Archive for Design philosophy

Spacewar: It’s just a trick of Velocity

Something I’ve noticed in a few puzzle games that came out last year, such as Strange Attractors 2 and Orbient, is the focus on gravity and velocity. In both games you are completely at the mercy of these two forces of nature, and you can only indirectly interact with objects around you.

Spacewar! In a sense these games, as well as a few other examples, owe a great deal to arguably the first major game, Spacewar. Spacewar was initially released in 1962 by a group of computer hackers at MIT who, upon getting access to the university’s fancy new PDP-1 computer, proceeded to pool their efforts and write one awesome head-to-head game. The premise is simple enough—each player controls a ship and tries to blow up the other guy while utilizing a limited supply of fuel and ammunition.

What makes the game interesting is the role of gravity. The ships are circling a star, and crashing into it will destroy you. The star’s gravity will pull you in or fling you out, depending on how well you can utilize it. Though you do have direct control over your ship, your thruster isn’t good for much more than maneuvering. Firing the rocket long enough to actually move independently of the star will drain your fuel in about 28 seconds. The winner is the person who can keep gravity from becoming an enemy.

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How to design a game that effects social change

Over at Opposable Thumbs, David Chartier writes,

Nonprofit organization Games for Change (G4C) is continuing its march to save the world through gaming. Aided by some vicarious funding from the AMD Foundation, G4C today launched a new toolkit designed as a crash course to help non-profit organizations learn how to create “social issue digital games.”

The Games for Change Toolkit is primarily a Flash-based presentation containing video, reference material, and links to demonstration games that cover various aspects of game design, from the initial concept to production and distribution. While an actual SDK may not be involved, the toolkit introduces nonprofit organizations to both the broad potential and finer details of bringing an issue-conscious game into reality.

According to Chartier, the design primer’s video resources are culled from footage from the 2008 symposium “Let the Games Begin: A 101 Workshop on Making Social Issue Games,” here reorganized into a logical hierarchy for the G4C site.


I guess I thought the G4C Toolkit would be kind of a bore*, but I ended up hunting around the flash site for a long time: this kind of game design philosophy absolutely overlaps with the broader genre of edutainment. One of the best moments, I think, is during Karen Sideman’s presentation, when—paraphrasing James Paul Gee—she asserts that games don’t necessarily ‘make’ learning fun. In fact, it’s just the opposite: games are fun because we are learning.

*More social issues games ought to be as addictive as PETA’s Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals.


Starflight and the open-ended RPG

I remember the first time I saw Mass Effect in action, months ago. Here was a game where you could travel from solar system to solar system, exploring worlds in your ATV and interacting with alien races. And I couldn’t help but feel that I had done this before, years ago, with the Genesis.

Starflight screen, filched from Wikipedia Starflight is a now-obscure EA game that originally saw release on Microsoft’s old DOS platform, before being ported to the Genesis and a slew of other computers systems, where you essentially traveled through the galaxy, exploring planets, meeting aliens, and either talking with them and getting information or blasting each other to bits. Part of the appeal of the game is simply how fleshed out the world is; each of the alien races have histories together, and each will tell you slightly different stories about one other and themselves. Some will come after you for having a particular species of crew member on your vessel, while others will just try to blow you away immediately.

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Avatars, part II of III: Cartooning (or, the Importance of Hair)

Now that my readership has appropriately flatlined, I am permitted to publish the second in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. In part I, we talked about caricature, and I obnoxiously examined what makes my own face distinctive. Now, we examine what, exactly, makes cartooning effective. Here’s a hint: HAIR.

Seeing in the Abstract

Let’s talk cartooning.

In his wonderful work of literary and visual criticism, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains (emphases his):

...I’m going to examine cartooning as a form of amplification through simplification.

When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.

How do cartooning, caricature, and avatars relate to videogames in a broader sense? The key, I think, is iconography. Take a look at Character Design for Mobile Devices, wherein realistic character design and artistry are pared down to their simplest and most fundamental pixels.

“How did you feel,” 1UP editor James Mielke asked Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano, “about seeing your elaborate illustrations transformed into such tiny sprites?”

Amano replied with an elegant description that could be applied to any type of icon. ”...Back then, art couldn’t just go into the game without major adjustments,” he explained. “So I looked at the sprites as just a symbol of my art. Here’s an example: when you say ‘Mount Fuji’ and you make a motion like this”—here, Amano makes a peak sign with his fingers—“everybody knows what Mount Fuji looks like, so they get the mental image in their head. So I was in charge of making the master art piece that people would keep in their mind, and people would remember this art because of these symbols in the game.”

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Avatars, part I of III: Caricature

This is the first in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. It will not be a perfect or academic analysis. In fact, it may be the least formal of the entries at Infinite Lives, simply because it treads some personal ground. In part I, we’ll examine what makes my own face distinctive. Then, and for the next three days, we’ll take a look at my subsequent attempts at avatar creation, gauging how they have succeeded or failed. The final piece will appear here this Friday.

