I’ve been playing video games for 28 years, and I’ve been finishing games for about 25 (those first few Infocom games proved too tricksy for my impatient early adolescent brain.). Though it may not seem so to the casual observer, many games are finishable. That is, they have a narrative arc–a beginning, middle and end. Clearly that’s not the case with Pacman, Angry Birds or most sports games, but many games for the PC and consoles want to tell a story where you control the hero.
Until recently, finishing any game provoked a slight sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and relief. Even when my friend Albert and I spent six solid hours beating the Stygian Abyss on his Apple II, I recognized it as a trifle, an unworthy chore. It feels about the same as winning at a recreation sport (assuming you’re not a testosterone-rich toss-pot). It’s worth smiling about and raising a glass to, but that’s about it.
In recent years, though, I’ve finished some games and felt like I’d just finished watching a great movie or play, or reading a good book. You know this feeling. It’s as if you’ve been changed by the work of art, like I’m a slightly different person after experiencing it. Pauline Kael wrote that “good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again”. The Greeks called that feeling catharsis. This is a recent and radical change in my experience of games.
Maybe Games are Art
Though this feels like a tectonic shift in narrative games, I believe that it’s the result of many small improvements in storytelling. These changes, in aggregate, push certain games across a kind of event horizon. What games evoke this feeling for me? The most recent was Mass Effect 3. Before that there were the Portal games (I previously wrote about Portal as the perfect short story of a game) and Half Life 2: Episode 2.
What do these games have in common that are different from others? Great voice acting, for one. The Mass Effect games, in particular, are peopled with legitimate mainstream actors like Martin Sheen and Carrie Anne Moss. You feel the difference. By the standards of games, the dialogue is excellent as well. There are legitimately funny jokes, and, rarely, lines that cut to the bones of a scene. While I do think better ‘graphics’ has something to do with this shift, it’s not really a question of verisimilitude. It’s more that these games pay closer attention to mise en scene. They’re more tonal, in some way, and manipulate mood better.
Like good acting performances, these games have a soul, and there’s truth in them.
Roger Ebert–I mourn his passing–infamously argued that games weren’t art. In truth, I mostly agreed with him. Most games are awful juvenile reveries; I almost never see a sophisticated treatment of a theme in a game, and I’m rarely surprised by how a game’s story plays out. I recently watched Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, and Chris Hecker had a great observation about games. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like “nearly all games are about power fantasy, which is pretty cheap and predictable. What would a game be like if the objective was to fall in love?” (More on this theme from Chris).
Comparing the history of movies and games, I’d say that games are barely into the ‘talkies’ era. I look forward to the era where being moved by a game is the rule, instead of the exception.
I always need to know where my next meal is coming from. During the average work day, I raise the question “what should we have for dinner?” at about 4:30pm. When I’m traveling, I need a plan in place about obtaining sustenance. My friends make fun of me for this foible, but–like my apprehension about getting left behind on BC Ferries–it’s baked into my psyche.
I’ve never understood the origin of this anxiety until the other day, when I was talking to some friends about a computer game I played in my childhood. Called Enchanter, it’s a text-based swords and sorcery game first released in 1983 by Infocom. You can play it online. It isn’t exactly Dead Island.
I never bought the game. My older cousin made a copy of it on a floppy disc, bless him, and sent it up for me from California. He was the original dealer for my gaming jones. The game was definitely too old for me. I was probably 10 or 11, and as such never finished any of the early Infocom text games. I wasn’t clever enough, and there was no Internet on which to find walkthroughs, clues and cheat codes.
In talking about Enchanter, I explained to my friends how the game–like many early games– requires you to eat and drink throughout your adventure. At the start of the game, you find a loaf of bread, and you slowly consume it as you play. As you eat it, the game tells you how much is left:
Naturally, the game reports less and less bread left as you make progress. It’s a game mechanic, I suppose, to prevent the player from playing a particular playthrough for a very long time.
For reasons that I can’t explain, that mechanic embedded itself in a profound way in my pliable young brain. I have an ever-present awareness of the amount of consumable stuff I own. I know how many eggs are in the carton in our fridge, how many bags of berries I’ve frozen for my Canadian diet and even a pretty accurate sense of time (something I never “lose track of”–I don’t understand how people do this). As my wife pointed out, this bread and water requirement is probably also responsible for my low-level worry about my next meal.
