Thursday, October 23, 2008

Games as Art: You are the Painter

Games can most definitely be classified as art, but maybe not in the way most people think.

Each game presents a new medium upon which to paint one's own experiences; each is a different canvas evoking different emotions, feelings, or lack thereof (just as traditional art does). The differences are subtle: Halo is the acrylic where WoW is the oil, and yet you can paint whatever experience you want with all of these things, given the limitations of the material. You can't surf the Nā Pali coast in Halo any more than you can use traditional tempera paint to coat an acrylic gesso surface (not counting mods, of course).

Like each painting, sculpture, or art style, each game has a different meaning to different people, and enjoyment of each will depend on personal taste. How many refrigerators have been home to finger paintings over the years? And how many mothers have loved every messy line or wobbly resemblance of a smiling face? How many crappy garage bands have emerged from band practice feeling like kings of the world? Yet, regardless of the quality of these creations, we still refer to them, and love them, as art.

But the most important part to understand is that it's not only the game itself that is the piece of art, but the player's interaction with it; the art is channeled, and truly created, through use. A game with no player is a keyboard with no pianist; beautiful, yes, but incomplete. You can't appreciate the Mona Lisa if you have no eyes, just as you can't appreciate Super Mario Bros. without physically interacting with it. You can't appreciate Macbeth without experiencing it (reading, watching, or listening), just like you can't appreciate the aforementioned Halo without needling some grunts. In order to appreciate an art form it takes a certain degree of fluency; if you don't speak English then Shakespeare may be lost on you, just as if you don't learn to use a controller then you won't be able to fully experience a game in the way it was intended.

But wait, can action or interaction really be classified as art? Certainly. Look no further than the art of dance or stage play. We can watch a dancer, just as we can watch other people play games, but a type of magic happens within the dancer that can at best be empathized by the outside observer and at worst misunderstood.

Roget's 21st Century Dictionary defines art as "creation meant to communicate or appeal to senses or mind." There's no arguing that video games fall under this definition. It's easy for a non-game player to disregard games as art, for you can't understand something without using it in the way in which it was intended.

If you are reading this, you've probably had a video game experience that moved you in a way that no piece of traditional art ever could. Think back upon an especially exhilarating or captivating moment. Do you realize that that amazing moment was created through the interaction between yourself and the game? And thus I say to you: welcome, artist!


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quotes Entirely Relevant to Game Design

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

~Louis Sullivan

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Level Design Musings

I've been thinking a lot about level design recently. I use the term "recently" in the relative sense; it's effectively consumed every free thought for at least the entirety of 2008, but... something's changed.

I realized the change when I was playing Super Mario Galaxy this weekend. Somehow 6 months ago I was unable to appreciate the sheer genius of the game's level design; so simple, so purposeful, so charming, yet so complex. Why can't other games live up to what SMG has done? Maybe it has to do with sheer dedication and time spent in development (the game was in production for nearly four years, and I’m sure was conceived of long before that). Maybe it has to do with Miyamoto’s overall vision. Without having worked with large development teams, that's not a question I can yet answer, but hopefully soon…sooooon.

These days when I walk into a room I think about how it would fare as a gamespace. What type of game would this space lend well to (if any)? How would I change the layout? What is this space’s intended function and was it designed with that in mind?

When looking at these IRL spaces, one difficulty arises in my mind over and over again, namely, if I were to recreate this space as a level, would I still include the obvious architectural flaws? For example, in the hallway of the building I live in, between my apartment and the elevator, this is an area where the beam running along the ceiling is misaligned, creating a ledge in the ceiling with a gap about one foot wide. It may have been the building was remodeled, or possibly poor architectural design (judging from the rest of the building, I have a feeling it was the latter).

So the question is, should this obvious error be included in a gamespace recreation of my apartment building, and in what context would it be most appropriate? If I were to recreate it as it was, it would probably look like my world modeling skills were sub-par, or at the very least it would be a little distracting.

As level designers we create a world for which the player to lose themselves in, and we want that world to be as believable as possible in the context of the game. At the same time, as level designers we must ask ourselves the purpose of every detail, and unless it adds to the believability of the gamespace, my instincts tell me that a flaw like this should probably not be included (unless of course the goal was to do an exact recreation, warts and all).




Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Discussions with Leigh - Japanese Dominance

I love Leigh Alexander. And by that I mean I love her writing and I love her blog and I love that she's not afraid to tackle NSFW topics. And I'm proud of her being the news editor over at Gamasutra. Good job Leigh!

A few weeks ago she and I had a discussion about her post
here and I wanted to touch on that topic a bit. To summarize, we were talking about the fall of Japanese developer dominance, and here were my thoughts:

Regarding the lack of Japanese dominance, it goes back to Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun," insomuch that we have fun when we are learning. Let me explain...

