Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wolfenstein: Unfulfilled Potential

Running through the streets of the fictional town Isenstadt as American special agent B.J. Blazkowicz provides for a very conflicting experience.

One moment in Wolfenstein presents an encounter akin to any other World War II first-person shooter. Blazkowicz will combat the typical Nazi grunts, spraying bullets with an MP40 machine gun and sniping targets with a Kar98 rifle. Allied members of the resistance will draw fire from the enemy, while the Nazi grunts utilize available cover, inform their comrades of Blazkowicz’s lack of ammunition, and throw the occasional grenade.

The next moment in the game relinquishes any semblance of realism, and throws in the absurd. Blazkowicz will find himself overrun by suicidal busty women in ridiculously tight leather suits. Forgoing the obvious firearms, such femme fatales will make use of their exceptional training in hand to hand combat and the martial arts, attacking the perennial hero with scratches and spin kicks.

A third moment in the game provides for an even more unrelated experience, more akin to a horror title, as Blazkowicz is hunted by cunning and completely invisible assassins. Taunting the American protagonist’s lack of perception, such assassins only reveal themselves upon slicing into Blazkowicz’s bowels with dual blades of energy.

Recipe for Success?

Raven Software’s newest first-person shooter, Wolfenstein, seemingly provides all of the necessary ingredients for an appetizing first-person shooter. Enemies range from the ultra-realistic to the completely absurd, as Blazkowicz encounters troops with flamethrowers, massively armored Nazis, and mutated crawling monsters.

Weapons follow a similar trend, ranging from the ubiquitous German-made machine guns and rifles, to energy-based cannons of mass destruction. Environment design is gorgeous and never gets stale as Blazkowicz traverses through varied locations such as dilapidated city streets, bright pastoral farmland, and futuristic Nazi laboratories.

Tying all of the elements together is a decent but not groundbreaking story, seemingly open-ended mission structure, and Veil Powers that allow Blazkowicz to manipulate his abilities, surroundings, and time.

So, given all of the well-executed and polished elements, why does Wolfenstein evoke such indifference? Why isn’t this game the exciting, adrenaline-pumping, innovative first-person shooter that it should be? Why is it so forgettable?

Ultimately, and despite the game’s schizophrenic elements, Wolfenstein feels very familiar. Unfortunately, that familiarity does not satisfy a nostalgia for the game’s predecessors.

Instead, Wolfenstein feels derivative of other modern and popular first-person shooters, incorporating certain design elements of such games and not utilizing them to their fullest potential. Those seemingly innovative elements that Raven Software’s title does introduce into the genre are again not utilized fully, and end up feeling unnecessary and insubstantial.

Too Open-Ended

In terms of combat, while Wolfenstein certainly has a variety of enemy types and weapons, its core is grounded in the all too familiar and linear World War II first-person shooter. Whereas other first-person shooter series have moved on into newer eras and conflicts with differing weapons and enemies, Wolfenstein blandly recreates what has already been popularized and discarded.

Looking down the scope of a Kar98 rifle, or the iron sights of an MP40 machine gun is so recognizable, it borders on tedium. Enemy behavior is no different as German soldiers run from cover to cover, poking their heads out in an all too predictable fashion, while allies hide behind similar cover and create a false sense of urgency by rapidly firing their weapons but doing absolutely no damage.

Other fairly linear first-person shooters have used such mechanics to great success. Part of that success however, could be contributed to heavily scripted sequences that provided for very exciting and adrenaline-pumping moments.

Regrettably, even though Wolfenstein is at times indistinguishable from a number of other World War II titles released in the past, it does not make use of such scripted events to create an exhilarating or intense atmosphere.

Too Linear

Of course, the often cited counter to heavily scripted and linear gameplay is open-ended or free-roaming gameplay.

Raven Software’s shooter makes an attempt at incorporating sandbox elements by utilizing a two-party mission structure. American hero B.J. Blazkowicz is able to travel between multiple hubs in the city of Isenstadt, gaining missions from various underground contacts who work for one of two factions. He can even find side missions outside of the two factions, and has the freedom to choose between multiple missions at any one time.

Outside of the mission structure, Wolfenstein incorporates additional hubs as stores for Blazkowicz to purchase upgrades and ammunition for various weapons.

The mission structure and weapon upgrade systems are seemingly pulled verbatim from another popular first-person shooter, albeit one that is set in war-torn Africa instead of the hackneyed World War II. Unfortunately, just as is the case for combat, Wolfenstein attempts to mimic previously utilized mechanics without fully incorporating the necessary aspects that made such mechanics so successful.

Much of the appeal of open-world games is the ability to explore and discover new experiences.

The city of Isenstadt, while well-made and pleasing to the eyes, is too small and lacking in substance to maintain such an appeal. As a result, the seemingly open world mission structure of Wolfenstein does not elevate the title beyond the level of a linear shooter.

