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February 2, 2008

Road To The IGF Mobile: Capybara Games' Critter Crunch

[Here's another interview with an IGF Mobile finalist - and when people complain about cellphone games being a bucket of suck, they do a great dis-service to folks like Capybara, who are making some great titles - and, yes, are coming to DS, XBLA, PSP and Wii-type devices soon, they are threatening.]

As part of its "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, Games On Deck's Mathew Kumar talks to Capybara Games' Matt Repetski, Sean Lohrisch, and Kris Piotrowski about the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game, Achievement in Art and Audio Achievement finalist Critter Crunch, an original mobile puzzle game with a unique "food-chain"-based puzzle mechanic.

What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Capybara Games: We didn't have much industry background before starting Capybara in 2003. At that time, there wasn't much opportunity for breaking into the games industry in Toronto, but it was pretty clear that there were a lot of talented folks around. Many of them seemed to be posting (and ranting) on our local IGDA chapters' web forum. Out of the forums and IGDA chapter meetings sprang a group of around 25 people who met up every week to discuss what kind of games we wanted to make, while figuring out an actual plan for making them. Over time, people came and left until we'd shrunk down to a svelte 13 who decided to officially form a studio. We eventually settled on Capybara as the studio name, which in case you don't know, is essentially a giant South American guinea pig.

We chose mobile because it was an emerging market, and was a very practical place to start, especially since we were unfunded. With a PC, a cell phone or two and some free development software, we were able to begin. On top of that, the inherent limitations of the platform forced us to be ruthlessly focused in our game design. We didn't want to fall into the cliché startup pit, which is to just start working on the craziest, biggest idea you can think of and hope to God that you can eventually finish it while working part-time.

For the next two years we kept our day jobs and worked like crazy on our first two games. We held weekly meetings at a local pub to polish our ideas and work on Super Shove It! (published by Starwave, and available on carriers now!) and S.M.A.B.U.: Earth Wars (hidden in our secret vaults).

We headed out to the GDC and started showing off our 2-game portfolio which was printed in color and everything. We got Disney's attention and they took a chance on us to develop a racing adventure game based on Disney-Pixar's Cars (thank you, Disney!). Fast-forward to 2008, we're a bustling studio with 24 employees and 11 titles under our belt. Now our walls are lined with some glorious awards and we eat gold sandwiches for breakfast. Just kidding, gold isn't edible.

What motivated you to make your game?

CG: As mobile game developers we felt it was our responsibility to hold a mirror up to society. We felt that the current North American obesity epidemic was a topic that has been all but ignored since Pac-Man. We decided to make a game that could be viewed as an analogy for that issue... and hopefully lead to greater awareness.

Another important thing that motivated us was that we really wanted to create a game that would make us a great deal of money. We took a moment to dream up a sure-fire context which everyone would find appealing, and we found that literally all of us knew people that ate food. In fact, we could not find a single person that did not eat! So we eventually arrived at a really powerful equation: Casual Puzzle Game + Food = Money in the Bank.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

CG: After having locked down the game's raison d'être the next step was to make sure that it was incredibly fun, super addictive, and unique enough to stand out in the crowded puzzle genre. The food-chain puzzle mechanic was inspired by our grade-nine understanding of biology, though our Creative Director, Kris, claims that the idea was actually based on the lyrics to a song he made up in the shower one day.

For art inspiration, we then spent six weeks googling variations on the words "cute", "monster", "Japan" and "eating." Initially, the search wielded some really disgusting filth, which almost made us quit. Thankfully we persevered and our lead artist Vic created the amazing characters, animations and the overall "feel", while background artist Dave (aka "Tish") created the lush environments.

What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?

CG: To get our designers up and running, we developed a custom level editor which allowed us to create levels for the various game modes. We also have a really great art pipeline that was developed in-house and which helps our artists be super-efficient when cramming the game full of eye-popping visuals. Kenneth, one of the programmers on the project (and creator of Max Payne Kung Fu!), developed a library of amazing procedural effects using what can only be referred to as "mathemagic." We have also developed an in-house J2ME-to-BREW porting tool to help automate a lot of the BREW porting process. Aside from that, we used Word, Excel and Thunderbird for our documents and emails.

What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?

CG: Well, we definitely feel that the puzzle mechanic and creature types make Critter Crunch really stand out, but one thing that we found really interesting was how playing the game for excessive periods of time really had an effect on the player's perception of reality. Everyone knows what happens when you play Tetris for 14 hours straight and then go out into the real world; you get the weird sensation that your brain is still trying to reorganize objects into little boxes and rotate stuff and form lines. It really messes you up but for just little while, you're not playing Tetris anymore... you ARE Tetris. Same with Critter Crunch.

We're also pretty proud of the way that the core gameplay leads to two almost totally different games. The Adventure mode is about quick reactions and fast feeding. The Puzzle mode is all about efficient thinking and figuring out the weird ways that the mechanics can interact. Even in the office, we're divided into two viciously feuding camps about which is the better mode.

How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?

CG: We spent about a month putting together a prototype before shopping it around and getting the green light for full production. It took around 6 months for a team of 5 to finish the game across the J2ME and Brew handset lists.

Because we were developing a new type of puzzle mechanic, the game required a lot of iteration on the rules and gameplay. Thankfully, our programmers had the foresight to put in quite a few handy switches that could turn different rules on and off while testing. Being able to try a lot of different gameplay configurations really helped us zero in on the best combination, and for the most part, the development was a really fun experience.

If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

CG: We'd liked to have been able to prototype the food chain mechanic with actual magical creatures, but, unfortunately, the combination of creature types and power foods do not exist in nature.

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?

CG: The mobile industry has been great to us; it allowed us to get our feet in the door and we've been fortunate enough to work on a lot of really great titles. That being said, it is difficult to be a studio focused on original titles when the industry is presently driven by either recognizable brands or knock-off titles. While we're going to keep making mobile games, we've also decided to move our studio towards platforms like the DS, PSN, XBLA, and PSP.

We really admire all of the IGF Mobile finalists' games - making quality original mobile titles gets our respect. We also admire the work of French studio DeValley (really tasty sprite art) as well as 5th Cell, who have been able to make great original mobile and DS titles.

Outside of mobile, we have to give a "shout out" to our local indie game pals Mare and Raigan over at Metanet and Jon AKA Queasy Games. Also, Jim Munroe is cool because he started the Artsy Game Incubator in Toronto.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?

CG: Track down my killer and avenge me!!! AVENNNNNNGE MEEEE!!!!!!!

GameSetLinks: Don't Go Back To Big Sur

Ah, yes, the end of the week - plenty of opportunity to peruse the GameSetLinks goodness in front of us - including the Metanet folks talking about various versions of N (pictured!) coming out for handhelds and XBLA soon - really looking forward to the downloadable version!

Also in here - a weblog all about co-operative games, a terrible gaming showreel, a 7-day Roguelike game construction contest, and all manner of other spectacularity. Yes, that's not a word. But if you don't report me to Strunk or White, we'll be fine. And so:

N+ vs N+ | metablog
Delineating the various versions of the game - with minor skepticism for the handheld versions?

Vintage Computing and Gaming: Buying Real Copies of Wii Virtual Console Games…Ouch!
Totally great idea.

Co-Optimus.com
A new blog specifically about co-operative gaming - neat idea.

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Off-Road Velociraptor Safari!'
Flashbang's raptor spanking game is out - sounds like minimum specs need fixin'.

Jump Button Magazine: 'Make a note'
Interviewing the girl behind _that_ Portal YouTube performance.

Waxy.org: Daily Log: Colin's Bear Animation
A disgruntled game design student talks about his 'thanks for nothing' terrible mini-showreel.

Temple of the Roguelike: The 7DRL Challenge 2008 draws near!
From March 8th-16th, all the Roguing you can create in one week.

MTV Multiplayer » Help Us Name The Greatest Horse In Video Game History
New games journalism!

MTV Multiplayer » The Greatest Video Game Horse Revealed, As Chosen By Our Stunningly High-Profile Panel
The exciting results!

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: Games for 2008: Braid
Some fun complaints about whether Braid will make it to PC or not.

Emotiv To Bring The Future, Brainwise, At GDC?

Yes, Game Developers Conference is rapidly approaching, and there's a cavalcade of interesting press events and parties on the horizon, some of them rather entrancing (*cough* ValvepartywithJonathanCoultonplaying *cough*).

But here's one of the oddest and potentially coolest announcements I've seen thus far - excerpting from a news story I just wrote on Gamasutra about it:

"Stealth-mode technology firm Emotiv Systems has revealed, via a new invitation, its plans to unveil the Emotiv consumer headset, a "high fidelity neuro-system" controller for gaming, at an event during Game Developers Conference later this month.

The technology was previously showcased to some extent at GDC 2007, but a new invitation given to members of the press reveals that an "exclusive launch event" on February 19th at the Metreon in San Francisco will show the final version of the tech for the first time.

According to the literature, the headset is described as containing "a high fidelity neuro-system that redefines the realm of human-computer interaction", and a special presentation showing its applications in creating "a new horizon for interactive gameplay" is promised.

The company's website also adds that licensed developers will have access to the Emotiv SDK in March 2008, and it consists of The Expressiv suite, which can identify facial expressions in real-time, the Affectiv suite, which measures players' discreet emotional states, and the Cognitiv suite, which detects players' conscious thoughts.

