Monthly Archives: April 2011

<3 Retro Games

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Fellow retro enthusiasts, I posit the question: Did emotional engagement between game and player exist a decade or three in the past?

This thought has crossed my mind occasionally and, in the instances I can dwell for longer than a moment, I struggle to find an answer in the affirmative. Certainly in the last ten years we’ve seen a focus from many developers in engaging the player on a higher level than the reflex, memory or ‘twitch’ gaming; a genuine effort to reach the audience in more interesting ways. Fable, Braid, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Sims, the list goes on. But dive down the vortex of time past these and you might be struggling for examples.

Were players actively engaged on a romantic or other emotional level beyond the perfunctory? Sonya Blade might have looked great in Mortal Kombat, but no one cared about her quest to capture Kano.

“Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!”. The opening line to R-Type, a classic scrolling ‘shmup’ from 1987, sums up in one line what nearly thirty years of gaming was generally based on. Jim McCauley, in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, elaborates on the themes so prevalent: “So much of the early history of gaming is focused on space and war, subjects guaranteed to appeal to the young male audience that filled the arcades of the early 1980s”.

Space and war – often both at the same time – were certainly popular. However, there were the occasional branches out. Japanese developers perhaps more inventive, and characters sometimes mattered as much as blowing them up. Two characters that blew up their enemies in entirely different ways were Bub and Bob from the blockbuster Bubble Bobble in 1986. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything noteworthy here in regards to our quest, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, this is one game my mind consistently references when thinking about this issue.

Bub and Bob are a team and, to rescue your father from alcoholism and reunite your mother and family, you have to have a friend. Story wise it’s your brother, Bob, but in the real world a second player controlling him is required to ever finish the game properly and with the ‘Happy End’. Here, the developers of Bubble Bobble not only touched on the themes of co-operation, love and family, but enforced it by ensuring another person be present for the ride.

Having said that, it’s not as grandiose as it sounds. This hidden story of Bubble Bobble is very much just that, hidden. To find this ‘true’ narrative, secret rooms must be entered, codes deciphered, button combinations used to unlock modes, and then, finally, finish the game with a friend. Once it’s over the players are in for a surprise as the love heavy ending bursts forth from the screen in dazzling colour. Though unexpected, it is wonderful.

Further back in time, co-operative games in the 70s were common out of necessity. Back then when our beloved industry hatched, playing alone often wasn’t an option; artificial intelligence was in its infancy. Many Pong variants required two players because, simply, there just wasn’t anyone else to return your serve.

But this doesn’t touch on our question, as another person at your side isn’t the connection we are looking for. Love doesn’t often bloom by sharing a controller, and even on the occasion it does the game acting as the intermediary plays little part. On the contrary, a co-operative game of say, Double Dragon, is more likely to create anger than romance, as the so-called ‘partner’ in game consistently smashes your face with a bat. Hilarious, sure. But not first date material.

So finding examples of emotionally engaging video games going back a few decades is difficult. 1994’s Super Metroid tugged the heart strings in the final moments and quite effectively too, but the relationship ripped asunder fleeting. Instead we look to the modern era of gaming for the majority of examples and one would have to wonder why. Is this leap due to a societal need or an expansion of technology? Do the people of today desperately seek a kindred spirit in an impersonal world or, with the strides in technology and social media, we simply now have the power to do so?

One would think technology plays less a part due to the evidence brought forth by master designers such as Jason Rohrer. Games full of character and emotional highs and lows that wouldn’t look out of place on a Commodore 64. So perhaps people really are looking for greater emotional interaction in their game worlds. Perhaps – with the average age of gamers in their mid thirties and females making up half the number – we really have grown up and the young male of the early 80s need not apply. Or perhaps, fellow retro enthusiasts, you have great examples that prove we were given these experiences all along.

I’d relish all suggestions.

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Filed under 1001 video games you must play before you die, braid, bubble bobble, digital romance lab, dirolab, retro, retro games

Fragmented Narratives and Tangled Love Stories: Don’t Take It Personally, Babe

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Christine Love (creator of Digital: A Love Story) returns with a “spiritual sequel” set in an elite private school with don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. There’s quite a lot to enjoy here: the dialogue of the high school students is wincingly accurate; the overblown emotions and drama vividly recall what its like to be in the throes of adolescent angst and passion; and the structure of the narrative itself is very cleverly deployed in backchannels of IMs, wall posts, private messages, and emails. It’s the modern epistolary novel on speed. In anime style.