Too Shallow

All that is Wolfenstein is of course not poached from other games. While it certainly owes a lot to its predecessors in the series, and other more modern first-person shooters, Wolfenstein attempts to create innovative gameplay mechanics through the use of Blazkowicz’s Veil Powers.

Utilizing these powers, Blazkowicz has the ability to traverse through otherwise impenetrable obstacles, find weaknesses in enemy combatants, and slow down time, among many other talents.

While seemingly adding multiple dimensions to the gameplay, these Veil Powers prove themselves to be extremely one-dimensional. The abilities are almost completely unnecessary in general combat, and only useful in very specific and contrived situations. Additionally, such situations provide a small contribution to the overall game, and are heavily concentrated in areas that immediately follow Blazkowicz’s initial acquisition of a particular power.

The Veil Powers are design mechanics that could have potentially created gameplay requiring creativity and thought. However, they simply feel gimmicky and unnecessary.

Flash, Substance

On the surface, Wolfenstein seems to have all of the elements necessary for a memorable experience. It is fairly clear that a great deal of time and polish went into developing the game. Enemies, weapons, and environments are all highly varied, pleasing to interact with, and well-executed. The game seems to mix innovative mechanics from other games with new content of its own, to create a satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, none of the components that Wolfenstein incorporates are executed to the extent and precision necessary for an impactful experience. The seemingly open world structure does not elevate the game past the level of a linear shooter, and the lack of exciting scripted moments does not provide for engaging linear gameplay.

The varied elements and high level of polish, coupled with poorly executed core mechanics, unfortunately provide for a game that is exceedingly mediocre. While certainly playable, Wolfenstein provides little incentive to play, and as a result, is ultimately forgettable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Sexual Maturing of the Videogame Industry

“We’ll get home again, Shepard. I believe you’ll lead us through, ‘O Captain, My Captain,’” Ashley states to Commander Shepard as they converse in his quarters.

Changing the topic somewhat, Shepard asks, “It occurs to me that this might be our last night alive. Got any plans?”

“Trying a frontal assault? All that training, you’d think they’d teach you the best approach is indirect. To draw the enemy out of their fixed defenses. There are regs against this, you know. You ready to deal with the consequences?” Ashley responds coyly.

Taking on a more serious tone, she continues, “I’ve spent my whole life fighting to get want I want. To get it done, I had to bury a lot of things. During that whole time, not even once did I feel like I was worth what I was fighting for.” She pauses before revealing, “You make me feel good enough.”

Perhaps sensing both vulnerability and opportunity, Shepard commands, “Bunk here tonight, Ash. With me.”

“Bold words, Shepard. I like bold,” Ashley responds playfully.

“At this point, I think I know fairly well what you like,” Shepard states, sensing the inevitable.

Finally giving in, Ashley capitulates, “You’ve only scratched the surface. Scratch a little deeper.” She grabs Shepard by the back of the neck and pulls him towards her.

Thus starts the twenty second sex scene in Bioware’s Mass Effect that created an uproar on the Fox News program “The Live Desk With Martha MacCallum.” Author and pop psychologist Cooper Lawrence denounced the game due to its so-called pornographic content, stating, “Here’s how they’re seeing women: They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these, you know, hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.”

In a later interview with the New York Times, Lawrence recanted her comments due to the enormous backlash created by her appearance on Fox News. “I recognize that I misspoke. I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke.”

Sexually Confused

While much of the controversy surrounding the sex scene in Mass Effect was created by ignorance and misinformation, it still brings to light the culture surrounding sex in the United States. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have a history of condemnation towards nonmarital sex, sexual promiscuity, and pornography. Sexual liberalism and diversity are often cited as detrimental to “traditional morals” and “family values.”

However, the prevalent political and social stance on sex in America has a history of being completely disconnected from the reality of the subject.

The nineteenth century Victorian era in the United States is one that is often characterized by prudery and censorship, though the reality was much different. As discussed in the journal article The Word Made Flesh: Language, Authority, and Sexual Desire in the Late Ninetenth-Century America, a movement for open discussion on sexuality through the use of obscene language was spawned by the Free Lovers in the 1850s.

Free Love newspapers published articles that rejected the predominant views of children as sexually innocent, and openly discussed the use of birth control. In one 1890 letter in The Word, a mother describes exactly and in detail the act of copulation to her twelve year-old daughter when asked, “Mama, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” Another letter in the newspaper Lucifer describes a man seeking a cure for his “insatiable appetite for human semen.”

The 1950s Kinsey Reports furthered this disconnect between reality and perception by blurring the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality, exposing extramarital sex and premarital sex to be fairly prevalent, and revealing prostitution to be a much more regular practice than originally thought, among many other topics. Combined with the introduction of the first oral contraception, the Kinsey Reports are thought to be a major contributor to the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.

