Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Overdue games update

I'm on a break for the holidays so thought it was about time I wrote something about what I've been playing over the last couple of months. I've left Spore off this list as I've only recently gotten in to playing it again and want to post about it in more depth later on.

Since September, I've managed to complete two games. The first is episode two of the Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (PC version) developed by Hothead Games. You join Gabe and Tycho again on their quest to find the giant robot destroying New Arcadia (and which destroyed your house in the first episode). Basically, it was more of the same as the first episode but I'm not convinced it was quite as fun. At least in terms of the turn-based combat, I got more out of the mimed attacks and colourful clown blood spatter, than I did of beating up rich snobs and mental patients (cue ethical discussion here...). I did enjoy it though, because of the humour that comes with it and I think I quite like the episodic format - it doesn't take more than a few hours to complete. I also think I'm driven more to complete games like this by a desire to get to the end of the story than by a sense of challenge, as I'm not sure I want to go back and do it all over again in "insane mode". I mean, you'd have to promise something a lot more than the same thing again but a hell of a lot harder.

The second game I completed was Lost Winds, developed by Frontier Developments for the Wii. Available on WiiWare (as opposed to in shops) where you play Toku, a young boy who has to save his homeland from the elemental spirit Balasaar with the help of the Wind spirit Enril. You control his movements with the nun-chuck but also use the Wiimote to control the wind in order to help Toku jump higher and further. Apparently a second player can use an additional Wiimote to help Toku jump further but not higher (similar to the co-op mode in Super Mario Galaxy) but I haven't tried it. I really enjoyed Lost Winds, again because I could complete it in a few hours (as opposed to weeks) and also because it is one of the few games I've come across that actually integrates how you use the Wiimote into the story and gameplay. It's also easy to pick up and very pretty. It might be a little too short (I think it might be best to think of it as an episodic game, as a sequel seems to be in the works) and it could definitely have benefited from a map, or some sort of spatial representation of where you were and where you could go, since I seemed to spend a fair bit of time retracing my steps. If you have a Wii though, I would definitely recommend downloading it and it is only 1000 points (only £7).

I've also been playing a point-and-click adventure game called A Vampyre Story about an opera singing vampire named Mona who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire by the rather pathetic Shrowdy von Kieffer and is now trying to escape back to Paris. Developed by Crimson Cow I had high hopes for this as I'm a big fan of the genre and while it looks pretty, I'm finding the characters a little annoying, especially Mona's sidekick Froderick the bat, and the dialogue you have to sit through can be a little tedious (and just isn't that funny). I'm not sure the interface works that well either and in general I'm just not enjoying it as much as I thought I would. I think it might go on the back burner for a bit while I play Spore...

Lastly, there is World of Goo developed by independent games studio 2D-Boy. I played the PC demo a while back but have been waiting for it to be released on WiiWare in Europe - which should be soon - to see what it's like on the Wii. I absolutely loved this game. Described as a puzzle/construction game by it's developers, the player controls balls of goo which you can attach in different ways to form bridges and structures so the remaining goo can exit the pipe (a bit like Lemmings). It's not only easy to learn, but also clever and engaging. But if I have to wait too much longer I think I'll end up with the PC version.

Ok, think that's it for now at least!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Physics games

Ok, so this isn't the 'games I've been playing' roundup I've been meaning to do but I've got a rotten cold at the moment and so that's going to wait until my head is a little less foggy.

But a friend of mine did send me a link today for a pretty cool game that I thought was worth sharing:

Crayon Physics Deluxe from Petri Purho on Vimeo

In addition to Echochrome and World of Goo there does seem to be a fair few simple yet elegant physics types games out there at the moment. They seem to engage people very much in a problem solving way i.e. on a tactical and spatial level and with less emphasis on have to hit the right buttons at precisely the right time. I guess, along with my masters project and the reading I've been doing, I've been thinking a lot about the different ways in which games engage and how these can be related to learning. The question "how can digital games support learning?" now seems ridiculously vague. It would be better to consider how specific types of games (and the way they involve players) result in specific forms of learning before even beginning to consider how best to use digital games within formal educational environments.

Monday, 17 November 2008

My thoughts on alternate reality gaming

Lately, I've been doing a bit of thinking about Alternate Reality games. I was introduced to them last year but in the last few months I've heard about them at a conference (see previous entry for thoughts on ECGBL), watched two very different ones unfold, and been along to the Sandpit during the London Games festival. I've also been lucky enough to have had conversations about them with Justin Pickard and Juliette Culver, who have been involved with Superstruct and Operation Sleeper Cell respectively.

Now Superstruct is similar to World Without Oil (and both are projects that Jane McGonigal has been helped create and run) in that it involves imagining yourself in an alternate reality crises - in this case it is 2019 and the combination of five different superthreats mean the end of the world as we know it by 2042. Players are encouraged to write their own stories about their experiences in this possible future, and to discuss possible superstruct solutions with each other in order to extend the human races survival horizon. Operation Sleeper Cell is a bit different, as it is a spy-themed game that requires players to solve a series of puzzles with the ultimate aim of helping to raise money for Cancer Research UK (click here to donate money or sponsor a player). Meanwhile, the Sandpit describes itself as "pervasive gaming night" since you actually need to show up and play in the same physical location as other people, while the games themselves ranged from competitive storytelling in the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to chasing "Mr. Smith" around the streets of Soho.

