Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stone dead

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I met my hero the other night. My excitement was bowed a bit by the fact that he was dead, and turned out to be a bit of a moaner, but only a bit. Even odder was the fact that until I'd met him, I'd never even heard of him. But, after one rambling, ghostly conversation, I realised I was his biggest fan.

Franclorn Forgewright is the greatest architect in all of Azeroth, responsible for the immense doors of Blackrock Depths and who knows how many other pieces of monumental masonry across the world of WarCraft. It was all I could do not to ask for his autograph. My bovine roots may mean I spend a lot of my time in elaborate yurts and bone-stitched tepees, but not even my hatred of the Alliance can dent my admiration of Ironforge and Stormwind. To meet the man who devised these stone-wrought colossi was something I never though a humble druid from Mulgore would get to do. His cities are as much machines as homes, as much statues as settlements, radiating history, hostility and grandeur. And so what was I ever going to say to his request for help but 'yes'? Allowing that 'For the Horde!' didn't really seem appropriate.

And that means it's the first quest in who knows how long I've given a damn about in WoW. I don't read the preambles, only the instructions. I still don't really know why we're at war, especially since Mulgore seems a haven of peace and plenty and not much troubled by scourges. I feel no sense of allegiance to Thrall, and I only hate the Alliance because they fanny around so hopelessly in Warsong Gulch. My commitment to the game has always been about the setting, not the story, until all of a sudden the setting became the story and I felt I owed this man - this grumpy ghost of my enemy - a debt of honour as real as I've owed to any human player. At a time when there's so much talk of story in games, it properly baffles me that the debate remains fixated on dialogue and character design when good games have known for years that architecture is the best narrator you could ever hope for, reading from a script that never tires.

So while I know it's really Chris Metzen or Bill Petras or Justin Thavirat I should be chasing with my autograph book, I'm going to stick with directing my gratitude to Franclorn Forgewright. Not least because he's a lot more likely to give me rare epix! in return. Thanks, Franc. Thancs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey see not monkey do

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Last night there was a fight in my house. Well, not so much a fight as a pretty brutal piece of abuse. One guy decided to show his chops by terrorising this girl. He got his cronies to pin her down and started taunting her that he was going to cut her tongue out. Someone had even found some tongs, and they were grabbing her head, forcing their fingers into her mouth, trying to grab at her tongue so they could get a grip on it. He was laughing and miming like he had a pair of scissors. She was screaming, trying to not scream, trying to keep her mouth closed as the men pried and pulled at her jaw. It was horrifying.

It wasn’t real, of course, but it was in my house. It was a trailer for BBC1’s new feelgood Robin Hood drama. The man was everyone’s favourite lovable rogue Keith Allen, and tongs were quickly knocked out of his thug’s hand by an arrow from our hero in Lincoln green. The trailer didn’t give the ending away, but I’m pretty sure the rescued girl, now flush with desire rather than terror, will have offered rakish Robin a kiss for his trouble. Probably not French, under the circumstances.

I’ve spent the week booting people in the nuts in God Hand, causing mass extinctions in Un Goro crater and executing armies of goons in Scarface, and this was still by far the most violent thing I’d seen. And that’s fairly common. Flick on the telly mid-evening and it’s very likely that you’ll be thrown straight in to some voyeuristic rape courtesy of Robson Green’s dismal Wire In The Blood, or some cockle-warming domestic violence round Albert Square. But that colossal discrepancy is appropriate, right? Because TV is passive, and games are participatory, so it’s only reasonable that we have standards with such a gulf between them that calling them ‘double’ is a joke in itself.

I’m not so sure. What changed my mind was the scene in Syriana where George Clooney has his fingernail ripped out by a horrified torturer. Watching it in the safety of my bedroom, the appalling violence of it physically propelled me to my feet. I instinctively hit the mute button, stepping away from the screen to distance myself from his pain and terror. Even in hindsight – and it’s months ago now – it makes my throat close. In fact, in hindsight it’s even worse because I now know he chipped his spine when filming the scene, so his spasms of pain were genuine. It made the idea that this was supposed to have less of an effect on me because I wasn’t an active participant seem bizarre.

