Smaller Internships

I recently finished an internship at a small Japanese-owned games publisher. Here are some things I have learned about games-related internships, particularly ones at small or developing companies.

First of all: if you’re interested in working in the games industry or doing anything with games in any capacity, you should try to find an internship. No question about it. If you’re in college, don’t put it off until after you graduate and have lost that particular support network. If you don’t have skills in programming, art, or animation, an internship can help you figure out what part of the industry you could potentially work in. There’s a greater variety of work to do with games than you might initially think.

If you can’t find one at a well-known company, by all means try to find one at a smaller or relatively-unknown company. I actually believe that working at smaller companies could be much more valuable than working at large, well established ones. I started off as a marketing intern but ended up doing a lot more, because the place I was working at was a developing startup and needed help in other areas, too. In a smaller company, you’ll see a lot more of the business, and probably learn much, much more. Besides, working closely with a small team of people is fun.

(Additionally, you won’t be fighting against hundreds of other people for the same few internship spots.)

I recently read Replay by Tristan Donovan. There’s a great bit there at the end where 2D Boy mention how their idealistic misconceptions about the gaming industry were rudely corrected after working at EA and seeing that games are made in offices and meetings and not by happy wizards who eat cotton candy and shoot magic out of their fingertips. Doing an internship could help you make this discovery yourself, before you’ve committed yourself to a career and a course of action. Previous to this, I’d only ever worked as a librarian, as a research assistant operating out of someone’s dining room, and as a camp counselor who ran around covered in mud all day long. Offices are arresting. Sometimes they are mildly disturbing. It is entirely possible that you may not like them very much, and it would be good to figure that out before you’re stuck in one.

In the end, I ended up interning at a company that publishes the kinds of games I don’t normally play much of. If you think ‘game’ means manly-faced American-made guns-for-hands Triple-A Unreal-engine shooty-times, or if you think that those are the only games that make money, or the only ones that deserve attention, this is a huge problem. You are also at risk of becoming an enormous dickhead.

“I can’t find an internship at Bethseda/Epic/Valve,” you might say. “And I’ve tried! Argh! The economy!” I say: don’t try worry too much about your favorite developer. You like their games; that doesn’t mean they’re the only people who can teach you anything about the industry. You’ll learn a lot more by working at a smaller place.

It’s an internship. You have absolutely nothing to lose, particularly if you’re getting class credits for the experience.

Dr. Mario, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pill

My grandma is better at Dr. Mario 64 than I am at any game.

Dr. Mario is a plumber-turned-doctor who solves all of his problems with a torrent of colorful pills.  He exists in a world where viruses are smirking and primary-colored, and where three consecutive instances of a single color is a surefire recipe for viral destruction.

When you first load Dr. Mario 64, you can begin as high as level 21.  Once you beat it, the game’s credits roll.  And then, if you’re in the mood for sudden and inescapable failure, you can play level 22—they add a few more viruses.  Each subsequent level adds more and more viruses until there are so many that it is literally impossible to win.  Here’s a shot of what the game looks like on virus level 23:

My grandmother regularly reaches level 25.  It’s uncanny how quickly she flips and flits the pills into place as they tumble into the bottle, fast and inexorable.

In the early ‘90s, Grandpa bought an NES.  My brother and I went to his house all the time to play Gauntlet II, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario.  Initially, Grandpa played games to get closer to his grandchildren, but he discovered that he really enjoyed them, and before long he was playing them all the time, even when we weren’t there.  And so, initially, my grandmother played games to get closer to her husband.

She spent many hours sitting on the couch, watching him play Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Final Fantasy, and Golf.  She didn’t particularly enjoy any of these games, but she came to love a different genre: puzzle games.  She consumed hours at a time playing Tetris, Dr. Mario, and The Adventures of Lolo.

When Grandpa bought a PS2, the N64 was relegated to the shoe room, a dingy entranceway to the house.  Even after all of those years, the little stack of tube TVs sits right next to the door, and grandma still perches on the crowded futon, flipping pills and killing viruses.

Maybe games like Dr. Mario, Tetris, etc. are about creating order out of disorder.  Maybe people who play them are like Amelie’s mother, who likes to empty the contents of her purse and then return everything to its neat and rightful place.

In Solitaire you start with a shuffled deck, and you sort the cards into meaningful piles.  In Bubble Spinner (a perennial favorite of my girlfriend), you begin with a spinning hexagon of orbs and you pair like with like, eliminating swaths of color.  Tetris starts with an empty screen, and you fight to organize falling blocks as quickly as you can.  Every game of Dr. Mario begins with a brimming bottle of viruses, and you have to clear the squirming chaff and return to simplicity.  Simplicity is an empty bottle.  Games teach us that no quagmire is so murky that we can’t fight our way out with guns, magic, or a fistful of pills.

Grandpa died a few years ago, and now Grandma lives by herself.  One of her daughters lives just across the road, and everyone still comes to visit, but the house is big and she has little to do.  I can’t imagine the oppressive loneliness that she must experience, but I rarely see her without a smile.