I'm going to talk a bit about my reactions to these different types of games but first I want to point out that the common theme running through seems to be that they attempt to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Now this sounds kind of cool, but I think it also raises some interesting ethical points. First off, there is the issue of turning a crises into a game - maybe it's only fun if you haven't lived through something similar - which came up at ECGBL. Then there is the "this is not a game" tag, which can lead to feeling "A bit thick". Michael Abbott thought he was helping out a legtimate games blogger, but turns out she's a character from an ARG. I've been talking to Justin about this, and we seemed to agree that just because pixelvixen707 turned out to be a fictional character doesn't mean the exchanges that occurred were any less valuable. I mean, I doubt whatever she said in terms of games criticism is any more or less valid than anything else on the web, assuming the writers have done their homework. But what we didn't agree on was whether we would feel betrayed if we had been on the receiving end of such a stunt. Justin reckons that what he would have gained from the interaction would end up counterbalancing any sense of betrayal he might feel, but I'm not so sure. I mean, I see how ARGs want you to question the divide fiction and reality, and how in order to do so they need to "plant" characters in real world forums but would it have been so hard to let Abbott in on the secret first? Would that mean having to let everyone in on it? How much do people gain from this sort of "fake authenticity" (thanks to Justin for coining the phrase) in terms of player experience and how much do they have to lose from it in terms of real world experience? Unfortunately, while it might make the game more intriguing, I have a feeling that Abbott is going to be a little more cautious the next time he is approached by a blogger who is just starting out and may be less likely to give them the time and energy he would have done othwerwise.

So what about the ARGs I've been paying a bit more attention too? Well while the games I outlined earlier are all rather different but they all contain an element of blurring the line between reality and fiction. In Superstruct's case, by using the internet as a platform, player's create their own narratives to fit in with the scenario of the game. Now while I am capable of stringing sentences together, I haven't attempted any form of creative writing since I was in school so I'm not sure this appeals to me that much. I know it's about envisaging my own future but I'm not very good at that either, despite repeated attempts from my supervisor to get me to do so. I find it difficult to picture where I'll be in 10 years time, let alone to imagine the skills and knowledge I may have acquired by then, so it's no surprise that I've avoided completing my SEHI profile. Instead, I've been checking the updates, having a look at some of the discussions people have been having and thinking that it would actually feel a lot like work and less like fun for me to take part in Superstruct on a more active basis. And I guess I can't help thinking about whether any of these debates and ideas will make a serious difference in the real world.

I've been a bit rubbish with Operation Sleeper Cell as well. I've signed up and had a look round, even solved a couple of puzzles but I haven't really got going with it. I guess I prefer the way the game is puzzle based, but when I don't know how to solve one I tend to give up. It's not clear where I can go for help even though there are forums you can look at and ask questions on (whereas I guess I want a "hint" type button that I can go for right there and then). I suspect it would be a bit more fun to play the game in a group with some friends, and that would also help with the trickier puzzles too. What I'm less keen on are the missions where you have to reconstruct a bond theme/dress as a spy/make a cake and take photos to send to the Agency. I'm guessing this is where we get the blurring of reality and fiction? Maybe I'm just not all that creative, but again this seems like an awful lot of (not always relevant) work for someone who's favourite video game genre is the point and click adventure!

The Sandpit is quite different to these other two games in that it is really several games occuring in one evening, and does not require the internet as a platform. What is interesting in this case, is the way the games occur in public spaces with only the players knowing what is going on. I had a lot of fun here, it reminded me of what it felt like to play games as a kid playing in the neighbourhood (though Soho is a very different neighbourhood to the one I grew up in...). But it was obvious that other people were a bit confused about what a bunch of adults were doing running after a man in a mask and guarding vats of goo from people in different coloured bowler hats. One woman asked whether we had just been watching a fight as a group of players ran off down the street, while all of us would go quiet when the police walked by. So now we're back to the ethics of carrying out an activity that not everybody knows about.

I guess ARGs are still a developing medium and perhaps it's not always the correct term to apply, but there are some interesting issues emerging from these forms of gaming. In terms of education, it is clear there are ethical issues that need to be considered if you were going to try and adopt this sort of approach. I think it's also fair to say that this form of gaming does not necassarily appeal to everyone's tastes, so while it may be engaging and active, and get people to collaborate (or at least play together), some thought needs to be put into who would get the most of learning in this way. It would seem, as with digital games, there is a lot of potential here but a fair amount of work still needs to be done before the educational applications are clear. Despite being interested in them though, I don't think that ARGs are going to be the main focus on my PhD so the next post will see a return to a focus on video games and what I've been playing.

Monday, 27 October 2008

European Conference of Game Based Learning

I was in Barcelona last week for ECGBL. This was my first proper conference and though I wasn't presenting it was pretty cool to be able to get a feel for what other people are doing in the area. In general, I enjoyed the whole thing as I got to hear from different perspectives and meet some interesting people along the way. But it was almost as people were a little too nice - there was little picking apart of ideas or applications, and I didn't hear any particularly difficult questions at the talks I went to. I'm not an advocate of being difficult just for the sake of it, but in line with Ben Sawyer's keynote where he talked about the need for constructive criticism and how the discipline needs to move on from arguments about fun and learning, it was like people were a bit too eager to pat each other on the back. I think I was expecting a little more debate but perhaps I wouldn't feel the same if I had been one of the ones presenting.

