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Column: Homer In Silicon

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Choice of...

April 20, 2010 12:00 AM |

-['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at two multiple-choice games, Choice of Dragons and Choice of Broadsides, by Choice of Games.]

I have a love-hate relationship with multiple-choice interactive stories. (I'm talking about the kind of thing commonly called CYOA-style or "Choose Your Own Adventure" style, but that name is associated with the publisher of the original books, and Choice of Games uses the term multiple-choice game instead.)

On the one hand, I like story-heavy games, and I'm all in favor of more games that explore the potential of text. Moreover, while I love interactive fiction, I realize that the parser puts a lot of demands on the novice player, and that poses a serious accessibility problem. Giving the player a straightforward list of options -- each of them guaranteed to advance the story in some way -- certainly makes things move faster.

On the other hand, I've tended to find multiple-choice stories deeply unsatisfying.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': QTE Land

April 13, 2010 12:00 AM |

HeavyRain.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Quantic Dream's PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain, with significant story spoilers included as part of the analysis.]

Plenty has already been written about Heavy Rain's defects as a game: the tiresomeness of the Quick Time Events, the fact that characters often walk back and forth in front of their own refrigerators in confusion, the inconsistent controls. All too often I felt like I was handling a character with a degenerative nerve disorder, nobly struggling with the quotidian trials of brushing teeth and drinking orange juice.

Personally, though, I would have been happy to forgive Heavy Rain its defects as a game in deference to its strengths as story and interactive movie. The movie aspect does work brilliantly. The cinematic aspects are beautiful, the split screen moments much more effective than I would ever have expected, the graphics superb.

It's too bad, then, that the story just isn't very good.

Heavy Rain does daringly strike out from the range of genres that video games typically cover: instead of space warfare or car racing or fantasy heroism, we have a thriller about a serial killer. But there it draws on a large pool of existing clich├ęs. The killer who cannot resist laying out puzzles for his victims' families. The heavily-foreshadowed car accident. The broken marriage.

They're stock bits, and the fact that they come from the vocabulary of movies rather than the vocabulary of games does not make them any less predictable. The plot that results, moreover, depends on many characters acting against their own self-interest. It's oddly paced and full of holes.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Echoes from the Underworld

February 23, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Echo Bazaar, a social game using Twitter, by Fail Better Games.]

Echo Bazaar, a web-based card game by UK firm Fail Better Games is a social grind game. Gameplay [here's a review with screenshots] consists of choosing trivial tasks to improve one's stats at four skills: Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive, and Shadowy. Grinding also typically produces loot of some kind, which can be sold at the Bazaar for weapons and stat-improving hats and other similar trinkets; and players can also work on short-term and long-term goals (called Ambitions).

Success at these tasks depends on chance and your existing stats, which means that you can increase the likelihood of success on a particular challenge by devoting more effort to stat-building beforehand.

There are only a certain number of actions available in a given day, with a maximum of ten available at any given time; that number can be increased by tweeting an ad for Echo Bazaar (once per day at maximum), or by purchase. That structure means that gameplay is more or less a resource-management problem, with more resources available for real money. The player's agency is all about deciding which goals sound interesting enough to spend actions on.

That's not the description of a game I would expect to like. I have little patience for games that are mostly grinding, and I also like to be engaged with a game when I'm playing it, focused on the story and structure -- and then done when I'm done. Games that force you to string out the gameplay over many days tend to attenuate the pacing to the point of tedium. (I've yet to find a real-time game like Virtual Villagers that I get along with either.)

I had some of those issues with Echo Bazaar, too, but I'm still playing with it.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Structure in Arkham

January 22, 2010 12:00 AM |

- ['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she takes a look at Batman: Arkham Asylum.]

I got an Xbox 360 for Christmas, and the first game I rented for it was Batman: Arkham Asylum, about which I'd heard great things. And I really enjoyed it: the gameplay was smooth and fun, and the narrative was engaging throughout. As I played, though, I found myself thinking that Arkham Asylum is a case study in the way that the commercial demands on a AAA game play against storytelling.

In order to explain why, I'm going to include extensive story spoilers for the game, including a detailed discussion of the ending and mention of several boss battles. Please don't read on if you have not played the game through and still intend to.