I asked her what was so special about Dr. Mario 64 that it would keep her playing for nearly a decade.  She shrugged.

“When my mind is all filled up with problems, and I don’t want to think about anything, I can just come and play my game.”

Translations

For the past week, I’ve been playing through the original Starcraft’s single-player campaign. For the first time.

I’d attempted it five or six years ago, but I was embarrassingly awful at it and therefore hated it. I’d grown up playing many, many RTSes, mostly set in human history. My favorites were the Age of Empires games. They are slightly more forgiving to those who, like me, are awful at ‘micro,’ and while I was never very good at any of them, I could still enjoy them and not feel like a complete idiot. Starcraft made me feel like an idiot.

Nevertheless, I might have stuck with Starcraft if its single-player campaign hadn’t struck me as such an awful piece of crap. I didn’t enjoy the talking heads. History buff that I was, I didn’t ‘get’ the heavy references to the southern United States (and I still don’t). The characters were only very fleetingly sketched, and people kept dipping in and out of view, changing sides, and saying asinine things in funny accents. I never even got to the bit where a certain someone transforms into a certain Queen of Somethings. It’s not like I expected overmuch from the game—I knew that RTSes can occasionally suck at telling stories. Starcraft, though, struck me as extraordinarily bad.

But I’ve been slowly plowing through it these past few weeks, and I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve also been watching many, many Starcraft II replay videos. Together, I think they’re helping me understand something about the role that story sometimes plays in multiplayer-enabled RTSes. Both campaigns and replay commentaries serve, in part, the exact same purpose. They’re translations.

Starcraft II replay videos with commentary are fun because they transform chaotic madness into coherent stories. Alone, I can’t access the ‘conversation’ that takes place between these high-level players as they compete. That conversation takes place in a long-running strategic context of strategies and counter-strategies stretching back over years and years, and it’s a context that I don’t yet possess. Whatever’s going on, it’s not necessarily going to fall easily into an attractive narrative, or even the kind of narrative that I can understand. But humans like to see things in terms of gripping stories, so people like HD and Husky step in and, voila, the story congeals. They turn a frantic conversation in a language I don’t speak into something I can understand and appreciate; they imbue the players with a kind of character that isn’t immediately discernable to the untrained eye; with the tones of their voice, they give structure and energy to a match. They are translators. Sports commentators have always been translators.

Secretly, a translator

Additionally, sports commentators have always been authors. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a match in the same way that the players themselves would have told it. Instead, and of necessity, they’re writing a whole new one. Translation is never perfect, but we need translations, and we need stories. Humans love to see the things we don’t fully understand as coherent stories. They help us to understand those things, even if they’re not the kinds of things that can honestly be represented by a conventional story.

One example of this is historical periodization—the division of history into consecutive and self-contained segments of time, like “The Middle Ages” or “The Industrial Age.” We do it because it helps us to understand the past, not because the past actually took place in discrete chunks. We take a bunch of stuff that happened around the same dates, point out common characteristics, give that period a name, and slap it into a timeline and—voila!— the story of human existence congeals! On one level, periodization is important, because we can’t talk about things or ideas without thinking of them as things. On another level, a philosophical one, it’s not entirely ‘realistic.’ For example, historians have recently begun to freak out about whether or not the Renaissance ever actually ‘existed.’ We may have arbitrarily imposed our conception of it as a coherent time-block because time-blocks suit us. Rendering any kind of chaos into story always involves a little bit of arbitrary re-authoring.

The Renaissance: didn't "really" "happen"

On some levels, putting a story to an RTS is like this, whether it’s the story provided by commentary or by a single-player campaign. The story re-writes the experience into something a bit more palatable and accessible, reinventing it as something that we can learn from. It’s impossible to learn from chaos, and at the first glance of an untrained eye, many RTSes are chaos. But single-player campaigns and replay commentaries each provide the translations for single-player and multiplayer play, respectively.

It should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RTS that single-player campaigns frequently exist to teach players the basics that they’ll need in order to function in multiplayer competition. By imposing careful restrictions, a mission can isolate certain skills and strategies, teaching you something that you might never have noticed in normal multiplayer play. Soon enough, you can talk the game’s talk—and, if you’re good, manipulate its mechanics as creatively as you could manipulate any language.

Similarly, the best replay commentary points out and isolates certain concepts and strategies in a way that allows players to decode the language of high-level play ’syllable’ by ‘syllable’, so to speak, teaching strategies that the single-player campaign cannot teach. While replay delivers this instruction in a simple, upfront context (“you want the translation, so I am giving it to you”), the way teachers provide translations of difficult concepts to students through traditional schooling, an RTS’s single-player translation takes the form of a straight-up fiction.

But each method uses stories, as I mentioned above. The story of a good match—say, the first clash between IdrA and Masq, and the eventual rematch—is as exciting as many of the stories Blizzard comes up with. Personally, I think they’re often a lot more exciting, mostly because the human drama is real.

