You Beat the Game. Thank you for Playing!

conglaturation

References

McKenzie Wark, “Capture All: SimCity, Gamespace , and Play,” in the Avery Review, no. 6 (March 2015), http://averyreview.com/issues/6/ capture-all.

The Age of the Quickstarter

In the past few weeks we have seen an inordinate number of highly successful Kickstarter campaigns. Between the more recently successful Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night project and the funding records being smashed by Banjo-Kazooie’s spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee, it seems as though there are some new trends emerging in the way Kickstarter is being used for digital game projects (Parfit 2015; Hannley 2015). While Kickstarter’s mission has remained the same: “Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative projects” (Kickstarter 2015); the way that this manifesto has been interpreted by those who use the platform has continued to grow and change over time. In light of recent events I would like to put forward a word that describes a particular style of campaign, the “Quickstarter”.

The Quickstarter is characterized by an overwhelming amount of funding in a short period of time, for a project being pitched by established names in the games industry who are using the platform to generate hype rather than revenue. These game projects often appeal to a “gamers” desire to have a voice and take a stand in how they feel games ought to be developed – often feeding into a deeply held mistrust of modern triple A development and narratives surrounding creative freedom and Intellectual Property Rights. In the case of Yooka-Laylee we are looking at the very same people involved in developing the classic Nintendo 64 game Banjo-Kazooie, developing a game that is essentially a Banjo-Kazooie game in a thin, legally acceptable disguise in order to create the sequel they clearly wanted to make but couldn’t because the rights to Banjo-Kazooie are caught up in a legal nightmare between the original creators, Rareware and Microsoft. It’s more than the simple fact that gamers want a Banjo-Kazooie sequel to which the Yooka-Laylee Kickstarter owes its success – gamers also want to say “fuck you” to Microsoft for buying Rare from Nintendo and spending the next 13 years or so grinding the studio into the dirt (although personally I thought Viva Piñata on Xbox 360 was a damn fine game).

This is essentially how gamers see the relationship between Rareware and Microsoft

This is essentially how gamers see the relationship between Rareware and Microsoft

Japanese Developer Koji Igarashi engages in a similar narrative when he explains his desire to create a worthy sequel to his classic Playstation title Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but laments that modern publishers are claiming that these games will no longer be popular enough to sell. This ascribes a certain amount of importance and prestige to fans of Symphony of the Night, challenging them to put their money on the line and scream “I will play this! How dare anyone say otherwise!” I can’t help but wonder how much the success of this game hinged on spurring the gaming community into action by masquerading this genre of game as “unpopular” and niche, when it clearly isn’t. One only needs to look at the successes of games like Axiom Verge, The Fall, and the host of other games sporting the “Metroidvania” tag on Steam to know that these games have a sizable audience.
What’s interesting about this video is the flat out admission that the video is being used to illustrate demand rather than generate revenue, and by meeting the arbitrary financial goal so quickly Igarashi was able to secure a whole lot of free attention in the mainstream gaming press. So what are the implications of these Quickstarter style games? Well as a positive it helps attract newcomers to the platform who may have been previously put off by some of the more dubious Kickstarters of the past. As Amy Joyce stated in her Kickstarter blog post a few weeks back, “there is always the fear you will fund a project on Kickstarter and the developers are merely using this platform as a quick way to make money or that the project will never be developed.” This is a fear that has been compounded and made a reality on more than one occasion over the years (see the disastrous Yogventures saga). But here the risk is low because the developers are already established in the industry and they are essentially making a game that they have already proven themselves to be masterful at developing. But my inner killjoy (or probably outer killjoy, if I’m honest) can’t help but feel like this is flying in the face of the spirit of Kickstarter. Games are an artistic form, and art necessitates risks and experimentation to some extent. I’m the kind of person who firmly believes that games should be broadening in terms of audiences, the games themselves, and those creating them – and Kickstarter is the perfect place to give a leg up to newcomers with fresh ideas looking to find an audience for their project. In the case of Quickstarter campaigns like Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained all we are seeing is a predictably high demand for beloved developers to make the same game that everyone already proved they loved over a decade ago. Sure, both these games could easily be excellent. But it’s sad to think that the most successful Kickstarter campaigns are showing us is that all we really want is to move back in with our ex’s.

