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[This post was written for RRoD, and appears there in a nicer font]

In my first piece about Red Dead Redemption I heaped on some praise about the random encounter system, and I justified it existing in a world where the narrative was to be assumed to be “gamey”. I did this because Red Dead Redemption is terrifically fun. It is, and remains a very good game for a multitude of reasons. I love it. I listen to the soundtrack when I drive to work, and I’m nagging my friends to play online with me. I would like you to remember that I think that after you’ve read what’s coming next.

As someone who is somewhat obsessed with the handling of narrative in games (it’s more or less all I talk about) it wasn’t going to take long for me to stop ignoring what I knew was clearly broken, and admit that there’s a fault in my dream Western game (it’s especially hard for me after the disappointment I was inevitably going to feel after Alan Wake, which I haven’t brought myself to write about yet – this is sort of my Obama Game). Perhaps “broken” is too strong a term. Maybe a better way of describing it would be that it’s like looking at your reflection in a broken mirror – the image is fractured into several pieces, each only showing a fraction of your reflection, and all the pieces combined still fail to create a coherent image. All the parts are there, they tessellate, and yet the whole they create is corrupted merely by the fragmentation. By that I mean Red Dead Redemption tries to create the image of the Complete Western Experience, it has all the parts from the source material, it’s fitted together rather well, and yet perhaps because of that the game fails to create a coherent universe. No great western has had all westerns in it, and Red Dead Redemption’s vacillation on this has undermined it overall.

I am by no means an expert on Western literature or film. I grew up on a healthy diet of westerns (as any kid should), later I read more authentic accounts of what life was like at the time from the men carving their living from the land, and as you’d expect the maturity of movies and books I was engaging in increased over time and now I have a taste for the western in all its variant forms. There’s majesty to the west, may it be subtle or awe inspiringly huge – there’s also a sparseness and a vastness that must remind you that you are but a speck of dirt in the scheme of things. There’s an isolation that inevitably makes all towns into stages for a play, and it is an utterly compelling land – where man is left entirely to his own devices, lawless and free and bound only by his moral chains. Examinations into that land and the men and women in it may never lose their appeal to me. It’s not surprising that from this rich well of ideas and this hot fire that forged America as we know it, that fiction of all kinds was created in its setting.

Over the course of the last century countless western movies have been made, and several sub-genres have emerged that reflect the prevailing mood of the time they were made. The classical western, optimized by the work of John Ford, concerned itself with telling a story against the backdrop of social and industrial change. The Iron Horse (John Ford’s 50th film, and arguably his best silent film) may be the first point of reference in RDR – establishing quickly (and not all that subtly) that it is a time of both social and economic change (1911 in the game, though it’s the mid 1800s for The Iron Horse). The message it batters you with is that central government isn’t liked by some people and not all these people are your stereotypical southerner – though I feel it’s not resolutely about this, but using it as a way of giving you a sense of place, unlike Ford, who I think made his films about society, or at least the lone man’s conflict within society and the larger themes extrapolated from that. The reason I think that is because these little rants about central government are used by whatever character you’re traveling to a mission with to remind you why you’re here, and as far as I’m concerned, like with driving conversations in GTA4, conversations handled in this somewhat throwaway manner are generally there to provide exposition and fail to provide anything else – no one meditated over a complex political issue while galloping a horse. Trotting, maybe.

To say RDR is basing itself off John Ford would be erroneous – it’s much too modern in aesthetic for that. Rather, I believe it takes its main narrative cue from the revisionist western. An era of western that is at once a nod to John Ford’s work and a move away from it, the revisionist western uses its setting (and sometimes biopic) not specifically tell a story of place, but of the psychology of the characters involved. Ford used his characters as puppets to tell the story of the world, but the revisionist movement inverted this, to use the West to tell the story of man. When you think of GTA4, it’s easy to see how a psychological revisionist western by Rockstar is almost a no-brainer. Of course it should be made, it’d be amazing. It’s a pity that they didn’t go all the way with this. I would be proclaiming this the best game ever made if they had decided that Red Dead Redemption would focus its sights on the likes of Tombstone, Lonesome Dove, Unforgiven, or Pat Garret and Billy The Kid (my own dream game would be to make something like Jeremiah Johnson, but it’d be a lonely, lonely, experience). What it did instead was cast the net so wide that loses all focus the moment you step off the trail that is the main story and, more irritatingly, sometimes while you’re on it.

I admire greatly their creation of a distilled west. The environments are huge, what I’m getting at is the inclusion of all the imaginable western tropes. I don’t mind a world full of that stuff – what I object to is when you overlay this with a narrative that ferries you around all of it. This is especially true in tone – certain western tropes just don’t go together, but to avoid hiding content they force you to give it all a visit – problematic when you force the brooding revisionist western to the top of the table, and then make me hang around with the “wacky” snake oil merchant, as it creates a dichotomy that breaks the mood. Another example is finding the lone girl in the wilderness yammering about god that you must find medicine for. She wouldn’t be out of place in the slightly trippy Seraphim Falls, or an acid western of the 70s, but here she sticks out like a sore thumb.

In GTA4 the issue with the narrative is that it negated what you did during your periods playing around getting up to no good. That argument is strangely mute here, as for some reason I have behaved myself very well in Red Dead Redemption – I have not been tempted to kill anyone for fun at all. The thing they share however is the main narrative still ignores what you have done, and it also decides who your character is for you. That’s fine for creating a cinematic experience, but perhaps a little jarring in an open-world game (especially one that is almost Fable-like in its RPG elements). As I said I have behaved myself as John Marston, but that’s only half of the issue. I am not compelled by the same forces John Marston is, so I may never engage with the character the way Rockstar wants me to. I have stated in the past that you do not have to “relate” to a character for a game to play well, and I still believe that. My most emotionally engaged moments in RDR have been times where I as a player was sucked into what the peripheral characters were feeling, not Marston (failing to save the rancher’s daughter first time still haunts me as a bizarrely poignant moment in my gaming career). The problem with my not sharing Marston’s motives has created a strange situation in my game. I am at a point where there is a fairly urgent need to get on with things in the story, but I am free to do what I want for now, knowing the story will hold off until I go to the quest marker. This means that I am now taking John on a flower-picking expedition across New Austin, while honing my rabbit-shooting skills. I am meant to be killing Bill Williamson, and ridding the state of a criminal and a thug so I can return to my beloved wife and child who I kept telling Bonnie (who I would rather settle down with) that I like so much. Instead I’ve spent an in-game month “doing stuff” and reading the paper. My John Marston is on a gap year, camping out in the wilderness like Henry David Thoreau “finding himself”.

There are also, and these are probably worse, moments where John Marston’s motives are different to mine. It’s an issue to do with a slightly janky concept of owenership when it comes to the horses (hitch it and it’s yours – you can’t hitch someone else’s horse for them), and Marston’s generally callous approach to all animal life. When hunting I thought it was generally the norm to respect what life you have taken, and respect the animal’s own deadly force. If anyone would appreciate that, I figured, it’d be John Marston, the educated outlaw – who would appreciate his allegorical relationship to hunted prey. Imagine my lack of surprise when skinning a massive cougar, he proclaims “What have you been eating?!” – about two steps away from Han Solo’s “And I thought they smelled bad………….on the outside!” Kerching: mood breaker. But thank you for reminding us all Sam Peckinpah liked blood. I’d like to see what John Marston does to a chicken for a laugh. For all this, however, I am willing to accept responsibility.

I would have played right through the story and then done it all again to get the rest the game has to offer, but it’s so very distracting, and the story, as I said, is a bit all over the place. The question is how much responsibility as a player do I take for my fractured experience? If they had created just the world with no set story, perhaps I could act out the Tombstone I wanted, but if I did anything else it would be entirely my fault. This way I can have a cinematic epic experience and do everything else without feeling like I’m writing my own interactive adventure book and playing it at the same time. I suppose that’s a good thing? Right?

I don’t need to talk too much on why I’m arguably a big idiot for liking the repetitive random encounters so much. I think we can agree that I love them in principle, and that they are still immensely fun for me at the moment, but there will a be a breaking point when I am tired of them because there are not enough of them. They do, however, mean that I will not got bored on a long trek (I am refusing to use fast travel), and probably never end up going to wherever I intend to go as I’ll have wandered off. I anticipate a weird moment in the future where I start the game again after a hiatus, stroll into Armadillo, and then be very comforted that Herbert Moon’s had his stuff stolen again.

