Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on The Stanley Parable

A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.

The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.

A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?

The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.

Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.

The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.

The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.

Monday, October 7, 2013


My friend Robin's game Soundself went to Burning Man this year. It's an awesome project and a lot of people are astounded with it. The book full of well-wishers is real, and huge.

I helped build a third of the installation for a test run right before one of the Indiecade Annex parties. I'm in this video lumbering around somewhere. (I'm also in the beginning of the kickstarter video). I'm surprised I haven't posted about this game before actually.

The game is still a work in progress. Instead of a videogame, Robin is calling it a "videodream," a name I suggested after hearing his working term was "experiential non-game." His definition is fascinating. But before I say anything about genre, I want to talk about Soundself specifically.

I think Soundself can best be described as a kind of mirror. It listens to the player and reflects its algorithmic interpretation. The psychedelic kaleidoscopic visuals react dynamically to qualities in one's voice.

The dream is interesting for a few reasons. From one angle, Soundself feels like it's alive, communicating with you in a very intimate way. From another, it feels like a mirror, almost as if it's showing you a picture of your soul. It's a playful, relaxing, therapeutic experience at the moment. Having to sustain even the weakest note (especially in front of other people) and seeing the beauty that comes out of that sustained effort is a special experience. (Keep in mind I've only played it in public settings so my experience reflects that).

I think Robin is going for something a lot more profound than "therapeutic" though. Is it a mirror of the soul? Is it something alive, with something to say about life? Is it a tool for discovering greater truths? I'm excited to see what he comes up with. Apparently the visuals are completely revamped from when I played it.

Robin's game (dream) is part of a nascent genre. but oh snap I just got my iPhone, hold on.

The Cyberpunk Question

Cyberpunk has made a resurgence in recent years. Former tabletop games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are reincarnated as video games. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash seem to be getting movies soon. Ghost in the Shell has a new season. The last Deus Ex game was very popular. These hard-boiled cyber-crime works are gaining new relevance in a world not so different than the ones they depict.

The resurgence in Cyberpunk works begs a question. It's not a question about the resurgence, not really a "why now?" Instead, it's a "what now?" Cyberpunk has shown to be so prophetic that it's becoming a mirror for society, and it wants us to think about that.

The subreddit /r/Cyberpunk has about 34,000 subscribers. Since the content is not strictly moderated, submissions range from simple images to game trailers to news articles. These submissions represent a group negotiation of the meaning of cyberpunk. That meaning?

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic. It's cluttered, technological, dirty, omniscient and everywhere. It also carries a deep sense of paranoia and wrongness, from the conspiratorial moves of the AI in Neuromancer to the edge-of-reality busting in The Matrix. It's noir, run through the mill of globalization and corporatism. Secrets fight other secrets in silent technological wars.

A central theme on /r/Cyberpunk is "this is society today." The community treats the works of the older cyberpunk artists (Gibson, Stephenson, Masamune, Scott) as prophetic, pointing to the evidence in today's world. It's not a hard argument to make, as more and more aspects of our world take on those of a cyberpunk dystopia: the government monitors all communication, multinational corporations are incredibly powerful, technology is near-inseparable from everyday life, and the activities of hackers really do matter in the big picture. All the technology that make cyberpunk action sequences cool - HUDs, robots, cyborg augmentation, etc - is well in development, if not already in practical use.

When the comparison between that fiction and everyday life is so obvious, and the gap between the two is so small, one question keeps the gap from closing: what do we do now? I consider this the cyberpunk question.

That is, "what do we do now?" is the question cyberpunk asks us in 2013. We're on the train, pulling up to the station. Our stop is The Sprawl, a technological dystopia where mega-corporations make the rules and the lower classes use what technology they can to scrape up a living. Is this where we get off?

The word "punk" in cyberpunk usually confuses newcomers to the genre. Is it just a synonym for "cool?" Is it rebellious? It sounds like something you might want to be, a cyberpunk. It sounds better than "nerd" anyway. There are cyberpunk manifestos out there on the net, and apparently Timothy Leary started a group that called themselves cyberpunks (and eventually got involved with Billy Idol, who ruined it all). It seems to have always been a shaky thing to base an identity on. Users on /r/Cyberpunk who post about "cyberpunk fashion" tend to get slagged.

We can't easily identify as cyberpunk. But what about the cyberpunk question? What does the idea of "punk" mean to that?

Punk, in the abstract, is about doing things with disregard for any convention. Convention in the original context of punk usually meant rules, and rules usually meant authority. In the context of cyberpunk, authority is usually presented as conspiracy.

Protagonists in cyberpunk works are constantly finding out new truths and betrayals, some that bend reality. The anti-terrorist groups in Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell are physically near-invincible, so their main antagonists are mysterious and intangible (conspiracy and a baby AI respectively). In other works, like Gibson's novels, protagonists range from everyday hackers to veteran mercenaries. Their main antagonists are also mysterious, and usually not revealed until the end of the book.