It’s bizarre because, watching Syriana, there’s nothing to tell me this isn’t really happening, no physical cues to prove it’s fictional. The camera-work is intrusive and intimate. Your point of view is trapped in the room, watching everything. In the film, your role is that of an observer; and in reality you’re an observer too, shifting in your seat as uneasily as the camera shifts round the scene. There is nothing physical to tell you this square of light in front of you isn’t a window – a weird periscope which starts in your house and finishes in an air-duct in the wall of a real room where real people are torn open with pliers. I may intellectually know that George Clooney isn’t really a CIA agent, and that this square of light means something different from the square of light in the wall through which I can see rowdy students get kicked in the stomach by angry taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning, but you have to agree it’s a fairly esoteric distinction.

But in a game, you have a constant feedback that this it isn’t real. In order for someone to get booted in the nuts, you have to press the boot-in-nuts button, and the very act of doing that proves that this isn’t real. The screen may show you that’s what happening, but you know as a matter of physical, verifiable fact that it isn’t. You’re wearing slippers and drinking some coffee that’s gone a bit cold, not killing a man with your fists.

The real answer for the double standards, of course, is that after 50 years of TV we’ve accepted, as a society, that screen-violence doesn’t have a direct or decided effect on people’s behaviour. Whether that’s true or not, and whether or not the question of its insidious influence isn’t taken seriously enough is up for grabs, of course. But the collective decision was taken some years ago that that time I came home and found myself, unannounced, trapped in an MRI scanner inches away from the bursting, bleeding eye of a man being cooked alive by a psychotic lab technician who’d turned the whole thing up to 11 has done me no harm at all. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in another 50 years, we realised it was game violence that was the safe stuff?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Story Of Oh

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I was showing a friend the opening of Final Fantasy XII today (having forgotten what an amazingly pretty downer that is - ten minutes in and he's dead, she's dead, he's killed him and him, and the evil empire that killed your parents has actually stamped on your flowers) and it made me realise why stories in games will always be rubbish.

It's not the old interactivity-vs-narrative problem - although I'm still convinced that they remain the opposite ends of an increasingly threadbare piece of string - it's this: game stories have to rationalise the fact that every single thing in the world revolves around you. You are the person the shops were built for, the crates stacked for, the mines laid for. You're who the girls wait for, the enemies spawn for and the NPCs patrol for. Sure, games like Oblivion work pretty hard to convince you that it all goes on even when you're not around, but at best it feels like Westworld - an eerie bonhomie that only fools you if you want it to.

Any story in which only one person can be the agent of change is always likely to feel trite. It's a fairytale pattern, whether that person is fairly fairyish (Link) or not at all (Doomguy). It's why saving the world is still the main occupation in any game where you don't have a football or an Enzo. How could anything less be possibly be expected of you if you're the person the world revolves around? It would be churlish not to. The stories in films and books uusually revolve around a powerless person scraping together enough potency to make a big dramatic change - whether it's dying gracefully, or usurping a vicious drill sergeant, or organising a really good batchelor party. And if the heroes are presidents, superheroes or single-mothers-with-unstoppable-guts-and-integrity, then the story is the recognition and defeat of their *actual* weakness, which usually turns out to be Gerald Depardieu or hydrophobia or something equally lame. But in games, even if you start with a weedy pistol, or 10HP, you're still the most powerful - often the only powerful - person in the world. And that gives you two big problems: first, it means that it's very hard for game stories not to be hyperbolic, and second, it makes it very hard for them not all to be the same. The set-dressing may change from sci-fi to fantasy to WWII (although not much further) and the telling may change from the perfunctory to the inept to the elegant, but can you name three games that tell a story which isn't about someone who saves the world by doing the same few things over and over?