I suppose the point I was driving to that I let myself get derailed from is that all these trends in western cinema developed over time. It moved in eras of film, from the silent film, to the beginning of the talkies, to the pulp westerns, to their revival with Stagecoach and the classical period of westerns, to the revisionist and spaghetti westerns to the brooding psychological westerns of today. What RDR fails to pick up on is that these are all products not only of the time they were set, but the time they were made. Thankfully Red Dead’s soundtrack is unshackled from past associations bar the odd (unavoidable) nod to Ennio Morricone, but the content of the game – while reflecting on the social change in 1911, does nothing to talk about what it means as a game (as art) to us today, but alas apes classic (and not so classic) movies to create a vague feeling of unease the moment you try to apply logic to Marston’s west. But, as I said at the top, for reasons I hope to explain in another post I love this game. I just wish I definitively knew why.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

A quick note: if you can get a hold of a copy of the soundtrack (it’s probably on itunes – I wouldn’t know, don’t have a ipod) you should definitely consider getting it. It is my favourite game soundtrack of the year, maybe the best since Machinarium, and god knows before that – Michael Nyman’s score for Enemy Zero on the Saturn?

Also I would reccomend you read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry as it’s myt favourite western novel, and for non-fiction Charles A. Siringo’s A Texas Cowboy. Warning: Not really that many gunfights.

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So there I was, having just shot and killed half the Walton gang, busting through the flimsy doors of their desert hideout – about to rescue a rancher’s daughter from the loneliness of rapists and outlaws. I burst in like hell with legs, and see there’s still one man standing over her with a gun to her head. I waste a split-second aiming. Crack. Too slow. She’s dead. In rushes the father to cry by the side of his dead daughter, and for some reason I lose 200 honour points as if I shot her myself. I feel gutted. John Marston failed.

Then, about an hour later, I ride through the same bit of country and find that this grim show is staged again, just as it was before. This time I remember to use dead-eye, shoot the bastard, and (having already taken other jobs to get my honour back up where it was) I pick up an additional 200 points, and earn a new title and get a duster coat. And she lives. SCORE! John Marston rocks.

It’s got “redemption” in the title because you always get another chance. The clue is in your stats in the game menu: “World events encountered” then “Unique World Events Encountered”. The game is letting you know there’s only so much it can provide, but it will keep giving you those moments time and time again if you know where to look. I went back to that fort at Twin Rocks because I knew there might be a chance to save that rancher’s daughter – it took me an hour to want to do it all again but a combination of my engagement with the situation, and Rockstar’s incredible work in creating an atmosphere in a game, left me suitably haunted by my failure to save that girl last time, and compelled to ride the bloodstained road to redemption. I would like to discuss how Red Dead Redemption manages to maintain the atmosphere and majesty of The West (though by flitting oddly through all its permutations), and somehow blend an action experience with RPG elements that in a weird way feels “arcade”.

It’s a testament to the elegance of the design that an open world game like this can support emergent game play, the narrative of the story, and still retain a very ludic feel regarding your actions (its like everything you do you are doing for all three reasons). I know people will tire of the comparisons, but to quickly mention GTA4 – your actions in that game outside the story had little or no impact overall. The situations that it could have worked in didn’t really exploit their setting in a game. The phone calls that led to your driving your friends around and hanging out with them could have but the reward/punishment for succeeding/failing in these things is detached from the core experience. They make up a stat buried away in the menu that no one cares about because the reward is limited anyway. Free taxi rides? Roman? Why am I not interested? The clue’s in the title. Grand Theft Auto 4 let the burden of these situations rest in your conscience – not your stats. Red Dead Redemption does both – your penalty/reward for your performance is in the same pile as for every quest/story mission for the whole game: money, fame & honour. Side quests they are in name, but they’re not marginalized by where they benefit you.

"Why Johnny Ringo, you look like someone just walked all over your grave."

The way RDR splits up its content is key in the way it makes you care about what you’re doing, and also in how the world remains believable in its own fridge logic. Story quests are supplemented by a handful of mini-games; jobs (nightwatching or horse breaking); challenges (hunting, sharp-shooting, botany *cough* I mean survivalisim, and treasure hunting); strangers (with unique mo-capped, story-like cutscenes) who make up the traditional side-quest side of things; bounty missions which can be taken voluntarily or as a means of penance for your legal indiscretions; and finally, my favourites, the “random encounters”. When I say that, I am not simply referring to them in the strict RPG sense that they are an enemy, but much more curiously in the sense that they are occurrences that happened that for some reason keep repeating themselves in roughly the same place. They have little or no exposition, and are characteristically over in a few moments. Despite the story (which I’m enjoying, and I think has sturdy characterisation and the usual hallmarks of a Rockstar Game) my main emotional engagement with Red Dead is in these vignettes, these momentary shots of simulated spontaneity. They contribute to a whole world where the joy comes from it being a bit like the movie Groundhog Day – somehow a story and a narrative continue while the world repeats itself.

My obsession with the random encounters began in Armadillo – the first proper town you encounter in the game. Now so far in town I have had several encounters including being propositioned to a few duels, catching a few horse rustlers, catching a thief stealing from the cordial racist shopkeeper, getting horse-jacked, and saving a woman from a pack of wolves. My two favourite encounters, the ones I hang around outside the saloon or on the roof of the coach-house for, are somewhat more wild: Firstly, the moment four horsemen ride through town shooting rifles into the air dragging a kidnapped woman behind them through the dirt screaming “This is our town!!”, and secondly, the one that started my craze, a prostitute being attacked by a spurned man wielding a knife outside the saloon.

They captured my imagination, because – like with the hideout at Twin Rocks – I failed to act as decisively as I’d have liked. The first I encountered was the prostitute being stabbed. I heard the scream, saw the blue on my minimap (though I was standing right there), and for some reason I dicked around with the weapon-selection wheel, and decided I’d use the knife – because in my head that was potentially less fatal (I can’t speculate as to why I didn’t just punch him). By the time I selected knife and got close to him she was already dead. I then fatally stabbed him right after. A few moments pass while I bathe in my inadequacy as a person, then I sigh and loot the attacker’s body, and pay my respects to the departed. It is only minutes until the next encounter signified by yet another terrorised scream of a damsel in distress. On this occasion I had the great misfortune of standing in the middle of the road, and for suffering “gamer’s ego”. What is going on? And how can I be DIRECTLY INVOLVED?! This was not a blue-mark on my minimap, this woman was just a woman apparently. People were running scared into buildings. Any sane man would have done the same, but I apparently decided that John Marston is not a sane man. No, in fact John Marston finally gets his act together (after being trampled underfoot) as the posse are almost out of town and shoots one of them in the back, causing them to turn around and charge back into town. Then in the confusion he shoots several lawmen and has to evade capture. Then, apparently, John Marston has a bit of a cry about how he’s lost honour and goes to pick flowers for half an hour to calm down.

I didn’t know these things would occur over and over yet. The reason I headed back into Armadillo was because I thought there must be more things like this that could happen. I was right, as I listed earlier more things were on the cards, and thankfully – without me expecting so, I got my chance to save the prostitute. Walking by the saloon I found her being wrestled to the ground in the alleyway. I saw the flash of steel from the attacker’s knife and thought “We’re not messing about this time!” pulled whatever gun I had holstered (thankfully not a shotgun) and plugged him in the head. His knife flies from his grasp and lands a few feet away, harmlessly laying in a puddle. Then I am offered the thanks of the woman I saved, and she even gives me money. John Marston – you can be my hero baby.

It would take a few more attempts before the bandits dragging that woman would be stopped – primarily because I spent two encounters trying to shoot the rope like some hotshot. Eventually, from the balcony of the saloon, and once again by chance, I had the opportunity to swiftly kill them with my rifle. I was given thanks and honour. John Marston – doesn’t like women being dragged.

John Marston - doesn't mind men being dragged.

The reason these random encounters are much better than simply an enemy appearing is because you choose to get involved in them. They begin a story and let you apply narrative, and as many people have already been discussing, Red Dead Redemption is a game that makes great stories for gamers. In the last three paragraphs I told four stories of what I did in Red Dead, and each scenario offers dozens more variations on them. The shopkeeper’s thief for example – I killed him once. Then one time I hogtied him, and brought him back to the shopkeeper who started kicking him in the head. Then one time the shopkeeper said something racist before I could give him the prisoner, so I punched him in the head and chased him around town and hogtied him, freeing the robber. I got done on one account of abduction but sod it, it was worth it. Besides, the shopkeeper holds no grudges apparently.

So to restate my main point, Red Dead Redemption takes Rockstar’s emergent gameplay formula one step further by offering the player two things: One – the opportunity to make right our mistakes by letting us re-enact them (I would argue against it being a counter to engagement, as to play along you have to be immersed in their iteration of The West and drop your own preconceptions), and by increasing our own narrative experience of their emergent game play tools or props by granting them context – that is to say, offering us small “situations” – like the racist shop-keep’s thief – in the world rather than static things the GTA games use like stunt ramps. You may get a good crash off a stunt ramp, but you won’t get half as good a story of how you interacted with it as you will with the thief.

John Marston like’s Pina Colada, and getting caught in the rain.

Post Script: The “Red Dead” bit is because when it goes red you’re dead. I guess.

(I have copied this article over from where I wrote it for: RRoD)

The mod is a wonderful thing. It represents the best of the gaming community – creativity, a plucky spirit to bring new life to old games, and opportunities for people who want to learn more about game design to get involved without forcing them into an academic route or substantial financial commitment. Over the years there have been many engines, many ways to create the mod… and while the Unreal3 engine is getting very popular now there will always be one engine that, to me, seems to confound expectations and live on – and therefore will no doubt remain fond in our minds for years to come: The source engine.

