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Out of Bounds

Since my workload escalated beyond manageability last week, I’ve been worrying about the future of Game Studies. When undone tasks loom so large that they block out the sun, rather than turning to face them like a man, I scurry into the shadows like an insect. A videogame-playing insect.

Videogames are for me principally a form of procrastination, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. I play games rather than do what I should be doing, especially when whatever that is involves concentrated mental effort. Games engage me on a level that allows me to turn my mind off. As Jonathan Blow said at his talk last week, part of games’ appeal may rest on their construction of a space where our roles and goals are clearly delimited and defined—in contrast to the rest of our lives. I play games so I don’t have to think.

This is not to suggest that games aren’t worth attention and study, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that the close readings and analysis commonly employed in other critical scholarship may prove too high-level given that we interface with videogames at an almost autonomic level. They might add a layer of metaphorical cultural significance to our experience of games but they won’t help us “understand” the experience itself any better because ultimately, the experience is outside of our understanding. It makes me think of Freud and the glaring fallacy of psychoanalysis—that one can rationally analyze the irrational.

This may also have been what Jonathan Blow was referring to when he discussed “ethical” game design. If what I’ve said above is true, then videogame designers have unwittingly let themselves in through the brain’s backdoor, gaining wholesale access to neural nether regions that non-digital games only access in a much more limited and sporadic fashion and that other activities barely access at all. Can we then really talk about meaning in games the same we do in books and movies?

“No,” says the gamer’s glazed look, his reflexive button pushing, and his worried parents who accuse him of not “using” his brain. The way we’ve been talking about games is the way Freud talked about dreams—using analogies. People write about writing, make films about film, and paint about painting. Where’s the game that plays about games?

Game Over?

In his essay on game mods in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway draws parallels between the principles of Godard’s countercinema and what he calls aestheticized gaming or countergaming, but he doesn’t discuss what seems to me the most interesting and problematic question that game mods raise: namely, when is a game finished? I don’t mean from the creator’s point of view. The majority of films, books, artworks, and games are effectively “finished” when they’re “released” into the world—director’s cuts, remasters, reissues, sequels, and new editions notwithstanding. So-called “mods” reprise the work but I would argue are not part of it—the infamous Nude Raider, the string of posthumous Ludlum-branded Bourne novels, and movies such as Pimento, my friend Dave Fisher’s Memento-inspired reediting of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, form part of the cultural response to a work, not of the work itself.

What I’m interested in is the point at which a videogame finishes from a player’s perspective. For the most part, books are finished when every word has been read, movies when every frame has been seen, music when every note has been played. They may be revisited endlessly, resulting in new meanings and interpretations, but the content is unchanging. But much of a game’s content is generated as it is played. When is all that content exhausted? Is it when it’s beaten? Players continue playing even after they’ve “beaten” a game. We discussed speed runs and other “high-level” forms of play last week, players of vintage arcade games compete to get to the “kill screen” and play beyond it, and in his essay, Galloway talks about games that come bundled with level editors, inviting infinite extension. In that case, maybe “game over” signifies the end of a game as it signals the end of a player’s input. But this is problematic. “Game over,” as in the “game is finished” lends itself as easily to the imperative reading “play the game over.”

You’re thinking, “this is silly, a game for me is finished when I stop playing.” From a performative perspective, yes. But not formally. A movie turned off halfway is not finished, nor is a book that is abandoned two chapters in. Though I haven’t fully wrapped my head around all this, I keep on coming back to the theater and the difference between a written play and a particular performance. I have spent much of this semester in Plato’s dimly lit cave, staring at shadows on the wall. I keep hoping that once the outlines become clear, once I can confidently identify the beginning and end of a shape, I’ll finally know what the hell it is I’m looking at.

Unplayable Games

Tetris HD

There’s been much hubbub of late around Tetris HD, a Flash version of Tetris in which the screen is so large and the pieces so small that it takes around fifteen minutes of concerted play to make a single line. Are we witnessing the birth of ludic irony, or is an unplayable game just clever satire in game’s clothing?

