Archive for the ‘ Why STALKER is great ’ Category

Immersion (Why Games Are Special)

(Originally posted here; has 13,123 views)

I read a forum thread somewhere recently—I want to say NeoGAF, but I can’t find it ’cause my registration’s pending so I can’t access search—that talked a bit about words and concepts we’d like to see removed from gaming. It was a pretty fascinating topic, and I was happy to see that the used-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness word “visceral” and the anti-game “cinematic” were frequently cited. It was perfect timing, then, for Kirk to post an article highlighting a video arguing against the use of the term “immersion” in video games the next day.

I disagreed rather vehemently. I still do, which is why I’ve spent several hours (as opposed to my normal twenty minutes) to prepare a response.

Before I get into this, I must warn you that I might be someone harsh on Mr. Abraham and those who agree with him. He’s gotten so much fluffy praise from people who consider themselves to be on the forefront of games criticism (a field which, from what I’ve read, is incredibly circlejerky and not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as it thinks it is) that I think some harshness is in order.

Anyone who believes that “immersion” is a term that should not apply to gaming, or that ideas involving immersive design should be removed from video games is frighteningly wrong. Not only that, but the argument that “immersion” is a bad term, or that games should not be made with immersion in mind are as dangerous to the medium as attempts to ban it.

Guess I should back myself up, huh?

I’ll be covering two main points, because it appears that these guys either fail to understand what immersion means or genuinely want the concept of immersion to die.

Let’s start with the English language.

Okay, so, first things first, a little English language primer (thanks to squibsforsquid‘s responses to my initial response to Abraham’s video):

The English language is incredibly nuanced. Words that seem to be identical to each other can actually have subtly different meanings that aren’t covered by others. “Immerse/Immersed/Immersion” is a great example of this. A simple dictionary lookup reveals it to be something along the lines of “engrossed” or “attention-grabbing,” but if that were the case, then one would wonder why similar words and phrases would not suffice. Why does “immerse” and its various forms exist?

The answer lies in its other definition: to be submerged entirely in a body of water.

Imagine, if you will, that the English language is all the food in a grocery store. Words like “engrossed” and “immersed” are like varieties of lettuce. Sure, you might think that iceberg and romaine lettuce are both leafy green veggies, so they can be used interchangeably, but nothing could be further from the truth: indeed, romaine has a radically different texture and moisture than iceberg (I prefer the darker, bitter taste of romaine, personally, but some people like the cool crunchiness of iceberg).

An English-language example of this would be the substitution of “good” for the word “like.” What we like is something inherently personal and subjective—it’s something that matches up to our own personal standards of enjoyment. What is good is something that compares favorably to set standards—usually ones external to us, like cultural standards. Saying something is “good” does not inherently mean that we like it; likewise, saying that we “like” something does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing.

Similar terms are not identical ones.

Immersion isn’t simply “paying a lot of attention to a thing.” There’s more nuance to it than that. Merriam-Webster’s example, “We were surprised by his complete immersion in the culture of the island,” hints at a level of integration into something. When someone says “he was immersed in the water,” they’re talking not talking about being engrossed with water, they’re talking about going under.

The people who first used the term “immersion” when applied to game design didn’t choose the word lightly. There’s a reason that the immersive sim genre of video games is called the immersive sim and not “engrossing games” or something else. “Immersion’s” unique texture within English makes it a term uniquely suited to discussing an element of video games that other mediums don’t have (you can pay attention to any medium; you can only be immersed in something interactive).

Any game can be engrossing—Tetris is engrossing, for instance—but few games can be truly immersive. Few games can make their players a part of the world within them.

This is an important point, because immersion, in this sense, is something that’s entirely unique to video games. Nothing—no movie, no play, no book—can be truly immersive the way a video game can be.

Basically, to sum things up so far, “immersion” is a term that isn’t always used correctly. When referring merely to the act of being deeply involved in a game, yes, immersion is an improper term, but we should not remove it from our gaming lexicon entirely, because it’s a term that accurately describes one of the primary elements of what separates video games from other entertainment mediums.

Where am I getting this from, you ask?

Right, so, let’s jump back to 1974. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (sorry, Dave, but while you take alphabetical precedence, Gary wins for having alliteration and an x in his name, which just makes him cooler) created this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

It was a role-playing game.

I’m not talking about stat-based adventure JRPG stuff, either. I’m talking about a true role-playing game (speaking of role-play, there’s another thing that will confuse you if you try to find a dictionary definition—understanding the use of the word, specifically regarding its origins and relationship to improvisational theatre, is key to understanding what is and isn’t a role-playing game). Basically, they created an instruction set for how to role-play.

The goal was to empower players to have adventures in worlds of their own creation, a radical departure from other games (sports, Milton Bradley-style board games, etc). At the same time, it wasn’t a performance thing, like theater. It was just “hey, let’s explore a world!”

The rules behind DnD served the purpose of making sure players didn’t get overpowered or do absurd things. You don’t actually need a turn-based system, stat points, party members, and so on and so forth to have an RPG, it just makes things a bit easier for a GM to handle.

Jumping forward a bit, we hit 1981 and two games, Ultima and Wizardry. It was effectively the birth of the video game RPG; other games had preceded them (I once read that a computer game called DnD showed up in 1975), but these two games were the watershed moment. Ultima and Wizardry used incredibly limited technology at the time to try to emulate the RPG experience.

A necessary digression: when Japanese developer Yuji Horii saw Wizardry for the first time, he got really excited by the prospect, and, apparently being unaware of the purpose of Wizardry’s mechanics, cloned a lot of the ideas and created Dragon Quest, the game from which all JRPGs since have descended. Most of the time, things don’t work out quite this well and new genres aren’t created, but in the JRPGs case, things worked because Horii is a boss. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t go creating a game unless you understand why the mechanics behind it exist. This is also the reason why regenerating health is used in a lot of games it has no business being in.

While the JRPG gained popularity and became its own thing (and confused a bunch of people as to what the RPG actually is), Western devs were still quietly making their own RPGs, but with added computer power. Instead of making turn-based, top-down games with various battle systems, they were focusing on evolving the genre, making it distinct even from the pen and paper games which had birthed it, while at the same time, keeping the spirit of the RPG intact.

