December 30, 2007

Defining "Good" Games

It's almost four o'clock in the morning, beginning the last third of a noon-to-noon LAN party. Right now I'm surrounded by a bunch of hardcore gamers and geeks playing Team Fortress 2 and a variety of obscure Warcraft 3 maps. I've decided to take this opportunity to poll this sample of the hardcore gaming public about "what objectively makes a good game". After a lot of argument about the proper use of the term "objectively", I got an interesting set of answers.

Seung said that the measure of a game is the quality of its storytelling and pacing.

Jason claimed that pure and simple "fun" was the main criterion, but replayability (offering a different experience with each play) is important.

Tom M. said that a good game includes "original" game mechanics and a strong sense of progress through the game, represented through either new gameplay opportunities or an unfolding story.

Barnett's sole criterion was value; a good game keeps him entertained for a long time.

Tom L. listed gameplay as the most important aspect of a game. His example was the game Tales of Symphonia, which he characterized as having poor storytelling but fantastic cooperative multiplayer battles.

Derek said that replayability was his only measure of a game's value. A good game keeps you coming back. He hasn't played Portal, but he speculates that it's not "worth it" unless he can play through it several times.

David told me that a good game will be either a short and difficult test of skill or a longer, easier, more involving experience.

Jack plainly listed his three criteria: challenge, fun, and creativity.

And Jonathan said that a good game is defined partially by its "polish" (how well-implemented the game is) and mostly by its "concept" (the originality and quality of the ideas underlying the finished game).

So now let's try to draw deep meaning out of a tiny and undoubtedly flawed opinion sample:

I was surprised that so many of my friends emphasized replayability or game length as a measure of how good a game is. I tend to consider replayability a matter of quantity rather than quality. While quantity might influence purchasing decisions, it doesn't affect how "good" I consider a game. I think that the disconnect might represent a basic difference in how we think about games. My vision is often informed by movies, probably because I envy film's combination of popular appeal and artistic reputation as a medium. I tend to think of more narrated games like Deus Ex or Half Life 2 or Portal as the games that are closest to realizing greatness. Some of my friends tend to think more of games like Defense of the Ancients or Starcraft multiplayer or TF2 that can be played over and over again without losing any freshness. This conceptual difference mirrors that between the proponents of art-through-narrative and those of art-through-mechanics.

Several of my friends mentioned creativity and innovation, but in general this was in reference to gameplay and game mechanics. What most struck me was that nobody mentioned anything about the type of emotion or effect on the player that the game engenders, except mentioning "fun". As Warren Spector noted, other media are applauded upon creating experiences that are distinctly not fun but are otherwise enlightening or powerful. It could be that the focus on fun is why games are not widely considered a "serious" medium. Of course, most games are intended to be light entertainment, and few aspire to be high art, but it bothers me that the possibility of artistic potential doesn't even enter so many minds.

December 28, 2007

Game Length

Portal was a transformative experience for me. It was undeniably a short game, but it felt like it lasted just the right amount of time. It got all the good puzzles in, never felt repetitious, and it didn't overstay its welcome.

Further, I had a lot of other stuff to play, and it was really, really nice to be able to suck all the enjoyment out of Portal in a few hours. It didn't require a month-long commitment to appreciate. I didn't enjoy Portal "despite" its short length, but because of it.

But, then again, my favorite game of all time is Morrowind, and I often cite the game's depth as its strongest point. I probably spent over 200 hours in the game world, learning all of its secrets and exploring all of its hidden corners, and I really don't think that anyone can truly enjoy the game without spending a lot of quality time with it.

So I'm left with the interesting and important question: how long ought a game to last?

I'm immediately tempted to turn back to my earlier post about playing for the experience of the game versus playing for the joy of exploration versus playing for skill. And, certainly, I'd expect a game that offers a lot of exploration to last a long time (like Morrowind), a game that offers a test of skill to be endlessly replayable (like multiplayer shooters), and a game that offers a tight and powerful experience to be shorter (like Call of Duty 4 single player).