Lucky, then, that the mods I’m going to talk about happen to be made in that engine too. I want to discuss three mods you’ve probably already played, and while you may have read pieces about them at the time they were released I have not seen one that discusses them all in relation to each other – and how they have achieved their individual goals against what they actually provide to the discourse on experimental game design. These mods (you may sigh): Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Radiator. If you liked these mods then by all means read on and if you didn’t like them then by all means read on. I’m not here to change your mind, but let’s not dismiss them. And hey, I may even bring something new to the conversation.

Dear Esther…

“Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”

These may be the first words you hear when you start a game of Dear Esther. They may not be. The basic mechanic of Dear Esther is walking around, looking at stuff, and setting off partially randomized audio from triggers in the environment. I full expect many of you already know about it, but for those who don’t it was part of a still on-going research project from Dan Pinchbeck and his mini-studio thechineseroom at Portsmouth University into experimental game design in the first person. Should you want to read Pinchbeck’s post-mortem of Dear Esther it is here. The experience for me playing the mod was despairing, somewhat haunting, quite beautiful, and affecting. I remember sitting, staring at the blank black screen at the end – the last strains of music long since silenced not knowing what to do next.

How was this accomplished? By realising two important things: Firstly; by realising humans are capable of pulling a lot out of ambiguity – seeing it as a mental game in itself and secondly; by realising a potential draw for a “game” is not entirely the story or rule-based system of reward, but the ability to inhabit a game-space. The ambiguity I am referring to is the 106 piece jigsaw puzzle that is the narration, and the jigsaw puzzle that is the world design – only these are unsolvable puzzles with contradictory pieces that don’t match the picture on the box. The argument about the game-space requires more explanation…

The term “game” is gradually becoming less important as we explore further territory in the games industry (or should that be interactive media industry?). It’s something we should recognize now, as we have known for years that a videogame as we see it is a blend of both narrative and ludology, and there are going to be times when projects are released in a typical videogame format that have very little ludology of a traditional sort. What Dear Esther offers is a narrative journey that could not be expressed the same way in any other medium. The interactivity of exploring the environment is key to its success, to it making you care. When I say game-space I am not referring simply to the “map”. I am referring to the combination of the graphical environment, and the all of the game’s systems. The AI, the cause and effect relationships, the physics, and boundaries you find – investigating and learning about these are important parts of your experience of a game. It happens with every game you play, to the point you forget you’re doing it. It is, perhaps, odd that a game with such a small amount of ludic agency would be the example that brings it up, but sometimes we commit ourselves so much to the idea of genre that when playing a first-person game we go through the same old check-list and think about the enemies AI to find cover or flank you, and we forget there are more subtle things that can provide an equally powerful experience. Dear Esther shows that, given the right atmosphere, being told to “Come back!” when you’re nearing the edge of the map and following the visual clue of a seagull flying, can be just as valid as chasing down the helicopter with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped the famous scientist you’ve got to save – despite producing different sensations in the player.

So Dear Esther was an experiment into reducing player agency to its bare minimum to see if narrative alone, presented in a 3D explorable environment presented in the first-person would be enough to create a meaningful artistic experience for an audience used to the more common tropes of the first-person genre. Reception was mixed – but then so is the gaming audience, and pro-tip: I don’t read comments in any kind of degenerative slang English. There was no way this was going to appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got this far you’ll probably agree that Dear Esther is at least a lesson in using the unreality of a videogame environment to enforce the ambiguity of reality in the narrative’s environment (the island – is it real, imagined, or merely metaphorical?). We can’t judge by looking at a videogame environment whether or not it’s meant to be a real place – it could just all of a sudden flicker into non-existence like The Matrix. There is no solid reality in games, and this is an example of how that has been used slightly to show developers that chasing after reality in games can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.

If Dear Esther did that slightly Korsakovia, the next mod by thechineseroom ran all the way with it.

Korsakovia…

“I am waiting to take delivery of a new set of eyes.”

Korsakovia is the story of Christopher, a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. He believes he has survived the end of the world, and apparently in our world has blinded himself, punched a hole through his television, and set fire to his home, in an effort to pass over to the world of his delusions. As having Korsakoff’s means the patient loses the ability to form new memories and differentiate between reality and fiction (often supplanting their memories with fantasy) it would appear to be the perfect subject for a videogame of this nature.

Korsakovia was designed specifically to disorientate and disturb players not by merely having a chilling narrative (which it does, in spades) but to have mechanics that deliberately subverted what people expected from a first-person game, or “well made” QA passed game in general. Not that it was too buggy (perhaps in bits), but its treatment of the level design, visual effects, and sound design were used to make the distinction between the norms of a regular game level and the fabrication that is the protagonist’s delusional world which you inhabit. The videogame, again, is the perfect tool to provide this experience as unlike film, videogames are synthetic from the ground up. Because games are made in engines with underlying systems, it’s as though they exist independently in a nondescript universe of intangible natural law. This means that Christopher’s delusional world is, in terms of a game, just as real as any other in-game environment – which neatly carries over the message that Christopher’s world is just as real to him as any other world.

The game was criticized for some of the tools it implemented to make the player feel unease. People didn’t like the loud bursts of static (from the televisions, a recurring plot element) which punctuated some of the dialogue at ear-piercing volume. I do not mind it. It infuriated me while I was playing it, but it did its job – it could be argued that it’s meant to make you consider turning the volume down – as the story involves Christopher having needles jammed in his ears to “take away the excess noise”. The rest of the sound design is superb as well, terrifyingly so. Jessica Curry, who also provided the music for Dear Esther, deserves (and has probably won) an award for her work in Korsakovia.

The main way Korsakovia differs with Dear Esther is its approach to player agency. There are enemies (mostly to run away from in terror). There are obstacles to be smashed (which is slightly thematic), and platforms to be jumped – which is also thematic partially (the fragmentation of the world makes sense, but why do you need to ascend to a high place? That is never mentioned). The point is Korsakovia succeeds on not only giving people a place to explore, but a place for people to get frantically, terrifyingly, lost in while desperately searching for an exit. Its primary success is its approach to sound-design, and the approach to the unreality of simulated environments being thematically exploited. The final mod I want to talk about also exploits the unreality of videogame environments but with a different goal.

Radiator: Volume 1-1 Polaris & 1-2 Handle With Care…

“That’s not productive discourse!”

The Radiator Mod’s two releases to date, Polaris and Handle With Care, are probably my favourite in this line-up. Each for different reasons. They are the product of one man, Robert Yang – a college student in English Lit based in California. Before I go into detail I would like to discuss why I am personally inspired by these mods: they’re short-form, and episodic in nature. To anyone wanting to get into modding of an experimental nature (or any kind at all) it is worth reading Robert Yang’s manifesto on mod design (even if you don’t agree with all of it it’s useful to have around).

The short-form episode format is perfect for experimental mods. You can test out an idea, and because it’s short get a decent turnaround of people thinking and talking about it. The idea gets from your head to the screen quicker, and you don’t burn out dealing with a progressively more difficult to finish behemoth mod. That’s the pragmatic reason they’re better. To me they’re also great because they’re an experiment themselves in the short-story style of making games. Creating a poignant moment with the minimum of exposition. Creating an experience that doesn’t demand 40+ hours of your time but is still fulfilling. It’s an exercise in efficiency, or perhaps, purity.

In Polaris you are on a date that is being recollected by your avatar. You are in a small clearing in some woods with a guy who is sitting at a park bench staring up at the stars. He then guides you through astronomy 101 for the duration of the episode. There’s a strange tension about the situation. Why are you alone in the woods with this guy? There’s empty bottles everywhere. The only illumination is an eerie red light and the glow of an iPod playing acoustic guitar. As you’re gazing at the stars he suddenly and without announcement leaves. He has shown you how to find north using the stars, so perhaps you should follow him. Or, you could of course think “Sod that!” and go off on your own. Or, you could have already left before this. The mod would take you around 10-15 minutes to play. Its tone is contemplative, somewhat pessimistic, but I believe you can drag a morsel of hope of it. A morsel of experience. A morsel of life. It’s something I want to capture in my own games.

Polaris takes advantage of its nature as a videogame during the astronomy sections. Specifically the wildly spinning sky to “jumble” the stars between rounds not only looks quite good aesthetically, but it also serves the function of making the star finding more difficult without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The reason it gets away with it, again, is because of the mod’s brevity. There is no set up to this situation – this is more or less your first interaction with the world, and so this is setting the tone – not breaking it. What’s more you’re told it’s a memory leaving even greater room for interpretation. It’s the second part of the mod, however, that plays with reality much more.

