Monday, November 30, 2015

[BoRT: November 2015] Respawn, Repent

Four purple blurs, four lives, four Xbox 360s linked over a fiery hellscape. This is the final level of the Halo Trilogy, this is the Vidmaster Challenge: “Annual” —one of the most unforgiving experiences in gaming history.

I completed it six or seven years ago though I can’t say I’ve saved the memory with any particular accuracy. I recall slogging our way to the foot of a snowy pyramid, only to slog our way to the top of that same pyramid, only to drive across grueling kilometers of cinematic explosions. On its own, the final level, simply titled “Halo,” sought to conclude the series with a cyclical return to the circular superstructure. The developers at Bungie released “The Vidmaster Challenges” almost a year after Halo 3 as a way to revive the campaign experience with additional challenges and connect the series to Halo: ODST’s prequel campaign. Ultimately, after earning all seven Vidmaster achievements split between both Halo 3 and Halo: ODST, the player could gain access to the Recon Armor in Halo 3’s online multiplayer. The Vidmaster Challenges were notoriously cruel since several of them required playing through a campaign level with three other players and with the Iron Skull turned on. Whenever a single player died, the Iron Skull automatically returned all players to the last checkpoint. Suddenly, what should have been a sci-fi romp turned into a stop-and-go nightmare requiring more restarts than a cheap wireless modem.

The Vidmaster Challenge deserves attention as a case study because the mechanics did not get more difficult yet the game became more “unforgiving,” due to the Iron Skull. According to this model, save systems represent how a game forgives players for their mistakes and determine the stakes of investing time and energy into a game. For example: arcade games and perma-death rogue-likes deny the player any respite from failure; the slightest misstep, miscalculation,or poorly-timed jump sends the player back to the title screen. A Bethesda or Bioware RPG takes an opposite approach to the problem of preservation. These games provide almost endless access to save files so players can safeguard themselves against a slew of possible accidents and bad dice rolls. Under the aegis of a comprehensive save system, players can feel confident that minor errors will not disrupt their long-term participation with the narrative. The ability to save progress does not make these games any less difficult— many challenging games offer robust save systems— it just means that these games emphasize long-term reward by diminishing the damage from individual mistakes. In other words, the forgiveness built in a save system is directly proportional to the amount of personal investment designers intend the player to have with a single play session of the game.

Halo 3’s save system fell in the middle of the two extreme modes. On one hand, the “30 seconds of fun” dictated in Bungie’s design mantra depended on the ephemeral adrenaline of arcade shooters. Failure to understand the rules of these short-lived bullet mayhems punished the player with death. On the other hand, the designers also wished to present a narrative that (however cliché) justified the cost of the game and brought meaning to the random alien encounters. Death provided tension for each individual firefight but to in order to prevent narrative arrest (and too many Spartan corpses) the game could never be allowed to lose its narrative momentum.

As a compromise, the checkpoints automatically saved and restored the player to the beginning of each skirmish: far enough back to punish the mistake while still promising a chance for rapid amends and progress. Co-operative play in the Halo series promised even more space for tactical creativity. As long as at least one player remained alive, all the other players could respawn around the lone survivor and return to the carnage.

I believe the Halo series was always meant for co-operative play. Players maximized both the arcade excitement and the level’s narrative unity by playing into the rhythm of teammate resurrection. The Iron Skull shattered that balance and stripped away the forgiveness of co-operative respawning. The additional rule destabilized the traditional co-operative struggle and (I would imagine) infuriated many players. In the wake of this merciless achievement, however, the Halo 3 “Annual” challenge managed to reassert the human value of co-operative play.

The catharsis of the Vidmaster Challenge succeeded because it transferred the power of forgiveness from the computer back to the player. There was no way to survive the Vidmaster Challenges without accepting that you and your three compatriots will make mistakes. These errors would be numerous, idiotic, and demoralizing. At every step of the way, internal frustration threatened to destroy everyone’s progress if a single player succumbed to rage quitting. The challenge no longer became a measure of skill, it became a measure of forgiveness as players needed to learn to absolve the errors of others. Suddenly the experience sounds more like a Sunday sermon.