That doesn't mean there wasn't loads of interesting stuff that's given me plenty to think about. I was really pleased I got to hear Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen speak - he gave a really good overview of the research area and gave an example of one the serious games he's worked on as part of the Serious Games Interactive (Global Conflict: Latin America). One of the points he brought up was the fact that increasing the learning focus in serious games seems to decrease the motivational aspects. The other thing he made me think about was how the term "serious game" seems to be used as a synonym for "simulation". For instance, he said something along the lines of games being the "future for training" since they provide "immersive, realistic and meaningful environments". It's just that there seems to be a difference between playing a game where you are essentially training as a journalist and one where you are taking on the role of a criminal in Liberty City. I'm just not sure how to verbalise that difference or how important a distinction it is to make with respect to education. But I have a feeling the more realistic something is, the closer it is to a real life job, the less engaging it's going to be when presented as a game.

Other highlights include a review of theoretical models of player enjoyment by Liz Boyle (including arousal theory and Apter's theory of reversal which I need to look into) which made me think about the difference between sustaining motivation in the long and short term; Nathalie Charlier and Maria Saridaki talking about how teachers can be taught to use a digital-game based learning apporach; Andy Smith's presentation of how we might be able to develop the notion of a "respectful mind" through something like cultural exchange programs in foreign MMPORGs with host families; Gearoid O Suilleabhain talking about how we should consider that there are different types of transfer and we can improve on the ways of testing for it; Nicola Whitton discussing the ARGOSI project to develop an alternative form of induction through ARGs; and Jen Jensen making a distinction between imitation and simulation as a result of the different gaming experiences that new game controllers (e.g. guitar shaped peripherals) seem to provide.

But perhaps the talk that I remember the most in terms of making me think about things differently was by Natasha Boskic, a Serbian now working at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She was working with a team on examining World Without Oil (WWO; an ARG that ran for 32 days in 2007 which encouraged players to consider how they would deal with a future oil crises) to uncover noteworthy themes and issues from the artefacts produced by the players. However, once she began, people's comments and accounts from the game began to remind her of what she went through whilst living in war-torn Serbia in the early 1990s. In the conference paper, she describes dealing with the game as "unbearably traumatic" since "to me, WWO was neither a game or an alternate reality. It was my reality" (pg. 46; Boskic et al., 2008). The tag line "Play it before you live it" didn't exactly help matters and nor did the comments from players about how much "fun" they had playing it. Her experience raised some interesting questions about whether you can teach empathy and understanding about real world crises through play and whether it's even ethical to try and create games out of other peoples' disasters in the first place? Not that the presenter didn't recognise that there weren't good things about WWO (see Rusnak et. al., 2008; from the same conference) but the point was that designers and educators who want to use a game-based learning approach need to be mindful when doing so and sensitive to their potential audience.

So yes, plenty of things to think about while trying to figure out what I want to focus on in terms of my own research.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Portal (PS3)

I finally finished Portal. It's a first person action/puzzle game, where an AI called GLaDOS challenges you to get through each of the test chambers through the use of a portal gun (which allows you to create a connection between two different locations in 3D space). Oh, and you are promised cake when you complete all the trials. I borrowed it ages ago from the library, and meant to complete a lot sooner but kept getting annoyed with certain puzzles and taking weeks off before trying them again. Now I’m well aware that a lot of people out there thought Portal was a piece of cake (pardon the pun…) and it only took them a day or something to get through the game. If anything, that’s an important part of why I just didn't give up on it entirely after the first time I got stuck – I wasn’t going to let this “easy” game beat me. But you see the problem wasn’t that I couldn’t solve the puzzles, it was that I had trouble putting my solutions in practice. I’ve never really played first-person shooters, I tend to panic when being shot at and I find them disorientating – like I never quite know where my feet are. So even though the game wasn’t about shooting, it was still about aiming and it turns out my aim sucks. And that’s a bit of a problem when you have to shoot holes in the ground while hurtling through the air and make sure you land in them. The result was that I had to keep trying what felt like the same thing again and again, till I eventually got it right. I went from getting so frustrated I gave up on the game for weeks to consulting walkthroughs to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time trying the wrong thing.

The whole experience reminded me of a quote I came across ages ago which defined madness as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results” (possibly by Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin). Games seem to stop being fun when they make you question your own sanity. And who wants to play something that makes you feel inept? This seems to fit in with Michael Abbott’s reasons for not being overly enthusiastic about Braid – frustration can really ruin whatever experience the designer intended you to have.

But why did I keep playing Portal? I think a major part of it is because I’d heard so much about the game and from friends who’d found it relatively easy and fun. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s a pretty clever game – I liked how it took a novel approach to the first person genre and the dark sense of humour that came with it. So maybe these things helped me to come back but I really think the main reason I persisted is that I wanted to be able to talk to people about the game without feeling like a failure for not having completed it. Tell you what though, when I finally got to the end, it felt pretty damn good. In that embarrassing punch the air with your fist and shout “Yes!!!” sort of way…

It’s been ages since my last entry because I’ve been pretty busy with my master’s dissertation (which isn’t quite finished yet). In my thesis, I’ve been using Gordon Calleja’s Digital Game Experience Model to talk about instances of play and learning, and I can’t help consider my whole experience with Portal in relation to it. The framework describes involvement along six different frames (affective, narrative, spatial, tactical, performative and shared) that the player engages in on both short and long term levels. Basically, during certain instances of game-play, I was having a lot of trouble actualising my strategies (tactical) which seriously reduced my sense of agency within the performative frame and subsequently decreased my affective involvement (in terms of enjoyment). When this happened I would give up but in the longer term I was motivated to come back by my desire to prove my competence to other players (shared) and, to a lesser extent, to get to the end of the game story (narrative). By looking at walkthroughs I was also engaging in the tactical and shared frames outside of the moment of game-play since I was checking my strategies and using an online resource created by the game playing community – as opposed to cheating ;)

