February 24, 2009

What Makes a Game: 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Discussion

Continuing along the same vein as my previous post, this week I chose a game not necessarily designed to be fun, but rather created to spark discussion. During the Nordic Game Jam, a twenty-four-hour competition to create an interactive experience based on a given prompt, Petri Purho produced an application that has so little interaction that it has prompted a conversation throughout the community about what even qualifies as a game. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, the player simply loads the program and watches a progress bar fill the screen (see image below). The object is to be the only person in the world playing at a given moment, and if she can hold onto that title for an entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Otherwise, the application closes without explanation. To supplement this experience, Jonathan Basseri created an online visulizer that lets the current leader watch her progress and gives recently ousted players an identity (a location and IP address) to blame for their downfall. After I heard about this game, I visited Purho’s blog, where he shares his insights about 4’33” of Uniqueness. I then followed and contributed to the heated thread of posts debating the merits of this experimental and controversial work. I later stumbled upon Offworld, where Brandon Boyer hints at what makes 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness a compelling system. Commenting on the blog, I expanded upon his idea, and offered a definition of my own. These two comments can be found on the respective sites, and I have also pasted them below.

"4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness"

4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is shining example of the continuing evolution of interactive media. Those that immediately dismiss it should consider parallels in music, art, and film. Naturally, the first work invoked is John Cage’s 4’33” (sheet music pictured on the left), the silent composition after which you named the game. Just as some of the previous commenters say that this game does not deserve any attention due to its minimal interactivity, those in the audience at the first performance of 4’33” were irritated and angry once they realized that no notes were going to be played. Cage’s inspiration, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings also come to mind, and while the art community is more receptive to controversial pieces, many people still dispute that those plain white panels are art. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, you challenge the thoughtful player to define what makes a game. Some have posted here on your blog that because it is not fun, it is not a game. Firstly, I would argue that, especially coupled with Jonathan Basseri’s visualizer, you have created an astonishingly simple, yet still exciting and engaging mechanic. Secondly, I ask, does a film have to be entertaining for it to be a film? Does music have to sound good for it to be music? Can a painting be ugly and still be art? I think the bigger question is how interactive must an experience be before it qualifies as a game. Whatever the answer, with 4’33” of Uniqueness, you have borrowed this idea of self-definition that has been discussed in so many other mediums, and opened up a dialog in the gaming community, while at the same time bringing a little more credence to games as an art form.

While people are beginning to accept games as a form of artistic expression, most still have a narrow view of the possibilities of “art games.” They see the beauty of Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the game that follows the entire life of a man in five minutes, and they enjoy the sandbox play and child-like sensibility of your own Crayon Physics Deluxe, yet they cannot appreciate the reflective nature of 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. Art is not just about beauty; it also makes a statement and is a catalyst for contemplation and discussion.

"My 45 Seconds of Uniqueness, Vizualized"

When I first heard about 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, I was skeptical and did not think it could possibly qualify as a game. The only action, as commenter VoxExMachina points out, is “load the game,” which initially does not seem like a choice at all. However, since 4’33” challenges the player to define a game, I decided to give it a second chance. In my view (and I am paraphrasing this from the book Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Christopher Swain, and Steven Hoffman), a game is a system with predefined rules in which a player encounters some form of conflict and makes choices that result in an unequal outcome. My first observation is that Petri Purho has clearly detailed a set of rules that determine the play; in fact, there is only one: if the player is the only person in the world running the game for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Every other human being becomes the enemy, threatening to end her domination. As for unequal outcome, the application inelegantly shuts down with a loss, and the crudely drawn checkmark and exclamation points surrounding the winner’s IP address celebrate the elusive victory.