Though there had always been a ubiquitous aura of Christianity shrouding the Halo series, the franchise was only ever a parable left stillborn. Suggestive names such as: The Flood, The Ark, and The Prophets promised audiences with a Judeo-Christian story of salvation but the writers never allowed the message to shine past the lamina of science fiction and Marathon references. Even the final level bore comparison to Dante’s lowest circle of icy hell where Guilty Spark betrays his human companions in a misguided love for the Halo itself. The games always wanted to draw from the wealth of the Bible but they stopped before calling into question the fundamental acts of violence that the New Testament so abhors. The Master Chief could never be resurrected if Spartans never die.

The “Annual” challenge made a final attempt to explore the Christian potential of the Halo Trilogy. In place of four horseman of the Apocalypse, the Vidmaster Achievement turned the players into four disciples willing to forgive and endure. The obvious symbolism is that each player needed to complete the level by riding a ghost, perhaps the Holy Ghost, as sign of faith. In the final sequence of the game, the Halo begins to collapse under the players as they ride to the safety of a waiting ship. In that moment, the Halo represents the machine, the weapon, the non-human promising salvation but only delivering destruction. By successfully completing the challenge, the players liberated themselves from the limits of the machine. They no longer relied on the game’s forgiveness and they rediscovered the ability to forgive others. Those who bought Halo 3 were promised the opportunity to “Finish the Fight.” For the few who chose to complete the campaign’s Vidmaster challenge, the experience offers a chance to “Finish Fighting” and find peace.

Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table inspired this piece. If you like video games writing, consider checking them out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

