The Art of the Pure Video Game

Pac-Man Forever

Somewhere along the way Video Games started to miss the point. They veered away from the ‘true north’ of Video Gaming and became entrenched in a AAA Focus Tested mire. Dripping in consensus and banality. Driven by commercial viability and green-lit by passionless executive teams who haven’t played a game for 20 years. The suits decide which games you play. The suits don’t know about games, that much is clear.

The process, and associated costs, have led to feature creep, a need for iterative improvement, an endless pursuit of the ‘majority’. Most games have lost the essence of the game itself , and are little more that excessive semi-disguised corridors punctuated by fetch quests for non engaging NPCs. As games got bigger they have become less game-like and more cinematic/epic/engaging. All of these are simply band-aids over broken and tired game mechanics dressed up to pull in the audience. The publishers are pushing for a point of difference, and the developers are beholding to the whims of the committee.

Lost is the purity of the game-play experience, the game itself. It’s fading. The best games are built upon a core game mechanic, that can withstand innumerable replays. In fact these games get better the more you play them. The examples are countless: Trials Evolution, Pac Man Championship Edition DX and Minecraft are all textbook examples of games built around a single core premise. This premise is fun, logical, easy to learn and mastery elevates the game to new heights. These are the games built around core ‘arcade’ mechanics, that effectively tap into a compulsion loop to play one more time. The financial barrier to entry of the arcade has evaporated, meaning that restarts are free, potentially rendering the experience worthless. Not so, ‘pure’ video games drive a compulsion within the boundaries of the game paradigm. Minecraft’s mechanics and game world, present a world free of restriction, yet underpinned by simple core mechanics. This framework provides a playground for the gamer, leading to creations of immeasurable brilliance and scope.

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

The accolades for these games lie at the feet of the game designer and engineers, whose single-minded determination have created game experiences at once shallow, but with endless depths for those willing to endure with them. Trials Evolution has a brutal punitive game mechanic at its core that chastises and repeatedly bests those prepared to invest time to understand the underlying game logic.

In these cases, the game mechanic is clear. The shortcomings and failures are always attributable to the player. Never was the adage ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, more true. These games don’t need to hide behind smoke and mirrors, marketing, USPs and Bullshots. Their intentions are perfectly apparent, driven by inherent purity. The issue therefore, is, can a game concept actually sell games in 2013? Maybe you should ask Notch that question.

Skyrim: A Digital Arcadia?

99% of Game Worlds are cookie cutter. Built quickly and cheaply like Sitcom sets, window dressing to surround rehashed character models. It simply serves to fill the screen and provide a backdrop for fake up-rezzed screenshots. Gaming icons are always characters. Mario, Lara, Sonic, all of whom are entirely one-dimensional. It used to be the case that Rockstar were the only ones who could create truly engaging Game Worlds shot through with personality. L.A Noire however, felt wooden and the real star of that game was the facial animation, the irony that the setting was a city of fake locations is not lost on me. Even when the setting is close to being deceptive (namely: engaging enough to draw the location into the narrative as much as the characters) it will never be perfect. Draw distances, environmental effects and texture loading will always shatter the fourth wall.

So the question is: What can push a game world to be compelling AND convincing?

The addition of the populace often serves to further shatter the illusion. There are never enough NPCs to make a street feel truly crowded, their behaviour isn’t natural and their presence underlines the deceit of the scene. Assassin’s Creed is beautiful, atmospheric and well populated but still obviously shallow. A forgery of reality.  As a player there will always be a willing suspension of disbelief, but when you turn off the host, the game dies. In Assassin’s Creed there is a sense the scene simply pauses, the Animus narrative provides a believable context. The Player can switch the scene off as easily as Desmond can.

Skyrim is wholly different. It breathes. It lives. It haunts when you are away. It has a Game World driven by ambition, a bravery illustrated by a dev team with no fear of depth and scope. Memories of Skyrim are augmented by the brain ‘filling in’, Skyrim acts like an optical illusion, where the failings and missing details are sketched in by the brain, leaving recollections of time in Skyrim closer to memories of actual events than engagement with a virtual world. Skyrim is both compulsive and deceptive. Rachmandram & Rachmandram noted in 2005:

Filling in is probably a manifestation of what we call surface interpolation, an ability that has evolved to compute representations of continuous surfaces and contours that occur in the natural world–even ones that are sometimes partly occluded (for example, a cat seen behind a picket fence looks like one whole cat, not like a cat sliced up).