Handle With Care, begins in the office of a marriage counselor. The man from the previous episode is sitting next to you. His name is Dylan. Your name is James. Your marriage it seems is in trouble – Dylan thinks you do not communicate, he has trouble speaking up, and you do not listen. You will never forget these three things as they are repeated almost constantly in the next section (I think it’s a good thing – though this is contentious). The next section sees you either as James, or a facet of James’ mind. You are in his brain. In his “Internal Repression Centre” to be exact. You work for his IRS. You enter a room full of shelves, each with crates in their individual places. There certain areas labeled: “Cancer, Dad’s”, “Funeral, Dad’s”, “Mother Naked”, “Nagging: constant”, “Final Exams, 2004”. A large screen shows you the view you had as James before, in the office. In an adjacent room crates are dropped one by one, and you are told which shelf to put them on (using battleship-like coordinates). If you put the crate in its corresponding place without breaking it then you have successfully repressed that memory. Technically as an IRS man you’ve done your job, yet why does the marriage counselor scold James? It would appear that by repressing your memories you cause James (who you work for, it must be assumed) to lash out, refusing to share his thoughts. If you break a crate it explodes – symbolic of you and James “letting it all out”. You are transported to an orange tinted flashback of the memory, and the counselor applauds James’ sharing. Yet you are failing in your job as an IRS man – the walls begin to crumble, and the room starts to flood.

When I played through it I repressed a couple of memories. Then, almost by my conscience I knew I was harming my character in the long run, and started smashing the crates. At the end, my letting it all out – choosing honesty over a marriage built on a lie caused Dylan to announce we’re getting a divorce. To whit my IRS man received a final crate “x9”. A crate with no slot. I smashed it, and left the room for a place with all my past memories, and each Dylan repeating that despite what we went through we had changed, and our marriage was irrecoverably doomed. I sort of felt glad that I had freed these two people from each other, offering them both the chance to live their lives.

If you repress all the memories Dylan says you’ll stay together, and attempt to weather the storm, as he loves you. I find that interesting, as people would no doubt have done the easier “smash the crates” ending first, so to see this afterwards brings a new context to your actions last time. Essentially I felt that the time prior, I must have broken that man’s heart.

I probably don’t need to explain how Handle With Care plays with unreality – it puts you not only into a metaphorical interpretation of a man’s memory centre in his brain, but into the memories themselves too. At the “endgame” it even lets you hover around the room where the ending occurred, along with the other memories to leisurely walk amongst them and pick them apart yourself, like a detective at a crime scene. This interactivity of wandering around is as if you’re allowing the audience of a film walk around the sets (in fact it’s probably a commentary on that, and an intentional break of the fourth wall, as the final scene is reminiscent of a movie set, with prefab walls, and electricity generators around the place). Putting you into this place of unreality is used very effectively to make Yang’s point on the morality of dealing with our past in the context of a relationship – and the responsibilities you have to yourself and other people. If he had aimed to retain reality, and left the action solely in the counselor’s office, with a text-box system of different conversation choices (or just repress & release) it would have been a boring, uneventful, and powerless game. The challenge that comes from stacking the boxes demonstrates the difficulty of repressing a memory, and maintaining a lie – being told it’s difficult is not as effective as accidentally smashing a box. Conversely being told it’s a release to let something off your chest is not the same as seeing the explosion, the colour, the shock and wonder of the memory, and the feeling that whatever you did was good. The conflict of the opposing sides of the argument are also not fleshed out as elegantly as the jarring visual dichotomy of seeing your actions produce devastation in your environment while making progress in the office and vice-versa.

Over the course of all these mods we have seen that videogames can be powerful tools of artistic expression. We have also seen why they need to stop clinging onto ludic tropes, and the desire to attain virtual realism – they’re not as effective. Currently the mods I have described have been lumped into an “arty mod” category, or if the community is generous they’re called “arty games”, with something of a derogatory but curious hiss. However, one corner of the internet seems to latch on to the idea that our current understandings of games (that they must be “fun”, that you must be able to “win” them, and that empowerment is the only worthy goal, and narrative has little or no place in games) are becoming outdated, and archaic. While I wouldn’t align myself to any particular “movement” and I think it’s better that, in acknowledgement of each other, we continue to each do our own thing, it is interesting to note this website (and accidental movement) that has kicked off: Notgames.

In vague agreement to ideas I have been having the community at Notgames seem to think we can do a lot more with our medium than is currently the industry standard. Perhaps it’s a little pretentious, but you don’t break new ground thinking with your feet on it.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

Robert Yang has said that he was partially inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of the subject matter and the presentation of the past memories. It is interesting, then, to see how their similarities produce different results in terms of the experience you have with them. The message I got from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that it was rumination on what part of our identity our unwanted memories form, and whether we could be truly happy without them at all. Handle With Care’s message steps out of the theoretical and asks whether repressing our memories, and lying to ourselves (or attempting to) is ever an alternative to brutal cold honesty at all times. This, ironically, is because in the game you have less control than the characters in the film. You cannot destroy the memories. They are either in your head forever, or let out into the open to be examined. Either way you live with the consequence of their continued existence.

I also wrote a piece on Genre here that may be of interest to you.

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The mod is a wonderful thing. It represents the best of the gaming community – creativity, a plucky spirit to bring new life to old games, and giving opportunities to people who want to learn more about game design without forcing them into an academic route or substantial financial commitment. Over the years there have been many engines, many ways to create the mod… and while the Unreal3 engine is getting very popular now there will always be one engine that, to me, seems to confound expectations and live on – and therefore will no doubt remain fond in our minds for years to come: The source engine.

Lucky, then, that the mods I’m going to talk about happen to be made in that engine too. I want to discuss three mods you’ve probably already played, and while you may have read pieces about them at the time they were released I have not seen one that discusses them all in relation to each other – and how they have achieved their individual goals against what they actually provide to the discourse on experimental game design. These mods (you may sigh): Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Radiator. If you liked these mods then by all means read on and if you didn’t like them then by all means read on. I’m not here to change your mind, but let’s not dismiss them. And hey, I may even bring something new to the conversation.

Dear Esther…

“Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”

These may be the first words you hear when you start a game of Dear Esther. They may not be. The basic mechanic of Dear Esther is walking around, looking at stuff, and setting off partially randomized audio from triggers in the environment. I full expect many of you already know about it, but for those who don’t it was part of a still on-going research project from Dan Pinchbeck and his mini-studio thechineseroom at Portsmouth University into experimental game design in the first person. Should you want to read Pinchbeck’s post-mortem of Dear Esther it is here. The experience for me playing the mod was despairing, somewhat haunting, quite beautiful, and affecting. I remember sitting, staring at the blank black screen at the end – the last strains of music long since silenced not knowing what to do next.

How was this accomplished? By realising two important things: Firstly; by realising humans are capable of pulling a lot out of ambiguity – seeing it as a mental game in itself and secondly; by realising a potential draw for a “game” is not entirely the story or rule-based system of reward, but the ability to inhabit a game-space. The ambiguity I am referring to is the 106 piece jigsaw puzzle that is the narration, and the jigsaw puzzle that is the world design – only these are unsolvable puzzles with contradictory pieces that don’t match the picture on the box. The argument about the game-space requires more explanation…

The term “game” is gradually becoming less important as we explore further territory in the games industry (or should that be interactive media industry?). It’s something we should recognize now, as we have known for years that a videogame as we see it is a blend of both narrative and ludology, and there are going to be times when projects are released in a typical videogame format that have very little ludology of a traditional sort. What Dear Esther offers is a narrative journey that could not be expressed the same way in any other medium. The interactivity of exploring the environment is key to its success, to it making you care. When I say game-space I am not referring simply to the “map”. I am referring to the combination of the graphical environment, and the all of the game’s systems. The AI, the cause and effect relationships, the physics, and boundaries you find – investigating and learning about these are important parts of your experience of a game. It happens with every game you play, to the point you forget you’re doing it. It is, perhaps, odd that a game with such a small amount of ludic agency would be the example that brings it up, but sometimes we commit ourselves so much to the idea of genre that when playing a first-person game we go through the same old check-list and think about the enemies AI to find cover or flank you, and we forget there are more subtle things that can provide an equally powerful experience. Dear Esther shows that, given the right atmosphere, being told to “Come back!” when you’re nearing the edge of the map and following the visual clue of a seagull flying, can be just as valid as chasing down the helicopter with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped the famous scientist you’ve got to save – despite producing different sensations in the player.

So Dear Esther was an experiment into reducing player agency to its bare minimum to see if narrative alone, presented in a 3D explorable environment presented in the first-person would be enough to create a meaningful artistic experience for an audience used to the more common tropes of the first-person genre. Reception was mixed – but then so is the gaming audience, and pro-tip: I don’t read comments in any kind of degenerative slang English. There was no way this was going to appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got this far you’ll probably agree that Dear Esther is at least a lesson in using the unreality of a videogame environment to enforce the ambiguity of reality in the narrative’s environment (the island – is it real, imagined, or merely metaphorical?). We can’t judge by looking at a videogame environment whether or not it’s meant to be a real place – it could just all of a sudden flicker into non-existence like The Matrix. There is no solid reality in games, and this is an example of how that has been used slightly to show developers that chasing after reality in games can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.