Emotiv itself was founded in 2003 by four award-winning scientists and executives: internationally recognized neuroscientist Professor Allan Snyder, chip-design pioneer Neil Weste, and technology entrepreneurs Tan Le and Nam Do. Its board of directors includes noted former Microsoft game exec Ed Fries."

I know that some of my colleagues tried out an earlier version of this hardware at GDC 2007 and were pretty impressed by it, but I also know that the field of startups is strewn with companies that have tried and failed to implement these kinds of odd peripheral/alternative controller-like experiences. But I guess we'll find out more on the 19th!

February 1, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Galaxy Of Apple II Rabbids

Well, over on big sister site Gamasutra, there's been all kinds of neatness posted this week - I particularly enjoyed David Sirlin's critique of the rather enchanting Super Mario Galaxy posted today, but there's plenty of other stuff here for the intrigued.

Also linked - a report on why the French government treats games as cultural artifacts (yay!), a sponsored piece from Microsoft's XNA series that's actually rather useful, a history of the Apple II, a neat Matsuura interview, and a discussion on the Wii 'seal of quality'. If you haven't read/linked these, do so forthwith, my darlings:

- Understanding The Fun of Super Mario Galaxy
"In this in-depth critique, game designer David Sirlin (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix) analyzes Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy, discussing what it did right - and what it could do better - in creating its 'polished, beautiful' game world."

- A History of Gaming Platforms: The Apple II
"Gamasutra's 'History of Gaming Platforms' series follows up analyses of the C64 and the Vectrex by examining the history of the seminal Apple II, from its Woz-fueled genesis to classic Sierra/Origin game titles."

- Analyze This: Should There Be A 'Wii Seal of Quality'?
"Gamasutra asks SimExchange, Wedbush Morgan, and Screen Digest analysts both about the prospects for Nintendo's Wii in 2008, and whether Nintendo should enforce more stringent quality standards for the current flood of third-party titles."

- Video Games: Officially Art, In Europe
"The French government and European Commission have agreed in principle to fund tax credits for video games, due to their cultural importance - and Gamasutra tagged along with the French cultural minister and Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot to find out why it matters."

- Sponsored Feature: An Introduction and Overview of XAudio2
"In this latest article posted at Gamasutra's special XNA section, Xbox/Windows sound guru Brian Schmidt discusses the new cross-platform audio library for Windows and Xbox 360, XAudio2, with much insight into the new audio API."

- Matsuura Got Rhythm: The State Of NanaOn-Sha's Founder
"Gamasutra profiles Masaya Matsuura, who pioneered music games with PaRappa the Rapper, but has also created iPod games, a hit Japanese Tamagotchi series, and now a re-teaming with PaRappa artist Rodney Alan Greenblat for a Wii music game."

At GDC 2008, You Can... Destroy All Developers!

One of the most awesome and sometimes sadly under-reported things about that Game Developers Conference thing that we help organize is the massive, multiplayer, offline game that goes along with it - and has been run for many years now.

Huh? Game, you might say? As the folks from New York-based casual/alt.developer Gamelab (Diner Dash) explain in their postmortem of last year's 'Gangs Of GDC': "For the last six years Gamelab... has made a conference-wide game to be played during the GDC." (Some more, including Confquest and Pantheon, are listed on Gamelab's own site.)

In any case, there's info about this year's game, Destroy All Developers on the official GDC site, we just spotted, and it sounds like a blast: "A secret war rages beneath the surface of the game industry. The war between programmers and producers, between game designers and suits, between artists and sound designers. Only one discipline can survive."

Oh yeah? "At the 2008 Game Developers Conference, this war will reach its final conclusion. In DESTROY ALL DEVELOPERS, you will take on secret missions, infiltrating the GDC to gather information on your fellow developers. Collect business cards from unsuspecting conference attendees, work with your teammates, and watch your back." So if you have some time while you're at the conference in a couple of weeks, play along and see if you can "become an assassin" and "collect the business cards of particular players for extra points." Haw, I'll never give out my card in safety again!

Opinion: The Top 5 Game AI Trends For 2008

[After teaming up with AIGameDev.com to present their 1st annual Game AI award winners for 2007, Gamasutra and GameSetWatch have again joined with them to highlight five top trends in AI anticipated for 2008, with examples from Half-Life 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and more.].

The topic for the developer discussion two weeks ago was What Trends in Game AI Do You Anticipate for 2008?. Here’s a quick summary of the discussion, including comments and personal opinions, as well as tips to help you make the most of 2008.

The first few predictions cover the AAA games industry and how AI is going to affect the design of games made, both on next-gen consoles and PC. The latter predictions go into more technical details, which applies to lower budget and independent games too.

1. Cooperative AI

Developers are getting much better at building cooperating groups of enemies. But in 2007, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 pushed the boundaries of character interaction with Alyx, gathering great reception from the players. HL2E2, in fact, was given the 2007 AiGameDev.com Award for Best Game AI last month.

Prediction: Increasingly, developers with the bigger budgets and whole sub-teams of AI designers, animators and programmers will include cooperative AI characters to help emphasize the player’s emotional involvement with the story. In particular, watch out for the dog in Fable 2, which is an amazing idea and a lower-risk way to provide an AI sidekick.

Tip: Think about cooperative characters early on in the design and implementation, and iterate often over the behavior. Use traditional AI techniques to implement the behaviors, but make sure the top priority is to interact with the players without getting in their way.

2. Sandbox Games

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Crysis are leading the way in taking first-person shooters to new heights by giving the player more freedom, inspired by the roaming worlds of Grand Theft Auto. A sandbox means that the whole game becomes more of a simulation where AI plays an important role. For FPS games, this means that squads are setup to be much more autonomous, and the gameplay flows thanks to the goals set by the level designers.

Prediction: GTA 4 will take the genre to new levels with its next-gen AI, but sandboxes will generally become more popular as they provide diverse gameplay and more replayability. These environments will allow the AI to show it’s true colors… Expect to see both amazingly intelligent or terribly stupid enemies as developers try to move away from short-term scripting!

As ToddM points out:

"There’s definitely a trend toward so-called ’sandbox’ games, and away from scripted games, which is expected to continue, and to create greater use of autonomous agents and everything that they entail. It seems that this is much more of an evolution than a revolution, though."

Tip: Build autonomous AI characters that can respond to their environments, and place them within more open areas. Try to think of additional gameplay features as interactions with characters.

3. Emergent Behaviors within Stories

Game developers are also becoming increasingly skilled at integrating forms of emergence within linear story-like progressions. For example, the ecosystem in BioShock is designed in such a way that you have to understand its functioning to use it to your advantage. The enemies in Halo 3 also exhibit forms of emergent group behaviors when you fight against heterogeneous groups (e.g. and take out the leader).

Prediction: Even in story-driven games, developers will increasingly use pockets of emergent behaviors to increase variety and replayability. This is a great way to bring a sandbox-like environment into a more traditional AAA form, getting the benefits of both.

Tip: Design groups of characters together, and build the AI so that it responds to the rest of the group and not only the environment. Traditional techniques like finite-state machines are perfectly acceptable to achieve this kind of emergence.

4. Hierarchical Planners

F.E.A.R. came out in 2005 and was the first major title to handle the enemy behaviors using an AI planner. Since then, the amount of R&D on the subject in both industry and academia has been increasing dramatically. A few games resulting from these ideas have already come out in 2007, but many are still to be released.

Prediction: In 2008, expect to see even more planning in games as well as middleware vendors for game AI. This should not only help improve the development efficiency so more time can be spent on little details, but it should also make the behaviors more intelligent. Many of the features discussed in the previous points will become possible thanks to this kind of technology.

As Dave Mark comments:

"I think that the major break away from state-based machines will be a big deal. Look for more autonomous agents and less scripting. Certainly that will be limited to the games that can support and show off these sorts of behaviors, but the change will happen nonetheless."

Tip: Watch out for middleware solutions shipping with HTN planners, and consider these as serious contenders. Also look into the theory and practice behind hierarchical planners. Get comfortable with them!

5. Scripting Languages

Games like World of Warcraft rely heavily on Lua, which shows how mainstream the language has become. Certainly, WoW isn’t famous for it’s AI, but this language is suitable for building AI frameworks too. The CryENGINE (behind Crysis) for instance is written mainly in Lua — with only the computationally intensive routines written in C++.

Prediction: Rather obviously, 2008 will see an even wider adoption of Lua from across the spectrum of AAA games to independent games. Developers are finally getting a grip on building good debuggers for the language, handling errors robustly, and getting comfortable with its semi-coroutines.

However, as companies use the language for more and more aspects of the game logic and AI, some cracks will show up increasingly:

-Memory allocation and garbage collection causing performance problems.
-Pure performance issues with the efficiency of the interpreter itself.

There are no obvious solutions in sight during 2008, sadly. This topic was brought up by Sergio in this thread of the Game AI Forums (registration and introduction required).

Tip: Don’t go too far by relying on Lua to build your entire architecture. Keep it in a statically compiled language and use scripts only where necessary, like before!

[This article was originally presented at AIGameDev.com, a site that regularly updates on the art and science of producing artificial intelligence for games, including newsletters and forums.]