Now these frames can be experienced at the same time, and to a greater or lesser extent at different points within the same game but when they have been internalised to the point where the player no longer has to pay conscious attention to them, it can result in an experience Calleja calls “incorporation”. This is defined as: “the subjective experience of inhabiting a virtual environment facilitated by the potential to act meaningfully within it while being present to others” (p. 219; Calleja, 2007). And that is what I experienced during the final level. After my initial rushed attempts, I was finally familiar enough with the spatial (the setting), tactical (I knew what I had to do) and performative (I could actually carry out what I wanted to do) frames while I was getting the affective (in terms of graphics and sound), narrative (in terms of the story progressing) and shared (in terms of GLaDOS’ reactions) feedback I needed to experience that deep sense of involvement that seems unique to video games. As Calleja rightfully points out, this is more than just feeling like physically “immersed” within the environment, it is also about feeling like your actions have meaningful consequences within an environment that responds to you. It’s a pretty powerful feeling, and that’s my excuse for punching the air and shouting “yes!!!” when it all worked out in the end.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Cyprus and violent video games

Having grown up in Cyprus I wasn't too surprised to hear that there are no actual laws in place that regulate the selling of video games. So I did think it is a good thing when I read in the Cyprus mail that the government is planning on introducing some legislation to address this issue. However, when I read the sorts of things Tasos Mitsopoulos and Athena Kyriakidou were quoted as saying about games I couldn't help get that familiar sinking feeling I get when most politicians talk about video games. Because what they are talking about is the need to ban games like GTA, which apparently teach children how to steal cars (like it teaches you to hot wire them or something). They also refer to the sorts of games that they seem to think have been "scientifically proven" to link to the teenage rampages in America, such as at Virginia Tech. However, as GamePolitics.com rightly points out, this is not really the best example to use since the shooter, Seung Hui Cho, was 23 years old - so hardly an impressionable child who tried to "copy" what he saw in video games. GamePolitics.com also draws our attention to the fact that Cho did not even play violent video games.
Look, I don't deny that games have an affect on people. I wouldn't be interested their potential for education if I didn't think they could teach you something. But I don't agree that the link between video games and violence has been scientifically proven and I do think that most people know that how they behave in a game is not how they should behave when they put the controller down. The debate about this has been going on for years, and I have no intention of trying to resolve it here. If you want to know more I suggest you try and look at both sides of the argument - for an 'anti' stance check out C.A. Anderson's site; for a more balanced view try something like "Grand Theft Childhood" or even the UK government funded Byron Review. All I can ask is that if Cyprus is one of the few countries that has no restrictions on games and there is a definite causal link between the playing violent games and violence in the real world, then why are my memories of having a safe childhood and adolescence with lots of freedom not marred by any evidence of this? Could it be possible, even if there is some sort of link, that it might just be a tiny part of a much larger and complex set of problems? And maybe playing violent games is a symptom of these problems rather than a cause? Let's face it, most of the people who play the types of games that politicians seem worried about do not go on to commit violent acts, so something else must be going on with the people that do.
At the end of the day I do agree that games like Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto 4 are not for children so I have no problem with the idea that Cyprus should have some sort of legislation in place that prevents the selling of such titles to minors. But I am getting really fed up of politicians who talk about banning video games they haven't even played and talking about a subject they know little about. Further, while we're starting to see articles about the positive effects of gaming, something tells me it's going to be a while before I see anything like this coming from back home.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Writing in Games

I was in London last week for NMK's Writing for Games Event and while the event was interesting in and of itself, it's also got me thinking about the relationship between narrative and game play. The panel was pretty cool, consisting of Katie Ellwood, (who worked on Getaway franchise), Steve Ince (who worked on the BAFTA nominated Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon), Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman (who were both involved in Perplex City, an ARG, with Adrian as designer and producer and Naomi as a writer) and it was fascinating to hear about their different experiences. It did seem like the event was aimed more at people who were looking to break into the games industry as writers, such as Justin who I sat next too and had quite an interesting chat with afterwards. While becoming a games writer is not something I've ever really considered, I do feel I came away with a better idea about the part writing plays in the game design process.

There were a couple of things that struck me. One, was that most of the panel seemed to fall into the roles they had as a result of meeting the right person at the right time. It seems there is no direct or obvious career path, which is possibly why many writers have a background in fiction writing or TV and film. Two, was that the design process seems to very much depend on the team you find yourself in and that there can be a fair bit of tension between game designers and game writers. It was suggested that if you can get the design team and writing team to agree you're probably on to a very good thing but it also sounded like this could be quite hard to do in practice... Especially when the writing is usually seen as secondary to the game.

This seems kind of similar to the idea that narrative can get in the way of the game play. I've been playing GTA4 a bit recently, which I think I enjoy less than I should because I get bored at all the driving around you have to do (and I guess because I'm just not very good good at all that driving). But as usual, I tended to skip over the bits of the story. Maybe I'm just impatient, but I wanted to do something, not have to listen to Roman complain about his debts or go on about his girlfriend Mallorie. What's good is that you can skip these bits, and still know what you're supposed to be doing. However, it just might be possible that I'm just not taking them seriously enough. I mean I wanted to see what the game was like, but it's huge and I don't want to get sucked into playing it so maybe I avoid the story to avoid any further involvement? There are still plenty of games though were you feel like the story is getting in the way of your game play e.g. Trauma Centre: Second Opinion's endless storyboarding and the rather long intro scenes of Prince of Persia: Rival Swords for instance.

