Slow Gaming!

What exactly does it mean to beat a game? You can’t have a meaningful contest against an inert digital artefact. From the game’s point of view, you did not beat it. On the contrary, you did exactly what the game wanted you to do, every step of the way. You didn’t play the game, you performed the operations it demanded of you, like an obedient employee.
Steven Poole, “Working for the Man: Against the Employment Paradigm in Videogames”

Steven Poole made some very interesting observations about how deeply playing videogames resembles work in his keynote presentation at the F.R.O.G. conference in Vienna, last October. Observations that brough to mind my own “Of cogs and machines” post, where I approach a similar subject from my perspective as designer and use some eerily similar metaphors.

[…] obediently following a game’s narrative or challenge-reward structure is nothing but work. Only when the player does something that isn’t mandated by the system can she be said to be playing.

He goes on to quote Horkheimer and Adorno as visionary prophets of our dystopian industrialized present and makes an interesting analogy with the Slow Food movement that states:

The culture of our times rests on a false interpretation of industrial civilisation; in the name of dynamism and acceleration, man invents machines to find relief from work but at the same time adopts the machine as a model of how to live his life.

Inspired by this challenge, Mr. Poole imagines a “new videogaming manifesto”:

It would speak of games where you really could choose your own adventure, but also where, if you preferred, you could just take time to smell the coffee, with no shadowy boss figure watching your clock and tapping his foot. It would be called Slow Gaming. Gamers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your boring virtual jobs.

Read the full article here!

Games seen from the outside

The next decade or so is going to see the world of video games convulsed by battles between the moneymen and the artists; if the good guys win, or win enough of the time, we’re going to have a whole new art form.
John Lanchester, “Is it Art?” in The London Review of Books

Since we partially make it our business to create “videogames for non-gamers” here at Tale of Tales, we have a keen interest in any messages we receive about games from the world outside. The few times when this happens, the author is either uninformed or simply a hardcore games enthusiast doing a little job on the side. A pity, because what better way to learn about ourselves as through the eyes of others?

So our interest was immediately peaked when we noticed a long article about videogames in a publication called “The London Review of Books”. Through thoughtful observations, John Lanchester combines a broad knowledge of the games industry with the advantage of both distance and erudition to place gaming within a larger cultural context.

And while his article is critical, Mr. Lanchester also does a good job at explaining the appeal of games to people not familiar with the medium (i.e., as he points out, everyone who does not actively play videogames). He points out the strong points and achievements of the medium as well as its flaws and shortcomings.

He compares games to novels:

You are in the game in a way that is curiously similar to the way you are in a novel you are reading – a way that is subtly unlike the sense of absorption in a spectacle which overtakes the viewer in cinema. The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is.

And to cinema.

Games are not, in general, better than films. But they are often better than huge-budget Hollywood films.
Not all games are cynically, affectlessly violent, but a lot of them are, and this trend is holding video games back. It’s keeping them at the level of Hollywood blockbusters, when they could go on to be something else and something more.
Games do a good job of competing with blockbusters, but it would be a pity if that was the summit of their artistic development.

And then, of course, speculates on how video games might become art.

The other way in which games might converge on art is through the beauty and detail of their imagined worlds, combined with the freedom they give the player to wander around in them.

He also makes a reference to a keynote presentation by Steven Poole (of “Trigger Happy” fame), which deserves a post of its own.

A common criticism of video games made by non-gamers is that they are pointless and escapist, but a more valid observation might be that the bulk of games are nowhere near escapist enough.
Most video games aren’t nearly irresponsible enough.

Read the full article here!

My new year’s resolution

Let the record state that my new year’s resolution will be to ignore troll posts on web forums and comments sections of blogs. The term “troll post” is defined broadly as any negative comment that is given without reasoning or justification. This includes statements in the comments sections about issues that had already been addressed in the main article (i.e. from people who did not even bother to read). As of 2009, I am reinstating the author in his role of authority. And urging anyone keen on voicing their own opinion, to do so in their own publication. I am aware that this resolution will probably mean that I will have to ignore the comments sections of most blogs entirely. So be it.

I do allow for an exception where it concerns comments to posts in our own publications, where I feel it is my obligation to act as a polite host. But this should by no means be interpreted as an invitation. 2009 Shall be known as the year when trolls returned to their caves.

Games I’m looking forward to playing in 2009

As counterpoint to Michael’s post about not having games to play I thought I’d be more optimistic and point to some games that I am looking forward to playing when they’re released next year.