Cyberpunk is largely about uncovering and resisting the mysterious forces that deign to use and control the everyday lives of regular people. It's usually a battle fought through different mediums, using technology to uncover and share information.

There are people fighting that fight today. The stories of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are stories of the now, not the future. Those two are being persecuted by the U.S. Government for revealing its secrets. Predictably, their stories as well as other stories about the NSA have made the /r/Cyberpunk page a few times.

The story of reddit itself is pretty cyberpunk. That there even exists a place on the net where people can share information so fluidly and in such large quantities is incredible. The site is a beacon for info junkies. It's also a staging ground for modern political activists, such as the Occupy movement, or the anti-PATRIOT ACT /r/RestoreTheFourth. In these sites, people gather to share and uncover the truth, to find the root of the problem and discuss what can be done about it. Those communities are communities of resistance, and they're framed by an architecture of free information.

The creators of reddit are the most cyberpunk of all. In today's world, hackers are the architects of society. Like in the digital world of Snow Crash, every structure on the net is hand-crafted by somebody slouched back covered in LED light. Reddit is a structure that is helping shape modern democratic dialogue. To endlessly quote McLuhan, "the medium is the message." If reddit is a message, I think that message is part of the answer to the cyberpunk question.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Two reviews, Fez, Space Graffiti

Yes, that's my name (minus one 'l') in the Fez credits. PC QA team! I can't honestly say I did too much - I logged the handful of bugs I found. But there it is, and this blog is mostly for bragging.

My tumblr has two new posts on it as of today. I wrote a couple game reviews. One is for Fez and one is for Gone Home. Both are excellent games that do very different things, and I highly recommend you read my reviews then follow their advice, which is to buy the games.

Finally, I'm back on the radio this fall. I'll be on 91.7fm KVRX Austin every Thursday night from 8-9pm. That's a veteran timeslot y'all! The show is called Graffiti in Space and it's freeform. I imagine I'll be playing 60's prog, 90's indie, noise and desert rock, some stoner metal, some psychedelic stuff, some hip-hop, trip-hop, blade-runner-soundtrack kind of stuff. So tune into that!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Found games: Which is better?

In our daily lives we play more games than we are aware. This mysterious playground is built from simple tasks, ways of dealing with people, and the inner games we play by ourselves.

Among metalheads, hardcore kids, and many other kinds of music or art aficionados, there exists a game I'm calling "Which is better?" It's about finding new ways to describe art to defend one's position. I'm going to describe it more in a second, but first I want to provide a temporary definition of what a game is.

A game has four parts:
1. A state. This is the score of any game, or whatever stands in for a score. The state in Mario is a simple binary: is the princess saved or not. The state in any specific Mario level consists of the score, the time, whether Mario is big or little, what power-ups he has, and whether he's alive or dead.

2. Rules. Rules, laws, or mechanics are the codified cause-and-effect relationships that change the state of a game. Programmers know them as "if-than" clauses. These determine how the game is played, and how elements inside of it react to each other. If Mario gets touched by an enemy, he shrinks or dies.

3. Player(s). A game without players is a simulation. Players interact with rules to change the state of the game. Their will shapes the game, as the rules reflect more or less uniquely how one plays.

4. Goal(s). In video games, goals have become less overwhelmingly important as experiments in free-roaming and avant-garde games have let players set their own goals. In conversations I've had about "what is a game?", the necessity of goals is usually a controversial point. However, I think if you look at most folk and board games, they're almost entirely goal-centered. So I'm including it here.

So, the "Which is better?" game.

The "Which is better?" game is usually played by fans devoted to a specific genre in a certain medium. Such fans: anime cartoon fans, extreme metal fans, FPS video game fans, etc.

A scenario: two long-haired working-class metalheads are downing beers at a bar complete with a jukebox revolving between Maiden and Cypress Hill. They get into a discussion about which of the big four thrash metal bands is best. Well Anthrax is out. But from there it could go anywhere.

Are we talking best as in career, or best as in most important to the genre? Metallica's certainly not the best anything now, save maybe best example of some horrible phenomenon. But you can't beat those first four albums (or was it three?).

Well screw Metallica, Slayer is SLAYER. Reign in Blood!!! South of Heaven!

But you can't count out Megadeth. "Peace Sells"? "Hangar 18"? Those are the obvious ones, but that spider chord on "Wake Up Dead?" Come on.

If they're regular dudes, they probably say whatever and get another beer. But if they're real geeks, as in music writers or superfans, the conversation just gets deeper. It becomes a dance of analysis, trivia, ego-defending and irony. That dance is the game.

Lars was a terrible drummer, but Cliff's bass, Hetfield's rhythm and Hammet's leads made up for it. Slayer was fast, but King's riffs were always the main draw. Slayer only had a couple classic albums though, while Metallica has four.

The fans pick apart every aspect of their group-identifying cultural texts, agnostic to the question of "which is better?" The answer isn't the point, the conversation is the point. The goal is elided so the players can keep playing and altering the state. And the state in this game, the score, is the most interesting part.