January 31, 2008

IGF Audience Award: A Reminder To Vote!

-[Wanted to remind everyone about the 2008 IGF Audience Award voting, which is still going on until February 20th or so. We've already had almost 2500 votes, which is actually more than last year, and there's still 3 weeks to go - but if you have a favorite IGF game with a public demo, go vote now, before you forget, eh?]

Organizers of the 2008 Independent Games Festival (IGF) have launched the IGF Audience Award voting website, allowing game fans everywhere to download, play, and choose a favorite all of the eligible Main Competition finalist indie games which submitted a publicly playable demo.

Online voting is open now and continues through the day of the IGF ceremony, taking place alongside the Game Developers Choice Awards at the 2008 Game Developers Conference February 20th. The games with eligible demos/versions are: Goo!, Snapshot Adventures: Secret Of Bird Island, Synaesthete, Gumboy Tournament, Iron Dukes, Clean Asia!, Fret Nice, Battleships Forever, Globulos.com, Audiosurf, and Tri-Achnid.

The winner of the Audience Award will be awarded a $2,500 prize, part of the $50,000 total in prizes being given as part of the IGF Main and Student Competitions. Downloads and web-playable versions of eligible Audience Award games are available at the official IGF Audience Award website; the full list of IGF finalists is available at the Independent Games Festival website.

In addition to those available to play via digital download, all finalist games will be playable at the IGF Pavilion, February 20-22, on the Game Developers Conference (GDC) Expo floor. Finalists were chosen from a record 173 entries and represent the growth of the independent games movement with innovative games of excellent quality, across various platforms. GDC, CMP Technology’s annual conference dedicated to the art, science and business of games, takes place Feb. 18-22, 2008 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

“The independent game movement is truly about giving everyone a voice, so it is always important to us to echo that sentiment by giving the public their chance to give out an IGF award,” said Matthew Wegner, IGF Content Director.

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way that the Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community. Wizards Of the Coast’s Gleemax.com is the 2008 Platinum Sponsor, alongside Microsoft’s XNA division and Sony as the Silver Sponsors, and DigiPen is the Platinum Student Showcase Sponsor.

For more information on the Independent Games Festival and to register for GDC, please visit the official Game Developers Conference website.

GameSetLinks: Women, Murder, Club

- Ah, yes, the fragrant melodies of GameSetLinks - wandering back into your general point of view, tweaking your nose, and just daring you to ignore us, you little scamps.

This time, we navigate fields as diverse and treacherous as casual murder club novel games, various wacky journos covering the Independent Games Festival (yay!), and, of course, some obligatory No More Heroes cosplay (pictured to the side).

Incidentally, I have to apologize that I'm not writing more original material on GameSetWatch. Since it's the run-up to the almighty GDC, I'm doing a lot of wrangling for that, as well as for Gamasutra/Game Developer, as publisher wallah.

And actually, I'm now biz managing the almighty Dr. Dobb's Journal/DDJ.com, which is 32 years into serving programmers their regular info oats. And there's something coming up in the March timeframe on Dobbs that you game folks _WILL_ like. More info on that soon. Onward, Christian soldiers:

Hollywood Reporter: Patterson pursues video game murders most casual
Jane Jensen working on the Women's Murder Club games. Neato!

Kotaku - Day Note: Roll With The Day Note
Interestingly, Kotaku were denied press passes for DICE. What's up with that?

Independent Games Festival Roundup Article // PC /// Eurogamer
A good trawl through the finalists by Mr. Gillen - appreciated.

Cosplay.com - No More Heroes cosplay
Yep, already - Sylvia Kristel ftw.

Gamepage :: The Great Tree - Review by Game Tunnel
Reflexive's distinctly unconventional casual title is worth a close look.

Jeremy Parish's 1UP Blog: Finally: 1 in '07
Seriously, Crackdown is one of the most under-rated games released in the last year or two.

MTV Multiplayer » Top 10 Under-the-Radar Games in 2008
I like this list.

psysal: Causal Chains and Snowfall
Raph Koster's 'Theory Of Design' methodology applied to soccer - via the Kostmeister!

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: 'The Wonderful End of the World'
Terribly, terribly Katamari - but the oldskool game tribute level is getting a lot of kudos, worth checking.

'Super Mario' Crossed With 'Guitar Hero,' In GameFile | Game News Story | Multiplayer Gaming | MTV News
Stephen Totilo talks about his experiences playing the IGF finalists - fun!

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': No More Complaints

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

The core of the game market is its very own culture, and at times it can be a bit tricky to understand, a tangle of contradictions. We’re geeks – we don’t want to be cool by anyone’s standard, and yet we retain the right to judge nearly anything outside of our world as lame.

We’re often deemed as antisocial or isolationist, and in many cases embrace that judgment – but we want to find each other online, to play together, network and discuss en masse nearly constantly. We’re annoyed whenever the mainstream media misunderstands our pastime – and yet we love to brawl with them. We don’t want to be part of the mainstream – and yet, we often wish our non-gaming friends would just “get it.” Alone and yet in a crowd, immersed in fantasy and yet immediately reactionary to real-world events, craving challenge while longing for accessibility.

With that in mind, it’s no small challenge game developers face trying to produce something that will appeal to us. We want games to be fun, but when we’re not occasionally frustrated, we dismiss the lightweight, relegating the title to the realm of the casual. We want depth and engagement – but we’ll snooze through too much dialogue, cinematics and story. We want emotion, but characters being “emo” is something to be mocked.

We know we’re a reactionary bunch – even the best among us as individuals have been caught up in the mob psychology from time to time, with a little help from the internet. And for quite a while now, it’s seemed like the core of the gaming audience is impossible to please, continually frustrated on a real emotional level by games that try to pretend they “get it,” but are really just trying superficially to hit all the right notes.

But with No More Heroes, it’s finally happened – someone’s made a game that knows who we are.

Imagine someone who knows literally nothing at all about video games, and have them look at, say, Mass Effect -- oops, that’s already happened. Okay, send them to active internet forums where gamers regularly congregate, and have them read some threads. Wonder what they’d think? Ever tried explaining to your non-gaming friends, for example, why you were so happy to get a $40 stuffed cube with hearts on it, since they sold out in 12 hours?

At a glance, we look bizarre. Maybe hilarious. Maybe crazy. Read the back of No More Heroes’ box, and that’s what you’ll think of it, too.

But inside is a glorious exercise in simultaneous reverence and irreverence, featuring a protagonist who’s awkward, geeky and a little gross – while also being uncompromisingly lethal, decidedly sharply-dressed, and all-out cooler than frozen hell. It’s both a tongue-in-cheek send-up of Grand Theft Auto’s format and a conscious, even respectful reproduction.

Walking Contradictions

It blows the doors open on the same old cast of characters we’ve come to expect from most of our games, and at the same time, continues a long-standing, almost hallowed tradition of nearly implausible, over the top super-weirdoes at the end of every stage. They’ve all got names you’d expect to read out of the manuals of the ‘80s. They’re wildly entertaining and inventive while being conceptually familiar.

Rather than trying to pull out a slick user interface on the Wii, the UI’s a nostalgic throwback to our eight-bit roots. Hard to tell whether this is a friendly screw-you to the next-gen or a respectful nod to an iconic aesthetic – or whether it was simply the most logical idea given the resources available.

Amid all the strangeness, offbeat themes and left-field, hyperbolic dialogue, No More Heroes is nobly, almost lawfully structural, a game that deeply understands the archetypal flow of the game stage. These are contradictions that we can really get our heads – and hearts – around.

-It’s excessively, almost laughably bloody. Grasshopper Manufacture capo Suda 51 told IGN he wanted to make the game “as violent, or even more violent, than Manhunt 2,” a title whose depraved gorefests caused a massive ratings controversy and made many of us reflect on our feelings about game violence. But No More Heroes creates unlikely fountains of copious blood and coins that spout joyfully, almost musically, from the severed heads of the legions of identical aggressors loudly bemoaning their spleens – it’s almost as if Suda and GHM were laughing at us.

It's Okay

That sense of being ribbed lightly by a really good friend exists throughout the game, even characterizes it. The protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is living a fantasy life, somehow climbing the ranks of the assassin’s association while using an internet-bought “beam katana” that looks quite a lot like a fluorescent light. He rents – and forgets to return – so many porn videos that the hapless rental store employee is forced to call every day.

Though he seems to be an American resident of a California-like city, he stocks his shelves with bishoujo figurines and plasters his walls with mecha posters, affectionately embracing one of the anime girl pictures with the adoring and vaguely lecherous utterance, “moe.” There are wadded up tissues on the floor next to the living room TV chair, and Travis uses the toilet (the save mechanism, of course) with giggle-inducing, shameless urgency.

This is an inoffensive play on otaku culture, of course – which most gamers are somewhat familiar with, if not indulgent in. Even to those gamers for whom otaku culture is analogous and not necessarily overlapping, living Travis’ undignified life, in every precise detail – from begging to get laid with a chilly little blonde right down to the cute, intimate scenes in which you can pet his cat – feels like holding up a bit of a good-naturedly mocking mirror.