At any rate, I find it interesting that RTS developers haven’t yet broadly acknowledged the similarities between these two teaching tools. They don’t provide competitive multiplayer campaigns that teach the same things that commentary does in the way that single-player campaigns teach it—with stories. Granted, for a game as complex as Starcraft, that would be incredibly difficult. You’d have to do an extended beta to test your multiplayer design, then develop a campaign around what you’d discovered, and perhaps find a whole new way to tie a translating narrative onto the top of all that. Worst of all, as the game entered its extended lifespan, strategies might emerge that you hadn’t predicted or worked into the campaign. They might even break the campaign. You might have to edit some of the creative content along with the natural act of balancing the game. You could definitely do it, though, and it could be much easier to do for a game with simpler mechanics. I’d love to see a game take some lessons from replay commentary and include a competitive multiplayer campaign with a story that reacts as the players defeat one another.

Then again, a good RTS should make it fun to learn to play competitively by simply playing competitively. That’s how I played Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology as a kid, and even though I sucked, I enjoyed it. People who currently battle for their rankings in Starcraft II ladders are having fun without a story in a competitive campaign. Nevertheless, they’re probably watching commentaries. They still want translations, and they use them often. Honestly, as a kid, I could have done with some good translations. If I’d had a few more than I did, I’d probably suck a lot less than I do now.

—–

Also: Where have Kent and I been? Well, we’ve been having the END OF THE SUMMER, and it’s busy, and will continue to be. In the coming week I’ll be moving across the country—leaving the lawless, mazelike ruin that is Los Angeles and returning to the east coast, where people are NORMAL, goddamn it. Kent is also making mighty movements across  our planet. On top of this, Kent and I have been working on a variety of separate simultaneous projects that also eat up a lot of time and energy. I, for one, have just had my thesis approved and am reading loads and loads of books and doing other kinds of quote-unquote research. But we hope to be back to our old something-on-the-site-at-least-more-than-once-a-week schedule in the “near” “future”. Interpret those scare-quotes as you see fit.

Blame it on the sunshine

I’m excited about the future.

I mean, people who play a lot of games are usually excited about the future because, on one level, games are about the future, about the acceleration of technology and the impossible Peter-Molyneux-promises we all want to come true right now. Gamers are notoriously nostalgic, but, let’s face it: we’re really bad at holding onto that past. Systems come and go; consoles break; we don’t always have backwards-compatibility; we play so many new games that we lose the time and interest to play old ones. Gamers love the past so much simply because it’s something we can’t exactly touch anymore. We pine away. Whatever old games are, whatever part of our lives they may represent—childhood, happier times, old opportunities and regrets—they’re things we can’t see, have, change, or re-live. Nostalgia is always a kind of sadness, even if it’s only a faint kind.

But, honestly, who wants to be six anymore? The games I played were often dark and grey and kind of blurry when I was six, and things get darker the longer they live in my memory. Today, though, it’s sunny outside. I’m going to go into town and write a thing and maybe read a book, and tonight I’m going to stare at the BioShock: Infinite screens again. I’ve played an awful lot of grey-ass games, particularly recently– games grey in more ways than one. When I think about today’s games twenty years from now, I’m going to be remembering an awful lot of cement. I’m going to be nostalgic about it all, too, and I kind of dread that. It’ll all come down like a second layer of dark. See, it’s already got to the point where I will lose a lot of excitement for a title if the screens don’t turn up with enough green in them. Green and blue together, preferably. Maybe green and blue and white.

On a scale of 0 to rad, the future is pretty rad.

Life sucks. And then you die from a broken ‘Digestive Function’

For several years, my favorite computer game series was one which allowed you to force little aliens to have sex with one another.

I’m talking about the Creatures games, a series of three “A-Life” simulations which saddled you with a mob of half-sentient, disobedient monsters and dared you to breed them into a powerful superrace of babbling critters. Or something. It was hard enough getting the damn things to eat. It was much harder to get them to breed, because that meant keeping two alive at the same time.

Each Creatures game placed you as the godly caretaker of a race of small things known as ‘norns.’ The norns are diminutive, large-eared, monkey-squirrel-humanoid beasts. They can learn a limited English vocabulary, express fears and desires, communicate with one another, learn rather complex tasks, develop personalities and relationships, and generally shock players with their emergent brilliance. They can also die in a million horrible ways.

Each individual norn is comprised of a series of discrete ‘organs,’ each of which reacts to elements in the game world in a variety of different ways, many fatal. If a creature spends too long underwater, its ‘lungs’ organ will die. Then it will die. I’ve watched creatures fall and destroy their ‘bones’ organ, gobble up poison mushrooms to the detriment of their ‘digestive function,’ and even, due to an odd birth defect, pop out of the egg with two brains, both of which were already dead.

In C1, norns lived on the outer edge of Albia, their disc-shaped, sidescrolling home planet. They shared it on bad terms the grendels, a breed of stupider, stronger baddies. In C2, they were joined by the neutral Ettins, magpie-style wanderers who lived in the desert zone and stole mechanical objects from everywhere else. Originally protected by the intelligent Shee, a fourth race of aliens, all these little beasts were abandoned to your care until Creatures 3. C3 made you the Lone Shee, who flies a giant generation ship full of norns, grendels, and ettins through the infinite vastnesses of space for no particular reason whatsoever. Though the nomenclature is weirdly referential to Celtic mythology, the games’ art style had no relation. The norns were Disneylike buffoons, but the grendels were soulless lizard brutes and the ettins looked oddly like a race of dried, bleached zombie dolls.

