Friday, August 27, 2010

Guest Moments: Diary of a Minecrafter

 [In this pseudo-regular section, I record some of my more memorable gaming moments, the moments that remind me why I play games. Those who follow me on Twitter will already be aware of my recent obsession with Minecraft's emergent gameplay. The simplest of systems (mine resources to craft tools to mine better resources to craft better tools) is applied to a sprawling, procedural world for you to explore, tame, and master. New stories are born practically by the minute. The following is one such story. However, it is not my own.
The first time I read the following story I was laying in a bed in a Melbourne youth hostel. It was 7am on a Sunday morning and my phone beeped with a new email. For some reason I rolled over and checked it, only to find this rambling, livid, excited tale from my brother, Glynn Keogh, who had just lost an entire night to his Minecraft world. It was a good tale that exemplified exactly what I love about this game, so I asked him if he would let me re-post it here. So thanks, Glynn, for the following tale.]
Note: Screen captures are taken from my own game, not Glynn's adventure.
Progress on the subterranean highway is going well. For many long hours I have toiled down here, far below the surface world, forging a safe path hidden from the ferocious creatures and demons that roam through the night up above. It started out as a humble mine, but time and necessity drove me to make it so much more. Back up on the surface I am constantly on edge as soon as that great square sun hits the horizon; but buried here amongst the rocks and dirt, I am safe and free.
For the hundredth time tonight, my pick axe digs into the tunnel wall, and another chunky cube of rock breaks off. The highway is another foot longer. Soon it will be time to travel back to the tunnel entrance and begin laying tracks for the cart system that will eventually make journeys faster and safer. A few more squares and I will raise another shaft to the surface to gauge my progress, for it is daylight and the world outside is safe. Another chunk of rock breaks apart, the sound reverberating off the tunnel walls. But there’s also another sound, the most dreaded sound a minecrafter will ever hear underground.
Running water.
I curse to myself and continue to listen, struggling to pin-point the direction of the underground stream. It seems to be coming somewhere from the left of the tunnel, but for all I know I may hit it if I continue forwards, too. This is my first Minecraft world and I’ve never struck water underground before, but I know it’s something I certainly don’t want to do. This tunnel is the backbone of my entire domain and I cannot afford to lose it; I have no wish to risk the surface world at night. There’s really only one option, so I backtrack slightly and begin digging into the wall towards the sound: better to find the stream on my own terms than unwittingly flooding the entire highway later on. Grabbing a torch from my pack, I seal the side passage off behind me in case the worst happens. One way or another I will find the stream, but it will never reach the highway if I can help it.
I dig for a long time, far longer than I expected would be necessary. The sound of rushing water is misleading; it seems to come from all directions yet never can I locate the source. My good steel pick is blunted from the continuous digging, and I am forced to use my back-up stone picks. Soon even they are all but exhausted. My torch supply is also dwindling rapidly. I decide that once my last pick is gone I’ll head back to my safe house at the mine entrance, make some new tools and go back to the tunnel proper. If I can’t find the water after this long it must be safe enough to keep digging. My final torch dug in to the ground beside me, I dig away at the rock one final time and my pick is destroyed. The rock drops to the ground…followed by a rushing torrent of water.
In that brief second when the water pushes its way through the hole, I realise just how inexperienced a miner I am. The side tunnel I’ve dug is completely unorganised and random, the result of me wildly trying to trace the confusing sounds. Worse still, the tunnel slopes away downwards the way I came. As the water hits me I know with utter certainty that this tunnel is almost perfectly built to become completely flooded.
Suddenly I’m under the surface, and so is my nearest torch. A few seconds more and the torrent has smothered my other light sources. I’m plunged into darkness so complete my monitor may as well be turned off. All I can see is my rapidly dwindling air supply, and all I can hear is rushing water. Every now and then my head somehow breaks the surface and I stop myself from drowning, but I can tell that I’m being swept far further than the start of this tunnel. Somehow I’ve entered a natural cave system.
After awhile I manage to clamber on to dry land, amazed at the fact that I haven’t died. The rushing water has deposited me somewhere on a cavern floor and continues to flow past me in the dark, sounding deceptively tranquil and calm. I have no idea where I am, only that I didn’t build it. There is no way out; the newly formed river is filling the only entrance to the cave, and I have no wish to jump back in any time soon. I have no torches, no picks or shovels, and no coal. All I have left in my inventory is my sword, some wood, and the stone I have been mining. Resigned to finding my way out with zero lighting, I turn off all the lights in the house and count myself lucky that it’s 1am; by making my own world pitch black I can faintly make out the outlines of the cave with some effort. With a chunk of rock in my hand I begin pounding at the wall of the cavern, prepared to dig my way out by hand. This will take some time.
I dig for a ridiculously long time, guided only by the soft, constant trickle of water. I follow the underground river upstream, hoping to work my way back to a familiar tunnel. Several times along the way I am forced to hastily dam the stream and alter its course, lest I be swept away once more. Finally, my eyes aching and my hands sore from clawing through so much solid stone, I break through into another cavern. The hole I’ve dug is already leaking water as I once again have struck the cursed river, but I manage to duck through the tiny gap without being swept away. Incredibly, this cavern is actually lit, and for the first time in ages I can actually see properly. The cavern is beautiful in a deadly sort of way. The centre of the floor is a pile of loose gravel, which I manage to climb on to with some effort. The mound is surrounded on one side by the large body of water I had managed to find myself under, and on the other by a huge pool of lava, the source of the glow.
As I stand surveying the scene, my screen suddenly flashes and I am knocked forwards as something strikes me from behind. Only luck stops me from falling head first into the lava. Turning around, I see a zombie advancing out of the shadows towards me. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t scare the crap out of me after all I’d been through. I draw my sword and charge the monster, knocking it back and gaining myself a little room to maneuver. I duck around behind it in an effort to get away from the lava, receiving a blow to the head for my troubles. My hearts perilously low at this stage, I know that another hit will end this adventure. I charge a final time, and send the zombie flying into the molten rock. I start breathing again.
I slouch away from the computer for a moment; my nerves just can’t take it anymore. As I watch the lava flow slowly by, I decide upon a course of action. I retrieve the almost forgotten planks of wood from my pack and craft them into a workbench. I could have done this earlier, but the notion of crafting items in pitch-black damp caves seemed too unfeasible for me to consider. But here in the light of the lava, I could finally set to work. Using the very last of my wood and some stone I manage to craft a single low quality pick. It is the most wonderful tool I’ve ever held. My new pick in hand, I begin the task of digging my way out. By now I have no idea where I am or in which direction lay the subterranean highway, so I go the only way that makes sense: up. All this effort, all this time and glorious adventure in the name of fleeing the surface, and now I am desperate to escape the underground and see the sky once more. Therein lies the beauty of this game: every hole I dig, every wall I build, every tool I craft is all in the name of forging a little place where I can be safe. And now, as I claw away the last few chunks of dirt and sunlight shines down onto my face for the first time in hours of play, I am finally safe.

After finally finding my way home from that fantastic and terrifying hole in the ground (another adventure in itself), I am once more at the advancing end of the subterranean highway. Now with new tools in hand and a good number of fresh torches in my pack, I am ready to continue my work. The sound of running water is no longer audible through the tunnel walls, and I can only assume that my efforts to redirect the stream were successful in leading it away from this point. In any case, I am not about to go looking for it again. Happy to finally be back to mining, I swing my pick at the wall and another chunk of rock shatters. But before I can swing again, the gap I have opened up is filled with loose gravel. I scoop it clear, and yet more replaces it. Careful to avoid a fatal cave-in, I continue scooping away the debris until the flow stops suddenly. With a loud clatter, something heavy lands at my feet.
A makeshift workbench which, until moments ago, had been resting on a pile of gravel between a river of water and a pool of lava in a cavern, which is beautiful in a deadly sort of way, not 3 squares above the fore of my subterranean highway.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeling Every Punch

A lot of insightful, thought-provoking views found their way into the comments of my “Player Privilege” post. One highlighted problem with my argument was that I failed to articulate exactly what I meant by wanting games that are more ‘difficult’. Adrian made the very valid point that simply making games harder for players would not be abolishing player privilege but instead would simply reinstate the privilege of the hardcore by making games less accessible. That games should require more dexterous skill was not my intended argument so this is clearly something I need to distinguish better.
Related to this, The Shape of Games To Come highlighted an important distinction between real-world consequences and virtual consequences:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence."
As essentially what my broader argument is saying is that games could be more meaningful by inflicting harsher consequences on the player, the distinction seems like a vital area to explore. However, the distinction I would make is that they are not distinct at all.
So I am going to start with a wildly presumptuous hypothesis and then work my way back to it. So here it goes: the player takes meaning out of a game (both positively and negatively) through the ways the game affects the player in the real world. To twist this around: the real-world consequences of the player’s virtual actions communicate meaning to the player.
This implies an overlap of what exists in the real world and what exists in the virtual world, and indeed there is a whole body of literature on this topic that I am grossly simplifying and re-appropriating here. While both worlds have exclusive elements (we sit with a controller in our hand in the real-world; the dragons we slay, the cars we steal and the aliens we shoot exist solely in the virtual world), there is this massive gray area where the two worlds smash together like a Venn Diagram. This is the space where you read Fallout 3’s The Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide on the bus home from EB Games. This is the space where a real-world friend shouts “jump!” while a virtual squadmate orders you to “press X!”.
It is within this overlap, too, that we are able to interact with the virtual world. Via our in-game avatar, we project our real-world actions (pressing X) into the virtual world. This is how we play videogames. We poke a finger through this little window into the virtual world and watch the effects of that action ripple outwards. However, this window is not one-way. Just as we can effect change in the virtual world via real actions, the consequences of those actions are able to ripple back to us in very real ways—sometimes too real.
We want our actions in-game to resonate into the real world... but not too much. (link)
The Shape Of Games To Come, in his comment, clarified between what he sees as constructive in-game consequences and destructive real-world consequences by comparing how Heavy Rain and Mirror’s Edge respond to the player’s failings:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence. I though Heavy Rain was fantastic largely because of how it handled this; I could lose whole characters, cut off entire potential plot branches and gameplay sequences, etc. based on how I acted in a particular scene. That was great.

What is not at all great is for me to be punished outside of the game for my actions. This has two possible consequences for me, both of which are bad. The first is that the narrative of the game is broken. I died a lot playing Mirror's Edge. And at the end of the day, that reinforced something for me - that the character of Faith could not possibly have done what the game said she did with the skillset the game gave me unless she ran into an almost infinitely improbable string of good luck. The second consequence is that the game has essentially wasted some of my life. Do I have to go back and replay the past hour of gameplay because there was no checkpoint? Then I have just lost an hour of my life, and now I will have to spend another hour just to get back to where I already was. That's not meaningful consequence, that's abuse."
These are both great examples. However, I would argue that both are examples of games projecting consequences from the virtual world back into the real world. They key difference is that the consequences of actions within Heavy Rain continue to resonate in the virtual world as well as the real world. That is, the game reacts to our actions (intended or accidental) and continues along a certain route consequential to those actions. This is a virtual consequence (because it affects the characters in-game), but it is also a real-world consequence (because it affects the way we play, progress, and experience the game).
Meanwhile, the Mirror’s Edge example is a real-world consequence without any corresponding virtual consequence. In short, Faith does not die. Every action between the checkpoint and our misguided jump is erased and forgotten. The player suffers consequences in the real world (loss of time, alienation at the plausibility of the narrative) while the character suffers nothing. Faith has no memory of that fateful misstep, but the player must remember every bone-crunching detail.
My initial hypothesis was that the player takes meaning out of a game based on how the game affects them in the real world. Now I don’t want to twist The Shape Of Games To Come’s words against him so the following is my own experience of Mirror’s Edge and Heavy Rain: My experience of Mirror’s Edge was marred by the way it affected me in the real world without affecting Faith in the virtual world. Yet my experience of Heavy Rain was improved by the way the consequences to my actions affected how I played the game in both real and virtual ways.
So where does this leave us? Have I found a wedge to distinguish between privilege and accessibility? Perhaps what I mean by player privilege, then, is that many games are being designed in a way as to isolate the player in the real world. The player is able to poke through the window into the virtual world then slam it shut before the consequences ripple back to affect them in the real world—ultimately blocking the player off from any meaning those consequences may have conveyed.
An example of this would be the choice to destroy Megaton in Fallout 3. While Megaton’s destruction has very clear virtual consequences to the citizens of the Capital Wasteland (a major town destroyed, many deaths, a large area radiated), the decision hardly affects the way the player progresses in the game. Regardless of what the player decides to do, they receive a house for their troubles. Further, the quests available to the player do not change—the characters within Megaton that give out quests miraculously survive the detonation. While the game’s karma system does quantify the player’s decision with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ points, the real world consequences of the player’s virtual actions are practically nil, and any meaning the player may get out of the experience is greatly diluted. [Edit: Okay. It has been pointed out to me that there are indeed a number of quests and other elements that are shut off from the player if they destroy Megaton so this example is in fact not all that great.]
At the other extreme, however, is what Adrian highlighted in my previous post as a potential abolishment of accessibility. This would be ripping the window from the wall and allowing all the consequences of the player’s actions to flood back into the real world with no real affect on the virtual—such as Mirror’s Edge or any other game with unforgiving checkpoint systems.
So ideally, the consequences of our actions should not be exclusive to either world, but resonate across both. At the end of the day, why would we put so much into games if we did not wish to take something out of them?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I Learned at Freeplay 2010

“Melbourne’s got a hipster-only policy, right?” I quipped at Fraser on Twitter, in reply to a motherly message about wearing enough layers. In the middle of winter, Melbourne’s weather can be a bit of a shock to us Queenslanders.
“Pretty much. The dress code is black clothes and no outward signs of enthusiasm.”
I was on the shuttle bus from Melbourne Airport to the city, thirty-six hours before the commencement of the second Freeplay Independent Games Festival. I’m not sure what I expected the festival to be like. It just seemed like the kind of thing I should be going to. If nothing else, the ideas of ‘Melbourne’, ‘indie’, and ‘games’ were enough to sell me.
I could not tell you where in relation to the CBD Melbourne’s airport actually is. While waiting for the shuttle bus, I sent out a simple tweet asking any Melbourne friends for directions to my hostel. By the time I was seated on said bus, I was engaged in at least five conversations, replying to an inundation of direction suggestions, public transport timetables, and phone numbers.
This set the mood for the entire weekend: friendly, insightful, and strongly reliant on Twitter. I met some incredible people, listened to some inspiring discussions, engaged in some mind-blowing conversations, and realised that the only thing holding back the art form of games is myself. 

Okay, perhaps I should rewind a bit.
Before Freeplay was to begin, I had an entire day to mosey around Melbourne by myself. Twitter gave me some tips for coffee, for food, and for things to do, so off I went.
Thanks to Dan Golding, I ended up at the Screen Worlds exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). All kinds of screen media were on display, exhibiting the diverse history of the screen. The pseudo-film student inside of me found it all interesting, but of course I levitated to the videogame tables. I spent most of my time at the exhibition playing Tempest, Asteroid, Super Mario Bros 3, and Tomb Raider under televisions flashing glimpses of Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and Katamari Damacy.
What really struck me was the complete lack of self-conscious justification for why videogames were part of the exhibition. It seems silly now, but I have come to expect any inclusion of videogames in any kind of art gallery or museum to come with an excuse-filled placard blabbering about ‘why’ games are there, as though they are the awkward kid at the party no one really wanted invited. Screen Worlds, though, and the diverse people it attracted, all just assumed that the history and art of videogames belonged there along side the old cameras and monochrome cathode ray tube televisions. I felt somewhat guilty that I had not made the same assumption myself.

Freeplay Day One! I’ll be honest: I was freaking out. Not only was there the pressure of having to meet people I have never before met in real life (something I was greatly looking forward to but fretting about nonetheless) but also the nagging anxiety about the reports I was meant to be writing. You see, I was yet to convince myself that I was actually writing for Gamasutra. I was worried about the most irrational things (such as not being able to fit in the theater and completely missing the keynote). All this anxiety led to me waking over an hour before my alarm went off, showering, and rushing out of the hostel a good two hours before registration for Freeplay even opened.
This turned out to be a good thing as on the complete opposite side of the city I found a café in an alleyway selling ridiculously good coffee ridiculously cheap with (wait for it) soy milk for no extra charge! They also just happened to be the only café in the entire city open that early, I swear.
Anyway, 9 o’clock came around and with the course for my Neptune’s Pride fleets set for the next twenty-four hours, I headed off to Freeplay.
To begin the festival Paul Callaghan, one of Freeplay's two orgainsers, took the stage. Paul is a glorious, humble, modest man around which you cannot help but feel good about videogames. Bissell could remove all the pages from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and just replace it with a photo of this guy.
Paul, together with Eve Penford-Dennis, had effectively built this year’s Freeplay out of nothing. You could tell how much time, dedication, and effort both of them had put into the event from the way that started at loud noises. All of a sudden, my few reports didn’t seem like quite such a daunting task. These two people had sweated blood to get this festival running. It is a horrible cliché of a metaphor, I am aware, but totally appropriate. [Update: Okay. So I got a bit hyperbolic and vague in my writing. As Paul has clarified in a comment: "Just wanted to point out that this is the 2nd Freeplay that Eve & I have organised, but it's the 5th overall. Next Wave started it in 2004 and ran it again in 2005 and 2007. Without their foundation, I doubt we'd have been able to build it from scratch." Though, this does not change my emphasis that it was clear that they had put a lot of effort into this year's event.]
And so it began.
Between seminars, I met some staggeringly awesome people. Particularly the GameTaco crew, Fraser Allison (from RedKingDream), Dan Golding (kinda from RedKingDream but also from everywhere, we established), and James O’Connor (from Hyper, Pixelhunt, and others). With these guys I had some great discussions. It sounds silly, but speaking out loud, with your actual voice, about ideas and concepts you have only ever written about is an incredibly empowering feeling. Simply being able to have a meaningful conversation about the map design of X game or the narrative of Y game was alone enough to justify the entire trip.
We were talking about videogames. In real life. This is a big deal. We weren’t hiding out on websites and social networks; we were in public spaces and shamelessly talking about our passions. Perhaps this does not seem like such a big deal, perhaps you live in closer proximity to fellow enthusiasts than I do, but it is not something I have often had the chance to do, and something that I did not realize I had been craving.
After lunch, Saturday afternoon saw how really interesting presentations. The “Beyond the Controller” roundtable looked mostly at augmented reality games (interesting and significant, but not my area), but also included a presentation by the incredible “game activist” Truna who gave a thought-provoking speech challenging our unconscious acceptance of the physical game controller. She did not so much argue that we should abolish the controller, but insisted that we must understand just what the controller is actually controlling: us. This is a topic I will be following up with its own post.
Next was Brandon Boyer’s keynote. Boyer’s speech was a quiet revolution and I doubt there were many in the audience not inspired. I had given up on the actual creation of games years ago but Brandon’s speech forced me accept that the actual act of making games is something I still desire. Not just another platformer or another shooter, mind you (ultimately what all my early game attempts ended up as), but something experimental, something personal. We each have an obligation to make the game we wish to make and from that the videogame medium as a whole will continue to evolve.
And indeed, upon returning to Brisbane, Unity and its various tutorials was one of the first things I downloaded and its learning has become a serious side project.
Though, at the time of Brandon’s speech, the main thing I was thinking was, “Geez I have to do this brilliant talk justice in a report!”
So, of course, I followed everyone to the bar as soon as the talk finished. Long story short, by 2am, after several drinks and several drafts proofread by my awesome girlfriend back in Brisbane, I emailed off my first report and went to bed with Brandon Boyer’s words still ringing in my ears (partially a consequence of listening to his talk on my iphone over and over as I parsed for quotes).
And the report actually got posted! Fortunately, Leigh Alexander is a phenomenal editor and squeezed the odour of gin out of my words and rendered my report readable. But that wasn’t until Monday. For now, I was still stressing out about the report I had just sent and the two more I had to write. But beneath that was one of those vague, buzzing feelings that I have come to associate with the earliest formings of a new idea.
At the time I assumed it was a new article I would want to write, but it would turn out to be something much more meta: a shift in the very way I think of videogames.

Writing one keynote obviously did not alleviate my anxiety as I still managed to climb out of bed and leave the hostel well over an hour earlier than needed (despite only having gone to sleep four hours earlier) and ended up at the same café in the same alley on the same opposite edge of the city.
Adam “Atomic” Saltsman (As I believe I am meant to call him) kicked things off right away with the second keynote, “Play & Games & Videogames & Us”. He had a lot of ground to cover, yet he somehow fit it all in. If Brandon Boyer had convinced me that I should make personal games because they are meaningful, Saltsman convinced me making games is integral to our existence as human beings.
Following this, the “Twisted Space” panel complemented Adam’s ideas perfectly. A very broad and eclectic yet deep and thorough exploration of what we can do with space came with the broader theme of just how much untapped potential still exists in our medium if we are willing to explore it.
Though I had heard of it before, it was this seminar where I first got a good look at Hazard. Hazard is the supermutant brainchild of Alexander Bruce. This man is mad; his game is mad, and they are both exactly what the future of videogames need.
That whole vague buzzing feeling I mentioned before? Well this seminar is where I finally figured out what it was. Specifically, when Alexander said, “It’s a game. We can do whatever the fuck we want so why not do something cool.” This, coupled with the themes of the keynotes that we have an obligation to create ‘something cool’ would be the beginning of a subtle yet seismic shift in how I view videogames.
That night at the after party I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation with Bruce about his game and what he is trying to achieve. This will also be a later post (though much brutalised as I was not taking any notes, sadly). Suffice to say he is absolutely mad and brilliant.
And, well, you get the idea. The two days of Freeplay 2010 blew my mind. There was something for everyone. In fact, everything was for everyone. A lot of the talks were only vaguely related to videogames but that was the point: play is everywhere and we as videogame makers and thinkers and perfectly positioned to tap that energy.
Throughout the festival was this empowering sense of self-worth. Not conscious self-worth, but assumed. This mattered. Games mattered. Not once did anyone try to justify games as art. It was presumed and things advanced from there.
That is the most significant thing I took out of Freeplay 2010: to not question how important videogames are, but to outright assume it. “Games are Art” is not the topic of a debate worth having, but a presumption worth making because beyond that is events like Freeplay and thinkers like Brandon Boyer, Adam Saltsman, Alexander Bruce, and the rest of the weekends speakers, and not the potential of what games can do, but what they must do, what they will do, and what they are already doing all around us.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From Melbourne!

Well I am back in Brisbane now. Had a beautiful, staggering, inspiring, amazing, exhausting few days in Melbourne with some incredible people and in the proximity of a lot of other incredible people.
In the coming days (or weeks once I actually accept that I have university studies I need to be doing) I will be posting a few Freeplay related blogs. I'm aiming to do an overall impressions post, a post looking at some of my own musings on Truna's "Beyond the Controller" presentation, and a post about the importance and challenges of Alexander Bruce's spectacular Hazard. A lot of these will mean nothing to you if you were not there, but it will once I get the posts up!
In the meantime, my Gamasutra reports are starting to appear! My report on Brandon Boyer's "All Play Is Personal" keynote is up now, and my reports on Adam Saltsman's "Play & Games & Videogames & Us" and the "Twisted Space" seminar will be going up tomorrow and Wednesday respectively, I believe. Hope people enjoy them!
So yeah. It has really been a mad few days what with the ideas, the people, and my first real 'deadline'. I'm really pumped but if I try writing anything else tonight I may actually explode. So stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

To Melbourne!

I was hoping to get another post up this week but nothing came to fruition, I am afraid. But never fear! Next week I will have plenty to muse over as this weekend I am heading to Melbourne for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival!
This is exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I get to go to Melbourne. Secondly, because I get to spend several hours on an airplane with nothing but Dragon Quest IX. Thirdly, because I will get to meet some of you people face-to-face. Fourthly, because a lot of the talks are going to be really interesting. And fifthly, because Gamasutra have been so awesome as to let me write up reports on Brandon Boyer's and Adam Saltsman's keynotes.
And by 'exciting' I clearly mean 'horrifying'. I have never written a report on an event before so hopefully I can pull this off. I have been reading heaps of reports written by others and playing plenty of Gravity Hook HD in fear of not writing something adequate. If no reports on Freeplay appear on Gamasutra in the next week, I clearly am no good at writing reports and we can all pretend this post never happened, deal? But self-doubt aside, I am really excited to have the chance to do this... and to justify me flying to Melbourne for a weekend!
Melbourne aside, I am back at university for another semester now and have plenty of articles to read and essays to write, so new posts at Critical Damage may not appear as often as they have the past couple of months. That said, I would really like to try to write reports on every talk and seminar I attend at Freeplay and post them here over the coming weeks. 
So there is some housekeeping that will hopefully preempt any kind of dreadful "Sorry I have not posted for so long!" kind of post in the coming weeks.
If anyone else is going to be at Freeplay this weekend, say hello if you see me! I'll be the hairy guy inappropriately attired  for a city as many degrees of latitude from the equator as Melbourne tends to be.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Player Privilege: Why It Is Still Just A Game

This is a follow-up to my previous Death of the Player post where I mused over the idea of de-prioritising the player over other aspects of game design and criticism. It was rough stuff that I was not entirely convinced of, but I wanted to float the ideas to see what opinions people had. Without implying that they in any way endorse these posts, my thanks to Mr AK (who wrote some of his own semi-related thoughts to my post here), Adrian, and Chris for weighing in and challenging some of my points, and ultimately giving me more confidence with what I am actually trying to say.
As all three pointed out, my central argument, which focused on the ‘importance’ of the player was a flawed one. Even in cases such as Limbo where the game often exploits the player, the player’s ability to interact with the game is still central to the experience.
So I have reconsidered my argument and decided that it is not player importance I have an issue with but player privilege. The majority of games hand the player all kinds of privileges that affect how they experience the game. The player has received these privileges for so many years that not only is there a presumption that these privileges are required, but most players are so comfortable in the current environment that they do not even know such privileges exist. I want to abolish the player’s privileges—or at least challenge the player’s dependency on them.
Why? Because over years and decades, like a spoiled child, the videogame player has entered new worlds shielded and smothered by overprotective parents fearful that, if allowed, the child-player will either damage the world or, worse, damage themselves. The player has rarely felt the consequences of their actions, has rarely had to work for a non-quantifiable gratification, has rarely truly regretted or questioned their actions. Thanks to overbearing supervision, the player is tied tandem to the shallow end of the pool—facing no fear of drowning but no prospect of deeper experiences. As the player’s role has grown from simple coin-feeder to active participant, overprotective parents have held them close and refused to let them mature until the player’s sense of self-worth has overinflated to near bursting.
And who are these parents? The greater game industry. Designers, marketers, journalists, and critics smother the player, well-meaning in their intention to protect the player and help them through the game, they instead keep the player from any meaningful experience. In these parents’ eyes, the child-player can do no harm. If anything goes wrong, everything is blamed before the player. Too difficult? Game’s fault. Too easy? Game’s fault. Too complex? Too simple? Game’s fault. Player’s actions render the story pointless or, worse, Player unable to render the story pointless? Game’s fault.
The player is taught (by games, by marketers, by reviewers) that they can do no wrong, that nothing is their fault, that every aspect of the game exists to serve them. The player has grown up believing that nothing will ever affect them negatively and that there will never be consequences to their actions. In our quest to empower players with the agency to do everything, we don’t allow the player to do anything.
Yet, the most acclaimed, most realised game-worlds are those that both react to the player’s actions and, simultaneously but conversely, give the impression that the player’s existence is inconsequential to that of the world’s. That is, Liberty City, The Capital Wasteland, Azeroth, Shadow of the Colossus’s Forbidden Land, and New Austin could exist just as easily without the player’s presence, yet all are affected by the player’s actions.
Such memorable worlds are the minority. Most, due to their pandering of player privileges, are rendered unconvincing and meaningless—mere cushion-covered playgrounds. Player privilege is why videogame stories and characters pale compared to the ranks of film and literature. The current culture where the player presumes a range of privileges is detrimental to all facets of game design and criticism.
This still sounds like I am calling for a stripping of player importance, but this is not the case. The role of the player is crucial to a videogame, central even. Thus, if player privileges are numbing and diluting player experiences, then it is player rights that are crucial and must be safeguarded to keep the player’s experience from being sidelined altogether—to keep the game from becoming not a game. Player rights exist to render a game playable. This is not an all-encompassing list, but some key ones would certainly include:
  • The right to interact. (The player has the right to project actions into the game-world that the game-world then reacts to accordingly).
  • The right to progress. (The player has the right to always be able to progress, to have the means to overcome a challenge, to know when they are going the wrong way).
  • The right to know the rules. (The player has the right to know the rules of the game).
These are player rights. Without them, a game could not be played. Privileges, on the other hand, are things the player is usually allowed to do but by no means must do. Yet, these are so widespread that players have come to presume their right to them, and nearly all games adhere to them out of fear of the tantrum the player (and reviewer) will throw without their precious toys. Again, this list is neither all-inclusive or prescriptive, but some rights the player does not have (i.e. privileges) include:
  • The player does not have the right to act however they desire without fear of consequence.
  • The player does not have the right to immortality.
  • The player does not have the right to omniscience, to have access to every morsel of information about the story, the world, and the characters.
  • The player does not have the right to be rewarded unjustly. (i.e. achievement points for putting a disc in the tray.)
The player does not have the right to instant gratification.
I am not arguing that the player must not have these privileges ever, in any game. Rather, I argue that the player cannot assume entitlement of these privileges and should not dismiss a game for not having them.
Does the presence of these privileges affect the game-ness of a game? No, usually not. If the sole intent of the game is to let the player have a rollicking fun time, then these privileges are fine, if not advantageous. Games that exist just for pure, simple fun (Crackdown, Just Cause 2, the earlier Grand Theft Auto games) are as justified as easy-to-watch action movies and predictable romance novels. Sometimes that is all we want, and that is okay.
However, there also exists movies that are difficult to watch and books that are difficult to read, that are still revered for their aesthetic and thematic (and artistic) merits. I want more games that are difficult to play like Shakespeare is difficult to read and The Godfather is difficult to watch—difficult, but ultimately more meaningful and rewarding. Not like Killzone 2 is difficult on ‘Hard’ for making me put more bullets into an enemy, but like Far Cry 2 is difficult for making me walk for thirty minutes and then have to contemplate the very real punishment of death if I screw up the ambush. Like Half-Life (or the first Halo) is difficult for not giving me an info-dump of story before I am thrown into things. Like Deus Ex is hard for forcing me to act on incomplete information (brought up in Justin's excellent "Groping The Map" series on the game's opening level). Difficult in the sense that the entire game does not revolve around the player’s cushioned empowerment, entertainment, and instant gratification. When we do this, games finally begin to mean something.
Yet, every time a game does push aside some player privileges for loftier goals than instant gratification, there is an uproar by (perhaps a loud minority of) both players and reviewers. Far Cry 2 does not have enough to do; Braid is too ambiguous; Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t have a jetpack; Limbo kills the player too cheaply. Games such as these are often stamped with the ambiguous ‘literary’ label as though no game could ever be as meaningful as a book. These games tend to keep all of the player’s rights intact while abolishing many privileges in order to focus on other design concerns—namely aesthetic and thematic ones. These games are the ‘difficult’ games that I want to play more of. (Note, though, that when rights are removed along with the privileges, it is to the detriment of the game, such as the sidewards-arrow-gravity-switch in Limbo which removes the player’s right to progress.)
Abolishing player privilege is not something we must start doing in the future. Rather, it is something that games are already attempting right now. Games such as those above (and others, to be sure) are potentially the foundations of a much broader shelf of high-brow games—if we allow them to be.
Such meaningful, artistic, high-brow games will only be more widely accepted if more players realise the satisfaction one can get from giving up their privilege and putting in the extra yards. Thus, it has to start with the players and the reviewers. Designers can craft all the privilege-free games they want, but they will get nowhere if the player refuses to let go voluntarily. This isn’t about changing mechanics but changing culture. Instead of complaining every time a game does not let us do anything we want and demanding the game returns us our privilege, we (players, reviewers, critics) should welcome these games with open arms for potentially allowing us more meaningful experiences.
This is not an elitist aspiration—I have already defended the more ‘easy’ to play games. I just want games that respect my rights as a player without smothering me with privilege, games that present me with a meaningful experience by letting me interact in meaningful ways that might just bite me back. But just as the high-brow player must accept just-for-fun games (and, really, who doesn’t’?), more high-brow titles will only exist if players are willing to give up their privileges.
Players must stop expecting rewards for doing nothing, must stop protesting punishment well-deserved, must stop wanting explosions yesterday. Players have to stop expecting every game to be tailored for their specific needs. It is time the child demands the parents stop pampering them and let them stand, stumble, fall, and eventually learn walk on their own two feet.