I have found myself in the custody of a Playstation 3 console and have borrowed a couple dozen games to play over the holidays. This came to be after I mentioned to my local game design support group that I hadn’t played anything on a console for over ten years and that I was quite happy with that state of being. They thought that this was unacceptable.
Their reasoning was:
1. That consoles get the best games these days. (I’m not so sure about that.)
2. That I should have played some of these games to have an idea what I’m talking about or against. (Fair enough.)
The big screen is back home because we have emptied our office in Berlin and are awaiting the new one. The biggest impediment to me getting a console in fact was the fact that we didn’t have any screens at home and buying a console would mean having to get a tv/projector as well.
And Markus Kaikkonen agreed to hook me up with his old Playstation 3 since he had just gotten a PS4 and was going to play some stuff on that over the holidays anyway. Many thanks to Markus for that and I do agree that it can’t hurt to play a bunch of these games but now that I have nearly two dozen of them (thanks also Peter Bihr and Simon Cubasch) to go through it does feel a bit like work. I will post my findings here.
Somme preliminary stuff that isn’t very game specific:
Console games are a huge deal. This may seem obvious but I hadn’t fully realized it before. I think it is fair to say that most males below the age of 40 own a console, owned one or have wanted to own one in the past decade. Being a contender in the console wars and releasing AAA games have huge entry costs but they also carry with them the potential for gigantic upsides.
I had noted the fact that there weren’t any good action franchises anymore. The only stuff we get are Bond movies and a Bourne episode every five years or so. I am now wagering that most of the audience and the budgets for these things have gone into AAA shooters. A FPS game is more fun, about as poorly written and more cost effective (for the consumer) than going to the cinema for a similar ‘shoot stuff and blow stuff up’ experience. For the same price as a current AAA game you can go to the movies 3-4 times.
I am surprised at the amount of grinding in AAA games. Playing parts of a game over and over again because of poor design or balancing. Especially egregious are situations where every death means a lengthy reload and resumes you somewhere back before. Also I’m spending a lot of time in geometric first or third person games walking around looking for the clue to the next stage. They may have higher production values than mobile games but the amount of grinding seems to be about the same.
Extremely crude but a decent shooter nonetheless. Can be a bit of a slough at times but now that I’ve played more from the genre that seems to be par for the course.
The writing is so bad that you seriously wonder where they get it. The target audience for these kind of games does not seem to want much more. Thankfully the science fiction setting where you fight a pure evil removes some of the moral issues that other games in the genre carry.
Massive spoilers for The Last of Us follow. Normally I’d encourage you to read on but with this game I recommend renting, borrowing, procuring, house-sitting, whatever is necessary to play it. I played most of the game in a single twelve hour sitting until nine in the morning. That may well be the best way to experience this: one weekend, little sleep and feverishly playing.
I was sceptical at first (I was promised that this game has the best writing that exists) but this was a singular experience despite its shortcomings. It takes a bit to get going and break out of the survival horror shooting game trope even though the beginning is executed very well. Another game where I’m not sure there is anything else to play after you’ve finished it. A sequel has been tentatively announced and there’s a DLC “Left Behind” that I can buy for €15.
The plot isn’t the best thing about the writing in this game and honestly in many examples of good writing the plot isn’t the best part. The atmospheric environments in The Last of Us have a coherence and detail that gives them much more depth than in any of the other games I’ve played since then. These provide a convincing backdrop on which Joel and Ellie play out their relationship and that is the real strength of the writing in this game. Out of a shared experience consisting of horror and idleness they forge a bond that carries over through the screen.
In broad strokes it The Last of Us is a retelling of The Road made stomachable for a mainstream audience. All the other characters are mostly forgettable and their losses however close they had gotten do not really count for much.
The biggest issue in the game is the moral one and not so much the one in the game as it is players’ reactions to it. The game forces you to save Ellie who is going to be cut up to potentially create a cure against the plague. What scares me is the vast number of players who take issues with this choice. I shot the entire OR staff without blinking (also partially because I knew it was coming) because I don’t think there is a real moral issue here. Sacrificing a person to save humanity is unacceptable. It turns out that (too) many gamers are in favour of moral consequentialism and medical experiments on human beings.
Another shortcoming in the game for me was that you don’t play as Ellie enough. I enjoyed her physical disadvantages and her true grit when running through a snowstorm and jumping up on huge dudes to slaughter them with a switch blade.
The bit where Ellie is hunting the buck is meditative and by that time it was seven in the morning, I had been playing for ten hours and it took me a good half hour of chasing the buck through the snowfields. That was a near transcendental experience and in fact those were the most enjoyable parts of the game. Not those where you are on edge because you could be attacked at any moment. The best parts of the game were those where Joel and Ellie are hiking through a forest or on an abandoned highway and shooting the shit with each other. I would have happily played a game consisting of nothing but that.