If Dear Esther did that slightly Korsakovia, the next mod by thechineseroom ran all the way with it.

Korsakovia…

“I am waiting to take delivery of a new set of eyes.”

Korsakovia is the story of Christopher, a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. He believes he has survived the end of the world, and apparently in our world has blinded himself, punched a hole through his television, and set fire to his home, in an effort to pass over to the world of his delusions. As having Korsakoff’s means the patient loses the ability to form new memories and differentiate between reality and fiction (often supplanting their memories with fantasy) it would appear to be the perfect subject for a videogame.

Korsakovia was designed specifically to disorientate and disturb players not by merely having a chilling narrative (which it does, in spades) but to have mechanics that deliberately subverted what people expected from a first-person game, or “well made” QA passed game in general. Not that it was too buggy (perhaps in bits), but its treatment of the level design, visual effects, and sound design were used to make the distinction between the norms of a regular game level and the fabrication that is the protagonist’s delusional world which you inhabit. The videogame, again, is the perfect tool to provide this experience as unlike film, videogames are synthetic from the ground up. Because games are made in engines with underlying systems, it’s as though they exist independently in a nondescript universe of intangible natural law. This means that Christopher’s delusional world is, in terms of a game, just as real as any other in-game environment – which neatly carries over the message that Christopher’s world is just as real to him as any other world.

The game was criticized for some of the tools it implemented to make the player feel unease. People didn’t like the loud bursts of static (from the televisions, a recurring plot element) which punctuated some of the dialogue at ear-piercing volume. I do not mind it. It infuriated me while I was playing it, but it did its job – it could be argued that it’s meant to make you consider turning the volume down – as the story involves Christopher having needles jammed in his ears to “take away the excess noise”. The rest of the sound design is superb as well, terrifyingly so. Jessica Curry, who also provided the music for Dear Esther, deserves (and has probably won) an award for her work in Korsakovia.

The main way Korsakovia differs with Dear Esther is its approach to player agency. There are enemies (mostly to run away from in terror). There are obstacles to be smashed (which is slightly thematic), and platforms to be jumped – which is also thematic partially (the fragmentation of the world makes sense, but why do you need to ascend to a high place? That is never mentioned). The point is Korsakovia succeeds on not only giving people a place to explore, but a place for people to get frantically, terrifyingly, lost in while desperately searching for an exit. Its primary success is its approach to sound-design, and the approach to the unreality of simulated environments being thematically exploited. The final mod I want to talk about also exploits the unreality of videogame environments but with a different goal.

Radiator: Volume 1-1 Polaris & 1-2 Handle With Care…

“That’s not productive discourse!”

The Radiator Mod’s two releases to date, Polaris and Handle With Care, are probably my favourite in this line-up. Each for different reasons. They are the product of one man, Robert Yang – a college student in English Lit based in California. Before I go into detail I would like to discuss why I am personally inspired by these mods: they’re short-form, and episodic in nature. To anyone wanting to get into modding of an experimental nature (or any kind at all) it is worth reading Robert Yang’s manifesto on mod design (even if you don’t agree with all of it it’s useful to have around).

The short-form episode format is perfect for experimental mods. You can test out an idea, and because it’s short get a decent turnaround of people thinking and talking about it. The idea gets from your head to the screen quicker, and you don’t burn out dealing with a progressively more difficult to finish behemoth mod. That’s the pragmatic reason they’re better. To me they’re also great because they’re an experiment themselves in the short-story style of making games. Creating a poignant moment with the minimum of exposition. Creating an experience that doesn’t demand 40+ hours of your time but is still fulfilling. It’s an exercise in efficiency, or perhaps, purity.

In Polaris you are on a date that is being recollected by your avatar. You are in a small clearing in some woods with a guy who is sitting at a park bench staring up at the stars. He then guides you through astronomy 101 for the duration of the episode. There’s a strange tension about the situation. Why are you alone in the woods with this guy? There’s empty bottles everywhere. The only illumination is an eerie red light and the glow of an iPod playing acoustic guitar. As you’re gazing at the stars he suddenly and without announcement leaves. He has shown you how to find north using the stars, so perhaps you should follow him. Or, you could of course think “Sod that!” and go off on your own. Or, you could have already left before this. The mod would take you around 10-15 minutes to play. Its tone is contemplative, somewhat pessimistic, but I believe you can drag a morsel of hope of it. A morsel of experience. A morsel of life. It’s something I want to capture in my own games.

Polaris takes advantage of its nature as a videogame during the astronomy sections. Specifically the wildly spinning sky to “jumble” the stars between rounds not only looks quite good aesthetically, but it also serves the function of making the star finding more difficult without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The reason it gets away with it, again, is because of the mod’s brevity. There is no set up to this situation – this is more or less your first interaction with the world, and so this is setting the tone – not breaking it. What’s more you’re told it’s a memory leaving even greater room for interpretation. It’s the second part of the mod, however, that plays with reality much more.

Handle With Care, begins in the office of a marriage counselor. The man from the previous episode is sitting next to you. His name is Dylan. Your name is James. Your marriage it seems is in trouble – Dylan thinks you do not communicate, he has trouble speaking up, and you do not listen. You will never forget these three things as they are repeated almost constantly in the next section (I think it’s a good thing – though this is contentious). The next section sees you either as James, or a facet of James’ mind. You are in his brain. In his “Internal Repression Centre” to be exact. You work for his IRS. You enter a room full of shelves, each with crates in their individual places. There certain areas labeled: “Cancer, Dad’s”, “Funeral, Dad’s”, “Mother Naked”, “Nagging: constant”, “Final Exams, 2004”. A large screen shows you the view you had as James before, in the office. In an adjacent room crates are dropped one by one, and you are told which shelf to put them on (using battleship-like coordinates). If you put the crate in its corresponding place without breaking it then you have successfully repressed that memory. Technically as an IRS man you’ve done your job, yet why does the marriage counselor scold James? It would appear that by repressing your memories you cause James (who you work for, it must be assumed) to lash out, refusing to share his thoughts. If you break a crate it explodes – symbolic of you and James “letting it all out”. You are transported to an orange tinted flashback of the memory, and the counselor applauds James’ sharing. Yet you are failing in your job as an IRS man – the walls begin to crumble, and the room starts to flood.

When I played through it I repressed a couple of memories. Then, almost by my conscience I knew I was harming my character in the long run, and started smashing the crates. At the end, my letting it all out – choosing honesty over a marriage built on a lie caused Dylan to announce we’re getting a divorce. To whit my IRS man received a final crate “x9”. A crate with no slot. I smashed it, and left the room for a place with all my past memories, and each Dylan repeating that despite what we went through we had changed, and our marriage was irrecoverably doomed. I sort of felt glad that I had freed these two people from each other, offering them both the chance to live their lives.

If you repress all the memories Dylan says you’ll stay together, and attempt to weather the storm, as he loves you. I find that interesting, as people would no doubt have done the easier “smash the crates” ending first, so to see this afterwards brings a new context to your actions last time. Essentially I felt that the time prior, I must have broken that man’s heart.

I probably don’t need to explain how Handle With Care plays with unreality – it puts you not only into a metaphorical interpretation of a man’s memory centre in his brain, but into the memories themselves too. At the “endgame” it even lets you hover around the room where the ending occurred, along with the other memories to leisurely walk amongst them and pick them apart yourself, like a detective at a crime scene. This interactivity of wandering around is as if you’re allowing the audience of the film walk the sets (in fact it’s probably a commentary on that, and an intentional break of the 4th wall, as the final scene is reminiscent of a movie set, with prefab walls, and electricity generators around the place). Putting you into this place of unreality is used very effectively to make Yang’s point on the morality of dealing with our past in the context of a relationship – and the responsibilities you have to yourself and other people. If he had aimed to retain reality, and left the action solely in the counselor’s office, with a text-box system of different conversation choices (or just repress & release) it would have been a boring, uneventful, and powerless game. The challenge that comes from stacking the boxes demonstrates the difficulty of repressing a memory, and maintaining a lie – being told it’s difficult is not as effective as accidentally smashing a box. Conversely being told it’s a release to let something off your chest is not the same as seeing the explosion, the colour, the shock and wonder of the memory, and the feeling that whatever you did was good. The conflict of the opposing sides of the argument are also not fleshed out as elegantly as the jarring visual dichotomy of seeing your actions produce devastation in your environment while making progress in the office and vice-versa.

Over the course of all these mods we have seen that videogames can be powerful tools of artistic expression. We have also seen why they need to stop clinging onto ludic tropes, and the desire to attain virtual realism – they’re not as effective. Currently the mods I have described have been lumped into an “arty mod” category, or if the community is generous they’re called “arty games”, with something of a derogatory but curious hiss. However, one corner of the internet seems to latch on to the idea that our current understandings of games (that they must be “fun”, that you must be able to “win” them, and that empowerment is the only worthy goal, and narrative has little or no place in games) are becoming outdated, and archaic. While I wouldn’t align myself to any particular “movement” and I think it’s better that, in acknowledgement of each other, we continue to each do our own thing, it is interesting to note this website (and accidental movement) that has kicked off: Notgames.

