Monday, March 12, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 2

As discussed in Part 1, an internally coherent formal system of analyzing video games as games is not some fanciful pipe dream. Neither is it a savage assault on the nebulous concept of "fun" or any other subjective appraisal value. With this skeletal but strong basis, we can finally tackle what proves so problematic about a swath of design elements and the games that utilize them improperly. And because controversy drives page hits, let's call out as many people as possible for poor game design!

Most of the games and designers targeted in the following text are by no means the only guilty parties, but are certainly some of the most egregious offenders. Games from studios large and small with reputations illustrious to spotty have all in some way transgressed against the idea that power in games should belong to players, and rather than some fictional verdict and sentence, each will conclude with a separate medium in which the assumed aims of the designers could have been better met, and why. Just trying to be helpful, because that's that's just the kind of guy I am!

The best games always seemed to make for terrible movies...
Case #1
Name: Ken Levine
Game: Bioshock
Fault: No correlation between players' actions and intended message.

Many would posit the original Bioshock as a key point in the development of the Big Message Game movement, thanks to the thickly applied patina of objectivism-versus-populism shellacked onto its plot. The failures of Andrew Ryan to account for man's imperfections as rational actors and the opportunist thuggery of Atlas/Frank Fontaine are also compounded with the questioning of the nature of free will via the heavy-handed "would you kindly" reveal. Certainly, these are interesting topics which possess the kind of philosophical gravity to make a minor masterpiece out of any work that can deftly handle them. As you can imagine, many would argue exactly that!

The problem is that the act of running about Rapture to shoot and maim the deep-sea biotechnological equivalent of crackheads does little to correlate to all this grandiose hand-wringing over the innate moral state of humanity. The first two-thirds of the game before meeting Ryan are an exercise in world-building and smacking things with wrenches that could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time. The setting is certainly an impressive one, both novel and fitting to the Galt's Gulch styling of the colony's inception, but in essence the entire process of traversing it merely amounts to a grand tour of the ruined husk of society before confronting its maker. The sub-bosses all hit the same note of "deranged exaggeration of societal ideals and values" in an extended trek that eventually has the grace to end up at real plot points.

All in all a minor offense, but the dissociation between action and intent only widened exponentially. Once it was clearly proven that just the facsimile of meaningfulness would suffice to game audiences, all bets were off. And merrily down the road we went, hailing Bioshock not as a commendable first step towards profundity but as complete fruition. We can see the results of this line of thinking in the downward slope running down Bioshock 2 and right into a seemingly "infinite" abyss.

Recommended Revamp: Movie; "thinking man's" blockbuster with Oscar chops
Kind of Like: Batman Begins

No butter either, please, I'm watching my weight.
Case #2
Name: Anna Anthropy
Game: Dys4ia
Fault: Direct contradiction between player's actions and intended message.

Some background information that may shock you: even though I write a video game blog, I am a white, heterosexual, cisgendered American male. (Please, bring your jaws back up from the floor.) As a result of this, I cannot speak for the tribulations of having a physical body at odds with one's gender, to speak nothing of the experience of attempting to change that. Between societal stressors and stigma from friends, family, lovers and strangers alike, the quest to feel comfortable in one's own skin is without question a noble and human pursuit fraught with difficulty. I have immense respect for those who are willing to face the harmful ignorance of society head-on in an attempt to seek their own personal happiness.

What I simply cannot understand about the game is why it is so astonishingly simplistic. For a game that I would expect to convey the myriad trials of undergoing hormone therapy in a sympathetic light, having everything displayed in bright faux-pixel art and controlled with just four arrow keys feels inappropriate. Managing medication is moving a mouth left and right to catch falling pills; confronting people who confuse your gender identity or refuse to acknowledge your true gender is moving a blocky shield up and down. The absolute last thing I want to do is trivialize the experiences of the game's creator, which is why I feel so confused when she does it to herself via the game she created. It's cognitive dissonance to the extreme.

I suppose accurately reflecting the difficulty via the gameplay would probably make Dys4ia much less accessible, with far fewer people playing or much less completing it. But then, it seems strange to take the route of a Newgrounds flash game anyway. Go with what you know I suppose?

Recommended Revamp: Movie; short indie but not too art-house documentary
Kind of Like: Louie

Pro Tip: Hold the Right Arrow key to be tormented by patriarchal hegemony.
Case #3
Name: Brenda Brathwaite
Game: Train
Fault: Using setting to destroy game and emotionally manipulate players.

At the behest of someone I was having a heated discussion with over this board game, I watched the first 45 minutes of Brathwaite's hour-long talk at GDC 2010. The brunt of the time was spent detailing the critical bombshell of the third and most famous game to date in her ironically-named six-part "Mechanic is the Message" series. Although it's morbidly amusing to wonder what will come of the presumed fourth installment, Mexican Kitchen Workers, I was caught entirely by surprise by her description of the first, The New World.

