Category Archives: Games

Review: To the Moon

To the Moon is a very sweet and often sad story about two doctors—Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene—trying to grant the final wish of a dying man named Johnny. The game’s central plot device is a machine that allows Watts and Rosalene to traverse and modify Johnny’s memories, in an attempt to piece together his past and use that information to grant his last wish: a trip to the moon. Johnny himself doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon, which makes finding out the game’s ultimate goal. As you make your way through his memories, a number of other mysterious objects and places show up again and again, prompting you to discover how all these elements fit together to form Johnny’s life. All of this information—the context that ties the whole story together—is provided exclusively through dialog and cutscenes. The game contains very few elements that could be called “game-like” at all. So why is it even a game in the first place?

Let’s start with To the Moon’s interactive elements that aren’t essential to the story.

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The Stories People Tell

Working at a printing company that helps produce on-demand custom photobooks, I sometimes get an interesting peek into the lives and interests of a pretty broad range of people.  In my completely anecdotal, thoroughly non-scientific experience, there are a few common patterns in what people take pictures of–and presumably, the parts of their lives that interest them the most.  In approximate order, they are:

  • Sex (including weddings and babies)
  • Food
  • Other people (and their pets)
  • Variety: new places, experiences and activities

It should probably not be surprising that survival and reproduction are at the top–they are, after all, our most fundamental drives, the ones we share with all living things.  What’s a little more interesting is that we seem to value other people and new experiences almost as highly.  Social interaction and curiosity are almost as fundamental to our behavior as basic survival.

Perhaps it also shouldn’t surprise me that I immediately start thinking about how this applies to games.  Most games seem to place a much heavier emphasis on exploration and problem-solving than on social interaction, while more linear media such as films and (especially) literature tend to place more emphasis on characterization and social interaction.  I think it’s no coincidence that the most popular genres in prose fiction are the ones like mystery and romance that derive their interest almost entirely from the characters.  Why do so few games do this?  The popular answer–that social interactions are too complex to easily model–is clearly bogus.  The success of franchises like The Sims and the popularity of the “dating sim” genre in other countries is proof that social interaction in games can still be deeply engaging and successful even when the underlying model is cartoonishly simplified–indeed, perhaps all the more so because of it.

Is it simply because modeling social interaction in a game seems harder?  Perhaps…but I think it’s more likely that the problem lies in trying to reconcile simplified social interactions with the epic, highly-structured narratives we continue to insist on stuffing into our games.  The Mass Effect franchise is perhaps the defining example of this style of storytelling, and it was clearly successful, but it took massive amounts of people and money to (mostly) pull it off.

Are smaller, independent games just doomed when it comes to combining social interaction and narrative realism?  A lot of people seem to think so, but I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the solution lies, not in removing the narratives from our games, but in recognizing that the narrative is not the same thing as the story.  We often forget this due to the ubiquity of literature and film, but non-linear media such as painting, sculpture, and architecture have been telling stories without narratives for centuries.  It may be impossible to fully author the narrative of an interactive work–but that does not necessarily mean that they cannot tell authored stories.

I wonder…what might a non-narrative story look like?  How would you tell one?

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The Free OS

So I recently bought a game I was very exited about playing–I’d hoped to write a review of it here in the next week or two–but when I downloaded it I discovered that I couldn’t play it because my operating system was too old.  “Great,” I’m thinking, “so instead of costing me ten dollars on Humble Bundle, it’ll cost me three hundred or something at a Mac store?”  Having to buy new operating systems every time the one you’re running gets out of date has always been a scam perpetuated largely by Microsoft’s monopoly on the OS market, but I had never felt it so strongly before.  The introduction of alternatives like Chrome OS and the proliferation of always-up-to-date web applications has made this business model seem not only inconvenient and forced, but unnecessary as well.  Then, just as I was thinking I would finally bite the bullet and at least see if I could get a cheaper second-hand copy on Ebay or something, I discover to my delight and surprise that Apple’s newest operating system, OS X Mavericks (guess they finally ran out of cool-sounding cats?) is available to download free on the app store!  All hail the Age of the Internet!  I only hope Microsoft has the courage and intelligence to follow suit with their next operating system.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going off to play Gone Home.  Look forward to a review of it here in the coming weeks!

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Play vs Prop: Games, Videogames, and Why Videogames Aren’t Games

What are games, exactly? It’s a tired question in the videogames industry, but it’s tired mainly because nobody has been able to agree on an answer. Many game designers are fed up with the whole debate and find all the semantic squabbling rather pointless, yet I think it’s telling that the debate persists. No other medium causes such confusion–everybody knows, and can easily identify, a book or a film or a sculpture or a painting. Videogames, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. Take Feed the Head, for instance–is it a game? Is it a toy? Is it something else? This is not a deliberately experimental work meant to push the boundaries of definition, this is a relatively modest (though delightful and admittedly surreal) work of simple entertainment. What about David Cage’s Heavy Rain? Is it a game, or is it an “interactive film”? Is there a difference? What about SimCity? Its own creator, Will Wright, attests that SimCity is a “toy”, not a game. Does this make other simulation games toys as well? And what does that mean for the toys? Could a toy, typically associated with the frivolous play of children, ever be art? Could one use a toy to tell a story, or convey emotion?