I don’t think often enough about the impact all those hours of gameplay had on my prepubescent and teenage mind. I’m truly among the oldest people to have grown up playing video games. What other lasting impacts did it have on my psyche?
If you played a lot of games grown up, how did they impact your life?
About five and half years ago, I wrote about the spouse of an Electronic Arts employee who was upset about the working conditions at her husband’s job. At the time, her blog post got a lot of media attention. I’m not sure if conditions changed for her husband, but one of the outcomes was Gamewatch, a discussion forum where people could discuss the working conditions inside gaming companies.
I was poking around that forum and clicked through to another blog post from January, 2010 by the wife of a Rockstar Games developer that articulates very similar complaints. The article is written in a peculiarly baroque style, but here’s an excerpt:
Little is there to motivate continuation as they also have lost a free vacation week between Christmas and New Year. Without time to recuperate and no efforts made to alleviate the stress of such conditions would procure on an employee after a period time, serious health concerns. Yet, now the health concern becomes another financial concern as the stripping of medical benefits surfaces to realization. It becomes rather worse rather than better as employees gain experience and become “senior”. Instead of appreciation, numerous non-exempt designers and artists have had their overtime pay cut as a result for being “too senior”.
Apparently not much has changed in the intervening six years.
Here’s what’s weird: why do we keep hearing from the spouses of game programmers, and not the programmers themselves? The obvious answer is that the developers won’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Yet both the blogging spouses remain anonymous. The developers could write articles anonymously with a similar result, couldn’t they?
Perhaps these are just clever programmers posing as their wives, figuring that they’d be able to bring more attention to the issue in this end-around fashion?
And why is this phenomenon specific to game developers? I’ve see no open letters from the husbands of prenatal care nurses, or the spouses of public defenders?
To me, their entire argument is specious. If you don’t like where you work as a game developer, get a new job. You’re highly educated, in demand and have skills that are transferable to other parts of the technology or animation industry. If you really can’t find another job, then tough it out in this one for another year, save some money and start retraining in another field.
Of course, if your spouse doesn’t like where you work, that may be a more vexing problem.
It’s always great when I discover a succinct essay or lecture that summarizes the state of the union for a particular industry, art form or research topic. The other day I watched this half-hour talk by Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell discussing trends in casual gaming. He starts a little slow but gathers steam:
Here’s a kind of response to Schell’s lecture, specifically discussing this idea of external rewards.
One of the undervalued aspects of the Internet is its endless capacity to enable nostalgia. Whether you had a childhood love of My Little Pony, Dungeons & Dragons or a defunct hockey team, there’s a website (and probably an eBay auction) where you can revisit that pleasure of your youth.
I was reminded of this phenomenon over the weekend, when a friend and I were discussing a new Olympics-themed video game called Vancouver 2010. Like many Olympics computer games before it, it enables you to play a number of the sports from the Winter Games. Here’s a trailer:
It’s noteworthy that the Games’ three sports that are most popular among Canadians–ice hockey, figure skating and curling–don’t appear in this game. It’s not surprising–hockey has its own franchise games, figure skating would be tricky to program effectively (imagine the control scheme) and curling, well, is curling. That said, I think curling would make a great game for the Wii.
The Heady Days of Microsoft Decathlon
My friend reminded me of a slightly earlier sports mini-games-within-a-game for the PC. It was called Microsoft Decathlon, and, believe it or not, it was published in 1982. 1982! The first version of PC-DOS, on which is ran, was only released in August, 1981. I probably didn’t play the game until 1984 or 1985, but I played it a lot. When I watched this video, the sense of nostalgia was visceral:
The crazy midi theme, the four colour interface, the high jump mat labeled “FOAM PIT”–it all came back to me. The whole video is 10 minutes, so don’t bother watching the whole thing. I might draw your attention, however, to the awesome rendering of the shot-put event.
When you compare those two videos, it’s a little shocking how far games have come in 25 years. What will they look like in another 25 years? How much will innovation slow down, as has happened in television and film?