And for once in our life, we don’t really mind being teased for being gamers. A big part of this is that No More Heroes is just so unapologetically entertaining. But largely it’s because of the over-arching impression that the GHM team is one of us. Many Wii owners have lamented the fact that there have been so few titles that their Mom isn’t hogging, and yet “Hardcore on the Wii” is yet another contradiction No More Heroes skillfully achieves. And one wouldn’t call it that for its difficulty level or its traditional themes -- No More Heroes is not particularly difficult and is markedly non-traditonal.

Instead, it feels precisely like a game that came from our spirit and speaks back to us. Maybe Mom can pick it up, but she won’t get it. Because, you know, we like playing with Mom. But we also don’t like it. We’re weird like that. And No More Heroes understands us. Finally.

[Leigh Alexander also has moe posters on her wall. She is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

January 30, 2008

Road To The IGF: Globulos.com Globs Things Out

- Continuing the ‘Road to the IGF’ feature reprinted from Gamasutra, Patrick Murphy talked to GlobZ's Alex Houdent about his IGF 2008 Best Web Browser Game finalist Globulos.com, the multiplayer, multi-game environment where 20 different titles share the same core mechanic.

This is actually a pretty neat title that has been relatively hidden, so it's nice to see the IGF bringing it to light - it's been around for quite a long time. Anyhow, I'll stop interjecting myself into the intro and let Patrick take it away:

What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Alex Houdent: I started the company with Olivier Besson in the previous century (end of 1999). Before that, we were freelancers. I was more into doing websites, and Olivier was into educational stuff. Then in 2001 Fabien Riffaud arrived, who had been a developer in a startup company for a short time, and Laurent Fernandez, who was more a self-taught guy, and working with us was his first job.

Both Fabien and Laurent had been making games for years before as a hobby during their teenage years. In 2004, Jeremy Damon arrived and he is also the kind of person that has always had an interest in games, in addition to playing the drums while drawing comic books.

What motivated you to create Globulos.com?

AH: We were doing single player games for a few years, and when Flash 5 was out in 2001, we were really excited by the possibility of doing multiplayer games.

Globulos.com was first released in 2003. It was our fourth multiplayer game. Multiplayer games playable in the web browser are great, because they maximize accessibility and fun. And the internet is really about making users interact, as we can see now with all that "web 2.0" wave.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

AH: The first prototype was made by Olivier Besson. He had marbles in the sand in mind, mixed with some biological cells. The first game was supposed to be a racing game. The racing was not so fun, so the prototype was left as is.

Then Fabien Riffaud added the "Arena" game, which was great. Then Olivier said "let's do a soccer game" and Fabien did a great soccer game with the funny rules. Then I said "let's do a croquet game". Fabien turned that idea into another great game. Then Laurent Fernandez added the graphics and animations, and Globulos was born.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

AH: Everything is made with Flash. The graphics are made using FreeHand, and then imported in Flash. For the server side, we use the Flash Media Server. For the database we use php/MySql.

What do you think the most interesting element of your game is?

AH: The fact that there is consistency and variety at the same time. All the games share the same core gameplay mechanic, which is great for the user. Once you have played one game, you know how to play all the games. However, the games sessions and strategies are really different between the games.

Roughly how many people have been working on Globulos.com, and what has the development process been like?

AH: As I mentioned before, Olivier, Fabien, Laurent and I started the game. Since then, Jeremy has done some animation work for the upcoming version of Globulos.com that is going to enter beta soon. We are also working on a Nintendo DS version of the game, as you can see in this video:

Frédéric Nouel (Lead) and Cédric Bourse are working on the DS game development.

If the GlobZ team had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

AH: We would start with the sounds and music!

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

AH: Indie games and teams are flourishing on different platforms (web, PC, DS, Xbox Live, mobile, etc.), which is great. That does not mean every team or game is successful! We have been big fans of Ferry Halim's work (orisinal.com) for ages. All Yosio Ishii's games are great also (http://www.nekogames.com/).
Yamago's http://www.yatsha.com/games/xtremsnow/ is great. Such gameplay is very common on the DS now. But their game was online (2002) even before the DS was out. More recently, Nitrome.com games are very fun to play.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

AH: Could someone manage to have Woody Allen work on a video game?

GameSetApparel: Spotlight On James Kochalka's 'Glorkian Warrior' Shirt

-[As previously mentioned, we now have all four GameSetApparel T-shirts available for individual order. We're going to highlight one tee per week here on GSW - though you can buy any/all of them now! Being highlighted this week - with a special bonus plea to game developers at the end of this article - is 'Glorkian Warrior' by James Kochalka (American Elf).]

GameSetApparel is the new, limited edition T-shirt store created by the editors of GameSetWatch, the alt.video game weblog run by the staff of the Webby award-winning Gamasutra.com and the Maggie award-winning Game Developer magazine.

The first series of four T-shirts are named 'Games That Never Were', with shirt numbers GSA101 through GSA104, and are limited to just 111 copies each - with the first shirt and pre-orders becoming available in December 2007, and all four T-shirts now available for individual purchase as of January 2008.

The high quality custom printed T-shirts feature noted artists interpreting the idea of imaginary, legendary, or fictional games in neat ways, and are created by Gamasutra collaborator Erin Mehlos (Hell's Corners), Dan Paladin (Alien Hominid), James Kochalka (American Elf), and Schadenfreude Interactive (Accordion Hero).

<GSA103 - 'Glorkian Warrior' - Also Available!

-Now available in GameSetApparel's limited-edition 'Games That Never Were' series, which is strictly limited to 111 copies of each tee, is 'Glorkian Warrior' by James Kochalka (American Elf).

For his design (GSA103) in the 'Games That Never Were' series, we are very kindly joined by writer, comic book artist and rock musician James Kochalka, who has been a GameSetWatch reader for a while now, and contributed the characters from his 'Glorkian Warrior' game concept, which has been designed but is yet to materialize in video game form - hence 'Games That Never Were' - but perhaps yet may be!

Kochalka is best known for his 'American Elf' diary comic, which appears daily on his website, but has also created comics like 'Superf*ckers', 'Monkey Vs. Robot', and albums ('Spread Your Evil Wings And Fly') on labels like Rykodisc - not to mention the insanely catchy 'Hockey Monkey' with The Zambonis, used as the theme tune for the Fox sitcom 'The Loop'.

- Quite the Renaissance man, then, and his blog recently commented on the Glorkian Warrior project:

"My videogame idea, Glorkian Warrior (aka Planet Vs. Planet) and will probably end up as a graphic novel as well. I’ve already drawn a three page comic using a kind of Glork invader and the purple guy from Glorkian Warrior, which will appear in the PopGun #2 anthology next summer."

The high-quality purple Kochalka-designed shirt (available in XL, L, or M, with only 111 in total over all three sizes) is the result, and interested parties can now order the GSA103 'Glorkian Warrior' T-shirt design in multiple sizes from the GameSetApparel store.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: Game creators out there - especially indie/casual developers - Mr. Kochalka really wants to make a Glorkian Warrior video game. Surely there's some enterprising coder/developer out there who wants to help him with it? Contact him via his website or ping us and we'll pass on your contact details to him.]

GameSetLinks: Bit Of A Cornucopia, Really

- And the hits just keep on coming - if, by hits, you mean, 'various random links we pulled out of somewhere or other'. Which we do.

Some highlights this time - Zepy's look at the bestselling disturbing Japanese cartoon erotic visual novel games - a genre not to be sniffed at - as well as the top Aussie games of all time, Brenda Brathwaite on the H&R Block Facebook advergames (!), and some Endless Ocean music mixes to savor. Avanti:

The Age Blogs: Screen Play - The Top 10 Australian-Developed Games
An interesting regional list, actually.

the2bears.com » Screen Mock-up
'I’ve liked Dave Bollinger’s Pixel Spaceships idea for a long time now. The idea is that every integer has a unique Pixel Spaceship representation.'

UK:RESISTANCE. 'ATEI ARCADE SHOW 2008 - VIDEOS AND PHOTOS AND WE EVEN PLAYED A COUPLE OF THE BLOODY THINGS (PART 1)'
Cutlack's customary (intentionally) creepy awkwardness plus lots of useful videos!

Canned Dogs » Blog Archive » Eroge sales rankings 2007
Top PC visual/erotic novel game sellers for 2007. Another fascinating, slightly scary microscene.

Amazon.com: Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games: Books: Matt Barton
Matt Barton is putting out a book via AK Peters which expands on his awesome Gamasutra articles on the same subject - don't miss it!

Facebook: The Advergames are Coming… and they are bad. « Applied Game Design
Good analysis of the H&R Block Facebook app 'games'.

The Exchange Student Episode 1: First Day in Sweden - Review - Adventure Classic Gaming
Very Leisure Suit Larry-esque (pictured) new PC indie adventure game - actually has social situations in it, in many ways - interesting.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: Just remember this - in this country they drive on the wrong side of the road.
'That epic space game from EA is a new Wing Commander.' If you trust her, which I do vaguely.

Sexy Videogameland: SVGL's Official 'Metal Gear Solid' Drinking Game
Commenters say 'too complicated', I say conceptually fine. :P

Looky Touchy: Endless Ocean: Mini-Mixes
Some audio mixes for the Wii title, which I need to pick up.