But this system breaks down with some examples. The Final Fantasy series is certainly an experience game (though mostly a passive one), but it relies on its long length for an engaging story and world. Psychonauts is an exploratory "new art"-motivated game, but it's linear and could succeed even if it were much shorter. And you might be able to describe Portal as a skill-test, especially if you include the "challenge" levels.

I think that ultimately a game designer must look at exactly what his game has to offer and then pace the game accordingly. If there's not much variety to offer in the gameplay, then a short and dense experience like CoD4's is a good idea. If the joy of playing is through immersion in an open world, as in Morrowind, then create that open world and don't limit the player's time in it. If you've got a few hours worth of fantastic puzzles and hilarious dialogue, then don't try to extend the game to an unnecessary length; just make Portal!

The important thing to remember is that game length does not determine game content or game value. Let the game decide its own length, and we'll be happy with however many hours result.

EDIT: Coincidentally, Tycho from Penny Arcade also blogged about Portal and game length today.

December 27, 2007

The Best Moment in Gaming

At least, my favorite moment. It came from Warren Spector's masterpiece, Deus Ex.

My character, JC Denton, was charged with finding and killing known terrorist leader Juan Lebedev. As I charged into the airplane hanger in which he was hiding, I was intercepted by my trusted brother Paul. He had switched sides and was now working with the terrorists. "Join us, JC. Talk to Lebedev. He can convince you."

When I approached Lebedev, he immediately surrendered. "Easy now, Agent. UNATCO has a policy against killing unarmed prisoners. We have much to learn from each other." He started to tell me that the conspiracy freaks were right; the government and my cohorts, he alleged, were the bad guys.

Just then, my partner Anne Navarre barged in. She had been a little aggressive in the past, demanding that we kill enemy terrorists instead of using non-lethal weapons. And now she was demanding that I complete the mission. "Terminate the prisoner, Agent. If you are too afraid, you are ordered to return to base, on Manderley's authority. There is a helicopter waiting."

I began to ask more questions from Lebedev, and he started to elaborate on the crimes of the UN anti-terrorist coalition that employed me. Navarre interjected, ordering me to kill him. "Leave us, Agent. Now.... You have disobeyed a direct order." She had made clear her intention to kill Lebedev.

The choice was clear: shoot Lebedev and be rewarded for a job well done, or disobey and let Navarre do it for me. Neither choice was satisfying. The man was a terrorist leader, and his people had been trying to kill me throughout the game, but he was convincing, and it was against our policies to kill him.

I got pissed.

So I shot agent Anna Navarre in the head.

It was brash, an act of anger, murder in the second degree. I had not taken any of the choices that had been offered. It seemed inevitable that Lebedev would die, but he did not, so I fully expected the game to break. Instead...

"I guess Paul must have convinced you."

Lebedev lived and kept talking. I learned the big secret and we both got out. I made up a story for my employers about hearing shooting on the plane in which he had been hiding.

It was an incredible feeling. I truly acted spontaneously and out of frustration. For the first time, a game let me take the "third option". I just hope that more games in the future offer the same.

December 26, 2007

Commentary: Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

CCoIS, Chris Crawford's latest book, is partially an examination of the problems of storytelling and interactivity and partially a guide through the technical problems of creating a Storytronics-style interactive storytelling engine. The first part is full of insight and useful lessons for game designers and storytellers. The second provides an interesting glimpse into the technology that Crawford has spent years cooking up.

For those that don't know, Storytronics is Crawford's current approach to implementing true interactive storytelling, and it's what he sees as the first major step of the new medium he is founding. And he really does consider it to be a new medium; his book, along with most of his speeches and writings, drips with contempt for games. Video games, he proclaims, are adolescent nonsense, defined by simple and often violent themes. Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, is about people.