Ideally, there should be no conflict between the game story and the game play. One should inform the other, and any cut scenes you have to watch should be integral to the game itself, and to be fair, I think most games do aim for this. Arguably, the writing gives the game a context that makes playing it a richer experience. But games aren't movies intended for a passive audience - they are supposed to be interactive and maybe that's why gamers seem to resent extended cut scenes. There have been rumours that the latest Metal Gear Solid has 90 minute cut scenes in it, and while this is an exaggeration, without the passion for and knowledge of the series that some players have, I find it hard to imagine I could interpret this sort of thing as anything other than an incredibly lengthy intrusion into my game playing.

Maybe it's because writers in the games industry are using ideas from areas such as film and theatre and these just don't work as well when the goal is an interactive experience. I would think that this could be where a lot of educational games fail - I mean it would seem that the most likely place to introduce learning content would be the include it in the narrative, but if gamers skip over these bits, it's unlikely to be a very effective strategy. I doubt games will ever be able to deliver much content but they have other strengths. After reading books by people like James Paul Gee and Ian Bogost, I'm starting to think that what games do well is to provide you with a set of experiences, and if these are meaningful experiences, then maybe that's where the potential for learning through games lies. I guess the next thing to ask is what exactly is a meaningful experience and how can (or do) digital games provide them?

Friday, 6 June 2008

A bit of a rant about controllers and peripherals

Chris Plante posted an article called "Problematic Peripherals" about all the extra kit that seems to come along with games these days. He's got a point - where exactly are you supposed to find space to put it all? And what sort of place are you supposed to be living in to have space to play things like Wii Fit or god forbid, Rock Band?

For the Wii alone I seem to have collected two wimmotes and nunchucks, at least one plastic guitar (two if you count the one I've borrowed from the department), a Mario Kart steering wheel and four GameCube controllers (that I seem to have acquired on long term loan). The funny thing about Mario Kart is that I found the the steering wheel to be the most difficult choice of controller. Playing it with a group of friends the other week, it seemed like the more traditional GameCube controllers were easiest, though one us seemed quite happy using the Wiimote and nunchuck combination. Maybe it's because the older controllers are just the ones I've had more experience with, but it still seems a little odd that the option that appeared to be the most intuitive, wasn't in practice. I just don't get what the advantage was supposed to be, and considering it's essentially a bit of plastic you just stick the Wiimote in, I'm not going to be buying any extra ones for my friends.

You see, besides the issue of where you are supposed to store all this equipment, it's also worth asking how you are supposed to pay for all of it? Nintendo are really pushing their periperals - for the Wii, you can get a Sharp shooter, a Light Sword and tennis rackets to name but a few. With things like the Zapper that comes with Link's Crossbow training, it's not even clear whether you'll be able to use the peripheral for anything else. Further, it's a little confusing which controllers you can use with what games as there is also the Classic Controller and the option to download retro games through the Virtual Console.

As consumers, are we really expected to buy every add on we can get? I think what really annoys me about the whole thing is how much emphasis companies like Nintendo have placed recently on the social side of gaming but at the same time they only provide one set of controllers. Plus, it's not exactly cheap get the set of four (don't forget you need a Wiimote and a Nunchuck) that would allow you to take full advantage of multi-player gaming. I'm pretty sure the same is true of the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well. Anybody else remember the days when you could buy a Sega MegaDrive with two control pads?

Monday, 26 May 2008

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One (PC)

Ok so I'm not sure if this counts as a seventh generation game as such, but it has only just been released and I did really enjoy playing it so I'm going to write about it.

Created by Mike 'Gabe' Krahulik and Jerry 'Tycho' Holkins from Penny Arcade, in conjunction with Hothead Games, On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness allows you to enter the 1920s world of New Arcadia. After a bit of a random intro sequence where your house is crushed by a giant robot, you get to join Tycho and Gabe as part of their Startling Detective agency in order to figure out just what is going on. Then you're off of on an adventure involving Tycho's niece Anne Claire (who has been recast from the comics as some sort of scientific/engineering genius), battling various hobos, robotic 'Fruit Fuckers', clowns, mime's and barber shop quartets with your trusty rake, exploring Desperation St, Hobo Alley and Pelican Bay on a quest that will ultimately involve destroying a god.

It's all a bit random and thoroughly enjoyable because of it. It reminded me of when I used to play Lucas Arts games like the Monkey Island series, and Grim Fandango, which is not surprising given Ron Gilbert's involvement in the project (he helped create the first two Monkey Island games). Partly this was due to the look and feel of it, but also because the game has a sense of humour. It's funny in that 'it makes you smile' kind of way because it treats you as someone who gets the joke. Maybe it helps to be familiar with the characters from the web-comic, or the tongue in cheek humour of Monkey Island but I'd like to think most people would appreciate this is not a serious adventure game. It seems that some of this will depend on whether you do get the in-jokes or not, which in turn depends on what knowledge you bring into the game in the first place. I wonder whether the role of humour has been examined with respect to games and learning? Is it really just another way of making things fun or does it have a more fundamental role to play?