Actually - I can. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. How about that?

Saturday, September 30, 2006

How To Be Good At Games

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I'm not very good at Halo. Decent, but not good. Watching really, really good people play always leaves me a bit green and so, while trying to make the whole thing as un-Karate Kid as possible, I always ask them what their secret is. Here's the best answer I've ever had:

Go to where the people are, and kill them.

That, right there, is the only strategy you need to unlock about 80% of your Halo potential, and it holds for pretty much any other game where there are people and killings. It doesn't matter how well you know a level, how often you can snag the best spawn, how sneakily you can tag on a plasma grenade, if you don't have people on your screen, you're not going to get kills.

And then I noticed another thing. Despite the fact that my scores are woeful in comparison, my accuracy is much higher than his - but my shots fired is much lower. It made me realise that because I think I'm not very good at Halo, I make myself worse at it by trying to be better (I guess the Karate Kid thing is unavoidable). I faff around trying to manufacture a competitive advantage by finding a good ambush spot or trekking off for the best weapon. And when I do face off with someone, I'm so determined to try to be a better shot that I shoot far less.

It's all part of a phenomenon which I saw Saurian - a UK gamer with a reputation of general brilliance - sum up very succinctly with respect to God Hand:

I ain't a legend! The only difference with me is this;

Game pwns average gamer on a forum "FUCK THIS GAME!!! It'S SO RUBBISH!!1" *throws game out of the pushchair*

Game pwns Saur "Oh man - I'M so rubbish!!" *obsessively plays to get better*

And that's it, right there. When I play a game and do badly, it pisses me off, so I stop having fun, start getting crampy and end up playing it less. When the people I think of as seriously good at games do badly - they settle in, and enjoy the process of taming it. Which means, horribly, that Peter Moore was right: there is a zen of gaming, and Bungie are my bodhisattvas.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I'm assuming strawberry

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You've got a "smart yoghurt" by about 2025, and we did the calculations, and we reckon that it's possible to make a yoghurt with roughly the same processing power as the entire European population.

And he's entirely serious. I particularly like how he says 'a yoghurt', as though he's thinking of a little pot of St Ivel Shape, with an info box showing calories, carbs, protein and IQ.

Other than being worryingly full of low-fat sci-fi and low-rent analogies, Ian Pearson's view of what will happen next, formed as part of his work as a futurologist for BT, hits on one interesting note: what happens if the power of PlayStation is used not for finding a cure for cancer, but for finding the password to your bank account?

It is getting to the point now where the next generation of games consoles have one percent of the processing power that your head's got. If you connect those together, and they are designed to be connected together from the ground up, then you have the capability to link millions of consoles together, and since people don't care about security very much on those sorts of platforms, they are absolutely ideal networks to be made into zombie machines. If that happens, you can leverage all that computing power to try and decrypt messages to try and hack into bank accounts, and use all of that power to launch enormously powerful denial of service attacks, which can't happen today because they don't have enough computing power.

When the Xbox launched, the air was full of dire prognostications about how wrong it would all go when your drive needed defragmentation, yet I've seen very little about what might go wrong when you plug your Wii or PS3 into the unrestricted internet. I'm not the right kind of geek to know how resilient the PS3's Linux-based OS will be to viruses, or how much proprietory protection Nintendo's systems give the Wii, but you don't need the brains of a yoghurt to see that both must be big, fat tempting targets for those who amuse themselves by spoiling other people's fun.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Google folds

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I've just noticed that Google has embraced The ESP Game, which you may remember from prehistoric days. You can play Google's version here, but if you can't be bothered, the long and short of it is that it's an extremely rudimentary game which gets pairs of players to co-operate to agree on tags which describe images they're shown at random.