Anyone who’s played a game released in tandem with a major Hollywood movie knows that unplayable games are released all the time. These games, however, don’t aim to be unplayable; it’s bad design that makes them so. They’re normally unplayable because they’re either way too easy or way too hard, the controls are poorly laid out, the gameplay is perfunctory, or, in the case of many, because there is no gameplay—the “games” are actually user-navigable movie previews, narrative in a game vacuum. But Tetris HD is different. It was designed to be unplayable. You can certainly play it, but the experience is neither enjoyable nor gamish.

I’ve seen similar unplayability in games before. Eddo Stern and Mark Allen’s Tekken Torture Tournament uses a modified console to deliver “bracing but non-lethal” shocks to players of Tekken when their characters sustain damage. Both electrified Tekken and Tetris HD riff on existing games. Their principal meaning derives from this association. While you could technically play them, their practical unplayability is the point, they are ideas, a commentary on games and our impulse to play them. You’re not really supposed to play Tetris HD. You’re supposed to try for a second and shake your head in amusement. It is, at the risk of sounding graduate student-y, a meta-game.

Which is not the case with New York Defender, a Flash game in which the player mans an anti-aircraft gun and is quickly overwhelmed by increasingly large numbers of airplanes bent on crashing into famous New York City landmarks. New York Defender is designed to be playable, fun even, but only very briefly—it quickly becomes impossible and there is no win condition. Plenty of games (pinball for instance) are extremely difficult to beat but because New York Defender is impossible, the outcome is predetermined, and the game is in that sense un-“playable.” Much of New York Defender‘s irony rests on the player’s perseverance in the face of certain destruction. Though it too derives its meaning from outside itself, New York Defender doesn’t sacrifice its gamishness to communicate it. It’s eminently playable, and it’s the polyvalence and simultaneity of the desire to play and the disgust that play produces—the uneasy union of gamishness and idea—that really exploits the full potential of ludic irony.

The Mechanics of Constraint

Ratchet and Clank

I’ve played a lot of Ratchet and Clank over the last few days. Actually, I haven’t played as much as I wanted because I’ve been pacing myself so I don’t finish it too quickly. It’s a great game pretty much across the board. It has really funny (and entirely skippable!) cut scenes, a consistently well-rendered cartoony aesthetic, sound effects that make you feel Ratchet’s slamming ratchet in your bones, and a really intuitive 3D camera. But what makes the game such a standout are its carefully chosen constraints.

The game comprises an astounding variety of gameplay styles which it integrates seamlessly. For each type of play, the designers have given you control over just those degrees of freedom relevant to the task at hand, thus keeping the controls simple while making them feel extremely powerful, responsive, and distinct. In the main game, for instance, you can pan the camera left and right and walk or jump in any direction. This freedom of motion means that even though there’s really only one way to go, it never feels forced. Carefully designed constraints also keep the game challenging without making it feel arbitrary. Switching among Ratchet’s many weapons pauses the action; the focus is on picking the best tool for the job rather than remembering arbitrary key combinations in the heat of battle.

Whether you’re directing Ratchet as he clambers up a magnetic wall, aiming at distant bad guys through a sniper’s scope, or guiding a bunch of 2D Clanks to safety in an old-style arcade mini-game, you feel the controls are equally responsive even though your actual control is constrained in different ways. When Ratchet is standing on a platform, for instance, you have to be careful that he doesn’t fall off, but when he’s running away from a giant robot along a narrow winding gangway, he can’t fall off the edge; that would needlessly distract you from more pressing matters such as jumping over obstacles, avoiding falling lanterns, and dodging laser beams.

The game is not easy but its constraints are designed to keep you playing. There are lots of hard-to-kill bad guys and you die often, but continue spots are frequent and even if you have to repeat certain segments over and over, each time you amass more screws (the game’s currency). After three or four repeats you usually have enough screws to buy a new weapon that will help you get unstuck. Ratchet and Clank is both thoroughly enjoyable and challenging because the designers have made sure that as a player you’re so busy enjoying all the things you’re free to do that you don’t notice those things you aren’t. Sort of like the US government.