All the weirdness aside, Creatures 1 and 2 were grueling sims, and for me, they were a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to biology and genetics. I received Creatures 2 for Christmas when I was nine or ten and, by the time I was done with it, I’d taught myself punnet squares, acquired a basic vocabulary in biology, learned about mods, bought my very first game guide, and accidentally irradiated ten or twelve innocent little artificial intelligences in the firey bowels of the game’s sole volcano until they mutated and bore stillborn young. That said, I never actually managed to raise a successful third generation of creatures in Creatures 2. I don’t know whether this was typical or not, but I do know that some players were far more adept at the game than I was. And a lot more obsessed.

Each version of the game had the same arc: you began with a single norn, to whom you taught English, often with great frustration. You then led it to explore the entire world map, collecting power-ups along the way. They granted you special new abilities in the gameworld. One allowed you to control and breed grendels and ettins. Others opened new parts of the game’s interface, allowing you a better look at each creature’s biochemistry or physical state. Unfortunately, to activate the power-ups, your creatures had to ‘push’ them—and, in C2, teaching them the meaning of the word was pretty difficult.

“PUSH,” you’d command, unsure what noun class the power-up fit into. “PUSH! PUSH!”  The parser was very rigorous. Unfortunately, the ‘push’ verb, when performed by one norn on another, resulted in norn babies. I triggered several accidental pregnancies by ordering a crowd of norns surrounding a power-up to PUSH! at random.

Eventually you uncovered the game’s crowning secret: a genetic splicing machine. It allowed you to combine norns, grendels, and ettins into mutant horrors. I only ever uncovered the splicer in three of my tens of C2 game-worlds. My father once played and, inexplicably, uncovered the splicer in a fraction of the amount of time it normally took me or my sister.

It must have been because we were stupid kids, I suppose—but C2 was hard. As a disembodied hand, the player could interact arbitrarily with only some of the objects in the game world. Some buttons could be pressed; some foods or other objects could be picked up and moved around. You could slap or tickle the norns, grendels, and ettins, which was how you taught them to do various things in the gameworld, but you couldn’t actually move them or force them to do anything. If your norn really wanted to leap off of the highest level of the bamboo village in the jungle biome, there was nothing you could do to stop him mashing his bones organ into a fine paste and dying, with whines and gasps, in the unforgiving Albian dust. Some of the most powerful moments in my entire gaming memory involved watching norns die, incredibly slowly , in the furthest parts of C2’s labyrinthine world. One little guy ate a cyanide mushroom. Though I found him the antidote, he was already too far gone to respond to my frantic typing. “EAT PLANT,” I commanded, over and over, dropping the healing flower in front of him. “EAT PLANT!”

“Bob hurt,” he responded, and, kneeling down, rested his head on the floor. “Bob feel very sick.”

I think I actually shed a tear over Bob. “You’re an idiot,” I typed. The parser didn’t understand it, and, with a quiet murmur, he died.

Most people who have played Creatures games played Creatures 3. It fixed everything that was wrong with the previous two games, and I consider it a tour-de-force, even though it clearly didn’t sell enough to keep the development studio afloat. For instance, it allowed you to grab creatures by the hand and drag them about. You could now protect them from danger by building machines that locked doors. Creatures learned English more quickly, were more resilient, and were easier to control in groups. The designers even started supplying better DLC—you could pay five bucks for a new breed of developer-polished norns. Later, the free Docking Bay add-on let you trade norns with randos over the internet. I once downloaded a female norn, oddly named ‘Oma,’ who was trapped in an eternal pregnancy. Her sprite was, anyway. She was a generation 1148 beast (my best was only 15 consecutive C3 generations) who had been bred for ultra-short gestation periods. Her babies popped out in seconds—but all were afflicted with the dreaded Fast Growth gene, a hated mutation in the C3 community. Fast Growth norns were usually colored in the ugliest possible way, susceptible to disease, and likely to be born crippled, with severe mental deficiencies or ultra-short lifespans. It took me months of experimentation to weed the Fast Growth gene out of Oma’s kids.

The C3 community was actually pretty active. There were an awful lot of mods: inexcusably ugly custom norn breeds, new rooms for the generation ship, new toys, machines, and tools. There was also a certain kind of iron-man game mode that these hardcore C3 fans liked to do—‘feral’ norn runs. They’d hatch six or eight babies out and leave them sitting in the game overnight, then check to see what had happened by morning. Because a standard C3 norn reaches sexual maturity in around forty minutes, many generations can pass in a day. Some people even kept feral runs going for weeks.