In vague agreement to ideas I have been having the community at Notgames seem to think we can do a lot more with our medium than is currently the industry standard. Perhaps it’s a little pretentious, but you don’t break new ground thinking with your feet on it.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

Post-Script: Robert Yang has said that he was partially inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of the subject matter and the presentation of the past memories. It is interesting, then, to see how their similarities produce different results in terms of the experience you have with them. The message I got from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that it was rumination on what part of our identity our unwanted memories form, and whether we could be truly happy without them at all. Handle With Care’s message steps out of the theoretical and asks whether repressing our memories, and lying to ourselves (or attempting to) is ever an alternative to brutal cold honesty at all times. This, ironically, is because in the game you have less control than the characters in the film. You cannot destroy the memories. They are either in your head forever, or let out into the open to be examined. Either way you live with the consequence of their continued existence.

I also wrote a piece on Genre here that may be of interest to you.

Is not a man entitled to the sweat of his own brow? Yada yada yada...

The title of this is probably giving you the impression this is going to be about Bioshock. Sorry, it’s not. I’m sure there have been many blogs going into great detail comparing the work of Ayn Rand, and Andrew Ryan. I don’t intend to follow suit (Ed: Hahahaha, I totally do talk about Bioshock. HA). No, no, no, I was simply going to use John Galt’s (and his gamey counterpart’s) propensity for the verbose to prepare you for what will be a lumbering behemoth of a post. Probably. I’ve not planned it at all.

At least it won’t be three hours long. I hope. (Ed: It may as well be)

Erm…

I’ve been working on a project for my own (half-imaginary at the moment) indie studio that is run by me, and my girlfriend. I say “run” in that she’s 1. Art director on said project (because she’s got a fine art degree), and 2. She’s in charge of printing signs for the door. I’m in charge of pompous theorizing, and deciphering the engines I’m working with.

So this game then…

Well I’m not telling you what it’s about. Because I don’t know. It’s because I don’t know that I finally thought of something worth blogging about. You see, I get the impression (from writing in other mediums) that when you’re beginning a project, it’s fairly common to start with a genre and a setting. What you do with either of those afterwards is up to you, but you more or less start with an archtype in your head that you either want to play straight or subvert in some way. This isn’t how I’ve started with this. Being a complete amateur I think it might be helpful for me to review how I’ve got to where I am.

I started with design principles. I’ve basically listened to a lot of developers talk about their games, mainly indies, and I’ve thought about their philosophies, and decided which bits I like, don’t like, and have tweaked to fit what my vision of a good game is. I should mention quickly that I’m a “games are art” person. I’m on that side of the fence. And I’ll not bore you with a long winded reason, I’ll sum it up thus:

A game is unlike other media due to its interactive mechanics. If, by interacting with those mechanics – in the context of the games’ narrative, and the actions you perform, you engender a wider appreciation of the narrative and experience an emotional response, then you are appreciating the art in the game design.

That was very difficult to write in two sentences. For example, indie-darling Braid has a hidden narrative that may as well be kept in a seperate room from its ludological elements – except for a few visual metaphors (something I don’t really believe in), but nonetheless the time reversal mechanic (which would only work in games, as a visceral action by the participant) – with only a slight smattering of the narrative playing on the person’s mind, can cause you to contemplate time and its implications at a much wider level than the narrative explicitly encourages. What the game hits you over the head with via its core mechanic, is that while you can rewind time for everyone else, no matter what you do, you will always know what really happened. Which takes our romaticized notions of time travel, and makes us realise that it is a curse, not a blessing, because we are always alone, trapped by our actions. Katamari Damarcy had something of an enviromental message about the amount of clutter, and wasteful stuff that we all have in our lives, and to really ram the message home you literally roll a massive ball out of everything. It’s only by rolling the ball, and doing it yourself, and watching the ball get bigger, do you really contemplate how full of rubbish the world is.

Braid: I would suggest that if you ever met me to not mention this game. Otherwise I'll talk about nautical flags, and the Manhattan Project for about an hour.

I could pontificate all day about Braid and Katamari, and I would have done had not the rest of the world already done it. The point is a game is craft if all it’s doing is serving as a cipher for a plot, and nothing you do in the game reflects it’s key themes at all (besides the plot requirements for the character), but the game is art when how you play is a key element in its narrative output*.

Bloody hell, this game then…

So I have in my mind that a game’s mechanics are really what the art experience is all about. I know I want to make a game that is a bit “arty”, but I don’t want to go over to the extreme of Jason Rohrer, or Rod Humble. Why not? Well I sort of imagine there is a sliding scale of “obliqueness” with Jason Rohrer being about a 7/10, and Humble being a full on 10/10 (when he’s not working on The Sims). Stars Over Half Moon Bay is a game that makes no sense to you on your first ten play-throughs, I contend. I have a feeling that games off the deep end of the arty spectrum get thought, and talked, about more than they are played. These are generally short games (when you pitch them against AAA titles) so it makes sense. But my own passion toward the humble adventure game has made me want to do something in that genre, but then recraft it in a way that fits my design principles. So already in my mind I have a genre, but one I want to subvert. Why?

Stars Over Half Moon Bay: A beautifully peaceful experience once you understand it. Which I didn't for a while.

Adventure games, the old point and click, are at once basic and underdevloped in their mechanics. That’s no damming indictment of the genre from my view. There are classic games in it, I love it, but they were mostly developed in the early 90s. The last great one in my mind will always be Grim Fandango and that was 1998. Since Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer doesn’t even make games in the genre anymore because he knows there’s nothing left for him there at the moment, and he’s managed to make games which blend adventure elements with other play styles that still retain his unmistakable personality. It works for him, so he doesn’t need to explore that one avenue further. The adventure game has always been good at giving you a robust story. In the past it has always been the story that conveyed any of the themes of the work and, besides designing the interface and puzzles, the game mechanics took a back seat.

Tim Schafer, whom of course we all know is famous for being in the band "Big Breakfast".

Considering as a budding indie that I’m on a budget, and that there are already game engines that are free to download, with community mods that can bend their rules a bit, the adventure genre seems like a place to start my experiment. With this in mind, I went about listing my key themes for the game (not neccesarily the story directly) to convey. Again, I’m not telling you what my game is about. Nah nah nah nah nah.

Narrative and *cough* Ludology…

Yes. I’ve become so much of a nerd that I’m aware of the word Ludology. It comes from the Latin for game ludus. It refers to the discipline that studies “game and play activites” a quick google search threw up when I thought I better define the term more officially than my rambles. My point is that at the moment, in video games, these are two almost seperate things. It’s my major criticism with Braid that the two hardly interact (there’s having an oblique message to your game, and then there’s closing it away in text boxes hidden in books), and in games with a strong narrative influence they sometimes contradict each other.

Bioshock: Andrew Ryan, putting on his minature green.

Bioshock (for everything it does right, nonetheless) is an example of how these contradict. You could argue that the key narrative theme in it is control (or at least one is), and it is with this that it occurs in two counts: Firstly, your character is revealed (about halfway in) to be little more than a brainwashed slave, who has no choice in his actions. Control is literally taken away from you – the player – at a key moment in the plot (the killing of Andrew Ryan). It’s very affecting to have lost this control, yes. But by doing so it cheapens the message of the game up to that point and thereafter: in that you are forced along a linear parth but don’t realise you’re being controlled. It was expertly playing with the fact that because you’re playing a game you as a player assume there are “the rules”. The moment it takes control off you it takes you out of the experience, breaking the immersion (probably my ‘worst offence’ in terms of game design). Then it’s almost like they had an argument about this, because moments later the game forces you once again to “follow the rules”, even beyond the point your character is deprogrammed. Though, a counter-arguement for this could be that, it could signifies that things are always out of your control. I would be quicker to accept that, if it weren’t for the second example: the Little Sisters. The option to harvest or save them, to be exact. If you save them you receive bonuses from Tenenbaum, and a smallish amount of ADAM.  If you harvest them, a lot of ADAM and no bonuses. There is no real consequence to your actions as the game punishes you for neither, really. The ending of the game is dictated, but that is all. What it serves to do, however, is provide a jarring choice mechanism – So you’ve killed hundreds of dehumanized maniacs, you are more or less inhuman as a result. But now here’s a moral choice about whether or not it’s right to kill? What? I’ve been killing creepy things all morning! And it either provides a complete reversal on the theme of control (for some reason giving you some in a world that is bereft of it), or it breaks the immersion by making a distinction between when you are the player, Jack – who has no control over himself – or the director – who decides what the choice of Jack is for him. Either way it’s flawed.

Bioshock: You have killed countless other mentally ill people, but this one's life is meant to be worth more?

Annnnnnyway…  Game game game game??