The title explains the concept, but it can still be hard to absorb: it’s not exactly clear whose story it is, actually. The main character, John Rook, is a bitter, somewhat angst-ridden man in his late thirties, a veteran of two divorces and full of self-loathing and self-doubt; is it his story? But no: the more vibrant characters are the high school students he teaches, a cast of quirky characters, and while they ask him for advice at times, for the most part they are off living their lives and he, as an adult, is as irrelevant to them as the desktop computer.

The year is 2027 but it feels much nearer than that. The students flirt, agonize, date and break up, hook up, fight and make up — but the bulk of the action takes place off-screen, in a private social network the students participate in. John Rook reads their private messages and wall posts in order to keep track of the constantly evolving social ecosystem and that’s the real gem at the heart of this piece.

There are a couple of really interesting mechanics at work here: John Rook is such a bad teacher and his personality can be off-putting, which I believe is a deliberate tactic. While the piece is interactive, the player doesn’t actually have that much control over the protagonist, creating further distance. I haven’t played through the branches yet but there are a couple of critical moments when you can’t actually make a choice for John, which may be frustrating to some players — I accepted my role as voyeur, sitting on John’s shoulder like some sort of angel of conscience (or devil, depending on your predilection I suppose), trying to nudge him gently in the right direction.

The distributed narration is fascinating and, as in real life, a guiltily pleasurable peek into the private lives of a high school clique. Dissecting the various personae and unearthing the complex relationships between them makes you feel like a social anthropologist (as well as a bit of a creep!) Christine Love’s main theme here is privacy — or the lack thereof; and how our notions of private/public have been radically shaped by technology and behavior. The ending that I got felt a little preachy and canned, but I wonder how differently I’d play through knowing what I know now. I’m curious to try.

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Filed under christine love, digital: a love story, don't take it personally babe, interactive fiction, love story, visual novel

On Rohrer and the Simple Things

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The video game industry has its fair share of prominent personalities; celebrities one could almost say. Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmack, Cliff Bleszinski, Hideki Kamiya, Gabe Newell just to name a few that leap immediately to mind. Influential designers, producers and coders on blockbuster titles delivering a swathe of experiences across an expanse of genres. However, the names of independent developers are less likely to be found on the tongue of every-day gamers and enthusiasts. Jonathan Blow perhaps the most recognised for his excellent Braid, and it’s possible the name Markus Persson could tweak the memory registers as the creator of Minecraft.

One independent developer that is no stranger to the focus of attention from the more adventurous gamer and journalist alike, is Jason Rohrer. His projects align succinctly with the interests of the Digital Romance Lab scientists and is, in this writer’s eyes, one of the most interesting people in video games today.

And not just for the games he creates, but for his ideals, philosophies and engaging insight in today’s life and times. A man who practices what many preach though hardly walk the talk, he and his family live on a 14,000 dollar yearly budget, and codes on computers that others have thrown away. These boundaries not of necessity but of choice and for which I greatly admire. Indeed, when I discovered the world of Rohrer via Robert Ashley‘s podcast A Life Well Wasted, I have been fascinated since.

The games are as interesting as the man himself, and his passion for creating emotional engagement succeeds where most others fail. Computing power notwithstanding.


One such game born from these constraints is Passage, which may indeed be his most known. Released on PC and later iOS, Passage presents the player with a limited horizontal plane in which up, down, left and right movement are the only options. There is little way of instruction and the player is free to go where they choose, though right – through gamer instinct or visual cue – is the most trodden and immediately explored. Indeed, some have commented they were unaware there lay any other path.

Venturing right, the player – who has taken the role of a young man – is soon met with a young lady and the two join as companions. The pair will traverse this landscape with the horizon ahead long but unclear at its extreme. As time goes on both become visibly older and move at a slower pace. The reverse direction lengthens representing wisdom, but ahead the view shortens as if to show future prospects limiting. Soon the couple reach so far to the right as to almost touch the fog of pixels ahead, a hidden goal just out of reach, when the now much older woman passes away. Here the player may falter as this event is unexpected, and will likely question the next course of action. Subsequent play throughs however will reveal that standing firm by her side reaps little reward as the player soon passes as well, and moving on does the same. The unspoken goal, the very right side of the screen, unreachable as you pass away regardless of your unrelenting march.

Going backward likewise offers no safety from the inevitable.