January 29, 2008

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Kickle Cubicle

[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Irem's Kickle Cubicle, released in the arcade in 1988 and for the NES in 1990.]

What was the first block-shoving puzzle game? Does Sega’s Pengo count? Probably not, but its 1982 debut helped lay the foundation for an entire genre of block-shoving that quickly matured in arcades, on computers and, of course, in the NES library.

The leader of this movement was perhaps HAL’s The Adventures of Lolo. With its blinking blue ball of a hero and morbidly cute style, it earned several sequels, gathered a cult following, scored its main characters spots in Nintendo’s Kirby franchise and, most recently, showed up on the Wii's Virtual Console.

But there existed another NES block-shoving puzzle game that deserved fans perhaps even more than Lolo. That game, the true successor to Pengo, began in 1988 as a winter-themed Irem arcade puzzler called Meikyu Jima, but it wasn’t brought to the West until 1990, when Irem ported it to the NES and gave it a title guaranteed to scare off adolescents insecure about the games they were seen playing. That title? Kickle Cubicle.

Not that 'Boxxle' is better

If the name didn’t dissuade buyers between the ages of 12 and 20, Kickle himself probably did. A smiling, spear-bald albino midget in overalls and earmuffs, he resembles some breeding of Capcom’s Snow Bros. and Mr. Clean. His story’s just as cute: the Fantasy Kingdom is conquered by the Wicked Wizard King, leaving Kickle to make his way through four puzzle-heavy lands (provinces? fiefdoms?). Along the way, he’ll rescue the captive citizenry and several princesses, one of whom resembles The Guardian Legend’s Alyssa and wears surprisingly revealing clothing for a happy little puzzle game set in a world of ice and hypothermia.

Following along where Pengo left off, Kickle Cubicle revolves around punting blocks of ice, which Kickle creates by freezing enemies with his rapid-fire breath. The cubes can be kicked to create bridges across water or squash foes (and, if you’re not careful, Kickle as well). The most basic attackers are lumbering bloblike “Noggles,” but Kickle soon faces block-kicking chickens, roaming penguins, and some less cute obstacles, including flak cannons and bouncing ninja stars.

More block-shoving than Resident Evil

Simple as it is, Kickle Cubicle’s flexible approach makes it far more unique than puzzlers like Lolo, Cratermaze or Chew Man Fu. Kicking ice blocks around expands the field of play, and Kickle can create and destroy squat ice pillars that alter the flow of enemies. Some stages also employ revolving hammers that bat ice around stages, and others have fields of springs that bounce cubes back and forth. Even when the solution’s obvious, it’s often fun just to play around with a level.

And there’s no lack of new challenges. Kickle Cubicle has far more levels than its arcade sire, and loses little in the translation. Some details were dropped (the enemies in the arcade game widen their eyes in shock just before blocks slam into them), and Kickle, upon clearing a level, no longer squeals “Yatta!” as “DREAM!” flashes on the screen, but that may be for the best. Sadly, the arcade game’s stage-select feature is preserved only in the Japanese release of Kickle’s 8-bit conversion.

Slippery Slopes

Kickle Cubicle’s one real failing is apparent in its first world, an overlong introduction in which most of the puzzles unravel as long as you stand still, freeze enemies, and kick them into place. Things don’t get justly challenging until the game’s “Toy Land,” where the designers play sadistic little contests with both reflexes and traditional puzzle-solving.

Another surprise comes at end of each of Kickle’s four worlds, when the game trots out a giant boss character. It’s a rare feature for a puzzle game (and one that Lolo 3 later borrowed), but the bosses are a bit lazy: all of them have the same basic methods of attack, and only the unimposing Wizard King, a snowman in a bucket hat, puts up any real fight.

But Kickle’s really about the puzzles, and it eventually delivers good ones. Even after you’ve gone through the main quest and rescued a very Peach-like princess, there’s a special mode with even tougher levels.

Image Fight

Had Kickle hit the NES shortly after its arcade debut, it could’ve caught on much as Lolo did. But it arrived in 1990, when Mega Man 3 and Castlevania III and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and other such sequels were dominating the system. It didn’t help that Irem’s lower-than-average production runs destined most of its catalog for obscurity; Metal Storm, the company’s best NES game, met a similar fate.

And while Metal Storm’s since gathered fans, Kickle Cubicle’s still largely unappreciated. Perhaps Kickle’s too cutesy. Perhaps the game’s too easy at first. But it’s one of the best puzzle games on the system, and it’s a prime candidate for GameTap or the Virtual Console. Even if it’s still just a minor cult hit, Kickle does Pengo proud, and the rest of the block-shoving world with it.

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware Platformers 2007

[Tim W. continues to crank out the goodness over on our sister IndieGames.com weblog, and this time he's focusing on 2007's top freeware platformers - including The Underside, and the rather hilariously cool but infringing GoldenEye 2D. Hurray.]

The fourth of the 2007 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present twenty of the best freeware platformers released in 2007.

Best Freeware Platformers 2007

  1. Knytt Stories
  2. The Underside
  3. Plasma Warrior
  4. Paroxysm
  5. Valdis Story
  6. Hurrican
  7. Kaipuu
  8. Deo Dorant
  9. Muon
10. Streambolt Desero
11. GoldenEye 2D
12. Once in Space
13. A Mini Falafel Adventure
14. Alex Adventure
15. Polarity
16. Punishment: The Punishing
17. Ninjah
18. Joe Gunn
19. Polychromatic Funk Monkey
20. Lost in the Static

Opinion: The Case In Favor Of Cross-Media Convergence

- [The explosive growth of games mean more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander starts with the case in favor.]

2007 saw many of the boundaries to which the industry has become accustomed begin to dissolve: the distinction between "casual" and "hardcore" gamers, the distinction between games and social media, the distinction between MMOs and virtual worlds, and perhaps most significantly, the line that has historically segregated games from other forms of entertainment.

Never were these malleable lines more evident than it seems they were at 2007's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Just some of the things we heard about: A licensed toy based on Guitar Hero. A robot dinosaur whose makers plan to solicit user-contributed behavior programming. Paul Otellini, CEO of chip giant Intel, gave his keynote address during a "virtual jam session" -- distinct overtones of the rock video game sensation there -- during which the members of the band were present virtually, as 3D avatars in a virtual garage.

The hot thing to do at CES this year was to make gadgets that can do anything -- like phones you can watch TV on, or tiny portable computers that let you text message and play games. That's not surprising, but the other hot thing to do at CES was to make an abundance of Guitar Hero peripherals. Bill Gates played GH on stage. Slash, who has gone from slightly dated rock guitarist to very current video game boss, was also there.

Microsoft announced a partnership with ABC and MGM so that people can watch more TV shows and popular films on their Xbox 360s. They're doing the same thing with BT in the UK. As for Sony, GPS devices were the best-selling gadget on Amazon this Christmas season (Wiis were also up there), and now the PSP will be a GPS, too. Sony also plans to add PSP support for Blu-ray, which recently enjoyed a decisive triumph in the hotly-contested format wars.

Enough links for you? It's been obvious for some time that games are going mainstream in a big way, which is necessarily bringing them squarely into the territory of other entertainment media that has enjoyed much more visibility, economic impact, widespread adoption and social acceptance for an entire generation.

But is it good for games?

The answer's maybe. Today, however, let's start with the case in favor.

Let's say that, after watching your favorite TV show, you can go online and play with those characters, in that persistent world, along with your friends, and then the property's producers make a movie from the events and stories written and played by you and your companions. Did you just play a video game, watch a TV show, or make a film?

The key features here are the absence of boundaries -- there's that word again -- dividing users from media properties, and dividing those properties from one another. Another key feature is that transmedia is participatory. Games, films, stories, experiences don't truly belong to anyone except the people who invest emotionally in those things.

Fellow journalist Chris Dahlen has been a strong proponent of this transmedia philosophy since before I ever heard the word, and one of his published articles on the subject, "The Open Source Canon," describes some actual and possible implementations thereof, discussing The Matrix Online and what it could have been as an example.

Rethinking Extension

At CES, a panel of cross-media execs put heads together to talk about the impact of entertainment media convergence and the relationship between games and films. Video games based on films, and films based on video games are far from a new concept, but the idea gains greater relevance in an era when we're keen to discuss greater opportunities for that relationship than just money-making tie-ins.

Entertainment media companies wanting to extend their brand tentacles is half the reason they're in business -- plenty of terrible IPs get made just because some suits sitting around a table realize they can sell tons of toys around it.

A product's ability to be extended in that way into toys, clothes, games, cartoon shows and books is part of what drives its appeal for producers. Now that the audience for games and interactive entertainment is larger and more companies are starting to rethink the word "extension" to mean not just a brand translation, but an extension of experience.

If a Pixar toy or a video game stuffed animal gets made to capitalize on the success of the game or film, that's the status quo. Now, though, we begin to see games for kids getting made to broaden the ways a child can play with a toy.

If you haven't watched Saturday morning cartoons in a while, do so, and check out the ads. There are so many connected toys available now -- a girl can buy a Barbie, and then game Barbie's career path and home decor online with her friends. It's established IP offering its audience multiple ways -- tangible and intangible, static and customizable -- to engage with something they love.