Machinima and Me

When I was around 11 or 12 I got really into watching James Bond movies after falling in love with the classic Nintendo 64 game GoldenEye 007 – a first-person shooter based on the James Bond movie of the same name (sans the “007”). My obsession with the game turned into an obsession with the movie, and an obsession with comparing the two and noting the disparities and the way the narrative points in the game differed from the original text in order to take full advantage of the differences in game and movie media forms. It was around this time that I discovered our new family VCR had the inputs the Nintendo 64 console used, which meant I could feed the console through the VCR whilst playing and record choice moments of gameplay footage as I played. I would do this over and over several times, trying my best to record a version of the game that best served and adhered to the plot of the movie. It was a performance and a process of remediation – it was machinima (Barwell and Moore 2013).

Image sourced from here

When my family finally came to possess a handheld video camera, it wasn’t long before I was filming videos around my home as I fed floppy disks into my family computer to perform the action of “stealing secret data” and “uploading viruses” to sabotage international crime syndicates – all shot from the first person perspective with the barrel of a fake gun pointing outwards awkwardly from the bottom right corner.

Image sourced from here

Oddly enough, the rest of the machinima wave kind of bypassed me. I knew vaguely that Red vs. Blue was a thing, but I’ve never much cared for Halo as a franchise and I always felt like the humour in it was alien to me on some level. At this stage in my life I was still on dial-up internet and I was only really exposed to games on the Nintendo Gamecube. I also had no friends at the time who were particularly interested in video games. So from 2000 to 2006, as machinima grew into cultural significance, I went through my teen years growing more and more distant from online gaming culture (Picard 2007). By the time I had finished my HSC the Wii was just about to launch and I would find myself rediscovering my love of videogames as well as buying a Playstation 2 and catching up on some of what I had missed out on during my teen years. But something I never quite got into was the alien and complicated online gaming cultures. These insular cultures had grown and developed in my absence into a range of references, codes and memes that I would ultimately end up rejecting – and although I could always see the merit and appeal in it, this included machinima.

But as games culture grew larger and more complex, along with digital technologies, new kinds of game cultures and participatory media forms grew that I feel much more at home with. Let’s Play videos on YouTube and their live-streamed, participatory counterparts ‘Twitch Streams’, are examples of evolutionary continuations of machinima. Berkeley (2006) argues that one of the distinctive aspects of machinima is in the unique method of production, which necessitates engaging with video game systems, rather than the cultural artefact it produces. I think that this point holds true for Let’s Plays and Twitch Streams as well. Like machinima, the Let’s Play or the Twitch Stream is a process of cultural appropriation, performance, dramatic subversion and meta-interactivity (Barwell and Moore 2013).

Although in my experience both these newer digital forms are often steeped in “toxic gamer” behaviours like the use of rape jokes or even just an abundance of shouting, I have found some like Leigh Alexander’s Low Fi Let’s Play that I find more thoughtful, reflective and interesting. I have included an example of her series below, which adds to the travel narrative of the game itself by being recorded by Leigh at an airport whilst waiting for a flight. Although the game itself (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) is a simple story of investigation and world travel, Leigh’s commentary and choice of recording location add a meta-narrative to the game. It’s an intriguing intersection where video game journalism crosses paths with machinima, cultural archaeology, autoethnography, performance and entertainment.

Faith No More – a Review of ‘Deity’

Whilst the looming pressure of a steadily approaching deadline grows in the back of my stressed out mind regarding my own game projects, this week I was given the opportunity to playtest a board game that has been in development locally by a game team outside of our class. Trapezium Games came to our Digital Games Cultures class this week to talk about Deity, a board game they have in the late stages of development which would give me the opportunity to sit down with some of my peers and role-play as a god of my own design. Or, more accurately, role-play as ‘someone who is pretending to be entirely relaxed and on top of things but really they are in a quiet state of panic due to deadlines.’ But nevertheless I actually thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Deity, so let’s take a closer look at why.

