Thursday, September 30, 2004

Gaming with Kids: A Clue to the Future

Just finished reading an excellent column by Colleen Hannon over at GamerDad. The article covers some issues about how parents ought to be involved with their kids' gaming, but what struck me more was her description of playing Fable with her kids.

She played it first to be sure it was ok (it's rated M, after all), and then allowed her kids to play, supervised, of course. Hannon cites the depth of cause and effect, choice and consequence, as one of the key aspects of this game that make it good for playing with children. She used this central gameplay mechanic as a jumping off point for many discussions with her children about morality, life, the universe, etc.

One son even found that though he had played as evil throughout the game, he couldn't bring himself to make the final, ultimate choice as an evil character. Here the game is not just a tool of self-expression, but of self-discovery.

To me, this marks a step on the way toward games as art.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Fantasy Football: Sweet Frustration

So... Not to abruptly change the subject or anything...

I'm playing in my first Fantasy Football league this NFL season. [Sorry, Deca, it was a last minute decision, and I jumped into a league with my brothers, otherwise I would have joined your league. Perhaps next season we can all play together.]

In any case, I was last in the draft position, therefore getting two picks in a row (last pick of the first round and first pick of the second round). Running backs seem to be the hot ticket position this year (as my brothers told me) so I was planning to pick up a couple RBs. I didn't expect to get amazing picks, but I was hoping that I could pick up some solid anchors for my team. Unfortunately, my internet connection died just as my pick came up. I thought I might be ok, since there was a 1.5 minute timer for each pick. I got my connection back within a few seconds (30 or so) only to find that the online draft program had put me on "auto-pilot" and made picks for me automatically without waiting the 1.5 minutes for each pick. Instead of two stud RBs, I ended up with a QB and a defensive squad. Granted, I got the Patriots defense (arguably one of the best in the league), and I got Peyton Manning at QB (again, one of the better picks), but my agency in the draft was completely destroyed. I spent the rest of the draft playing catch-up. Everyone else got their two (and even three) RBs and WRs before I had my first two.

It was still fun, but that one frustrating moment got me thinking... Is there a way to maintain that sense of immediacy and fun over the internet while avoiding issues of connection problems? Is it as simple as a more robust draft system? How important is the sense of agency involved in a fantasy draft?

VistaVision for the Soul

Yeah... this is a tough one. I agree, an emergent system is probably necessary for multi-linear/emergent emotional narrative. The Sims and Grand Theft Auto III/Vice City point the way, but both fall far short of what I'm looking for. Fable might be another step in the right direction too (I just picked it up today and probably won't be able to play it til next week).

I think the generic concept of role playing (different from the current concept of RPG videogames) is core to the idea of emotional immersion. As Deca said, you don't want to play yourself, you want to play someone else. Thus, I think techniques that support role playing are key. Anything that helps the player feel like the character they are playing is good. The acrobatic abilities of the prince in PoP:tSoT help make the player feel like a Persian ninja, for example. Techniques of perspective are helpful, as well, though they are less understood, whether first-person or third-person. In addition, the player's choices must have consequence in the game world. If they don't, the immersion of roleplaying evaporates in an instant, revealing the mechanics of the game (not inherently a bad thing, but not so good for emotional involvement).

I'm really tired, so if this doesn't quite make sense, my apologies.

Monday, September 13, 2004

We need VistaVision!

If only every house had a semi-curved screen that we sat in while playing games. Then we'd get that peripheral vision that Clubberjack wants. This would at least provide that physical form of immersion that makes you feel like you are really there. The closest I've ever come was when I closed all the shades of my dorm room and turned out all the lights, just so I could play Silent Hill in total darkness. At least that way my eye never got distracted by light falling on my Texas Flag or whatever movie poster I thought was cool at the time. The second closest was the time we hijacked a conference room at school and project Halo onto every wall. That was immersive, but in a different way: you couldn't look at any point in the room and not see Master Chief. And if you closed your eyes you still heard "Killing Spree" or that random player yelling cause some guy on his team with a character named "Jesus" just fragged him, forcing the game to print "You were betrayed by Jesus" on the screen. But I digress...

The emotional immersion seems like a tricky subject. At least with physical immersion there really is not much we can do. I beleive that until we get those mini-Imaxs in the living room, its impossible.But immersion through emotional manipulation is attainable, as it helps players get into the "zone" and lose track of time.

As for CJ's question about multi-linear emotion, I want to believe it is possible, but lately I find myself agreeing with Warren Spector's GDC talk (I tried to find a link to his slides, but they don't seem to be posted). He said that multilinear plots end up diluting the whole story. In a way, I think this concept would have manifested itself in another medium. While live action roleplaying, murder mystery theater and renaissance faires seem to delve into this area, none of those seem to really achieve the personal emotional ride that even a simple Hero's Journey story can.

