Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Post Archive

Why have video games become such a phenomenon?
Creating a game that matters
Playing Games Simply for the experience: Do you treat your games like employees?
Enjoying The Fear

Enjoying The Fear

Don’t you hate it when a game that you found particularly scary is dismissed as being totally “not scary” by someone else? I find that to be irritating, but truth be known, I’m probably guilty of doing that myself; dismissing someone else’s opinion. But no longer! If you listen to enough opinions on the subject, you’ll find that there tends to be a great deal of disagreement on what is truly scary in games. I’ll say that Game XXX scared me senseless, and inevitably someone will chime in and say, “um no, that game wasn’t scary at all. I’ll tell you what game was scary.”

In the early part of 2010, I played through two games in the horror genre: Dead Space and Silent Hill Homecoming. Not only did I play them in the same year. I also played them back-to-back, one right after the other. First Dead Space, then Silent Hill. I found that both were good games, but I also found that playing through each one gave me a totally different experience. They were two greatly different takes on horror. And perhaps part of that had to do with the different territories they were developed in. The gaming experience in Dead Space was intense, and in-your-face. It was a loud, WAY over-the-top, and very straightforward type of game; a game that, I suppose, would be very attractive to a western audience. Silent Hill, by contrast, was much quieter, much more still, and I found, much more oppressive. “Silent” is in the very title of the game afterall. And after playing it, I can see why that is appropriate. While Silent Hill, it seems, seeks to gently smother you, Dead Space’s goal was more akin to a clobber over the head.

A short disclaimer: 90% of the time when I’m playing a game, I’m alone, in a dark room, and it’s the dead of night. And this is irrespective of weather or not such a setting adds to the atmosphere of the game. In the case of both of these games, it added a lot.

The reception to SH Homecoming was very lukewarm. I read many criticisms saying that nothing new was really being brought to the series with this game. But luckily for me, this was actually the first Silent Hill game I’ve ever played. For years, I have been playing Resident Evil, but this was my first experience with its primary rival. So it was all new to me. It was a fresh experience. But, I often found myself wondering, “why am I playing this?”

Playing Homecoming made me feel like I was in some type of dark, nightmare abyss. It was truly a testament to the notion that we are not always looking to have fun in our gaming experiences. This game was NOT fun at all, even though it was well constructed. Saying that it was not fun does not in any way mean that I thought it was a bad game. In fact, I think I experienced exactly what the developer wanted me to experience; or at least almost what the developer wanted me to experience. I wasn’t overly scared. And it definitely wasn’t the thrill-ride that Dead Space was. No, this experience was more heavy… menacing… draining. I wouldn’t call the feeling dread, but I would say it was something very much akin to dread. And again, I was often conflicted as to why I was making myself endure this mostly negative experience. I’ve played enough dark games to know that I can get through them. So, in that respect, I felt no need to prove my courage. But despite this feeling that was akin to dread, there definitely was a certain beauty that I experienced. 2 types of beauty: 1, it is a visually impressive game- something that screenshots and videos on the internet do not properly convey. But there was something else; another kind of beauty. There was beauty in the fact that I was being given such a unique experience. That sounds hokey, I know, but I do think it is valid. This game enabled me to, in a safe setting, experience emotions that I don’t typically feel, even if those emotions were negative. And it was a unique kind of negative; not how I’ve typically felt while playing other games that were focused on horror. Perhaps it was simply the masochist in me that wanted to persevere. How else could I have come away from this game, that was not fun, and was very draining, and still say that, yes, I think it is a good game?

Dead Space was a totally different beast. It was like a romp through an incredibly cool fun house. The demo scared me (a lot). But the actual game only scared me for about an hour or so. But this did not matter in the end. I found the Dead Space experience was something much more akin to fun. Is that what the developers intended? I don’t know. I could only make assumptions. But when it came to attempted scares, I’d say that there were simply too many of them. Too often did I expect something to jump out at me. And too often was I correct in that assumption. Or, in other words, I became too familiar with the enemies and their tactics. And, in the end, there was simply too much action for me to get scared. Given this, Dead Space was more of a thriller, not so much a horror. It was like an attraction at a theme park. There was always seemed to be some sort of insanity going on around me. Yes, these bursts of insanity were punctuated by periods of quiet. But it was a different kind of quiet than the quiet of Silent Hill. The quiet of Dead Space was more like a valley in opposition to a peak. In other words, non-stop action would have totally ruined the point of the game. Silent Hill’s quiet, on the other hand, was more than simply an opposing force. It seemed to be just the games natural expression. Like there was no other way it could be.