The only remaining qualification is choice. Is 4’33” interactive enough to be considered a game? When I played, I thought about how to use my only given ability in the most effective ways possible. I loaded at 1:30 AM Los Angeles time, when reasonable Americans slept and Europeans started waking up and going to work. I deduced few other cultures had been exposed to the game. Whenever someone ran the application, cutting my time short, I immediately re-opened my program to squash that Danish IP address’ morale. Finally, I used my “load the game” powerup as often as I could, and after only about fifteen minutes, the mundane status bar gave way to a pixilated checkmark; confirming my dominant uniqueness. I do not know if I won because of my strategy or because of blind luck, but the game made me feel like my choices caused the victory. I believe games can be designed about anything, from alien invasions to surfing Wikipedia (see WikiPaths), so while definitely not a run-of-the-mill shooter or a classic platformer, in my opinion, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds passes.

February 17, 2009

Innovation in 2009: You Have To Get The Joke

The Independent Games Festival, founded in 1998 by Think Services to "encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers," has unearthed some of the most notable games in recent memory. Braid, Jonathan Blow's time-manipulation platformer, Everyday Shooter, the compilation of musical shoot-em-ups from Queasy Games, and World of Goo, the physics-based puzzler from 2D Boy, all won the IGF Design Innovation award (in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively), and are now among the top rated and most popular games of their platforms. Hence, this year's list of nominees for said award was a natural springboard for my search for the future leaders of the industry. While I had not heard of four of the five finalists, I recognized one, Kian Bashiri's satirical You Have To Burn The Rope, from my previous web crawls. In the game, after navigating a short tunnel filled with detailed instructions about what lies ahead, the player reaches a chamber with a gigantic (albeit harmless) boss. The only way to defeat this "Grinning Colossus" is to burn the rope above his head, as pictured below. The entire game plays in less than a minute, followed by a three minute credits sequence involving screenshots from the perilous journey set to a song (reminiscent of Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive from Portal, another IGF notable, but this one a student showcase winner, previously titled Narbacular Drop) touting the player's heroic bravery. Unlike its Design Innovation award predecessors, YHTBTR will never be popular in any commercial way due to its length and lack of any real gameplay; indeed, some users are furious that it took even five minutes of their time. However, Bashiri strives to innovate not by introducing new, unique features, but rather by holding up a mirror to the rest of the industry and pointing out some flaws in current game design practices.

In perhaps its most overt criticism, You Have To Burn The Rope asserts that games have gotten too challenging for the average player; in fact, the text: "Computer games are getting so hard these days..." displays directly under the game in the browser window. There have always been challenging games (see Rare's Battletoads, considered by Game Trailers to be the most difficult game of all time), but with interactive media's expanding demographic, the Ninja Gaiden's of the world are left exclusively to the hardest of the hardcore, and the gaming public at large demands more accessible experiences. Not only games, but consoles themselves inherently exclude a large audience, as a controller with fifteen buttons and two joysticks intimidates someone who has not touched a d-pad since the age of the NES (see left). The entrance of the Wii in 2006 largely introduced the casual market to consoles because of the Wiimote's freeform input system. Players could suddenly pick up a controller and swing their arm as if they were wielding a tennis racquet, as an avatar mimics their movements. However, most games that successfully use the Wii's control system in an intuitive way are little more than prototypes, and those rare few, like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, that appropriately integrate these mechanics into a full game are too long for the casual gamer.

Thus, the PC remains the most popular medium for gaming, and sites like Yahoo! Games and Pogo dominate this space. Through these portals, players enjoy variants on classics, such as Mahjong Safari and Fashion Solitaire presented by Lifetime Television Channel. One particular Pogo offering stood out to me: a game with a title almost as self-referential as You Have To Burn The Rope called Everyone Wins Bingo. In an interview with IndieGames, Bashiri says that while YHTBTR is partly a comment on how difficult games have become, "it's also a subtle reference to how some games are kind of patronizing toward the player, like too easy." Henrik NÃ¥mark's credit song, "Now You're a Hero" showers the main character with praise for doing nothing but what the title plainly explains to do. Similarly, the particle effects in Everyone Wins Bingo lavishly celebrate accomplishments that are completely mundane, because after all, in this version of bingo, everyone wins. Braid's Jonathan Blow argues in a feature with Gamasutra that casual games are not the only offenders in this regard. He admonishes triple A titles like God of War and Fable II for reducing challenge, the element that makes interactivity unique, in order to advance the linear story, the component in which films, literature, and other mediums specialize. While storytelling is an undeniably important ingredient, "if we eventually become no interaction and all story," says Blow, "then we're just a bad movie, right?"