The score in the game of "Which is Better" is measured by the amount of new perspectives by which one can analyze a piece of culture. Those perspectives are built from language, and new terms with which one can describe.

A musician might talk about how Dave Lombardo, unlike Ulrich, has excellent rhythm, but use more precise wording than that. I'm not a musician. A music writer might talk about the extent to which hardcore punk influenced Anthrax and Slayer, and how that influence mixed with the metal influences in different ways. A lighting expert might be able to give some perspective on the complexity and gaudiness of the bands' live shows.

The winner is whoever walks away feeling like they learned something. Both players lose if they come to realize that there is no "best" of the four bands, all of which are good for different reasons, none of which will be discussed.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

New Tumblr

I created a new tumblr at Like this blog I will probably neglect it and update it infrequently.

It's where I'm going to start putting any of my writing about specific media: games, comics, movies, music, books, etc. I'll be writing mostly about stuff I like. The first post is about Bioshock Infinite, which I liked.

This blog (the one you're reading right now) will be about more abstract concepts, like game design, culture, and electronic communication. I'm planning on doing some actual journalism as well, which will probably end up here or wherever will take the stories.

Hi ho hi ho.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Oculus Rift and Receiver

Yesterday I went with a friend to a SXSW panel about the Oculus Rift, comprised of creator Palmer Lucky and legendary game designers Cliff Bleszinski and Chris Roberts.

One of my biggest takeaways (aside from "this thing is going to be really cool!") was that the Rift was going to necessitate changes in both game design and interfaces. Everybody on the panel at one point remarked how inadequate controllers and mouse/keyboard are for the immersive experience the Rift provides. While the panel was filled with speculation about various devices that could be used to enhance virtual reality ("omni-directional treadmills" were mentioned more than once), less was spoken of the kind of experiences users could expect. This lack of specifics isn't surprising given that the product is still in development, but the subject of game design for the Rift is the most interesting one for me.

One panelist mentioned that Bleszinski's classic Unreal Tournament (1999) is a poor fit for the Oculus Rift, primarily because the players simply move too fast. The Rift is designed for slower, more engaging experiences. Receiver (2012) is such an experience.

Receiver was a game created during a one-week game jam. As such, it feels more like a proof-of-concept project than a full game, though it isn't incomplete. Its most notable and exciting feature is the way it handles guns, which is different from nearly every FPS out there. Receiver simulates the mechanics of its three different guns, which means a few things: the gun isn't locked to a reticle fixed to the center of the screen, ammo can be manipulated down to individual bullets in magazine and cylinders, and the player must be aware of the hammer, chamber, and safety. Overall, it's a more involved experience than clicking a mouse button to shoot from the hip and pressing 'R' every once in a while to reload.

While the story and setting of Receiver is somewhat bland, the moment-to-moment experience (the plot) is quite exciting. Having to deal with the mechanics of the gun changes its role from a purely power-granting object to an occasional obstacle. Usually a game will give you a tool that you can manipulate the environment with, but this is the first time I've had to actually manipulate the tool. The dynamic here is more intimate than most game experiences.

There are two types of enemies in Receiver: stationary turrets and floating drones. Both will kill you within seconds of seeing you. Because the game has perma-death, the pressure to avoid being killed is high. A good player will walk cautiously through the game's hallways, listening for enemies. In these pauses between enemy encounters, the player must make sure their weapon is ready - magazine or cylinder full, a round in the chamber, safety off. This down-time is crucial, giving the player time to regroup and reload.

When shooting finally goes down, it's usually over pretty quickly. Either the player or the enemy will be shot and killed. It's almost as simple as that. There are other factors involved: who gets the drop on who? Who has the better shot? The winner of a shoot-out in this game is determined less by who has better aim and more by positioning and readiness. Because a single shot disables an enemy (as in real life), the action is over nearly immediately. These interactions are very exciting, and oftentimes frustrating (luckily, the ability to restart immediately makes the game addicting instead of annoying).

The sort of methodical gameplay that Receiver offers will be right at home in the Oculus Rift. The strength of the rift will lie in players "being" in an environment, taking everything in carefully. Receiver encourages - actually requires - just that sort of gameplay.

I think the Rift may actually improve the game. One of my biggest problems with it is the relationship between movement and gun-aiming. Receiver treats in-game aiming similarly to how the Wii treated FPS aiming. In both, there's an imaginary box in the middle of the screen in which the player can aim their weapon freely. If the player aims outside the box, the camera will move in the direction the player is aiming. Such a technique attempts to simulate the separation between hand and eye/head movement, but sacrifices speed of the latter.

The Oculus Rift may solve this problem with its head-tracking technology. Because the Rift tracks where your head is looking in 3D space, the camera in-game can move with it. This technology allows the player to control the movement of their body separately from the camera, potentially allowing keyboard/mouse to focus solely on weapon aiming while the Rift takes care of looking at stuff.

Receiver is going to be available to play with the Oculus Rift, so color me stoked.