Now, I should point out that video game RPGs are still absurdly limited! Computers cannot improvise the way that GMs can. That said, there are some areas where they excel… and that’s where Looking Glass comes in.

If you understand one thing about the history of video games, it should be that no game studio on the planet will ever be more important than Looking Glass Studios was. These guys pioneered first-person games, sandbox games (what, you thought Shenmue or GTAIII was the first sandbox game?), flight simulation (when they died, the flight sim industry died), stealth games, and a bunch of other stuff. Their employees have gone off to help invent the Xbox (forever transforming the gaming landscape and eliminating Japan’s stranglehold on the console industry), work on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, revitalize The Elder Scrolls (heavy immersive elements in those games), create Deus Ex, work for Valve, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and one of the first games they ever made was Madden, so there’s that.

Perhaps their most important contribution to game design, however, was immersion.

The Looking Glass guys, in the early 90s, had a revelation: they could use simulation elements to add new life to their worlds! From this, the immersive sim was born.

Basically, you take that core idea behind role-play (I want to be someone in another world) and use computers to create a world players can interact with. That’s really all there is to it. You make the game in first-person, to reiterate the fact that the player is his or her character. You create levels that feel like real spaces, then populate it with complex AI that can do more than just fight. If you can, you try to throw in elements like physics, good graphics, a high degree of interactivity, and so on and so forth. You also cut down as many abstractions as possible (abstractions in a game context are basically just mechanics that provide a simpler way of approaching real-life ideas—such as turn-based gameplay when a computer can’t handle a real-time approach).

What we’ve found is that immersive games, provided they are easy enough to get into (Deus Ex, for instance, inundates players with information in its training level and summarily throws players into the deep end with Liberty Island; this is a bad way to do things), actually have a huge draw and significant lasting appeal. Some recent examples of immersive games include STALKER (more than 4 million units sold—not bad for a Ukrainian studio with next to no marketing), Fallout 3, and Skyrim. Other games, like Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls, use immersive elements to enhance their experience.

People love these games. They love being able to enter a new world and interact with it. They love emergent gameplay—why else do you think GTA is such a popular series? Skyrim was successful because it facilitated exploration. Crysis was unique because it allowed deeper physical interaction with the world. STALKER’s advanced AI and player needs (eating, for instance) helped its players sink completely into the role of the amnesiac Marked One.

Far Cry 2, flawed as it was, got the love it got because it let players treat the world as an actual world. Yesterday, I read about someone who stacked up cars in Far Cry 2, blew them up, set fire to a field, caused the base he was attacking to catch on fire (which burned some of his enemies alive and confused others), and then walked in and took what he needed without anyone realizing he was there.

(I realize that I could probably write an entire essay on the power of emergent gameplay and why Dwarf Fortress and STALKER are the greatest games ever made, but I’ve got enough stuff to talk about as it is).

Immersion is the future of video games.

I realize that “the future of video games” is a phrase that gets used a lot, primarily to describe whatever trend is currently popular (Facebook games, iOS games, casual games, motion control, you name it), but I’m using it in a slightly different context: I’m talking about progress.

Most people don’t really think about the future advances in tech. What can Kinect really do for us? What does Goal-Oriented Action Planning AI do to enhance video games? What doesprocedural generation mean to video games? How does the RPG fit in with all this? What can we do with interactivity, that sacred ideal that elevates video games beyond all other mediums by eliminating passivity?

The people arguing that games shouldn’t be immersive are as ignorant as the people who argue that Role-Playing Games are nothing more than stat-based adventures. These people want to hold the industry back—to keep it at some larval stage where they’re most comfortable. Maybe it’s out of fear (after all, I don’t doubt that bards objected strongly to novels, nor do I doubt that novelists objected strongly to the medium of film), or maybe they just… really enjoy stat-based adventure games or strategy titles or what have you (I know I do!); I don’t really know their motives.

What I do know is that they’re trying to fight human nature.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of humanity’s oldest surviving works of fiction. It’s a massive adventure story. Fast-forward to ancient Greece and Homer; note the vast influence of his works (basically all of Western fiction owes its existence to Homer and Plato/Aristotle/Socrates). Jump ahead even further, and take a gander at the increasing believability of fiction (Shakespeare, particularly), as well as the increasing accessibility of entertainment. Check out how the integration of music and storytelling in the 1500s led to the birth of the opera. Pay attention to the rise of global exploration during the Renaissance, as well as the scientific leaps and bounds made by a formerly-repressed society. Study the emergence of 19th century literary criticism, as well as the explosive popularity of novels. Read up on the birth of film, radio, television, comics, and their subsequent popularity.

What do these all have in common?

Well, I was hoping to have a word for you, but I don’t. Curiosity, maybe? Discovery? Newness? Escapism? None of these really quite sum up what I’m trying to get at, so I’ll put it like this: people only enjoy the mundane so much. At some point, every single one of us is going to seek out new experiences. We crave new sensations. We savor them. Experiencing the new is one of the primary motivating factors of human existence.

Humanity, as a whole, has a fascination with the new. When we look back at fiction, we can observe humanity’s fascination with the idea of exploring other worlds. CS Lewis’s Narnia adventures cover this. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians explores it too (fun fact: his brother apparently worked at Looking Glass). Fantasy and science fiction stories sell like crazy. There’s a reason that films like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo didn’t do nearly as well as Avatar. One is mundane. The other is not.

The fact of the matter is that we, the human race, are a bunch of insatiably curious creatures who constantly desire new experiences. Discovery is humanity’s raison d’etre (oh yeah, I can be just as pretentious as the self-styled game critics; ce que je dis, je le dis dans une autre langue, donc, ce que je dis est profond?).

So what’s the future going to be like?

We are creatures driven by discovery. Why do you think Skyrim did so well? Why do you think New Vegas failed? The former facilitated discovery and exploration; the latter was too focused on being a good RPG to care about the world it had created.

