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Compelling a Complete Performance [Editorial]

hand_washing So somewhere after the early ‘90s game design became affected, vertical, content to build on established concepts for their own sake and so distort them out of all the representative or practical value they might have had. This became exacerbated after the industry’s multimedia and “virtual reality” phases, and the eventual rush for polygonal majesty. Early polygonal games were expensive to make, and only so many polygons would fit on the screen. Contemporary hardware could hold only so-large an environment in memory. It took developers about seven years to figure out what that extra Z-axis meant for controls, a sense of space, and all the assumptions about design that had built up since the mid-’80s.

In the short term, developers relied on the novelties of real-time animation and 3D space. They built modest, often jury-rigged, playpens where the dodgy collision, imprecise movements, weird cameras, and minimal detail would be less likely to stand out. Either that or they went hard in the other direction and used 3D animation to glam up familiar 2D twitch-based design. Those games were, of course, struck with the same technical limitations as their free-roaming cousins.

The Dog and Pony Show

So a couple of new conventions appeared to make the most of this paper-thin, wobbly, and empty new space. One of them, I like to call completion-compulsive design. This trope has its basis in the tile-smashing of Breakout and the dot-munching of Pac-Man: to succeed, you do everything there is to do. Fair enough, in a self-contained example like Space Invaders: the entire premise is built around destroying the aliens before they reach Earth. But what about all those platformers that followed in the wake of Mario 64, that asked you to roam around and find five thousand otherwise-useless widgets?

You could call the collection aspect a reward for mastering the game’s controls and expressing a sense of curiosity. That’s a bit disingenuous, though; the widgets rarely do much more than increase a counter in the corner of the screen, or open the next area. There’s no tangible reward here, and any ineffable reward is connected only tenuously to the play mechanics. At best the widgets, if you found enough of them, would unlock a special item or ability or game feature. Either way, mainstream game design took a sudden dive for the inane.

If a designer chose to reject the Z-axis meandering of the main flock, what you would often see was a hardcore performance-compulsive design. Games like NiGHTS took the high score tables and social competition aspects of early arcade games and exaggerated them to a ridiculous degree by assigning (often bizarre) letter grades and often limiting progress until the player had shown sufficient technical mastery.

One major difference is that scores are a relative, rather than an absolute, measure of prowess. The other difference is that with traditional score tables the only way you’re being graded is against your peers. They’re also a descriptive record, that tends to more reflect than affect the way the game itself plays. By comparison, receiving a letter grade suggests that unless you’re playing perfectly, you’re not playing properly. This mentality whiffs of an uncomfortable sense of elitism and exclusion, much as how the completion compulsion makes you feel like you’re not really dedicated unless you waste your life fiddling with minutiae.

Dopamine, Sweet Dope of Mine

Both tropes originate in a desperation to find something interesting for players to do when developers have scant resources at their command and scant command over their resources. Each is a way to milk more “play value” out of limited material by telling players that unless they waste all of their time, they’re just wasting their time. Unless they’re scouring the material over and over again, pouring in vast amounts of personal resources for a very small reward, they’re not doing it right. They’re not getting everything there is to get out of the game — whereas maybe if they invest that last arbitrary bit of effort and unlock everything there is to unlock, they will discover a cool secret that justifies some small portion of the expenditure. Usually not.

This mentality is ancient, as videogames go. It harks back at least as far as the smoke-filled dens built to milk Space Invaders players of their last yen. Yet it also is a perversion of those mechanisms. Unlike the dots and tiles and score tables of the early ‘80s, these tropes are not an organic side effect of the give-and-take causal relationship that forms a videogame. They are a caricature of the least healthy aspects of traditional reward structure, taken to an affected extreme and detached from context. It’s like distilling crack from cocaine, with many of the same consequences.

No form of obsessive-compulsive behavior is healthy, and any encouragement is harmful. It’s around here that videogames become toys of cheap manipulation, and that their warped psychology starts to have questionable health effects both on players and on the medium as a whole. In their hard-line failure to meaningfully reflect the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld, these tropes both undermine the medium’s expressive potential and severely limit the appeal of the medium outside the hardcore and the deranged. Thus the slow onset of the phenomenon that Satoru Iwata dubs “gamer drift”.

Dropping Out

Although the mainstream industry is still recovering from this OCD fit, I have noticed that indie games often seem less affected by these attitudes. I guess it’s not too surprising. The tropes only arose in a significant way in response to endemic confusion and conservatism over a changing technical paradigm. Indie games aren’t exactly post-technology, but their budget and their scope tend to be low enough that any design problems are more a case of implementation and clarity of concept. If they have a price, the games are selling mostly on the basis of their ideas — which makes content for content’s sake a fairly low concern.

And frankly, indie designers are in no place to take their audience for granted. The indie game culture is more or less a meritocracy, so every player who a game bores is one less mouth to spread the word. The games that I have seen deal with an obsessive-compulsive premise, such as I Wanna Be the Guy or biggt’s Uin, generally do so with an ironic or deconstructionist understanding that glories in the inanity of these presumptions about the player’s time and interest.

Of course, it could be the boring stuff just all flies under my radar.