Compelling Stories

For adults, this growing trend means that the minds that develop in-depth, well-supported film stories will be working hand-in-hand from the start with the game development pros. Comparing games to movies as if they were antagonists in the schoolyard is as old as the hills -- but if we can't make out where one ends and the other begins, everyone wins.

At the cross-media CES panel, Brash Entertainment COO Nick Longano was asked what his New Year's resolution was. He said, "Take the sensibilities of great storytelling and bring that to great games for the marketplace."

Consumers will be able to interact more with films and become more immersed in games. It's not just film, either -- citing the success of Guitar Hero, Vivendi's Cindy Cook pointed out: "As the music industry's main markets are getting softer, they are becoming much more flexible and are eager to work with game industry projects."

Power To The People

Consumers will play a role in the way entertainment media is shaped, because the game industry is pleasantly surprised at the way the mainstream has begun to embrace it in new ways, while film, television and music have realized that gamers are cool kids, too.

Neither camp expected this, and neither camp is quite sure, beyond the abstracts, how to address their evolving audiences. So they'll be listening, and watching, letting players declare how we want to play, how to reach them, and taking close notes on what makes them tick. That can only be a good thing.

So is the fact that connectivity and the availability of content has drastically changed business models. Not only does that mean that media companies will continue to find a pricing model that's congruent with the value users assign to an experience, allowing them flexibility, it means that producers and developers essentially must invest in a long-term relationship with consumers.

Flagship Studios' Steve Goldstein noted, during a different CES panel about virtualization and the spread of MMOs, "In a box product, your commitment ends at purchase." Because of advertising and microtransactions-supported business models, companies will earn their money from products that users love enough to buy, or are engaged with enough to spend more time playing.

That means the most successful products will be developed with user engagement as the primary motivation -- the era wherein game companies employ the lion's share of their effort getting people simply to buy a game, rather than investing in a development team's vision and making a really good game, is over.

I've said numerous times, and others have too, that some of the anger, frustrations, and can't-please-'em mentality that is sometimes prevalent among the gaming audience is due to lingering unmet emotional needs from the medium, and feeling manipulated and deceived by both a hit-driven games business and an over-saturated, over-pressured games media. The cross-media evolution supported by the technology shown at CES -- and the increasing voice it offers the audience -- might finally change that.

January 28, 2008

GameSetLinks: Schizoid Across The Passage

- Some more GameSetLinks, then, and some of the notable new links include an excellent interview with Jamie Fristrom (co-creator of XNA-developed title Schizoid), as well as a Wall Street Journal piece on art-game The Passage.

The WSJ piece seems notable to me because it shows the value of games such as this in broadening the cultural acceptability of games - and I know that's not necessarily why The Passage was made, but it really helps people believe in games' redeeming factors as a medium. Which is nice. Onward:

insertcredit.com: Saturn Game Basic
'Madroms, who unveiled the Dezaemon 2 Saturn save system a while back also has a lot of info on Saturn Game Basic.'

Fullbright: Phrases
About game names: 'Lately I've been digging phrase titles. They're usually a few words or even a full sentence, somewhat abstract, and don't directly name a major component of the game.'

The Independent Gaming Source interviews Jamie Fristrom
Excellent chat with the Schizoid (pictured) co-creator, veteran developer.

game mod
Non-programmers modding Breakout, with video - via Waxy.

Time Waster - WSJ.com
The Wall Street Journal covers indie title 'The Passage'.

Shout! Factory Store - Sam & Max Freelance Police on DVD
The animated series on DVD from the awesome Shout Factory, who just got the rights to Mystery Science Theater.

Jonathan Coulton » Blog Archive » Haters: You are SO Boring
One of my 'Top 12 Portal Covers' picks makes the composer himself tell the trolls to calm down. With some effect, one would hope.

collision detection: The subtle pleasures of wasting time
Discussing '...how badly our culture understands the meaning of play and games.'

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation » Patapon
'The game’s graphics are based on the work of French artist and toy designer Rolito,' Didn't know that.

ASCII by Jason Scott: On the Outset of Editing 'Get Lamp'
The technical/procedural side of making the upcoming text adventure documentary.

Column: 'Save the Robot': What Indie Games Can Learn From Little Miss Sunshine

lms.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

Last week, Simon Carless - expanding on an "indie games rule" column by Clive Thompson - speculated whether indie games are "exploding." In quantity and quality, he and Thompson are surely dead-on that more games are out there, and they're more exciting than ever.

But I want to raise the bar for "explode": I want to see indie games break into the mainstream, the way films like Sex Lies and Videotape or bands like Nirvana broke out in the '90s. And we're not there - yet.

Aquaria is a hit among the kind of people who read this blog, yet as of now, Metacritic only lists two reviews for it (one of them is mine, from The AV Club). Titles like Eets, DEFCON, Samorost 2, Knytt, and many others have potentially widespread appeal, but without a Steam or an XBox Live Arcade, they can't get attention from the mainstream press or casual consumers.

By contrast, consider an indie darling that started at Sundance and broke through to the Oscars: Little Miss Sunshine.

When I decided to review Aquaria for my mainstream, largely non-hardcore audience, I figured it would be roughly as accessible as Little Miss Sunshine. Its gameplay is familiar, its story is positive and even sweet, and there's nothing particularly troubling or weird about it - yet at the same time, it's original, inspired, and surprising.

Aquaria is a much better game than Little Miss Sunshine was a movie. But they make the same case: they may have come from left field, but they represent everything people wish they could get from the mainstream.

Let's break down some reasons that indie games aren't that far from the commercial norm.

"Indie" sounds noble, but it works because it's practical. The punk music revolution of the '70s is often painted as an artistic revolt against the bloated, decadent, and nauseating excesses of '70s art and arena rock. But it's also easier to pull off a three-chord song than a two-album rock opera. And virtuousity, album-length concepts and failed experiments are usually a poor substitute for what people actually want: hooks and beats.

Now, apply all these lessons to an overambitious AAA-title like Assassin's Creed and you start to see where fun, addictive indie games can make enormous in-roads. It's not a revolution: it's a throwback to what people have wanted all along.

Nobody expects indie games to be "edgy." You often hear the argument that indie games can take more risks and push more boundaries, because they have less to risk. And it's true that a few politically-charged or offensively satirical titles have grabbed headlines. But radical, transgressive content rarely works in games. Gamers don't want it, and non-gamers find it appalling. The mildly controversial content in games like Mass Effect or Bully can still blow people's minds - which puts a game like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! so far beyond the pale that almost nobody knows what to do with it. Radicalism won't turn you into the Bob Dylan of gaming; you're more likely to come off like GG Allin.

Indies have free reign to be retro. Just as The Ramones could revive '50s and '60s garage rock but put their own spin on it, indie games are free to use their low budgets and production values as a reason to exploit and revive the past. Side-scrolling shmups, cutesy platformers, sinister puzzlers wrapped in old-fashioned graphics - indie games can dwell in the past while cherry-picking the ideas that bring them into the future, capitalizing on gamer nostalgia all the way.

Cute works, and costs nothing. While XBox 360 games include hours of rubbish anime setting up bland romances, all the people who played Ico back in the day reminisce about the simple gesture of the two protagonists holding their hands during the adventure. XBox 360 game developers apparently never got the message - but Aquaria did. While it's a dramatic and often dark game, Aquaria is also endearingly cute. I can't tell you what makes it so cute, for fear of spoilers, but it works - in a low-cost way. In fact, throw too much money at this kind of thing and you get treacle; keep it simple, and it's irresistable.

There are many more lessons in there, but the point is this: we often assume that indies have some kind of a barrier to entry - poor distribution, unusual controls, less-than-high-def graphics, or esoteric story elements - that would keep any but the dedicated few from appreciating them. And in fact, many indies do take some patience and massaging before the fun starts.

But then you have the Little Miss Sunshine's, that appeal immediately to almost anybody who finds them. They don't lose anything by choosing the cute, accessible path to market, and someday the market will reward them for it. The mainstream press - hell, just the mainstream gaming press - will catch onto this, and realize what an undervalued resource they've been sitting on this whole time. And that's when the indie scene will explode.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

Road To IGF Mobile: Steam Iron - The Fallen

- [Extracting another Mathew Kumar-authored Q&A with one of the finalists from IGF Mobile, this one's well worth checking out - a surprisingly sophisticated cellphone RTS.]

As part of Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, we talk to Ryan Ho, Producer of Mikoishi's IGF Mobile Best Game and Technical Achievement finalist Steam Iron: The Fallen, a mobile real-time multiplayer RTS "designed to deliver the best elements of the RTS genre into the small mobile form factor."

Games On Deck: What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Ryan Ho: Based in Singapore, Mikoishi has been making connected mobile games since the days when SMS was the only way of providing a connected experience for the user. Over the years, as phones became more capable and connected, we continued to push the envelope in connected mobile gaming, and picked up some awards in the process of doing so. Innovative connected mobile games we have developed previously include Star Wars Battlefront Mobile, and the mobile versions of Super Puzzle Fighter II and Phoenix Wright.

We have now expanded to the Nintendo DS and PC Online platforms.

The Mikoishi team is made up of experts from all fields, with diverse backgrounds, but we all have a common passion for making great games. Mikoishi employees stem from traditional interactive entertainment companies (Vivendi, Electronic Arts, Atari, Eidos, RockStar) to new media (MTV, STAR TV).

