player and the content of the game. Just like good fonts, good controls are transparent--they get out of the way and let the user experience the game without having to work too hard to get through the controls to the game itself.
A Halloween-themed display font

I would argue that some controls are "display font" controls--the controls themselves attempt to mimic the content in some way--and some controls are "old style font" controls, meant to just let the user pass through them to the content without distraction.

On the "display font" end we find stuff like the Wii remote motion controls and QTEs (quick time events). These controls try and immerse the player in the moment by making them somehow mimic the action of a character within the game. When a zombie's trying to push through the door, for instance, and the game prompts you to push a single button repeatedly as fast as possible, the designers are trying to pass the feeling of urgency and strain to the player through the controls. As the character pushes frantically, the player pushes frantically. This is very similar to the idea of display fonts--what's seen reflects what's read.

On the "old style font" side we find thumb stick controls and dedicated buttons. Little thought and effort go into pushing the stick forward to moving the character forward. The controls are transparent--they get out of the way and let the player get immersed in the game world. When a player knows the triangle button is going to pick up an object, he or she no longer looks at onscreen prompts and just pushes the button when the character nears an object. These controls get out of the user's way and don't call attention to themselves, letting the content through to the player easily just like old style fonts.

Screenshot of Tomb Raider showing a QTE in which the player must "hold on"
to the ledge by repeatedly pressing the "Y" button
(image credit:
Rather than just being interesting, this analogy can help us both design and play games better. Suddenly, studying the principles of typography helps us understand principles of good game design and critical playing of games. Understanding the intent of the controls will help us understand the effectiveness of the controls, and, more importantly, what the game is communicating through the controls. For instance, when we understand the connection between WarioWare prompting us to put the Wii remote to our noses like an elephant's trunk to collect digital peanuts and petals coming out of the "o" in the word "flower" on a flyer for a community garden, we understand more how we're supposed to react to those controls--WarioWare's supposed to feel childish and a little absurd, just like a flyer for a community garden's supposed to be inviting and friendly.

Not only does this help us read individual games, but it helps explain recent trends in the gaming industry. Nintendo has always been the "family friendly" gaming system, but in the past there were always at least a few more mature titles for their consoles. The Nintendo 64 was meant for kids, but it still had James Bond games. The Wii, however, is nearly devoid of any serious or mature titles. As a result, "core" gamers have all but left Nintendo behind, something the company tried to fix with the Wii U by attracting more mature titles like Batman: Arkham City and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag to the system. But why did Nintendo lose this market in the first place? Because the Wii is inherently "display font"-control oriented. When motion controls are added to the mix, suddenly everything about the game becomes about imitating with your body what you see on the screen, and that interface becomes the whole enjoyment of the experience rather than the content itself. To use our analogy, playing a serious game like The Last of Us with a Wii remote would be like reading the entirety of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in a font with little cartoon zombies peeking around the letters. If Nintendo wants to bring back "core" gamers, they need a way to provide more transparent controls, not more gimmicky ones.

This analogy also explains why developers continue to use QTEs in games despite increasing player complaints. From a developers' point of view, a QTE is attractive--it cleanly and efficiently brings up a sense of urgency and allows for very a cinematic moment that still requires player interaction, thus looking and feeling like a movie while superficially remaining a game. From the players' perspective, however, it calls too much attention to the controls and actually pulls them out of the game world to deal with the physical demands of the controller. (Also, QTEs quickly become cruelly repetitive and eliminate strategy, but those are different issues.) Like display fonts themselves, QTEs can be emotionally effective when used sparingly and intelligently, but too many just distract from the content and cheapen the experience of the game.

Obviously, this analogy can't be taken too far, but it's useful in both designing and playing games to create more exact and emotionally effective communication. Intelligent controls can be the cherry on top of a great game (I'm thinking of Batman: Arkham Asylum/City's amazing Freeflow Combat controls) or they can be the reason a great concept becomes a trashed title (as was the frustrating and unfortunate case with the in-line skating/graffiti game Jet Set Radio).

So, next time you're playing or designing games, take a second and consider what font they're in.

Modding's Mighty Influence

This post originally appeared on a blog for a digital culture class. See it here.

One of the major aspects of remix culture that Dr. Burton touched on but didn't have much time to get into is modding. Essentially, modding is digging into the code of an existing game to alter it in some way. Mods range from basic "unofficial patches" that just fix a few bugs that annoy players to complete overhauls that change nearly every aspect of the game such that it's unrecognizable from the original.