[Bort Sept. 2015] The Impossible Scaffold

M.C. Escher: Ascending-and-Descending
Maps make no sense. Many people know this, yet we keep making them to organize our sense of space. Jorge Luis Borges’ flash fiction reminds us that the perfect map is useless and instead cartographers must find balance between abstraction and representation to produce maps that can guide us from location to location. A discussion about maps within digital games threatens to fall into the same analogy of a “real” landscape being turned into textual and symbolic representation. This comparison seems flawed since all digital architecture is first and foremost an abstract map-state before ever being realized as a two or three-dimensional terrain filled with visual landmarks. Unlike an explorer who wants sails to uncharted coasts then meticulously sketches what she sees a as video game designer first writes “Here be monsters,” and them the artists and programmers make the dragon appears.
What we might call the “reverse construction” of digital maps means that all digital space has a narrative foundation to its architecture. From the lowliest iPhone app interface to the campaign of the next Call of Duty game, there is always a way the designers want us to navigate the spaces they create. The 2008 game, Gravity Bone, shows us how the subjective experience of narrative can complicate our traditional understanding of maps and literal space. As a short spy-adventure game that requires fewer than fifteen minutes, Blendo Studio’s experimental storytelling stands at the threshold of the post-WASD generation of indie titles. (It can be downloaded here and I recommend a quick playthrough if you want to avoid the spoilers below). Heralded by many as a novel and witty arts game, Gravity Bone plays on the tropes of adventure games only to cut short and kill the player in the second level.
I still remember the surprising gunshot, theft, and broken window that diverted the game’s narrative into a blurred and frantic first-person chase sequence. The jump from the hotel window led me into a neon noir where layers of highways, tramways, and catwalks cling to a concrete canyon while below a glowing and polluted river threatens on the verge of coagulation. The woman jumped down a hole and I followed and flowed effortlessly through chute after chute until we landed upon a table surrounded with masquerading diners. The party goers watched as we unexpected guests dodge and double back through the room only to leave a cloud of shattered champagne flutes in their wake. The door led the woman back into the smoggy darkness where her feet pattered over the metal grating of a dangling catwalk. When I finally caught up to her around the corner she drew her weapon and fired until my body toppled over the railing. My first person view falls slowly like an elevator stopping at each floor to welcome forgotten memories. The flashbacks of past heists and danger inter cut on the screen as I gaze out on the cityscape. Finally, moments before my body lands on the highway, my visions settle on the image of a woman winning a footrace.
The falling death sequence mirrors the first image of the game where the player begins by descending in an elevator. This visual cues point us to an idea of “verticality” which has often been ignored by the game’s commentators. Much of the progress through the earlier portions of the game subsists on descending into the “furnace rooms” where the player find useful items and then emerges back into the hotel sequences to solve minor puzzles. These chthonic spaces promise at some seedy mechanical dystopia that lurks under the cocktail party elegance. Ultimately, the protagonist, Citizen Abel, fails to be a successful spy who can rise and fall between these two spaces and instead falls one last time to his death. What we have in this narrative is an acute awareness of the z-axis, a space that is often ignored for the more popular length and width, “x,y” coordinates, of cartographic space.
Not surprisingly, Gravity Bone is also the kind of action game where maps seem unnecessary. Unlike a sandbox game or RPG, adventure games assume linearity and are often celebrated for elegantly designing a world that guides the player the way a backlot studio tour might lead movie-goers from set piece to set piece of their favorite summer blockbusters. We don’t want a map because we never need to back track or find alternate routes to these locations. Once we experience a specific location we move on forever. In light of this illusion, I propose that action games deserve the most critical cartographic examination. Their mesmerizing, blockbuster pacing too often persuades us to forget the journey and instead revel in the chain of destinations. The notion of “gravity” in Gravity Bone promises this sense of natural acceleration towards the final contact with asphalt but, the moment I take a step back and analyze the passage through space, the illusion collapses.
When I reached the final catwalk and the woman shot me my vertical elevation was actually above the hotel window where the chase began. You can see it in the picture below; it’s the little window in the bottom left. 
This is physically impossible since throughout the entire chase both characters only moved downward. The chutes streamlined the entire chase sequence and forced me to move only one direction. The M.C. Escher lithograph gracing the top of my post provides a visual depiction of Gravity Bone’s vertical chicanery. Known as the penrose stair illusion, this image depicts the physically impossible yet visually conceivable infinite staircase. Gravity Bone’s chase is a virtual realization of the penrose star. What’s curious about this realization is that it did not disorient my experience during my first playthrough. I only noticed the discrepancy in height after several replays-- the narrative actually masks the architectural impossibility of the situation.

Gravity Bone’s narrative arc and ultimate catharsis demanded that the city rearrange itself to let the protagonist fall farther than what ought to be possible. The discrepancy between altitude offers an example of architectural metaphor unique to videogames. What other spatial inconsistencies have I walked right by in video games? What steps do designers take to hide space and distance from our digital eyes? More importantly, how can we add these fantastic virtual leaps to our growing arsenal of hyperlinks and Twine games to build a more powerful nexus for self-expression and storytelling? I suspect Borges and Escher still have much more to tell us about the rules and rule-breaking potentials of those atlases that arrange our world.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

[BoRT Aug. 2015] Back to the Home Row

     Half-way through Dodongo’s Cavern I enter a room with a sunken floor. The camera pivots upward behind the Kokiri orphan to approximate the top-down screen of a two-dimensional Zelda game. Behind Link, through the window of my 3DS screen, I watch the future Hero of Time stand in his leather boots on the square blocks stamped with the cross insignia of some by-gone Goron architect. Below him are several square pillars promising to divide the space into a grid of muddied stone corridors. I climb down and listen to the boots making a soft patter against the ladder until they reach the dirt floor of the cavern.

     Immediately, a blade whirs across the screen and slices a quarter heart out of my body. Running in terror only adds to the confusion as the camera smashes into the back of Link’s head guided by claustrophobic algorithms. I guide my avatar to the safety of an even narrower hall as Navi desperately warns to me to spy around each corner with the L-(formerly Z-) targeting system. The sound of razors continues to ring into the room and warns me of further danger as I sidle the walls then sprint across hallways with the blades whizzing inches behind my blonde locks of hair.
These were the Blade Traps. Once I reached the opposite side of the room I could rest, pull a block, then continued on my way deeper into the dungeon. I bested Dodongo later that night. Now, even as I begin my trek to Zora's domain, the the poor design and blinding camera angles built into that meaningless, one-trick trap room stick to the forefront of my memory.