Brathwaite's daughter was having trouble understanding the horrors of the American slave trade, so a game was devised: index card ships with little painted peg people crossed the ocean on dice rolls, and limited supplies meant not everyone would make it to the other shore. Similarly-colored "families" were split up and treated as expendable commodities by the player in their effort to maximize success. The message was relayed quite brilliantly by the actions of gambling with human souls as cargo; it was so self-evident and clear that her daughter understood after only playing several turns, emphasis on "playing".

The follow-up creation, The Ireland Game, was an entirely different beast. Every detail of the playing surface's construction was a symbolic representation of what Brathwaite knew about her heritage, down to burlap stuffed with family mementos. The means of playing the game, as far as what the people engaging in her creation were to do... never came up. The distinct impression was made that the actual gameplay was so trivial to The Ireland Game that it was, in essence, no more than a particularly overt mixed-media sculpture.

And then it was time for Train: vague and cryptically open-ended rules typed on authentic Nazi typewriters, Kristallnacht broken window play boards, and 60 Juden-yellow passenger pieces worth 100,000 Dead Hebrew Souls each. Some "notoriously tough rabbi" blesses the game as an act of Torah, speaking authoritatively on behalf of every surviving member of the Chosen People in his praise. And how do you win: is it disrupting other players' trains to stop them from reaching the concentration camps, or is it figuring out the blatantly obvious and ham-handedly telegraphed "twist" and refusing to play?

Putting the utter trivialization of genocide on the back-burner for a bit, let's focus on the actual way you play the game, which received all of about 2 minutes' time to make room for more self-congratulatory media blitz recaps. Three people each have a track to move down, and on their turn they can roll to move, roll to add figurines to a train, take an action card which affects movement (for example, a hill causing triple speed), or play a card in their hand. Play cards on whoever you want, and the player who gets the most people to the end of their line wins, with destination names on "Terminus" cards. The conclusion of a game is described as follows: "Train is over when it ends."

Except, oh no, the "Terminus" cards are actually Nazi Whammy concentration camps and you just murdered countless innocents! The game is evil, stop playing, ignore the win condition! Understand the monstrosity of your actions while gaining sympathy for the poor ignorant German train conductors. If only they had known; if only you had known!

Smooth moves, chump; looks like you just got railroaded into ethnic cleansing!
But what exactly did this have to do with dice and cards and three-player board games? Isn't the peril of blind submission to authority something we've known since 1961, thanks to the Milgram experiment? How is Train any more revelatory than being told every Chinese checker marble you jump over is the crippled orphan of an Apple factory worker and expecting you to forfeit? If the Terminus cards were changed to civilian rescue outposts for Bosnian refugees, how would that impact the function of your movement rolls?

Being a highly charged subject, one is inclined to be deeply affected by the experience provided by Train as some kind of participatory performance art... but do not by any means mistake this for the game itself. For someone speaking at GDC rather than touring haute art galleries, it is astonishing to see someone praised for creating a self-destructing game. The attention lavished on the game is proof positive that the general population, versed in the industry or not, is dismal at being able to separate form from content for even a moment. As a parting thought, consider the story of the lone woman who, upon the Big Reveal, continued to play Train unabated as before. Where the other players (and Brathwaite) saw her as an unfeeling monster, she deserves nothing but praise for catching on immediately to both the premise and inherent artifice of Train and winning a private victory over its mock-profundity.

Recommended Revamp: Improv theater; guerrilla-style, unsuspecting audience
Kind of Like: The Billionaires for Bush "protest"

About equal in terms of subtlety.
That's clearly enough for one post. Maybe I'll do another round of cases before conclusion, maybe not. That's the fun of being your own boss!


  1. There is other thing I would say about Train, and it is perhaps the most important, especially given that it has been "blessed as an act of Torah." The message of Train is that 1) anyone could become an unwilling participant in genocide at any time, 2) the German people were completely and blithely unaware that all the Jews were being rounded up and exterminated, and 3) the Germans were free to "end the game" whenever they wanted to.

    For a formal system whose supposed message is to respect the Holocaust and the possibility of it ever happening again, the act of playing it instead absolves everyone involved of blame - they had no idea! They were just following orders!

  2. Just "played" dy4ia - I think it still communicates its intended feelings pretty well, and the denouement in chapter 4 really does have a good feeling of having made progress (especially in the bosom region). It definitely doesn't convey even a fraction of the difficulty of being trans (this is my best guess as a cisgender straight male) but the sense of aggravation, frustration, and tedium is there. The effect isn't so much to make a "game" in itself as to borrow gamelike Warioware phrases, like recognizable snips of melody, to supplement its text. I think it's great interactive media.

    1. I suppose. Something just struck me as off about the translation there. There's only so much either of us can presume about any of it.

    2. I'm afraid that I'm going to read a developer commentary wherein she proclaims it as revolutionizing gameplay or something. I don't think Anna's going to do that though - this is just one of a number of little self-expressive software programs. I like it for that purpose. I'll stab anybody who calls it "the Citizen Kane of games" though.

    3. That's definitely a good assessment. The fawning over Auntie Pixelante joints seems to generally come from outside sources; at the very least you don't hear her crowing jamming her foot in her mouth like other notable independent devs do.

      Mighty Jill Off, however, was sick as heck and just plain ol' mechanically challenging good times.