Skyrim continuously plays tricks on us, where clipped character models, collapsing textures and falling mammoths, are all obliterated from the memory on recollection. The ‘filling in’ continues long after Skyrim has been left. Skyrim stimulates a continual suspension of disbelief, that prompts feelings of loss when away from the game. In game it fuels a wanderlust like no other.

The setting frames the adversaries of the dragons perfectly, and places them in a believable context that underlines their presence and menace. Skyrim evokes sensations first, a feeling of cold at the Throat of the World or a feeling of weariness when travelling from town to town. It evokes physical sensations, that as a player is almost impossible to reconcile. The one-two punch is complete as it delivers Emotion second, a moment of fearful terror at a Dragons arrival that elicits a response to  flee. These are ‘moments’, not gameplay experience.

Skyrim creates a landscape filled with danger, challenge and malevolence. Never before has isolation felt so comforting.

First the cold, then the fear ...

The People vs. Saints Row: The Third

The Schlock and Awe of Saints Row: The Third

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Saints Row: The Third is a chaotic mess.

Fuelled by bad jokes, misogyny, clichés,  and puerile humour. The game is fugly, with character models that look like a 360 launch title, pop-up at every stage, clipping, characters getting stuck in walls, frequent game-breaking crashes. It’s almost as if the game never made it through THQ quality assurance. It’s hard to gauge what the dev team were thinking …

Who is the target audience? We can only presume its adolescent Middle American kids amped up on Mountain Dew.

Its schlock and horror all the way. Surely the Dev Team (all of whom are grown men) are ashamed of themselves? Saints Row: The Third is a symptom of a global entertainment industry that has spent three decades emptying the pockets of men aged 18-35. Never before has an industry pursued a section of the core demographic with such vampiric zeal. Its proven very lucrative, resulting in a multi billion dollar honey pot.

Saints Row: The Third is the epitome of Give The People What They Want™.  Henry Louis Mencken called it in the line “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” (The Chicago Tribune , September 19, 1926)  Switch American for Western, and its equally valid.

As an Intelligent Gamer™ its hard to reconcile finding pleasure in a cookie cutter open world, that steals from GTA and Crackdown so shamelessly. The GTA comparison is lazy and hackneyed, Saints Row: The Third is a bombastic theft of Crackdown’s pace and core mechanics augmented with gaudy outfits and dildos.

This is the game that asks you to attack an Airliner, fall out the back in a tank, engage in a mid-air tank battle, crash land in a chemical plant thereby releasing toxic fumes which results in the inevitable Zombie infestation. A call to Mayors office results in being asked to wipe out the infected by Burt Reynolds, Burt-fucking-Reynolds. Wait a minute. Did this game just become genius?

Burt-fucking-Reynolds

This is the game, that in the mission ‘http://deckers.die’ pitches the protagonist as a hopping toilet in a game world ripped from Tron, flipping to text adventure, a pastiche of the tank battle from the Atari 2600 game ‘Combat’, punctuated by a fake error screen and a final battle that evokes Japanese mecha titles. In a single mission Volition has created a knowing intelligent polished collage of video game culture, supremely playable and exceptionally clever. It’s at this point if you wonder if there were two competing Dev. teams. Are they really the same team who created the Gimp Pony race segment?

Saints Row: The Third is a video game made for the Daily Mail, to demonize, deride and promote. It’s a game aimed at the increasingly entrenched core gamer (most likely in his room at his moms house), it’s the reaction to the earnest nature of Rockstar’s output, an attempt to recreate WarioWare for the post pubescent. It’s a game made by a schizophrenic dev team who were so keen to shock that they diluted the core pillars of the game to a frameless shopping list in a hollow game world without life or verve. Saints Row: The Third is also a highly accomplished third person shooter, with robust key mechanics, responsive vehicle controls and some astonishing set pieces, sadly populated by characters who are loveless and unsympathetic. Its morality is highly questionable, and in places unnecessary.

Volition cast their net of references so wide, with  a hope of hitting the buttons of the target, they frequently miss the mark. On rare occasions they nail it. They would do well to focus on these moments. Alcoholics call them ‘moments of clarity’. Volition have the potential to make an exceptional Saints Row, underpinned by intelligence and surreal humour, the puerile media baiting tactics are holding them back. Only then can the franchise step out of the shadows of its peers.

If Volition follow the current path, it’s simply a race to the bottom

Plus vs. Minus: Why Game Creators and their Audience HAVE to Change

Which are you?

In 2011 the web has stratified into two groups. Let’s call them the pluses and minuses.

