Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"YAT" is a better genre name than "Immersive Sim"

This year, Dishonored brought the Looking Glass lineage back into the mainstream. Heavily influenced by Thief (1998) and Deus Ex (2000), Dishonored (2012) shares the qualities of those games that made them special: systems-based design, a comprehensive, immersive world, emergent play, and meaningful player choice. Next year, Bioshock: Infinite will presumably provide another solid entry into this vein of game. [Didn't happen]. On a much smaller scale, the Fullbright Company's Gone Home will attempt the same thing.

The name "immersive sim" has come to label these games. A cursory Google search reveals that the term, in this context, has been used since at least 2007, though it hasn't entered common parlance until somewhat recently. It's a name with solid roots - Looking Glass studios not only made Ultima Underworld (1992), System Shock (1994) and Thief (1998), but it also made plenty of actual simulations, including flight and driving sims.

I have a few problems with the name "immersive sim." A simulation, as it's usually thought of, is a model of a system that develops according to the rules of that system. The mechanisms of a car, airplane, or even the development of a city can be simulated and drawn out. However, when referring to a game like Dishonored or Gone Home, that definition doesn't hold up. What's being simulated? A unique situation. The name "immersive sim" when applied to these games asks us to imagine that each element in them acts according to consistent rules. When a game also tells a linear narrative, such a belief is impossible.

While Dishonored provides multiple narrative outcomes based on player decisions, the player will always encounter the same story beats each play-through: the empress is killed, Emily is kidnapped, Emily is saved, each assassination target is taken care of, etc. Such a linear narrative negates the idea of a full simulation. If all of Dishonored was really an immersive simulation, the player might be able to kill "the conspirators", or any of the main characters at any time, including Emily. The player might be able to team up with one of the assassination targets in their own bid for the throne. The player would be able to have a full conversation with any of the characters in the game. To get around this, the game uses the contrivance of the silent protagonist. Dunwall is a rich world filled with interesting characters and motives - yet none of them are truly interactive. The non-simulated system here is the motivation and agency of the each non-player-character in the story. This (reasonable) limitation is abstracted away through writing and two-dimensional characters.

Steve Gaynor is up front about Gone Home's pseudo-simulation: "'simulation' in our case is not a literal term. ...What it means is allowing the player to do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context, and ensuring that the gameworld reacts in the way you expect." The important part of Gone Home is that you are in the house, interacting with it according to consistent rules. That consistency is part of what makes the game immersive.

To take a momentary detour into psychology: Spatial Presence Theory is the theory that describes the nature of immersion in media. There's a pretty good breakdown of it at The Psychology of Video Games. Briefly summarizing, and I quote:
"1. Players form a representation in their minds of the space or world with which the game is presenting them. 
2. Players begin to favor the media-based space (I.e., the game world) as their point of reference for where they 'are' (or to put it in psychological gobblety-gook, their 'primary ego reference frame')." 
The author goes on to say that there are two groups of characteristics that make games immersive:
3. One group, which he calls "richness," includes environment, world, and sensory detail. 
4. The other group is more important to us right now, and includes in the game world "lack of incongruous visual cues, consistent behavior from things, an unbroken presentation" and "interactivity with items."
Those four requirements for immersion are the hallmark of Looking Glass games and those of the lineage. Most important to these games is the idea of "consistent behavior from things." Austin Grossman, a game designer and former Looking Glass employee, described the studio's design philosophy as having "a notion that immersive gameplay emerges from an object-rich world governed by high-quality, self-consistent simulation systems." These systems form the backbone of gameplay in the genre. Gone Home has a system that allows the player to pick up and turn objects over, looking at them from every angle. Dishonored (2012) is chock full of simulated, interactive systems, including plague rats, guards that walk around and can spot/attack you, explosive whale oil canisters, hackable machines that run on said canisters, and plenty more.

