Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Thats Not How It Happened

After watching Revenge of the Sith twice opening day (it was an accident, I swear), I've decided something. Thats not how it happened. Thank you, Mr. Lucas, it was an interesting idea, but I must say you are wrong. Darth Vader's origin story is so much cooler than that.

In my head is where the real story exists. In my head there is no Jar Jar, no Meticlorians, no Virgin birth, no Count Dooku, no Droid Army, no Galactic Senate meetings broadcast via Republic C-Span. I'll let you in on how it really happened:

Episode I: The Buddy Flick... Obi Wan is a reckless but faithful Jedi. He is sent on a mission and needs a pilot, so he is assigned a 20-year-old Anakin. The rest of the movie is them becoming best friends while saving the galaxy. Skywalker shows promise. The movie ends with Obi wan deciding to secretly train him.

Episode II: The Training Flick... Anakin learns the force, starts to let it go to his head, falls in love with Padme, becomes a badass Jedi.

Episode III: The Love Triangle... Padme is pushed away by Anakin's lust for power. She is comforted by Obi-Wan. Skywalker gets jealous. Some other shit happens and *bam* Darth Vader.

Thats I've got swimming around in my head. What did you expect? Fan Fiction? No, my point is that when something is a important to you as Star Wars was to me growing up, you dont have to settle for someone elses vision. You can make up your own. So, there you have it, the real Vader prequels. Or as real as they are in my head.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Vacation and 13 Questions

I'm going on vacation for a bit, and I'm taking with me the very interesting book Difficult Questions About Videogames. The basic premise of the book is that 13 very basic questions about videogames were sent out to a group of interested parties (developers, academics, players, etc). The answers were then compiled and published. It's a very immediate accounting of this specific moment in the development of videogame culture.

Of course, as I read, I'm coming up with my own answers to the questions, which I'll post here when I return home. You can download a list of the questions in PDF format here.

Also, you can now get the book for free (except for shipping).

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Transmedia World: Republic Commando

Last night, I saw Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, which I will refrain from commenting on directly, other than to say that I enjoyed it for the most part. One of the things that added to my enjoyment of the movie was the use of other media to fill in the story between Episode II and Episode III. For instance, the Clone Wars cartoon, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky of Samurai Jack and Dexter's Lab fame. I didn't see them all, but I liked what I saw, and little details like Anakin's rise to Jedi Knighthood and the kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine by General Grievous were nice to know going into Episode III [though I'm sure the movie would have held up ok even if I hadn't seen the cartoons]. Apparently, there were books and comics too.

However, my favorite transmedia use of the franchise is the recent videogame Star Wars: Republic Commando [for more about the idea of transmedia, see Henry Jenkins]. Luckily, I finished RC a few days before Episode III came out. I hadn't planned on timing it like that, but it worked out nicely. This may sound odd, but my favorite thing about RC was that there was very little in the way of climactic encounters. It did a fantastic job of capturing the feel of being part of a military operation, and making me feel like the leader of a squad of clone commandos doing the dirty work of the Republic. My squad and I weren't the heroes of the war; we just killed a lot of Geonosians, droids, and Trandoshans.

Little moments in the game, during play, reinforced this notion of being important but not heroic. For instance, at one point, I looked through a window and had General Grievous in my sights. I fired, but he moved out of the way at just the right moment, and my shot did nothing more than alert his guards to my presence. Even though I know that I couldn't have killed him, I felt very much a part of that larger battle that was later resolved in the movie.

Designing a videogame as part of a transmedia world, seems to me like the "right" way to approach making a movie-based game. LucasArts developed a fun game around an experience that supported but didn't interfere with the movie, and in doing so, created an artifact that contributed to the story. Not only did it contribute to the story, though, it also personalized the experience of the movie for me.

Some of my favorite parts of Episode III were when I recognized something from the game. When a Jedi carved through some super battle droids, I had a greater appreciation for that feat, having faced SBDs with delta squad. When General Grievous appeared, I thought of that time when I had him in my sights. When Tarful, the Wookiee leader, said goodbye to Yoda on Kashyyyk, I smiled to myself, knowing that I had liberated Tarful from Trandoshan slavers earlier.

I wasn't the hero of the story, but part of the Star Wars story had become my own.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Living Worlds: The Power of Surprise

The so-called "living world" games seem to me like the next big design challenge for videogames. When I say "living world," I'm referring to games that take place within a simulated world, one that seems to live and breathe with or without the interaction of the player. The recent games in the Grand Theft Auto series (3, Vice City, and San Andreas) are perhaps the most popular examples.

The problem with living world games is the difficulty of designing entertaining experiences within the unpredicability of these (often) emergent systems. For instance, despite the fun of playing in the sandbox of San Andreas, I often find myself aimlessly wandering around, lost or unsure of exactly what to do. Especially with the advent of next-gen consoles (I started writing this post pre-Xbox 360/PS3/Revolution), this kind of game is going to become more and more prevalent as the hardware begins to support it more readily. The challenge is to figure out how to design living world games that still deliver quality experiences.

Designers will have to become masters of indirect control. When the player has all the freedom in the world, the most subtle cues will have to be used to guide them from event to event. Designers will also have to engineer systems that are flexible enough to deliver excitement no matter where the player is in the game world. Story games will have to unfold in totally unforeseeable ways, such that they are driven by the player rather than an author. Designers will have to find ways to seed their worlds with opportunities for surprise.

The real strength of a living world is its ability to surprise the player. When an NPC does something unexpected that remains coherent with the world, players will delight. When the player pushes at the world and the world pushes back, the player will be hooked. However, it's not enough to build a simulation. Building emergent systems is necessary but not sufficient. Believable AI is crucial but can not carry entertainment by itself. Living world games are not just simulations. They are also games; games that still have to be designed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Black & White in Your Pocket

Say what you will about Peter Molyneux (and we have), but the man does have a knack for coming up with interesting game concepts. The AI-driven Black & White may not have been a perfect game, but it certainly brought out a bunch of new concepts. Well, Black & White is set to make a comeback, and I'm not talking about Black & White 2. Majesco has just announced Black & White Creatures for Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.

This makes so much sense it's not even funny. Imagine Nintendogs with a large, living world (and lots of peasants for the puppies to eat). Think Tamogotchi with followers. Think Monster Rancher "to go." For the DS version, the stylus makes many of the original interface designs feasible in a way that the mouse never did. Gestural input should be much more intuitive. Scratching your creature's belly (or slapping it around) will be a matter of scratching the stylus on the screen. From a design perspective, it seems like a no-brainer. I'm less sure about the PSP version, but hopefully enough of the game will work in that format as well.