Les Cousins Dangereux

Despite the predominant disconnect between sexual perception and reality in the United States, the videogame industry demonstrates a much more balanced sexual dichotomy in Europe and Japan.

When The Witcher was originally released in 2007, the European versions included nudity in female portrait cards that were collected after engaging in sexual activities with the corresponding in-game characters. The North American version of the game had such nudity censored, an editing that was recently rectified by the Director’s Cut version of the game.

French developer Quantic Dream went through a similar process two years earlier in 2005. In order to release Indigo Prophecy in North America, the studio was forced to remove scenes depicting nudity and sex, one of which was interactive. The game, titled Fahrenheit in other parts of world, remained unedited in European releases.

Outside of Europe, Japan’s large eroge or hentai games market encourages open sexual exploration on the part of the gamer, into areas that otherwise might remain foreign. Themes in such games can range from basic social and relationship development to more taboo subjects such as incest, rape, and bondage.

Earlier this year, as reported by Kotaku, the western media discovered a three-year-old PC game titled Rapelay, a rape game intended for a Japanese audience that was legally released in the country. Due to the fallout of Rapelay and outside influences, Japan’s Ethics Organization of Computer Software decided to cease the manufacture and sale of games that included rape-related activities.

Bedroom Role-Playing

Why has the United States developed so differently from Europe and Japan in terms of sexual perceptions and beliefs? It is a question with answers that can be traced back to the beliefs of the Puritans who sailed to Massachusetts Bay in 1630.

Perhaps a more relevant question, especially in light of the recent self-censorship of the Japanese erotic games industry, would be whether the American videogame industry should strive to increase sexual content in games.

North American developers Bioware and Obsidian Entertainment seem to think so. Upcoming videogames Alpha Protocol, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 are all slated to have various scenes depicting sex under various circumstances.

Speaking to Destructoid, Chris Avellone, lead creative designer on Alpha Protocol, stated, “I think it’s an important step, and it’s not sex for sex’s sake, but it’s part of human interaction that makes you more involved in the game world and your characters.”

“Just like in the real world, sex runs the range from entertainment to a symbol of the depth of feeling between two people, and not having that reflected in a role-playing experience feels [sic] does RPGs an injustice.”

Bioware’s Greg Zeschuk shared a similar sentiment when discussing Mass Effect and Dragon Age with CVG. “I think from our perspective we want to reflect real human relationships. If you’re trying to have a relationship with a character we want to reflect that and the impact of the connection with that character. And if that involves some sort of intimate scenes, we want to provide those for the player.”

Gratuitousness

Avellone’s and Zeschuk’s sentiments are certainly laudable. However, are they too little?

Much of the appeal of videogames results from an escapist factor. Videogames allow players to experience events and emotions that would otherwise be impossible to experience, and do so without any of the real-world consequences.

Even games based in reality, such as those in the Call of Duty series, depict individual protagonists that are able to kill hundreds and even thousands of enemies while absorbing an infinite number of bullets. After completing the game, players are able to continue with their lives healthily and normally. They are not subject to any real-world trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorders, experienced by actual soldiers returning from active duty.

As violence is often exaggerated in videogames, why should sex be any different?

While North American developers are focusing on muted sex grounded in human interaction and complex relationships, European and Japanese developers are able to take the much more gratuitous and escapist approach. The Witcher features a sexually promiscuous protagonist who can hire prostitutes. Japan’s hentai games can feature, as stated, rape and other sexual violence.

Pushing the Envelope

Depicting sexual relationships in a complex and muted light, as some North American developers are currently doing, is simply not enough. As videogames are an escapist form of entertainment, depictions of sex can and should be embellished and overstated, in the same vein of violence.

However, given the predominant disconnect between sexual perception and reality in the United States, increasing sexual content will inevitably create a backlash from various social and political organizations. Taking that sexual content to another exaggerated level will only increase that backlash.

Nevertheless, both exaggerated sexual content and the resulting criticisms are necessary for videogames to mature as an artistic and engaging medium.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Veering From The Path

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“Go to grandmother’s house… And stay on the path.”

Six different granddaughters, with six different ages and six different personalities, are all given the same set of instructions.

Following those instructions could not be simpler. Doing so results in a pleasant meeting as the girl climbs into bed with her grandmother, comforting her with a touch and a smile. It’s warm and cozy… and ultimately a failure. At least that is the game’s assessment if a granddaughter adheres to the given objective.

Few videogames punish players for following the rules. The Path however, is unlike any other game. It encourages players to break the rules and veer off the path; much in the same way the game itself veers from the beaten path that so many videogames traverse today.