I only ever did one feral run. I left it going for about nine hours. By the time I returned, there was only one norn left. As a generation 9 or 10 norn, the logs indicated that he’d been born in a hallway, so he’d never come into contact with the Teaching Machine, and spoke no recognizable language. He could barely feed himself. He appeared to be ill, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, not even with the massive medical scanner in the bow control room. He had no name. I checked the logs, which provided me with photographs of each other norns at their moments of death, but I couldn’t figure out what had destroyed them. Possibly a deadly virus? Possibly inbreeding? There wasn’t much to go on. I put him out of his misery in the most creative way possible—injecting him at random with some of the unnamed chemicals in the medical scanner. I had a actual pen-and-paper journal where I’d ben taking notes, trying to identify some of these mystery drugs.  I didn’t deduce any new chemical functions from his death,though. I probably should have injected him with only one, not ten at once.

These days, life simulators are more popular than ever before—but The Sims has little in common with the back-breaking, soul-crushing, biology-wielding craziness that characterized the Creatures games. For one, you can’t do a feral run in The Sims 3. I recently obtained a copy of Sims 3 on discount and tried to do a feral run, because that’s what I’d wrongfully assumed had been going on in parts of Alice and Kev. I soon realized that The Sims 3 requires constant player input– it would just run until somebody had a phone call or an Opportunity, then pause itself. It’s full of modeled systems, but they’re not designed to run on their own. It’s just a game.

The Creatures games were certainly games—gamier than the Maxis Toys. But they were also fully modeled ecosystems. They ran on their own, and part of their cruelty stemmed from the fact that, like earth’s real, wild nature, Albia simply didn’t care about you. You didn’t even need to be there. Norns would die as horribly in your hands as on a feral run.

That, I think, is what sold me on the Creatures games. They were games about life that were, in the end, as harsh as life itself. Is the lack of harshness what bothers some people about the Sims games? I don’t know. The Sims games don’t bother me at all, but I’ve met people who find them saccharine and awful. I won’t deny it—I’d love The Sims better if I could do a feral run, wake up in the morning to find my starter guy dying fat and lonely while his grandkids fail school and piss themselves.

But that might be because I loved Creatures so much. Bob sticks with me.

Can we stop using these words?

I have come to the conclusion that ‘pretentious’ no longer means anything when used to describe a videogame. We ought to stop saying it.

Currently, it’s pretty much the most damning word in the biz, particularly when it comes to indie games. In many internet communities, it’s used to apply the marks of tribal exclusion. Angry internet people apply it willy-nilly to nearly anything that they don’t understand (like pOnd), even if those things are, from the perspective of your average vocabulary-having individual, not in the least pretentious. The press members who write for these people sometimes do this, too.

Okay, so a lot of people use the word to mean ‘intellectual.’ These are the kind of people who believe that games somehow resist study, or that intellectualism in gaming is somehow objectionable. They are the enemy, etc. etc. I don’t really want to talk about this. It makes me too angry and I start typing too many words about how much I dislike ’core’ gamer culture. (This post has undergone 4 revisions and was at one point over 2000 words long.)

Other people use the word ‘pretentious’ because it’s easy. These are the people I’m bothering to have an argument with. If a word is too easy to use—if we can slap it in any old place without feeling that we need to think about it—we shouldn’t be using it. ‘Pretentious’ is one of those words, like ‘gameplay,’ or ‘interactive,’ which are simply too vague to be critically useful. Instead of ‘interactive,’ I’ve started talking about ‘agency’ or, better, ‘degrees of agency.’ At this point, ‘interactive’ is basically a feature-list word, and it’s hard to control the meaning of a word that’s owned by commerce. You can slap the word ‘interactive’ on anything, and so long as your game involves user activity—even the kind of ‘press x to continue’ stuff Kent recently wrote about—you can probably get away with it. As for ‘gameplay,’ I flat-out don’t use it. If you have to use the word ‘gameplay,’ you’re not thinking hard enough about how you’re playing.

Anyway, ‘pretentious’ is now in the bin with ‘gameplay’ and ‘interactive.’ According to Merriam Webster, the actual definition of ‘pretention’ is:

expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.

At least, this is the best suited definition from the list. Oh, also: the given synonym is ‘showy.’

Okay. How do games express importance, worth, or stature? How do we tell if and when those are unwarranted? Exaggerated? Affected? What makes a game ‘showy’?  Is that really all we need to say about a game—‘it pretends to be more important than it really is’—when we want to create productive criticism? It’s the vaguest kind of unsupported opinion. And if you’re going to bother supporting it, the weakness of the word is going to make it hard for you to do it to anyone’s satisfaction.

Honestly, we’d be better off using different words. Different phrases and ideas, anyway. Instead of trying to decide whether Braid, for example, made ‘unwarranted’ claims of ‘importance,’ we should be  talking about the intellectual and emotional risks it took, and asking whether they were worthwhile. (Answer: they were.) What about a game that took similar risks, but failed to live up to the promises those kinds of risks often make? Some people think that The Path failed in this way. I think that The Path failed on a variety of levels—it had that awful collection mechanic shoehorned into it, for instance, and had a variety of irritating and unnecessary control problems that made it less an experience of transcendent/horrifying discovery and more an experience of frustrated ambling. But I also think that it was very emotionally effective and ultimately, therefore, a kind of success. People need to talk more comprehensively about Tale of Tales’ games—to dissect why they seem so abrasive, even to people who are willing to enjoy that kind of experience. They don’t need to pull a Jim Sterling. I know he’s not really in the best position to advance the quality of games criticism, working for Destructoid and all, but he certainly doesn’t make it easier for those of us who are trying.

