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.

Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >

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 ...

How GameLine foreshadowed Xbox LIVE [by Twenty Years]

Meet the GameLine

In 1983, the prospect of downloads to consoles was unthinkable to many.

Bjorn  Borg had just retired from Tennis, the last episode of M*A*S*H had just aired and most importantly the NES launched. In hindsight it feels like the dark ages.  In 1983 GameLine appeared. GameLine looked like an oversized Atari 2600 cartridge, and was a dial-up modem that could download games to your console. In 1983 the Atari 2600 was six years old, only a  year earlier the ‘Darth Vader‘ iteration had come to market. For the record, this was a nickname.

"Xbox LIVE, I am your father!"

The prospect of downloading games at that point was effectively ‘science fiction’. The English nation was still wrestling with loading games onto the ZX Spectrum from cassette, downloading may as well have been alien technology, and effectively was. Alien tech it appeared was everywhere, as in 1979, Kane Kramer invented the first digital music player, in 1981 he filed his UK patent application. The early 80s was clearly tin foil hats and Mel Gibson all the way. However it wasn’t until 1996 that Audio Highway made the first commercially available MP3 player in 1996. Apple wouldn’t crash the party until 2001. Xbox LIVE wouldn’t be launched until 2002.

So why did it take so long from inception to marketplace success? In simplest terms the infrastructure simply wasn’t there, from a technological and cultural perspective. Dial up connections in 1983 were the preserve of scientists, nerds and maths teachers. The rudimentary wonders of the 2600 were enough visual shock and awe  for a generation. The high street was still king and the internet was ‘never going to take off’. GameLine typifies an inherently disruptive technology that would pave the way for those following it. The challenges GameLine faced are still evident for services like Onlive today, publishers were inherently suspicious of GameLine meaning that many top-tier game never appeared on the service, none of the key third parties at the time supported the service (such as Atari, Activision, Coleco, Mattel, and Parker Brothers).

GameLine went bust in 1983, but key members of the team became integral to the success of AOL. Whilst it didn’t have the connected gameplay features of LIVE, that honour would fall to the Dreamcast in 2001, it did introduce online leaderboards. Almost two decades later Xbox LIVE supported by a global corporation finally nailed the proposition and infrastructure. Relatively speaking, the global Xbox LIVE remains small (35 Million current members), but indicates that the experiments made thirty years ago were entirely on target. R.I.P GameLine.

 

 

I ♥ Alan Wake

L.A. Noire’s dick is like planet Earth right now, everybody’s on it.

Whilst playing it I was constantly reminded of Alan Wake. Alan Wake changed the way I viewed games and renewed a faith that games could (for perhaps the first time in three decades) be an art form, rather than an exploitative ooh-rah ‘Tin Can Alley’ on console. Alan Wake was critically well received, it settled at 83% on Metacritic (from 100 reviews), Alan Wake sold a little over 400,000 copies in EMEA, and a little over half a million in North America. Commercially, it was close to disastrous for a product that took five years to develop.

There is an Everything Must Go sale at the Alan Wake online store, prices have been slashed. It feels like a downbeat and deserted seaside town … the few tourists who used to visit have drifted away.

Time Magazine awarded Alan Wake the number 1 spot in their list of Videogames in 2010. Time’s list revealed a great deal about the state of games in 2010, as Angry Birds was Number 2. The juxtaposition of the sublime and the stunted, making the contrast all the more obvious. Alan Wake was a game, conceived half a decade before the casual T-Virus outbreak of iOS casual gaming, that transcended its period of development hell. The fact few games occupied the space in the interim illustrates the crisis in Western game development.

Alan Wake now finds itself reconciled to discount shelves and second-hand racks and the fate of the franchise hangs in the balance as Remedy haven’t (finally) confirmed publisher interest. In all honesty, Remedy should ask every Wake evangelist  for the money upfront and crowdsource the funding. I can wait another five years. It’s not an issue.