I don't know how long the Google version has been running, but the highest scorer, currently jessicapierce, is sitting on a cool 20389900 points, which, through some highly spurious voodoo-arithmetic, I estimate to represent just over 15 days continuous play. That means she (or he) has spent 45 working days plugging away at this thing. Which nine working weeks, which is two and a bit months, which is enough to make you cry sand. All just to improve Google's image search results and therefore increase its competitive advantage. I hope she's got shares.

It's interesting for about a thousand reasons. One is that it's more evidence for the fact that Google as a company is beginning to get its head around the potential of games (an idea we covered in a recent issue of Edge). Another is my consistent amazement at how even the crappiest of games are capable of exerting a hypnotic pull on their players. World Of WarCraft is taking all the flack at the moment for being addictive, but it's amazing how rarely people talk about games like Bejewelled and Weboggle (on which, at least, Tracie-Greacie's 24-7 reign of vocabulorational terror seems to be over) and the frightening number of hours players can rack up on them. The games industry doesn't seem to have quite got its head around the problem it's facing from the addiction scaremongers: whether or not games can properly be described as addictive, we're about the only vice that tracks, and then publicises, the total amount of time people spend indulging. Can you imagine the flack TV would have attracted if it had published the WatcherTags of the people who clocked in the most hours? If bars had internationally tabulated high-score tables? If Cadbury gave out S-Ranks for fastest consumption?

Like it or not, games make the mundane, the repetitive, and the joyless into narcotic, irresistible pleasures. When I'm grinding my healers in Disgaea 2, I know that what's going on is no different, computationally, than what our accounts department does every day. There's a spreadsheet underneath all those buxom valkyries and accident-prone Prinnies. I work my way through a stack of invoices (or enemies), alloting enough money (damage) to pay them off (death!). I pile up all my resources (characters) into one account (tower) in order to maximise the interest (EXP) I receive. Games, all in all, are just maths made palatable. Once employers realise this, there's no reason why all repetitive work couldn't be played for points.

But here's the thing. What if they've already realised? What if you're already doing their work by playing your games? Sony's made a big song and dance about taking serious advantage of the 'super-computer' they hope to put in your living-room. But what if, for PS4, the super-computer they really want to exploit is the one sitting on the sofa, not the one under the telly?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Six Things I Like About You

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Last night, a friend challeged me to sum up videogames in as few words as possible. 'As few words as possible' is not one of my strengths, so it was going to take a while, but it turned out to be moot, since he was only issuing the challenge as an opportunity to show off his own little epigram:
Japan does swords, America does guns
Turns out six words is exactly hard enough to be challenging, and easy enough to entertain the lazy:
Better than books; worse than telly
Miyamoto is god; Molyneux dreams it
Played too late, eyes feel scoured
Blocks, lasers, bullets, cars, balls, fists
From their brains, to our thumbs
On, think, press, tense, yell, off
Avoid Missing Ball For High Score (of course)
Fair warning, though: do it for too long and it infects your thinking.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Who do you wish did, who doesn't? (Pt 2)

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Finishing what I started below, here's the rest of my list of people I wish would take a side-step into game development.

Colin St John Wilson

He's not a man I know much about, but he designed a building I know very well: the British Library at St Pancras, in London. A lot of people loathe it - it's a bit too square and a bit too red, but as this book cover shows, the inside is a very different proposition. Wilson designed the interior with a lot of thought for the people who would use it - people who would come to the building every day, perhaps for years, and always with heads full of abstract information. Consequently, there are no obvious routes through its sun-bright atrium. Rather than forcing its visitors into a daily, identical trudge, Wilson wanted them to wander, to find short-cuts and distractions. And it works. Even when I was going there every day, I would find that my feet downright refused to settle into a pattern. Which meant that a man who I'd never met was using 400,000 tons worth of brick and glass to control my movements. Games are only just beginning to understand how they can use their architecture to tell their stories and manipulate their players, but I suspect it will take the input of people like Wilson to fully exploit it. Other things to like about the British Library include the five-story, inside-out, library-within-a-library, the thing that looks a bit like a sniper tower, and the fact that it's as useful for impressing your mother as it is for meeting girls.