Simulating systems in a game allows it to be consistent and, therefore, immersive. A game that isn't consistent is any that uses internal objects in anomalous ways - such as in scripted or quicktime events. Dishonored (2012) and its ilk eschew such events in favor of emergent gameplay, which occurs through dynamics between systems. For example, the following scenario can happen organically in Dishonored:
Corvo sits in a roof overlooking a courtyard. At the opposite end is a "wall of light," a deadly barrier that only guards can pass through. Three guards stand in front of it, guarding the whale oil canister that powers it. Corvo teleports behind the guards, grabbing the whale oil canister (which turns off the wall of light) and throwing it at them. It explodes, killing the guards. Guards on the other side of the "wall" hear the noise and come running. A passing rat pack eats them all.
At least six different simulated systems are engaged to make that moment possible. Each system interacts dynamically with another to make an exciting, unique, "emergent" meaning. This game design falls neatly into the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics Framework, developed by former Looking Glass employee Marc Leblanc. The MDA Framework states that "mechanics give rise to dynamic system behavior, which in turn leads to particular aesthetic experiences." Basically: rules make up systems, and interacting systems create experiences.

While it may not be right to call these games simulations, or even "immersive sims," their immersion is a by-product of simulated systems within the games. "Immersive" and "simulation" are two concepts that these games revolve around from a design perspective - but is it the best thing to call them? As I said before, none of these games are simulations in and of themselves, but do simulate various systems internally.

Gone Home doesn't seem to have too many dynamic systems or emergent gameplay (it is too early for me to say for sure), yet adheres to the same design concepts that make games in this genre immersive. "Simulation" doesn't seem to apply here heavily. Remember, the important part about Gone Home is that "the player [can] do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context." That context happens to be an empty house, and the player actions consist largely of looking at stuff.

I think I have a better name for this genre, one that would encompass Gone Home, Dishonored (2012), Far Cry 2 (2008), System Shock 2 (1999) and the like: "YAT." It's an acronym, standing for "You Are There." I like it, but of course I like it, I made it up. But here's why:

  1. It gets to the point. "Immersive sim" is fairly self descriptive, but says nothing about the type of experience you'll be having. By contrast, "You Are There" implies immersion without the claim of simulation. When you play a YAT, you know you'll really feel like you're there. "Sim" in "immersive sim" is confusing.
  2. It replaces FPS or RPG. Games like System Shock 2 (1999) have long been alternately, awkwardly labeled "FPS," "RPG," or even "FPS-RPG." "YAT" is a separate acronym that distinguishes the genre from two of its influences.
  3. It's concise and catchy. "Immersive sim" is somewhat clinical.
  4. It speaks to the potential of the genre. Gone Home is trying something new by being non-violent. Seeing the term "you are there" in conjunction with Gone Home and the world of Dishonored makes one wonder "where else can I be?"
  5. It respects the legacy of the genre. In a 1994 interview with Doug Church, lead developer on System Shock, he used the phrase "you are there" twice, elaborating thusly: "We wanted to concentrate on making a really immersive 3-D world that you can interact with. The emphasis is on giving you a feeling of being there, in this rich, exciting, active environment you can work with."

    That sounds like a genre description to me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 is a fun game. It certainly isn't without its flaws, but when you play with a friend or two it's a good time.

My friend David Howe and I have been rolling through the wastes, fighting off insane psychopaths. Our weapons are scavenged from the dead, and often. Time after time we throw ourselves against bands of monsters and marauders, relentlessly surging forward, relentlessly shooting. Occasionally the carnage pauses and we find ourselves surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Then somebody screams in our ears and the bullets start flying again.

The core experience of this game, that which I've described above, is satisfying. It's 2012's version of Doom, with a friend along for the ride. See bad guys, shoot bad guys, simple as that. (Halo also has a strong influence on Borderlands 2, as evidenced by the warthog control scheme for vehicles, wide-open terrain, and floaty player jump.) Yet underneath the veneer of a classic twitch FPS, Borderlands 2's skeleton is that of an ARPG, a loot and leveling system that is too often an interruption.

At its best, Borderlands 2 is a bullet-fest that utilizes teamwork to get stuff done. At its worst, it's an inventory management game in which you compare lots of different numbers for lots of different guns. The phrase "Diablo with guns" orbits the hype of this series primarily because of the similar ARPG elements, though the comparison is flimsy when you compare the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Here are the things Diablo and Borderlands have in common:
  • Exploration
  • Character leveling and class-specific traits
  • Loot
We know where all that stuff bottoms out: the combat. The verbs you take in combat in these games could not be more different. In Diablo, a top-down game, the UI and RPG mechanics mediate all the action. You don't control your character so much as you tell it what to do and where to go. The skill and fun aren't found in the movement of the character, but in a dance of stats and effects and rolls. Borderlands, however, is a first person shooter.