The Loss of Innocence

In an exploration of non-linear interactive storytelling, the personalities of each girl are revealed as the forest beyond the beaten path is explored. Each girl can collect certain objects. As an object is collected, the girl remarks on it, revealing a bit about her personality, her likes, and her dislikes.

In coming across a graveyard, Robin, the youngest granddaughter remarks, “People die. It’s hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.”

Ultimately, when following the light presented in-game, each girl will come across her own personal wolf. Representing the epitome of danger and desire, the wolf should be avoided at all costs, but always proves too irresistible to do so.

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Carmen, one of the six granddaughters, is a seventeen year old flirt. She clearly enjoys all the attention she gets from men, especially much older men. Exploring the forest, she comes across a lumberjack’s campsite. Being young and na├»ve she openly approaches the forester, who is clearly hard at work. Carmen flirts with the man, stealing his hat and modeling it for him while shaking her hips. The balding lumberjack attempts to ignore her and continue his work. Ultimately however, Carmen succeeds in seducing the clearly older man.

What occurs next is unknown. In a sequence shared by all girls after meeting their wolf, Carmen simply wakes up right outside of her grandmother’s house. Hours have gone by since she first encountered the lumberjack and it is raining heavily. She stands up and makes her way towards the house. She moves slowly, hunched and dejected.

Through some sort of violent rape, be it mental, emotional, or physical, Carmen has grown up and will never be the same. Upon seeing the surreal and unsettling state of her grandmother’s house, it is fairly clear that her innocence and naivety have been obliterated.

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Grayish Browns & Piano Pieces

Tale of Tales, developer of The Path, uses the word horror to describe its game. It however is not scary, startling, or adrenaline-pumping in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it is disturbing, haunting, and brutal on a more psychological level.

The game deals with mature themes typically absent from the videogame genre, albeit in a subtle manner. The use of drugs and alcohol make an appearance, along with sex and death. All themes are accentuated by the fact that the subject matter revolves around seemingly innocent children.

An appropriately dark mood is set to the thematic material through graphical and aural means. A largely dull palette of dark greens and grayish browns permeates the forest. The faded visuals are further accented by occasional brightness, when traversing the path or first encountering the wolf.

The musical score follows the same pattern, though in a much more oppressive manner. When first encountering the path, the music is high pitched. Piano pieces are combined with non-lyrical singing, and the occasional giggle from an unseen girl. Entering the forest brings a much deeper and robust musical accompaniment with the introduction of bowed string instruments, along with the same pianistic pieces.

However, regardless of the circumstances, the music is always slow, drawn-out, and meandering. More so than the graphics, or any other aspect of the game, the music sets the tone of the game and remains the strongest presence throughout.

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Unforgettable

Is The Path fun? No. Fun is definitely not a word that can be used to describe this game. The gameplay does not evolve beyond basic movement and exploration, both of which are very slowly paced.

However, The Path is engaging, layered, and to a certain extent, beautiful. It deals with subject matter not seen in videogames, and does so through the use of innovative mechanics and the creation of a saturating atmosphere. Simply put, The Path is an experience that stands out in videogaming, and is not something that can be easily forgotten.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Towards Immersion and Accessibility: De-evolution of the Videogame Industry

“Our focus is interactive game play, a whole new way to play, that puts fun back into this business. It allows everybody to pick up and play and isn’t focused on the core gamer.” So said Reginald Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president and CEO, in a 2006 interview with USA Today focused on the upcoming release of the Nintendo Wii.

“Our visuals for Wii will look fantastic, but in the end, prettier pictures will not bring new gamers and casual gamers into this industry. It has to be about the ability to pick up a controller, not be intimidated, and have fun immediately.”

In other words, Nintendo was focusing on accessibility. The company was breaking from the predominant videogame trend of increasingly complicated controllers, increasingly complicated development, and increasingly complicated gameplay.

“We’re going to make it so that everyone who tries the Wii experience talks to their friends and neighbors. It’s going to be a really provocative sight to be seeing teens and 20-years-olds and 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds talking about how different this experience is.”

Of course, with that accessibility came a new level of immersion. Punching a boxing opponent or swinging a tennis racket was no longer performed by the push of a button. Such tasks could now be performed by mimicking the necessary real-life movements.

Nintendo’s strategy of increased accessibility and immersion not only worked, it completely changed the landscape of the videogame industry. As reported by Kotaku, almost 3 million Nintendo Wiis were sold in Japan in 2008, compared to approximately 1 million PlayStation 3s and 300,000 Xbox 360s. Shacknews’ report of 2008 United States hardware sales showed over 10 million Wiis sold, compared to approximately 3.7 million PlayStation 3s and 4.7 million Xbox 360s. Essentially, over the two traditionally dominant gaming markets, Nintendo’s Wii outsold both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by 4 million units in 2008.