     For the most part, the formulaic rooms of a Zelda dungeon always promise variations on a theme. Dodongo’s Cavern introduces bombs and then teaches the player about all the enemies and environments they can blow up. Occasionally, like some sort of cumulative exam, the game refers back to a previously learned skill such as lighting a row of torches as first introduced in the Great Deku Tree. Otherwise, the player never needs completely new knowledge to pass through a room, only some vague trust in recapitulation.

     The placement of these blades did not align with the aforementioned mantra of Nintendo’s dungeon design. They seem to be relics of previous games in the series and that return from the past made them all the more unsettling.
The difference you will notice in this screenshot from the original Legend of Zelda is that the blade traps appear in an over-the-top grid layout, letting the player navigate the room with precision. In contrast, my experience with the blades proved that the over-the-shoulder hallway incident provides a disservice to the camera and turns the potentially artful challenge of timed accuracy into a chaotic run-and-gun.

     In my re-play through Ocarina of Time on the 3DS I’ve noticed this was not the first time the designers crafted a room with the blatant intention of referencing the two-dimensional space of previous games. Similarly, the Castle Garden’s stealth section and the maze at the entrance to the Sacred Grove both force the camera to pan up and recreate the two-dimensional viewpoint. These sections become bothersome as the multi-directionality of the joystick does not allow me to move in the cardinal directions demanded by a Cartesian graph. The effect is a reference to the franchise’s design history while the player stumbles without the necessary tools for navigation.

     I describe these awkward moments as a form of nostalgia, particularly design nostalgia, which encourage a company to plug-in a pre-existing mechanic or scene into a previously unknown situation. The Greek term quite literally means nostos or “homecoming,” and algos or “ache.” Hidden beneath Hyrule’s new polygon veneer, it is as if Nintendo wanted to assure players that this was the same space they knew from games set in the aerial perspective. The persistence of Hyrule landmarks such as Lake Hylia and Death Mountain further emphasize the notion of returning home to familiar spaces despite how drastically the actual presentation varies between games. For the designers, the comfort of this nostalgia must have simplified the design process despite the end result being significantly sub par to elements of the game that actually acknowledge the new potential of three-dimensions.

     Institutional nostalgia forces itself into the design document of any game at the behest of the marketing department. It is easier to advertise what the audience has already played, therefore a new game must adhere to some model of previous success before even the first line of code can be written:

“It’s like Oblivion but with guns”

“It’s like Grand Theft Auto but in the wild west”
“It’s like Bioshock but in a floating city”
“It’s like Halo, but an MMO”

     These quotations might seem like superficial internet mockery of several triple-A titles from this past decade but, in my view, they also exemplify how our conception of the "New" is always limited by pre-existing paradigms in design. These slogans become a form of trust between players. I can recommend this game to you because it has all the qualities you already know; they’ve only been remixed. Note: I don’t intend to argue that marketing ruins originality since advertisement only emphasizes a certain universal human principle: we like what we already know. No one is immune to the bias of design nostalgia, but it does have a purpose.

     Analogy and comparison offer pause from the unending tsunami of novelty pouring down our newsfeed. Technology can be terrifying; the sheer power and potential of the computation machines we all carry in our pockets and backpacks threaten to overwhelm our minds, so we use design nostalgia to provide comfort in these foreign and digital spaces. No one complains that Microsoft Word insists that a floppy disk denotes the universal symbols for save. Our interfaces depend on phylogeny. The notion of “spiritual successors” promised by numerous Kickstarted games represents another instance of gaming nostalgia promising the comfort of game mechanics we’ve already mastered. Just as our bodies need a home, our fingers need a home row.