During the NXE beta, someone sent a message to my Xbox. I didn’t recognize the handle, but he apparently knew me. “Your avatar looks so much like you!” he wrote. I frowned. “I hate my avatar,” I wrote back curtly. Then I clarified: “The hair is all wrong.”

He wrote back, confessing he hated his own NXE avatar. You know, the hair.

Later, at a Thanksgiving dinner among friends, I complimented someone on his NXE avatar. “I liked mine,” he agreed. “But yours was incredible.”

Was it? I wondered aloud. “I haven’t worn my hair that way in a year,” I reminded him. He seemed really startled, slowly realizing that I was right. I do not have short, shaggy hair. Not anymore.

The art of avatar creation is, at times, the same as the art of caricature. It could be said, too, that caricature is the equivalent and perfect polar opposite of vanity, that willful misrepresentation of yourself as someone more attractive than you really are (see also: Myspace angles). Caricature is here defined as not only an exaggeration, but as a “grotesque imitation or misrepresentation.” And because caricature is a deliberate misrepresentation, in a perfect parallel with the art of vanity, it willfully contradicts reality. Your identity on the Internet, as in the workplace and in virtual worlds, is probably a work of willful caricature.

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Living Game Worlds at Georgia Tech, Second Life

This is what I’m doing right now.

My Second Life avatar is sitting in my stead, attending the fourth-ever Living Game Worlds symposium, streaming live from Georgia Tech. And right now, Raph Koster is speaking. The symposium focuses on the interplay between, and I quote, “multiplayer games and virtual worlds.”

You too can attend Living Game Worlds via Second Life (fitting!), if only you click here. Of course, if you wouldn’t be caught dead in Second Life, you may also participate by opening the live streaming video in one window and keeping IRC open in the other.

I think I want to talk more about this soon, but right now I’m really just enjoying it.

edit: It’s over! Until tomorrow.

What’s really neat is, the IRC channel and the theater in Second Life are ‘bridged,’ so that everything the kids say in IRC pop into Second Life, and at the same time, Second Life users appear as users in the chat room. Neato.

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No, but seriously, what makes a horror game scary?

The last time I played Cosmology of Kyoto, my whole apartment began shaking. I remember thinking, at first, that the sensation of the room bending and lurching was a product of my own imagination, of too much time spent dying at the hands of evil Japanese ghosts, being reborn, dying again, trying to figure out what the game was all about. But then I heard a crash upstairs—something like dishes and silverware smashing onto my ceiling—and so I ran (still cradling my laptop!) into a doorway for cover. Verdict? Memorably frightening game.

But, writes blogger Akela Talamasca, “none of these games [Cosmology of Kyoto, Phantasmagoria, Silent Hill] left me with that nearly indefinable feeling of having experienced true horror, the kind that calls into question your perceptions and expectations of what it means to truly be alive, and how tenuous your existence might be. In fact, what these games trade on is their ability to startle, not scare.”

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How to save survival horror

When I was a fiction writing undergrad, our class was visited by the great Lee K. Abbott. I felt at odds with him, I remember. He told my class that it was wrong to write a story with certain facts concealed. He told us that when the facts of the full story are only gradually uncovered, the process is, to the readers, unfair.

Annoyingly, Lee K. Abbott was not wrong. There are stories we tell that are very deliberately ‘unfair’; it is now obvious to me that Abbott is not a fan of horror.

In the horror genre, and especially in Japanese horror, real fear comes from the thrill of discovery. And Japanese horror itself takes a cue from, not just the principles of Asian cinema and plotting, but also the very distinctly Japanese design philosophy. Japanese design is less about agency, and more about uncovering a plot. Lee K. Abbot would be furious with it.

Recently Leigh Alexander published this intriguing feature at Kotaku, about the history of survival horror. Apart from being an excellent overview of the genre, it wisely compares Western and Japanese game design philosophies. Most importantly, Alexander asks this question: does survival horror still exist? She writes,

Don’t Fight, Just Run! Titles like these all have distinct differences, of course, but they all tend to have a few traits in common. First, they largely de-prioritize combat mechanics, favoring challenging the player through elements like on-location puzzles, mazelike game areas, using the environment itself against enemies, and even fleeing and hiding instead of direct combat.

It’s true. Alexander names Siren and Fatal Frame as two of the finest examples of using vulnerability to create horror and panic. In the Fatal Frame canon, you do not use weapons or ‘defeat’ anything, per se—rather, you are a young woman wielding a camera.