Images sourced from owlturd.com

Images sourced from owlturd.com

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Images sourced from owlturd.com

I think one of Deity’s great achievements is in the way the game offsets the difficulty in having players manually working a dynamic, complex system by making it as clear, logical and procedural as possible. The game has two boards – one represents the heavenly realm where the gods spend their faith in order to assert their dominance; and the other represents the earthly world where humankind gets shepherded about and imposed on by sudden calamitous meteorological events. Managing your followers down below is necessary for generating the faith you need to claim territory, summon minions and gain victory points up above. So essentially there are two games being played here that just happen to share a single currency and both are games are constantly feeding off one another. This is a classic example of a game that is far more challenging for writers to explain than it is for players to figure out on the fly. This is all thanks to the explicitly clear game loop that imposes a clear procedure on each turn in the game is made easy to follow and quick to learn by having it clearly and concisely listed out on the side of the board.

The duel game boards of Deity.

The duel game boards of Deity.

Cards are implemented in the game quite thoughtfully as well, each being clearly labelled with a letter that indicates at what phase of the game the card is allowed to be played. The cards are also segregated into three separate decks which are gradually introduced over the course of the game. A single game is broken up into three distinct “ages” that are progressed through over time at the conclusion of each primary game loop. This adds narrative flavour to the game and helps to prevent any one player getting an early stranglehold on the game that can be sustained throughout. The rich don’t necessarily get richer in Deity, as each age ushers in new gameplay elements and game changing conditions to adapt to. The final Apocalypse Age is particularly good at bringing out sudden, dramatic changes to the game; – this has the added benefit of preventing the game from becoming a long, drawn out war of attrition as tends to happen in some games (I’m looking at you, Risk!).

Apparently our strategies were "unusual".

Apparently our strategies were “unusual”.

I mentioned narrative earlier and much of the architecture of Deity is clearly built with the idea of sparking narrative creation. The game imposes just enough storytelling elements into the game to coax players into engaging with role playing on a deeper level than they would have otherwise felt comfortable doing. It’s the little touches like coming up with your own god name and flavour (eg. ‘Regulus, god of high fibre diets’) coupled with random elements like rolling to determine your relation to the other gods in the game that makes the game engrossing and personal in ways that will constantly be unique.

When our playtest of Deity finally wrapped up I must admit that I walked away from it feeling less burdened than what I had felt going into it. Heck, I even had to resist the temptation to take up a spare spot in the second group of play testers. In the end I may not have managed to “out-god” my opponents, but I did manage to allow myself a fleeting moment of respite from my pitiful, mortal concerns. In the end isn’t that better than winning in some tabletop game, no matter how well designed?

The answer is “no”.

It was E3 in Our Class this Week

This week was the week to present our game ideas to the class in order to give an idea of what we have done, what we plan to do, how we’re going to achieve it, and what we’ll need help with.

For those of you who did not have the pleasure of watching me splutter my way through the presentations in the flesh, or if you would like to look back over the pitch in detail, here are the slides for both the games I was involved in presenting today.

Retail Despair

AnotheRevolution

https://prezi.com/embed/bzqem6siadmg/?bgcolor=ffffff&lock_to_path=0&autoplay=0&autohide_ctrls=0#

System of a Downloadable Game

Cast you mind back through the cold, wintery mists of the past 3 weeks to a blog post of mine where I spoke about the emergence of narrative-focused games like Gone Home and Life is Strange. The slow pace of these games, which lack reflex-driven action sequences and don’t present many gameplay challenges for the player to overcome, are the kind of games that often get labelled as “interactive narratives” or likened to “visual novels”. It is often a criticism levelled at games like Gone Home and Life is Strange that without a sufficient quota of “gameplay” being met, the games would have been better as moves or books. But as Frasca (2001) argues, the notion of looking at games from a narrative perspective does a disservice to the medium – which is less fundamentally concerned with narrative representation and more concerned with systematic simulation. To quote Malaby (2007)

“a game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.”

A game is a simulation that models behaviours – a complex system of mechanics that generate experiences when operated by a player, and these experiences are what observers interpret on a narrative level (Frasca 2001). With this in mind I want to re-examine Gone Home and Life is Strange from the perspective of games as simulation tools give examples of how experiences these games offer would be lessened (or at least altered) had they simply been books or movies.