The Play Premise

I had lofty plans for all the work I was going to get done this week, but instead found myself frittering away hours in the lounge, completely absorbed in someone else’s game of Mirror’s Edge. I’ve never played the game and have heard from diverse quarters that it’s not that great, but, at least for the spectator, it has a killer hook—what I’m calling its play premise—first-person parkour.

The play premise is the concept or idea around which a game is built. It’s not a narrative element, it’s not “you’re a mercenary tired of war trying to fight your way back home.” Nor is it what is frequently called “genre,” though it can be what distinguishes one game from another in an ostensibly similar genre. In Dead Head Fred, the play premise is that you collect heads which give you different abilities and can interchange them on the fly like a Swiss Army knife. This play premise obviously affects the game’s 3D third-person perspective and environmental puzzles, but it remains separate from them. The great frustration of this game is imagining how great it could have been had these elements been more tightly integrated.

In the case of Tiger Woods 09 PGA Golf, the premise is much simpler. You collect (or lose) confidence in each round of golf you play, and that affects all successive play, so if you rock Annika Sorenstam at St. Andrew’s, then you’ll sink more putts the next round. Conversely, if she beats you, you’re going to have to work harder. There are all sorts of mini-games (clean your shoes, time your breathing, spot your fan) that help to increase your confidence. You can even buy confidence-improving clothes and equipment at the in-game pro shop. The play premise is integrated into the gameplay, albeit a bit heavy-handedly. Notice also that this has little to do with it being a golf game; the same play premise would work in almost any other game.

I would argue that a large part of a game’s success has to do with how tightly the play premise is integrated with the game’s rules, narrative, and controls. Or, in economic terms, did the designers maximally capitalize on the premise? A successful example that springs to mind is Crush. Its brilliant play premise is that the player may move freely between 2D and 3D views but is subject in each case to the restrictions particular to their geometry. In Crush, the play premise is the game. Focusing on play premises might prove fruitful when trying to design original games within saturated genres.

Dead Head Tiger

Dead Head Tiger

This week I picked up two PSP titles entirely at random: Dead Head Fred and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008. I’d never heard of either. Both are third-person three-dimensional games with complicated controls that require an in-game tutorial to learn, and despite golf clubs wielded in common, you would never confuse the two. That’s because of what I’m calling their divergent “play paradigms.”

Caillois and Sutton-Smith would no doubt place each of these games within a larger historical or sociological tradition of games and play, and I’m willing to accept their categorizations without argument. I’m more interested in the next level down, in how these games fit into the ecosystem of modern console or PC-based video games. The first thing I noticed playing each for the first time this morning was how much my role—not as character but as player—differed between the two and how much more extreme the distinction felt than when playing, say, two different board games.

In Dead Head Fred, you navigate through a series of half-assed environmental puzzles and button-intensive fights to reach really long cinematic cut scenes filled with snappy dialogue. The play paradigm is fundamentally narrative, much like a movie. That such games miss the point by porting an atavistic choose-your-own-adventure narrative style in favor of the native capabilities and dynamism of code-driven narrative is irrelevant. What matters is that you the player are principally an audience. Your play drives the story forward, yes, but the story exists whether you play or not. The game is an excuse to make you work for a story. The complicated key combinations are the equivalent of a very hard-to-use DVD remote.

On the other hand, the controls in Tiger Woods, though just as complicated, are configured thus to mimic the physical complexities of real-life golf. With the notable exception of Wii games, most video games can’t rely on direct physical analogues for their input. A punch becomes a button press; a tumble is reduced to a tap on the top of a handheld controller. But the frustration of hooking a drive is the same, and that’s because in real life and in the game alike, it’s the player’s less than perfect motion that sends the ball off course. All the Tiger Woods stuff is just icing EA Sports uses to up the fantasy quotient: “I may not be able to beat Tiger in real life, but on my PSP, look who’s fifteen under par.” The play paradigm in Tiger Woods is based on mastering an abstracted simulacrum of golf. You play to improve your game and to beat your own records.

On a rainy day like today someone might suggest playing a board game. Though the play differs significantly between individual board games—the slow painful burn of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit as opposed to the speedy fun of a rousing round of Pictionary—given two hours, there’s no real reason besides personal preference to choose one over another. Their play paradigm is the same—turns, a board, somebody wins. That’s the whole point.