An increase in the number of female gamers has even been attributed to Nintendo’s console. As reported by Forbes, 2 million more girls and women started playing videogames between 2008 and 2009. This marked an increase in the percentage of female gamers from 23% to 28%, largely attributed to the Wii’s ease-of-use and its wide appeal.

In June of 2009 alone, female gamers used the Wii twice as much as the Xbox 360, according to the Nielsen Company.

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Follow the Leader

With an increase in accessibility and immersion comes an increase in demographic and market size, and ultimately an increase in profits. Therefore, it is no surprise that Nintendo’s competitors have also shifted gears somewhat in an attempt to improve accessibility and immersion.

Introduced at E3 2009, Microsoft’s Project Natal aims to completely remove the controller from videogaming, in favor of human motion and voice recognition via an RGB camera, depth sensor, and multi-array microphone.

“The controller is a barrier separating video game players from everyone else,” stated Don Mattrick, Xbox senior vice president, at Microsoft’s E3 press conference.

Sharing similar sentiments, renowned film director Steven Spielberg continued, “The vast majority of people are just too intimidated to pick up a game controller… Despite the size of the industry, still 60 percent of households do not own a video game console… The only way to [make] interactive entertainment available to everybody is to make the technology invisible.”

Determined not to lag behind, Sony also introduced its work in motion recognition and control at E3 2009. Emphasizing precision, Sony’s unnamed technology combines the PlayStation Eye, LEDs, gyroscopes, and a multi-directional microphone.

When asked by Edge Online about whether or not the new technology will be more precise than Natal, SCEE vice president of research and development Paul Holman responded, “I think we can just say that it’s very, very precise. People are going to be able to take games in this space forward because of the precision aspects.”

Kish Hirani, SCEE’s head of developer services, continued, “The classic example I give to people is that the most precise thing you can do is write your name using a [piece of] chalk on a blackboard. Try doing that with a mouse and it’s bloody difficult.”

A Brave New World

The trend towards immersion and accessibility is of course, not new in the videogame industry, nor in the entertainment industry as a whole. In an online discussion Warren Spector, developer of renowned videogames such as Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, stated, “The history of media (mass and otherwise) seems pretty clearly a march toward ever more faithful approximations of reality – from the development of the illusion of perspective in paintings to photography to moving pictures to color moving pictures with sound to color moving pictures with sound beamed directly into your home via television to today’s immersive reality games like Quake and System Shock. Is this progression inevitable and will it continue or have we reached the end of the line, realism-wise?”

Given Spector’s dated references to Quake and System Shock, it seems safe to say that the progression towards reality, immersion, and accessibility has and will continue.

In fact, technologies are already being developed to create an experience equal to the Star Trek Holodeck. In conjunction with the entertainment industry, the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is developing FlatWorld, “an immersive virtual reality environment in which users can walk and run freely among simulated rooms, buildings, and streets.”

Using tactile floor speakers, life-size projectile displays, physical props, and strobe lighting, FlatWorld provides for a completely immersive experience in which the flashes and vibrations of a simulated explosion or lightning storm are actually felt by the user.

Interaction with virtual humans or non-playable characters, a large component of accessibility and sensory immersion, is being improved further via the Human Embodiment project at the ICT. Following three fundamental requirements – believability, responsiveness, and interpretability – the project’s research is aimed at understanding particular human behaviors and the various components that are encoded in those behaviors, such as communicative functions, emotions, and personality.

Granted, much of the work at the ICT is being performed in order to improve the mental and emotional condition of U.S. Army soldiers. However, the crossover of such technology into the entertainment sector is not without precedent. The ICT originally developed Full Spectrum Warrior, a real-time tactics videogame released in 2004 for the Xbox and PC, in conjunction with the U.S. Army.

Sensory Overload

The overall trend in the videogame industry towards immersion and accessibility is fairly evident. However, all this technology begs the question, is immersion and accessibility good for the industry?

Hardware developers and software publishers would surely answer that question in the affirmative. As stated, increased accessibility brings an increase in market size, which in turn allows for greater profits.

Conversely, game developers and consumers might not be so enthusiastic about the future. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman present the immersive fallacy. As stated, “The immersive fallacy is the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality.”

In refuting the immersive fallacy, Salen and Zimmerman assert that engagement and engrossment in videogames are not a result of sensory transport, but instead are a result of play itself. “When we play a game, we feel engaged and engrossed, and play seems to take on its own ‘reality’… But the way that a game achieves these effects does not happen in the manner the immersive fallacy implies. A game player does become engrossed in the game, yes. But it is an engagement that occurs through play itself. As we know, play is a process of metacommunication, a double-consciousness in which the player is well aware of the artificiality of the play situation.”