Interestingly, modders haven't faced much trouble with copyright issues, and many of the best mods have been adopted by the games' original developers and released as official content. The main reason for this is good mods sell games, and bad mods get ignored. If a mod is good enough, people will buy the original game just to play the mod, so it's in the developers'/publishers' interests to just let the modders do their thing. On the modders' end, it's good for them because it's an easy way to show their coding skills and get it out to a lot of people quickly without having to build a game from scratch.

Just like music remixes, however, mods have produced an entire subculture, and many of the world's most successful games actually began as mods. I'll show you three quick examples: Counter Strike, League of Legends/DOTA 2, and DayZ.

A Brief History of the Games as Art Debate

This post is adapted from a post I did for a digital culture class. See the original here.

Working with Storify and reading Ian Bogost's How to Do Things With Videogames, I've finished a brief history of the "games as art" debate focusing on Roger Ebert's infamous remarks.

As a curation tool, Storify has its strengths and weaknesses. It's best for smaller curation projects, that perhaps together build up into a larger body of collected work. Each "story" is best focused and tight, however, with a clear concept combining the elements. I did a merger of a story and more traditional curation by writing a story following the "video games as art" debate since Roger Ebert's famous denunciation of the medium, then provided a (very) long list of links at the bottom for further discussion.

One cool thing about using Storify is because it's a fairly new tool, I'm in the top three results when you search for videogames on the service.

I found it really easy to use and really kind of fun. I hope it catches on.

Here's my first Storify story for you to peruse:

Presenting at RMMLA: My Experience

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

On October 10, I had the opportunity to present my paper, "'Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On': Shakespeare and the Cultural Legitimacy of Video Games" at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference. The conference this year was in Vancouver, Washington (no, not Canada and no, not DC). It is unusual for an undergraduate to present at this conference and I was very grateful for the opportunity.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how well my paper was received. Even before the conference started, the panel chair, a professor from Utah State, told me to not be nervous because they were a nice group of people. It also helped that everywhere we went there seemed to be another BYU graduate wanting to talk to us--in the airport, in the hotel, in the room I presented in--everywhere. I was really worried that they'd hear I was an undergraduate and someone would say something about how I wasn't supposed to be there or ask how I ever got in to the conference. I was also worried that I'd get to the conference room and the other presenters would speak and it would all go way over my head and my paper would seem completely juvenile in comparison. Actually, neither of those things happened. I found the other papers super interesting and exciting, and when the time came for Q&A after the presentations, I actually got the bulk of the questions (this might have been in part because I was the last presenter, but it still felt good) and I held my own and had answers for everyone. (Surprisingly, I didn't get the chance to use any of the ten or so answers I had come up with for the questions, "But how can games be art when they're so violent?" because no one asked any version of that question.)

After I finished my presentation, the panel chair asked if I was going to publish my paper and asked the room if they thought I should. They were all very supportive in saying I should publish it somewhere. A woman from The University of Baltimore asked me to email it to her to give to their new Department of Simulation and Digital Entertainment. She said they would love to read it.

Overall, it was an amazing experience and much less intimidating than I thought it would be. The paper was received very well and I'm more excited than ever about my prospects studying video games as an art form.

The full text of my paper can be read and downloaded here.
The accompanying PowerPoint can be viewed and downloaded here.

And, finally, here's a video my lovely wife took of my presentation:

The Internet: The End of "The End"?

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

Paul Valéry (image source
The French poet and critic Paul Valéry once said, "Poems are never finished, only abandoned." Reading andthinking about Dr. Burton's concept of the spiral and the idea of iterative social creation this week brought that quote to my mind again, along with the question: Is the internet the end of "finished products"?

Dr. Burton pointed out in the lecture this week that perhaps one of the biggest dividing lines between print and digital culture is that print is by necessity finished product gone through several reviewers and editors before it's put out into wide distribution, while the internet is instant wide distribution of whatever people want.

Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

On Monday, I talked about Chapter 89 of Moby Dick and the concept of Fast-fish and Loose-fish and how it ultimately serves as a foundation for the creation of meaning within the novel. Today, I want to extend on ideas I started there by applying the concept of Fast-fish and Loose-fish to a wider view of our entire digital age.

To review, I basically argued that all meaning in life--both in art and outside of it--is the product of connection. (Indeed, the more I think about it, I can't really tell a difference between connection and meaning, and it seems the two are almost interchangeable.) If this is all true, then, ultimately, this idea is another key to how the digital age changes everything. New technologies give us different powers of connection, and thus the powers to alter the meaning of nearly everything in our lives.