‘Pretentious’ is not the kind of word to use if you want to have a debate or win an argument. It does not make friends. It is good for screeching at the choir, but screeching at the choir is not something that people ought to do at all. In my opinion. At any rate, most of the games writers I care about already avoid the word. I’m just pulling ‘pretentious’ out as an example because it’s bothered me recently—there are plenty of other problems with the words we use to talk about games.

Scientists: relevant to this post!

One of the books which has had the greatest impact on me personally is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s about how new scientific fields form—about how we lose trust in old ‘paradigms’ of science and grow, slowly, to adopt new ones. The process invariably  involves a certain kind of indoctrination: new generations of scientists must grow up learning the new standards and the new vocabulary in order to communicate or perform productive research together. Scientists need a shared vocabulary and a certain critical mass of shared beliefs in order for them to talk with each other about anything. The same is true for any group of professional people for whom communication is a primary concern. A strong vocabulary with enthusiastic support from the people who use it will be much more useful than one they constantly argue about, or one too coarse to communicate the important nuances of their work.

We have an awful coarse way of talking about games.

Press ‘x’ to Continue

I’m two hours into Persona 3 Portable and I’m thinking about the illusion of control.  It’s one of those games that spins its own web for a while.  Your main act of participation is to press a button at the end of every line of dialogue—to give the speaker permission to continue.  If you don’t press ‘x,’ she stands suspended, with that final word still hovering on her lip.

It’s a silly mechanic.  After I enter my name, I sit through screen after screen of dialogue.  I like the dialogue, actually.  It’s endearingly bizarre—just Japanese enough to make the game into a cultural experience.

For an hour I have no options—just press ‘x’ to continue, but eventually I’m alone in my room, and I’m ready to do something.  The game presents me with a still picture and a cursor.  There are several points of interest that I can select, but almost all of them give me the same message: “You’re tired. You should go to bed early tonight.”  I’m tired, am I?  I open the menu and flip through the options.  I notice an interesting choice: Auto Text on/off.  It’s set to off by default.  I switch it to on.  And then, with nothing else to do, I go to sleep.

When I wake up, things have changed.  The first thing that bothers me is the timing.  Characters won’t wait for anything.  Once one has finished her lines, the next blurts in.  It’s like everyone is itching to speak, eager to make themselves heard.  It makes me feel nervous, jumpy.  My thumbs hang uselessly above the buttons of the PSP.  No input required.  It won’t stop; even scene changes are automatic.  The game charges ahead, eyes shut, losing its balance.

I want to open the menu and change it back, but I can’t, because the menu won’t open during dialogue, and the dialogue won’t stop.

My girlfriend asks me to do the dishes.  “I can’t,” I tell her, “I have to watch this.”  I can’t even pause.  I’m bothered that the game would go on without me.  That it would just run on its own for thirty minutes.  I haven’t pressed a button in so long, how does it even know I’m here?

Several years ago, my family went on a trip to Egypt.  It was summer, and it was unbearably hot—over 110 degrees.  In the temples there was never any shade.  The heat was so thick that it undulated in the dry air.

In Luxor, we had a blind tour guide.  I don’t know what sort of tenacity would lead a blind man to become a tour guide, but there he was, complete with sunglasses, cane and floppy hat.  He led us from place to place, tapping his way across the ancient stones, stopping just before he reached the next point of interest.  How did he do it—did he memorize the number of steps between monuments?

Whenever we stopped he would preface his history in the same way.  He turned to us and said, “Mr. David, do you see the hieroglyphics behind me?”  Mr. David referred to my father, whose first name is David.  “Mr. David, do you see the statue behind me?”  Of course he saw the statue; it was unmissable at twenty feet tall.  But the tour never continued until Dad said, “yes, I see the statue.”

Our tour guide was blind, and what he was really asking was, “are you there Mr. David?  Say something so that I know you’re there.”

In Persona 3 Portable, I turned auto-dialogue back off at the first opportunity, and our relationship returned to normal.  Are you here, asks the blind game, feeling in the darkness?  Don’t worry, I’m here.

Why all the dungeons in Oblivion look the same

I play a hell of a lot of Oblivion, even now. That game is awesome. It’s even better if you play through all the conversations with the sound off and your hand securely planted over the pasty pasty faces of the chattering NPCs.

But, jokes aside, I think that players can live with the ugly faces and the stupid voices. The only major failing I’ve ever really cared about in that game is that all the dungeons look the same. They do. Well– there are a few distinct varieties, yeah, but they’re awfully similar. You play through a dungeon and see the same landscape asset recycled five or six times; you play through another, and realize it’s practically the exact same as the first dungeon, except instead of being filled with imps, it’s filled with wolves. Or… vampires. Or armored skellingtons. So, yes. If you disagree with me, you’re bad and wrong, and we can never be friends.