In de nrc.next van vandaag staat de eerste helft van mijn recensie van de iOS sensatie Desert Golfing. Hier is de rest:
Desert Golfing is een game over golfen in de woestijn. In een twee-dimensionaal pastelkleurig woestijnlandschap moet je een bal de hole in schieten. Je vinger bepaalt de kracht en de hoek van je slag en als je loslaat vliegt de bal weg. Hoe ver je bal komt, hoe vaak hij stuitert en hoe lang hij doorrolt voelen perfect, eigenlijk precies alsof je echt golf speelt in een woestijn. Alleen ben je hier na 18 holes niet klaar. De maker laat niet veel los maar spelers hebben ontdekt dat er duizenden willekeurig gegenereerde woestijnlandschappen—de een moeilijker dan de andere—wachten om gespeeld te worden. Of er een einde aan komt weten we niet. De combinatie van eenvoud en oneindigheid maken dat je Desert Golfing lang kunt blijven spelen. Het is een fijn tussendoortje voor onderweg en tegelijkertijd een meditatie op hoeveel er met heel weinig mogelijk is.
Hij staat ook bij Niels op de site in het blokje paid alpha’s wat erg leuk geworden is. Prison Architect is een curieus spel en ik heb er een tijdje op gezeten om te kijken of ze het nu af gingen maken of niet en uiteindelijk heb ik dit korte stukje ervan gemaakt:
Het lijkt een perverse fantasie: in een game een gevangenis ontwerpen, inclusief cellen, recreatiefaciliteiten en een elektrische stoel, om de constante stroom van gedetineerden het hoofd te bieden. Maar de setting blijkt decoratie bij dit soort simulatiespellen, of het nu een gevangenis, stad, ziekenhuis of pretpark betreft. Waar het werkelijk om gaat is de balans tussen inkomsten en uitgaven, het blij houden van je onderdanen en het managen van incidenten. Waarom zou je dan per se een gevangenis willen besturen? Voor mensen die daar prat op gaan is Prison Architect geslaagd. Veel van hen hebben het spel al gekocht en denken in de online community mee met de ontwikkeling. Dat maakt het spel niet makkelijker, maar zorgt wel dat het des te meer aansluit op de wensen van gevangenisfans.
Recensie door Alper Çuğun
Van: Introversion Software
Voor: Windows, OS X, Linux
Ik ben bang dat het niet een heel leuk spel is omdat degenen die het spel nu al gekocht hebben en inspraak hebben op de ontwikkeling redelijke die-hard prison-sim mensen zijn. De kans dat een spelontwikkelaar dan nog genoeg auteurschap kan toepassen om er een gebalanceerd en interessant spel van te maken, schat ik niet heel hoog.
I have a current shtick that says that game designers harbour no illusions about human reality. Designing and testing a game on people reveal the murky depths of human nature in a way few other pursuits do. Take even the simplest game with the possibility of deception and it will often devolve into the horrible treatment of one player for the advantage of another.
I’ve been enjoying reading Venkatesh Rao’s ‘The Gervais Principle’ a lot. Because I think it also sheds a lot of light on the human condition. He just published the final installment ‘Children of an Absent God’ and I was more than pleasantly surprised to read a lot of game design thinking in it and quite a bit of speculative realism as well.
Take this passage which calls game design a power literacy:
So the process of ripping away masks of social reality and getting behind them ultimately turns into a routine skill for the Sociopath: game design. Once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature, a sort of basic power literacy. An understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed, and growing skill at wrangling those processes.
I don’t know if I’ve read that definition of game design before (and I’ve read quite a few): ‘an understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed and […] skill at wrangling those processes.’ The interesting differentiator I think then is whether the participants in those social realities are willing or unwilling ones.
After that there follows a de-centering of the uniqueness of human experience which is very similar to what we’ve been reading in new materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology:
Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.
It is nice to see the philosophy I have been reading for the past year being operationalized into a thinking that can be applied to personal power dynamics. But to tie back into Kars’s statement of assumptions, here’s one:
Game design is an endeavour that from nihilism creates something of meaning.
I played a bunch of Ultratron over the past couple of weeks. It’s beautiful pulsing dance of bullets that lost its charm somewhere past level 100 where I thought I had the game beat, but everything keeps on repeating ever faster. That was eleven hours of obsessive pleasure (according to Steam) followed by emptiness.
Something that does give me a lot of meaning recently but which you probably cannot call a game are my Moves stats. Definitions are not important and neither are buzzwords. Moves hits the ‘quantified self’ buzzword and foregoes the ‘gamification’ one but still numbers and feedback are key to the experience. Its prescriptive restraint is tasteful and it tracks all the bike rides I could not be bothered with. Automatic and good enough turns out to be near perfect.
I’ll be looking for more meaningful ways to play games in my day to day life in the near future but for now there’s more work than play in my life. With the Berlin summer upon us, if I play anything, I’ll be looking to do it outside. I’ve been meaning to learn cricket, but I’m open to other suggestions too.
Dear Niels and Kars,
This week I bought Ultratron and played that a bit. It looks like a solid 2D shooter like I haven’t played in ages. Before that I played bunches of Ridiculous Fishing and Spelunky which Darius Kazemi has kindly translated into HTML5 for us non-Windows users. And that’s only this week. I’m playing so many games right now. The amount of new games being released is also huge. Truly we live in a ludic age.