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Zen and the Art of Galaxy Maintenance: Orbient vs. Orbital

Spencer at Siliconera points out that today’s surprise WiiWare downloadable, Art Style: Orbient, is pretty much bitGenerations: Orbital. Since there are at least two more Art Style games scheduled for release via WiiWare, Spencer rightly speculates they’ll be updates of bitGenerations games. Maybe.

The bitGenerations series of games were high concept/low-bit carts for Game Boy Advance, released only in Japan, in 2006 or so. Each bitGenerations game is essentially a tiny, playable art installation with a retro bent.

Including Orbital, I own three bitGenerations titles, which I play exclusively on my Game Boy Micro. This is to say, I don’t play anything else on my Micro; I only play these three bitGenerations games on it.

Stranger still, I’ve never played a bitGenerations game on my DS, my GBA SP, or even on my Game Boy Player. I think this is because at some point I read, somewhere (God knows where), that the bitGenerations games were specifically created to better market the Micro. I believe it. To me, GBAs are decidedly SNESy little 16-bit handhelds. My Micro, however, is disguised as a Famicom; therefore, only 8-bit games will suit it.

Of the three titles I own, Dotstream has the best music. It’s chippy and forceful. Dotstream is a racing game, except that each of the racers is just a pulsing line, sort of like a heartbeat.

There’s Soundvoyager, which Kohler gave me. I don’t remember his logic in gifting it to me, exactly, but it had something to do with how we are each deaf in one ear, which in turn makes the game nearly impossible to play.

Not least, there is Orbital, my favorite.

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Bookwatch: The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy

Another one for the Backburner. And what a find! 61 Frames Per Second’s Cole Stryker located a real gem of a book title, The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy. Stryker notes that this is actually just one title in a larger series in which essayists hunt for deeper meanings in ubiquitous pop culture icons (The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica).The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy

Amazon gives the book’s description thusly:

With both young and adult gamers as loyal fans, The Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved video game series ever created. The contributors to this volume consider the following questions and more: What is the nature of the gamer’s connection to Link? Does Link have a will, or do gamers project their wills onto him? How does the gamer experience the game? Do the rules of logic apply in the game world? How is space created and distributed in Hyrule (the fictional land in which the game takes place)? How does time function? Is Zelda art?

To which Cole Stryker responds:
Ugh. If these musings are any indication as to the content of the upcoming book, count me out. It will sell thousands of copies while real philosophy languishes on the shelves of your library. I’m not saying video games aren’t fertile ground for philosophic discussion, this one just seems…a bit surfacey.

Now, while I can certainly appreciate Stryker’s lack of enthusiasm, for my own part, I just added the book to my Amazon wishlist. It sounds like comparative lit to me! I sure hope there’s an essay about the workings of time and choice versus determinism!

The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy is scheduled to hit booksellers in late November.


Crayon Physics creator buys a 360 so he can download Braid

In 2006, I marched into my then-workplace and crowed that I had finally purchased an Xbox 360.

A coworker was suspicious. “Is this so you can play Geometry Wars at home?” he asked.

I glowered. “Yes,” I said quietly.

In short, I own a 360 so’s to download things.

Jumpman - from Braid

Last Wednesday, Crayon Physics creator Petri Purho announced he had purchased a 360 specifically so he could buy and play Braid. Is there any more glowing a compliment?

Yes, there is. Earlier in the day, Purho wrote:

...[A]fter playing the game I got somewhat depressed because of it. So if you’re an aspiring game designer and you think you know something about game design, don’t play this game. You will get depressed, sad, and fanboyish towards [lead designer] Jonathan [Blow].

There is nothing so bittersweet as loving something so much, you wish you had made it yourself.

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25 fairly important Famicom games. And a muxtape!

A hearty congratulations to Ray Barnholt, who just completed his latest opus, 25 Sorta Significant Famicom Games.

All told, the series took about a month to write—pretty good, considering Ray put it together in his scant free time. I’ve been following his blogs closely.

Midway through, I asked Ray whether he were going to create an index page for the finished product. “Eventually,” he said. And true to his word, here’s the index of all 25 Famicom write-ups.

Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti banner art

“As a final gift for all of you who kept up,” Ray writes at his official personal work blog, “I put up a Muxtape of Famicom remixes and arrangements, picked from my own collection.”

Orchestral arrangements of NES-era compositions get me a little weepy (and electronica covers get me jazzercising!), so if you ask me, Ray’s Muxtape is the best part of the whole deal. My favorite track is the ukulele cover of the Kid Icarus theme.


Siren: Blood Curse! Or, how to make your game appeal to an American audience

Hey, North America! Today’s the big day! Siren: Blood Curse is about to hit the Playstation Store. You can instantly download all twelve episodes of the survival horror game to your PS3 for a reasonable US$40. Instead, though, I’m thinking about splurging and getting the Japanese version on disc for $60 at

To clarify, Siren: Blood Curse and Siren: New Translation are the same game. Much of Siren: New Translation, the Japanese version of the game, is in English, since its main characters are from the United States. The game is subtitled in Japanese.