It’s much harder, however, to imagine someone really in the mood for a round of golf choosing instead to watch a movie. Though they both can be construed as play, their paradigms diverge drastically—being entertained watching an imaginary story versus chasing after a bouncing ball with a racket. It’s the same with their video game counterparts; if I’m in the mood for golf, I’m not going to want to shoot zombies while searching for my misplaced head.

What all this boils down to is that the video game is simply a medium, an interface like the printed word. The disparaging parental “he’s up in his room playing video games” misses the point, and provides as little information as the equivalent but much rarer complaint “he’s up in his room reading.” What is being played or read is the important thing, what I would call the “play premise.” And that, dear reader, is what I will touch upon next week.

The Expert Losers

Today was a day I look forward to all year: the day my fantasy baseball invitation arrives in my inbox, ripe with the promise of six months of lost sleep, maniacal statistics tracking, and indecorous online trash talk. But not for me (well, I might talk a little smack). I don’t believe watching Sports Center helps you win at fantasy.

The fifteen other guys in my league disagree. They will spend the weeks leading up to the draft this March fanatically researching every player, ranking and re-ranking their draft lists based on an arcane combination of personal team preferences and hearsay. On draft night, they’ll stay up to fight over a rookie second baseman that some obscure AM radio commentator called the next A-Rod. I’ll be fast asleep, letting ESPN autodraft me a team of solid if unexceptional players as I do every season. And, as I have every season for the last six years, I’ll finish in the top three amid accusations that I didn’t really play.

The guys in my league are the kind of guys who know all the odds for every possible poker hand and can tell you in an instant if you should hit when the dealer is showing a six. These are guys who take pride in knowing rules, who don’t drink when they gamble and scoff at gut feelings. But when it comes to fantasy, it’s as if they’d been knocking ’em back all night. They drop players based on a weekend slump and blatantly disregard the statistics they normally venerate, I’m guessing because they conflate fantasy baseball with the real thing.

I don’t follow baseball. But I do check my fantasy team daily, and I resent being accused of letting the computer win for me. If one of my guys gets hurt, I take him out of the rotation. If after the draft I end up with three shortstops and no catcher, I trade accordingly. If one of my guys is sucking consistently, I replace him. Otherwise, I let the team be, keeping my statistically strongest hand. The guys who resent me the most are the ones who like to play at being big league managers—and they certainly know a lot more about baseball than I do. But we’re not playing baseball, we’re playing fantasy baseball, and I play by its rules, not some bizarre transposition of the rules of real baseball. You can play a game for lots of reasons, but I play fantasy to win.

I Have Become Lumines, Creator of Worlds

Lumines is a Tetris-like puzzle in which square blocks fall inexorably from above and need to be rotated and stacked so that similar colors are grouped contiguously and disappear when the timing bar that sweeps from left to right across the screen passes over them. I play Lumines or its aptly named sequel, Lumines 2, whenever I have a couple of minutes to kill.

But, despite my fondness for the game, Lumines is not initially that interesting from a player’s point of view. There are tons of similar games. What really makes it stand out from its many doppelgangers is that its designers have considered the world it exists in fully, creating not a game but rather a playable exploration of a universe defined by two simple laws: the unrelenting forward march of time and combinations of these six blocks.
Lumines Blocks
In the standard game, the blocks fall incessantly from the sky as long as the player can make space for them below. Simple variations include playing against another player or a computer opponent or playing against the clock. The real standouts, however, are the goal-driven variations in which the player must use the blocks as pixels to create pictures. This transforms the gameplay from Sisyphean race into visual puzzle. It’s as if the designers had stepped back and asked, “What can this world do?” In answering the question, they let themselves be ruled by the logic of the system they’d created rather than by some preconceived notion of what it should do.

Lumines is compelling because it exists within a universe that follows a set of internally logical and discoverable rules that govern its behavior, but it’s much more satisfying than Bejeweled and other similar games because its designers pushed those rules to their logical conclusions, leaving no possibility unexplored.

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