Monthly Archives: July 2013

Duffield/Hopkins’ Hive: Real Art

This isn’t about video games. But it IS about art. And it’s interesting.

One of the Junicorn designers I wrote about last week, Daniele Hopkins, is also an artist, who works works with her partner, Kyle Duffield, on a variety of technology-related projects. Some are related to gaming—like their cheeky, hilarious, yet surprisingly seductive Itagaki Interface. Most are not. Most focus, instead, on the connection between nature and technology. A while ago they did a video project called Drone, which showed the blurred lines between the insectoid and technological versions of that term. On Friday, at the Noise Project interactive art show in Toronto, they premiered Hive, which addressed similar themes.

Hive isn’t a game or a video. It’s a real device: a lashed-together-looking nest of wiring and speakers that hangs from the ceiling of a small room, emitting seven different synthesized droning sounds that mix and clash and cancel each other out as they (and you) move around the room. Built out of a hexagonal chicken-wire-like grid and fully exposed speakers, it has the look of a wasp’s nest that you’ve carelessly ripped open; on first apprehension, that chaotic droning triggers the deep fear of watching in horror as the nest’s inhabitants bear down on its hapless interlopers.

Except that they’re robots. Angry, tiny, relentless robots.

Conversation with Duffield and Hopkins turned it around, though, and brought out a different feeling entirely. Duffield and Hopkins are enormous insectophiles. Both refuse to squish or harm insects in their homes, making a point of carefully collecting them and depositing them outside. They find insects fascinating and beautiful; and talking with Kyle and Daniele about their work building Hive showed how much much affection they have towards technology as well.

After talking with them, a funny thing happened: I ended up finding Hive oddly…soothing. After wandering around the Noise Project, I’d find myself returning to the Hive room again and again. Part of that was because Kyle and Daniele were genuinely interesting and entertaining company. Even when they weren’t there, though, I’d still come back and find myself relaxing in the company of Hive itself. It wasn’t angry. It was complex, it was fascinating, and it was welcoming.

Kyle and Daniele are both moving on to gaming-related projects. Daniele has said that she’s going to keep on working on her Unity game about Internet surveillance. Kyle is working on a really neat title involving the Kinect and asynchronous gameplay that sounds fascinating, but I can’t really get into yet.

What really riveted me, though, was the news that they’re also looking into Oculus Rift development. They’d said that they were going to see about pulling the money together themselves. That’s great, and I support them in that…

…but after seeing HiveDroneItagaki Interface and the rest of their work, I’m confident that if anybody’s willing to pony up and play the patron,  you’ll get something amazing out of it. Think about it.

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JUNICORN!

(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 

Juunicorn!

(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.

UNITY.

Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.

———–

So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5”.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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The “Citizen Kane of Gaming” is Settled

Yes, in the midst of the comments fighting over some damnfool RPS piece about how game criticism is just fine

(…hint: it’s not, a million untrafficked blogs don’t make up a Pauline Kael, you need mainstream soapboxes to get mainstream cred and TotalBiscuit ain’t that…)

I ran across a comment so glorious I just had to share it. Ladies and Gentlemen: the Citizen Kane of gaming is…

…Ultima VII. It’s always been Ultima VII.

Charles Foster Kane is a thinly disguised allegory for William Randolph Hearst. It is an awesome film even if you don’t understand the allegory, but you can see that it’s the drive to tell a true story in the guise of fiction that pushes the makers to create a truly great film. The story itself couldn’t be told as non-fiction because of the power of the Hearst company and the litigation that would have followed. Citizen Kane is often considered the creators’ best work, despite the fact that it is a black and white film and “old”.

The Guardian is a thinly veiled allegory for Electronic Arts. It is an awesome game even if you don’t understand the allegory, but you can see that it’s the drive to tell a true story in the guise of fiction that pushes the makers to create a truly great game. The story itself couldn’t be told as non-fiction because the Ultima series is fantasy, and slipping a demon-god with a cult into the fantasy world made more sense than having an Eeeevil Corporation(TM) try to infiltrate Britannia directly. Ultima VII is often considered the creators’ best work despite the fact that it is 2D and “old”.

Me, I was always more of a Wing Commander fan. It’s still absolutely perfect, though. There’s little to add, beyond an observation that big open-world sandboxes like Ultima 7 are now the rule in the fantasy genre, rather than the exception. The perspective might change, but the idea’s the same, and that idea’s absolutely dominant.

So congrats to Electronic Arts: you not only were the Hearst analogue in the Citizen Kane of Games…you killed off its Welles. Props.

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Falloblivion: The Elder Scrolls Four-and-a-Half

Oh, shit, a supermutant! Forget my minigun, I need something with real power…a hunting rifle!”

You probably know that I’ve been doing a long series on the Elder Scrolls series. I’d had to put that aside for a little bit, since I’d been playing Morrowind on a nice PC that, sadly, I don’t (can’t) use anymore. I have access to a PS3 right now, and I’ve been playing some console stuff…but none of it really fit into that framework.

Then I tried out Fallout 3. Finally. After all these years.

It’s like I never stopped. For better or worse, Fallout 3 really, really feels like an old-style total conversion of the post-Daggerfall Elder Scrolls games.

Sure, there are no knights and demons and whatnot, but that’s not what Elder Scrolls’ gameplay flow, the experience, had ever been about. the Elder Scrolls had always been about other things.

  • It’d been about exploring the countryside, and carefully mapping out the ruins of ancient civilizations contained therein.
  • It’d been about encountering bandits and monsters, and either getting the drop on them or fleeing in terror if they got the drop on you.
  • It’d been about making choices for how you want to handle your problems, being given quests that end up testing your moral outlook, and getting a wee bit frustrated when you ran across a problem that your specific skill choices just wouldn’t allow you to solve.
  • It’s about plumbing the history of a bizarre environment, and peeling back the layers of worldbuilding only to find yet more layers.

