Caution: this post contains spoilers on the Stanley Parable, mostly on why its so good. If you don't want to spoil what the big deal is for yourself, you should go play that instead. Also Game of Thrones spoilers, oddly enough. That's pretty good too.
So, one of the interesting things I've noticed while reading the current literature, if you want to call it that, on the Stanley Parable is the idea that one of the problems with it is that it has so little replay value. Now in a sense, I understand this quite well. Its a game whose charm is its story, where there is little to do outside of find all the endings, or at least the ones you care to find, and after you are quite done. It's not a bad deal all things considered, as its 15 dollar price tag is just a bit more than a movie ticket these days, and I don't think its too controversial that the game is more fun to the dollar anyway, even if it was in only one play-through. Sure there is no real gameplay beyond finding out what happens when you disobey the path, but, really there's probably more good lines in the game then in most of this seasons movies, so if you come in knowing what you're expecting its a worth your time and money all around.
But getting back to the problem of replayability. You've bought the game once, seen everything there is to see(I am not playing the baby game for 4 hours. Its not happening), but now what? Now you want to talk with someone about it. Or at least I do. You can only go so long with just internet comments and reviews that agree with you, having your belief that a game is good affirmed by all the authorities the internet offers that you have given your respect, and equally affirmed by the hate of the anonymous detractors, who really, you're sure are just trolls anyway, or their the kind of people you'd rather not share taste with. But still, its not enough. You want to be able have real people agree with you, to share this game which is so hilarious, so smart, that it almost demands discussion. Its not without reason that there are those on the internet who say that someday this one will be taught in colleges, and honestly, I'm one of those people. But until, then, you want to show someone.
And that's where the replay value comes in. That's where the combination of small price and short length really work to create a game that can easily be discussed. The Stanley Parable is accessible to the point of absurdity, and springing it on people who haven't yet heard of it is really where the fun begins. Its kind of like being there when the Game of Thrones show caught up to the Red Wedding, and you've got a friend who hasn't read the books. Likewise, exploring the office in The Stanley Parable with a friend, is a joy unto itself. The game's none-gameplay works to get even game-experienced friends in on the action. The length makes it so that a playthrough isn't some nightlong marathon affair, but a couple hours of laughing and reacting to the oddities of the game. I've replayed through the game twice now, with two different friends, and while maybe they were humoring me, they certainly seemed to get a good laugh out of it. I think that's an important part to the game as well. Its a game that's easy to share, and I think that's in itself is somethings that's important.
And of course, this is far from exclusive to the Stanley Parable. Portal has a similar effect, where the focus on its famous at this point writing and short length made it a much easier evening play-through, than say, all of Half-life 2 which it was packaged with at first release. Perhaps that part of what Portal had that caused it to proliferate as a now old internet meme when it did. And I think that maybe that accessibility and demand for discussion, or at least being very quotable, can make a game seem good even when there's really not necessarily very much too it.
I think maybe a comparison is to fun movie you love to share. In fact, I think that maybe games like Portal or The Stanley Parable might be the real cinematic games. Even in the big, smart, award-bait movies are rarely over 3 hours long. The one's that end up remembered usually have something half-interesting they are attempting to say. Maybe that's part of the trick to making a game that is both smart and entertaining. Making it the kind of game you really want to, and can fairly easily, share.
Are there other games, that, even though they are ostensibly single player affairs, are just fun to share with others? I'm sure there's more, I'm just not having them come to me right now. What about games where the writing isn't given such center-stage? I feel like that makes things obviously appealing, but there must be more than that. Discuss.
9 people die in the Shakespeare’s story of Hamlet. At least 3 die in Romeo and Juliet. One of Shakespeare’s earlier works, Titus Andronicus, is also quite the gore-fest. In The Odyssey the hero violently kills monsters and men alike. In Rome men fought and died to the cheers and jeers of a crowd. A game of Chess is an analogue of a war. And today we wonder if we really need violence to tell stories in our videogames.