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GDC 2012 – The Rise of Games, the Birth of a Universe

What are games?

For many years now, that question has driven me to learn everything I can about the medium, to travel and meet as many people as I could find who shared my passion, and to refine my own ideas so that I could express them more clearly.  This has been my passion, my dream, ever since I was a kid: to see games mature and fulfill the tremendous potential that I could sense even in the early days, when I was still too afraid of losing to do anything but watch my friends play.  Last year, I went to the GDC to try and find others who shared this vision–and, more importantly, to find others who shared my vision of what games could become, what the miraculous technology of computers could make them.  I came away impressed and inspired, but also let down–what I saw was a commercial world where even those trying to break out of the mold were still thinking in limited terms.  They saw games as systems, collections of rules to be built and exploited.  They saw the advances of science and wondered how we could use them to make our games more popular, more engaging, more fun.  They saw other media and wondered how we could incorporate them into ours in order to strengthen it, to make it more than itself.  But few were asking the questions that I felt most deeply, and fewer still had any answers.  None were to my satisfaction.  True, there were some saying we shouldn’t emulate other media, that games’ strengths stand on their own.  And there were some saying that games could tell stories, that they could be artistic, that they could be used as a tool to comment on important issues and enhance the way we live.  But it didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that maybe games were the art form we shouldn’t be emulating.  No one was saying that maybe, perhaps, video games could be meaningful without telling stories, that they could be beautiful without being artistic, that they could be useful without being treated as mere tools.

This year, I saw much of that change.  The industry, and those who work in it, are beginning to realize that games can be beautiful, useful, meaningful, and inspirational for their own sake, not in service to some other medium or purpose.  We are coming into our own as a medium of expression and power, and we are doing it not by becoming better at incorporating other media into our own, but by becoming more confident in the knowledge that our medium can stand on its own, without help from any other.  That is a marvelous thing, and if that was all I got to see in my lifetime I would be a very lucky man.

As it happens, however, that is not all.  We, today, are witnessing the rise of not one, but two art forms.  The first is a medium that has existed for millennia, that has shaped and sustained cultures the world over, that helps define who we are as living and learning creatures.  This is the medium of games, and it is a wonderful medium, and it deserves to be recognized.

But.

There is a second medium that is coming into its own, and this medium is so new and confusing it does not yet even have a name.  This medium is strange and wonderful and huge–it is a medium with at once more power and more scope than the medium of games, capable of infinite expression.  It is a medium so broad, in fact, that all others ultimately fall under its shadow–just as the seas flow into the ocean, just as all mountains are rooted in the earth.    It is a medium conceived by the algorithm, birthed by computers, and now being raised by game designers.  This is the medium that gives me shivers and permeates my dreams; this is my passion, this is what I wish to see.  I don’t want to be a game designer, really–there are already thousands of wonderful games in the world, and millions of people making them, most of them far better than me.  What draws me is the vast, uncharted places beyond games, the places that the computer has only recently made visible, has just barely made traversable.  I want to design for this new medium, where there are no precedents and no expectations.  After all, a poor path through the wilderness may nevertheless be remembered if it is the first–and this wilderness is so frighteningly vast, one almost cannot help but be the first simply by taking a few steps in.

So that’s where I’m going.  With a handful of other brave explorers, I’m going to start making tracks into this wilderness, searching for secrets in the jungle.  Care to join us?

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GDC 2012: Day Five

Congratulations!  You’ve completed level five of the GDC!  Here are the secrets you discovered:

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GDC 2012: Day Four

Today was the most fascinating and inspirational day yet! Unfortunaltely, I don’t have the time or the energy right now to cover everything I’d like. Instead, I’ll give you some bare-bones notes on what happened now, then come back and fill them in later.

Congratulations!  You’ve completed level four of the GDC!  Here are the secrets you discovered:

  • You heard Will Wright and Cliff Bleszinski talk about their inspirations, and realized they’re not that different from yours
  • You saw how the art in Dear Esther told a story through use of environment, and how realism can actually be detrimental to immersion
  • You realized that all your favorite games share the common element of strong “atmosphere”, and that having this quality in a game ultimately boils down to nothing more than having a strong, unique, and cohesive identity
  • GDC Microtalks 2012:
    • You witnessed David Sirlin discuss how giving the player less time to think can actually lead to deeper strategy
    • You felt the subtle yet powerful difference between competitive victory and cooperative victory during Mary Flanagan’s talk
    • You learned six things Dan Pinchbeck thinks we need to stop discussing about games
  • You learned several ways in which Pinchbeck told a story through the environment, music, and narrative of Dear Esther
  • You noted several games, books, and movies speakers mentioned that you should check out for inspiration

You’ve unlocked the final level!  Continue?  (Y/N)

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