     Despite the logic of these decisions, they always threaten to weaken the potential of the gaming medium. As I observed with Ocarina of Time, reliance on past solutions to design challenges leaves certain moments of a game vapid at best and functionally incompetent at worst. Reliance on the categorical archetypes of Tower Defense or Walking Simulator predefines a comfort zone where all members of the trinity: creator, critic, and audience, languish in uncritical stupor.

     I am not the first to call attention to the rupture of design between two and three dimensions, but we should not limit the case study to one moment in video game history. Games are fundamentally iterative, and thus the audience demands that all proceeding copies hoping to exhibit new technology must graft their advances to the comforting mold of the progenitor.

     Franz Kafka once wrote:

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?"

How might a game function to strike us in the head? Would our fingers float wary and unsure over the keyboard? Would we feel useless as unknown systems churn our tepid inputs into unintuitive results? These kinds of wounds are different from the slashing, stale blows of the Blade Traps awkwardly repurposed. I do not play Legend of Zelda or any other game for rooms such as the one in Dodongo’s Cavern where violence punishes my very decision to play games.

     I play games that strike at the core of my rational capacity to figure it out. When we already know what to do, when every first person shooter maps to the same controls, then we've eaten the Lotus and lost the right to call games art. To contrast this redundancy, I point to games such as Problem Attic and Starseed Pilgrim which might begin to represent spaces where nostalgia does not dominate our games. Of course they borrow from a lineage of design (the platformer in this case), but at their core they use design to remind me of my own insufficiency. I do not inherently know what to do when the game begins.

     In a world where technology companies dedicate their resources to comfort and usability it might be valuable to take the time and feel not-quite-at-home. Question all design nostalgia. Does it amplify a concept or simply recycle and make homey a challenge that once gave you thrill? Look for games that make blows not against the avatar but against the player. Like all mature media, games have the opportunity to resist their players; we don't have to understand what our role is in a system when we play. Undeniably the call to feel lost in a new era of game design feels daunting. My challenge fundamentally asks you to move away from the games you grew up with. Like the young boy setting off from the forest he called home, we too must have the courage to leave the home row.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Jurassic World

It's that time of the year again. Summer Sci-Fi block busters and all their intense theoretical systems of post-structural baggage.

This time I watched Jurassic World on Sunday evening. There is something about monster movies that allow them to tap into the world of meta cinema. It starts with Voyage Dans La Lune where the ant-like monsters are able to appear and disappear. The director figured out he could stop the camera and the actors could move off the set then start the camera back up on an empty set. Movie magic reminds us about the literal manipulation of cellulose to create still images that flash before our eyes. Then king kong stunned the world with stop motion animation. The premise of finding a secret lost world that can only be transferred by the cinematic screen means that some monsters only ever exist through the lens of a camera.

Peter Jackson's king kong was even more meta cinema with the director, Jack Black, taking the role of lead supporting actor next to Kong. That was an adventure to make cinema and re-stage scenes of the original film while also re-expanding on that lost world and the magic of CG dinosaurs.

Thus Jurassic World evolves from such a genetic lineage as the fourth installment of the Jurassic Franchise. The plot is that the park is up and running and the wealthy with small children travel across the world to see live dinosaurs. There are ingenious kid-friendly dinosaur experiences like the triceratops petting zoo which made me laugh. Many a dig at the Disney's Amusement emporium. One wonders how the park supports so many side personnel to run the hibachi restaurants, copious gift stores, as well as custodians for the monolithic hotels connected by monorail. There should have been a side story about some cleaning person who tries to escape the chaos of pterosaurs when they descend upon the guests. (That scene also needed a flight of the Valkyries, but I digress) I want more moments of individual bravery, of course the ex-Navy marine will be tough as guts. But everyone else... meh. Otherwise, I can't figure out if these workers also live on the island or if they take the ferry to work every day. The theme park bureaucracy might be the real monster of the film.