So far:
Flower (Playstation Network, thatgamecompany): We’ve played with an early version of this game some months back and it can give one a feeling of absolute euphoria. Floating along on a breeze, the controls felt just right even back then. It looks like some game-like elements have been added but I bet it won’t dull the primary effect putting you in a dream-like state and giving you a moment’s release from care.

Noby Noby Boy (Playstation Network, keita takahashi, Namco): something that looks this exquisitely insane has GOT to be good. I am also pleased that the designer doesn’t consider it to be a game. The aesthetic is fresh, the play looks open, I can’t wait.

Gyakuten Kenji/Miles Edgeworth Perfect Prosecutor (DS, Konami): Confession, I have played ALL the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games. I find the writing to be on par with any television series. The stories are funny and tragic and sometimes a bit strange. Great character design throughout. A spinoff featuring Miles Edgeworth is a fabulous idea.

Calling (Wii, Hudson/Konami?): I’ve only seen (apparently leaked) videos on the net but this spooky game looks awesome! I hope to no end that it gets released outside of Japan. The interaction reminds me of a design we’d come up with for an unfinished game called “The Apartment.”

F.E.A.R. 2 (PC, Monolith): not because i will actually play the game (I cannot play FPS games) but because i think Alma (all grown up now) is the sexiest, most compelling, female character in action game history. What I do with games I can’t, or don’t want to, play is I look at clips on YouTube so I can skip the shooting and get to the good parts (which are the parts in-between the shooting usually.) The first F.E.A.R had some priceless moments. I’m hoping this one will be just as striking.

what can i say, i’ve got strange taste in women.

Tension/The Void (PC, Ice-Pick Lodge): Speaking of mysterious women, this game by our friends at Ice-Pick Lodge is intruiging. It’s getting a release outside of Russia courtesy of Atari. Good on them. While I’m not sure I’ll love the gameplay (but it could happen) I think it may have some interesting narrative resonance. I definitely am looking forward to fully exploring this world. I admire the character and environment design to no end.

Pikmin (WiiWare, Nintendo): i played this on gamecube and it remains one of my favorites. I think the addition of Wii controls will totally add. I’m looking forward to throwing the little guys around. Not so much to having them eaten, set on fire, blown away and rolled over by the garden’s creatures. But hey…

#1 game I’m looking forward to is: The Path (PC, Tale of Tales), of course. Because we’ve been making it for 2 years and having it done is the only thing I can really think of right now. Gaming comes *after*. So many hopes…

So, What games are YOU looking forward to playing?

Tale of Tales is 5

Tale of Tales was officially founded on December 9th 19th 2003, five years ago. Auriea and I were working on 8 at the time and needed a company to apply for funding. We chose the “bvba” form (similar to ltd and llc) because we were hoping to become a commercial enterprise. We’re still hoping.

Are videogames contracting the meaning of the word game?

Noby Noby Boy

We’ve had our fair share of discussions around the term “game” on this blog. Often inspired by the fact that it was problematic to categorize our work as games. Up until now, our answer has always been that we are trying to expand the meaning of the word “game”. But perhaps something else is (also) going on.

Before videogames, the word game could be used for many things. And it still is used like that by people outside of the gamer elite. Basically anything whimsical, childish or silly was a candidate to be called a game. Game was even used as a term to denounce certain practices, as in “that politician is playing a dirty game” or “she was playing games with my feelings”.

Videogames, possibly because they are made with computers, have formalized games into something that is perhaps a lot stricter than what a game used to be. As games continue to become an economically important industry, this formalization only gets more extreme. I clearly remember as a turning point somebody from Activision saying, in 2004, that they “make games for gamers”. Up until then, there was still some doubt about what videogames could be. And ambitions about reaching new audiences. But since then, videogames overall seem to have become increasingly “gamey”.

The success of Nintendo has of course altered this course somewhat. But not to the point where the word “game” is being redefined -or given back its former meaning. Nowadays, we’re simply getting more and more comfortable with the idea of playing “non-games”.

Like watching non-movies and reading non-books. It seems rather silly.

Not to be forgotten aspects of videogame design

When we, developers and enthusiasts, discuss the design of videogames, we invariably focus on the formal system of the game, the sets of rules and goals, challenges and rewards that define the gameplay aspect of the experience. We do this because we feel that gameplay design is at the heart of the creation of interactive entertainment. This may or may not be correct, but gameplay design is certainly not the only aspect of videogame creation worthy of our consideration. And certainly not the only one that makes use of the unique qualities of the computer as a medium.