I'm not so sure that IS is so far separated from games, and I'm not convinced that games really are so limited, but I'd love to play what Crawford describes. He rejects branching-tree stories or foldback schemes in favor of a language-based playing experience and personality modeling. Storytronics provides an authored storyworld with characters and situations in place, and the player navigates this storyworld, forging a storyline.

Some parts of Crawford's approach still look like they might present problems. Consider, for example, the problem of interactive tragedy. The most dramatically compelling ending for Romeo and Juliet is the double suicide at the end. But the player is trying to win! Crawford's solution is to change the definition of "winning" to the dramatically compelling ending rather than the character's best interest. He thus proposes that the player be rewarded with "applause" upon completing the tragedy. I'm not sure that players will find that truly rewarding, and I worry that it breaks character identification. You're forcing the player to role-play rather than powergame, and that won't work with everyone.

Crawford also concludes that interactive storytelling cannot support a creative "third option" to problems. His reasoning is that, should he offer the choice to the player, it becomes obvious and no longer is a player-created solution. Within the language-driven context he describes, I understand this limitation, but I know that in Deus Ex my most powerful experience was a third option involving shooting a previously-friendly character. The game did not present the choice to me directly, but it existed in the background. I worry that accepting this large a limitation is cutting off a powerful playing experience.

But despite my few misgivings, the majority of the concept of Storytronics sounds solid, and I'm looking forward to playing it.

The primary reason I read the book, however, was for the insight it gave into the more general fields of storytelling and interactivity. Crawford offers plenty of useful lessons. Stories are about people, not things. Interactivity is a multi-agent cycle of listening, thinking, and speaking. Stories are not based in spectacle. The choices that the player is offered should not be black and white, or even black and white and gray, but ALL grays. Every design decision constrains future design decisions, so do the tough stuff first.

I still feel beholden to games, and I'm not willing to totally abandon them in favor of IS, but this book contains enough insight that I'm happy to have read it.

December 23, 2007

Role-playing vs. Powergaming

I've heard a lot of discussion about role-playing versus powergaming. In the context of a tabletop RPG, I understand the dilemma. Gamers are given an explicit goal. But a lot of the fun of the game comes from role-playing. Sometimes, winning the game and role-playing in an interesting way are contrary goals. For instance, finding a stranger in the woods, killing him, and taking all of his stuff is not interesting, but it helps beat the game.

The problem is that what you (the player of a game with an explicit goal) would do is different from what the character (a fictional person in the game world) would do. Role-players tend to enjoy the story that is created in a game, so they make an effort to inhabit the mind of their character. Powergamers are more interested in the competitive and game-mechanical aspects, so they just do what it takes to win.

A lot of games cater directly to the powergaming crowd by dropping most pretenses of a story and offering great mechanics. Team Fortress 2 doesn't explain, for instance, what these two color-coded teams are doing trying to kill each other. A much smaller subset of games cater to the role-playing crowd. Morrowind, for example, isn't a whole lot of fun unless you get into the lore and try to inhabit the game world.

Most games will offer at least a context for the role-player parts of us to enjoy. Counter-Strike, for instance, has the context of a terrorist vs. counter-terrorist battle. That mindset adds to the fun, as we peek around corners and defuse bombs with seconds to spare. But if a game like Counter-Strike encourages behaviors like bunny-hopping through its mechanics, then the role-players are generally forced out by the powergamers.

The ideal games, then, are the ones that have mechanics that encourage the character's intentions directly. Sports are the best example, since the player and the character are the same. Powergaming vs. role-playing even seems like a stupid way of looking at sports since the only story context is the real world.

Other games do a good job of this as well. Uplink, for example, casts the player as a hacker. Winning the game entails hacking systems, making money, upgrading your own computer, etc. There's no motivation to break the story context; you're not doing anything that your character wouldn't do. The party game Mafia is another good example; the mafioso's character has to lie, scheme, and deceive in the same way that the player must lie, scheme, and deceive in order to win.