Salen and Zimmerman continue by warning of the danger the immersive fallacy represents. “The immersive fallacy would assert that… to play the character is to become the character. In the immersive fallacy’s ideal game, the player would identify completely with the character, the game’s frame would drop away, and the player would lose him or herself totally within the game character.”

“A player’s relationship to a game character he or she directly controls is not a simple matter of direct identification. Instead a player relates to a game character through the double-consciousness of play. A protagonist character is a… tool, a puppet, an object for the player to manipulate according to the rules of the game. In this sense, the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct.”

“This double-consciousness is what makes character-based game play such a rich and multi-layered experience. In playing the role of Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, the player has a portal into the complex narrative world of the game.”

The Replacements

A large part of the appeal of videogames is to escape reality, to play as a superhuman character. Will advances in motion control and other accessibility-increasing technologies be able to continue that appeal?

Can jumping up and down in real-life successfully translate to superhuman jumps in a game? Can pulling a non-existent trigger in real-life successfully translate to firing an overly large and powerful weapon in-game?

Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski does not seem to think so. Asked by Major Nelson what he thinks of Natal, Bleszinski responded, “Dude, y’know, if there’s any future Gears products [coughs elaborately], it’s not the kind of thing you tag onto a game like that, right?”

“So what you have is the 360 which has captured a lot of the video viewing audience – movies, Netflix – it’s captured a lot of the online gaming, it’s captured a lot of the hardcore games. And you know segue that in. Now you have your yoga program, now you have your dodgeball thing, you have the creepy kid Milo who wants to drown you in the pond – you can do all of it.”

“Will it replace traditional gaming? No, but it’s another amazing way that we can expand the gaming experience to a wider audience and enhance what’s already there.”

While Bleszinski seems confident that newer technologies aimed at increasing sensory immersion and accessibility can co-exist with the more traditional videogame experience, game publishers might view the landscape differently. As motion-control becomes increasingly popular, both inside and outside the videogame demographic, profit-driven videogame companies will naturally move resources away from creating and improving traditional experiences to establishing footholds in the burgeoning markets. In 2008, software giant Ubisoft released 8 titles for the PlayStation 3, 9 titles for the Xbox 360, and amazingly 18 titles for the Nintendo Wii. Are more accessible technologies introducing people to the videogame industry or replacing the traditional experience?

Just a Fad

The question however, might be a moot one. Despite overwhelming hardware and software sales for the Wii, its sustainability remains in question. Over the first six months of 2009, Nintendo’s preeminent console had the lowest percentage of active users among its competitors, according to Nielsen Games. The Wii even trailed behind its predecessor, the GameCube. This has of course been attributed to the influx of casual gamers on the Wii, who by definition do not engage in videogaming as much as their hardcore brethren.

While the trend seemingly brings into question Microsoft’s and Sony’s respective investments into motion recognition hardware, it may have no bearing on the companies’ decision making process. After all, how often a consumer plays a videogame is irrelevant, as long as said consumer is purchasing the software.

Without a doubt, the videogame industry is moving towards hardware and software intended to increase accessibility and sensory immersion. Salen and Zimmerman, in commenting on Warren Spector’s query about realism, assert that sensory immersion has existed as a more cyclical trend culturally. “Spector’s selective history of entertainment technologies offers one reading of the development of media. But there are others. History rarely provides such a linear progression, and in regard to immersion, cultural developments tend to be cyclical… Immersion as a representational goal has gone through a number of stylistic cycles over the centuries. In the last several decades… immersion has in fact become less prominent in fields like art and literature.”

Whether or not this will hold true for interactive entertainment remains to be seen. Can complex real-time strategy titles such as Starcraft exist with the limited control schemes presented by motion recognition technology? Can the mood and atmosphere created in games like Bioshock exist with real-life hand gestures? Can intense combat and firefights like those in F.E.A.R. be accurately conveyed utilizing motion control? One can only hope that quality in gameplay and design remain at the forefront of the videogame industry, instead of accessibility and immersion.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ode to Psychonauts: A Retrospective

With the upcoming release of Double Fine Productions’ Brutal Legend garnering much critical attention, I thought it would be prudent to prepare myself for such a unique title by examining the past work of Tim Schafer. Renowned for being well-written and humorous, Schafer’s work in the adventure game genre has remained elusive to me, perhaps because I’ve always found adventure games to be slightly tedious, or perhaps because such games were released prior to videogames becoming a staple in my life.

With the re-release of The Secret of Monkey Island and the episodic release of Tales of Monkey Island, I thought there could be no better time to delve into the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. However, I remained hesitant due to my admitted and possibly unjust bias against adventure games.