The simple answer to the simple question is that we don't. The simple answer is we do not have to ask a player, even allow him, to act out a story as a walking arsenal. Whether we tell more interactive tales like Dear Esther or create tension without any empowerment like in Amnesia, games do not necessarily need to coerce the player to violence in order to work as they do. Even games where the story and atmosphere come second to gameplay don't need to have violent players, ranging from any myriad of puzzle games like Bejeweled or the pure skill and reflex asked of a player in a game like Super Hexagon. Violence is not a necessity to the creation of interactive experiences. We don't need it.
But we do want it.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but we shouldn't feel that we need to limit ourselves to none-violent stories for anybodies sake. Violence is part of our culture and society. It makes stories more accessible. Perhaps we look down on it, but violence, on some level, is something that most people in the target audience understand on some level, if only because its so ubiquitous in all our media. Skyrim's Dovahkin was not the first to slay a dragon. Our heroes have been slaying monsters since we had heroes. Before the Greeks gave humanity it dialogues and philosophy, it already had countless stories of adventure, heroes, villains and violence. Violence is something so base and primitive, that even as we complicate it, and make it more terrifying, that the tame version locked inside the monitor is still something that many people can still have simple emotional reactions too. Humans have adrenaline and violence and videogames use that as one of many ways to tap that for a sense of excitement, to give the player a very base thrill.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but we do need to use it if we are to create art that reflects the world around us. Life is cruel, though often we create frameworks to emphasize that cruelty, such as in Dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds. You could consider the various twists and terrible actions of The Walking Dead, but I prefer to think of a game I actually bought and played, The Organ Trail. In many ways, the narrative of the zombie apocalypse is one meant to give the audience a sense of comfort, that of having acceptable targets for that very base aggression. Why is okay to come up with creative ways to kill hundreds, hopefully thousands, of creatures in Dead Rising? Because those creatures are zombies, and zombies are going to eat everyone's brains if we don't. But consider the action of putting down a teammate in The Organ Trail. The violence is here, even in pixels, is rather outrageous. Would you really be able to mercy-kill a friend? Is what you are doing really mercy-killing, since you don't really know if an infected person is going to turn until its too late. A player is so afraid, though, of that other option that they can personally aim and fire their rifle, wasting one good unit of ammo, to quell their fears, and so these infected do not get in the players way later. And that is how things are. That world, terrible as it is, is still based on the real one, and understanding that on this side too people do mercy-kill and abandoned and terrible things happen. It may be just a game, but as just a game we made its part of the reflection on us.
One of the complaints I've heard critics raise about Infinite is how unlike in the first Bioshock, the standard enemies are just policemen, zealots yes, but not really deserving of all the gun and skyhook and vigor based violence you bring upon them. But whether or not they deserve it as much as the addicts in rapture is a question already decided upon. If Infinite means to capture, or even criticize the idealization of Americana, then violence is certainly going to play a part. A Texan friend of mine told me that in Texas, you shoot first and ask questions later. That is a real part of our culture. Not every American shares this view, but it does exist. Violence has a place in a more mature version of a videogames because if art does reflect reality in anyway, then that art is going to on more than a few occasions be rather violent.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but that doesn't change that fact, that since its so accessible, it can be used to reach into feelings we enjoy. The Punch-Out series is my choice in example here. Here we don't have bloodshed, or gore, or scary noises, just one-on-one not really clean fights. Even in that, we create an allegory that is so easily accessible because violence is just so easy for humans to understand. Every Punch Out fight is an escalating David vs. Goliath, the smart outsmarting the strong and predictable. In learning the patterns of their opponents, players create an allegory of the hardworking and smart using their mind to outwit their opponents, with each KO of an opponent giving the satisfying reward of a strong thud of the ground, while trying to muscle through most fights, disobeying the narrative, only leads to the muffle of blocks and whiffs of an opponent dodging. Throw in the less honorable opponents, and now you have the additional allegory of the virtuous and fair beating the dishonorable knave. Sure there are other ways of creating the same set of messages without violence, such as in the Ace Attorney Series, but then we run into new problems of a game over-relying on text. As far as creating an experience where the players input tells a story of good versus bad, and noble versus ruthless, a set of fights cans still make the player feel not to different from thousands upon thousands of words.