Writing about these games makes me think about what possesses us to subject ourselves to these types of experiences. These experiences that are often uncomfortable, and are often definitely not fun. Maybe it’s simply a modern day right-of-passage. We no longer live in the bush. There are no longer lions or crocodiles in the backyard that we can wrestle and subdue, thereby declaring our courage, our dominion over nature. Maybe monster filled video games are the best things we’ve got now. And even if there were lions in the backyard, haven’t we become too soft to even attempt to wrestle them? Or maybe we’ve outgrown the need to triumph over nature. Maybe we’re no longer interested in declaring our physical prowess. But now more interested in declaring our mental fortitude. Afterall, playing a horror game, you are assured that you will not be physically scarred. But there is a possibility that your mind may be scarred. And we are intrigued by that possibility. A physical injury is immediately noticed, and it is taken seriously. Mental injury tends to not be taken so seriously. There is no scar to see. And besides, the screen is always there to protect you. The monsters can’t come through the screen. But what if they could? Or maybe the better question is, what happens when they can? When we have the technology to move the monsters out of the screen and into 3d space? And how far will we take this concept? Will we once again create a right-of-passage that holds the potential of physical injury?


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why have video games become such a phenomenon? (Creating a Game that Matters pt 2)

Play is natural to us. Consequently, games are natural to us. A game can be seen as a construct that allows us to play in very specific ways. So a game offers you “structured play”, so to speak. In the game there are rules- specific things that can and can’t be done. And in the game there is always a direction. There is ultimately always something that the game is moving you towards; something the game is always pointing to.

In these times, we have created many complex games. Our games have become so complex that they have, in fact, become worlds unto themselves. You can’t say that a game of tag is a world unto itself. Neither can this be said of chess, or checkers, or any other board game. I mean sure, you can create a world out of your imagination. You can imagine your troops storming into the territory of the opposing forces, attempting to capture (or kill) the king. But that would simply be your imagination, and your choice. If that kind of thing doesn’t interest you, it’s certainly not required. It’s certainly not forced upon you. But now, things have changed. Now the most dominant form of game involves created worlds. And now the created world has become the whole point; no longer simply a possibility or a choice.

A game can be seen as an optional world; an alternative to the world in which we are forced to live. Could the rise in the popularity of games have to do with an increased dissatisfaction with the world as it is? If we lived in a utopia, an absolutely perfect world, would we want to escape into alternate worlds? I don’t know, maybe we would. Maybe in a perfect world we would get bored and just simply need to experience something different every once in awhile. But if this hypothetical world were truly perfect, wouldn’t it be impossible for us to be bored?... Ok so lets adjust the question. If we lived in a world that was so perfect that even boredom wasn’t a possibility, would games still be desired?... I'll let the reader come-up with their own answer =).

Currently there are 2 things that most significantly separate the game world from the real world. One, we are separated from the game world by a screen. Unlike the real world, the game world does not surround us. We can’t move our physical bodies through the game world. And two, even if we were able to move through the game world, we would not be able to feel anything. If an enemy hits you, would you feel actual pain? Would you want to? Of course, most people wouldn’t, but I do think most people would want to feel some type of tactile sensation(s) if they could move through a virtual world. I think most would want to be able to touch a tree, or move a piece of furniture, or shake someone’s hand, and actually feel those sensations through their body. Problem is, the majority of games are really violent, and again, I assume most gamers wouldn’t want to experience intense pain as they're playing their games. So what to do? Allow only agreeable sensations? Allow only non-violent games to have sensations?

But there is a greater point to be considered. Aren’t we already living in the ultimate game? And as we create these artificial worlds, can it not be assumed that, one day, when we have become skilled and masterful enough, we will create a world in which everyone of us can actually live; a world in which we can move though, touch, taste, smell…feel pain; everything that can be experienced in this world already? The difference being that it would be a world that we have consciously chosen; not a world that has simply been given to us. So is that the real reason games are so popular? Because what we ultimately want is a world that we have chosen, and not a world that has been forced upon us?

So maybe the games we have now can be seen as early attempts at creating an actual world of our own making. Right now, we are as children, playing with these possibilities. Right now we like to play “bang bang, you’re dead”, and we like to ruffhouse and get into trouble. But we are just figuring things out. We are figuring out what we can do, and how we can do it.

As I see it, the rise of video games is an indicator that we are moving into a less physical, more mental world. A world that is more liquid, and not as static as the one that we have become accustomed to. It will be a world that we choose, and not one that we are simply slaves of. But how will the slaves handle their new found freedom? Once we move out of slavery, we will have lost our collective identities. And I am sure that there are many who would actually prefer to be slaves. There are those who would not know any other way to be. And there are those who, given total freedom, would no doubt destroy themselves. So, in our future there will be a great division. A choice as an individual will need to be made. Do I remain as I always have been? Or am I ready to take on a new identity? You can see it in the world now. Everything is dividing; everything is separating. People are taking sides. Either they want to cling to the old, or they are ready for something completely different. Either they want the structures to remain the same or they are ready for the structures to crumble.

