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.

Ambition and Compulsory Design in Animal Crossing

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

The thing about portables – and not everybody cottons to this – is that people use them differently from other game systems. You cradle them in your hands, within your personal space. You drag them around with you, pull them out of your pocket like a dime novel, then snap them closed when you step off the bus. Where console and PC games ask you to set aside blocks of your time, portables fill the cracks in your day.

All of these situational dynamics, and the psychology lurking behind them, inform the basic checklist for a portable game.

( Continue reading at Game Career Guide )

Fable is Love; Love is Puppies

  • Reading time:8 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

This article had a strict deadline; I rushed to finish it so it could go live before the whole Internet had reported on the demonstration. And then… I guess it slipped through the cracks. Oh well! Here it is.

As another note, I think this was the meeting where Molyneux creepily offered his audience cookies. I was the only one to perk up. Hey, cookies.

Peter Molyneux was in loopy spirits, discussing his new game. Who knows how many times he had been over the same territory that day, though he seemed to enjoy spinning his tale, finding the right notes to highlight, the right places to pause for dramatic tension.

“Sequels are tricky things,” Molyneux started off. “Not my specialty. The sensible approach is to give you more things you like, better.” More weapons, new monsters, twenty times the land, guns! When Molyneux was asked to provide a sequel, he set off doing demographical research to see just what people wanted of him anyway. Then he opened “the doors of hell” – the online communities – only to quickly, in his words, slam them shut again. There were so many demands, so shrilly phrased – “so many people mortally offended by the design choices in Fable 1” – that the best Molyneux could do was sift out the most common complaints.

The Nose Before Your Face

  • Reading time:12 min(s) read

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.

Browbeating

  • Reading time:8 min(s) read

Toups: hey I assume you’ve read this.
aderack: Now I have!
aderack: “We don’t have any highbrow games.”
Toups: it’s good, until he actually starts talking about what a highbrow game would be like
aderack: I imagine that will be… problematic.
Toups: and then… he starts talking about will wright
Toups: and the whole time I’m thinking “dude have you even PLAYED shadow of the colossus”
aderack: Myst is kind of highbrow.
aderack: Except a lot of people deride it as not a “real” videogame. Less so than about six-seven years ago.
Toups: maybe that says something doesn’t it!!
aderack: I guess so!
Toups: either a) a “highbrow” videogame can not truly exist (the more highbrow it becomes, the less it is a videogame), or b) people have come to define “videogame” in an inherently lowbrow way, so that when something highbrow comes along they are inclined to call it a “non-game”
aderack: And before yet another idiot pipes up with Standard Asinine Comment #1 (“but FUN is the only thing that matters!”), let me just say: No, it’s not. Shut up and grow up. Our overemphasis on fun—kiddie-style, wheeee-type fun—is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. To merely be fun is to be unimportant, irrelevant, and therefore vulnerable.
aderack: I like that way of defining “fun”.
aderack: “Wheeee-type fun”.
Toups: yeah
aderack: Yeah, the problem is, I think, that we just don’t have the medium down yet. It’s been too caught up in “wheeee”. For the sake of “wheeee” itself, that is.
Toups: shadow of the colossus provides “whoa” type fun?
aderack: And also, it… at least strives to do more than simply entertain.
Toups: though, you know, I think “whee” can be highbrow
Toups: miyazaki’s movies have lots of “whee” in them
Toups: if any of the mario bros. games (save part one maybe) had some class, they could be highbrow
Toups: (class in their visual style, etc)
aderack: Honestly, I think that Tarantino is somewhat highbrow. Or at least could walk around in said company. And there’s “wheeee” all over.
aderack: That’s the benefit of virtuosity. You master a medium, you manufacture your own class.
Toups: I think he’s really just arguing against visceral thrills in games
Toups: which is a good thing, but for the aim of “high brow” is maybe a little misguided
Toups: it’s just sort of reactionary
Toups: can’t really blame him
aderack: I know. It’s… he’s on the right track, so far (page two).
Toups: that part of the article’s fine!
Toups: great, even!
aderack: “The serious games movement will help a little with this problem because serious games aren’t just for fun, but by itself that’s not enough. People write comic books to help teach kids about fire prevention and healthcare, but that doesn’t change the perception that comics are for kids.”