GOD: What motivated you to make your game?

RH: Networked games have always been our forte and we were waiting for the right opportunity to make a next-generation mobile game to leverage on the capabilities of the 3G mobile network. As soon as it became commercially feasible to do so, we jumped at the opportunity.

GOD: Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

RH: We studied many RTS (Real Time Strategy) games intensely, and drew inspiration from some of the market leaders in this genre. But ultimately we had to go through a lot of deep thinking to come up with an adaptation of the RTS genre that is playable on the mobile form factor and yet retains all the core essence of what makes an RTS game fun.

GOD: What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?

RH: Both client and server components are in Java so a great Java IDE is a must. For that, we used Eclipse. The Sun Java WTK (Wireless ToolKit) and the various emulators are also essential for developing mobile games.

And like all our previous connected mobile titles we also depended heavily on Theatre, Mikoishi's proprietary online platform. Theatre makes it possible to develop connected games easily. Other than providing online services such as player matching and ladder ranking, it also has a network middleware SDK (i.e. CentreStage). One of its key features is replicating the game state on the server to multiple clients and in real-time. This is how both game clients can have the exact same real-time view of the game world in a multiplayer session.

GOD: What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?

RH: The most interesting element of the game is the multiplayer element. The controls are easy to pick up but yet provide the power and flexibility for a seasoned player to micro-manage his units expertly.

On the other hand, the asymmetric factions and unit attributes provide many strategic options. In our many hours of testing, we have seen the game played in ways never before thought possible. In a way, what we have done is to give players a tool with which they can express themselves and showcase their skills.

We have even created a TV Broadcasting Application so that the skills of expert players can be showcased on air. As part of the Korean roll-out, we will be working with a major broadcaster to facilitate televised tournaments.

GOD: How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?

RH: The conceptualization and pre-production phase took us 5 months, after-which it took us another 4 months to build the game. As you can see a lot of time was invested up-front to work out the design. We also did a fair amount of prototyping. In addition to testing out the game design ideas, we also had to be sure that mobile phones were ready for a game like this.

After that, it was a crazy race against time to get the game done on time. It is a very big game to get into a very small device in a very short time. I always say that if you work on the cutting-edge you have to be prepared to bleed. There was a lot of blood on the floor for this one.

- GOD: If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

RH: In an undertaking as technically-challenging and ground-breaking as this, many things can be done better and in a much shorter time with the benefit of hindsight. The good news is that we have adopted the franchise approach to the Steam Iron line of mobile RTS games.

We have plans for expansions and sequels in 2008, so there is no need to "hit the rewind button" to "relive the past". Instead, we can march on bravely into the future and apply what we have learnt to develop even better versions of the game in the future!

Our first expansion will feature a third faction, and is scheduled for commercial launch in Q2 2008. The sequel is scheduled for the end of 2008.

GOD: What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?

RH: I must confess that I don't follow the independent games scene closely. Maybe attending the IGF will change that, but at this point what I can only share is from my personal experience as a gamer. I don't like shopping at the malls much so I do end up playing downloadable and browser games mainly.

Among the downloadable games, the Galactic Civilizations series from Stardock has impressed me the most. Their convenient, user-oriented distribution model has been a joy to use. I also found very amazing what some developers have been able to do with the web browser as a gaming platform. For example, Pardus was able to create a very immersive user experience with merely the web browser as the user interface.

I have a Linux machine at home and there are a number of great open source games out there. Among them, Battle for Wesnoth is an example of how a simple battle-mechanic can be used to create so much depth.

GOD: You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?

RH: The mobile phone is a gaming device with immense potential. Let's work together to convince users that they don't have to look far for great entertainment experiences. It's in their pocket.

January 27, 2008

GameSetLinks: Uplink My TiQal, Please?

- As we gradually accumulate more sources here, the GameSetLink-age may even graduate to daily, instead of day-and-a-half-ly, as it is now.

But heck, there's just so much good material out there about games which doesn't get covered by mainstream news or blog sites, and we love crunching it into the brain and out onto the links.

This time round - XBLArcade.com finds game ratings hinting at a whole mess of new Xbox Live Arcade games, we dig out a speed run for Introversion's Uplink, of all things, and there's the rudest 'come back and play with us' subscription letter we've ever seen. Awesomeness:

Ratings Galore: ACB leaks Assault Heroes 2, TiQal, Frogger 2, And More. | XBLArcade.com
TiQal is based on the Method Man album of the same name. Honest.

ASCII by Jason Scott: Blockparty Speakers List Finalized
Wow, this is an awesome line-up.

Christian Cage: Peep This - GameTap Read
The TNA wrestler talks about his Top Spin 2 obsession. Awesome.

'Losers' Invited To Try Fury Again | Game | Life from Wired.com
Go marketing!

YouTube - Goo!: Cam Test
Webcam visualization option in the IGF finalist. Gloopy!

Internet Archive Search: collection:C64Gamevideoarchive
Full video walkthroughs of lotsa C64 games.

Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World
Goon squad go!

Speed Demos Archive - Uplink: Hacker Elite
Speed running Introversion's hacking sim? Hilarious!

IGF Audience Award Finalists: Synaesthete - ShackBlog
Chris Remo pokes at the IGF Audience Award games, with good critical effect.

ESRB Watch: Counter-punch = Ikaruga | XBLArcade.com
Yoo hoo to Cosmic Osmo casual game, Triggerheart Exelica, others.

Opinion: Inside Digital Game Download Hell

- [In this thought-provoking opinion piece, game designer/author Ian Bogost takes a look at his experience downloading PlayStation Network game titles to make the argument that "people think that digital download makes content more accessible, but that's not always, or perhaps not often the case".]

Recently, David Edery wrote a nice feature on Gamasutra about how to make trial versions of downloadable software sell more games. He has some good points, including observations about how a trial shouldn't just be the beginning of the game nor should it give away enough that a purchase is unnecessary.

But there's something missing from Edery's analysis, and that's the larger process we go through to try or buy games provided through digital download. Often people think that digital download makes content more accessible, but that's not always, or perhaps not often the case. Here's some anecdotal evidence, albeit from a different digital distribution service than Edery's Xbox Live.

I've been traveling or working nonstop on deadlines or both since early December, so I haven't really had time to play console videogames at home. Last night I decided to have a go. I wanted to get Pain (pictured) and Everyday Shooter on the PlayStation Network Store, and then spend a little while with each. I had just finished some work and allocated a half hour or so before bed.

I turn on the PS3.

My component video switcher is on the wrong setting, so I get up, walk over and press the correct one. I hear the PS3's symphonic start up sound.

I hadn't set up my Logitech remote to turn off the cable box when I choose PS3 from its menu, so the two optical sources are mixing. I switch it off while I'm over at the television.

The PS3 is set to autorun games, so it boots up The Simpsons Game, which was in the drive already.

Splash screen loads, I pull up the menu to quit The Simpsons Game. The PS3 reboots.

My controller has a low battery, so the PS3 tells me to plug it in. I do so. Now I'm sitting a foot from the screen.

I try to access the PSN Store from the system menu.

The PS3 tells me I have to install a System Update before I can do this.

Back to the menu. I access the System Update and it starts downloading.

Progress bar. I wait five minutes.

Ok, it's done. The PS3 reboots.

Now it's ready to install. It reboots again first for some reason.

Ok, really ready to install. Another progress bar. Five more minutes.

The update finishes installing. PS3 reboots once more.

Now I can acccess the PSN Store. I find the games and add them to my cart. This takes a while because I have no idea what category either game would be in. I guess wrong a few times and then just use the alphabetical lookup.

I'm ready to check out. But, I have no PSN credits. I have to add some.

The service has stored my credit card so a couple screens later I've got enough in my account to check out.

Back to the checkout screen. Sale completed, great.

The PS3 prompts me to start downloading. I start the Pain download (200MB).

I navigate back out to the main system screen to look around while I'm waiting. Hmm, I should have queued Everyday Shooter too so it will download after Pain is done. Back to the PSN Store.

I need to access my game downloads. Where is that again? I'm one foot from the screen still so I crane my neck around. Right, top corner there's a link. I access that and start the second download (30MB).

230MB is enough that this is going to take a while. I wander back out and play Calling All Cars for five minutes or so. I suck at Calling All Cars. What a frustrating game. I think about David's article and how a trial download would have meant I wouldn't have bought it at all. Maybe $10 to experiment isn't so bad.

The download manager notifies me that the downloads are done. I quit Calling All Cars.

I look for the games in the proper section of the PS3 menu but I can't find them. Where are they? Ah, they're up above. I access Pain.

The game needs to install. Another progress bar, but only for a couple minutes.

At this point, I figure I might as welll install Everyday Shooter too. Much smaller game, so it installs faster.

Now I'm finally ready to play Pain. Luckily I've been sitting at the console for 20 minutes by now and my controller is charged enough to allow me to retire to the couch.

It's 12:30am, I'm pretty exhausted. Bleary-eyed, I start up Pain.

Pain checks for saved data. It finds none, as this is the first time I ran the game. It tells me it will create a save file. It will save automatically for me, ok? Ok, I tell it.

Now I have to go through the tutorial before I can play. Ok, no problem.