As digital media gives fans more chances to connect with fictional universes,
it makes these universes more meaningful for them.

Crowdsourcing Games: The Fun Way to Change the World

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

Dr. Burton talked to us in class yesterday about crowdsourcing and creativity and how the digital age provides us ways to create things together like never before. Today, I'm going to talk about a few crowdsourcing projects that have been packaged as a game to inspire more effort, creativity, and time out of participants.


Folder Madde's top scoring solution to the Mason pfizer monkey virus
(image credit:
We talked about one such game in class, called Foldit. Foldit is a game about protein folding that invites players to find patterns in complex proteins and play around with them and try and fold them into the best possible shape so it has the function biologists want it to have. Proteins can fold into almost an infinite amount of shapes, with each shape causing the protein to function differently. Because of this, predicting what shape the protein needs to be in to function properly (to cure a disease, for example) is very difficult and very expensive, even with advanced supercomputers. The game, then, finds a way to leverage the creative and pattern-recognition powers of the human brain, and makes it fun to solve an extremely complex problem. Foldit has already helped with research on HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.

Perhaps the most surprising and wonderful result of Foldit is that even Ph.D. biologists aren't necessarily the best players. Players come from all backgrounds and many of the best players are neither biologists nor tech experts. It's true crowdsourcing--a project that becomes more than the sum of its parts.

But Foldit isn't the only crowdsourcing game out there. Several others have been very successful in solving all kinds of world problems, from oil to malaria, government spending and more.

Give Us Ahab: An Open Letter to Ubisoft

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

Dear Ubisoft,

You have recently announced that in your upcoming game, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, a way to gain materials and money for character and ship upgrades will be through harpooning whales, sharks, and other large sea creatures. Let me start by congratulating you on the careful consideration that appears to have been taken on this relatively small mechanic within a much larger game, as evidenced in this video. However, I wish to present you with an extraordinary opportunity for such a mechanic which you may have overlooked. (Due to the nature of secrecy surrounding large video game releases, I realize you may already have considered the option that I am about to present to you, but I'd like to present this proposal before the game releases so that you might consider it before the game is in it's final form.)

As you probably gathered from the title of this post, my proposal is simply this: put Captain Ahab and Moby Dick in AC4. I believe this could provide a great gameplay experience, visual spectacle, and satisfactory narrative, as well as fit in quite nicely with the aesthetic and philosophy of both Black Flag and the Assassin's Creed series in general. In addition, it could open an interesting and satisfying inquiry into the relationship between Herman Melville's classic and modern video games as a vehicle for artistic expression.

Image from

"Playing" Prospero

This post was originally written for a Shakespeare class blog. See it here.

I've been thinking about my post of "The Tempest: The Video Game" and my point at the end about how the player could play Prospero and be forced to enslave Caliban as a new way to interpret the themes of the play. There's something much bigger in that idea than I thought at first.

Clint Hocking, an influential game designer, was quoted in the New Yorker in 2011 as saying,

Clink Hocking's online avatar
"Finding a way to make the mechanics of play our expression as creators and as artists—to me that’s the only question that matters." 

Like my suggestion in my post, he was talking about how the mechanics of the game could enhance the art of the author and designer. However, in a post on his blog he altered this quote ever-so-slightly but importantly to say, 

"Finding a way to make the dynamics of play support the creative expression of players—to me that’s the only question that matters."

A lot of the art of theatre comes from actors coming up with new interpretations for characters, or in the subtle differences a certain actor gives to a script by the way they he or she plays it. Why can't it be the same with video games? Taking that same scenario from above, a player could choose to try and avoid enslaving Caliban, or that same player could enslave Caliban the second he/she meets him, before the reasons to enslave him are even clear. Just like an actor or actress, the gamer could "play" Prospero however he/she chooses.

That's good art.

The Tempest: The Video Game

This post was originally written for a Shakespeare Class at BYU. See it here.

The following is a brief list of quotes from The Tempest that take on a whole new meaning when you think of the play in the context of video games:

"She / Is daughter to this famous Duke of Milan, / Of whom so often I have heard renown, / But never saw before; of whom I have / Received a second life..."

(Ferdinand, 5.1.212-216)

Water Nymph
CC by zionenciel

"Go make thyself like a nymph o' the sea: be subject / To no sight but thine and mine, invisible / To every eyeball else."

(Prospero, 1.2.354-356)

"O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in't!"

(Miranda, 5.1.203-206)

These are a few tongue-in-cheek examples, obviously, but I think they help establish a connection quickly, even if it is a shallow connection.