This one's a bit of a cheat, because the musician known as Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) already makes games – or at least the sountracks for them, as anyone who's had the chance to chime hypnotically with Coloris can testify. But what makes it less of a cheat is that he's probably the only person on this list who'd stand a chance of actually making something you could play. His credentials, other than Coloris, are impeccable, in that his son is actually called Mario, and his (brilliant) videos make it pretty clear that he could give Minter, Mizuguchi and Iwai a run for their money. Especially since he doesn't have a weakness for yaks, The Black-Eyed Peas or improbably impratical musical instruments, and would be be guaranteed to involve monkeys somewhere along the line. He might need a bit of help on the character design front, though.

Men Of Science

This is definitely a cheat, but right now it's the one I'm most excited about. I would like (take note, any passing VC-samaritans looking to sink millions into a vanity project with a prospective market of one) these guys to make me a shmup. Look at that stuff! It's astonishing, and ten times as extraordinary as anything I've seen in a game all year. I want to streak over the surface of two m-plane sapphire substrates at 200 miles an hour, never mind 200x magnification. I want to bury quad-rocket charges into the spaghetti-genitalia of a Copepod lophoura - surely standing by to take the 'most phallic enemy since Xenon 2's foreskin plants' prize - and blast it to mush. I want to slice through the sky as cleanly as a microchannel for flow-stretching DNA. Who's with me? All we need is Treasure, a million dollars, and the phone-number for the guy who's got the Fantastic Voyage licence.

Who do you wish did, who doesn't?

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Gamers are all chronic wishaholics - the inevitable side-effect of having a hobby which is mostly about making the impossible possible. But, for some reason, they tend to be wishes of improvement or alteration: 'I wish Capcom would release Okami before Christmas', 'I wish there was more stuff to do in Just Cause', 'I wish Nintendo would sort out its Stars catalogue worldwide so I can stop feeling like a stamped-on snail every time I think of it.' What we don't do a lot of is blue-sky wishing. So, here's my list, on a blue-sky day, of who I wish made games, but doesn't.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka

He's a professor at the department of psychology at Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, and world leader in the design and study of optical illusions. Those of you who aren't already on the brink of a migraine may want to spend some time tickling the inside of their brains with the hundreds of examples posted at his site. And why do I wish he'd make games? Aesthetics, partly. I'm tired of the real, in a big way. For years the real was brown and grey - sludgy roads, porridgey buildings, pasty people. And I'm even tiring of the new real, which is mostly green (Far Cry, Just Cause, Test Drive etc.) I want the impossible, and unimagined and I want it to be packed with colour - and it seems Kitaoka is qualified on all three counts. And I'm sick of verb/object puzzles - doors that need keys, people that need information, switches that need pressing. How about some persistence of vision puzzles? How about enemies who use visual anomalies as camouflage?

Mark Dunn

He's a writer and playwright (not long, I guess, before that gets bastardised down to 'playwrite'), best known for Ella Minnow Pea, initially introduced as a A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, but itself bastardised down to A Novel Without Letters. It's set on the island where the phrase 'the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' was first discovered, and documents what happens as successive letters of the alphabet are banned by a totalitarian and fusspot government. It's a puzzle book, partly for Mark Dunn who has fewer and fewer letters to work with in each successive chapter, and partly for the readers, who are co-opted into the islander's desperate hunt for a replacement phrase for the rapidly disappearing brown fox. It's an enormouly playful book, as well as a cracking read (the climax is so satisfying it made me accidentally holler in triumph on a flight to the US, back in the balmy days when such behaviour didn't get you arrested), and it shows there's a different way to make games out of words than the narrative-led, conversation-driven techniques of things like Facade.

Continues above.