Like you said, even *gasp* YOU are getting sick of JRPGs. The very fact that a reader can be pretty sure what sort of JRPG they are getting by reading a poorly written review says that there is little new ground to cover in the JRPG space (or at least, little new ground is being covered). The formula (and that's what it is) has been beaten to death so many times that we are no longer learning anything by playing JRPGs, it's the same old formula over and over again, thus, we have stopped learning and they stop being fun. Boring.**

A good example is Resident Evil 4. It's not THAT much different that the old REs, but it was given a cinematic flair and a significant facelift to change the way the core game was played, thus creating a new challenge and a new learning experience. As they say, you can't tell the same joke twice and expect the same reaction. It was the best thing that could have happened to the arguably dying franchise.

Can you tell I've lamented the death of the JRPG? ;)


**(I contend the Pokemon RPGs were such a huge hit, b/c they catered to the younger generation less exposed to JRPGs, and provided a safe, new genre for them. The youth will, and should, always have JRPGs made for them. They're a damn great way to learn.) (Additionally, if Japan produced a dark, gritty JRPG with ADULTS in it, one that is not anime-style, the west be more inclined to play it. Hell, we'd probably gobble it up. We don't associate as strongly as Japan does with anime teenage boys. All I have to say is Marcus Fenix and Master Chief.)

And here was her response:

Savid -- your (and Raph's) theory is a good one, but oddly, the games on which I get the most hooked are the most TOTALLY repetitive. My two biggest time-sinks, at over 150 hours on the most recent DS titles, are Harvest Moon and Pokemon. Perhaps that's because I'm not using them to "play" so much as I am to kill time? What do you think?

And my response in return:

Damn, you're quick! Has anyone ever told you you should write for a living? ;P

Hmmm... and I have found myself pouring equal amount of time into FFTactics A2. The DS rocks!

But is that just us?

I can't help but think that if it truly IS the case that Japan no longer dominates the videogame space, it's because most other game buyers/players aren't playing Japanese games. Maybe it's because of a lack of new ground being broken, but maybe... maybe American games just comparatively sucked back in the day so it was pretty easy to dominate.

To look at it another way, I wonder if, say, Mercenaries 2 (to use one of your recent plays) could ever sell in Japan as well as it does elsewhere. I know Gears of War didn't, but that may be due to lack of penetration. Japanese games seem to sell pretty darn well in Japan. I don't see any plans to port Monster Hunter Portable G to other regions, despite huge success at home. Is it a matter of cultural preference?

Like you touch briefly on in your article, maybe it's a disconnect between the way things are today marketed between the regions (XBOX's marketing in Japan has historically been pretty abysmal, and sadly, so has Okami's here.). Capcom has overtly stated that they try to design their top games with a global eye.

Or, maybe it's just
The Long Tail working it's way through the gaming world. If that's the case, many games will probably continue to be made regional-centric and no one region will dominate.

But I think the most important point is something you bring up at the end of your article, namely, that the cross-cultural partnerships being developed ARE happening, and that's a GOOD THING! From a sales standpoint, that's absolutely necessary. From a gamer's standpoint, that only means better games. And I, for one, am excited.

After much consideration, I've come to believe my Long Tail theory is most applicable to this topic. Japanese developers dominated in the 80s and 90s because they were (mostly) the only ones who made decent games. There's just no comparing the polish of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat or even Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore. Today, studios from all over the world make decent games and will continue to.

And JRPGs aren't boring (well, mostly), but I am certainly tired of playing yet ANOTHER anime-inspired linear game. In fact, the only JRPGs I even take a look at these days are the main Final Fantasy series, and those are only modestly anime-inspired (tho I am REALLY tired of every freaking FF having basically the same characters. Squall looks like Tidus, who looks like Vaan. And of course there's Yuna and the new FF XIII chick who might as well be clones. C'mon guys! Some variety please? There's a reason I never got through FFXII).

So, in short, US developers will continue to cater to the US consumer base, just like Japanese developers will continue to cater to the Japan consumer base, and that's OK. Hopefully the good games, the games that really push the limits, are the ones that will get localized and then we can all benefit (Katamari, I'm looking at you as a historical example.).


My Huge Contributions Part 1

In case you were ever wonder what the heck I've ever contributed to our video game culture, look no further, and feast your eyes upon.... THIS! It's from the always awesome Kotaku. (Yes, the David they are referring to is indeed me).


Phew! I just got done with a big project I've been working on. MAN that feels great! Right now it's a secret; hopefully I'll be able to discuss it in the coming months. I have a few posts which have been mulling around in my head, so here they come ;)