We don't need violence to tell our stories, but of course we are going to use it. That does not mean we shouldn't question our use of it. But I think reactions of over-reliance on it are coming from a rather sheltered view point. Games are not special for over-reliance on violence. The movies that become popular are the ones with the violence. Some of those movies know what to do with the violence and others don't. The same can be said for books, though we don't notice it as much in literature simply because there is so to read and it has been around for so long. Are games special for putting the player in the role of the violence-doer? I suppose that is up for debate, but I rather doubt it. There have for a very long time been characters meant to be blank-slates for self-insertion. Maybe its not an idea everyone is comfortable place, but the world is not a safe place, and its residents are not peaceful. That reflects in our art and in our culture, and games should be part of both.
I have probably sunk something like 20 hours into Super Hexagon. Probably more. On the first night I bought it I beat Hexagon mode. Last week I finally beat Hexagoner. Now I'm finally working constantly on Hexagonest and the hyper modes. I play it whenever my thoughts start to get so overwhelming that the only thing to do is to blast those thoughts away with the singular focus of Super Hexagon. I know I probably won't win anytime soon. I mostly play at this point because I like the way that “excellent” sounds when I beat my last record. I like the way that the game looks on Hexagonest when I'm able to keep up with. And I like having that impossible challenge.
I also recently bought Hotline Miami, another fairly brutally hard game. Again, loud techno turned up to the maximum of what my computer allows, blears for me the lines of reality until all that matters is the next kill and avoiding death. I learn the unforgiving rhythm of the game. Given, the game doesn't really support 20 hours of gameplay yet, but I have something like 10. Eventually, it clicks into my head the beauty of the challenge, the scoring of the game being opposed to the survival of the player. But with what might as well be the sound of “begin” from Super Hexagon, after the 1000th time I've died, I get up again, bash in the door and the guard behind it, grab the bat, hit the guard, and die to a dog I didn't turn around fast enough to hit. But I don't want to stop. I want to win, because Its suppose to be hard, and I want to prove that I can.
I also recently took a liking to a pair of rogue-likes, FTL and The Binding of Isaac. I think I probably sunk something like 20 hours into Isaac in a week. Which might not be that much. But I just had to try and try, again, and when I finally beat Mother, got my first run, I was so happy I took a victory lap. I have yet to beat FTL though. I can get to the last phase of the boss, sometimes, but that’s it. When I win, it will be glorious though, even on easy.
I also have a long habit of playing 2d fighters. I recently finally manned up and started playing persona 4 arena online, as well as UMVC3. I lose. A lot. At low levels. I don't have the reaction time or muscle control to win on a regular basis. But I don't want to stop. I think that maybe, if I just keep on playing this, keep on playing Hexagon, and Starcraft 2, and losing a lot and uselessly celebrating every little win. I'd probably spend way too much time on Dark Souls if I could.
Its pointless. It really is. I don't even have any friends who play the same games I do, so boasting of my achievements, while nice, is rather pointless. When I say challenge I don't even mean playing on the hardest difficulty or anything. I just mean having a conflict, between you and the game design or a player and another player, with an obvious outcome.
But recently, my rather new obsession with difficulty has spread out to other parts of my life. I took up Parkour soon after I moved on to campus. Again, I have method to remove reality out of reality. To put up artificial challenges and achievements for myself where none really exists. There is a very small probability that anything I do will involve properly getting the kong vault down, or being able to safely jump larger distances than I could before. And of course, I didn't exactly make a point to stay in shape before this as well. But after a couple months, My standing jump height is pretty good if I may say so, and sometimes I can manage to wall run up 12 ft or so. That's impressive to say, but is there a point to it beyond challenging myself? Is there a point to this challenge beyond seeing what I can do when I abandon the safety of common sense for the danger of the ridiculous? I don't really think so. But I do it anyway. And I don't think its just for the fitness either. There are gyms, and I can use them, but they don't have the appeal of instant satisfaction. Maybe I put myself in more danger in Parkour. But every jump has the feedback of having survived, while with traditional workouts, which I don't have the endurance to do anyway, are just meant to be trusted that you'll be healthier if you them.