In moving downward you soon get lost in a maze of walls and obstacles, however unlike the top section, chests lie about offering points. Here the player can run around as if in a rat race collecting as many chests as can be found. Interestingly, if you traverse the maze with your companion, movement is limited as the two of you are too large for most gaps, leaving you both to expire with few points and even less progress. Rohrer is perhaps hinting at the futility of chasing wealth over love and the adventure of life. Or, perhaps, simply the difficulties and frustrations faced in doing so.

Regardless of your goal in Passage — run to the right and live a full and easy life, venture below to collect points, or a combination of the two — your companion will die and so will you. There are no obtainable objectives and, seemingly, no reason behind any actions at all other than to make what I believe to be Rohrer’s ultimate point – that there isn’t one.

Life is a journey of limited scope, the experience better in sharing it.

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Filed under braid, digital romance lab, dirolab, jason rohrer, jonathan blow, markus persson, minecraft, passage

A Most Vexatious Beginning

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Minor spoilers discussed relating to the first number of hours of Dragon Age 2.

There has been much criticism of Bioware’s latest work Dragon Age 2, though that criticism doing little to dampen my own enthusiasm for the experience that I hoped would manifest. While most were concerned with combat, linearity and a limited area in which to traverse (which are without doubt valid points for debate), I remained hopeful that, like the first Dragon Age, a great number and a great complexity of character interaction and interactivity would shine through.

In Dragon Age 2 however, It’s hard to imagine how it could have kicked off worse.

In any medium with a desire to create emotional involvement between characters portrayed and the audience, time spent exploring the character’s reactions and opinions during certain situations can endear the viewer as associations are made of their own thought process in similar moments. However, It’s quite difficult to get to know someone in short snippets of information and worse, when the gaps between these snippets can render entire moments null and void.

Some examples leap to mind:

* Developing an attachment to a character in an RPG is as much about knowing them as it is ‘customising’ them over time. It’s hard to find joy in upgrading that sword your favoured party member wields when, in the space of one time lapse, it’s gone and replaced by equipment you have never seen. It’s like knowing someone at work then meeting them at a bar and seeing their casual clothing for the first time. They look like an entirely different person and you have to get to know them all over again – “I didn’t know he liked poncy hats”.

* When in the face of these time lapse moments you work to get to know a character, there’s concern that character will be written off and dumped from the story without warning. Why would the player attempt to get to know someone when at any moment they can disappear after a non-telegraphed cut scene? You won’t even get to say goodbye.

* Knowing this, and having no central social hub like in the first game (the party camp), why make the time to travel to a character’s home base – likely out of your way – to forward these relationships? Bioware seems to have tucked this aspect away amongst the alleyways and busy streets so you’re less likely to bother trying. I wonder if that’s the intention.

* Side quests are a voluntary thing and should allow the player, if they so choose, to explore a greater world and greater understanding of more than just the main characters involved in the story. Here however, side quests look important but are dismissed faster than you can hand them in. Find a lock of hair from a long lost child and a quest opens to return the object to the relevant person of interest; a missing child or other important, critical you might say, story element for one or more incidental characters in the world. Hand that lock of hair in however and you’re treated to a few ham fisted generic lines of dialogue: “I think you lost this”, “Thanks, I never thought I’d see that again”. Well, I guess you weren’t as interested in the demise of your daughter as I’d expect. My mistake.

* The first major character building decision the player will make is whether to be a mercenary or thief, and it feels like no small choice. After all, the player has been told this is a two year enterprise. Once the tough decision is made however, the game switches to a time lapse and the gravity of the situation collapsed in an instant, the two year contract up as soon as the ‘loading’ icon fades. Welcome, you’re a citizen of Kirkwall now, just forget about those first few hours you spent agonising over your suspected position in life.

All of this sets up a dangerous precedent where none of your decisions or interactions seem to hold much purpose as they exist in small bubbles with no insight as to their expected life cycle. They might be referenced in later bubbles, but it hardly feels connected between bubble to bubble, and you can’t remember which have popped and which still remain.

One other, perhaps unrelated point (indulge me here, I’m on a roll), is that once again I’m playing as an ousted son of a wealthy family who has lost their fortune to wrong doing, tasked with restoring my families honour and position as respected mansion dwelling nobility. Wouldn’t it be interesting to switch this around in a fantasy themed story and instead escape the pompous lifestyle?

Perhaps Dragon Age 2 will present this after all as part of the story arc or as a player driven decision as, full disclaimer, I’m not that far in. Unfortunately and indeed depressingly, I also don’t feel encouraged to continue either. However, I’m fully aware love can often start off on the worst foot imaginable.

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Filed under bioware, dragon age, dragon age 2