My point is narrative and ludology should be married to eachother. One thing shouldn’t exist in the core ludology without it affecting the themes of the narrative and visual/audio  design, and vice versa. And this is the the primary Tenet of my design philosophy at the moment. So I’d made a list of my several narrative themes, and then (with a mindset of building an adventure game) marry each one of these with a game mechanic that reflected that plot element, which would in turn make the player more immersed in that feeling. And it’s only now that I’m onto deciding a setting for my game, and genre for its story.

The one rule regarding the setting I’ve imposed on myself is that it has to be a full game set in one persistent location (I don’t know how many screens yet), in realtime (with no pause fuction either), or a a series of chapters set in potentially different locations in real time (but with the same amount of content as the full game split up) and the chapters perhaps occuring on different key dates in the storyline to each other. Why why why?

The Last Express

The Last Express: It's the last Orient Express before the outbreak of WW1. Intrigue, etc.

I will not lie. The real-time mechanic from Smoking Car’s 1997 release has been a big influence on the ludology, as it happened to fit in perfectly with my narrative themes. This, and its perfect application in a confined space, is more or less the only thing I’m taking a cue from (I’m in two minds about the art style, and while I like the full motion rotoscoping, and I understand why they couldn’t do that all the time, the jarring change between those beautiful fluid moments back to the key frames makes me a like I’ve woken up, but then suddenly slipped back into a dream).

*cough cough cough* Have any of you seen Defying Gravity or Moon? *cough cough cough*

Defying Gravity: Mind bending stuff in space occurs. But with a shagging too.

Moon: Best film I've seen in a long time. Well, since Fantastic Mr Fox.

I wouldn’t normally approach Sci-fi, as I never have in the past, despite being a fan. I always feel like far too many games seem to be sci-fi, but I’m contemplating a hard-sci-fi setting where the story really is more about the characters, than any space-zombie-marine-invasion stuff. I have nothing against that sort of thing, but on a budget such as mine, why would I even attempt something like that? And there’s already enough out there. Besides, I think it’d be churlish to try an inhabit the same genre as the glorious System Shock 2.

However, the other month this game was going to be about a dog who had friend who thought the sky was falling in, so we’re in the very early stages. Oddly, before I even heard of The Last Express, it was going to feature trains heavily – to the point that I figured out how to do parralax scrolling in Adventure Game Studio to implement it. It can’t be a waste of time if you’re learning can it?

Stuart The Dog: He was to be the main character of a game before I reconsidered my design.

Stuart The Dog: He was the be the lead character in a game I've since put on the shelf.

Perhaps, to paraphrase John Galt: “Your game is only the product of your sacrifices”.

Mike Dunbar

*And that’s not to discredit the art teams, sound engineers, and countless others involved in game design, because they do outstanding jobs. When you think about it, AI is something only really present in games, and if done well it can more or less take centre stage in the experience. Creatures, that thing I mentioned a couple of posts ago is a great example of that.

P.S. So this hasn’t really been about my experience of The Last Express so far, but all I would say at the moment is “I’m enjoying it” and that “I should check tv tropes to see if Robert Cath is a “Badass Bookworm”. Oh, and mention the genius touch that your character, Cath, can understand 4 languages, so when they are spoken in the game there are subtitles (as cut scenes only occur at times where you are present), and the languages in the game he doesn’t understand (Persian and Serbo-croatian) are not subtitled. Nice touch. Nice.

“Hey, Niko. It’s your cousin, Roman. Do you want to go bowling?”

“Hi, Roman. No, I am too busy to go bowling right now, another time.”

“Okay Niko. Let’s meet up soon though.”

The exchange above is something I believe anyone who has ever played for than four hours of Grand Theft Auto 4 will be familar with. It’s the call on your mobile phone that asks you if you’d like to step out of the game’s main world for a while, and indulge in a minigame. It’s also your reply that you’d rather not. Most games don’t actively seek you out to have you play a minigame, some (like parts of GTA4) require you to at least try them out to progress however, while some merely include them to add flavour. Of course some titles are just collections of minigames, as anyone who has a Wii would attest to, but I would like to keep the focus on those games where the minigame is just the small part of the package. I would like to examine what the inclusion of minigames does to enchance the player’s experience of a game, and the reasons why they’re included.

Minigaming

Firstly I should mark out what I believe constitues as a minigame, for claritys sake. Quite simply it is a small game that is accessed in another game, usually while you are playing in game time. They are generally much simpler than the games they inhabit, and are commonly puzzle games or short games of skill (such as shooting galleries, or fast paced arcade-style games). Now I’d like to go through what I think are the most common reasons developers have included them in their titles in the past, and currently:

1. When there simply aren’t enough keys in the world (Or we don’t want you to see that yet).

Not always a full “game” as such, but commonly enough – mainly with games that require you to explore an open world – you’re going to come across doors, chests, lockers and the like that cannot be opened with brute force. They don’t even have keys a lot of the time. Enter: The Lockpicking Game. Otherwise known as The Hacking Game in other cases.

Oblivion had a particularly frustrating one, as the ease in which you could do it depended on your secruity level. It makes sense in the game world but when you think about it, since the locks never get harder to open (in my experience), this minigame starts hard and progressively gets easier – which flies in the face of game convention in one sense. What it’s really doing is keeping the world interesting, and giving the player a reason to return somewhere. It’s making content hard to access at first, and revealing it later when the player has levelled up, or rewarding their skill playing the lockpicking sim. Bethesda struck again when they did the same thing on Fallout 3. This time it was more explicit, you had your probability of opening the lock shown to you, and certain locks could not be attempted until you’d increased your skill. Fallout 3 also included a hacking minigame in which you saw a computer terminal, and were given a page full of garbled nonsense in which words that contained similar arrangements of letters could be clicked on. To “hack” the computer you had to click on the right word before you ran out of attempts (in which failure could be easily bypassed if abandoned the “hack” before using your final attempt).

Oblvion and Fallout 3's lockpicking both relied on amassing lockpicks, adding inventory management to the equation.

Fallout 3 hacking: Impossible to lose if you kept quitting before you ran out of attempts.

Bioshock also used a hacking minigame to open locks, but I think for slightly different reasons.

2. Let’s take a moment here (Or help us help you).

2K Boston/2K Australia (Now back to being Irrational Games – Hooray!) had a hacking minigame in Bioshock as we’re all probably aware. It was used to hack the security cameras so they wouldn’t see you, to hack the flying security bots, and static turrets so they’d fight on your side, and to open safes and locks. Now, potentially for technical reasons, the game world paused and let you have your moment to attempt the hack. The hack itself had a time pressure mechanic as you were given the set of pipes, with water slowly flowing from one side, and you had to complete the pipe and connect it to the right end before the water escaped the pipe. In itself it may have been a representation of the rush you’d be experiencing attempting to hack these items under threat (I don’t believe the locks and flying robots had water sloshing around inside them). However, they weren’t always particularly challenging, and you could attempt a hack in the middle of a big firefight, and if done well could completely change the course of the encounter. It’s for this reason that I think it classifies as a minigame that is meant to give the player a break, and provide a temporary ingame reward. Often minigames will bleed into other categories (after all these are arbitrary categories I have marked out) but the reason I didn’t include it in the first one is that Bioshock isn’t really an open world game in the truest sense. The whole game’s narrative is about being told what to do, for one, but mainly because once you’ve progressed past a level there isn’t always the ability to back track, nor any explicit reward for doing so (sure you can pick up ammo, but since it’s lying around everywhere like confetti after a wedding why would you?).

Bioshock: Would you kindly refrain from hitting me until I've played this old sinclair game!?

3. No pressure, moneybags, just line your pockets why don’t you? (Or- isn’t it funny how the in game worlds are all capitalist?)

This is probably the most common minigame type, and the first thing I thought of after I scratched my head playing GTA4’s bunch. It’s fairly simple, you’re in an RPG/Action-adventure game. Final Fantasy VII, Fable 2, KOTOR, whatever. You’re wandering around the place and you walk into a Themepark/Tavern/Cantina/whatever, and some bloke wearing a silly hat tells you that if you spend five gold coins playing his game you can win a shedload back. So you do. Why is it here? A little of the second type above, to give you a hand. But mainly to give you a bit of variety in how you earn money (developers only make so many quests, so to prevent people flying through the game these can act as speed bumps – a way to get resources without burning up content), as an alternative/or compliment to a jobs system, but mainly to give their world’s a little flavour, local colour.

Of course most of the minigames offer you a fairly pedestrian gold reward for playing adequately. What they do to keep you playing, sometimes, is offer you the chance to win big, and get a legendary weapon, or some valuable item that can only be obtained by playing. Final Fantasy VII’s minigames could get you money for playing them, and as an added incentive a reward in that if you concentrated your efforts at the Golden Saucer’s Battle Zone you could get Omnislash, Cloud’s limit break. This is partly how this kind of content justifies its existence, and also how it is plain and clearly the speedbump.

Fable 2: The lower image depicts, cheekily, the point that you can max out a characters wealth way beyond what they'll ever need.