Another familiar aspect of the game was it's player friendly design. It's very hard to die, but if you do the consequences are pretty much negligible. Plus, you can save whenever you like. The combat scenes may seem a little confusing at first, especially getting the hang of each character's special moves, but you quickly get used to the turn based combat and rolling of the 12 sided dice, and start to enjoy the amusing fight sequences that often ensue. Oh, and you can pick up various exploding items, power ups and downs during your travels that can aid you during a fight. Then there is the Detective Agency screen where you can examine case logs, check your inventory and look at the files which contain info on pretty much everyone in the game.

The language in the game - fighting Fruit Fucker robots and looking for somewhere to live in the Shithole - and it's M rating makes it clear has not been aimed at a young audience. There are also pools of blood in certain areas, and a subplot involving the selling of hobo meat to a charity worker (which sounds a lot darker than it is and the hobos attacked us first - honest!). However, it's not supposed to be a disturbing game, so you also get mime's fight moves like 'pretending to throw a grenade' and clown's blood that looks like paint, which means you get fight scenes that end up looking like an over enthusiastic round of paintball. The humour might be a little dark in places, but I guess I quite like that.

Most of the time you do feel like you are running around inside a 1920s comic book world of robots, the occult, while meeting some very odd individuals in the process. The look and feel of the Penny Arcade comics are especially preserved by the polished cut scenes. But there were a few glitches that need addressing. There were silly things, like the fact one of my eyebrows always appeared in front of my hair in the cut scenes. There were also more annoying things like needing to click on an object three times before my character would actually go to it. Then there was the most annoying thing ever - during the final battle, if you called the cat (T. Kemper from the comic) to perform a supporting character attack, the game crashes and you have to start the battle again. So I hope they figure this sort of stuff out by the next installment.

See the other thing about the On the Rain Slick, is that it is an episodic game. That means it's short. Short enough, and entertaining enough, for me to finish within a few days. There is something about this that appeals to me as it means the game is broken down into distinct yet manageable chunks which I stand a chance of completing. However, it will probably end up costing me more as I will have to buy and download the rest of the episodes from Greenhouse Studios. Worst of all though, I now have to wait four months for episode two.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Endless Ocean (Wii)

I've recently had a look at Endless Ocean on the Wii, and it's proved to be an interesting change. First off, it manages to put you into some sort of trance like state by making you feel like you could actually be underwater (whilst somehow managing to keep dry). The graphics are obviously key to this experience (and perhaps playing it on a 32inch TV) but I think the music is quite important too. Tycho from Penny Arcade puts it well when he writes: "The rhythm of the scuba gear itself is sufficiently hypnotic, but they offer up musical selections in parallel: there is a warbling sea witch in this game whose voice can drown men. When we dive, I believe we dive in search of her." As you progress in the game, you can unlock further similar tracks but you can also play music of your own from an SD card you can plug into the Wii. It is probably best to find something more chilled out to swim around too though as the game is so relaxed it might be a bit disconcerting to have Arctic Monkeys or something in the background.

It's also different because I'm not sure what the goal is. You seem to get to dive and swim around and poke fish, a lot. I've also managed to become a freelance photographer, get hold of an underwater pen, and make a dolphin my diving partner, who I have (very originally) called Ecco. This might sound busy, but it's not really. It's all the less stressful because there is no competition, no an enemy to fight, no point system as such or and there's not even a time limit. Of course there is a story line - I've been hired as some sort of researcher/diving guide to work on a boat with this lady called Catherine who can't swim and seems to have some sort of issue with her father (I caught her making apologies to him while staring out to sea), but it doesn't seem very important. At the end of the day I can choose whether to take people on tours or not and I seem to be able to decide where I want to go, with a few hints from Catherine about where might be interesting. There are also hints of legends about caves and the like but at the end of the day I can just sit on the deck and watch the sea.

Admittedly all this relaxing gets a little boring so it is quite nice to go on dives. You can catalog all the sea creatures you find by following them aroun and you seem to be able to find stuff out quicker if you feed, poke or stroke them. That's one of the ways you seem to progress in the game, by discovering new species. The other indicators are: adding more information to existing species, exploring new areas on the map, and feedback concerning you guided dives. For my last diving tour I got an A, I think because I actually managed to find the fish the client wanted to see. But it's still all very relaxed. There is the occasional moment of frustration though when waving the Wiimote doesn't quite get your avatar to do what you were expecting it to do. Plus, I'm not sure whether I've forgotten the controls for looking more closely at something and picking up objects, or if there are just some things I have to wait to be unlocked before I can do so.

You'd think I might have learnt a bit more about different kinds of life underwater but I'm not sure I have. I don't really read the information I gather, and very little of it seems to stick. That said, I never knew there was such a thing as a False Killer Whale but apparently there is. In fact, the information you get is rather like skimming through an article in wikipedia and then forgetting all about it. I'm not sure about this poking and stroking fish thing either. I mean, is that really the best strategy to use when faced with a species you've never encountered before? Especially when it looks like something that might want to bite or poison you. It seems impossible to die in this game as you don't even seem to be able to run out of oxygen. Not that I want to die, but it seems odd there is no element of risk at all. Maybe it's just a result of playing other games, but I can't help expecting something bad to happen at some point.