In the simplest terms pluses are the ones who contribute, who add value, who share their voice and the intelligence they are gifted with. The best example I can think of are TED lectures. An egalitarian way to spread knowledge, incredible insight gained over years often decades shared for the common good. Then there are the minuses, the trolls, the off topic forum posters, the racists on YouTube comments, those who lurk and collect information for personal gain. These are the people using the web in a 1.0 way. They take , they don’t add value. The internet has given birth to magpies, who steal,  repeat and ride the coat tails of others. It’s also given birth to intellectual philanthropists. Typified by the actions of Tim Berners Lee.

Children are taught to share,  as we get older that we amass knowledge based on desire for power, supremacy and the upper hand.

This translates directly into game creation,  game players, and gaming habits.

Some games provide an architecture to deride, bully, hate and destroy. Grenade spam, Camping, Spawn Killing and Wall Glitching typify the desire for an unfair advantage. These games are minuses, as are their audiences. One note murder simulators for the masses.

Other games provide an intellectual frame, a platform or a way to add value, to push forward the medium of video games. These are the games created with intelligence and joy as the main drivers, not commerce. These games are not limited to shareware, XBLIG or Game Jams, it’s not about selflessness, it’s about spark. Minecraft is a plus, as is Notch himself. And Notch is at the Three Million sales mark. It’s not about a digital ivory tower and starving artists. Every publisher, content creator and platform holder has the ability to be a plus. Their variance from this norm is the litmus test. Contribution is key. If you don’t contribute, you’re invisible. You’re a minus. History remembers the Pluses. It derides the Minuses.

Will Games Kill Google+?

Google+

Watching Google+ grow is like watching the faltering steps of a young child, albeit a billion dollar funded child who’s been amped and tuned for 12 months before taking the first steps. Its clear G+ is currently a haven for nerds, geeks, ex-hipsters and creative people super charging a new social idiom. It’s exciting. In three weeks I’ve encountered more interesting people, learnt more and seen more amazing things that I ever did on Facebook. People on G+ are ebullient, throwing around animated GIFs like they are candy at Carnival, there’s a playfulness on G+

However, there are no games. Yet.

In recent days a trend has emerged for polls based on simple options. Baby Steps. Over the coming weeks the collective mass imagination is surely capable of something spectacular. Rumours abound about the evolution of Google+ as a games platform,  the news being greeted with trepidation more than excitement. Seems G+ users aren’t ready to unpack the virtual spades and start virtual farming just yet. The 600 million drones on Facebook, seem less discerning that the 23 million on G+. Facebook = Hive Mind. When the news broke a couple of days ago my stream  flooded with Digital Refuseniks, repelling the idea as if they were the barbarians at the gate. I can see why.

Facebook gaming went from novelty to blight overnight whilst creating social gaming supernovas. Typified by one note gaming experiences that defined and confined their audiences.

Stolen ideas and archaic RPG grind mechanics underpinned an insidious micro-payment model, that gave birth to new kinds of language and metrics. For traditional publishers the lunatics had taken over the asylum, they were broadsided.

It’s common knowledge that Google invested $100 Million in Zynga. Zynga are a creative locust laying bare the ideas and imagination of 30 years of game design that came before them, dumbed down ultra-tutorialised games are more concerned with effective on boarding than rewarding or engaging the player, beyond virtual crop harvests or meaningless virtual currency. It’s a third-rate gaming experience. If you think, I’m being sniffy. Hell yeah. I’ve spent three-quarters of my life watching games start to fulfill their potential. Zynga razes that notion to the ground.

The giants of the social gaming world are circling G+, enticed by lower revenue shares and another channel to augment Facebook. The Chrome App store hints at whats to come, despite being an underperforming vanguard of creative apps for many months, its starting to show worrying signs of future direction:

Angry Birds is the First Horseman of the Gaming Apocalypse and has north of 1 million users on Chrome. Banality infecting another host. The video gaming equivalent of ‘Outbreak’ (minus Dustin Hoffman)

G+ has the chance to revolutionise social gaming and rescue it from a disastrous gestation period on Facebook. G+ has the potential to deliver meaningful, intelligent and profound social gaming experiences powered by limitless community imagination. Imagine G+ introducing experiences comparable to Heavy Rain. Imagine G+ games powered by imagination not commerce. Imagine if G+ could resist the temptation to pollute and dilute under the auspice of ‘entertainment’. I fear not.

The locusts are coming. It’s time to weather the storm.