I've found that the seeking of Challenge and feedback has bled into other places in my life as well. Whats my justification for studying math/computer science? Its a logical and mental challenge, and you know if you did it well faster than an essay. Why take Taekwon do over Tai chi? Because, even though I'm small and will probably get hurt, the Taekwon do class has a sparring element, which will put me at risk unless I figure it out and get better. If you take a look, I've only been writing for a couple months. I started because I began to understand that I only lurk because its hard for me to put up work to be judged by other people, to even have an opinion with the fear that I'm wrong. So here we are. Writing as self-indulgent personal narrative blog. Awesome.
But I only recently noticed how much this was part of my mindset. And honestly, I wonder if its healthy for me. I'm wondering if I'm gaming to many things, and if what I look for in games is starting to affect what I choose to sample. I'm sure, for example, that Journey is good. Everyone says so, and I'm inclined to believe them. But I don't know when I'll play it. Story and atmosphere are becoming less a part of I look for in a game, and are replaced with excitement and challenge. I don't even know that I would like a game like, say, Dark Souls, since I don't know what the time between inevitable death and the next attempt is.
Sometimes I wonder if the challenge seeking is to block out what I think is an underwhelming reality. I guess I'll pass the question on to you? Am I really impaired by not really being in games that offer little challenge or excitement? Does anyone share in such a life-view, or have one similar in scope but different in subject? I'm interested in talking. Comments are below.
WAIT WAIT I GOT THIS. OK HERE WE GO.
Disclaimer: the writer is male.
Super Hexagon, assuming you like it, could be considered a sort of essence of what skill-based video games are meant to be. The music is catchy and rhythmic, the colors are bright and simple, the challenge is ridiculous, but most importantly the true way to win is to find a sort of nirvana where you don't even think about what you are doing, you simply find a way to read what will happen in the next line before it happens. It is at the same time an empowerment fantasy of every second more you achieve making you somehow greater than others who have failed, and a brutal reality that you could be doing so much better. In this way, it holds all the feelings that sex in video games could apply themselves towards.
Actually consider this with me for a moment. From the male point of view, how many people do you think actually last more than a couple seconds their first time? Am I talking about Super hexagon or sex? Eh? Eh? If you have had the chance, take a moment to think what your first, second, nth time having sex/playing super hexagon was like was like. Hopefully, every time, in a way, felt like victory, and even when it didn't necessarily feel like that, there is the addictive feeling, the wait knowing that soon enough, or not soon enough, you'll hear that voice, saying “Again”(I always heard it as “Again”. I know its suppose to be “Begin” but I hear it as “Again”).
Awe yeah. Uh. That is SO hot
Now what if one could apply the principles that make Super Hexagon, which is at the very least a critical success, to the portrayal of sex in video games? What if we got rid of the silly button prompt with table shake from God of War? What if a video game involving sex could involve not just fap material, but a metaphor for the emotional experience of sexual life through design? Not only that, but also mirror what Super Hexagon was designed to give the player, an almost out of body experience of turning mazes that require a sort of zen mode, a perfect rhythm to satisfy it while the game through forcing you into that zen state satisfies you. What if video game sex could give you that same experience? Without any of that Bayonetta bullshit of one handed controls.
The suggestion is that interactive porn not necessarily be equated with a sex in video games.
Suppose for example, that we had a hentai dating sim. But in this one, the end goal is not just a sex scene. The sex is only the beginning. What if we took out the “just sit back and fap” element of that scene, and put the player to actually having to work as the character. Maybe not Super Hexagon “Die every 5 seconds” kind of work, but let a game actually put stress on a player to perform well. Give the mechanics enough charm that they hook a player in, making the action at once simple and complicated. Like Super Hexagon, take the dual approach, of yes, you get the sex, but if you got a bit better, found the rhythm a little bit more, then the reward would be so much better. Reward the player with every inch of skin they get, but make them work before they are called anything like sex gods.
Like this. But you know, with like, tits and stuff
I'm not saying this would sell. I think we all know this would not sell. But as a hypothetical, perhaps its an interesting idea. Take the elements of what I'm willing to call a critical success, and transfer them to something, that at its current state, is usually none-game at best.
