Monthly Archives: August 2011

Rewards and Narrative

Jonas Kyratzes just posted a piece called “Narrative as Gameplay” where he responds to complaints that his games lack “gameplay:”

[Narrative creates] a form of interactive storytelling that I would say constitutes gameplay as much as anything else in games does. In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.

This is a very important point, and it deserves further exploration. Most games have a structure composed of a cycle of actions and rewards. You do something you’re supposed to do, and the game rewards you. Classic positive reinforcement. These rewards can be in the form of points (or money, etc.) but they’re most effective in the form of content. If you beat this boss, you get to see the next level. If you pass this test, you get to advance to the next grade. If you explore a side path, you get to see a cool room. If you examine this object, you get a cute joke.

These things are all analogous. There’s different scales to the rewards, but the 3XP you get for killing a rat is analogous to the 20 gamer points you get for an achievement is analogous to the ending cinematic you get for defeating the final puzzle. The challenge may vary, and the reward may vary, but the mechanism is exactly the same. Most games are machines that dispense rewards (i.e. pleasure) when you press the right button.

Kyratzes’s games (especially The Book of Living Magic and Desert Bridge) tend to have a ton of side content like object descriptions that aren’t part of the main beat-the-game path to the end. They have a collection of trickier critical-path puzzles or challenges, and then a lot of incidental rewards that are provided in response to easy actions. This is just like, say, Diablo, which has a set of tricky battles punctuated by a lot of walking around, killing minor monsters, and smashing barrels. In games like Kyratzes’s, you click on the right thing and instead of a spray of gold coins you get a joke or an insight into the world.

Interview on Quote Unquote

A clip from a screenshot of my unreleased OssuarySteve Cook interviewed me for his great quotation and interview site Quote Unquote. In it he asks some good questions, including putting me on the spot regarding the pixelly aesthetic of a lot of my games.

I go back and forth on pixel art. A lot of people regard it as amateurish: a way to compensate for lack of drawing ability. Others dismiss it as nostalgia for childhood games. I think that there’s bad pixel art and amazing pixel art, and while there’s definitely nostalgia there, that very nostalgia can be useful for artistic purposes. My own pixel art isn’t anywhere close to the quality that many artists achieve, of course, but I think it’s passable for my purposes.

Pixel art is visual video game shorthand for an array of things: childishness, simplicity, or even a sort of wisdom born from history. It’s also the video game equivalent of cartooning. Pixel art stylizes and pointillizes, making its subjects more universal and accessible. It’s also a deliberate acknowledgement of the artificiality of the device being used. In a time where the iPhone’s Retina display resolution is at the upper limits of the human eye, pixel art exposes the underlying structure of the screen.

Anyway, enough rambling. Check out the interview, and read some of the other stuff on the site; there are a lot of cool things there! He also included some previously-unseen pieces of concept art and miscellany behind a link at the end of the article, if you’re interested.

The Book of Living Magic

The Mayor of Oddness Standing, a gnarf trapped in a giant bottle.The Book of Living Magic, by Jonas Kyratzes, is the latest in a series of excellent, idiosyncratic works by a relatively unsung developer. This one is a followup to his Desert Bridge (one of my favorites), and it’s got the same sort of funny, childlike but not childish feel. The crayon drawings are appropriate to the gently subversive ideas being presented, and it’s simply packed with extraneous examinable items. In one late-game scene, every book on a bookshelf is clickable. They’re all clearly irrelevant, but if you want you can find out the clever title of each.

One of the interesting aspects of this game is that it’s really not about the story. Most of Kyratzes’s games are heavily storied; either you’re participating in or uncovering story (usually both). In this, however, you’re just exploring the world. The puzzles are simple and rather oddball, and your player character doesn’t make her personality very known. Instead, you’re meeting strange creatures (like Provatica the Unhefted, sheep adventurer) and visiting strange locales (like the Forest of Eyeballs). As one of Kyratzes’s games set in the Land of Dream, everything is appropriately surreal and dreamlike.

There are bits of darkness that pop out, though. Something happened to change Raven Locks Smith’s parents from dreamers to boring people, and it must be related to Mr. Urizen, Mayor of Dull, a recurring entity in Kyratzes’s works. A robot you meet is on the run from a government determined to turn him into a soldier. And the countryside around the town of Oddness Standing clearly has a long and often-solemn history that’s only hinted at in the game.

Play it. It’s short, it’s funny in a way that few games are, and it comes from the heart.

Why So Few Violent Games?

With as much time as game designers and critics think and write about the specifics of game interactions, it’s often useful to step back and look at the basics. Let’s ask a simple question: why are there so many video games dealing with social interaction and relationships, and so few that explore violence and action-oriented gameplay?

In some ways, it’s a historical aberration. If Gygax and Arneson had made some war-focused game instead of Counts and Courtship, or Will Crowther had decided to entertain his kids with his obscure caving hobby instead of an exploration of his childhood friendships, perhaps the focus of our games would be different. Doom wouldn’t have been an oddball niche title if there were a hundred other games at the time about shooting aliens with guns.

But I think there’s a more fundamental issue at work here: violence and action are really difficult to simulate, unlike simple relationships.
Continue reading Why So Few Violent Games?

The Non-Interactive Stanley Parable

A screenshot of two identical doors from The Stanley ParableThe author of The Stanley Parable says that “it’s actually best if you don’t know anything about it before you play it.” And that’s probably true. So if you like, you can play it before continuing.

While we’re waiting, a bit of background: The Stanley Parable is a game by Davey Wreden made in the Source Engine. It requires some form of the Source 2007 engine to play, which you have if you own Half-Life 2.

The Stanley Parable, for all its exploration of interactivity and choice and video games, isn’t actually interactive at all when you get right down to it. Yes, it has six endings and branching and all that. But as with many games with multiple endings, as soon as you tell the player that they exist, she wants to view them all. And especially with Stanley‘s left-or-right, red-or-blue choice structure, trying out the choices exhaustively is trivial.
Continue reading The Non-Interactive Stanley Parable