Category: ‘General’

Misc update

[General] (03.02.11, 5:09 pm)

Well, I haven’t been updating in quite a while. That’s largely because the writing I do is dissertation related, and is very messy. So my work isn’t really in a good state to upload to the website. I’ve also been working on other sorts of projects, a lot of them art related.

My life has been emerging from a very turbulent period, but it’s coming along alright.

Just wanted to say. I’m out there. Still working, etc etc.

Meaning, gameplay, and narrative

[General] (01.21.10, 11:45 am)

I read a lovely article on the blog for Frictional Games. The argument in the article is that gameplay and narrative are detrimental to meaning in interactive experiences. The terms gameplay, narrative, and meaning are carefully defined, and the argument is important and compelling. However one element of this was troubling which is the intertwining of experience with meaning. All media produce experiences, particularly entertainment produces experiences. The majority of games, though not the games that Frictional is espousing, are entertainment.

Frictional games are interested in horror, which is visceral, so a focus on experience is natural. However, by placing experience foremost, it is easy to fall into the trap of non-interactive media, which is provide a very carefully, precisely crafted experience. In these situations, the meaning is crafted by the author, and we get criticism that hearkens back to auteur theory. This is one of Roger Ebert’s main critiques of games, that because it is interactive, the player can interfere with the author’s precise vision. This is not what is being argued in the article, however, there is something more to meaning in games than experience, which is not clearly stated.

If meaning is not authorial intent, then what is it? Games are unique in that they are systems that a player can interact with. I argue that the meaning is produced by the player’s comparison of the system in the game with the outside. The game can be about an adventure story, and the player could compare it against any other story; the game could be about failed relationships, and the player can compare it against personal experience; or the game could be about moral dilemmas, and the player could compare it against their own personal morality. With games, as in any other medium, meaning is not inherent: it is representative, and it requires interpretation and participation in order for it to work.

Diegesis and Progress: Assassin’s Creed versus Prototype

[General] (01.16.10, 3:59 pm)

I finished Assassin’s Creed 2 not too long ago, and just recently a friend lent me Prototype. Both games have been very enjoyable, especially from the perspective of free navigation of space and the development of an increasingly diverse and complex arsenal of player abilities. In terms of play, the difference that stood out to me the most between the two games is how progress is implemented within the narrative of the story world. Progress in Assassin’s Creed 2 (AC2) is entirely diegetic, whereas progress in Prototype is almost entirely extradiegetic. I found the diegetic development in AC2 to be extremely rewarding, but the choose-your-own ability system in Protoype is also compelling for different reasons. The approaches offer the conflicting goals of narrative integration versus configurability. What approaches could we employ to integrate the desirable features of both systems?

Progress in AC2 is diegetic. This means that the protagonist Ezio gains a new ability when it is granted by the story. The player has no control over what abilities are learned, but each ability is integrated into what is happening in the story world. For example: Ezio gains use of the hidden blade when it is given to him, Ezio learns how to use special maneuvers with other weapons when the player purchases a lesson and Ezio is taught. Every new maneuver (with only a couple exceptions) learned is given by the plot, so the player has no control over the development of progress, it is entirely controlled by the designer. A major positive of this is that challenges are presented to the player explicitly to draw the use of the new skills. Very rarely is the player up against an adversary or obstacle for which there is no way around.

Prototype takes a very oppositional stance: Almost every new ability learned is through an interface in the menu. When the player has accumulated enough of the game’s currency, new skills may be purchased and used immediately. Skills are unlocked as the plot wears on, but typically (or at the very least, in my experience), there are many more skills available than can be purchased. This allows the player to control the repertoire of abilities that the protagonist, Alex Mercer, can use. The player may have a preference for one power over another, and focus development of new abilities on that preferred power. This is empowering to the player to be able to customize and develop the skills usable in the game. However, a tradeoff is that there is no story world explanation as to why Alex develops his newfound abilities. A consequence of this is that there is also very little in-game instruction as to how to use the abilities. Because of the design, a tutorial system would be awkward to develop: The player will not necessarily want to sit through five tutorials one after another after purchasing five new abilities. Because the player can learn abilities anywhere and at any time, there is no way to make sure that there is a suitable way of explaining the abilities after the player learns them. The result (again, for me) is that Alex has a mess of abilities and the player has no way to clearly understand how and when they can be used.

Diegetic progression is useful for both the purposes of instruction and also for the sake of making the player’s progression seem meaningful in the story world. However, diegetic progression often leads to restrictive development of gameplay. It seems like there should be some form of compromising between diegetic progression and character customizability. I would argue that quest based ability gains would be a good way to mediate between these. Another possibility is to use a clear training system, much like in Okami, to let the player learn new abilities, but also be able to practice them at leisure.

And on that note…

[General] (10.24.09, 3:03 pm)

I just read this off of Amanda Palmer’s blog. In it, she discusses an experimental theatre project “Sleep No More” being run by the British theatre company Punchdrunk. Sleep No More is described as a combination of “The Shining, Macbeth, and Twin Peaks.” As awesome as that sounds, it gets much more interesting (from AFP’s post):

you don’t sit and watch actors. you wander around the space, alone (and wearing a mask) and you create your own experience.
actors come and go, events unfold. you can follow actors if you wish (they generally ignore you, but they will make contact occasionally),
or you can sit alone in a beautiful room filled with christmas trees until someone walks by you.
you can discover rooms nobody else is in and rifle through dusty papers and books.
there are rooms in asylums filled with bathtubs. there are fully landscaped gardens, there are rooms filled with dirt.
there is full nudity. there are lots of tuxedos and ballgowns. there is insanity. there is sexiness.
there is murder. there are moments where everyone winds up together and moments where you can watch the most intimate scenes play out between characters.