Firstly, Arkham Asylum starts with certain advantages over a game with fresh IP. The audience is likely to come into the game with at least some prior knowledge of Batman, which means that some sympathy for the characters is built in: we start already knowing who the heroes and villains are, and rooting for the right ones. When it comes to exposition, the gameplay doesn't have to explain Bruce Wayne's backstory fully, either. The passage that treats it can afford to be allusive rather than didactic. A player who really doesn't know the mythos can look at character biographies, but this is supporting material not folded into the plot of the game itself.

Even better, the narrative designers clearly knew what was thematically interesting in the Batman story, and built gameplay and narrative episodes around that theme. Batman is uncomfortably like the supervillains he defeats; in a world where traumatic childhood events mostly lead to adult psychosis augmented by fiendishly clever tools and toys, what should we make of the billionaire who spends his time hanging upside down in a cape?

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': On Aging

January 9, 2010 12:00 PM |

grvy3.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Home and The Graveyard.]

I hate the word "pretentious" in art criticism.

I understand why people use it. Often we call something pretentious when we think the artist might be concealing a lack of meaning or vision behind obscurity, jargon, or a set of conventions currently hallowed by the art establishment. It's a way of saying "I don't get this, and I don't know that there's anything to get" that shifts the blame (if blame even applies in so subjective an area as one's response to artwork) onto the artist rather than ourselves.

Two things I don't like about this approach. First, it operates from an instinct of contempt. Labeling an artist pretentious assumes the worst about someone whose motives aren't knowable.

Second, it says nothing, nothing at all, about the work itself. It's all about the artist.

Recently I've played two games about old age and the approach of death that have been tarred as "pretentious", as well as boring and ungamelike: Home, by Stephen Lavelle, and Tale of Tales' The Graveyard, from last year. ("Pretentious" citations for The Graveyard: 1, 2, 3; for Home, with some discussion, 1.)

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Neither Nor

December 28, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Zylom/GameHouse Studios Eindhoven's Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season, a Christmas-themed time management game with an unusual amount of story content.]

Ever since Miss Management, I've been hoping for another time management game with a decent narrative arc, memorable characters, and a connection between gameplay and story. Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season is the best I've yet seen in that line. (Disclaimer: I gather there are a number of previous Delicious games starring Emily. This is the first I've played through, though I did sample the demo of Emily's Taste of Fame.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Delicious: Emily's Holiday Season shares a number of features with Miss Management. It's briefer, but it has a similar structure: there are five major stages to the plot, each with its own mini-arc.

Many of the levels incorporate some small optional challenges, which knit the gameplay and the story together more tightly. There's a lot of dialogue, and Emily's Holiday Season skips having a single villain in favor of a number of sometimes-friendly NPCs who nonetheless impose on the protagonist in irritating ways.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Gaslight and Cog

December 4, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at "The Shadow in the Cathedral", a commercial interactive fiction game by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold, released by the text adventure game publishers at Textfyre.]

I have a soft spot for steampunk; have done ever since I read The Iron Dragon's Daughter at an impressionable age. So it's with mixed pleasure and annoyance that I've watched the style become ubiquitous and diluted, until it means nothing more than an aesthetic of gears, ironmongery, and jugendstil curves.

"The Shadow in the Cathedral" is set in a steampunk universe, but not in the same steampunk universe that everyone else is puttering about in. This is not The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, with its airships and cloudy vertical cities. It's not the oily, clanking, boiling environment celebrated by Vernian Process.

This is a universe in which clockwork is not merely a means to an end, but a religion, a cult. Time is not only measured but made possible by the existence of cogs and winding key and pendulum. Newton, Babbage, and the swiss watchmaker Breguet are saints. The Goddess of Klockwerk visits good children at Newtonmass.

The Difference Engine, the holy grail of steampunkery, is a mystical object: if you can just encode your question properly, it can answer anything there is to know about the universe. This is a game partly written for young people -- Textfyre's target market is middle-schoolers -- but it does not feel dumbed down.

In developing this world, "Shadow" makes an argument for text as a living gaming medium -- not because it offers settings that would be difficult or expensive to render (though it does), but because there is so much attitude about the world that could not be captured effectively with visual images.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Cubical

November 21, 2009 12:00 PM |

HBO%20Cube.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at an interactive storytelling experience advertising HBO.]

HBO has an ad campaign around the phrase "It's more than you imagined". One of its key features is a website installation called HBO Imagine, and put together by BBDO and The Barbarian Group.

The installation offers a network of still images (such as scans of newspaper clippings), sound (such as recordings of phone calls), and film. Some fo the film is ordinary single-frame stuff, images fictionally from security cameras or advertising campaigns. Others appear on the faces of a cube. Rotate the cube, and you view the same scene from another angle, allowing you to see what is going on in the next room.

What appears to be an amazingly unsuccessful art theft turns out to have been orchestrated for entirely other reasons, for instance, and it's fascinating to watch two characters argue when you can spin the cube and see the reactions and responses of two other characters hiding off-screen. All the films and evidence taken together are meant to tell a story: a rather convoluted one about theft and betrayal and people not being what they claim to be.

In structure this reminded me most of Le Reprobateur, a French multimedia artwork that allows the player/reader to explore the interlocking lives of a number of characters by reading vignettes and viewing images and videos. Le Reprobateur maps all of its snippets of story to the faces of a three-dimensional object, and each snippet is thematically related to those that appear on adjacent sides. Le Reprobateur is not exactly a game, but review copies were sent out to game reviewers, which suggests that the author had some idea of the potential crossover appeal.

It's not clear that The Barbarian Group conceived of HBO Imagine as a game at all. They should have. The thing they've put together is vastly glossier than Le Reprobateur or than many an indie game production. The video scenes are slick, well-directed, well shot, with the clarity and crispness we expect from a movie. On the other hand, its interactivity raises problems familiar to game designers: how to give the reader/player agency, how to offer adequate freedom, how to achieve coherence. This is where the HBO project falls down.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Mole's Eyes

November 6, 2009 12:00 PM |

Salome.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at "Fatale", Tale of Tales' take on Oscar Wilde's play Salome.]

Recently Tale of Tales (of "The Path" fame) released a new interactive piece called "Fatale", which explores the tale of Salome, the dancer who in compensation for her dancing requested (and got) the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

Like "The Path", "Fatale" is by turns frustrating and fascinating, with controls that vex and nervewrackingly slow pacing. It's infuriatingly easy to nose yourself into some corner of the playspace and have trouble backing out. (It doesn't help that I was playing on a Mac, so the work's built-in instructions to use, e.g., the middle mouse button were unhelpful.) On the other hand there is so much incidental beauty and horror that one almost doesn't mind.

The player's chief interactive task is, as in "The Path", to find objects of interest in the environment and then interact with them very trivially. There are lots of these objects, and some of them are tucked away in odd places, and moreover even if you know where they all are you can only handle them in a certain order.

This time Tale of Tales has included a readme, but it's a perplexing document, which both contains explicit instructions on how to interact and suggests that the player might want to skip reading them until after a first encounter with the work. Obediently, I gave the work a first try on my own, found it frustrating in many respects and awkward but just finishable; returned and read the document, only to find that there were shortcuts that would have decreased my frustration if I'd known of them.

The content is also mysterious. The Tale of Tales website presents this more or less as a gloss on Oscar Wilde's play Salome, or perhaps as an introduction to it -- something, at any rate, to help us understand the original. I found it to be just the opposite: "Fatale" was very hard to understand until I had read the text of the original play.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Red

October 22, 2009 12:00 PM |

Reds.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Tale of Tales' horror game The Path.]

A few weeks ago I wrote of Terry Cavanagh's Don't Look Back that the game works because it is hard. Because it is hard, some people only see the end on YouTube.

But the difficulty fit the story; and there are times when a game has to make demands on the player that will, necessarily, cut some people out of the audience.

Would The Path work if it weren't so slow?

This is the thing you run into, reading reviews of Tale of Tales' Red Riding Hood story. People love it, hate it, want to recommend it but aren't sure how; but descriptions of the piece (which arguably isn't a game) by and large agree that in gameplay terms, it has some problems, and the most serious of them is the agonizing pace. You have to explore the woods with one of six red riding hood avatars, but they are dawdlers, all of them.