Adamant about finding a threshold into the inner workings of Tim Schafer and discovering why his games are so critically well-received, I settled upon a more contemporary game, Psychonauts. Double Fine Productions’ inaugural game, released in April of 2005, was immediately recognized for its innovation and creativity, winning Best Original Game at the 2006 E3 Game Critics Awards, Best Screenplay at the 2006 British Academy Video Games Awards, and Best Writing at the 6th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards.

Despite all of its critical acclaim, I had not had the opportunity or inclination to experience Pscyhonauts until recently. Upon playing, I found a game that is so diverse in scope, so creative in presentation, and so passionate in execution, it is simply awe-inspiring.

Into the Minds of Others

Exploring the insane asylum, Razputin, or Raz as he likes to be called, comes across Edgar, a well built man of seemingly Spanish decent. Edgar, despite having a chain around his left ankle, is lost in thought as he attempts to construct a house of cards. He clearly fancies himself as an artist, given the numerous splashes of paint across the floor and the many canvases lining the walls.

Seeing a particular unfinished painting on an easel, Raz announces himself with the question, “Whatcha painting there?”

Edgar, seeing Raz for the first time, responds in a heavy Spanish accent, “That is my patron, my psychiatrist, my warden.”

“Looks like Dr. Loboto to me,” proclaims Raz. “Is he the one who chained you up?”

Moving towards Raz and the painting, Edgar casually responds, “The doctor won’t let me go until I complete my treatment.”

“So why don’t you just finish the painting and go home?” asks Raz.

“Why don’t I just…?” Edgar’s voice trails off as he picks up a brush and approaches the painting. He struggles to place the brush on the canvas, as if fighting some physical barrier, though it is obvious the barrier is an affliction of the mind.

Suddenly, Edgar breaks through his psychological impediment and very quickly and precisely touches paintbrush to canvas. In a matter of seconds it seems as if he has overcome his mental hurdles and completed the painting.

Not having yet seen the finished painting, Raz offers encouragement, “Wow! See. Sometimes you just have to…” As Raz moves to view the completed painting, he is left dumbfounded. “Huh… You painted a bullfight over the doctor’s face. Why a bullfight? Huh?”

Losing control of his calm temperament, Edgar becomes enraged and screams, “Every time! Every time it is the same! The matador! The bull! How I despise you both! But my hands won’t let you go.” He yanks the painting off of the easel and throws it to the side. Picking up a fresh canvas to replace the one he just discarded, Edgar states, “That is why I am here, chained in more ways than you can see.”

“A prisoner of art,” states Raz.

“A prisoner of art,” confirms Edgar as he attempts to regain control of his temper.

After a brief but slightly awkward pause Raz declares, “Well, I’m gonna go downstairs… You good?”

“I’m good,” replies Edgar in a lighthearted manner.

As a Psychonaut in training, Raz has the ability to enter other people’s minds in order to help them overcome their psychological afflictions. Deciding to aid Edgar in his struggle against the matador and the bull, Raz enters Edgar’s mind and is placed in a world inspired by Old Madrid and the father of velvet painting.

Thin alleyways wind their way through towering buildings of the most engulfing black, accented by fluorescent pastel cornerstones and windows that appear as chalk on slate. Rivers of bright orange and pink paint run through the town square and city sewers. The sky emulates the style of van Gogh as swirls of fuchsia and cadmium-yellow drift across a black background.

At the heart of the world stands Edgar, who toils endlessly at constructing a house of cards tall enough to reach an ever beautiful yet tearful woman in the sky. His work is continuously thwarted however, due to the constant rampaging of El Odio, the bull.

In his desire to help Edgar, Raz bounds through the town, dodging El Odio’s attempts at goring him. He purchases paintings from artistically-inclined canines that transform into useful tools and battles masked wrestlers in an attempt to gain more playing cards for Edgar’s tower.

Upon collecting all the necessary cards, Edgar finally completes a tower that is strong enough to stand up against El Odio, and Raz finally comes face to face with the mysterious and sad woman. Unfortunately, so does El Odio. What ensues is a battle against Edgar’s innermost demons, demons that he has carried and allowed to affect his life since his days on the high school wrestling team.

The surreal escapade into Edgar’s mind is saturated with seemingly unrelated and random subject matter. How can post-impressionist inspired design, bull fighting, talking dogs, and professional wrestling be related? Amazingly, when considering Edgar’s personality and history, it is all perfectly cohesive. Every superficially distinct detail acts as an example or metaphor for Edgar’s interests, desires, emotions, and faults. The cohesiveness of such random material is almost oxymoronic in nature. Attempting to even think about the amount of creativity and thought that went into designing Edgar’s personality, history, and consequent mental world is simply unfathomable.

Perhaps most amazing of all is that Raz’s episode with Edgar is only a small fraction of the experience that is Psychonauts. There are a multitude of other minds that Raz must enter, each equal to Edgar’s in diversity, creativity, intelligence, and cohesiveness; but all are completely different in subject matter.