I find it interesting that I care about things like the feedback I got from a dive, and how many creatures I've found, but that I don't really care about what I've actually found out about them. I also don't care about Catherine's relationship with her father (for all I know she blames him for never teaching her to swim). I do think the game engages me emotionally, but only when I'm actually diving. So when I'm swimming underwater, the music is playing and there are pretty fish and coral to look, it feels good. It's a nice change from trying to kill all the baddies and trying to improve your performance all the time. Though you can get a bit of a shock bumping into a particularly ugly fish, or something large like a manatee. I don't think that feeling of being immersed under water is the same as experiencing of flow though, mainly because the game seems to lack any real sense of challenge. So, I doubt I'm going to be playing much more of it as I'm just not sure what I'm getting out of it, and trying to discover every single species doesn't seem enough to keep me playing on the off chance that something else will happen.

Monday, 24 March 2008

An awful lot of gameplay and a few thoughts

I've been playing quite of different games lately and have been struck by a couple of things. The first concerns the fact that I haven't actually gotten round to finishing any of them. Which links in quite nicely with Leigh Alexander's article on "Completion Anxiety Disoder" where she considers the reasons why people don't seem to end up completing many of the games they actually have. She covers lots of practical reasons like not having enough time, and games being too difficult/easy or not interesting enough and then ends up suggesting a further reason; that players sometimes just don't want the game to end. Now it's a pretty interesting article in itself, but when you think about it in terms of how this relates to the educational potential of games it raises a couple of interesting issues. I mean lets assume we're talking about good games here, the ones that do get the challenges right and manage to maintain our interest, she's still basically saying that even when the motivation to play is there, people don't actually want to finish what they started. This would mean an end to the game-play experience and so instead it appears better to just avoid playing. So, if we're thinking about games as learning environments, then doesn't that mean that those playing won't get the 'complete' learning experience? Maybe this is only an issue if you think about learning in terms of delivering content and achieving outcomes? Or maybe it's just an odd claim to make, especially when you think about comparing it to not finishing a book or a film. In those cases, the only times I don't are when I'm not enjoying the experience - if I really enjoy it then I usually end up reading/watching it again, rather than trying to avoid the ending all together.

The other thing I've been thinking about has to do with playing Guitar Hero III and how frustrated I got with it when trying to beat Slash in a guitar battle and I couldn't. It really pissed me off. Which didn't exaclty help me when trying to concentrate on getting the notes right, so after suppressing the somewhat rock star urge to smash the tv with the Les Paul controller, I turned if off. Don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy playing and still do - I think it's been a while since I've really felt that sort pure sensation of 'flow' - but only when I'm good at it. It made me think though about all the things I've been reading about learning and fun. I kind of realised that I'd forgotten that just because you enjoy learning something doesn't mean that it's easy. I suppose the point of the story is that I did go back and beat Slash, which felt good, and so I'm still playing it. But if I want to be really good at Guitar Hero, it looks like I might actually need to take the practice mode seriously (where you can practice the songs you unlock outside of career mode). I just can't help feeling that if I'm going to do that, then maybe I'd be better off picking up the rather dusty bass guitar I got a couple of years ago and practice on that instead so I can learn to actually play along to the all songs I've been enjoying in the game.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Wii)

I borrowed Lego Star Wars from Lovefilm a little while ago and have been really getting into it. I did have a slightly rocky start as it took me a little while to realise that the cantina I started in wasn't a proper level even though you could explore it and start fights with people. I eventually found the set of doors where you get to pick which part of the saga (i.e. episodes 1-6) you want to play. While not having a manual probably contributed to my initial confusion, it wasn't a problem in terms of the controls as I found it was very easy to pick up them up. One of my favourite discoveries was being able to use the z button to build stuff out of seemingly random bits of Lego, and finding out I could "use the force" on objects and characters with a blue glow around them. Plus, if your character has a sword you can swing the Wiimote to use it.

The initial appeal of the game I think for me was how it manages to combine two very familiar things in an entertaining way. Lego Star Wars looks good. I was walking past the Lego store in town the other day and I actually thougth about buying something. Plus, I know these films, especially the ones I watched as a kid, so I don't need to hear the dialogue to know what's going on in the story. It's far more enjoyable to see the Lego characters mumble and shrug while they act out classic scenes. Even better, you seem to get to be able to play all the characters at some point, unlocking more as you go on. While you can swap between a certain set in each level e.g. Obi Wan, Luke, C3PO and R2D2 in some of the earlier ones, once you've completed the challenges you can go back with any unlocked character and do the level again in free play mode. In fact, if you want to unlock hidden areas and collect everything it looks like you have to go through them all again. I wonder if this is enough incentive to do so?

That is one of the things that struck me about the game - it really feels like it's about collecting stuff. I mean of course there is the Star Wars plot and the associated challenges (rescue the girl, kill the baddies, save the world etc) but the game is really arranged around how much of what you collect and whether you have achieved "True Jedi" status on every level. I mean it was obvious from the start that you should collecting the large numbers of gold, silver and occasionaly blue studs - which are either lying around or you get from building/destroying/using the force on object. What is more interesting though is that I wanted to collect them, and collect them all if I could. I mean there are hundreds of these things, and when you destroy somethinng they fly out at you and you don't always have enough time to collect them all (which is a little annoying especially when they also spill over a ledge you can't jump down). At first I thought you needed them to buy things at the cantina. Then when I started episode one I noticed the bar at the top which started to fill up the more studs I collected. If you get enough you achieve "True Jedi" status. I still don't quite know what that means but you get a little tick at the end of the chapter if you achieve it. Td how many of the golden bricks, and mini-kits you have found and how many are left for you to discover. And I want them all, even though I'm not sure what happens if and when I manage to do so. Part of the incentive is that further aspects of the game will be unlocked in the process but I doubt that if I did manage to collect everything the outcome would be as exciting as I feel it should be. The main point though, is that the way the game has been designed means it's not just about getting to the end of each level, but it's also about exploring the entire game to unlock each section.