Here’s why all those dungeons look the same.

1)      The designers ran out of ideas with the first one

You’ve got to admit, the first time you crawled into a dungeon in Oblivion, you thought it was the coolest shit ever. You found this big old ruined circular castle overgrown with weeds, all crumbling into the mud, directly across from the exit to the Imperial Sewers. And you thought: Forget that main quest—I’m going to explore this magic castle thingamabob! And so you did, and it was awesome. See, that experience was great. People worked hard on it. I dunno, maybe they worked on it for the whole development cycle? It was so cool that it used up all their brain essences, and they had nothing left. They brought the first dungeon over to the project lead, and he plays it, and goes: “Hot damn! This is fine stuff! What else you got?”

And the dungeon designer goes, “I got nothing.” This is it, man. He’s all used up, like Sparrowhawk from that Wizard of Earthsea book The Farthest Shore. It’s noble and epic, see. He’s slain the symbol of his divided soul and reclaimed the world for goodness and purity and all that jazz.

And so the project lead thinks for a few moments, then goes: “That’s cool. Because this is fine shit.” And so they sit around for the rest of the day smoking big old cigars and staring off into the distance and feeling awesome about themselves.

2)      They made others, but had to scrap them all

The Disneyland-, Lord of the Rings-, Star Wars-, NFL-, Capri Sun-, and Harry Potter- themed dungeons were awesome, but they all violated IP copyrights and so, of course, they had to go; so did the dungeon based on September 11th, and the one based on live footage of births. They had partnered with medical researchers to produce a dungeon based on the epidemic of childhood obesity which would teach players about the importance of exercise and healthy diet, but they figured that it might be a bit of a downer, and in the end they couldn’t figure out how to implement it tastefully.

3)      The dungeons aren’t all identical, idiot!

Honeybees see ultraviolet light. This allows them to navigate using the sun, even on overcast days; it also permits them to see identifying markings on certain species of flower. Indeed, the world of the honeybee is filled with depths of color and detail far beyond the capability of mere humans to perceive—theirs is a brighter world, and one more-varied. Truly, the honeybee is a marvelous creature. We ought to envy its life.

If you were to look at Oblivion with the powers of the honeybee’s ultraviolet sight, you would see such a gorgeous wonderland of variance, beauty, and striking design that your brain would flip upside-down in your skull and you would spend the rest of your days trying to eat roses.

4)      All the dungeons are reflections of the Platonic model of Dungeon contained in the mind of God

Oblivion’s dungeons are all reflections of the Ideal Dungeon, which exists only in the mind of God. According to the Greek philosopher Plato, all objects in the real world are merely pale shadows of perfect prototypes, called ‘universals.’ God manufactures these universals and stores them up in the holy warehouse of his mind, where they are preserved forever and made real to the outside universe via his magic. Like, all dogs are different, but we know that they’re dogs because the concept of ‘dog’ is eternal and born from the everliving consciousness of a God whose main purpose is to imagine and sustain the perfect images of things in his holy brain.

We recognize, in the imperfect things of this world, bare echoes of the shining ideals which underly them. We catch the merest glimpses, and see the overarching similarities that tie them together. In Oblivion, that sublime game, we see the underlying framework of the universe! Truly, there is but one Dungeon, and all these many dungeons are but blurred representations of it, cast from different lights, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.

Okay, okay! Okay. I’ll shut up.

But seriously. It’s a spiritual experience, man.

Do I control your body or your mind?

I’m going to talk about Loved now.  If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that.  It won’t take long.

I believe that all games require trust.  When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it.  To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think.  To play a game is to surrender.  We allow ourselves to be led.  We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.

Well, Loved is a game about trust.  It’s about a child and a god.  “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer.  I click on man. “No, you are a girl.”  It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction.  I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me.  Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.

“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.”  If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.”  Either way he’s taunting you.  The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game.  The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.

And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god.  I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders.  “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.”  The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path.  The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him?  I take the top path.

“Ugly Creature.”  A flash of light, and I continue.

There are two ways to play the game.  Either you trust the narrator or you don’t.  Either you obey or you rebel.  The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults.  As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again.  So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still.  I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen.  I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment.  I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red).  Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating.  It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier.  In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….

“Why do you hate me?”  No decisions at all. I can only click on hate.  The game responds, “I loved you.”

Strange.  I play a second time, and I take the lower path.  In place of insults I get condescending praise.  “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog.  This time there aren’t any colored blocks.  In fact, everything appears in black and white.  At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy.  Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.

Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one?  I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.

I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too.  Maybe art is about surrender.  Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song.  But compared to games, other art forms are passive.  Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?”   The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.

The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.

I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”

Indies already won. Like, years ago

Congratulations, Indie Games! I have good news! The news is: you have already won the battle against AAA commercial games. On several very meaningful levels, the results of the struggle are obvious. You are victorious. It is time to wipe the froth off your beard, relax, and drink some delicious mead out of Bobby Kotick’s skull.