Honestly I don’t think the path to greater freedom can be stopped. It has been repressed, but it cannot be stopped. And I don’t think any action needs to be taken to destroy any opposing forces. The natural course of things will sort it all out. Those who cannot handle rapid change will simply self-destruct. So there is a great fear there. And perhaps this is why video games are so often vilified and looked down upon. There are those who do not want people to have greater freedom, or to have the ability to choose the world that they live in. They do not want this because they know it will not be good for them. Their identities will be lost, and they will lose power over others. This must be very frightening to them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Creating a game that matters

So does it really matter? Does a game have to be significant? Does it have to have meaning? Should it have some kind of worth that extends beyond simply an entertaining distraction? Well, of course it doesn’t have to. We all know that. But is that what the gaming industry should be moving towards? More meaningful games?

This post is not intended to be an industry bash, and I don’t want to condemn the many shortcomings of today’s most popular games. I think that would be too easy, and I tend to be fairly open-minded about what games are trying to accomplish. If a particular game is not for me, that’s fine. I don’t automatically consider it bad just because it’s not for me. And actually, I have enjoyed many flashy, senseless games over the years; and I still do. I love Devil May Cry- a game that is the epitome of flashy and senseless. =)

Ultimately, my interest is more about balance, and not about choosing sides. So why is the gaming industry so imbalanced, with flash far overshadowing substance? Well ok, we’ll start with the obvious. The development of games is primarily a business. Businesses need to entice consumers with a product, and they need to entice as many consumers as possible in order to make as much profit as possible. In order to accomplish that, businesses are very apt to exploit the compulsions of their customers (compulsions, being tendencies that are, by-and-large, out of your control). Sounds bad when it’s spelled-out like that, but it is the nature of the beast. So, there it is; in order to make the most money, you need to be the best at targeting the shared compulsions of the most people possible. Now lets focus on the biggest sellers in the industry... What are these games providing their customers? There must be a need that these products are fulfilling within the people who buy them.

The biggest need that is being fulfilled, as I see it, is the need for power. The biggest sellers overall are those games that offer the player a sense of power and control. Why are attaining these things compulsions? Well simply because they are lacking in real life. Really, in real life, we are slaves to the system. Don’t like the system, well too bad, you don’t have any other options. So it’s either conform or be marginalized. But the conformity amounts to slavery. In these times, more and more people are realizing this. But what can be done? Your typical game offers you the experience of being powerful; it offers you the opportunity to be skilled. And it allows you to escape into a world where you can readily attain mastery. But does this mastery have any significance outside of the fictional boundaries of the game? Do we care? Does your mastery, weather attained in real life or in the constructed game world, have to have societal value? Again, of course it doesn’t have to, but wouldn’t it be nice?

I think games are pointing to something. Within the game world, you are free to do as you please. You can cause havoc, and there are no real consequences to your actions. You can run around like a fool, and who can stop you? Who is going to criticize you? In the game, you are free of the repression that we must all endure in our everyday lives. No one in real life is allowed to be free really. And perhaps the games that we play are preparing us for true freedom as a society. What I mean is, it takes a certain maturity to be able to handle true freedom. Give total freedom to a barbaric society and what you will often end up with is anarchy. The children need to grow up, and I believe that games are offering us the opportunity to grow-up.

Violent games allow the repressed animal to express himself in a safe, inconsequential environment- the gaming world. I don’t think the animal can simply be erased, and I don’t think the animal can be punished or suppressed into non-existence. But that is how we normally do things. What we do in our society is condemn, punish, ignore, and suppress. But all we can get from that is a façade of order; a façade of peace. While just underneath the facade, the animal is waiting to surface. He was never really transformed; he was never truly civil. He only conformed because the consequences of non-conformity were too severe. And if you look at it that way, even violent games can be seen as a gift. The game allows violence to be channeled in a way that brings harm to no one. Of course, it is dependent upon the individual as to how this gift is used. Does the individual use the gift as a means to further his violent tendencies, by acting-out the things he experiences in the game? Or does he simply play the game and carry on with his life? Well, I think it’s clear that that is what most gamers do.