An example of an object players can find and manipulate in Gone Home. Image sourced from here.

The key difference between a game and representational media is that a videogame allows for player experimentation, which produces alterations to the narrative experience (Frasca 2001). Because a player is “driving” the actions of the protagonists as they rifle through draws and personal belongings in Gone Home, the player is able to inject privacy invasion and voyeurism narrative elements into the game to differing extents. Consequently, the world the game simulates is bigger than what a passive narrative would offer, and allowing players the interact with most objects and furniture in the game world means that although the plot points of the game never vary, the experiences of each play through will never be narratively identical.

Life is Strange is full of branching choices for the player to make. Image sourced from here.

The very same thing is true of Life is Strange, which presents the player with branching narrative choices that alter the way the story unfolds based on the inputs of the player. Some of these “choices” actually need to be discovered by the player, who could easily miss the option to look inside a classmates dorm bin and discover the pregnancy test hidden within. This is not something a player has to see or act upon to “finish” the game, but the complex ways in which a discovery like this can be acted upon in the game means that any single narrative is never completely representative of the entire experience that the game is capable of producing. Games like Gone Home and Life is Strange may not present players much in the way of “challenge” or even “fun”, but they do serve as good examples of how videogames can be thought of in terms of simulations and how the act of engaging with the simulation leads to narrative as an output.

Welcome to the Storefront

https://twitter.com/BrittA2211/status/578356761507184640

This was the tweet that started it all. When Britt suggested that we devise a board game reflecting the hell of working in retail (an experience especially close to home for a few of us), our group leapt at the idea. We were quickly able to design a game with themes and mechanics that reflected our attitudes and feelings of unfairness regarding this type of work. The (more or less) finished design doc is viewable here.

Image sourced from here.

Part of the collaboration process involved discussion of how we could design the game to make a commentary about the social dynamics and socio-economic inequalities we felt were present in this type of working environment. Each player controls an entry level employee in the retail outlet, but the introduction of character cards that get randomly assigned to players allows a narrative to unfold through player experiences. Each character has a default “privilege” stat that dictates the mobility options available to them when navigating the game board. So while the game board (with a layout like a shop floor) and the retail theme make up a “conceptualized space” in the game, the fact that each player has a character with a story and unequal access and power within this space means that each player experiences the game largely through a “representational space” (Nitsche 2008). In the same way that McKenzie (2015) saw the algorithms in Sim City generating a narrative experience in terms of urban homelessness; the algorithms and AI built into the rules and cards of our retail game will aim to generate narrative experiences about who survives, escapes, and becomes trapped in a retail career. This is achieved through store event cards as well as the qualities of the randomly-assigned game characters.

Image sourced from here.

Because we all have some appreciation of the retail environment, whether as workers or customers, we as players will be bringing a real world context as we are asked to identify with the personas , characteristics, and specifically mechanical traits of our randomly assigned characters (Murphy 2004). To strengthen this intimate relation with our character and help blur the lines between the game space and the player’s “real world space”, I suggested that the game will include employee, pin able name tags for each of the characters that the player can wear.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Media, Modeller, Maker

This week we were asked to reflect on our own contributions to the class games projects in terms of our roles as “media”, “modeller”, and “maker”. My contributions as a maker where essentially zero this week. Although I have attempted to make my skills in writing and voice recording/editing known to my fellow students, so that I am able to help write, record, and edit dialogue and narrative for those who may require these skills. Additionally I am all too happy to advise my classmates in these areas should they wish to begin developing their own skills in these areas. I’m no expert, but I have had experience in writing, recording and performance – and I do have some idea about how these skills can be used to compliment storytelling and gameplay.

I played a contributing role as part of the media team involved in a “let’s play” of two related tabletop games, neither of which I remember that name of. I had no experience or knowledge of the game, so my role was largely that of a participant and a newcomer; rather than the expert/instructor role that Richard played. The game involves deception, investigation, and people reading skills; so between that and being a newbie I feel like I probably didn’t contribute much dialogue to the discussion. Not as much as usual anyway, given my previous involvement in podcasts with both Richard and Olivia – who was also present for the let’s play.