Here are the verbs I find myself taking in combat in this game:
  • Aim, shoot, reload
  • Sprint (often to cover)
  • Throw grenade
  • Use class skill (throw down turret, activate hologram, suspend somebody in mid-air, go berserk)
  • Revive squad-mate  
Aside from the class skills (which I'll get to in a second), these verbs are standard fare in modern first person shooters. We know how they work and what to expect from them. For the most part Borderlands 2 meets these expectations, though every once in a while the game's ARPG mechanics supersede them. For example, unless you have a sniper rifle, head-shots are not usually one-hit kills. Where in Halo a head-shot bears a small explosion of purple goo (as grunt heads pop like rotten cherries), Borderlands 2 offers flashy non-diegetic numbers and "CRITICAL"s.

When I'm playing alone, or with somebody the same level as me, I hardly notice these things. Trying to play with somebody of a different level, however, highlights the game's insecurities.

Steam says I have six friends that play Borderlands 2. We all play the game for different amounts of time, some more than others. Because of the game's RPG mechanics, that time discrepancy means we're all at different levels (literal levels, with numbers, not abstract skill levels). As it turns out, the level you're on determines how much health the enemies have. Playing with friends of a higher level than you immediately turns every enemy into a bullet sponge. The floating damage numbers, so friendly before, begin to laugh at and spite you.

Loot provides only the illusion of depth in Borderlands 2. I honestly don't remember what the appeal of loot is in Diablo, but I know that here it's merely a nuisance. Guns have approximately six different stats that boil down to "how much damage per second does it do?" and "how often do I have to reload?" Unfortunately the facts aren't presented so concisely, and in-game action is punctuated by sometimes lengthy bouts of inventory management.

To me, loot seems to serve two basic functions. One: to randomize some aspects of your character progression. Two: to exploit consumerism in order to keep people interested. Roguelike games like Binding of Isaac and FTL: Faster Than Light utilize the first function well, while Diablo III dropped all pretense and attached money to in-game objects to fully utilize the second function. Loot in Borderlands 2 does neither of these things well. A steady stream of guns pass through your inventory, a hodge-podge of effects and stats, each as forgettable as the last. All I ever want to know is "does it shoot? Does it shoot a lot? Then we're good to go." It takes far too long to answer that question in this game, and the payoff for the time spent is hard to measure (or even see).

I heard once that RPGs are a way to get people who aren't good at video games to play them. They require very little of the reflex needed to play action games. If you die, the idea goes, just keep playing. You may not get better, but your character will. This idea is essentially true for Borderlands 2. Spawn points are located close to the action, so if you die you're never out of the battle for long (and the enemies don't reset). As long as you just keep shooting, the game will become easier and you'll eventually make it through.

Borderlands 2 lacks both depth and challenge. Despite that, the core experience can be satisfying. Sometimes, you just want to roll around in a jeep shooting monsters and bad guys with your friends. Pandora does more than enough to accommodate this wish, with beautiful open environments that I feel privileged to litter with bullets.

I feel it's important to mention the tone here, as it assaults you at every opportunity. The writing in this game is sophomoric, pandering, and cheesy. There are plenty of pop-culture references, which don't appear with any rhyme or reason aside from cheap humor. In keeping with the game's vulgar intertextuality, references to internet culture abound. Somewhere in Pandora there's a porta-potty adorned with a sign that says "no fapping."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Game Segmenting

Analogies and resemblances cannot be pursued too far - they lose conviction and charm. They begin to take on the air of machination or card-tricks.
-Sergei Eisenstein
In my Screen Theory class this semester I'm required to dissect a film over the course of a few months. The chosen film is Harakiri (1962). My first step was to segment the film into its different parts (a "segment" of film is a unit of plot). Each segment can be further dissected by plot, mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography, and sound. The analysis and comparison of segments in film can point to its mechanisms for creating meaning.

It makes me wonder if we can dissect games in a similar, comprehensive way. In movies, "plot" is thought of as everything that happens on screen, while "story" is everything that happens in the universe of the movie. The distinction is important, and also useful in games. Narrative games have story universes, but the plot of the game is everything the player does and has happen to them.