Have I been hitting the Super Hexagon too hard? Do I really need to rethink what I'm doing in bed? Did I totally hit the nail on the head? Am I offending someone somehow? Is there some game out there where all this is totally true? Is all this stuff totally obvious to the point that it went without saying? Do you just not get Super Hexagon?Maybe you're not really that into it, but agree that the soundtrack is awesome(possibly love-making worthy)?The comment box, as you know, is below.
I would hardly call this a review of Brendan Keogh's Killing is Harmless: A close reading of Spec Ops: The Line. I picked it up yesterday, read half, then finished the other half today. And now I have thoughts on it, or at least want to gush about it through an outlet, so here we go.
The book can be bought here. its currently at a minimum price of $4.99.
In full disclosure, I have not actually played Spec Ops: The Line, and I'm an avid fan of writing about games in general. As far as I know, and I think as far as the author knows, this is the first book of its kind, a close analysis of a single game, over 170 or so pages. Not only that, but being released in E-book format, already typos have been closed, and footnotes added, which is just an interesting development in the area of how books are released, but I think that's a tangent. I want to consider how well this format works.
That is, did I enjoy, instead of playing a game whose main message was to ask me why I'm playing the game, reading about someone else's flow of conscious as he describes each scene of the game as he has noticed in multiple playthroughs.
What does it all mean bro? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN
Well, yes, I did. I wouldn't be utterly surprised if that enjoyment is specific to me, but I think this can work. From what I understand, now that Spec Ops is pretty much ruined for everyone who reads about video games on the internet, and considering that the game itself mostly sells on its narrative, having that narrative removed and explained, prodded and pointed out, was riveting enough that I got through it fairly quickly. If I actually played the game, I probably wouldn't notice the symbolic mannequins standing over even the early battlefields, the empty choices, or the optional conversations. I know that on one hand I'm supposed to experience the “art” if you will and come to my own conclusions. But I don't mind having a teacher, if you will, walk me through what he perceived to be the important parts of the game, explain to me things like the significance behind the in-game songs chosen. Keogh does a good job of walking through every chapter of the game, reviewing it all in the lens of someone looking for significance, even remarking when things are boring, or when a scene eludes his ability to pin down what it all means(he comes up with a number of possible meaning for the scene where the crew fall into a room filled with sickeningly detailed dead bodies, but can't quite decide what thematic purpose it serves beyond shock value). But I think that helps with his translating the experience of the observant player through his words. At the time of this writing, he even has on his blog a correction involving him mistaking one ending for another because on his first playthrough he panicked and unknowingly pressed a trigger under the stress. He isn't really a reporter on the game. It feels basically like watching someone play the game and talk to you about it. Its an interpretation, and one I found a fun read, for lack of an actual sucker willing to play through the couple hour campaign of The Line for my amusement.
Can this be done with other games? I don't know for sure. I can't really imagine a whole book produced for any other single game. Not unlike Portal, The Line is apparently a rather short play, but like Portal, that let the designers craft every single piece of the narrative and message(if not the actual gameplay) of the game to their liking, from the crows to the mannequins to the shouts and conversations of your enemies. As Extra Credits has already mentioned, The Line isn't a game dealing with being fun. I think a book might be a bit of a stretch for most games that are still about being fun. But if more games that are less like fun romps and can convincingly be made out to be more like thoughtful, or angry, or pretentious, interactive experience(for lack of a better term), then maybe this is the first step to building something that a years from now can be called a sort of canon of gaming.
I think, whether an individual opinion of this book is good or bad(and I did like the book), that this book is published (not unlike Spec Ops: The Line)a good step. I guess that makes it a recommendation. Might be worth more if you actually play the game. Or maybe play it after reading? I don't know.
Games have a rather special feature to them that I'm sure gets talked about to death. I'm pretty sure we've all read at some point some sentence about the idea of emergent game-play—experiences with games that could be considered unique to one's own session(though, the vocabulary is still new and in the process of being defined)--but even if you haven't read about it, you might have experienced it. I mostly wanted to talk about how emergent game-play colored my opinion of games, and asking when emergent game-play is a huge achievement and when it unfairly overshadows what could be better game design. I'll mostly do this through an example of my own gaming history, and talking about games and the emergent game-play experiences I had with one in particular.