I think that the issue might ultimately come down to character identification. The best games make us inhabit the character in every way. Our goals and the characters goals are the same, and the game world operates according to the character's world (i.e. if the character is a counter-terrorist agent, then bunny-hopping is simulated as being ineffective). Catering to both powergamers and role-players is just a matter of simulating the fictional world with enough depth that what we must do to win and what the character would do never diverge. Let nothing in the game be unrealistic from the character's point of view, and you've got a winner.

December 22, 2007

Commentary: Bioshock

Bioshock was one of the games that the games-are-art crowd got really excited about. Heinous acts like killing innocent girls have been seen in games before, but here, the game actually purported to care! That this was novel might be a sad reflection on the state of the medium, but I admit that I was excited too.

When I first encountered the vaunted moral choice, I was ecstatic. It was real! The game asked me to rescue the Little Sister and give up the extra Adam, and thus the game actually put value in the life of this character!

Except... It was never a difficult choice. I got plenty of Adam anyway, so it didn't feel like a sacrifice. And a few Little Sisters later, Tenenbaum delivered a huge bonus gift. Throw in the fact that I never really needed Adam to succeed and the choice was really just one of "which ending do I want to see".

I enjoyed Bioshock while I played it, and in my hype-haze I named it a masterpiece. I still think that the gameplay and the philosophical content of the game (i.e. the Objectivist society it showcases) is great, but I've since come to the realization that the whole "moral choice" angle is a lot weaker than it should have been.

The killer argument that ultimately changed my mind was in Jonathan Blow's excellent speech about how and what games teach. The lesson we learn in Bioshock, for example, is to kill everything that moves from as far away as possible, unless it's a Little Sister. When we actually have a chance to save them, the music plays and the girls first fight us and then looks at us with big eyes to say thank you and run off. But since there was no major sacrifice, all we can conclude is that the game is trying to clumsily manipulate our emotions.

Blow also makes a fantastic point about the Big Daddies. They're explicitly our enemies, but their whole purpose in life is to protect the defenseless. They make gentle, mournful moans and they are kind to the girls. Most importantly, they never attack anything that isn't hostile. Why do we kill them? Well, there's an obfuscated justification somewhere in the game about just how the Little Sisters are being rescued, but it sure seems like they go right back in the vents, and when we see them later, they're still programmed to harvest Adam. Ultimately, the reason we kill the Big Daddies is because the game expects us to, and because we want the goods they're protecting.

Contrast that with Portal. The Weighted Companion Cube is a box, but I (and others) honestly felt more sympathy for the torched box than for the Little Sisters. Bioshock's girls feel like just pieces of the game mechanics, and the only reason I ever felt bad for them is because I was told to.

The question of sympathy in games is one that we're definitely going to have to figure out. What made the Weighted Companion Cube work when the Little Sisters failed? The Cube protected us from the environment, depended on us to keep it close, and was integral to our success. The Little Sisters were dispensers of Adam.

With interactivity, it's what you do that matters. In order to make us care about a character, we have to interact with it more. I think that Alyx Vance from Half Life 2 is a step in the right direction; I'd mourn her death. But the lesson of Bioshock is clear: game designers can't depend solely on the representation of a character (as a helpless little girl, for instance) to generate sympathy.

December 20, 2007

Commentary: Call of Duty 4

I was a huge fan of Call of Duty 2. It was so intense and immersive that I couldn't play it for more than an hour at a time. The method of displaying health with no visible statistics, effects like shell-shock, and the constant yelling and action all served to keep me engaged in the experience of fighting WWII rather than the experience of pushing buttons and manipulating numbers.

For Call of Duty 4, I decided that I wanted the most authentic, immersive experience I could muster. So I closed the blinds, locked the door, turned off the lights, put on my headphones, and jacked into the world of CoD4 for about 6 hours one night and played straight through. It was intense.