The future of games is going to capitalize on this. Arguing that we should eliminate the concept of immersion in games, that the immersive sim should be dead, or anything else along similar lines, is like arguing that we shouldn’t have voice acting and ought to stick with scrolling text. It is an argument that says “games should not be more than they already are!”

Modder Robert Yang may consider immersion to be a fallacy, but he’s mistaken: the future of video games really is the holodeck. All those things I mentioned earlier—Kinect, procedural technology, better AI, and so on and so forth—are the tools that are slowly pushing us towards that end.

…I haven’t even begun to talk about the real-world benefits of creating immersive games. Someone smarter than me could surely go on at length about the possibilities of immersive simulations that allow people to live through various simulated events for… a wide variety of reasons. Someone training to be an EMT could be forced to go through a triage situation, with accurate simulations of panicking people, secondary threats, sensory barrages, and so on and so forth. Researchers could study crowd dynamics (using more advanced AI than anything presently available) in the aftermath of a disaster in order to better understand how to design environments to protect against them. The military already uses immersive sims to save training costs. There are a ton of non-entertainment applications for immersion. Saying we should kill the concept is horrifying, because it’s so limiting.

…and so we come to the conclusion.

There will still be room for the [insert any unimmersive game here] of the world. I’m not saying that they should die; there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Instead, I’m looking at this in a long-term perspective—not the next week, or the next month, or the next year, but the next century of game development. Games are… going to become something else. Traditional video games will still exist, but this new thing, this transportation to another world… that’s the future. Saying we should kill the concept of immersion and only give credence to attention is a terrible idea.

Considering the way they seem to feel about immersion, it would appear that Ben Abraham, Robert Yang, and Richard Lemarchand don’t just misunderstand the term, but want the legitimate usage to die as well. While I don’t know a lot about Abraham’s personal philosophies, Yang’s made his pretty clear in his Dark Past series of blog posts—he thinks the immersive sim should die. Lemarchand’s philosophies are made clear by the games he creates, and
Do I sound upset?

These guys seem smart—really, they do—but by failing to understand the nuance of the word “immersion,” they seem primed to damage the medium.

Look, I may be just a poor college student (I can’t even afford a good school) who is trying to learn game design while his school falls down around his head (seriously, I’m not kidding about the good school thing). Unlike Lemarchand and Yang, I’ve never made a video game in my life. I’ve worked on some other forms of RPG before, and I’m trying to work on an indie game right now, but I obviously don’t have the body of work behind me that these guys do. I may never have the body of work behind me, at the rate things are going.

…but… I feel like they’ve got it all wrong. If they’re the guys who tell us where games should go—if we follow them—I know we’ll be worse off for it.

They scare me.

(Also, in case anyone is wondering, yes, this is one of the reasons I prefer Western to Japanese games. Japan tends to prefer to design more abstract, non-immersive games, which is a totally valid method of expression, but not one I personally enjoy)


On Art and Smart Games

(Posted here)

Hey guys, thought I’d write another longish #speakup post; this one’s about the list of artistic games on Brainygamer. I wrote it as an open letter to Michael Abbot, who runs the place. I cut out the introduction for Kotaku, since you guys already know who I am, hopefully.

I think something’s missing. See, the thing Clark was getting at–and the thing that precious few people fail to understand–is that he’s not talking about just “art.” He uses these qualifiers, like “true art,” or uses words and phrases like “puerile” and “intellectually lazy.” Those qualifiers are very important, because he’s referring to a divide in art that’s rarely (maybe never; I’ve never actually seen anyone bring this up) mentioned: high and low artCitizen Kane was, arguably, the first high art film. Most of what had come before were merely adaptations of other works (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, etc), and while there had been a few stepping stones (like Metropolis, M, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Citizen Kane was the game changer. Most of the people who say that games “don’t need a Citizen Kane” don’t really understand what Orson Welles did to the cinema landscape. After Kane, everything changed.

Before I get into the high/low art thing, however, I need to back up one quick second and define art:

Art is a thing that is created or performed with the primary intent to stir up emotions within the audience.

In this way, many things are art. For every The Four Seasons, there is Baby. For every Jane,there is a Twilight. Actually, if we go by Sturgeon’s Law, for every one good thing, there are nine bad things, but whatever. The point here is that we see a distinct schism in art. Some things are timeless and will spawn endless discussion centuries after their creators have passed on, while others are transient, their laughable, short-sighted attempts at profitability greatly robbing them at artistic merit. The former are high art; the latter, of course, are the opposite.

The question should never have been “can games be art?” It should have been “can video games be high art?”

We then run into another problem: broad generalizations. The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t ask whether any one medium is art of any kind, because there are a lot of little differences. Baraka and Casablanca are art, but an instructional video telling you how to interact with customers or an advertisement for cold cereal is not. The Scream and Starry Nightare art, but the handicapped sign on a bathroom stall and a full-page newspaper advertisement with pictures of cars at low, low prices are not. The same is true of games: some are, some aren’t.

Perhaps the best description I’ve heard of games is actually Wikipedia’s: games are “structured play.” It gets right to the point and encompasses every game type, from board games, like chess, to sports, like basketball, to video games… except… well… video games are a bit broader than all that. There’s a reason no one says pente or basketball (the performance art that is the Harlem Globetrotters aside) are art–they call them games and sports. Unlike Risk or ōllamaliztli (sorry), video games use a lot of artistic elements, and I’m not talking about the craftsmanship of board pieces or illustrations on cards or anything. Some tell stories. Some exist more to craft mood than anything else. These video games are more than just games–they’re hybrids; instead of being merely tools that structure gameplay, video games combine elements of other art forms, like storytelling, with rules-based systems, and you get video games.

As technology has progressed, however, things have gotten really weird. Some might argue that, at some point, they stop being games and become something else. We’ve added all these simulation elements–instead of enemies adhering to specific rule sets, with rigid, turn-based battles, we’ve got things that try their hardest to simulate actual encounters. Games like STALKER aren’t really games anymore–they’re entire worlds to explore. Some games use their mechanics like a sculptor might use his tools, shaping an artistic experience out of it. Somewhere along the line, some video games moved beyond just structured play and got into something more.

In other words, some video games are art, some aren’t.

This leads me to modify the question: “Can some video games be high art?”

And, since we’re asking that question, we’re going to want proof one way or the other, so the next question that follows is: “are any games worthy of being called high art?”

The answer to the first question, I think, is yes. There is very little academic discussion centering around games-as-art, and what few attempts are made tend to be weak attempts at justifying one’s love for a particular title. Most of the “intellectuals” (oh yes, scare quotes seem very well deserved) who debate games are little more than educated fanboys, and they rarely seem to be educated about the right sort of things. I’ve encountered more enlightening discussion of game and game story through random commenters I’ve met (we get into these cool discussions about Aristotelian philosophy and the strengths and weaknesses of the medium and how the medium doesn’t lend itself well to traditional storytelling) than I have reading about games by people who fancy them serious critics.

Now, you may have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned intellectual stimulation at all. There’s a good reason for that: when Clark talks about intellectual stimulation, he’s not talking about puzzle or strategy games. He’s talking about the intellectual stimulation that comes from artistic merit–the part where we start critically discussing things.

This brings me to my primary criticism of the list: most of the submitters don’t seem to know what they’re talking about. A ton of games are on there only because “they make me think a lot,” which, again, isn’t what Clark is looking for. It provides an idiotic counterpoint to his claim. Many of the submissions are riddled with spelling errors and barely give reasoning beyond “I really like it and it moved me.” Movement is all well and good, and listening to wubstep makes me feel something on an emotional level, but that certainly doesn’t make it high art, which is what Clark very clearly wants.

You have basically two kinds of art games: narrative and mood. Narrative games would, of course, be games with the primary intent to tell a story. In a perfect world, the game mechanics are subservient to the story (the “gameplay > story” fallacy is a really big subject I could get into, but I don’t have the time; maybe later?), functioning as the language or technique that conveys the story, but more often than not, people focus too much on the gameplay and not enough on the story, which is the equivalent of a novel with a lot of very nice words and a story not worth telling. Mood games are… things like STALKER or Shadow of the Colossus. They are the ambient music and the abstract paintings of gaming.

Many of the games on the list have no right being there. Uncharted 2 possesses the narrative depth of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Mass Effect 2 is a poorly-written (there’s no second act where the team gels, jarring the suspension of belief) white supremacist gameHalf-Life 2 is a mess, its narrative structure oddly centered on Eli Vance. Red Dead Redemption is apredictable unevenly-written (FBI man’s random speech, for instance; characters waxing eloquent at random), ludonarratively dissonant game. I’ve given up watching television shows that are better-written than Heavy Rain, like Lie to Me. Strategy and puzzle games don’t really belong there at all because of the whole sports thing (in fact, Starcraft 2 is kind of the majority of the esports scene).

I’ve noticed that some people mention how a work is referential as if that makes it an intelligent work, but merely being referential isn’t what makes a work good. The other day, someone, when discussing Metal Gear Solid with me, argued that it was excellent because it featured science, science fiction, and real-world events. I’m sorry, but there’s more to art than that. Metal Gear Solid is a narrative joke, and no one with any knowledge on the subject of good storytelling could honestly call it a work of art on that front. Yes, it does a lot of interesting things and plays with the medium, but there are many films with excellent traits that fall flat on their face where script is concerned, which prevents them from being considered high art. Transformers 3, for instance, has some fantastic direction, camera work, lighting, and special effects, and is one of the best uses of both IMAX and 3D filmmaking ever, but that doesn’t save it from being low art.

A lot of people, no doubt, will feel defensive about this: that’s good. The current arguments for why some of these games should be considered the pinnacle of the medium are weak, and an intelligent defense of a great many of these games needs to be made. I can’t really do a lot to back of my claims in the interest of time and space, but I’d gladly do so at a later date. Also, I assume there will be a number of people who read this and get really upset; people tend to be more invested in games than other mediums, presumably because of a level of some sort of involvement bias (I realize this isn’t a real term, but, as far as I know, there is no term to describe the cognitive bias where you spend time with a thing you enjoy and become reluctant to admit its faults because you feel as though you’re admitting that you wasted your time), which, I think, is part of the reason gamers seem to be significantly more prone to anger and fanboyism than fans of other mediums.

Games, even the most-loved, highest-rated games out there, deserve a lot more criticism than they get, especially when it comes to narrative, and that is what Clark is upset about. As I look at the video gaming landscape, I see a small number of games (ten, at present count) that might be considered the Gone with the Winds and Wizard of Oz’s of the world. Clark believes he’s found it in Braid and Journey, but the only that strange, weirdly-insular, self-involved field (the same few critics seem to pop up over and over again, for one thing) that calls itself games criticism really seems to care. I see no Citizen Kane of gaming, or even a Watchmen, but I hope we get one soon.

So… um, yeah.

Basically, I’m disappointed in the list as it stands. I feel like it would benefit some filtering.

Also, I think you only need one entry per title, but maybe that’s just me.


PS – As a synesthete, I’ve always found Rez to be a bit lacking. Still qualifies as a mood game, I guess.

Why First-Person Stealth is Best

(Originally posted here; has 16,434 views)

I’m done playing third-person stealth games.

I can’t do it anymore.

I want to, believe me, but… yeah. No. I can’t. I love stealth. I love the idea of stealth. I love sneaking through a level, either ghosting it or taking out everyone without being noticed. There’s a feeling of empowerment there that comes with solving the puzzle that is a good stealth level.

Look, have you ever played a game that you’ve broken? I’m talking about a game like Skyrim, where you mod a sword to have 9999 damage so it kills everything in one hit, completely removing the challenge from the game. I’m talking about cheating.

Like many of you taffers, I once believed that third person was the only way to do stealth. I thought that it was the only way to figure out whether you could move, because as soon as you get into an AI’s line of sight, they’ll notice and start looking for you, and that really makes or breaks a stealth game.

I love the genre—whether it’s Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell or Hitman or whatever—but little did I know that they were all doing it wrong. Harsh words, I know, but bear with me.

Recently, an old stealth game was rereleased after a thirteen-year absence from store shelves. It was called Thief, and it was developed by the guys who went on to make games like Deus Exand Skyrim.

Unlike most stealth games, it was in first person.

How did they get around the line of sight stealth problems, you might ask? Well… they didn’t. See, line-of-sight is actually horrible. In real life, stealth doesn’t work that way. Line-of-sight is a method that’s used only because it’s incredibly simple to create. It is, in fact, rather lazy. A third person camera basically exists as a gameplay abstraction designed to keep the player from giving their position away whenever they want to see if they can move.

In real life, you could listen to the position of people, poke your head around corners without being noticed, and hide in the shadows without being seen. In a game where all stealth is based on line-of-sight, you can’t do that, so you have to be in third person, or it sucks.


What if you made a stealth game where you could listen to the position of other people, poke your head around corners without being noticed, and hide in the shadows without being seen? That would be a lot better, right?

Turns out it is.

It adds a whole new layer of challenge to stealth. It requires intelligence to play. Sound becomes a fantastic method of level navigation. It means you don’t need to cheat and look around corners unrealistically, because now you can hear guards snorting or sneezing or chatting or whistling or just even walking.

Do you have any idea how amazingly badass it is to hide in the shadows right in front of a guy, step out like Batman himself, and stab him in the face? It’s incredible! There’s no feeling like it in the world (besides being Batman!).

I can’t go back to third-person stealth after this. There’s no depth to it—not challenge beyond an arbitrary, unrealistic, and unforgiving line-of-sight issue beyond the occasional “DONT MAKE NOISE!” component.

Thief is the best stealth game I’ve ever played.

Is Serious Sam 3 the Perfect Game?

(Originally posted here; got 26,402 hits–looking back on it, there’s a lot I could change, and probably will, in the future)

Is Serious Sam 3: BFE a perfect game?

I’m inclined to think so. I’ve been playing it a lot lately and… writing and voice acting aside, I’m not sure I have anything to complain about. Sure, it’s got flat levels and simplistic AI, but… well…

Okay, first, I’m going to be harsh, just to get that out of the way:

Shut up about Dark Souls. Are we supposed to be impressed that a game uses its difficulty to teach you to be a better player? If you were a real gamer, you’d be familiar with this sort of gameplay. Two of them that really stick in my mind are the STALKER and Serious Sam games. Take your pick: either this concept is native to shooters or the PC. The only reason Dark Souls is special to you is because, for whatever reason, you haven’t been exploring either PC games or shooters as much as you ought. You should get on that. I’ll be happy to set you up with plenty of great games that do this.

Serious Sam 3: BFE is a fantastic example. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Even on Normal difficulty, which I’m playing, it’s a challenge.

Part of the reason for this is that it uses health packs instead of regenerating health. WhereResistance 3 (a nice game with great art that you should pick up for $30 or less!) was a game that demonstrated a complete failure to understand why health packs exist, and this year’sHalo/Deus Ex games made a compelling argument for regenerating health, Serious Sam 3 uses its health systems to enhance the gameplay experience.

It’s brutal when you’re down at ten health and you find just six +1 health bottles, but that can lead to an exhilarating victory. There was this one level where I was trapped, in the dark, with spider monsters that could crawl on the floors, the walls, and the ceilings. I started out with 25 armor and 100 health, and ended up with just six health. I slowed down, cautiously making my way through the museum’s basement with nothing but my own fists, a sledgehammer, and a pistol. It was a truly amazing experience, and one that wouldn’t have been impossible had I been supplied with regenerating health or some other gameplay crutch.

Instead, health packs helped shape my experience in a way that helped me become a better player.

The game does it in other ways, as well.

I’ve put, what, three hundred hours into Dragon Age: Origins? It’s a great game. One of the reasons it’s so great is that I’ve only ever beaten it with one class—the rogue. Each time I replay it, I discover a new way of playing the character that I didn’t know before. For all its apparent simplicity, the game has an incredibly deep set of systems that can drastically affect your play experience. I love the depth of its tactics (similar, but apparently far more complex than Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit (?) system, according to people I know who’ve played both) system. I’ve customized it so well, that in some cases, I can beat entire bosses without actually playing the game.

…and… Serious Sam requires more of me, as a gamer. I put more intelligence and thought into that game. I’ve always disagreed with the absurd idea that shooters are dumb games that rely solely on reflexes, and Serious Sam, a game which seems dumb, is a fantastic example of what I’m arguing about (STALKER is another great one—I’ve never experienced gameplay more intellectual stimulating than STALKER‘s, and I would have a hard time believing such a thing exists).

If you believe in the theory of multiple intelligences, you should be familiar with the concept of spatial intelligence. Shooters—good ones—rely on your ability to utilize your spatial intelligence.Serious Sam‘s huge maps (regularly, monsters the size of skyscrapers appear at distances that make them seem the size of your thumb) and constant onslaught of enemies requires you to think about where you are, where your enemies are, and where they (and you) are going.

I’ve never played a game that forced me to play mental gymnastics.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Sam regularly vomits hundreds of different enemies at you. They all have various ways of attacking, too: you’ve got rocket-spraying tank creatures, zombies with shotguns, suicidal/headless exploding dudes, Syrian werebulls that will send you FLYING if they ram you…
You get the idea.

On top of this, you’ve got a ton of different weapons—easily double the number of weapons in an Unreal or Half-Life game—and they each behave in radically different ways that make them suitable for dealing with different enemies and at different ranges. The double-barreled shotgun’s a great way to make short work of a Gnaar, but not great for taking on a gaggle of Kleers.

Oh, and it’s also got the addition of sprinting and iron sights, which adds even more variety to the combat.

So, um… yeah. I think it might be a perfect video game. The only reason you should play this is if you are a baby. It may cause unquenchable bloodlust in infants.

If you’re a console snob, one of those idiots who thinks FPSes are dumb, or one of those people who wishes that shooters would be great again, shut up, sit down, and play Serious Sam 3: BFE.

Right now.

Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

On Villains

"Round up the usual suspects!"

What makes for a good villain?

Storytelling 101: stories almost exclusively follow the three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end, and feature both a protagonist and an antagonist. The antagonist is generally either man, nature, or self. These three situations, “man against man,” “man against nature,” and “man against himself” establishes what we call conflict, which is a necessary element of drama. For example, Casablanca is “man against man,” Old Yeller is “man versus nature,” and Citizen Kane is “man against himself.” In Casablanca, the protagonists are allied against the Nazis and the Vichy Regime. In Old Yeller, the story comes to a head when the eponymous dog contracts rabies. In Citizen Kane, the central theme of the story is the character’s internal struggle. Above all else, a good villain must provide some form of conflict.

Before we look deeper at what makes a good villain, let’s look at what makes a great character… by looking at what makes a bad one. We accept that Mary Sues are bad characters. Why? They’re unrealistic and unbelievable. What makes them so? Generally, Mary Sues are written as flawless characters, or characters with flaws that aren’t excessively negative. A Mary Sue flaw would be clumsiness–a good character’s flaw is more likely to be, say, perfectionism or sexism (halloo, Reed Richards!). This personality flawlessness has a tendency to make Mary Sues very bland, lacking in any sort of complexity or contradiction. Good characters are almost always defined by how human they are, and humans tend to be quite complex and often contradictory. That complexity brings us to motive. In the case of nature, which has no motive, this does not apply, but in the case of self and others, it most definitely does. What motivated Captain Renault to do what he did in Casablanca? Why did he join the Vichy Regime? Why did he choose to betray them at the movie’s end? A good character is one who makes choices not because the plot demands it, but because those are the choices that they, as a character, would make.

A plot hole is an element of the story that makes no sense in context. This can be extended to characters–poorly written characters often make their choices because the story needs to do certain things. In some cases, this is called the idiot ball. In others, it’s just because they’re a poorly written character. A bad guy who does nothing but, say, shoot his own men, hurt innocent people, and seek power is not a particularly good antagonist because he’s only doing what he’s doing because the plot dictates that he’s bad.

He's Nimoy with a Robot Moustache! OF COURSE HE'S A VILLAIN

One of the chief complaints about the Transformers movies is that the audience don’t actually care about the characters. The movie never provides us with a reason to care about what Shia LeBoeuf wants. Why should we care what happens to Megan Fox? Because she’s hot? Why should we care about saving the world? It’s not ours. Simply saying that the Earth is in danger doesn’t mean that the audience has any reason to want Shia to win, because, after all, he’s annoying and ungrateful for all the cool things that have happened to him. He’s just saving the world because he has to.

When plots dictate characters, we definitionally get bad stories.

Before I continue, I want to make a point that I’ll come back to later: in a game, you are the protagonist, not some other guy. I could get into a discussion about how this means that a game where the character has fundamentally different motivations than the player is a bad game (because no good game should be anti-player), but that could take a while. Instead, I’d just like to point out that simply being the protagonist does not somehow magically make the story better. Just because The Fallen has personally stolen your MacGuffin does not somehow mean that Revenge of The Fallen is any better than it was when The Fallen stole Shia’s MacGuffin.

This is all, as I’ve said, Storytelling 101. If (as in a discussion I had on Friday) you feel inclined to disagree, then you’ve got to prove wrong thousands of years of accumulated storytelling knowledge to do so, or, perhaps more easily, prove that my understanding of storytelling is flawed. There would be no point in me writing about villains if I didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about, however, so, for the rest of the article, we’ll assume the following:

A good villain is like any good character, having the same complexities that any character should have, making decisions (and thus guiding the plot) based on who they are, not what the writer feels they should be doing. It’s particularly prodigious when what the villain does lines up nicely with where the plot is going.

You can tell he's evil because he's bald and ugly.

This brings me to some of the best and worst villains that video gaming has offered us in the past half decade or so: SHODAN, Zoran Lazarevic, Sofia Lamb, The Combine, The Prophet of Truth, and The Reapers.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that SHODAN is, of course, from the former group. In case you don’t believe me, though, feel free to read Kieron Gillen’s take on the character, which remains, to this day, one of the best breakdowns of a video game character I’ve ever read. She is, in a way, an evolution of Durandal, the antagonist/best friend/antagonist/best friend from Marathon, or, more likely, they were both influenced by the same sources. Either way, singing SHODAN’s praises would take too long and Gillen’s already done it better, so there’s no real point in me saying anything more.

Half-Life 2, one of the most loved games in the world that I have a remarkable capacity for hating, stars the Earth-invading psychic worms known as the Combine. They’re pretty much generic, dystopic alien overlords. We don’t actually know much about them or what they want, and their influence is fairly cliché, unique aesthetics aside. Their human emissary, Doctor Breen, may be the single most boring enemy I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually performed brilliantly, displaying a fantastic mix of arrogance and sympathy, but… meh? Half-Life 2 never really gives you a reason for doing anything you do beyond “go save Eli.” Exploring the “why” of Half-Life 2’s world or its characters doesn’t seem to be a priority for the game. The game seems to think you should just take it as a given that the overlords are bad and that the resistance is good, without ever doing much more than that. Funny that Rage got ticked for this and Half-Life 2 didn’t.

You can tell they're evil on account of them... um... being... I don't know.

The Reapers are basically the same. In fact, upon meeting them for the first time, they basically say “OUR METHODS ARE TOO AWESOME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND,” which is, of course, code for “using plainer speech would have made us sound about as threatening as Dominic Greene.” To its credit, Mass Effect as a whole does a fairly nice job of portraying its universe, with characters like Admiral Kahoku or the Petrovsky’s providing us with reasons to want to save the universe. You’ve got people who are awesome and people who aren’t, which is really cool.

…then Mass Effect 2 comes along and ruins it. For one thing, there are no personal sidequests besides breaking up a fight between two assholes in the Citadel. Most everything is just a case of “go to small, remote location, do a task, shoot some dudes, get an email about it.” It becomes instantly less personal. That, right there, is less of a reason to want to fight. It’s not just that, though. Have you ever messed with the contrast on your monitor to the point where nothing is visible because it’s all one tone of grey? Well, Mass Effect 2 is the same way; turns everything into one shade of grey.