As for being a modeller, this week I was brought in on a design document Richard had started up on Google docs for an “RPG maker” game that plays out mechanically similar to Pokemon with a cyberpunk aesthetic. At this stage I have played a small part in the world building – mostly I just came up with names for things or narrative explanations for game mechanics (eg. How would we explain a no-fail-state combat system in a way that fit with the game world?) I also discussed and help plan out how battle move systems might work and between us we decided to try a system of equipping 4 moves from a pool of learned moves, as well as a system by which moves themselves “level up” with some very small amounts of choice in how the battle move develops later on in the game. I guess this also means I’ll be looking into getting RPG maker at some stage throughout the week and attempting to learn how to use it.

Time to find a suitable (and free) game engine.

Time to find a suitable (and free) game engine.

We were also asked this week to give a brief indication of a gaming archaeology that we consider under explored in contemporary gaming histories. A gaming archaeology digs deeper to find the broader contexts, longer histories and the wider cultural, economic and technological conditions that shaped trends or specific landmarks we see in gaming (Huhtamo 2005). I think an interesting gaming archaeology could be done on the emergence of games that are attempting to address adolescence. Last month we saw the release of Life is Strange by Dontnod, which deals with an awkward 18 year old girl dealing with social problems after moving to a “gifted school” in her old home town. I see this as an extension of games like “Gone Home” which explored a narrative around a teen discovering her sexuality. Both are slow, narrative driven games about powerlessness to an extent – and incidentally both are deeply invested in recreating 90s nostalgia with references to X-Files, grunge music, indie magazines.

Life is StrangeLife is Strange and Gone Home fascinate me because they’re so distinct from other kinds of games I have played, it got me thinking about how such a slow-paced, personal story about teen issues managed to surface in not one, but two games so recently. It also made me wonder if there are any others. In my mind I have already started tracing back influences from technologies, the growing availability of game tools, the use of Twitter, the emergence of indie game media and journalism, as well as the long-tail effects that platforms like Steam are able to facilitate that help cater to niche markets (Moore 2009). There is clearly a larger story behind even just these few titles that are worth examining, but obviously that would be far too much for me to tackle this week.

I died of disantry – a Settlers of Catan review

It was a pleasant Thursday afternoon in Digital Games Cultures. It was the first class of the university semester and I was sitting with three of my fellow students, around 15 minutes into a game of Settlers of Catan. It was my turn and I rolled the dice, earning myself another two sheep to add to the flock I had been rapidly accumulating over the course of the game. I looked at the board. I needed to build so many roads to start making any progress at all. I looked at the way I had placed my initial settlements and roads on the board – lamenting the poor job I had done in positioning these freebies at the start of the game before I really knew how to play. I needed roads and for roads I needed wood and brick. I stared at my pile of sheep cards. I had really fucked this up.

Mechanically, the Settlers of Catan is a game of resource management and economics where the resources of lumber, wool, brick, grain, and ore are generated randomly based on dice rolls and allocated to players who have built settlements adjacent to the resource. The board itself is player constructed, meaning that each of the resource tiles that make up the board and what dice totals generate them are different each time, creating an interesting and unique market economy with every game. Not all resources are created equal, and not all players have equal access to these resources, which leads to interesting trade scenarios and power dynamics that grow and change with every dice roll. Four cards of any resource can be traded for one card of any other, with the opportunity to strike up more favourable deals with other players if you feel like running the risk of assisting an opponent.

Image sourced from here.

The goal of the game is to have enough resources to build a series of settlements to the equivalent of 10 ‘victory points’ in value, with a hierarchy of buildings each being worth a different number of points and also coming with different resource generating perks. New buildings must be connected by one of your own roads and need to be at least 2 road-lengths away from all other settlements. This adds an almost chess-like blocking element to the game as players scramble to accrue resources in an arms race to reach a new, prosperous space on the board.

Settlers of Catan is an elegant example of how just a few simple rules can facilitate complex human behaviours when a certain degree of random chance and inequality is introduced. Each game will run for around an hour or an hour and a half and the standard game can support 3-4 players. Just remember to plan your roads carefully and don’t let your adversaries pull the wool over your eyes.