The games we have now can be seen as a bridge to more meaningful games. To be transformed, first the animal needs to be expressed. But there is a further step. The expression is only half of the equation. After the need for the expression has subsided, a reeducation needs to take place. "How can things be done differently?" Another way needs to be shown. A different expression needs to take the place of the old one. I suppose meaningful games will rise in popularity simply because a new identity is needed. Throughout our history, the animal was needed. But as times change, it is needed less and less. Consequently, it as been relegated to fictional worlds- video gaming worlds. This may be a good thing if it is seen as an opportunity to become something greater. And I think it has prepared the way for something greater. So maybe there is no dire imperative to create a meaningful game. Maybe it will simply be a natural unfolding; something that happens because there is nowhere else to go…

Playing Games Simply for the experience

I've been gaming now for about 2 1/2 decades. Admittedly though, the amount of time that I invest in gaming has greatly decreased over recent years. I still am, however, fascinated by even the concept of video games, so I’ve never stopped paying attention to them. There was a time when I was very accepting of games- all genres, ugly or pretty, the good ones, and even the bad ones. I mean, sure, back then I didn't think that they were bad, but looking back on some of them tells a completely different story. I'm fairly certain that most, if not all of us, have had this experience.

When you're a kid, even the most primitive graphics have the ability to dazzle you. How is that? How is it that our minds at that age can create a wonderland, based on images and experiences that are so simple? I can remember playing Zelda (1 & 2) and being transported to another world. I can remember being completely blown away by Super Mario Bros 1, simply because of the fact that the 2nd level was so visually different from the first. I had never experienced that before. All of the games I had played prior to Mario Bros had levels that were pretty much all identical- Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Kung-fu...  and I'm sure many others that I cannot remember at the moment.

Of course, as you get older, things change. Your tastes develop. Your likes and dislikes tend to be more pronounced, and you become more particular about the things you want to experience. And so, because you are harder to please, the things from which you seek pleasure must now work for you; they must work, like an employee must work. When you were a child, these games didn't need to work. Simply being in their company was enough. Before the days of Nintendo Power, all a game needed to do to get me to want it was have a cool box-art; that was enough. And without fail, I enjoyed every one of those games.

It's funny how gaming can go from something that is done simply because it is a joy, to something that is done mostly because you are addicted. But honestly, as a human being, I don't think it's possible to completely avoid addiction. Addiction seems to be an aberration that has somehow become ubiquitous- a "normal anomaly" if you will. But what is addiction really? I think addiction stems from having a memory of some experience that was so pleasurable that it has forever lodged itself into your brain, and created a marking point, a measuring standard for you to judge pleasure. But that "marking point" is simply a memory, weather conscious or not. And the memory can no longer be the present- but that is exactly what is desired. The need is to relive that peak moment. But now, you're so addicted that even a glimmer of that peak is enough to keep you trying and trying to relive that initial experience. Just the glimmers are keeping you motivated. But since you are no longer enough, and since most games are no longer enough, you demand much more from your games. Those games need to work their asses off to impress you. Things that had you enthralled in years past are now are apt to make you yawn. And after all, these games don't always come as gifts. As you get older, you have to work to get them, so it's only fair that they have to work for you too, right?

It's funny how work has worked =) itself into everything. Gamers often complain that progressing through games often feels like work. So you need to work to get the game, you need to work to get through the game, and the game needs to work to impress you, but not before it has to work to entice you to buy it in the first place! So much work for something that is supposed to be fun! And gamers, in fact, demand games that make them work. Otherwise the game wouldn't be much fun at all! So fun has become confused with work... Work can be fun I suppose. But if they can really be one-and-the-same, how are you able to differentiate what is truly joyful from what is simply a drudgery? The trick, for the developer, is to somehow strike the right balance, through some magical force of nature, so that the 2 (fun and work) become inconsequential, thereby making the player completely forget that they are either working or having fun. And isn’t that what we all really want? To simply forget about everything, and to just be fully engrossed in the experience?

So, is it really fun that you're after? Because as soon as you identify something as fun, you're creating a polarity in your mind. Your brain subconsciously says, ok this is fun, but as opposed to what? As soon as you identify "fun", you are (probably unconsciously) identifying "not fun". This game is fun, as opposed to all of those other shitty games that are vying for your attention. But doesn't the identification of all of those shitty games mar your fun experience?

Anyhow, I may be able to spell these things out, but I still can't manage to fully integrate them. Yes, it's better to be fully engrossed in the experience and completely forget about all concepts of fun or work. But how exactly is that done? Either it's easy for you or it's not. It's easy for a kid, harder for an adult, and nearly impossible for me =). So I now look at games very differently. To a large extent I've let go of the need for my games to be fun. Neither do my games need to be intellectually stimulating *snicker*. All I need, really, is to enjoy the energy of the game, whatever that means. As long as I like the energy and the gameplay is executed reasonably well, I'm ok. And I just play, simply to have the experience; not to have fun, not to work, not even to lose myself. I just play to play…