There are also production issues limiting this sort of thing. Every game that has tried to have a true branching story has had a hard time doing it right, and if they did it took forever. (Feel free to correct me on that one)

I think it will take a Will Wright-esque emergent system game to really allow a multi-linear expereince that still has emotional weight.

The central mechanic for emotional manipulation would have to be empathy. To do this:
1. The on screen agent of action can not be the player. "I" would not be killing nazis and there is no way that digi-hot girl would be talking to me
2... Well, CJ, I'll let you add the second item to this list and we can keep a running tab.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Reduced to Drooling Fanboy (and something about linearity)

This actually relates to the current conversation, if only a bit. The spiritual successor to the brilliant "ICO" has been announced. "Wanda and the Colossus" (official site in Japanese) isn't really a sequel to "ICO," but seems to follow the same visual style and fairytale story. Hopefully, we'll see the same deep emotional experience, as well. To say that I'm excited about this is an extreme understatement.

The one problem I had with "ICO," as I alluded to in the previous post, is that the player has very little impact on what happens. You either lose and die or succeed and see the end of the story. There is only one storyline. What you do as a player has no impact on that story. Perhaps this is how they were able to engineer such an emotional experience. Having only one storyline certainly makes it easier to use cinematic narrative techniques, especially in the heavy use of cutscenes. On the other hand, the emotion was also heavily reinforced by the gameplay. Sure, you were solving spacial puzzles (as in "Tomb Raider" or "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"), but the key component of many of the puzzles was the girl, Yorda, who must come with you but can't access all the places you can. You have ways to move her around, grabbing her hand and pulling her, calling to her, etc. Although Yorda's existence in the game can be seen as purely mechanical (after all you "die" if she is captured by the shadow spirits), the animation and sound design enhance these mechanics to the point where they become expressive tools that convey emotion and hook the player into actually caring.

So... my big question is this: Can you use emotionally expressive gameplay mechanics in a more emergent (or at least multi-linear) story structure? Could "Wanda and the Colossus" have the same emotional impact with a more player directed story?

[UPDATE] Here's some screenshots for the fans.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Does Immersion Exist?... Maybe...

It's funny, I was just thinking about the same thing. I've been playing "The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay," and while the game is quite good, I keep thinking that the game just isn't as engrossing as I want it to be. Honestly, I think one of the first steps toward true immersion is a greater field of view. I know it sounds pedestrian (not to mention that VR has pretty much been proclaimed dead), but having peripheral vision goes a long way. Creeping through the dank, dirty corridors of Butcher Bay would be so much scarier and so much more real if I could have the claustrophobic feeling of being surrounded by the walls. As it is, the distortion at the edges of my screen just calls attention to the fact that I'm not actually seeing the place as though I were there.

The other thing that I believe to be crucial to attaining immersion is emotional connection. I know this comes close to beating a dead horse (though I personally think this particular dead horse should be beaten till it comes back to life), but the games that have come the closest to immersing me are the ones that got me emotionally. These moments are few and far between in games. Here's two that come to mind for me though:

The first level of "Max Payne" in which Max's (the player's) wife is being murdered left me breathless. In the moment, I completely forgot any notion of gameplay and was completely focused on getting to my wife. Every bullet had the full conviction of my fear, anger, and protectiveness. It was utterly devastating when I found her dead.

Second, the last parts of "Ico" were also beautifully done in such a way as to connect emotionally with the player. The emotional moments in "Ico" are many and sustained nicely, but they are also supported by many cut-scenes, which I consider to be anti-immersive, since they take control away from the player.

In Riddick, I haven't gotten past the feeling of manipulating game structures. I have no visceral reactions to the game, just intellectual ones. Of course, none of this helps establish the existence of "immersion." I do think that immersion is attainable, but I have yet to play a game that achieves immersion for an extended period of time.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Does Immersion Really Exist?

I'll get everything started by positing this theory: immersion does not really exist in video games. Or at least, it doesn't as defined by Janet Murray. The idea of getting lost in something to the point that you feel totally in the game, fully empathizing with the characaters and instinctively reacting as if you were in the game's world is non-sense. What people seem to really mean by immersion is "total focus." All the brain's functions are pointed towards the game. The player is in the zone. The problem: that isn't really immersion. It may seem like it, and it may feel like it. But its not possible to break the fourth wall. At least not while the hardware is in your living room, on your tv, playing while you sit on your couch.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Welcome (Back) to Laundry Sessions

Well, Laundry Sessions is off to a new start. We've moved from our old server and software so there'll be a few days of catch up as we transfer as much of the old content as possible/necessary. Then it's off to the brave new world of

Glad to have you with us.