A note to the Curmudgeon

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Okay, game history 101 here.

  • Woz created Breakout. He then went on to create the Apple line of computers.
  • Nishikado took Breakout and extrapolated it into Space Invaders.
  • After Ed Logg updated Breakout into Super Breakout, he took SpaceWar! and extrapolated it into Asteroids.
  • Asteroids and Space Invaders each has more of an overt narrative structure than its predecessors. In the former there is a complex and ever-shifting set of goals and a gameworld that changes with every decision the player makes. In the latter there is a distinct, inevitable progression toward a story-based conclusion. These two models effectively shape the American and Japanese schools of design, the former eventually leading to the open-ended, procedural, and sandbox design we see over here and the latter leading through Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Super Mario Bros., to the linear, controlled design we tend to see over there.
  • Yeah, the whole deal with Activision and Electronic Arts was that they were positioning their designers as individual authors. That was the focus of their advertising campaigns. The whole premise of Activision was that authors wanted individual credit. The whole premise of EA was, well, right in the company’s name. They packaged their early games like records, and publicized their authors like rock stars.

If you can’t follow along, that’s your fault. Not mine. So back the fuck off.

The Nose Before Your Face

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part eight of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “The Value of Simplicity”.

So lately we’ve been swinging back toward thinking about games as a medium of expression. It’s not a new concept; way back in the early ’80s, companies like Activision and EA put all their energy behind publicizing game designers like rock stars – or better yet, like book authors – and their games as unique works by your favorite authors. This all happened just after figures like Ed Logg and Toshihiro Nishikado started to extrapolate Pong and SpaceWar!, incorporating more overt narrative frameworks and exploring more elaborate ways of interacting with the gameworld. From this initial explosion of creativity came Steve Wozniak and the Apple II, providing an easy platform for all of the early Richard Garriotts and Roberta Williamses and Dan Buntens to come.

Then stuff happened, particularly though not specifically the crash; the industry changed in focus. On the one hand we had ultra-secretive Japanese companies that – like Atari before them – usually didn’t credit their staff for fear of sniping and for the benefit of greater brand identity; on the other, what US companies remained tended to inflate beyond the point where small, expressive, intimate games were economically feasible. And then there’s just the issue that, as technology grew more complex, design teams grew larger and larger, making it harder for any one voice to stand out, leading to more of a committee-driven approach.

Missed this when it happened

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Hey, seems Trip got annoyed at Jamdat’s GDC speech, too. Of course, much of the reason he’s annoyed is that he’s now forced to compete with EA. Still, this is getting fun.

Desktop Graffiti

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Windows should have an option to “tag” every file (much like blog posts), to allow a person to immediately rifle through and find every related and relevant file on one’s hard drive, wherever it might be stored.

Not starting a debate; just observing.

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In essence, to suggest that there’s free will is to suggest that there’s objectively more to us than the matter and energy we’re built out of. As special and wonderful and complex as our systems are, I don’t really see much basis for the conclusion that we’re somehow removed from the causal framework that involves and guides all the other masses in the universe. All our matter and all our energy comes from somewhere. True, it’s gotten to be where it is through a set of reasons so complex as to be untraceable; still, unless you start throwing in something mystical that elevates us above the material plane, that’s pretty much all we’ve got to work with.

That said, there’s not much we can do about the situation, mind, body we’re handed other than the best we can. As it turns out we’ve been wired to be generally curious, self-checking entities with the capacity to make decisions based on a complex web of personal biology, experience, reason, and current circumstances. That we’re wired this way for a reason, and that to an extent our choices would seem to be inevitable based on the infinitely complex circumstances behind them, shouldn’t be taken as damning or directive, as those circumstances are so complex and so much of them is outside our conscious control that really for practical purposes “free will” is as good a sketch as any. It’s that abstraction that makes us people, rather than a bunch of polygons depicting gritty reality.

Lack of control over lack of control doesn’t exactly equal self-control. I guess it’s close enough for practical purposes, though.


Not necessarily. There are plenty of philosophies of free will that are based off of the inherent randomness of quantum mechanical shit. I don’t know how valid they are, and while it is most likely the case, I don’t think it’s completely safe to say that the laws of the universe would prohibit free will from existing (seeing as how we do not, you know, fully understand the laws of the universe).

That’s an interesting point: subatomic wacky shit.

I don’t see where that really ties into human psychology, though, where all our decisions do have some basis, conscious or not. I don’t know if anyone’s capable of acting completely randomly. Even flipping a coin and following its result is a deliberate decision. Hell, it’s more deliberate than a lot of decisions we make.

Though the subatomic wacky shit might well play some role in the mechanics of consciousness; getting this stuff running at all. That’s a pretty strange phenomenon itself.