How different this is from back in the day when I would spend days grinding levels and gold in Final Fantasy on the NES or map out the dungeons of Faria. There simply wasn’t that much to play back then so we made do with what we had. I hear there are still people with such singular dedication to a game, but I can’t imagine it.
How different it is even from my tastes of a couple of years ago where I would play the occasional game but also see over 60 movies a year and a couple of dozen plays. That has changed and not just because of my move to Berlin.
Good games are not only abundant these days, they are cheaper than passive media, easier to get and more engaging. Things that are not interactive have a terribly hard time getting and keeping my attention unless they’re very good or very short. Some stupid people would bemoan the change of our media consumption patterns and imagine that we are losing something essential. I don’t agree. I think we are better off with these more systemically complex and often also more social experiences.
So games replace previous media only once for each person and after they’ve done that they replace each other. I play many games briefly but intensively and then never again (Plague for instance) or sometimes I never manage to get into them at all (I played all of 30 minutes of Swords and Sworcercy). And then new games arrive and it turns out to be hard to get back into the swing, let alone the story of a game you played a week ago. Nothing seems to stick.
Making digital games that we can play over the course of years seems hard. Purely digital forms are too easy to forget and often limited in many ways. Long lasting games need to create widespread alliances in both the physical and the social world so we will keep re-encountering them in different contexts. Minecraft, Joust and Angry Birds come to mind off-hand. That suggests that cracking this question is the way to becoming successful, or is it the other way around?
Hier mijn recensie van Proteus voor de nrc.next een paar weken geleden geplaatst (dit is een fractie van wat Bogost heeft gedaan op Gamasutra maar in Nederland is er geen plek, tijd of geld voor games):
Je kon hem al spelen, maar Proteus van Ed Key is nu eindelijk officieel uit. Proteus is de naam van het willekeurig gegenereerde eiland opgebouwd uit impressionistische pixel-graphics waar je heen gaat. Aangekomen op het strand zie je op het eerste gezicht alleen wat bomen maar als je verder loopt kom je gaandeweg dieren en ook andere dingen tegen zoals torens, standbeelden en stenen. Je aanwezigheid beïnvloedt het eiland. Dat zie je niet alleen, je hoort het vooral in de muziek (gecomponeerd door David Kanaga) en de geluiden die allebei reageren op wat je doet.
Proteus bevat geen echte doelen. Er is geen prestatiedruk en je hoeft je niet bezig te houden met wat je nu ook alweer moet doen zoals in andere spellen. Je loopt gewoon over een eiland en dat alleen al is een bijzonder prettige ervaring.
Tijdens dat lopen is er ook genoeg te doen. Keer op keer ondernam ik een tocht die ik halverwege afbrak omdat ik een groepje dieren achterna ging of naar een adembenemend uitzicht wilde kijken. En elke keer als er een dag of een seizoen voorbij is, verandert Proteus en zijn er weer nieuwe dingen te zien en te doen.
De doelloosheid en eindeloze variëteit van Proteus maken dat je niet uitgekeken raakt. Je kunt er keer op keer terug blijven komen. Proteus is dan ook niet zozeer een spel als wel een serene plek waar je altijd heen kunt.
Hi Niels & Kars,
I’m checking in with you guys straight from what used to be Cold War Berlin. Berlin is still in a state of conflict, mostly because of growing pains and a lack of a coherent identity (today they started demolishing the last bit of that wall to make place for luxury apartments). An interesting example of that conflict on the streets is the civil disobedience and destruction themed game Camover. The idea is generally that people with balaclavas go around destroy security cameras and documenting the fact to gain points. Now as if that wasn’t controversial enough, an activist associated with it suggested to extend the game to ‘data goggles’ and destroy those of people recording your visage.
Data goggles obviously means Google Glass. Last week we had a brief discussion on twitter about why Glass would or would not be an obvious device to play games on. Say what you will about the video or just compare it to the Microsoft vision of internet connected fridges.
I’m well aware of the standard arguments against AR. Kars was quick to point them out. These are very valid, but it is still an experience that can be put to a variety of uses. Just look at the Move controller’s whose limited in- and outputs enable a game as interesting as Joust of which the depths have not been exhausted yet. Similarly the hardware affordances of Glass should yield at least one interesting game.
What is the most annoying part of Joust is finding enough controllers to play it with. If Glass reaches the Android like ubiquity that Google is obviously aiming for, we can expect a very rich ecosystem to arise around this. These games will be mostly very boring, poor conversions or techno-wankery such as for instance Ingress but we should not rule out that there may be one or two good ones to pop up as well. I’ll take something that’s half as fun to play as Zumbie looks to be.
Straight up game development of course is not the most interesting thing that such a platform offers. The changes in our social interaction that such hardware engenders will probably be the most interesting hooks to build interesting playful interactions into. So the loony activist above was not that far off the mark, but let us try to be a bit more constructive.