No, that's a mistake, Capitalism is the obvious monster. It seeps deep into the fossilized bones of the plot. The move is self-aware that we all go to watch these films with the expectation that a dinosaur will break loose and kill people. The movie is about making a bigger, better, scarier dinosaur through genetic manipulation to attract new audiences. The movie itself hinges on computer graphics artists and focus groups making a bigger, better, scarier dinosaur through digital manipulation. We are the guests of Jurassic World. (On a side note I wonder how Michael Crichton would feel about the continued return to his techno-thriller world?)

The funny thing is that trans genetics of this scale requires more money than the park can generate. They need investors. So Verizon offers to fund the newly created "Indomitus Rex." One of the comic lackeys in the control room starts joking: "what's next, Doritosaurus?" Haha, product placement, the movie seems to sigh sarcastically. But then the monster escapes and everyone seems to be driving everywhere in Mercedes Benz SUVs. Every scene starts with a shot of a car pulling up to a research or containment building. The camera follows the chrome grill, un-bespeckled by Central American mud, and the famous inverted Y symbol shines in our eyes before diegesis continues. Jurassic World needed corporate investors to design it's overthetop dino romp.

I don't mean to be too negative. They needed the money to include both CG and robotic scenes. Yes Robots. It seems to be a badge of honor among the new age of directors to still employ robots in their movies. The common eye doesn't look for these transitions but the two obvious ones were a heart wrenching scene where an apatasaurus dies from blood loss after the frenzied Indomintus Rex slaughters everything in the large herbivore exhibit. The humans hold its head in their lap and the minute twitches and eye blinks where beautiful to behold.

In addition, the velociraptors have great moments of robotic animation. It turns out as a side project the ex-Navy guy is training them like dogs of war. They respond to his commands and he pets them to build affection. But they would still eat them. So they have special walls where the raptors stick in their dino-muzzles and hydraulics lock in their heads. Now just the snout and eyes show while the rest of the dinosaur is behind a steel wall. Really ingenious trickery to use a robot but not have to animate the whole beast. Again, the quiver of lips and flaring nostrils make the proto-birds more engaging than the humans.

When I dump on the human components, I specifically want to call out the railroading of character motivation. Each character archetype needs to exist: the optimistic CEO, the realistic second in command, the greedy pro-military shadow branch of the corporation, the teenage kids getting stuck in wild dinosaur situations, the evil scientist who says he's not evil but just following the money, and the non-scientist who treats dinosaurs like animals that deserve respect. Each of these need to exist to have a full Jurassic experience yet when they reveal themselves individually it is so mind-numbingly obvious who's going to get eaten and who will survive. The genetics of the screenplay feel exposed. These movies cannot escape the original heirloom summer blockbuster established by Spielberg.

In fact, to continue with the meta aspect of the movie, the film digs up its own fossils. As the kids run away from Indomitus rex in the restricted part of the island they run into the old park headquarters. That's right, they rebuild the set of the original movie and cover it with ivy and dust. The movie seems obsessed with discovering its own bones and understanding where it came from.

As you can see I don't quite have a grasp of the meta just yet. It seems too aware that the joke is sickening, but it keeps going and it gets fresh again, but then it gets sickening, but then in the final scene when the realize they need the T. Rex to fight Indomitus Rex the female protagonist runs to the cage entrance and lights a red flare. In that moment they summon the iconic moment in the first movie when the paleontologist guides the T. Rex away from the children in the jeep. That is true American movie bravery. That burning red flare carries so much history and emotion that millions who grew up in the 90s hold the scene dearly in their minds. I fell in love with movies yet again.


If there was ever a small amount of original satire, it is at a moment when the two leads find the smashed gyroball where the kids were last known before the monster tried to eat them. Around the broken glass and metal the woman finds a smashed samsung phone and starts to whimper that her nephews are dead. Then the male lead says, "look foot prints, they escaped." In the instant before, the woman assumed that no teenager would ever go anywhere without their phone and if it was left behind then he must be dead. That's commentary on the state of American youth.