In the first game, you could come across a woman who just wants the best for her dead husband’s son, a politician who gets you to murder her pirate sister… it’s all over the place. Mass Effect 2 makes everyone grimdark. Cerberus is no longer a group of Space Gestapo. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dudes who sometimes do bad things to ensure humanity doesn’t get screwed over. The Geth are no longer crazy space robots who worship more crazy space robots–they’re a form of sentient life with feelings. AI isn’t exclusively bad any more (which kinda ruins the point of the entire first game, which is that yes, AI is exclusively bad all the time). Mass Effect 2 is a game that forgets the importance of contrast and never makes anything purely good or purely bad. It confuses moral ambiguity for storytelling maturity.

He's called the Prophet of Truth because he lies.

Speaking of contrast, Halo has some amazing villains. While you might not understand The Flood, they never attempt to obfuscate their motives in order to seem scarier. They are space zombies that get smarter as they spread, becoming more effective at zombifying things. In contrast, the Covenant are a conglomeration of various alien races, united by an unwavering belief in The Forerunners and the desire to meet them by undertaking “The Great Journey,” which is effectively a galactic mass suicide. You’ve got some great stuff going on there–The Prophet of Truth is forced to become a liar or admit that everything he believes is a lie, for instance. In choosing to give in to his pride, he sets in motion the events that lead to the Human/Covenant war. With Halo, Bungie contrasted a villain motivated by hubris, pride, and emotion with one motivated purely by instinct. It’s id versus ego, if you will.

One element that made The Covenant so frightening was their belief that, through genocide, they were making things better. There are few things scarier than those motivated by the belief that they’re doing the right thing, because those things have the absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing. They care. They are driven.

That’s why Sofia Lamb is one of the greatest video game villains I have ever had the pleasure of defeating, while Zoran Lazarevic is pretty bad.

See, Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic is just a dude who is evil and wants power. He has even less motivation than The Fallen or Sentinel Prime, both of whom are trying to save their respective races. He just wants, uh… power, I think? That’s really it. Compare this to Sofia Lamb, who, over the years, subtly turned the people against Andrew Ryan and his ideals. She relied on human laziness–the belief that we deserve things–to obtain her goals. She’s a brilliant counterpoint to Andrew Ryan, who was all about how we must stand on our own efforts. Taken together, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 complement each other in a way few games can. Both of them present, effectively, an argument against rigid ideology, and it’s a point that’s well-made, but I’m getting sidetracked here.

Bioshock’s characters were human–motivated by a myriad of various desires. In Stanley Poole’s case, his greed had brought about the downfall of Lamb’s haven, resulting in a desperate desire to hide the evidence. Grace Hollaway desperately wanted a daughter, and Sofia provided that by making her Eleanor’s caretaker, investing Grace in the ideals of The Family. What is perhaps the most frightening thing about Sofia, however, is that she truly believes what she is saying. She is not manipulating lesser people because she enjoys manipulation–she manipulates them because she wholly believes she is doing what’s best for them. She believes, completely, in destroying everything it means to be human.

That’s why ultimately, beating her is so great.

Yeah, you don’t get to kill her. I get that. It saddens me, sure, that after everything she put me through, I didn’t get to put a bullet in her skull. Above all else, she deserved it.

But you know what? I think I my victory was greater than that. If I’d ventilated her brains, she would have become a martyr. She would have died with no remorse. Instead, I destroyed her ideology. I did not merely shake her faith–I annihilated it. When all was said and done, Sofia, stripped of her hubris and arrogance, had to admit that I was right. Ideas might be bulletproof, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be defeated. As Bioshock 2 ended and Delta died, I watched as the choices I had made brought about a change in Eleanor. I watched her, the living embodiment of all that Rapture possessed, make the right decision. I gave her that. I showed her just how powerful choice could be.

Actually, the fact that she would kill you in front of a small child is evil in and of itself, but nobody ever said a great villain couldn't still kick the dog.

As I type this, I find myself wondering if a video game’s ever been written better.

I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Bioshock 2 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Bioshock, for all the joy it seemed to take in telling us that our decisions didn’t matter, might have been a metacritical critique of the idea that games could ever offer us freedom, but Bioshock 2 was the perfect reply to that. I never was put into some silly, scripted event where I got to shoot some stupidly splicer-enhanced Sofia Lamb. Instead, the game demonstrated to me that yeah, we don’t make every choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. I wasn’t confronted at every turn with a button prompt or funneled down some rigidly designed fight tube–sometimes, I just had to make the choice to walk away.

Villains, the good ones, they choose.

If a writer chooses everything for the villain, saying that they ought to be bad just because they’re the antagonist, with no thought put into the choices and motivations of that character, then they’ve created a bad character. This isn’t just true of villains, actually–it’s true of anybody who’s ever been written. A good character is a truly human character, one makes decisions not based on some preordained plot, but on who they are. Asimov once said something about science fiction basically being a reflection of ourselves, but I think that’s true for all fiction. Bioshock 2, unlike most games, has that in spades. Its core moral is ultimately about the power of choice–the very thing that makes video games unique from every other story medium.

It deserves a lot more love than it gets.

Of course, we could just forget about villains and strong narratives and just go for living, breathing game worlds in which our only cares are how to survive the night. That sounds awesome, right? Yeah. It does. STALKER’s awesome. Let’s all go play that now.

Issues: Eskil Steenberg’s Open Letter to John Carmack

I rather like Rock Paper Shotgun; after all, they were the ones who got me into writing about games in the first place. On Sundays, they post something called The Sunday Papers, which is basically a collection of links to neat articles about gaming. Often, I find them engaging and enlightening… but not today. No, today I find myself frustrated by two specific links, and I’ve decided to write a response to both, because, hey, I’ve got three hours to spare.

The first post comes from Eskil Steenberg, who, unless I’m mistaken, is the developer of indie MMO LOVE. It’s about Rage, and how Steenberg feels that iD needs to get back to the drawing board and rethink the way they’ve done things.