While film segments are units of plot ("Tsugomu meets with a member of the Iyi clan"), how can game segments be defined? Games already segment themselves into levels, so that may seem like an obvious choice. But when you think about how designers create maps for games, especially narrative ones, it makes more sense to segment games into rooms. Well: rooms, hallways, stretches of road between tunnels, tunnels themselves, any space that is separated from other spaces, usually by doors. Sometimes there are rooms within rooms. A room is a designed segment of gameplay, where mechanics are arranged so that certain outcomes may occur.

For example, when Samus steps into a room in Norfair, not only is she bringing all the mechanics she has with her, she's also interacting with all the mechanics present in the room. The designer anticipates what abilities Samus may have, and creates a scenario in which those abilities will be engaged in a certain way. Samus can jump high. Some platforms can break when you jump on them. When Samus jumps on a platform and it breaks, she'll need to use her high jump to escape the lava.

The elements in a room are comparable to mise-en-scene in movies. Mise-en-scene refers to everything in front of the camera in a shot: objects, actors, sets, the color, lighting, and configuration of each. Games also have these elements. One of the key difference between games and film in this area is that film decides how long to show you a scene, and from what angle, while games let you explore an area on your own terms. Not to say that rooms in games aren't, or cant be, similarly restricted. Plenty of games restrict you from seeing everything in a room without attaining certain powers or progress elsewhere.

To go back to the example of Samus jumping on and breaking the platform: this is a perfect example of a dynamic, or an interaction between mechanics. The two mechanics in this example are 1. Samus's ability to jump and 2. the platform's obligation to crumble. The dynamic created causes Samus to fall into the lava. Here there is another dynamic: Samus's aversion to lava, and her ability to jump. She will jump to avoid the lava, or die because of it. These dynamics evoke meaning and ideally an emotional reaction in the mind of the player: "oh no I'm falling" and "oh no I need to get out of this lava."

This process of meaning created through interacting mechanics is similar to Sergei Eisentein's theory of montage in film. His theory posited that the dynamic between two shots created a new meaning, independent of either one, in the mind of the viewer. In a famous and blatant example from the movie Strike (1925), striking factory workers are shot by the military while the film inter-cuts footage of cows being slaughtered. The meaning in this scene is clear and effective.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to compare Eisenstein's montage to Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics (MDA). I've been taught that shots are a basic unit of a film. Perhaps mechanics, or rules, are the basic units of a game. This comparison, however, may not hold up well today, as editing in most mainstream movies is meant to be invisible (and certainly not as on-the-nose as in Strike). I do think it is useful to separate game design (creation of rules and dynamics) from level design, as one would shots and editing. I'm not too sure about comparing rules and shots, but level design and editing specifically are the language of how the player/viewer experiences the world.

Of course, in both media the entertainee is shown only what the camera sees. Cinematography in film has its roots in photography, a separate art form. But in film the camera not only frames, but it pans, zooms, and sometimes rides on tracks. Games also have cameras. The camera in a game is the player's window into the world, and takes different perspectives for different experiences. First person games position the camera as the eyes of the player character, so that the player can easily fit into the role of a person in the game world, seeing everything a person would see. Third person games pull back to show the player character itself, and all the actions they take. A game like Resident Evil (2002) uses fixed camera angles to attempt to convey a more cinematic experience.

It could be said that the camera in games is more functional than artistic. Giving the player camera control, however, gives them the opportunity to frame their own shots, which gives them intrinsic meaning. Level design also controls a lot of what the player sees, and from what angle. In cinematography a high angle shot looks upwards at a subject, giving it power. In a game, the same effect can be achieved by forcing the player to be grounded in front of a towering object (or being). Such "forcing" is often the result of lack of movement choices for the player. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), Dear Esther (2012) and Dishonored (2012) all utilize level design to "frame" environments and subjects, with often stunning results.

A worthwhile comparison to film would be lacking without mention of sound. While level design sets much of the mood in a game, sound takes it the rest of the way. As in film, sound gives a game a sense of space and life. Sounds from off-screen signal something nearby. Bangs and booms give gunshots their heft. Music in games is also often dynamic, changing to fit the mood of the action as music fits the action in movies.