The original Siren is easily the most frightening game I’ve ever tried to play. Originally released for the PlayStation 2, it had impressive graphics for the time. The face-mapping seems comically dated now—photo-realistic faces are grafted onto subpar models—but in 2004, the uncannily human adversaries were positively shit-yourself terrifying. Wikipedia explains:

Rather than employ traditional facial animation methods with polygons, images of real human faces were captured from eight different angles and superimposed on the character models. This eerie effect is similar to projecting film onto the blank face of a mannequin.

Siren was, above all, a stealth game—you had to slip past the zombie-like shibito undetected—and in that regard, its utter lack of combat broke the survival-horror mold. In terms of plot, the subsequent Capcom title Resident Evil 4 owes a lot of its essence to Siren: these villagers aren’t exactly zombies, and good luck with solving the village mystery! But Siren more closely resembles the original Silent Hill. No surprise there; the two games share the same director, after all.

The nurse, revamped for the new gameAlthough it is remembered as arguably the scariest game for PS2, and although the game received generally favorable press, Siren never quite achieved commercial success here in the United States. It didn’t help that the game was notoriously difficult. Worse, the controls were fairly complicated, a bit much to master from the get-go. In some ways, the troublesome controls deepened the fear factor—a lot of survival horror, the Retronauts crew once agreed, relies on the sense of helpless panic only mushy controls and a crippled camera can bring. Siren’s gameplay innovations—and its unyielding commitment to those design choices—made it tough for anyone but a totally dedicated survival horror buff to play the game from start to finish.

Siren: Blood Curse is not a wholly unique work. Rather, it attempts to rework the original Siren plotline into a more navigable, accessible game experience. And although Blood Curse is being released to multiple markets, including Japan’s, I think it’s safe to say this revision largely targets gamers in North America. The original Siren lacked any real combat; in Blood Curse, you can creep up to the shibito and brutalize them from behind. Incorporating more action makes Blood Curse, well, not breakneck, exactly, but surely not as plodding and ponderous as its original incarnation was. But in playing through the demo, it’s clear that Blood Curse disposes of the very patient puzzle gameplay that made the original Siren (and its Japan-only sequel**) so frightening.

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What makes a cheat code magical?

Completing a game with the aid of infinite lives—even if the means of achieving those lives were made available by the original programmers—is, by definition, cheating. -Why Do We Cheat?

When I registered this domain a little over a year ago, the idea of “infinite lives” as a euphemism for cheating had already occurred to me. Maybe I’m in love with the notion of having unlimited chances to get something right, to pursue the best possible outcome. In real life, you have one chance. Entering a code for infinite lives is like time travel—it’s breaking the rules of time and space. It is, essentially, the ultimate cheat.

I’d been trolling 61 Frames Per Second, a rather young games blog, for posts by my friend Nadia Oxford. And via this post, I arrived at her recent article, Why Do We Cheat? It isn’t only a history of cheating-in-games; it is a rumination on cheating’s wherefores. After all, everybody cheats.

From the article’s introduction:

Every game has rules and a means of breaking those rules. Videogames, which are among the most complex games on the planet, feature suitably complex means of cheating. There are in-game codes, hacks, mods, code-altering devices, algorithms, walkthroughs, and many other means of breaking down a game in order to do what you’re not supposed to do.

To cheat in a game without a code or walkthrough requires real talent. I once witnessed Jeremy Parish and Jane Pinckard’s lengthy, animated discussion of Scott Sharkey’s admirable game-breaking genius. There is always a way to force a sprite outside of the boundaries of a screen or into actions that, according to the laws of the game, aren’t really permitted (or even possible). The trick is finding it.

Why do we cheat? When is a cheat code magical? Read on.

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Identity in Second Life: part one

A few weeks ago, I loaded up Second Life. It was the first time I’d touched the game in about a year. I halfheartedly installed all the updates.

If you’ve ever tinkered with Second Life, this probably comes as no surprise: the service manages to hemorrhage almost all of its potential new customers, quickly. In fact, most new users are alienated by the whole experience within their first hour, thanks to an unnavigable interface loaded with super-cryptic nomenclature.

Perhaps the most unwelcoming aspect of the initial user experience is your avatar’s own appearance. It is textureless, low-tech, doll-like, and it brands you as a Linden newbie (until very recently, the default avatars were just terrible). And although the character creation tools are actually great, they take time to learn. I remember it seemed every attempt at designing a realistic body resulted in a bubble-ass. And at any length, the default hair is a she-male’s pompadour.

How could I have known during my very first hour of play that I was able to purchase not just clothes and toys, but also hair and skin and eyeglasses? The average new user has no idea how mutable his appearance really is—and by extension, how mutable his sense of identity is.

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