I recently participated in a game of Pictionary. My team came second (or “first loser” as somebody described it), despite the fact that we had four arts degrees between us.
I was given a particularly challenging word to draw, and I thought I did a smashing job of it. My team disagreed. Travis kindly snapped a photo. My rendering is everything above my finger–we did multiple drawings on every sheet of paper. Can you guess the word? Click for super-sizing:
Hmm…in retrospect it’s not really that clear. Though, in my defense, two people from another team guessed what I was on about.
UPDATE: The correct answer is ‘taxidermy’. So maybe I failed. I did like an alternative suggestion I received by email: “Dance dance critter death edition”, which seems to be in the ballpark of correct.
I’m a longtime player of sports games on the PC, and a recovering technical writer. So I take an interest in the manuals that accompany the games I play. As most gamers will attest, game manuals are usually awful. They’re under-written, incomplete and, for narrative games, spend too much time on useless back story.
This problem is usually solved by the far-superior in-game tutorial. Learning by playing is much more effective than learning by reading. There are few tutorials, however, in sports games. That’s fine, because usually gamers know how to play the sport in question, but not always.
When I worked in Ireland, we often played PlayStation games around the office at lunch time (or, you know, other times). A favourite game (and I don’t think it was my Canadian influence) was EA Sports NHL 2002. Most of the Irish guys playing the game had never actually seen a hockey game, either live or on TV. Their understanding of the term “hockey” was strictly verbal. They had a vague idea what offside was from football (i.e. soccer), but no sense of what the icing rule was about. In any case, they mostly played with those rules turned off.
I was just glancing through the manual of a reasonably new soccer (i.e. football) game, and encountered this section:
These are team-wide tactics which you, as their godly overseer, can instruct them to execute. Though I’ve casually watched soccer for years, I only have the vaguest idea of what these are. Wing Play? Flat back? And ’3rd Man Release’ sounds downright dirty. The manual doesn’t include an explanation of what these tactics are for, how they work or when you might use them. It assumes, like icing and offside, that I already understand them.
From talking to educators and influencers, we’ve learned that our videos are often used to introduce a subject – to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of a class, workshop, etc. Recently, as part of our planning for 2009, we came up with a model that helps tell this story. We call it the A-to-Z Scale.
The scale represents the path to learning a subject. On the left side are the basic, fundamental ideas. On the right, the details and applications of the ideas.
Thinking about sports games manuals, they’re really missing the Gs and the Hs of the games they’re simulating. Most players will understand that you throw the ball in the basket, or hit the ball into the hole with the stick. However, many casual players may not understand the nuances of the neutral-zone trap or the dreaded third man release.
Do we need to grasp these details to enjoy the game? Probably not (though the jargon in an American football game is pretty thick and commonplace), but all it would take is an extra couple of pages in the manual or a game tutorial to explain these concepts. I’d imagine that the developer looks at both of those as cost centres, though, so I’d expect they feel that less is more. What do you think?
I was watching some Olympics coverage yesterday, and started thinking about rituals of celebration:
In indoor volleyball, the team converges after every successful point. There’s a momentary huddle where, I assume, encouraging and congratulatory remarks are exchanged.
In gymnastics, the girls (for, yes, they’re mostly still girls) of the American team gave each other the most cursory of hugs after each routine.
Basketball seems to reflect what occurs in the NBA. There’s very little reaction after the average basket, and just some macho posturing after a particularly righteous slam dunk.
I didn’t see what happened in water polo, but I think it’s much like basketball.
In games where teams accrue points, there’s a correlation between the frequency of scoring and the amount of celebration. In hockey and football (that is, soccer), the entire team congregates around the scorer to congratulate them. At the other end of the scale, there’s very little reaction from teammates in basketball or doubles tennis.
Is there a threshold where the group-to-congratulate stops? Maybe it’s not that simple. There’s potentially 25 points in a volleyball game, though there’s easily 75 to 100 in a match. That’s actually more ‘scores’ that the average basketball game, so I guess there’s no hard and fast rule.
Can you think of other high-scoring sports where the team celebrates after every point?