When games strictly adhere to a linear narrative, they also eliminate choice, because in order to follow a set script, certain events must occur. As a result, designers must insert "false choices" or the illusion of interactivity. Although the player feels like he makes a decision, in reality there is only one option: the one that leads to the next juncture in the story. To satirize this phenomenon, Bashiri implemented a useless weapon and multiple paths that both lead to the inevitable moment where the rope is burned. "Both the ability to throw axes and the option to go up the left or the right set of staircases are examples of false choices," he explained to Gamasutra on Thursday. "They give you the illusion of interactivity, but of course they don't matter at all."

Critics of You Have To Burn The Rope assert that because the developers spent only 10 hours creating the game, it is not worthy of consideration. Angry bloggers post comments like, "this game is stupid" and "this is the easiest game ever." Incidentally, they stumbled upon one of the central themes: games with false choices and limited interactivity are pointless. While YHTBTR, like any form of satire, simplifies the problem, it sparks a relevant, meaningful dialogue, and calls out fundamental game design flaws through a less-than-a-minute-long interactive experience. Perhaps the fact that it received a fair amount of non-gaming media attention helped YHTBTR get nominated, but it truely is deserving based on its own merits. You Have To Burn The Rope is certainly unlike any past IGF Design Innovation award recipient, but that very fact affirms its position among the finalists.

February 10, 2009

Surfing the Web: The High Scorers

Welcome, dear reader, to Don't Save the Princess. In this blog, I seek to discover the creative pulse of the industry by focusing on interactive experiences that engage the player in fresh and exciting ways. As a budding voice in the already saturated field of game enthusiasts, I decided to first scour the web in an attempt to appraise the substance and presentation of both prominent and obscure sites. To do this, I used the criteria set forth by the Webby Awards and ISMA, evaluating based on content, visual design, functionality, and other such categories. These are resources that I will draw on for future posts, and I hope that by building my linkroll (located on the right sidebar), this blog will become a hub for those craving a deeper understanding of non-traditional games.

In order to explore the non-traditional, we must first educate ourselves on the mainstream. The first links I analyzed are the most well known to the gaming community: GameSpot, Imagine Games Network (more often referred to as IGN), 1UP and GameSpy. Cluttered and difficult to navigate, these review-centric sites sometimes act as conduits for public relations departments at the expense of the author's editorial voice. Additionally, IGN and GameSpot intermittently splash full screen advertisements for up to thirty seconds before displaying the site's content. However, they are undeniably influential, and therefore cannot be ignored. A less biased source for assessing the quality of an established title is Metacritic Game Reviews. Metacritic compiles and displays every rating for a title in an elegant, easy to navigate format.

To dig deeper into this interactive medium, I look to Kotaku and 2007 Webby Award winner Gamasutra, both comprised of editorials, interviews, and news stories, presented with a professional and balanced tone. Gamasutra is easier to navigate, as the icons on the home page of Kotaku are too large (see right), necessitating an abundance of scrolling. Think Services Game Group, which runs Gamasutra, also runs a series of sister sites, which streamline the plethora of information found on Gamasutra into several highly focused blogs (Game Career Guide, Game Set Watch, GamerBytes, Games on Deck, Game Development Research, and Indie Games, to name a few). 2008 Webby Award winner The Escapist also projects a well-rounded point of view, but with a more creative presentation.

In order to find sources with stronger bias, I enlisted the help of engines like Blog Flux and Google Reader, stumbling upon pages such as The Ludologist, which encourages a more theoretical understanding of games, and Play This Thing!, whose authors pride themselves in the ability to expose and review utterly obscure titles.

Finally, one cannot fully understand a medium as interactive as gaming without experiencing it. For this, consult the weekly "fun for free" feature on 4 Color Rebellion, or simply go to Kongregate (another 2008 Webby winner) and choose from hundreds of user created games.
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