Monthly Archives: October 2012

Something that a lot of game players and developers like to talk about is those semi-rare occasions when a study comes out discussing the benefits of playing games, as opposed to how they are turning people into murderous drones. That kind of recognition of the hobby is nice, I suppose, but we really shouldn’t need that kind of affirmation– I guess it’s mostly just refreshing as counterpoint against the general consensus on our hobby, which is really the same as for most hobbies when you come down to it, as being a vacuous waste of time. In our current culture, anything that doesn’t make money and isn’t on the short-list of Culturally Acceptable Pastimes is considered to be fundamentally masturbatory. At most they are valued as a method of relaxation, with the idea that they can be enriching and educational in their own right rarely even considered: So, sports and music are respectable hobbies, beneficial hobbies, while games and models and the like just pointless enthusiasms.

When we describe behavior, there tends to be two fundamental approaches: The descriptive, which describes what the subjects do, and the normative, which describes what they ought to. If it’s not already obvious, I am firmly ensconced in the descriptive camp, because I prefer pragmatism to judgments. Thus, to me, the question isn’t so much “What hobbies are beneficial?” as “Why do people choose the hobbies they do?”

“What do they get from them?”

People don’t choose their entertainment entanglements at random. Everything they choose to do, they choose to do because it serves some need of theirs. Sometimes, it’s interesting to wonder why certain people gravitate towards the things they do. Sometimes, it’s interesting to think about what facets of who they are emerged from those hobbies, which traits fostered those enthusiasms and which, in turn, were fostered by them.

So. What have I learned from playing video games? What have I learned from making them?

I’ve learned to pay attention. I’ve learned to look where other people are looking and see what they’re seeing, and to try to see under that and see why they’re seeing it. I’ve learned to see the optimal path, to learn quickly what is feasible given a certain amount of resources.

I’ve learned discretion. I’ve learned that victory often lies in knowing when the situation is disadvantageous and immediately backing out and trying another approach. I’ve learned that predictability is dangerous, exploitable and poisonously comfortable.

I’ve learned humility. I’ve learned that victory isn’t always possible, unless one knows when and how to redefine victory and declare the new mission a success. I’ve learned how fortunate I am to be in a position where my ambitions are even feasible, even if I should never live up to them.

Even if games lie to us about the nature of solutions, they show us those solutions exist, though we must struggle to find them.

Even if games lie to us about the nature of choice, they show us we have power for change, internal and external.

Even if games lie to us about the nature of death, of life, of war, of hate, of love, of friendship, of humanity, of sex, they show us we exist and that we touch the world simply by existing.

It’s too much to ask to be taught everything. So, it all comes down to which lessons you find compelling, doesn’t it?

All of this was originally an illustrative example within the earlier post Agency and Narrative. However, at one point this example ended up taking up about half the essay, so I decided to post it up later as supplemental material. THIS IS THAT LATER.

Another particularly interesting case study when it comes to granting and restricting player agency is the Half-Life series. At a time when most games favored either elaborate cut-scenes to deliver story content or bare-bones ‘excuse’ plots, Half-Life took a principled approach that determined that the player would always be in control– or, at least, as in control as the player character was. Story elements were conveyed by way of environmental cues, eavesdropped dialogue, and having characters talk at the player. This model broke apart in a few places in the first game, and in the sequel a few more as it played with these ideas.

Example 1: In both games, there are characters who serve both as exposition and as gatekeepers– mostly random scientists in the first game and Alyx in the second. However, in the first game the scientists are in constant danger, and the player must remain vigilant lest one of them die and render the game impossible to complete– conversely, Alyx is basically invincible, and the sections of the game where she’s interacting with the player there is no real gameplay to speak of. The game is put on hold to allow the designers to continue telling their story.

Example 2: In both games, there are segments where the player is disempowered and disarmed. In Half-Life, this happened when the player is ambushed in a dark room by a couple of random soldiers. The player has no opportunity to react to the lights going out by, say, swinging around in a circle holding the trigger of an assault rifle down and laughing maniacally. This was, let’s face it, a lousy solution to the problem. Valve could have easily come up with some sort of scenario where the ground collapses underneath the player and they fall into their captors hands, or where the player gets gassed and passes out, or whatever. Having the player defeated by a dark room is a clear undermining of player agency, one without any basis in the game world itself (the tutorial teaches you how to use the flashlight for a reason).

Half-Life 2 tries to get around this specific problem by forcing the player to, in order to progress the plot, submit themselves to a device which renders them helpless and allows their equipment to be stolen. This is actually an interesting idea, putting the player into a position where they have to intentionally disempower themselves to progress. Yet, in the end, the overall effect is if anything even more off-putting. Why, in a world which has hitherto given the player every opportunity to bypass obstacles, to climb over pipes and through vents and into sewers, is the player now forced to jam themselves into a pod rather than, say, climbing onto the pod, or running across the beams supporting the system, or causing a ruckus so that guards come to shoot him and he can overrun them like a salmon swimming upstream?

The thing about Half-Life is, though the design is extremely competent, it is anything but elegant. It’s the nexus of a million semi-conflicting ‘best practices’ of game design, which are held together by its strong unified approach to narrative delivery. However, because of that, anything which threatens that unity, that intuitive narrative experience, threatens to completely unhinge the game’s design– and, because of the disparate design influences, creating actual synchronicity between the game’s design and narrative is even more tricky than usual.