Fundamentally, Alan Wake and L.A Noire were cut from the same cloth. Only the context, setting and marketing are different. They both succeed as they are cast adrift in a sea of banality littered with detritus. Even their hackneyed tales feel fresh. Alan Wake works for a number of key reasons: the setting is familiar yet believable, the execution is capable and the tale being woven is compelling. But more than that, Wake feels much more than the three-dimensional digital marionette than he is. He doesn’t feel like a ‘real’ character, but he HAS character. Cole Phelps is the same. I’m not fooled into thinking they are ‘real’, but the fiction that surrounds them is enough to pull me with them, as the scripted events unfold. This is critical, as only they can you control them with the compassion that makes it engaging.

Wake and Phelps are both falling apart, through the errors and misjudgments of being human, and more especially being a man. Their self-serving desires and weaknesses provide  their undoing,  they move towards redemption with humility and an evaporation of their previous hubris. It’s character progression … without skilling up, getting XP or a bigger gun. A novelty in gaming,  accepted (and expected) in film and books.

When L.A Noire launched lackadaisical critics espoused how it represented a move toward cinematic gameplay experiences due to the facial animation. Although impressive, that’s just a light show, pandering to marketers who need a USP for their back of pack.

Gaming is a HD experience, that ordinarily eschews any widescreen sense of identity, place or passion.

As such its hollow. For a multi billion dollar industry it’s currently walking in the dead men’s shows of interactive entertainment. Alan Wake and L.A Noire and stark examples of the relative success (low and high) of an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. Wake’s fragility makes him the most compelling video game character of the past decade and an immediate favourite of awkward male cosplayers globally. I put myself firmly in that camp. I ♥  Alan Wake.

F**k Your Reboot Strategy

So, the story goes like this … An idea gives birth to creation. Simple huh?

If we consider a debut album, the artist learns to play the instrument, writes and records the songs. The output is wholly indicative of talent contained within the individual or group, often shaped and refined by the sound engineer and producer. The fact that debut albums define careers is not accidental,  born of years of deliberation and preparation. Musical catharsis. The problem is that the vivacity and ebullience of the debut are impossible to recreate.

The ‘difficult second album’ crushes bands and ends contracts, those with enough ideas to muddle through are usually the ones who have careers with longevity. This results in bloated albums that are  experimental and often irrelevant. Everything the debut wasnt.  More ideas than necessary layered in.

The bands who overcome this are not immune to another pernicious virus. The reboot. Dress it up as a ‘return to roots’, return to ‘the glory days’, whatever. This reaction is directly related to a loss of direction, or lack of sales. Video Games make the same mistake.

Committees execute and conceive AAA Video Games. Inevitably, marketing and sales exert an influence. Looking for ‘a story’,a way to sell, devoid from artistic merit, driven by business plans and targets. For them, the reboot represents a chance to achieve a bonus at the end of the year. For the gamer, it reinforces the belief that Video Gaming is racing down a cul-de-sac dictated by iterative sequels, FPS monotony and the same old faces. Reboots afflicted the following franchises In 2010: Need For Speed, NBA Jam, Splatterhouse, Medal of Honor, Goldeneye, Castlevania. They failed and succeeded with equal measure. 2011 will reboot Mortal Kombat, Twisted Metal, Tomb Raider and Driver. E3 will inevitably spew forth a further slew of prologues and epilogues.

Reboots should render the previous iteration invalid, refreshing the premise and offer a new insight. In actuality, it’s a new line in the sales notes and new imagery on the back of pack. P&Ls and the ‘Curse of IP‘ drive the necessity for reboots’. Video Games are an industry that often stifles creative imagination over the endless rehashing of the past (and rapidly fading glories).

‘The Shock Of The New’ drives the best musical innovation forward. Delivering to an audience clamouring for innovation and fresh voices. Video Gamers want exactly the same, mainstream developers and publishers aren’t listening to them, instead revisiting the same trench where innovation is irrelevant and endless sequels make retail feel like it’s a safe bet.

The reboot, has two parts. The turn off and the turn on. I suggest we leave it turned off.