I would like to devote an article to these “forgotten” aspects of videogame design. I want to discuss why they are important and how they take advantage of the medium. I came up with the list below in no time. But if you can think of any other forgotten or neglected or undervalued or underestimated aspects of videogame design, please post your ideas in the comments. It will help me write the article.

If I ever find the time to do it -feels like there’s a whole book to write here…

Atmosphere is often quoted as an important aspect of the enjoyment of games. But it is hardly rewarded in game review scores and rarely discussed among game designers. Yet videogames have been able to use the interactive and generative medium of the computer to create moods and atmospheres in a way that no other medium has. And it feels like we have only scratched the surface.

Character design
The importance of the appeal of a well designed videogame character cannot be underestimated. Several books have been published devoted solely to pictures of videogame characters. The most widely known thing about videogames in the mainstream is not the clever open world design of Grand Theft Auto but the smart character design of Laura Croft.
And it’s not just the looks of characters that deserve our attention. Designing a character for a videogame also requires inventing a life for these people and a personality. And most of all, finding a way to express all this through the interactive medium.

Avatar control
An aspect more closely related to gameplay design is control design. But often videogame developers suffice with the bare functionality of run-jump-shoot. This is a pity because avatar control can be very expressive. It can give the player an instinctive understanding of the personality of the avatar. Controlling a character can also be a fun activity in and of itself, completely separate from the challenges and rewards of the game.

Interactive storytelling
Videogames are getting better and better at telling their stories through the medium. The stories themselves are still somewhat on a pulp fiction level, but we are getting very good at telling them. We still rely on cut scenes and non-interactive and non-generative elements quite a bit, although we’ve managed to integrate them better. The next step seems to be in finding out how we can experiment with interaction to tell a story, or perhaps better: to make the player experience a story, rather than merely witness it. And perhaps the player can even be involved in the creation of the story in some way.

Environment design
I’m am not the only person in the world who thinks of playing videogames as a form of travel. To go to another place is a very appealing aspect of videogames. But how do we design these places? It is not simply about modeling an actual space -though we could probably learn a lot from architects. There’s always technological constraints that forbid this. But more importantly, simply walking around in a virtual space is not necessarily very interesting. And a waste of a great opportunity for pacing, interaction, emergence and storytelling. So there’s a lot more to designing an environment for a videogame.

The camera is one of the most important aspects of cinema and should not be neglected in games either. An entire language has already developed around the camera’s framing, angles, motions, editing, and so on. The interactive medium adds the elements of control and response to this list. How do these enrich the language? What can game camera’s do that film camera’s cannot?

Playing a well designed videogame can feel like a flowing through a wonderful musical composition. Creating this composition is very much about finding a balance, a harmony of different elements. A way of making the player always feel good about playing the game. However, editing, pacing, punctuation and progression are rarely discussed outside of the functional realm of balancing gameplay. Yet, many videogames already excel at the much more subtle art of flow design.

Even on a purely functional level, designing the way in which one navigates a videogame’s content or virtual world is an opportunity for formal elegance that can be very enjoyable in its own right. But navigation offers a powerful narrative tool as well, not in the least because it can generate a linear thread, often useful for storytelling.

Interaction design
It seems like game developers look down on designing the look and feel of the user interface of a game. Very often, I get the impression that game typography and buttons and menus are designed ironically, to be kitschy on purpose, as if the designers were trying to tell the player that these things are irrelevant. But when they are done well, they can greatly contribute to how the player feels about the game.

Art direction
It strikes me as odd that there is an art direction position in videogame production. It makes it sound like art is only one element in a game and games are not artworks in their entirety. Of course, often, this is indeed the case and the art director only fulfills a function much like the person with the same title would in an ad agency. Personally I’m all for putting this person in charge of the entire production of games and dropping the word “art” from his or her title. But in the mean time, we should probably develop a little bit more respect for this crucial aspect of video game creation.

Narrative world concept
I don’t like the term “back story” because it implies that the story could somehow be separated from its expression in the game. It makes it sound like the story is just an excuse to justify the gameplay and ultimately irrelevant. I disagree. When done well, discovering the story that a game world came out of by exploring and interacting can be a wonderful experience. Potentially much more engrossing than the experience of narrative through one-directional activities such as reading books or watching films.

Sound design is well known as one those aspects of game design that are considered very important but always underestimated. It is often equated with the production of sound effects as we know it from other media. But the non-linear medium offers many more possibilities for sound.

The interactive medium offers an new gamma of techniques to imaginative composers who no longer need to feel limited by the traditional linearity of music. The first experiments with generative and dynamic music in games have already begun. I’m sure there is lots more to discover and learn.

Virtual life
The design of the autonomous behaviour of creatures and environments is an entirely new art form made possible by the computer and often seen in videogames. The term “artificial intelligence” does not really do credit to the artistic aspects that are involved with the creation of virtual organisms. Autonomous systems in videogames are very rarely simply simulations of reality. They are always defined by choices of the author and as such offer great potential for expression.

I came up with this list in a few minutes. I’m sure there’s many more aspects of game creation that I forgot. Please add them in the comments.
I think it is important that game creators start taking these aspects much more seriously and reduce the obsession over gameplay design. Not only because many of these aspects are far more important to the audience. But also because they offer enormous undiscovered creative potential. And they are every bit as unique to the interactive medium as gameplay is, if not more so, in some cases.

All these aspects are up for emancipation. Not in the least in terms of how we evaluate games and judge their quality. Review scores that attribute most points to gameplay, graphics, sound and replay value simply don’t cut it anymore. Because it’s not like the aspects mentioned above refer to some strange potential that lies dormant in the medium. Many videogames being created today contain excellent illustrations of many of these “forgotten” aspects. And I believe they form some of the key elements to the success of videogames. It is time we give them the attention that they deserve.

Get The Endless Forest Fan Art calendar!

The Endless Forest 2009 Official Fan Art Calendar

On our request, long time player, forum moderator and The Endless Forest Club leader Jennifer Stuber has edited together a lovely calendar exclusively featuring artwork created by the talented players of the game. The pictures were freely submitted by their creators and democratically selected by the community. The calendar clearly testifies of the amazing creativity that can be found among the players of our little free online game. And the print quality courtesy of Deviant Art is very decent, indeed. All proceeds of the sales go entirely to further not-for-profit development of The Endless Forest.

Get it here!

Thank you!

Survival horror and playing as in acting

In their insightful book, “21st Century Game Design”, Chris Bateman and Richard Boon say:

In many ways, [the survival horror genre] marks the development of one of the first modern genres -being a blend of so many aspects of previous games, we have no choice but to consider it on its own terms. Where a control mechanism or play perspective doesn’t suggest a genre (as in racing or FPS), we can expect to see more genres of this style emerge as games continue to develop.
The survival horror genre is characterized primarily by its commitment to atmosphere. This is not to say that these games are light on design expertise or gameplay; merely that atmosphere is inseparable from gameplay. Resident Evil, for example, is a very easy game to play if one ignores its atmospheric effects; if the player allows themselves to be immersed in its world, however, it feels tremendously dangerous. Crucially, this suspension of disbelief is made very easy, if not compulsory, by excellent atmospheric design.

It struck me how pertinent this quote is to what we’re trying to do at Tale of Tales. Even though we may be coming from a different background (fine art) and we’re not exactly making horror survival games, the end result is the same: our work relies heavily on the active collaboration of the player. In that sense, our games may be more similar to theater than to anything else. We ask the player to assume a role and we give them some freedom (and thus responsibility) to fill it in. And depending on how they do that, they will enjoy the experience or not.

I guess that’s where the challenge lies in our work: Can you play the part of a magical deer in an idyllic forest? Can you behave like an old lady -a dying lady even- in a cemetery? Not everyone can. It requires a certain talent. And a certain willingness (more so, admittedly, in our low budget productions than in the work of our triple A horror survival brethren).
Perhaps, ultimately, player satisfaction is not as dissimilar to other games as we may sometimes think: in both cases, the player is happy when they have adequately performed in a way that the game expects. Our expectations are different. And we don’t award points. But if you don’t play in the proper way, chances are you won’t enjoy the game.

Much like survival horror games will be enjoyed much more deeply, if you control your avatar in a way that makes sense in the fictional world. If you only make him or her do things that fit with their personality and in the circumstances. As opposed to using that avatar as a tool to make progress through an abstract system (which is what I imagine pure gameplay is about). Playing a survival horror game comes to mean acting as much as it does gaming. Perhaps even more so, considering that it seems to be vital for the enjoyment of the title, especially for less action-oriented games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame.

I agree with Bateman and Boon that this is a distinctly modern form. One that really uses the unique qualities of the interactive medium, instead of replicating older forms of entertainment (like sports or games or theme park rides). And I hope that they are right: that we will indeed see more genres in this style in the future.