Monday, January 31, 2005

Cut Scenes, Schmut Scenes

The always thought-provoking Clive Thompson just published an article at Slate arguing that games aren't good vehicles for narrative, citing cut scenes as a prime example. His basic argument is that stopping gameplay to show a cut scene interupts the fun of the experience. Games are about interactivity, not passivity. I won't recap the whole article, but that's the basic point (it's worth reading though).

There were some good responses around the Internet, like this one by Arkady from the Slate forums... and this one by Ron Gilbert. The first one argues that cut scenes serve the same purpose as box art, setting a more nuanced, detailed narrative scene in the head of the player before they become immersed in gameplay. Arkady calls for shorter cut scenes with more interactivity (even just a single choice). Ron Gilbert agrees with Thompson that games aren't good at narrative, but says that it's not a reason we shouldn't try.

I'm somewhere in the middle on this one. I agree that cut scenes run counter to the spirit of the medium. They break the flow of interactivity. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 show pretty clearly that games can work without cut scenes. However, I do believe that narrative in games is worth pursuing. Again, Half-Life 2 shows that narrative can be conveyed in-game. I think it should go much further though. Narrative in games can't be thought of as conveying a single, pre-written story. Game narrative should be about giving the player interesting choices (just as in any form of good gameplay). Designers interested in furthering narrative gameplay should be looking at mechanics that put the power of authorship into the player's hands.

Oh the Cleverness of Me!

Its my birthday. Yay me! Oh and, Mercenaries may be buggy, but it has the most satisifying explosions. Turn it up and call in an air strike!!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Gender in Videogame Advertising

I know this is a bit of a dead horse, but it bears beating some more, apparently. I recently picked up the latest issue of PLAY magazine, which I generally find to be well written and informative. Unfortunately, on the back of the magazine was a big, glossy ad for "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude," the latest in the line of ribald Larry adventures. The problem is that the ad consists mostly of a rendering of a topless girl's chest. The girl's arms are folded across her front preventing complete exposure, but it's still a pretty tasteless and obvious attempt to seduce adolescent boys into buying the game (which is supposedly pretty bad, by the way).

Normally, this wouldn't bother me too much. Maxim has as much or more skin on its covers (and it's real skin too). However, I generally read magazines on the bus on the way to work. With this nudie ad on the back, I feel slightly dirty, like I'm looking at soft-core porn in public, even as I'm reading the insightful reviews inside. I feel like I'm probably offending the women around me on the bus. Not only that, but it reflects poorly on me as a person (at least in regards to what other people on the bus think of me).

In any case, I wish they wouldn't print crap like that. I guess, after looking at the PLAY website, I shouldn't be surprised, and I'm not. Still, why do magazines that seem so well put together otherwise, still feel the need to bow to the pressure of advertising dollars?

Some other readings about gender in games and game advertising:

"Views" by Robin Hunicke

"Getting the Girl" at

Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Graner Ray (still reading this one, but I can say that it's pretty great)

UPDATE: There's a great article at that articulates the concept of "gamer shame." This is very much related to my embarassment at reading PLAY on the bus, though for me, the embarassment isn't at being a gamer but rather at supporting the adolescent nature of game culture.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lucky Wander Boy

I just finished readying Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss, and I recommend it as a good read in and of itself. However, it did get me thinking about games and culture...

Briefly, without spoilers, the book is about a guy who becomes obsessed with the obscure, "classic" arcade game, Lucky Wander Boy. His obsession leads him through a number of adventures, which make up the book's narrative. The book explores themes of geek-hood and nostalgia, but more than either of these, the book plays with the cultural significance that videogames have taken on in the minds of adults raised and weaned on Atari, Intellivision, etc. In fact, the book embodies this cultural significance.

Our grad school prof, Randy Pausch, used to talk about videogame concepts seeping into cultural awareness, his favorite example being the power-up. A deeper, more complex concept from games is the idea of multiple paths existing simultaneously. Especially in non-linear, simulationist, or emergent games, the same game can represent a multitude of stories or events. Even linear games have many different endings in the form of a player's frequent deaths.

This is not a new concept unique to videogames. Writers and philosophers have toyed with the idea frequently. However, videogames offer both an embodyment of the idea and a way to experience these multiple paths, contrived though it may be. With mass audiences, videogames also introduce these concepts into the cultural consciousness in a way that the writings of Borges, for example, never could.

The saved game represents the ability to explore multiple paths, though this exploration is sequential rather than simultaneous. This ability to not only accept multiple, simultaneous storylines, but to embrace and demand them seems to be seeping into our culture at large. The many endings of Wayne's World could be seen as a player's inability to accept defeat much like each retry of a tough level in a linear first person shooter. Each time, the characters revert to a "saved game" to replay the ending until they achieve success.

[Slight spoiler about the book] In Lucky Wander Boy, the repeated endings (each of the ending chapters is entitled "replay") are less about doggedly pursuing a single result than they are about filling in the many possible stories that exist. In fact, the endings of Lucky Wander Boy even start at different "save points" as the author goes back to various decision points in the story imagining multiple trajectories for the main character. The really amazing thing about these many endings is that they work together to form a far more satisfying end to the book than any one of them would alone. This is clearly due to excellent writing on Weiss's part, but I believe that it also has a lot to do with the fact that I, the reader, play videogames.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Happy New Year!

Here is to a safe, happy, and hopefully crunch-free 2005... Well, crunch-free is a nice dream, but I can hope...

Fable wasn't that good

I mean, cmon, he made a game where you can sexually abuse a giant cow...