It occurs to me that there should be a "why" posed to this dissection. Though if you've read this far, I assume you have your own "why." Why is segmenting a game like this useful? Why go through the trouble?

Critical theory is my primary motivation here. Criticism of video games is in its infancy, especially compared to film. A big reason I took this screen theory class is so I could learn critical approaches to art. I think as you can loosely segment a film into plot points and then dissect those segments into plot, mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography, and sound, you can do similarly for games. Games (or really, a lot of narrative games) can be segmented into rooms with mechanics, mise-en-scene, level design (mechanical), camera, and sound. Just as "segments" in film are wishy-washy on boundaries, so are "rooms" in games. Being able to segment a game like this is an exercise in seeing its multidimensionality, and invites close analysis of all the game's elements and their dynamics.

I will do a game segmenting soon to see how it works. I'll post it here. I also just remembered that I completely forgot about UI, so I have failed in my quest to be comprehensive. I'll figure it out.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

For the Dead

I guess it's about time I updated this blog with details on my radio show. I do a brutal radio show on KVRX Austin, UT's student-run radio station.

My show is called FOR THE DEAD, and as of now it comes on every Tuesday (as in today) night at 11pm central as of 8/30, I'll be on the air every Thursday night from midnight until 1AM. You can listen to it at KVRX.ORG or on 91.7fm. Right now it's two hours long, but it'll be cut down to one when KVRX has more students in the fall.

For The Dead and Ruptured Signal aren't currently on Thursday Nights
 FOR THE DEAD, the name of which comes from an Autopsy song, is a meditation on brutality. While it started as a purely metal show, over time I have refined both its scope and my tastes. I'm not interested in genre so much as I am certain songs and styles of songwriting. I like downtuned guitars, blastbeats, fat riffs, d-beats, throaty screams, all sorts of noise, and concise songwriting. I can't rightly say this is either a punk or a metal show - it sits somewhere at the bottom of the chasm in between, taking in all the ugly misfits on the fringes of both.

I do focus on a few underground genres: death metal, grindcore, and power violence are easily the top three. Black metal often makes an appearance in its more raw and primitive forms. I play some noise rock as well. Last episode I had a half-hour stretch dedicated to songs influenced by early Swans.

It's important to me that everything you hear in FOR THE DEAD sounds immediate and overwhelming. Listening to the full hour (let alone two!) of my show is like running some insane gauntlet. That's the point. Yes, I will throw in an odd song to change the pace and keep people on their toes, but mostly you're listening to a straight hour of people pounding on things while screaming about things.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm not broadcasting any old noise. Every song you hear is hand-picked and high quality. I sift through a lot of music every week to find songs I know my listeners will enjoy, or at least find interesting. I play classics like Napalm Death and Incantation every once in a while as well. And I love taking requests, especially from people who get it. Call in! 512-495-5879 (KVRX).

If you like, you can see all my playlists here, on the kvrx website. If you're into social media, you can like the show on facebook here, or follow it on twitter.

In addition to my regular show, every once in a while I bring in guests to KVRX's Local Live. So far I've brought (in chronological order):

And there's a good chance War Master is going to play in August.

Descendants of Erdrick

I'll be on tonight at 11 playing the new Column of Heaven vinyl. Be stoked! Tune in. Tune in early if you like, the DJ before me has a great noise rock show.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Games and Value

With the start of every new game, the player is reborn. They accept a new reality paradigm, and take on the goals ascribed to them. They do this unquestioningly - else why play the game? The motivation is in reaping the rewards of action.

The player values the act of affecting anything. The game's response to the player, a disturbance in its realm, shows its character.

How can one find meaning in a video game? How can one find meaning in any piece of art, whether it be a book, movie or video game? And how can we judge these, and say one is better than the other?

A piece of art must be true to itself. We don't judge art based solely on what it says, but also how it says it.

In a game, a player finds value in seeing the consequences of their actions. A game must be consistent with these consequences.

But how can we find meaning in a video game? We may value the consequences of our actions, but what do we take away from them?

This may be a question that only the player can answer. But a good video game provokes the question, makes the player look for the answer. The player engages with the game, and its secrets (not all of them!) spill forth.