No, seriously. As of several years ago– although we didn’t all realize it at the time– indie games were already poised for a secret ninja-takeover of the hearts and minds of the world’s internet-literate youth, a campaign they continue to pursue, with great success, to this day. The most progressive and important modern art being created anywhere on the earth comes in the form of digital games, usually indie games: particularly, experimental ones which push at form and design standards. Because of the model under which indie game designers struggle, this groundbreaking art has been available, for free, to anyone and everyone who cares to access it.

Basically, for the first time in history (maybe? I’m willing to discuss this), almost the entire canon of the world’s newest and most important artistic movements are available for zero cost to anyone. So long as they have internet access (and unfortunately, in some cases, so long as they are fluent in English), people, particularly young people, can have a world-class artistic experience–on Kongregate or Newgrounds. Just like that. And if they choose to do some more exploring and dig up developers’ sites, they’ll have access to even more groundbreaking art. Usually for free.

This incredibly broad exposure was not part of the growth of arthouse cinema, western literature, or the static visual arts. Nearly all the major works of each of those mediums except maybe public statuary were at first restricted to people of certain education backgrounds or class origins. Internet is still limited to those who can afford it, and who can afford the leisure time to enjoy it, but that’s a lot of people. I suppose the closest we’ve ever come to this before was during the development of rock music as a new artistic movement, when radio made it available to people of all age groups and backgrounds– but even then, the kind of discussion and community involvement we’re able to have about indie games on the internet was impossible over the radio, even though adoption of the new movement was broader. With rock music, the music was also controlled by an industry; indie games, on the other hand, are often self-published and anti-industry, and there’s no barrier to artists entering the movement.

This all occurred to me when I decided, in desperation, to read through all of the comments on Newgrounds for Gregory Weir’s Looming, one of the best indie games I’ve recently played. See, I’d found all of the artifacts in less than an hour, but I’d spent an extra forty-five minutes wandering around Looming, with nothing to show for it. Finally, shamed, I decided to search the comments to see if anyone had put up some hints. Back then there were something like 100 of them. Now there are over 500, and the game has earned a large banner on Newgrounds’ front page. The game is getting massive exposure. Furthermore, when you read the comments–both supportive and frustrated, by those who felt moved by the experience and by those who didn’t get it–it’s obvious that this game is betting played by the whole of the basic Newgrounds cross-section. So, a lot of these players are very young. They’re excited and invigorated by the work they’ve just experienced, they’re eager to talk, and they’re young.

This, of course, is the key detail. See, my current internship in the office of a small Japanese-owned games publisher has given me information and perspectives about internet advertising and audience targeting which have been incredibly enlightening in the context of my background in games writing. Newgrounds is one of those sites which targets its advertisements at teenagers– often quite young teens. The people clicking on banner ads on Newgrounds– the people it knows it’s making money off of, and thus the demographic the whole site is geared towards– are in high school, or occasionally even younger. This meshes with my personal experience with Newgrounds: In early high school and late middle school, I remember spending at least an hour every weekday on that site. I haven’t yet heard the marketing team here at my internship talk about Kongregate, but I assume it covers at least part of a similar demographic.

So: an army of impressionable young people, internet-literate, at the stage in their lives where they are making incredibly important decisions about the kinds of things they want to dedicate their existences to, are accessing cutting-edge art on websites that present these works as normal, cool, and interesting. And these websites are encouraging kids to talk to each other about them. Most interesting about Weir’s game is that it includes developer’s notes for those who finish the game. This seems to have gone over enormously well with the Newgrounds crowd– I saw more than a few comments from players who felt like this helped them to ‘get’ the game, or made them more excited about it than they already were. So not only do we have young people talking about art with one another, now we’ve got the artist talking back to them. Which is, of course, fantastic, if you want to get kids excited about indie gaming.

Now, I know it’s not as utopian as I might be suggesting it is– Newgrounds is no place to access cutting-edge indie art games compared to, say, Play This Thing, which filters through everything and highlights the high-points. But it’s happening anyway. Indie games are snagging kids before they’re done with puberty. Indie games snagged me that way, too: as a young teen with no income, I adopted freeware games in late middle school as a way to entertain myself for free. I gradually began playing more and more ‘artsy’ games, so to speak. Discovering Cactus’s work for the first time was even more exciting than when I discovered funk and jazz, around the same time. It was like waking up.

Indie games can’t yet compete on an equal commercial plane with AAA games, largely because of the way they’re treated by the hype-dependent games journalism machine. But indie games were already winning the battle when it came to enlightening and engaging young people from a broad variety of backgrounds– players and nascent devs alike– even back when I started following freeware games in 2004. They’re winning even harder now. I predict further catastrophically magnificent world-devouring win from here on out, too. It’s like the indie games community on the internet is some vast, hulking, star-destroying insectoid brood mother, laying her egg-spawn in the millions of teens who access their work on Newgrounds and Kongregate every month. Someday, them eggs are gonna hatch.