Another good observation.
aderack: In terms of “serious games” being silly things to take so seriously.
Toups: highbrow games would have to teach us things about our souls
aderack: Right. Again, it’s a matter of focus — principlally on the humanity of the art. What it has to tell us about ourselves.
aderack: The problem is in how to achieve that in a way that comes right out of the heart of the medium — and is therefore gripping and entertaining, and not just pasted in. Valve’s on the right track.
Toups: yeah
Toups: I mean
Toups: you can look at a handful of games that, from a design perspective, are on the cutting edge
Toups: really on the right track
Toups: you could say that they are there, if it weren’t for their subject matter
Toups: or, to put it another way
Toups: the games have everything there to make you care
aderack: Yes. It’s… encouraging that the pieces do seem to be out there. It’s just, nobody’s really been combining them into a definitive masterwork that will show everyone how things are done. Hate to say it, a Kane. That analogy needs to be banned, one of these days.
Toups: yeah
aderack: We’re getting there.
Toups: you know
Toups:
Toups: hm
Toups: I don’t know
Toups: I’m tempted to put my faith in Ueda, if for no other reason than he has the right ideas, he just isn’t that great at design
Toups: give him say, valve’s team
Toups: and you’d have… something
aderack: Yeah. I know. He’s not a nuts-and-bolts guy. That’s his only real problem.
aderack: And he pretty much has to do everything himself.
Toups: yeah
Toups: and his designs aren’t even demanding
Toups: they just need a certain elegance that most designers can’t do
aderack: That would be pretty much perfect, you’re right.
aderack: Valve plus Ueda.
Toups: of course, that’s the most frustrating part of this
Toups: I can point to any number of games that have the right parts
Toups: it’s just there isn’t one game that does them all at once
Toups: no one’s really picked up the ball that shenmue dropped, for instance!
aderack: And get the Silent Hill 2 guy in for color.
Toups: yeah
Toups: hell yeah
Toups: get that guy out of EA
Toups: man
aderack: The talent’s buried and scattered.
aderack: And doesn’t communicate.
Toups: see
Toups: if I was really rich
Toups: like
Toups: really
Toups: really rich
Toups: I’d just buy all these motherfuckers
Toups: base the studio in lafayette
Toups: and let the games write themselves
aderack: Feed them gumbo.
Toups: yeah
Toups: man, I had lobster tonight
Toups: for the first time ever
Toups: see the thing is
Toups: we eat lots of crawfish over here
Toups: and a lobster is basically a HUGE crawfish
aderack: It is.
Toups: so seeing one in the flesh (or er, shell), was pretty mindblowing
Toups: what a fucking weird creature, huh?
aderack: Seafood in general, actually, creeps me out. Like fungus. One of those things; hard to get around.
Toups: yeah, seafod is pretty fucking weird though
Toups: seriously though, you eat it here you’ll be converted
aderack: Lobsters — I mean, there’s this huge fucking animal on your plate.
Toups: yeah
aderack: It’s not abstract enough for me.
Toups: yeah!
Toups: it’s raw man
Toups: it’s medieval!
Toups: it’s… primal
aderack: It’s like that scene in Temple of Doom.
Toups: I haven’t seen that in a very long time
aderack: Yeah, I’m into “what would a Merchant Ivory game be?” section. And barf.
aderack: Right.
Toups: yeah
Toups: I mean, in a sense he’s right about the music and the visuals needing to be beautiful
Toups: and yet, way to miss the point
aderack: “In common with literature or poetry, a highbrow video game would include connections to the wider world; it would tell us something about our society and ourselves. Not the cutesy winking references of postmodernism, but real cultural roots.”
aderack: Okay, he’s got that down.
Toups: yeah
Toups: he just misses out on HOW it would do that
Toups: (protip: not with beautiful graphics or art)
Toups: (those games already exist!!!)
aderack: “Above all, a Merchant Ivory video game would be about people and ideas.”
aderack: Right.
aderack: He’s got the right thing going.
Toups: this is a much better question, anyway, then “where is the lester bangs of games journalism”
aderack: It’s a good discussion topic, if you can deflate the idiot arguments right off.
Toups: and, actually, it occurs to me why there can’t be lester bangs for videogames
Toups: because rock and roll was a counterculture… it had that “high brow” to rebel against
Toups: and then it had the means to make its own sort of “high brow”
aderack: Right.
aderack: Videogames… they don’t need a spokesman.
Toups: they need a role model, maybe
aderack: Role model. Yes.
aderack: That’s a good distinction.
Toups: they need a game that people play and say “I want to make games this way”
Toups: or hell, just “I want to make games”
aderack: Role model, not spokesman. If anything, videogames have been tooting their own horn prematurely for way too long.
aderack: Which is part of the perceptual problem.
Toups: yeah
Toups: it’s funny, actually
Toups: reading the history of atari
Toups: way back then, those guys were insisting that game making was an art form
Toups: and, well… look how that turned out
Toups: a lot of this talk is nothing really new. there’s just a lot more money involved now
aderack: Well, they were onto something at the time.
Toups: they were!
Toups: moreso than they were now, at any rate

The Crying Game

  • Reading time:14 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework.

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

  • Reading time:30 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.