Boundary Scout

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My brother has been hounding me about how to recreate that crazy mysterious glitchy feeling from old NES games, and this whole time I’ve been telling him that I figure it’s impossible. But uh, I guess not!

Apparently the trick is to actually focus on making it seem mysterious and glitchy!

Well, the focus here is on the glitchiness — mostly because I think that would be a cool-n-subversive way of doing things. I think the real point is in the kind of thoughts and emotions and behavior that those glitches trigger in people who are prone to pick at them. I think all of those qualities are very close to the ideal purpose and potential of videogames in general.

It’s that feeling of breaking through the boundaries of an established system — of the suggestion of unknown yet possibly grand potential hidden somewhere beyond the mundane, that you — as a free agent and very clever person — are specially qualified to unlock.

The way a person might break through the boundaries could be mechanical or emotional or intellectual. Some of the best touches in some of the best games borrow from this principle. See the scanning in Metroid Prime, how it comes directly out of the themes at hand, then ties everything together, hinting at a sort of order and coherence and reality to the entire Metroid series and everything in it that you never really suspected before. Yet it never shoves the stuff down your throat; it’s just there for you to put together on your own — much like all of the abstract stuff in the original Zelda and Metroid and whatnot, except deliberate and intellectual rather than incidental and material.

And then there’s Riven.

I think my point with the overt fake-bugginess was to exaggerate and glorify the whole pointless search process that we go through — poking the edges of the scenery, seeing what’s possible within the world, experimenting, and only rarely being rewarded with anything for our effort. And when we are rewarded it feels cloying and false, like those dumb treasure chests that have to be at the end of every single cul de sac in every single dungeon, to overtly reward you for going down and simultaneously make you feel obligated to go down every one.

It’s working on the suggestion that maybe this behavior has a real purpose behind it after all, that sometimes — just sometimes — there’s something magical and special and completely unprecedented to find. And the point to that is to bring into light that whole behavior, that whole mindset — which, again, I think is implicitly what videogames are made to suggest, yet which I don’t feel is often really addressed for all (or even much) of its potential.

I think this mode can be addressed in less gimmicky ways, even if the gimmick is maybe one of the clearest ways to illustrate it. The problem is that a videogame has to work on a couple of levels at once. It needs to have a completely workable status quo, that feels solid, that the player is convinced is meant to be solid, for the player’s subversion of that status quo to mean anything. There’s a lot of psychology here; the player shouldn’t know immediately whether he’s supposed to be able to do what he’s doing, and that it has been accounted for; just that, for whatever reason, he’s able to.

Beyond the psychology and the multiple layers to keep track of, the game of course has to be designed and programmed as well as possible, to avoid unintentional exploits. So there’s a certain level of virtuosity required here.

Maybe I’m overstepping the line a bit, in defining the importance of these characteristics. The basic nature of a videogame lies in the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld; the basic potential lies in the narrative ability of that causal relationship (what it means for the player to act, given the established boundaries of the gameworld). The natural mode of player action is to explore those rules and challenge them. I suppose it doesn’t follow that the player need subvert a status quo as-such; it’s just, this is a good way to illustrate that mode of player interaction and its narrative and emotional potential.

The player should feel free; that he is at all times in control over his immedate decisionmaking, and that through his decisions he is just perhaps blazing into unknown territory, doing something nobody else has done, having a unique and visceral personal experience that’s entirely generated by his own free will. Half-Life 2 is great at making the player feel clever and subversive for doing exactly what the game is expecting.

I think it’s a misdiagnosis of this quality that has led to this sandbox nonsense (most recently reined in and made less inane by Dead Rising), and sense that players want “freedom” in their games.

I’ll get back to this. Will post what I’ve got now.

Tying into the previous post, sort of…

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I also think it’s a bland way of explaining the eighth’s regeneration – “Oh he died in a war”. I like to think of the Time War as a bit more complex than that.

I believe the word you want is “mythic”. That’s one of the big reasons for the War being there: it creates a new myth, putting everyone — old and new viewers — on the same level, and suggesting unrecountably grand and mysterious things, creating a new wonder, a new quest for knowledge, a new drive for the show to realign it with its original appeal. Also, curiously enough, the War serves to “fix” the arguably unsatisfactory resolution to a lot of the original mysteries by ditching the Time Lords and Gallifrey, the revelation of which earmarked the end of the show’s original era, and the start of something arguably less intriguing.

Doctor Who’s about the travel; not the destination. Soon as you stop and resolve something, it becomes real; mundane. The magic’s gone, as is any driving force it provided. Which isn’t to imply that you can’t create a new driving force — since that’s just what Davies did. And what ho; it worked.

I just don’t know if fact can do any better than legend, for something like this.