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.

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.

The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Speedrunner

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I am still not sure that I entirely understand the appeal of ‘sandbox’ games.

Sure, I understand the concept, a living breathing world which provides a digital playground. A digital domain that you can control. However it always seems to be the polar opposite. You are instructed to go here and do that, perhaps with a side mission thrown in, ‘ … if you want, don’t deliver the drugs, go see your prostitute girlfriend instead’. In most instances I am being presented with two choices, both of which I don’t actually want. I am being offered freedom, but it is limited, scripted and non specific. Each and every game takes no account of its audience.

When will we have to complete a questionnaire during the first level that identifies what actually interests me? The Myers Briggs of gaming. Would gamers want that. I’d suggest not. Imagine if GTA had asked you your interests and passions and then offered you an experience based on that data, or perhaps more interestingly if it had created a story line that tapped into your real fears, emotions and passions. Then the game would truly engage as it wouldn’t be simply giving everyone the same experience. At this point in time games are simply ‘choose you own adventure books’ with better pictures, sound effects and a bit of rumble. Essentially nothing has changed. Parameters still exist, outcomes are all the same, and in those games where your actions shape the world, there is little to notice as a gamer.

Consider Bioshock. Did the moral choice make any impact on you as a gamer?. The plight of the little sisters, could have been more poignant by giving the game the ability to psycho metrically target the player. In my case I have a young daughter, who I treasure. If the game had managed to evoke the same emotions I have when I think about her, then my heart and soul would have been poured into the game to protect the little sisters, a passion and compassion would have been injected into the experience that would have had infinite more impact than an armful of ADAM. Perhaps that’s at odds with a creative art-form that uses continual slaughter as a primary game mechanic.

The limitation of sandbox games is that they can’t be twisted, not truly manipulated,  not bent in the way that communities like those on TASVideos re-rub games. TAS centres around the video game dark art of Tool Assisted Speedrunning. John Teti can explain it more precisely than I can (his whole post is worth the read):

” While TAS authors use special techniques like software bots and memory-register searches to help them attack a game, all tool-assisted speedruns are made in the same basic way. The speedrunner loads a game into an emulator — a program that mimics a console like the NES — and then plays extremely slowly, advancing the action frame by frame. The emulator keeps a recording of the button presses, and whenever a mistake is made, the speedrunner just backs up the tape and tries again. That’s called a re-record, and making a TAS can easily require 50,000 or more re-records. The end product of the process — which can take years, from initial planning to execution — is a button-press file. That file, when played back at full speed, produces astounding gameplay that’s literally inhuman.” John Teti: As Fast as Impossible

Think about that. Think about the process of playing a game frame by frame, distilling the game to a super granular level of precision where glitches become wormholes through code, and for what? TAS advocates produce the video game equivalent of sampling or re-edit culture that has long existed in music. Is it the same as Machinima? No. Machinima is driven by narrative and a desire to create beauty. They have genres like action, comedy and drama. In comparison they are mainstream. The kind of content that would sit happily on Xbox LIVE.

Tool Assited Speedrunning is like death metal: dark, destructive and in-penetrable as a desire for most, but the more I see the more I understand. The reason why they do it? Simple: a search for perfection

“We attempt to perfect the games to a godly level of precision, which involves handling the game as if it were The Matrix ― observing every slightest detail to gain control over it in ways that the makers never imagined. We search for perfection. To reach that goal, using the features provided by an emulator is irrelevant, as long as the “world” – the game – is unmodified.” Taken from the TAS videos: Why and How

The point here is key: these games, whilst emulated, remain unmodified. They are not broken, they are remixed. But the language is telling, it’s a desire for perfection based on a need for control to god like levels, and there is the dilemma for game designers and players alike. With unlimited capability, how do you create a game mechanic. If it can be broken, how can it be played?. Sandbox games are nascent, the promise of the next gen under-delivered on the capacity to create a fully breathing world. Perhaps David Jones has it right again:

“The point (David) Jones really wanted to make about APB, though, is that the depth and detail of the game world is only possible due to the fact that it lives on a remote server. He talked about how games like GTA only fake a ‘living, breathing’ city – once the computer-controlled pedestrian or car turns a corner, they effectively disappear from your universe. But on the APB servers, they’re always there. The artifice is being stripped away.” Keith Stuart: Some amazing things I didn’t know about APB

Cloud computing therefore may be able to deliver on the emergent game promise in real time in a persistent world. So although capability can be enhanced by server based computing power this will never address the shortcomings of developers imagination or the outer limits of gamer desires.

As the adage goes: ‘you have to see it to believe it’.