THAT is Elder Scrolls. And, yes, THAT is Fallout 3. Same damned thing.

For those about to grab their pitchforks, though…that isn’t a bad thing. I was never really that attached to the old Fallout games, but I knew enough about them to realize that they were themselves a conversion of the sort of gameplay that you’d find in an old top-down RPG in the vein of Planescape:Torment or Baldur’s Gate. You had turns and squares and stats and countryside and towns and encounters and all of that. Sure, it had guns and rads, but it also had everything else that’s defined that genre since the Gold Box games.

Remember, genres in games have absolutely nothing to do with setting. You can have a fantasy shooter like Panzer Dragoon, a steampunk FPS like The Order: 1886, or a historical sandbox like Assassin’s Creed 2. The setting genre and the game genre are only connected if you want them to be connected.

So, before you get all shouty, think about it. So what if Fallout 3 is basically an Elder Scrolls game? It’s still an RPG. It’s just a different kind of RPG.

All that said…there’s still VATS. And, yeah, VATS is the one thing that makes modern Fallout weirdMore in the next post. I guess the series is back on. It’s just taking a bit of a radioactive detour.

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Steve Ballmer to handle the Xbox division…himself

This is a joke, right?

No. Really. This must be a joke.

In an internal email sent by Ballmer today, shared online via official Microsoft channels, the CEO advised Mattrick’s directs to report to Ballmer himself, as it appears the company has no immediate replacement for the departing exec.

It’s unclear if this is a temporary measure, or if Microsoft is actively seeking a candidate for the position, which will be crucial as the November launch of Xbox One approaches.

Here’s the email in full:

“Zynga announced today that Don Mattrick would be its new CEO, effective July 8. This is a great opportunity for Don, and I wish him success. Don’s directs will report to me and will continue to drive the day-to-day business as a team, particularly focused on shipping Xbox One this holiday.

This is ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. Even if Ballmer had the faintest clue about gaming, and there’s been no indication that he does, he’s still got way bigger problems to deal with. He needs to bring the public around on Windows 8 or reorient the OS in reaction to 8’s failure, he needs to revive the Surface brand after the debacle that was Windows RT, he needs to get Windows Phones in people’s pockets he needs to hire proper replacements for Sinofsky and Allard to bring some vision back to the company…

…and he’s supposed to be the gaming guy, too?

Yeah. Ridiculous.

Sure, if the Xbox were a year out, that’d be fine. But it’s four months out. Even if he’s only taking over temporarily until they hire a replacement for Mattrick, that’s still months before they have a new guy up to speed and able to handle the situation. Mattrick’s replacement in the event he left should have been sorted out ages ago, so that someone could smoothly pick up the slack.

This is honestly more of a bad sign than the DRM thing was. That was just arrogance. This is laugh-out-loud incompetence. The latter’s far harder to fix and they simply do not have time. What happened to the smoothly, almost impressively competent Microsoft that conquered the sector in the first place?

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Don Mattrick Moves to…Zynga (Also: why he failed)

There are nowhere near enough snarky things that could be said at this news.

So instead, post Xbone, I think I’ll just limit myself to wishing Microsoft’s Xbox unit all the best.

Edit: Actually, I’ll add a note of Serious Thought, especially since I did a bit of media coaching for a young Toronto-based activist just this past Friday.

(No. really.)

Mattrick’s problem wasn’t the Xbone’s various DRM problems. People in that GI comment thread pointed out that those decisions were almost certainly made before he got there. I think they’re right. That sort of thing takes ages to implement. He might well have been served up the proverbial shit sandwich.

Mattrick’s problem is that he screwed up in how he handled it. They should have had an ironclad, well-laid-out strategy on how to deal with the fallout from this. They should have had a crisis management and/or conflict management strategy ready to go immediately. They should have figured out how to defuse this LONG before E3, and definitely after the Orth debacle.

Hell, I could have done it for them. It’s not hard. I can think up some strategies right now:

  • Be open about what you’re doing and why.
  • Emphasize the convenience elements, how the games follow you from system to system, and how you can download forever, and how family members and other users of your Xbox can play the game without fuss or muss.
  • Give loads of tantalizing hints about that online trading and sales scheme you’d been working on.
  • Express your sympathies with people with unreliable Internet and your promise to do what you can to ameliorate the issue, including the promise of a robust “offline mode” along the lines of Steam’s. The 24-hour thing is dumb, make it once or twice a week.
  • Be absolutely one HUNDRED percent sympathetic with the troops, including looking into ways to accommodate them specially.
  • Demonstrate at least one game that uses the new Kinect’s abilities in ways that makes the extra hundred bucks seem like you’re paying for a premium good.

If you really wanted to demolish, you could demonstrate that the games will be cheaper by announcing that you’re making your own games cheaper. Not third party games, YOUR games. Microsoft games. Sell ’em for fifty bucks, or even forty five. It’s not like you’re Nintendo and dependent on first-party sales. Your money’s being made on license fees and Xbox Live anyway, and you’ll generate so much goodwill that it’ll blow that little Sony video out of the water.

(Can you tell that I’ve been thinking a lot about crisis management recently?)

That was Mattrick’s job. SELLING it was Mattrick’s job. Managing this crisis was Mattrick’s job. He didn’t just fail, he actively made it worse. He came across as an arrogant ass with all that “go buy a 360” stuff, and making that the center of the company’s messaging was inane beyond all recognition.

He failed. Badly. And now he’s moved on to another company in crisis, arguably a WORSE crisis. I just hope he does better this time. He could hardly have done worse.

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