It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s got some valid points, but I take issue with this statement: “Many games designers think its their job to tell stories, but games isn’t a story medium, they should go write books or make films. Many artists think that games are about attention to graphical details and in extension to proving how ambitious they are. They should go make art. No, games are about mechanics, they are about feedback, and that is something that programmers provide.

He goes on to say defend his position, saying: “The story most of you are talking about is story telling being told in text, cut scenes, voiceover, and machinima. None of that is a game, its other media squeezed in between what is a game. Games have emergent stories, or what I prefer to call drama. That’s the thing that happens when you are the last counter terrorist trying to defuse the bomb in counterstrike. Quake, and Doom had drama, modern AAA games have Story telling.

Games are about a lot of things. Sure, you can make games without art assets–Zork’s a great example of that. If you want, you can make games without stories, such as Pac-Man. Admittedly, all you need to have to make a game is gameplay, but to suggest that programmers are important, and no one else is required is downright silly. If applied to film, Steenberg’s argument would read something like this: “Movies are simply a series of pictures in sequence that simulate motion! That is something that cameramen or directors provide! Actors, scriptwriters, and prop artists are unnecessary!”

While films such as Baraka prove that movies don’t require storytelling, it would be foolish–perhaps even stupid–to claim that films are not a storytelling medium. Likewise, just because “gameplay” (as far as I can tell, nobody’s really bothered to define this, so here goes: it’s a specific level of interactivity that all games must have in order to be considered games) might be the base from which all games must derive, to argue that games are not a storytelling medium is still wrong in every conceivable way.

While it is indeed possible to develop a game without telling a story, it’s equally possible to make a film or write a book without doing so.

Surely no one could argue that Fallout is not a game, much less argue that it’s a game despite its story and art. The story and art is what makes Fallout the game it is. It is inextricable from Fallout’s identity. The Fallout series is defined not by its gameplay mechanics, which don’t matter (the fact that the game could not only survive a genre shift, but receive even greater acclaim post-shift is proof of this), but by its aesthetics. Fallout, at its very core, is not an isometric RPG, nor is it an open-world immersive sim. It is, instead, a darkly humorous evisceration of American pop culture in the 1950s. It’s all about the things that were popular at the time: westerns, science fiction, and thoughts of nuclear war, seen through the lens of Hollywood’s pleasant denial of reality. Those aesthetics, strictly the result of the game’s storytelling sensibilities, are what make Fallout unique. If we look merely at the gameplay (which, by the way, is defined as much by game designers who define stat tables as it is defined by programmers), then Fallout is no different from, say, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or any other isometric cRPG.

Fallout would be nothing without its writing and art. That identity is what makes Fallout the game it is. To argue that games are not a storytelling medium (both writing and art are aspects of storytelling) is ignorant, if not wholly dishonest. As with film, games are a storytelling medium, but… that’s a part of what they can be. To say that they are a storytelling medium is not to say that they can’t be something else as well.

There’s a part of me that wants to call Steenberg arrogant, since he appears to believe that his role as a programmer is the most important role in game creation. However, I don’t feel that this is the case, because on the most literal terms, he’s right: you can create a game with nothing but programmers. Really, that’s what I think it boils down to: Steenberg’s an incredibly literal individual, perhaps to the point of a close-mindedness that’s unwilling to accept that games can be a bit more than their most basic parts.

I believe that Steenberg is an extremely left-brained individual. I have no proof of this beyond his own words, which seem extremely rigid and analytical, as well as the fact that he’s responsible for the creation of LOVE (and all the programming and left-brainedness that LOVE’s creation would entail), so there’s no way I can be certain, but it does seem to be the most obvious conclusion. Having a left-dominant brain isn’t a fault in any way–the world needs left-brained people–but it can have its drawbacks. In this case, there’s a rigidity and literalness to Steenberg’s thinking that fosters a great and terrible ignorance.

Steenberg also tries to define emergent story as drama, which strikes me as odd, seeing as a great way to define emergent story would be to use the term… emergent story (and/or emergent narrative). Drama is basically defined as “fiction created with the intent to be seriously considered.” It would make no sense to use “drama” to mean something there is a perfectly good phrase for; if you just don’t want to type out “emergent story” all the time, then why not write “emergent story (ES, for short)” and say “ES” for the rest of the paper?

I rather like Emergent Stories, by the way. STALKER is a game that’s partiularly conducive to their creation. One time, in Call of Pripyat, I was overburdened, having just murdered a rather large mercenary camp to get myself some working capital. I was heading home when the call came: a blowout was coming! I started to run, hoping against hope that I would reach shelter in time. Unfortunately, due to the weight of my precious loot, I found myself pausing to catch my breath every few seconds, chugging energy drinks to give myself superhuman stamina, and repeating the cycle ad nauseam (well, as ad nauseam as one can get within the course of a minute or so).

Suddenly, I fell in a very deep hole.

“Shelter!” I thought.

Then that portion of my brain that controls threat detection turned back on. I could hear a snork making snorky noises somewhere in the darkness. Lights flickered on and off, accompanied by the soft thundercrack that indicated the presence of several electrical anomalies. I’m fairly certain there was at least one gas anomaly, as well as a few fire and gravitational anomalies as well. Thank goodness I had my semi-automatic shotgun ready, because there wasn’t just one snork, but half a dozen. I must have killed one or two before panicking, switching to my pistol and anomaly detector, and bolting. I might have screamed as I ran; I’m not really sure. I was in panic mode, either preferring the certain death offered by the blowout to death-by-snork or forgetting it entirely, but just before I finally found my way out of the labyrinthine caves, I got a message that the blowout was over.

When all was said and done, I believe I had killed eight snorks outside the cave, in addition to whatever I’d managed to kill inside. I dropped several kilos of supplies and bolted home, where I sold my wares and swore to myself never to overburden myself again. After that, I learned to create an effective, light loadout that would help me survive any mission I undertook. I might have put a hundred hours into STALKER and a further hundred into Clear Sky, but it was Call of Pripyat that taught me what it meant to be a true STALKER. I’ll never forget it.

If that doesn’t prove games can be a wonderful storytelling medium, I don’t know what can.