It's a little similar to playing Super Mario Galaxy and having the desire to collect all the star bits. I was talking to Will the other day and we agreed that we hate it when we're watching someone else play and they don't collect really obvious ones. I can't help thinking that this collecting aspect means Lego Star Wars comes across as more of platform game than an action adventure one. For example, in Zelda you do collect gems but the purpose of them is so you can buy other things that are useful to your adventures like better armour and weapons, or oil for your lantern. In contrast, in the Sonic and Mario games you collect gold (rings and coins respectively) but just to see how many you can get. Things like star bits, studs or gold coins aren't even power ups as such, at least not until you collect enough of them and get an extra life or something. Is that enough of an incentive to explain the drive to pick them all up? Something else seems to be going on here but I'm not sure what.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Why people play games

I found this a little while ago:


It struck me as interesting because it suggests that what is we find 'fun' about games is the learning process we engage in when we play them and the opportunities they give us to see the results of our efforts. The article implies that people actually enjoy learning; something that seems similar to what Papert is referring to in his introduction to Mindstorms when he talks about falling in love with gears. So, instead of thinking about games in terms of how we can 'make learning fun' by 'harnessing their motivational power' (c.f. Futurelab review), maybe we should be thinking about them as successful learning environments which can be compared to areas of education that aren't.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Co-located play (or Playing games in the same room with friends)

I've been thinking a bit lately by how social games have become. I mean, they've always had a social side, but they've become a lot more socially 'acceptable' over the last few years. And I don't just mean the rise of the MMORPG, like World of Warcraft, but the more traditional inviting people round to play. I know with respect to the Wii, the novelty factor is responsible in part for this curiosity, but can it last? Can the Wii introduce people to gaming and keep them interested?

I was playing a couple of games at my sister Katerina's over the weekend. She's never been seriously into games but enjoys playing them with people. One of the games we looked at was Super Mario Galaxy. I wanted to try out the co-star mode where you have one player playing Mario, and the other acting as some sort of helper, and we took turns in different roles. The second player uses the Wiimote to do things like collect and shoot star bits, freeze enemies, make Mario jump higher etc but you don't actually play a second character (like in Sonic 3 on the Mega Drive for instance, where you can play Tails ). I didn't mind being the 'co-star' as it was pretty interesting trying to anticipate what player 1 was going to do next and figuring out how you could help out. Plus, I'm sure there were a couple of points where my actions e.g. freezing an enemy mushroom, dictated what player 1 actually did do next. In contrast, my sister got a little bored after a while. We only played the first couple of levels, so it's possible it would have got more interesting as the levels got more complex. Meanwhile the endless storyboarding at the start of the game (which you unfortunately can't skip) probably didn't help either. Nevertheless, I can see how you could get bored just pointing the Wii remote at the screen for hours, while someone else actually gets to play the game.

We also played EA Playground, a game that revolves around a number of different playground games e.g. dodge ball, track car racing, tether ball etc. There were three of us playing but we only had two Wii remotes, so we ended up taking turns. It would have been interesting to see how the games would have dealt with more than two players, as I'm not sure they all could. There was a bit of a learning curve as each game had it's own set of instructions that we had to read through, but since there was some crossover between games it wasn't too bad. What was annoying was the tiny writing the instructions were displayed in. One of the things we noticed while playing was how in some games e.g. tether ball, you could quite easily strain your arm. Ok, so part of this is due to getting a bit excited waving the Wii remote around (which also tends to something getting knocked over) but it must have something to do with the feedback from the game. This came up in a meeting with my supervisors a little while ago when we were talking about Wii Sports (the gameplay in Playground is pretty similar to this). We talked about how the feedback from the remote is not the same as you get in real life when performing the same actions. The fact that you don't 'feel' the ball when you hit it seems to make you more likely to try and hit it harder. Since there isn't actually anything there, you just end up straining yourself. If the Wii is trying to tap into 'natural' movement, this could end up confusing the learning process when you realise it's not quite the same as in real life.

We did enjoy playing Playground though and I reckon this was because it is set up as a number of different competitions. You can play in the same team for some of the games, but the goal is still to win. Super Mario Galaxy requires a lot more investment in terms of time, and is not so easy to dip in and out of. So for what we wanted - to spend an hour or two playing games - we were much better off with something like Playground where we could try out different games that were relatively short and had clear cut goals for each of them. I think it might be quite difficult to find a dedicated co-star to play Mario with over long periods of time. In contrast, the single player mode in Mario is probably a lot more interesting. Though kids can play both games, EA Playground comes acorss as a bit more simplistic and with less to explore than in Super Mario Galaxy.

I guess it partly comes down to what you want to play games for and to everyones' personal preferences. It seems to be the case that when it comes to playing a game with a group of people, you don't want something with a high learning curve that requires a lot of investment. What seems more popular are games where you can compete against each other, or a computer controlled team, and that you can play in short bursts (or longer if you so choose). So far, the Wii seems to be catering for both the dedicated single player and the more casual group of multi-players.