CoD4 ups the ante for the series by placing more emphasis on developing characters and cinematic storytelling. What's remarkable is that it does so while enhancing the immersion instead of sacrificing it (as is often done with cut scenes, freezing user controls, etc.). The best trick that CoD4 has up its sleeve is its method of moving the user's camera while leaving limited control to the player. While I was consciously aware the it was the game that was making my character's head turn, it felt like I had control, so I was able to see what I needed to see without breaking immersion.

Four scenes were especially excellent and memorable: the opening pre-credits mission (the team chatter and the leap at the end especially), the sequence as the displaced foreign president (a creative way of delivering necessary exposition, and defying expectations too!), the final sequence as the US soldier (especially the way movement is governed), and the final sequence as the British soldier (best game ending ever). All of them, with the possible exception of the second, used first-person interactivity to improve an architected dramatic scene.

The sequence in which the player acts as a gunner from a circling plane also deserves special mention. It was a ton of fun, but it ruined my treasured immersion by including lots of repetitious dialogue. This could have been easily remedied by just, say, tripling the number of lines recorded.

The gameplay is excellent, but not as pristine as the storytelling, and so it served as the biggest weak spot of the game. Some parts felt frustrating, repetitive, or just odd, but I'm not sure if a Call of Duty game, with its fluid combat and checkpoint-based progression, can ever escape those occasional flaws.

December 18, 2007

Why We Play

My friends and I all play a lot of games. But after many an argument between us, we've come to the conclusion that we all play games for very different reasons.

I'm an "experience gamer". I play for the immersion in a fictional game world and the feelings that it produces. I like games that give you a role to play. I preferred Starcraft over Warcraft 3 because the former treated me like a character in the story. I tend to prefer first-person games with interesting settings (Morrowind is my favorite game of all). When I played Call of Duty 4, I turned off all the lights, closed the door, and played straight through from beginning to end. I was so immersed in the game that I nearly came out of it with PTSD.

My friend David (who supplied the name for this blog) is a "skill gamer". He plays through games on the hardest difficulty that he can manage. He preferred Tribes 1 over Tribes 2 because it was harder to play; he wants a game that separates the pro from the noob, not a game that anybody can win. He plays for the satisfaction of doing the best that he can and dominating the competition.

Gabe from Penny Arcade wrote that his reason for playing was to see "new art". "I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them." The joy of gaming for Gabe, I infer, is in the discovery of new environments. He's an "exploration gamer". I bet he'd like Morrowind as well.

There are probably other styles of play as well; these are just the ones that I've seen so far. From a designer's perspective, this represents a challenging problem. Some people will only enjoy your game if it offers immersion into an interesting role, some will only play if it offers a serious test of skill, and some will only play if your game keeps serving up new and varied material. Satisfying all of these simultaneously is difficult, if not impossible. A constant change of scenery could make a skill gamer lose his edge. A too-difficult game could frustrate an experience gamer. A deep but narrow experience game could bore an exploration gamer. The best games will satisfy all.

December 17, 2007

How Are Games Art?

Now that I've conclusively resolved the debate about whether or not games are art, it's time to figure out exactly how.

Clive Barker argued that the nonlinearity of games didn't matter at all. "Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art." But Ebert and I agree that there's more to art, since a sandbox or a Lego set or, more to the point, a personal experience isn't art. I don't quite think that it's authorial intent that matters, but I'm certain that the "art" is the product and not the consumption.

I'm much more sympathetic to Warren Spector's shared authorship model, by which I mean I love it passionately. Essentially, the game finds a way to let players help decide the story, but the designer keeps it within preset bounds. Deus Ex, for example, lets the player make moral decisions through actions and dialogue (should I kill or stun the terrorists? do I switch sides?) and then provides feedback by adjusting future dialogue and game worlds. You feel like your decisions matter.