Over the course of the game, Raz partakes in a 1970s Studio 54 inspired dance party, complete with disco balls, flashing dance floors, and lava lamps. He explores an M. C. Escher derivative suburbia populated by poorly disguised clandestine agents, intent on discerning the location of the notorious Milkman. Raz even enters the mind of an oversized lungfish, and discovers a population so small that he is forced to take on the role of Goggalore, an amalgamation of Godzilla and King Kong.

The only elements that bind each of these fantastic realms are the Tim Burton-esque art style and of course, the main character, Raz.

Character, Character, Character

In a departure from the physically imposing gun-toting adult protagonists utilized throughout the videogame medium, Psychonauts follows the exploits of a ten year-old boy at summer camp. Far from being shy and awkward, as most children would be at a foreign summer camp, Raz is outgoing to an extent that can only be a product of a repressed childhood. He is overconfident and brash, and even approaches a level of arrogance that is off-putting.

Raz however, never reaches that level due to his selfless and noble nature. He is eager to meet and befriend all camp-goers regardless of their social status, and is tireless in all of his endeavors, whether they involve learning a new psychic power or saving his friends from evil machinations.

Raz is the consummate hero, albeit in a ten year-old’s body. In fact, it is that ten year-old demeanor that truly endears him to the player. Despite having to combat enemies and overcome challenges that would be daunting to even the most highly trained adult, Raz never ceases to act like a lighthearted child. In some truly hilarious antics, he verbally taunts enemies and dances around their fallen bodies. He is even sensitive about certain adult issues, such as having a girlfriend.

“So hey, have you seen any other humans around here?” Raz asks a member of the Lungfishopolis resistance. “I’m looking for a girl called Lilly.”

“The government archives might have some information about your young girl friend Goggalore,” declares the resistance member.

Becoming contemplative Raz states, almost to himself, “Yeah I don’t know if she’s really my girlfriend… I mean… I think she…”

The resistance member cuts Raz off, “I only meant that she is your friend who is a girl Goggalore.”

Raz’s insecurity about his “friend who is a girl” provided me with one of many laugh-out-loud moments in Psychonauts. It also contributed to Raz being one of the most well-developed videogame characters that I have ever encountered. Because of him, I am forced to rethink my advocacy of the silent, no-named protagonist as the quintessential immersive avatar.

Collect This

Despite all the thought and creativity that was clearly poured into Psychonauts, the game is not without its flaws. Perhaps the most glaring fault lies in one of its basic gameplay principles. In between fantastic adventures through deranged minds and boss battles that are both challenging and innovative, Psychonauts adheres to one of the oldest and overused mechanics, collecting objects.

Few objectives create a sense of tedium more than those involving the finding and collecting of x number of items, to be returned to the quest- or objective- giver at a later time. It is a staple of platform games and role-playing games alike.

There are an overwhelming number of collectable items available in Psychonauts including Arrow Heads, Mental Cobwebs, PSI Cards, PSI Cores, Figments, and Brains. Each item serves a specific purpose in the game, such as increasing an attribute or acting as currency. For the most part these items are accessible, and are acquired simply by following the prescribed path. Those items that require some additional exploration can be worth the effort, given the bonuses they provide, but are not typically necessary.

There are however, those few moments in which Raz is essentially removed from the overarching storyline, and forced to collect enough of some item in order to return to plot events. One such moment occurred when Raz was forced to purchase a Cobweb Duster. Not having enough currency to purchase the item, Raz was reduced to scouring camp grounds in order to detect and extract deep Arrow Heads.

Missions of this type are often immersion-breaking, and the examples in Psychonauts are no exception. Given the importance of Raz’s primary objectives, wouldn’t it have been more prudent for the camp staff to have simply given Raz the Cobweb Duster? Perhaps not.

Regardless, all that is good in Psychonauts far outweighs any minor blemishes that may afflict the game. Even when faced with tedious tasks, I was more than happy to finish them quickly in order to discover the next stage of Raz’s adventure.

Onward and Upward

Having finally experienced Psychonauts over four years after its initial release, I can say that few titles, if any, have had more of an impact on how I view videogames in general. The game encompasses so many themes and emotions that I continue to process the experience days after completion. Poignant moments are littered in between hilarity, action, and even horror.

Psychonauts is a videogame that stands at the peak of storytelling and character development. For better or worse, it’s inevitable that I will compare all future games to Psychonauts, at least on a subconscious level.

I now clearly realize why Tim Schafer’s games are almost always so critically well-received. Though, I am slightly sad about having waited so long to come to a conclusion long held by avid videogame players, developers, and journalists. All I can do is look forward to experiencing more of Tim Schafer’s work, both past and future.