Review: Uin

screenshot112There was a point toward the end of Uin where I became stuck. I had navigated a water level and a forced-scrolling shooting segment, and was now faced with a sort of a boss battle. My character stood in a bubbling pool of water. To the right floated an enormous child, orbited by a handful of large five-pointed stars. Occasionally the stars would shoot out, then boomerang back, causing my character damage. For the life of me I couldn’t beat this boss, and I had started to despair of ever finishing the game.

To further my frustration, the last save point was several minutes earlier — before the water level, and before a sequence reminiscent of everyone’s least favorite part of Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. You know, the bit with the coral. So each time I reached the boss, both my character’s energy and my own were fairly well drained. And each time I failed, I knew I would have to navigate that whole sequence again.

And then something happened. Well, two things happened. One, I realized that I had recently earned a new power — one that I had never used, as I had been underwater all this time. Two, I randomly hit on a new strategy that used, though did not rely on, this new power. The next time I faced the boss, the encounter was over within seconds — and I realized it wasn’t so much a boss as a random obstruction.

screenshot128 My fault had been in filtering the event too strictly through my own understanding of game structure. And that is the uncertain balance tread throughout this game. For all its waves to tradition, Uin is still a biggt production. It may have an inventory, and a persistent world structure, and sub-quests, and cutscenes, and a fully developed (if eccentric) control scheme, but those details are incidental to the dream logic at play.

Matt Aldridge rose to prominence as an indie game artist through the surreal and unsettling La La Land series. Each of those games uses the tools of game design to sketch out an ambiguous and unstable situation, to which the player — cast in the role of Matt Aldridge himself — may respond only in a typically bizarre and reactionary role. La La Land 5, for example, casts the player as an eager bible salesman. Over the course of five days, the player walks left to right, lobbing bibles at fish while the Amway jingle loops in the background. With each day, fewer and fewer fish are awake to receive the player’s bibles, leaving less money for the player’s food budget. As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, the music becomes distorted and the background fills with static, while the player remains trapped in a narrow range of behavior, helpless as the game’s environment descends into nightmare.

screenshot118Uin hews closer to that template than it appears; its progression is decidedly eccentric, and it’s hard to find an element that exists just for the sake of tradition. Much as in outsider art, the game appropriates familiar design elements and uses them to wholly its own purposes. There is, for an extended sequence involving digging for treasure. The game grants the player the ability to dig, which calls to mind an odd mark on the ground a few screens back. Digging at that spot indeed uncovers a trinket that carries the game forward, so at this point it seems pretty clear what the game wants when it asks for more treasure. Yet it turns out the only further use for the digging ability is to scratch at the ground for coins — which the player can do anywhere. So when a man asks for several hundred coins, basically that amounts to several minutes of menial labor.

In a sense it’s all comparable to the fetch quests and RPG battles that other games like to use to pad out their run times and give a false sense of purpose and achievement. Instead, biggt tells the player he has a boring job to complete before he can continue, and the player just has to spend a few minutes getting on with it. Afterward, the player can continue to dig at leisure — though the game never asks for further investment.

screenshot111In this example it’s tempting to feel that biggt is making a point about traditional reward structure, much as in La La Land 5. One of the more compelling aspects of Matt Aldridge’s work is that it’s never clear where the brilliance starts and the inanity ends. Aldridge himself likes to play up the apparent randomness of his designs, perhaps to head off criticism. If Uin serves any purpose in his body of work, it is to illustrate that Aldridge does in fact know what he’s doing as a designer. In a sense it’s a shame to lose that mystique, as it narrows interpretation of his work as a whole. And yet, it does put a bullet point by the expressive qualities in his earlier games.

Though it may not be as immediately refreshing as his earlier games, Uin is possibly Matt Aldridge’s breakout work. As of this game, Aldridge is pretty much the Kafka of indie game design. It’s a rich and thoughtful game, that questions gaming conventions while spinning its own neurotic web of ideas. Its only lingering problem is that its deceptively familiar setup may fail to signal its intent as well as Aldridge’s earlier works.

The question then becomes, what’s next for biggt? Is he going to return to the short concepts that defined his own personal style, or is he going to press further into long-form narrative, with all the architecture that implies? If he goes the latter route, I am concerned of irony creep. I feel he’s stronger when setting his own rules, rather than riffing off of established forms. Either way, biggt has now proved himself as an artist to watch.


Matt Aldridge’s Uin Released

Uin screenshotHaving gained some renown, or perhaps infamy, with his dadaist La La Land series, Matt Aldridge (aka biggt) has unleashed a significantly more ambitious follow-up.

Compared to the La La Land series, Uin is rather more conventionally structured, if no less evocative. There is an inventory, and exploration, and in place of the sheer dream dump of La La Land, play involves a certain amount of skill or problem solving. There are even a couple of forced-scrolling shooter stages. Yet Aldridge still wraps it up in his typically baffling logic and atmosphere. As he describes it:

wander a strange land in search of your brother. why? because you’re stuck and have no choice.

if you’re lost sometimes you need to think outside the box. however other times things just don’t make sense so too bad so sad, keep trying. i believe in you!

Then, as he reflects in his own comments:

rubbish 1/10 i’d give it 0 if i could

Tut tut.

You can download the game here. The compression format is a little odd; it requires Winzip to extract. Expect a more comprehensive review later this week.

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