The big limitation here is that the more freedom you offer the player (i.e. the bigger their share of the authorship), the more work the developer has to put in. If you let the player decide in the opening scene whether he wants to make this a comedy game in New York rather than a Sci-Fi game on the moon, you now have to make two games. Deus Ex solved this problem by crafting a story that forced your player to complete all the levels regardless of his sympathies; it was always rational to complete the objective. That can't be done every time. But this just seems like a creative problem. A good enough designer will figure out a solution.

Chris Crawford, whom Spector names as an inspiration, writes in Interactive Storytelling that any sort of branching story requires too much work for too little freedom. His solution is to create an automated system of storytelling: the Erasmatron. It loads up an authored storyworld and allows the player to navigate the story at will. I'd love to play this. But while Crawford has made it clear that he considers interactive storytelling to be new and separate from games, it really just seems like a better, more efficient implementation of shared authorship, with more authorship reserved for the player.

Jonathan Blow gave a fantastic talk recently that partially argued for the importance of game rules in artistic consideration ("all games actively teach"), and The Escapist had a piece on the subject as well ("game rules are highly compact artistic statements"). Games like The Marriage or Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games take this approach. The idea is that all games can make a point by modeling a system and giving it context. By playing within this system and confronting its rules directly, we gain insight.

This sounds both intriguing and also very difficult. Usually when I've heard ideas about artistic games, the mechanics are already decided (e.g. "It's an FPS...") and a compelling story is glued on top. I think that game rules that compliment the story will become a critical component of artistic games in the future, in the same way that a fantastic artistic movie requires cinematography that compliments the story (and the acting, and the directing, et cetera).

Experimenting with game rules and basic mechanics, however, might require abandoning the safe methods of making a game "fun". Games might have to be compelling in other ways in order to keep players interested. A game without fun seems antithetical, but that might be the inevitable direction of a "serious" medium of art.

December 16, 2007

Are Games Art?

It’s been done to death, I know. But I’m new, and “games are art” has been my personal rallying cry, so cut me some slack.

To hardcore gamers, there’s not much to debate. We’ve seen the light already. We’ve actually felt moved by games, or gained new insight, or gained a new perspective. Any decent definition of art has to include games.

I've heard a lot of people complain that the games industry hasn’t yet produced a game that’s recognizable as “fine art.” It’s true; the medium is in its awkward adolescent phase. But the elements of art are showing up more and more, and that’s enough to show that it’s a valid medium.

Some still argue that games are artistically deficient by nature. The intelligent and entertaining Roger Ebert got some press a while ago for claiming outright that games can never be high art (A later commentary, responding to a Clive Barker’s defense of games, clarified his argument somewhat). The idea is that Romeo and Juliet would be ruined if players could have chosen a different outcome. While games can be “elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful,” the addition of player choice negates “authorial control,” which Ebert claims is necessary for serious art.

Half Life 2 is the most direct answer. It’s a linear, authored narrative. While parts of the exploration and dialogue are optional, the conclusion is inevitable, unless you count all the times that the player dies. If Gordon and Alyx are destined for a tragic double suicide, there’s not much that we can do about it.

Of course, limiting art to linear stories destroys a lot of games’ artistic potential. What interactivity offers is an artistic application of choice. Think about it this way: every other artistic medium is limited by passivity. No matter what is depicted in a movie or a book, it can’t make you feel guilt or responsibility, for example.

The key point here is that the unique artistic power of games’ stories is not going to be in the specific events that happen but rather the choices and consequences that are presented. Being forced to make a decision subjectively is a lot more powerful than witnessing another person wrestle with that choice. You’re living, not watching.

So while it’s clear to me that games can offer a deterministic authorial control, I think that we ultimately have to reject that sort of control as a criteria for art. A designer can create a game that presents certain choices in certain ways with certain consequences. There’s no way that we can know what the player will do, but there’s also no way to argue that the designer isn’t controlling the player’s experience, albeit indirectly. That’s enough to make art.