The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”.

The Wii that Wasn’t

  • Reading time:7 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start.

Touch Generations

  • Reading time:13 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break.

The Crowbar and the Trigger Finger

  • Reading time:10 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

A somewhat edited version of this was published by Game Career Guide, under the title “Phantom Fingers“; here is the article in full.

We make communication so darned difficult. We create languages, manners, rules, syntax, subtext, irony… We learn to love the language and its artifice – and the more we cherish our tools, the more signal that gets lost in transmission. Soon we get so caught up in what we’re saying that we no longer have any anchor in our surroundings, the foundations give way, and all our facades collapse around us.

Ueda Coulda Shoulda: The Quest as the Shadow

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

A somewhat edited version of this piece was published by Game Career Guide, under the title “Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus“; here is the article as originally intended. This version is also available, largely intact, in The Gamer’s Quarter.

Going by his two big brain dumps – Ico and Shadow of the Colossus – Fumito Ueda is a complicated guy to put in charge of a videogame: an ivory tower idealist, with only a passive understanding of practical architecture. As a dreamer, his ideas are too organic, too personal to fit the cliches that most of us take as the building blocks of game design. Knowing that, he sidesteps convention whenever it gets in his way – which is often. The problem is in those conventions which, though they mean nothing to Ueda as narrator, just as frequently get in the player’s way.

The Pathology of Game Design

  • Reading time:18 min(s) read

Originally published by Next Generation.

As I entered adolescence, my mother decided in her wisdom that I was destined to be an actor. That I showed no particular enthusiasm or indeed talent did not dampen this enterprise for years to follow. One summer, between calls for music videos and hypothetical summer blockbusters, I chanced into a tryout for a hypothetical Blockbuster ad. To the best I can recollect, the company was adding Genesis and Super Nintendo games to its rental library, and to demonstrate the premise was sending out a net for the archetypal game-playing teenager.

Thus I found myself lost across a desk from a pockmarked man with a mustache. When the man asked me to show him my “videogame” acting, I hunched over and concentrated at a spot a few yards ahead of me, miming my button presses with an imagined precision. I knotted my brow, maybe gritted my teeth or moved my lips as if to mutter. You can imagine where the scene goes from here. The director keeps asking for “more”, growing frustrated in proportion to my unease. He wants me to thrash in my chair, slam the buttons like a jackhammer, contort my face, and show him my best Beverly Hills orgasm. I am amazed; he patronizes me; I get to go home. Later I met the man they cast as the teenager; he was in his late twenties and had a habit of performing rude gestures to passers-by.

Fifteen years later, despite what seem obvious advances in technology and design, people don’t really see videogames any differently.

Crime of a Mâché Nation: The Condescension of Viva Piñata

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Viva Piñata was supposed to be Microsoft’s mainstream breakthrough and Rare’s return to form after years of… well, Star Fox Adventures. More than that, it was supposed to be the game that showed why Microsoft paid so much money for Rare, almost five years ago now. The problem is, the game wasn’t really meant to carry all this weight. At its core, this is a modest, intimate, and difficult game – difficult in the sense that, despite its charm, it’s more exclusive than it is inclusive.

( Continue reading at Game Career Guide )