In a more inherently constrained game, a game where the player constantly has to make decisions about what he can effectively carry, one could easily enforce the removal of the character’s equipment simply by forcing a situation where it’s not possible for that character to carry all of his equipment– for instance, a flimsy bridge or a cumbersome object the player has to carry. However, since in Half-Life and the traditional FPS genre whose conventions it inherited there isn’t even an interface constructed for dropping items in the first place, any methodology for depowering the player is by necessity contrived.

Because the overall design is so un-constrained, because the player expects to be able to carry enough weaponry to level several tanks (as turns out to be necessary), because the design of the game appears to offer the player so much freedom, whenever that freedom is taken away in a contrived manner by the requirements of the plot the player feels that much less free.

Short update today, things have been busy. I think I have some bonus material I can put up to compensate on Monday morning though…

I, like most white people, am fond of Halloween.

There’s a few things I like about it. I like October itself, the new crispness of fresh whelped Winter just starting to infiltrate the breeze, red leaves, a bit of moisture like sea breeze even far away from the sea. I like the way it’s a holiday that isn’t a real holiday, not government sanctioned, no real religious meaning aside from the vestigial any more, but everyone celebrates it anyway. I love ‘spooky’, the beautiful surreal campy not-scary horror that for some reason we mostly target at kids despite it being, seriously, just fucking great.

However: I’m actually not that big a fan of costumes. Read More

Worst week for the project thus far! May as well just get that out there right away and say it, and I’m not thrilled about that since last week was also pretty bad. Oh well. There’s gonna be bad weeks, and dwelling on it is not going to make them less shitty.

A quick summary of what’s gone wrong:

Rapid weather fluctuations are messing with my mood, leaving me alternately depressed and angry

Computer problems are also messing with my mood (as well as obviously my means of productivity),  leaving me depressed and angry.

I’m coming down with a cold or something, I don’t know, but my nose seems to be trying to crawl into itself and I’m super tired, which makes everything harder which makes me depressed and angry.

Tedious programming assignments and strange social interactions leave me… you know what, I’m noticing a trend here. So, yeah. Depressed and angry.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve started getting depressed over my anger and angry about my depression, so maybe that’s turning a corner. Maybe that’s making some fucking lemonade. Maybe that’s a silver goddamn lining. Maybe that’s life opening another stupid piece of shit window. Maybe that’s using the mothafuckin’ character for chaos to mean opportunity. We’ll see. I hope so. Read More

And just look how happy he is!

There’s a huge subject I’d like to tackle, but it’s a bit difficult for me to pin down. It’s something I feel very strongly about, and because I feel so strongly it tends to bleed into a lot of apparently disparate areas of my life. I’d like to begin by talking a little bit about video game violence– but that isn’t where I want to end up. This is simply the most ready point of contact between this subject and the games discussion that generally drives my writing on Problem Machine. This is going to be the first part of a series, and I don’t know how long this series will go on for and I don’t know what it will encompass. I’m exploring my own ideas on these subjects even as I try to construct arguments, which is… really exciting now that I think about it.

We’ve all gotten used to periodic furors over violence in video game content. Even though Jack Thompson, once an endless fountain of specious criticism and controversy, has been spectacularly discredited, there are plenty willing to blame video games for rises in violent crime– curiously, these complaints seemed to peak in frequency when violent crime was at an all time low and, now that it’s back on the rise due to economic factors (as always), they have been less prevalent. Go figure. They’ll be back though, and not without some justification, though this can be hard to see from the position we sit in. In fact, the same perspective that makes it difficult for those who play games frequently to engage with these criticisms may actually grant them some validity. Read More

Okay, after (mostly) wrapping up the map editor, I gotta say: I was pretty tuckered out. So I took a couple of days off, tried to pay off some of my sleep debt, wrote a couple of IMO pretty good articles, and just got back to work a couple of days ago. I wrote up a new schedule to ignore, and set to work on a couple of improvements to the engine which seemed relatively easy: First, improving the level drawing code to cut down on the rendering time, and second rewriting any classes necessary to improve the resolution to 1920×1080.


I think pretty much everyone who’s programmed professionally has had the experience of having to debug or reuse someone else’s code, looking it over, and wondering “what the FUCK was this guy thinking?” Now, in order to get some of this stuff working properly, I had to dig back into some of the parts of my program I consider ‘finished’. I’m sure you all can see where this is going.

What the FUCK was that guy thinking? Read More

In games everything has a clear cause and effect. If you get your face stomped by a cyclops, it’s because you forgot to re-equip your Axe of Extravagant Evisceration after using the Feather Duster of Tidiness for that side-quest, or because you didn’t level your dude on enough giant rats and/or sleeping hobos, or because you drank that Tequila of Fffffffuck the night before. The point is, it’s a tenet of ‘good game design’ that everything that happens within the systems of game, and particularly those things which stand a good chance of screwing over the player, all have a clear cause.

Conversely, in life, we find ourselves struggling to get out of bed for no good goddamn reason. Read More