Of course certain games come to mind when one mentions emergent game-play. Scribblenaughts, The Elder Scrolls, and more recently Dishonored all make names on giving the player options to have unique experiences. But while these games make their names on emergent game-play, I want to talk about one that impacted me in particular.
The experience that always comes to my head when I think of the idea of experiences unique to a session is my final battle in Mass Effect 2. I think that in a way I still do prefer Mass Effect 2 to 3, not because of the ending, but because the heavy weapon system, while perhaps a a little bit gimmicky, was conducive to a good kind of emergent game play. For me, this is epitomized in my final battle. I won't spoil the plot, but I will set the environment a little bit. The boss is huge, and the arena takes place in the dark, with mostly the glowing eyes of your opponent as the only way to track him. Of course it could have also been that my brightness setting was too low. That actually used to be a bit of a problem with the monitor I was using. A little bit into the match, I bring out the heavy weapon I chose for the mission. On most missions I bring out the Avalanche—the ice cannon—for area of effect crowd control, but for the final mission I brought the Cain--a mini nuke cannon.
With the symbol and everything
Now, if you've played ME2 then you know that the Cain has a lot of problems that make it impractical: a long charge up time, along with a huge blast radius, as well as practically only having a single shot make it a pretty much useless weapon in most respects. Well almost useless. In this case the boss was huge enough and far away enough that neither missing nor getting caught in the blast were going to be a problem. The issue was going to be that start-up time. So you hold the trigger. And wait. And wait. The percentage ticker steadily heats up. The front of your gun, behind cover starts to glow. As the appointed time approached, you poke out. Aim at the glowing weak spot, and...
Looking now, half this stroy comes from being to lazy to change the brightness settings. Also, so much for no spoiler free
Kaboom. Or something. A large chunk of the health bar disappears, but that isn't what this story is about. Suddenly, and only for a little while, what was in the darkness is illuminated in the nuclear green. For the first time, you see this huge bosses face. I'll try not to spoil to much, but I hope its clear that an impression was left. You could it reeling back, and for a second, you understood what it was you were fighting. A set of accidents, not a set of design choices, led to the most dramatic moment of game-play for me.
So how is this emergent game play? Well, it might not necessarily be unique to only my session, it was based on a number of choices, that, in a way, were entirely my own without being judged one way or another whether I was right, with no reward for doing it that way in particular. And it was a good emergent experience too. I'm sure others have done it, but for me, ME2 is better than ME3 because it allowed for such strong experiences to happen through one's choices. It wasn't a practical solution to anything, rather I consider this moment to come from my flair for dramatics. But for that game to give me the options that I needed to preform that battle in a way that could be unique to me, in contrast to say, in God of War where you were shepherded to perform certain actions through quick-time events, where the events are dramatic, but not unique, or even the skill choices in any Mass Effect games, where the choices may be unique, but not quite dramatic on the level of a nuke lighting up the monster in the dark’s face.
I consider this an example of good emergent game-play. I think, that for the next one, it might be fair to look at an example of less good emergent experiences.
Its actually rather hard to think of a what I would call a bad emergent game-play experience. I don't think we call them that. We call them a glitches, or a broken game. Other examples are less obviously negative; I consider the wave-dash in Super Smash Bros. Melee, where a set of movements given by the devs, when combines by players create a new, much more dramatic movement that might give a huge advantage over other players, overshadow the devs work by taking advantage of what they didn't think of. I think I'll leave this end of the argument with this example.
That's an infinite combo against the last boss of the Street Fighter IV arcade mode. Infinite combos, generally by their nature, are made of choices the devs didn't consider, didn't shepherd you to. I'm not going to say this example of emergent game play makes the player bad, but I am going to ask if this is fun. Is it rewarding to use a glitch in the game, rather than one's own skill against the computer(or another human opponent for that matter), even when that computer isn't playing fair, to win? I don't know. To me it seems like it would get repetitive, and rather sad in a way.
So, what else is out there? Whats experiences are unique to you? I know probably everyone can give some version of emergent game-play from their favorite Elder Scrolls game if nothing else. Can anyone think of better examples of negative emergent experiences? I'd like to hear from you.