Of course every minigame has to be introduced to the player. The developer spent money and time making it, and they want you to see it. So you’re bound to encounter these whether or not you want to take part. One of my favourite commentaries on the minigame as a neccessary evil came in Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge. It was only subtle, and I wonder if it was intended as such, but there was a Wheel of Fortune game which you needed to win to progress. Aside from the prize you needed, there were several other prizes on offer and you could stay and win them all. None of them, however, ended up being of any use (including the gold, which Monkey Island has always made a point of declaring it a easy mechanic to exploit for gameplay by lazy developers). Then again, this is from the series that brought us the best minigame of all: Insult Swordfighting.

There was no reason to include this image except that I absolutely love Monkey Island(tm).

4. The Minigame as cash-in material (Or how I learned to stop worrying, and love my phone).

Final Fantasy snowboarding for your phone? Need I say more? Need I say more?

Then there’s Grand Theft Auto 4…

"Ah Niko! Just one more frame, cousin come on!"

There is no real in game reward for playing GTA4’s games as such. Your performance in games can give the player Xbox 360 achievements, and to attain 100% completion their required (Ed. Thanks Ian), but that does not benefit the in game world at all. No, merely the act of taking time out of Niko Bellic’s day to go an pick up his cousin, or gangland cronies, dive them to the Bowling Alley/Pool Hall/Bar/Resturant/Comedy Show/Cabaret, endure their company, and then drive them back again… that is what you are being rewarded for. For choosing the activity wisely, or just taking them where they want to go. This builds up Nikos relationships with the characters and in return they offer him services, such as free cab travel, the ability to reduce his wanted level when he’s in a tight spot. Sounds good? Debateable.

Grand Theft Auto 4’s desire to integrate life-sim elements into its core gameplay as a way of providing exposition is at once a brave decision, and a natural progression from the things they were doing in San Andreas. For an adventureous game, with a long story quest, and a huge open world,  having your characters converse in a moving car with no need for a cutscene every 5 minutes (there are already many cutscenes in GTA4, and they’re of a great quality, and well written I feel) as a means of introducing game concepts and plot points then it seems like a wise and frugal decision. As a fun game mechanic? Not so much. The reason why? “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Here’s the situation: You’re driving around Liberty City, you’re somewhere in Algonquin, the city’s equivalent to Manhattan. It’s beautiful. You’re surrounded by awe-inspiring sky-skrapers, you have the radio on and you’re listening to Phillip Glass, or the satirical talk-stations.  You’re pelting around at tremendous speed on a dirt bike looking for a stunt jump to attempt. Or you’re having a walk around Central Park listening to people’s conversations, and admiring the scenery. Then your phone goes off. It’s Roman. He wants to go bowling. He’s on the other side of town. You have an in-game hour to get to him. The question everyone is asking, “Why is he calling me now?”

Is it to make the world feel alive? To give the player a keener sense of time progression (which despite day and night cycles it doesn’t feel as though time progresses as there is no change in the world day to day)? Perhaps R* weren’t confident about the world they’d created and didn’t want you in it too long unsupervised (which is hard to imagine as there are games that have come out since that claim to be open world that fall very short of this high watermark)? Or is it to try and make you care about the characters? I feel it’s the first and last of these, from a narrative perspective. And I’ll say that from a ludological perspective there is a larger metagame in progress that I will get into, but for those (like me) uninterested in what it’s offering, I will say three things in its defence:

1) You can cancel plans with no cost to your relationship. Though you’re still being forced to partake in this bit of pre-fab throwaway story. You can also put your phone on a Sleep Mode, but this prevents you tackling the main story quest as well.

2) The activites vary in the level of interaction required. Should you want to increase the relationship score, you can go eating, and it’s basically a drive to and from the venue. Or a taxi journey which you can skip should you be very lazy.

3) The game itself demonstrates the ability to refuse invitiations and shows there is little consequence during the course of story missions, by refusing for you.

Really, what is occuring with GTA4’s minigames, and more prominently with Fable 2’s pubgames is this metagame I mentioned.

5. The Mingame as Metagame (Or it’s not just you, it’s everyone)

Fable 2 and GTA4 both have online mulitplayer game modes. Both, however, are fairly limited and it’s abundantly clear to anyone who has played either that these are first and foremost single player games. Single player games in a climate of gaming globalization. Nothing is single player anymore. Not even your Xbox360 dashboard. If you don’t have Xbox360 Live it doesn’t matter, it’s still there on the dashboard telling you what you’re missing. And when you do have it, it’s telling you who is online, it’s inviting you to rifle through their games collection and look at their achievements. Through playing all your games you’re playing Microsoft’s (and Sony’s with PSN Trophies) metagame absolute. But aside from that each of these titles keeps stats of how you’re playing. And others can see them. There are leaderboards for every GTA4 minigame (in a system called the Rockstar Social Club), and street race, and everything else it seems. Fable 2’s minigames were released before the full game so that players could amass a fortune, take it to their game when they got it, and the ingame world reacted accordingly to your wealth and how you got it. The idea of the games communicating with eachother – building your own profile as a gamer online, and that your GTA4 minigames are contributing to a worldwide leaderboard – that is the minigame as metagame, and it’s Rockstar’s best hope of justifying their existence to those who don’t care for the game’s narrative, or find them that appealing.

In the end all forms of minigame fill a service of some kind, and I think that like all elements of gaming, you just need to excercise moderation, and avoid letting them become a crutch to lean on when content is wearing thin. GTA4’s games are harmless enough, it’s being harangued into playing them by the supporting cast that creates resentment.

And… Metagaming (A few short words)

Metagame as impetus:

The concept that a metagame can be the explination that justifes a game isn’t singular to GTA4’s minigames. Noby Noby Boy (a beautifully bizarre and wonderous creation from Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy, another game with metagame elements) almost relies on it’s metagame elements to bring reason to the chaos of his creation. In a game where you basically muck around, eat things, and stretch your character for no narrative reason, and if you removed the entertaining chaos of your actions and focused on the mechanics makes it a game of snake you can’t lose (not thrilling, exactly), then people would be justifed asking themselves why they would continue playing this once you’ve grasped the concept and had a bit of fun. The answer, wonderously, was that upon its release players had the unique chance to achieve a common goal as a whole collective. Every single player’s high score in terms of how long they managed to make Boy (the character) stretch was recorded, and then added up across all of the PS Network, and when that distance was equal to the distance from Earth to The Moon, The Moon became a level that was unlocked to everyone after a mere 4 days after release on Feburary 23rd last year. Mars was unlocked on May 23rd. It was a wonderful stunt, but better than that, an idication of what could come in terms of getting the entire gaming community to contribute to how a game functions.

Boy is on your windmill, messin with your flour.

Metagame as consequence:

The closest thing we have known over the decade up to now have been MMOs. Specifically the way economies work in MMOs. Much like in real life they’re monitored, and the balance of supply and demand (which is controlled by the dev team, really – but in response to the way the game is being played – I hope). But they have shortcomings. It would be unfair on new players to have a finite supply of resources, so they don’t. What happens then is that players end up accumulating massive amounts of tat. When you try selling it on, it’s practically worthless, or if it is a higher class item, it has a value that isn’t representative of the fact they’re in infinite supply but tricky to get a hold of. Besides that, it’s being controlled and monitored by the dev team.

The future?

Currently, however, we’re seeing a way in which the metagame is an element of the overall gameplay, but not the focus of development (as in Noby Noby Boy) or running in the background to the point that it barely affects our experience with the game (in MMOs – does the cost of a pelt going up by 2 gold really matter in the grand scheme of things?). Demons Souls for PS3 has one of the most interesting metagames that exactly describes the marriage of gamer interaction changing the world for everyone, and the changes informing the player’s experience in a tangible way. Demons Souls allows you to leave messages on the ground for other people to find as you play, alerting you of traps and whathaveyou. That in itself is great, but then there is the ghostly apparitions of other player’s deaths that you witness, leaving clues as to how not to deal with an enemy/situation. And finally there is the ability to have random people with whom you don’t interact with personally (so the game is in charge of your experience with them, essentially) to fight with you when you cannot succeed alone, so the game shifts around your experience. This is probably the best example of a game getting the metagame right, in proportion to the core mechanics. It is more or less afterthought in GTA4, and games like Dragon Quest 9, and Animal Crossing suffer from having great ideas but ones that won’t (in my eyes) be too succesful in the west because the Nintendo DS/DSI isn’t as ubiquitous a platform over here.

To wrap it up, I think it will only be a matter of time before elements of metagame such as those in Demons Souls start appearing in more games over the coming years, potentially as a way to fill that “demand for a mulitplayer function” that titles seem to have thrust upon them.

Mike Dunbar

EDIT: A couple of weeks have passed and Irrational Games have announced Five Cut Features from their games. It mentions the hacking minigame from Bioshock, and that initially the pipe system was meant to represent an “ADAM addicted mutant” whose loyalty you effectively bought buy giving it ADAM. Still not exactly representative, then.

A relaxing thing of beauty: