Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Towards Dawn

Hello there.
Due to my study load and some other writing commitments, Critical Damage has been a bit quiet lately. I have a few deadlines coming up in the next week and after that I will finish off a few posts I have been working on and try to get them up. However, in the meantime, on something of a whim I seem to have started a side project that is turning out to be quite interesting. 
That project is Towards Dawn, and is simply a diary I am keeping of one specific Minecraft game where instead of setting up a 'home', I continuously walk east towards the dawn and note the new and exotic things I see.
In the earliest forming of the idea in my mind, all I was thinking was that playing Minecraft as a nomad could possibly be kind of a cool, alternative way of playing. The majority of players tend to have a 'home', not too far from where they initially spawn on the map. Sometimes this is a large castle; sometimes it is just the first room in the player's first cave. Typically this home contains vast riches that the player has mined and placed in chests for safekeeping. I thought it could be interesting to subvert this. In my Towards Dawn game, I only possess what I can carry with me. I have no home (though my spawn point far to the west still feels like home, interestingly). I leave as little a mark on the lands I pass through as possible.
I did not fully consider at first how this would in fact be something of a perma-death experiment, somewhat similar to Ben Abraham's Far Cry 2 experiment, or the many others that have already followed. I made no pact with myself to delete the game if I die, but if (when) I do, my nomad adventure will certainly be over. I will spawn back at 'home' and I  most certainly will not be tracing my steps for game-days on end to pick up the trail. 
Perma-death playthroughs are something I have been fascinated about for some time as they relate deeply with my interest in consequece (that the blog where Ben's initial perma-death experiment can be found is titled Sometimes Life Requires Consequence says it all). 
The extreme consequences faced in a perma-death playthrough of a game highlight, I think, how permanence adds to the significance of a story. The story is not weakened by the player dying and then rewinding time to tell the story a slightly different way--the player dies and the story ends and is complete authoritative. This isn't how the story 'could' be; this is the story.
This is not to say that for the sake of story all games should go so far as to delete the player's file when they die. Rather, that permanency in some fashion can go a long way towards strengthening the fiction of a game.
Minecraft already had this before I began my adventure, and I would argue that it is one of the reasons the game resonates so deeply to so many people. While death is not the end in Minecraft, its consequences are certainly real. Minutes after my first ever diamond discovery, I tripped and fell in lava, losing said diamond, along with over two hours worth of other resources. I respawned and the game continued, but that loot was lost forever. The feeling of loss and despair in my gut as I watched myself burn to death that night was one of the strongest emotional reactions I have ever felt towards a game. That is not an exaggeration.
This occurs simply because of how Minecraft saves the game. That is, the game is always being saved right now. You cannot simply load an old save and not get your items back. The second you died, your game saved again. 
This permanency, this fact that you can not go back, that you must keep moving forward, makes experiences in Minecraft more meaningful. At least I feel like they do for me. That existing energy is something that Towards Dawn is tapping into.
But that was quite a tangent! The point is that Towards Dawn is an accidental perma-death experiment, and I feel that is what makes it more interesting than if I were to simply blog as I begin to build a castle, die a couple of times, and finish building a castle.
But what is the point? What is Towards Dawn trying to prove? Well, I'm not too sure yet. I'm thinking that will become apparent as I continue to play. For now I am enjoying the new experiences my less grounded, less materialistic lifestyle is offering. When it ends (whenever that is), perhaps I will have something more profound to say about it. For the meantime, I hope you enjoy the journey.
You can follow Towards Dawn here, or start from the first post here. Also, I would really appreciate some feedback. Is it interesting? Boring? Is there anything you think should be changed in either the presentation or the playing? Let me know!
In other news, I am playing Halo: Reach. But this post has already gone on too long so that will have to wait for a future post.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Liberty Cities

Crossing back-and-forth across Liberty City as Niko Bellic, I pass the same districts and landmarks many times every hours. I visit the same Burger Shot a block from Middle Park to restore my health as I once again cross the same bridge and exit on the same highway. However, there are city blocks, mere metres from my regular commute, that I may only glimpse once every ten hours. Other locales may go upwards of twenty, fifty, even a hundred hours without Niko laying eyes on them. When I do eventually stumble across these spaces (usually while hunting down a criminal or an elusive pigeon) I marvel that such spaces could have existed all this time without me knowing.
Something similar happens in real life. In Brisbane, I live near a fairly major road. Not a freeway or anything, but a major thoroughfare from the CBD to the western suburbs nonetheless. I live on the southern side of this road, and my bus travels up and down it everyday when I commute into the city. The northern side of the road is really not that different from the southern side. Yet, for me, the road has become some kind of imaginary border. I have little reason to ever travel north of the road; the streets beyond it have become this abstract, foreign land whose topography is nonsensical to me simply because I rarely go there.
The other week, my girlfriend and I drove into this strange land to visit an old friend. I was dumbfounded. What was this place? Were we even in the same city anymore? How could such a place exist so near to my home for so long without me ever seeing it? Yet, there were houses here. And cars. And shops. Clearly, people lived here. People not unlike me. For someone living in these suburbs, there would be absolutely nothing strange about The Area North Of The Road at all. Perhaps for them, the southern side of the road is the bizarre, exotic land.
Two people in the same city can see the same places in completely different ways. This in itself is not a particularly revolutionary idea. Clearly, individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, physical capability, income, and class (just to name a few) are all going to affect how we interact with our environment. What I find fascinating is that this implies we never truly, objectively understand a space—we only ever perceive it subjectively, based on our own circumstances.
What does this mean for game spaces? What circumstances are in play that affect how we comprehend the worlds games present us? Or, more pertinently, whose circumstances? There are several elements worth noting, but in this post I want to highlight the significance of the playable character’s circumstances in filtering our understanding of the game world.
That’s right. The character. Within the game’s fiction and mechanics, the character that we control in the game world has individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, income, physical capability, etc. These circumstances affect the character’s understanding of their place and role in the world, and this in turns affects how the player perceives and navigates the game space.
Placing the same player in the shoes of three vastly different characters within the same game space, Grand Theft Auto IV and its two DLCs are perfectly situated to demonstrate this. My understanding of Liberty City—both as a fictional world and a navigable game space—changed based on the character I was experiencing it through. While Niko, fresh off the boat, rarely travelled to Alderney, Broker may as well be a foreign country to The Lost and the Damned’s Johnny Klebitz. Meanwhile, The Ballad of Gay Tony’s Luis Lopez lives between the glitzy high-rises of downtown Algonquin and the projects of North Holland, rarely concerned with the other islands. The blatant difference in circumstance between the three characters both in regards to the game’s fiction (e.g. the characters’ differing personalities) and the game’s design (e.g. the different positioning of safe house, access to different weapons), trickled down to affect the ways I perceived and navigated Liberty City in very subtle ways.

The roadmap that had been inscribed in my mind as Niko (shop at this store; sleep in this borough; use this major road to get to that suburb) is formatted and cleared when I jump on Johnny’s bike. Alleyways, courtyards, and burger joints that I pass without a second glance as Niko, I suddenly notice as Johnny. This was not simply a case of not being thorough in my initial playthrough—by the time I first played The Lost and the Damned, I had spent well over a hundred hours in Liberty City as Niko.
At the time, it seemed impossible to me that I could still stumble across areas that I had never before seen. Once or twice I actually reloaded my original game just to check these places were actually there in the original story. Sure enough, they were; me-as-Niko had just never noticed them. Then, several months later, I discovered even more locations when I stepped into the shoes of Gay Tony’s right-hand man, Luis.
So what changed? I was exploring the exact same city with the exact same controls with what were more-or-less the exact same models with different textures on top. Simply, the difference is perspective. Niko, Johnny, and Luis all look at Liberty City through a different lens (as a fresh start, as a corrupt cesspit, as a mine of drunk socialites) and I as the player could not help but be influenced by this.
Each character looked at the city from a different angle. While Niko looks west to Liberty City’s trademark skyline from the docks he arrived in, Johnny gazes east at a mirror-image city from the safety of his clubhouse, and Luis (to appropriate a cliché) can’t see the city for the skyscrapers. It is inevitable that the three would see three different Liberty Cities, and that the player, looking through the character, would see each city slightly differently.
This is not something unique to Grand Theft Auto IV, or even to open-world games. I would argue that our understanding and perception of all game worlds are influenced by the circumstance of the character we experience it through.
Often this is depicted literally as part of the game’s mechanics. Optimal drainpipes and ledges don’t actually glow red in the world of Mirror’s Edge, that is just how Faith (and by extension the player) sees her world. Left 4 Dead’s survivors see each level as a path to a safe house while the special infected see a playground of ledges and blind spots. Killzone 2’s invading force sees an evil dictatorship and faceless soldiers with glowing red eyes, not a viciously patriotic people defending their home planet.
All of this is not to say that the character is the only element that influences the player’s navigation of a space. Certainly, game levels are designed in a way that the space asks to be used in very explicit ways, and the character we are asked to play is arguably a small subset of this.
It is also worth noting that how the character sees their world depends on how the player sees the character. I sympathised with Niko as a broken, tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence he desperately wanted to get out of but only ever made worse. A different player, though, could just as understandably see Niko as a crazed madman not worth a moment’s pity. That player’s Liberty City is still filtered through a Niko Bellic, just not the same Niko Bellic as my Liberty City.
The character is a lens through which our understanding of the game world will always be filtered. We can never see the world as it ‘is’, just as it looks from our own point-of-view.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Freeplay 2010: Beyond the Controller

At last, here is one of the two final Freeplay 2010 pieces I promised to write. I walked into the “Beyond the Controller” roudtable discussion with a degree of pre-emptive (and presumptuous) reluctance. I was expecting a whole lot of death-of-the-controller, motion-sensor-utopia promotional talk. I was pleasantly mistaken.
While John Sietsma, Steve Bull, and Hugh Davies discussed their various augmented reality, transmedia, and cross-media projects, I don’t feel I know enough about augmented reality games myself to reproduce their presentations with any degree of accuracy—though, I now definitely want to learn more about them!
Truna (Jane Turner), however, started the discussion with a thought-provoking look at what precisely the controller ‘is’ and exactly what it contributes to our game experience. While all the presenters covered interesting topics, it was Truna’s talk that captured my interest the most and which I will be trying to do justice here. I should note, though, that I am basing this article entirely on my hastily scribbled notes so it should be read less as a report on what Truna said and more as what I personally took out of it.
“I don’t like controllers,” Truna began. “When you say ‘creativity’, I tend to think the opposite of ‘controlling’.”
By name, a controller is a thing that controls. But just what, precisely, is it controlling? This is not something I have ever really thought about. Clearly, the controller is so named because it allows the player to control some aspect of the game. But if that is the case, then it is the player that should be titled ‘controller’, right?
This all sounds very semantic, but what it comes down to is that the controller controls the player. Our actions and choices within the game are influenced, and to an extent predetermined, by the controller through which we interact with the game.
So how does the controller do this? Truna quoted Juul to say “The interface is the gameplay.” (I can’t find a reference for this verbatim quote but I imagine it is from “Easy to Use and Incredibly Difficult: On the Mythical Border between Interface and Gameplay”). The ways we can (and cannot) interact with the game determines how we actually play.
For the player, the controller functions as a form of prosthesis, replicating a limb that the player is missing. This prosthetic limb allows us to interact within the videogame world and serves the illusion that the fourth wall between the real and virtual worlds has been crossed: if what we are holding feels like a gun, then it is a gun.
For Truna, there exists two broad categories of controllers: specific and abstract (or generic). Within the specific grouping are controllers built for a specific style of gameplay: fishing rods, guitars, light guns, etc. that direct gameplay in a very narrow way. Abstract controllers are the more typical gamepads that the majority of console games rely on. Though, abstract controllers do not allow any more freedom for the player; rather, they just disguise the ways in which the player is being controlled. For Truna, the abstract controller is designed for two things: moving and shooting stuff.
Truna also made it clear, though, that she did not believe Sony and Microsoft’s new motion controllers were in any way moving beyond the controller. She pointed at a Microsoft press release that describes the Kinect as a “natural user interface”. But a player should be more than a user. Motion controllers do not remove the controllers (it is still in the name!); they merely remove them from the player’s hand. Using the player’s body as a controller is still situating a controller between the game and the player themselves.
So ultimately, the controller works to both give the player a sense of empowerment and agency (the player thinks, “I have a gun and I can shoot it whenever I want!”) and to discreetly remove the player’s actual agency (the player rarely thinks, “I can shoot, but I can’t do anything else.”). Our presence in the game world and the choices we make there are underpinned (and undermined) by the controller’s influence over us.
What Truna ultimately wants is for us to “think our way into games”. I initially took this as wanting some futuristic tech that we can plug into our brain. But the following speakers, with their different implementations of augmented reality games (such as Transumer and Jewel Collector) demonstrated how thinking into games would actually work.
John Sietsma summed up nicely what all the demonstrations showed: the more technology you add to a game, the more authority you ultimately remove from the player. Technology allows augmented reality games do things like geocaching and networking and recording data, but it weakens personal communication and (most importantly I think) limits the senses that the player is able to use.
So overall, what I took out of the discussion is that controllers aren’t ‘bad’ things that we must do away with, but they are doing very specific things to how we play, and we should be aware of that.