I'm five minutes in. The game seemed simple at first but now it's feeling pretty nuanced (for a game about breaking things with a human slingshot anyway). There are combo hits. There are drifts and ooches. I'm still not even done with the tutorial.

Yawning, I decide to stop and turn in for the night.

I quit Pain, it autosaves for me.

I press the PS3 button. Turn off console. Yes, really turn off console.

Television off, receiver off, lights out. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow.

I've picked on PlayStation here but the Xbox and Wii versions aren't really any better. It's true that downloadable games don't suffer from the cost basis, shelf-space, and individual marketing problems of physical media.

But when I buy a DVD movie or game, I just pop it in and start playing. No system updates. No reboots. No fuss. How can these download services ever hope to top that?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': What Are You Fighting For?

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Shooting has always been, and will probably always be, a core game mechanic. Not that this necessarily needs to involve violence – we’ve shot bubbles, fireballs that turn plants into coins, and portals, to name just a few, without ever harming anyone. But in successful story-driven games, the cultural relevance of a given game mechanic is often extrapolated to create a story. And the easiest story that can be spun from projectile-attack game mechanics is war.

War is so often a component of video games not just because the mechanics lend themselves easily, but because, over centuries of humanity, war has often been a component of the human condition. The morality of war, or lack thereof, is an issue discussed and debated in every era, across every facet of global society. And sometimes, as a result, we end up discussing the morality of war video games.

What Should Games' Role Be?

It’s worth wondering sometimes whether games have desensitized us to violence, and I have done so in the past. We often say we want realism and empathy in our gaming experience, a fantasy world that we can really see ourselves stepping into. But when a game puts us in fatigues with a gun in our hands, we don’t really think about it, do we? Though, of course, enemy sprites aren’t people, to be fair – they’re just enemy sprites. Digital projectiles don’t really kill. But as war games become ever more complex and realistic, how to invest them with cultural relevance, their own kind of morality, becomes an interesting consideration.

Do game designers have a responsibility, when creating a war title, for treating war with gravity, ensuring that the game’s messages are consistent with the values of a healthy society? And if so, who determines what those values are? Or must they ensure they treat the subject matter with sensitivity to the current political climate, a careful lack of bias, or an avoidance of any actual touchstones to real-world scenarios that might be offensive? Or should it be an honest reflection of their own personal viewpoints, behind which they can stand with emotional integrity?

The best games don’t tell you what to think. Rather, through leading the player to empathize with the characters and invest emotionally in the game world’s circumstances, they encourage you to make decisions on your own. Many people believe that the right and wrong surrounding war are quite clear-cut – but pick out any two people who feel that way, and they may have differing views. For others, it’s not simple to draw the line between what’s good and what’s evil. And designing for all possibilities sounds like a serious challenge. On the other hand, gamers tend to resent having their emotions manipulated intentionally – even if this comes in the form of a game aiming to highlight a relevant and thought-provoking situation. So what to do?

-What Could Games' Role Be?

War games are numerous, and some of them are even accused of propagandizing the young male audience to support killing in the name of patriotism. It’s up for debate whether gaming’s advanced enough yet as a medium to make the same kind of culture-shifting, thought-provoking and memorable statements on war – for good or for detriment -- as some films do. But the potential’s most definitely there. Even in wartime, the only direct look the majority of people get at a war is through film, and for better or worse, it shapes how they feel. Similarly, the only acquaintance the majority of people have with death is seeing it on film or television. If we’re fortunate, these are the images that govern our impression of the end of human life – since what’s often called “TV death” is much more sterile, much quieter and less visceral than even the mildest and most peaceful of real ones.

Given that, we’re entering an era wherein games are able to be considered seriously for their cultural effects. To take the usual sensationalized shortcut that the media often does – e.g, “war is wrong, ergo war games are deplorable” – is tempting, but doesn’t give the medium credit for its ability to present issues in their full complexity, or at least, in shades of gray. What should war games do and be, and given that one of games’ most compelling qualities is the ability to create empathy, how should they leverage this opportunity?

Taking a wide-lens view of human international conflicts throughout the years, though the nuances, the political, social and human issues have always been unique, complex and varied, one can reduce the history of human culture to the repetition of a few key themes. The key, it seems, to investing war games with cultural meaning is to tap into a few of those themes and use them to build user investment in a story and its characters. To make it at once personal, and relevant on a wider scale.

This use of war thematics is a practiced science in the Metal Gear Solid series. Those less familiar with the storyline might find it over-complex – but given the subject matter, it’s arguably appropriate. And when it’s simplified by isolating the key themes that repeat consistently in each series installment, it becomes clearer and more effective. Let’s take a look at just a few of these themes, to demonstrate some examples about how games can create relevant connections with human emotion, behavior, thought and opinion surrounding military conflict.[ NOTE: No specific game events or endings are discussed directly, but given it's a thematic discussion, there may be some spoilers, depending on what you consider spoilage.]

Abandonment

In each Metal Gear incarnation, the hero is almost always set loose on a mission that’s both so crucial and so secret he can’t expect any support from his government. It’s a familiar paradox – the hero is assigned a task he’s told that only he can complete, with his country’s fate in the balance. And yet the initial sensation is always vulnerability. The mission is always so top-secret that the lead character must collect his own equipment from the bodies of the soldiers he eliminates on his course. And he’s told that if he fails, no one will even be able to collect his body from a hostile foreign land. The contrast between feeling like the individual is utterly essential and feeling as if he’s utterly disposable is bracing.

Deception

Another trait common to all games in the series is that the true nature of one’s supervisors and one’s mission never come out until later. There is always a moral ambiguity here; rarely is the hero manipulated by overtly malicious lies. There's no cackling evil lord overseeing the depravity. In the original MGS, for example, Snake’s trusted mission commander was forced to deceive him for the entire course of the mission on pain of his niece’s safety. We feel the hero’s anger and sense of helplessness upon learning that he – or someone close to him – was actually sent into a situation to die, a sacrifice in the name of an ambiguous “greater good.” And yet, as in the real world, it’s always hard to parse out where the blame belongs, as every angle is more complex than it first appears. It’d be emotionally relieving to be able to pin the role of wholly responsible malicious aggressor on any one of the hero’s antagonists – and yet that can never be done.

Individuality

-Though the hero in the games usually represents, at least initially, the United States, it’s always clear he thinks of himself as a mercenary. Idealism, or patriotism, is never the hero’s motive. In fact, in each installment of the series, many people assume or speculate about the hero and what motivates him to stand in harm’s way repeatedly, or to follow orders when those given them have been proven to be corrupt or unreliable. What’s most inspiring of all about the Metal Gear series is that, while you can palpably sense the hero’s sense of betrayal at having his tenacity, bravery and sacrifices used disingenuously by those with greater power, you’re always aware that his motivation never hinged on doing what he was ordered.

It’s clear, from the subtle lines in which the lead character is drawn, that he’s simply pursuing a personal value set at any given time – even if the game makes no statements either way about what that value set is. Some of the other characters that surround him theorize that he does what he does because he’s truly a good person, a hero by nature. Others tell him with surety that they know that he’s a prisoner of killer instinct – doomed, like an animal, to make war because he’s human and a soldier. But there’s never a way to know for sure.

The true genius of the Metal Gear Solid series is that how to interpret the hero is the player’s choice. You can kill everyone in sight with heavy weapons, if that’s how you think it should go. You can use only your bare hands to kill, if you’re so inclined. And it’s possible to win using only an ultimately harmless tranquilizer gun. Certain elements of the plot and dialogue will even shift with your behavior to recognize the character for the battle habits you’ve chosen for him.

Human Relations

-Though the MGS games tend to widen the plot’s lens progressively until the player can see the faceless, politically or financially motivated leadership – always far, far away from the line of fire, but driving all of the action, making all of the ultimate decisions – the choices that the characters closest to the hero make are almost always driven by their relationships with their friends, loved ones, and family. It’s always revealed that, greater than ideals like duty, or orders, or even averting humanitarian or nuclear crises, each person is fighting for something deeply personal, a desire to protect, avenge or reunite with a loved one that trumps all of the mechanics of making war.

Even the hero becomes touched by those around him, if not easily. When morality is suspended in a high stakes climate of violence and deception, the storyline increasingly focuses on the individuals involved, and those emotional needs they have beyond the military objective – in short, the value of individual lives. And each nuance that evolves from the story’s characters makes the player think twice about the faceless, identical soldiers he has the opportunity – but not the requirement – to snuff out.

None of these themes instruct the player on how to think or feel about war, but they provide a watertight framework to allow the player to do so on his or her own, frequently relying on real-world historical facts or events to connect a plot that often has futuristic or sci-fi overtones to reality. And since each game intentionally and masterfully echoes repeating relationships, themes and situations from the title before it, the player is drawn in more completely, as familiar with the hero and his world as the soldier is with the circumstances, both tangible and intangible, of the battlefield.

When we think about what games can do to give us choices, to provide opportunities for learning and empathy, we look to story and character first. But while MGS is heavy with plot, its most successful achievement is that once the game is over, the player has created his or her own relationship to the broader, real story of humans at war.

[Leigh Alexander openly admits she's an unconscionably biased Metal Gear superfan. She is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]



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