It’s not game-like in the sense that there is no “interactivity”, though there definitely is presence on the part of the audience. So, despite a lack of interactivity, there is still participation. Moreover, there is exploration and role-taking. Using classical definitions (say, Chatman), this can hardly be classified as narrative. So what is it? Well, it is performance art, but that ignores the problem.

We can think of types of games, performances, and stories which require some degree of role-taking (eg, clapping for Tinkerbell in Peter Pan plays). We can also think of performances which have an anonymous audience that wanders though a space in which some scene plays out (eg, spectator mode in some FPS games).

State of the grad student

[General] (08.25.09, 8:26 pm)

Classes started last week. So far, it’s looking to be a good semester.

I am taking a computer science course, Storytelling in Virtual Worlds, which has been fun and looks to be promising. I don’t exactly agree with the stated goal of the course, which is to develop a story generation system. Instead I have been more interested in story world simulations. However, there is a lot to be learned by looking at generation, and it’s an exposure to a lot of AI literature. Furthermore, it’s exposure to how computer scientists think about narrative theory. This is valuable, since a lot of AI projects seem ill suited toward the types of stories that I am thinking of adapting. The class has a lot of readings, and I am going to be posting notes for them up here very soon.

Quals are over, miraculously so. Maybe I’ll be able to post the actual fruit of that endeavor at some point. At the moment I am stepping back, getting a good look at what it is that I have done, what it is that I can do, and trying to identify what it’s likely that I’ll be able to accomplish. It’s been my hope for some time to produce some sort of artifact, a prototype or proof-of-concept, but it’s looking at the moment like that may not come to fruition. This is very irritating, but it can be difficult to allocate time toward the project. Right now I am engaged in two primary activities. The first is a review of games and AI projects, to look at how mechanics of social worlds (and story worlds) have been expressed, and then come up with a few ideas as to how this could be synthesized into something cohesive. The second endeavor is coming up with a solid outline and view of the entire dissertation project. This is especially difficult, since what I want to do touches on so much: games, AI, narrative, adaptation, and sociology. I may need to break it down, but I really hope to make something solid out of the works. Ian has suggested to me an idea of writing a single 500 word document that captures the entire thing. It’s a great idea, I definitely will do it, but it’s going to be hard. I’ve looked at a few “conceptual mapping” programs to try to untangle the mess of ideas in my head, and have come up with a VUE chart mapping some of these ideas to readings and other such stuff. It may not be going anywhere, but it’s good for thinking things out.

In other projects, InTEL has undergone a huge UI overhaul this summer. It’s going to be deployed to a hundred students or so this semester. We’re smoothing out UI and other sorts of issues, and I think it will turn out OK. Mermaids is going to have a huge team this semester, with lots of programmers, so I am hoping it is going to move smoothly of its own accord. I am going to try to get it working with Multiverse 1.5, and hopefully that will prove to not be disastrous. I have a secret independent project that I have been working on, which, at the moment, doesn’t do anything at all, but it might at some point in the future be worth talking about. Independent projects are very strange. They are hard to focus on, but can be useful to keep perspective in times of stress.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to indulge my immature side and play Overlord. Moo hoo ha ha ha.

No need for typologies

[General] (08.18.09, 10:01 pm)

I happen to subscribe to the International Hobo RSS feed. Recently they posted about a project called BrainHex, which describes a 7 point typology that is supposedly the result of some neurobiological research. I spent some time with the test that they offer, to find out what “class” of gamer I was, but quickly got frustrated. Part of this frustration was derived from the format of the questionnaire, but a lot of frustration came from the  typology, and the implicit claims made by typologies.

BrainHex aims to find a neurological justification for the pleasures and motivations of play, but this research cuts out precisely everything that is interesting about games as a communicative or rhetorical medium. We rarely get into typologies of readers, theatergoers, film goers, and the like, except at superficial levels. All of these media can be mastered in a way to produce very calibrated experiences; often films are categorized as tear jerkers, or adrenaline rushes, and so forth. There are neurological explanations for why we enjoy these things, but these operate at a very low level in the brain. Studying neurology says what I am feeling at a certain moment, but says nothing about why I am enjoying or am not enjoying a film. It furthermore is not reasonable to say that there are typologies of film goers that can be deduced from neurology. A typology of film goers based on neurology would divide films into absolute categories such as action, slapstick comedy, horror, and romance, without their being any complexity or middle ground. We do not enjoy films strictly because they are generic, or because they induce calibrated emotional responses, but because the films have meaning.

The typology used by BrainHex comes from a couple of surveys, the first of which being DGD1. The results for this survey were published in a book, and then a subsequent survey was used to build BrainHex. A quick review of the questions asked reveals a few distressing generalizations in asking how the respondents play games. One of the questions, number 12, asks the respondent to put in a binary response to this question: “I’d much rather play with other people than play alone.” In this question alone there is a lot missing. What if I enjoy playing alone and playing in groups? What if I enjoy playing alone in some games and not others? What if I enjoy playing in groups sometimes, but not other times? What if I enjoy playing with only one specific group, under a certain context, and enjoy it immensely, but not do not enjoy any other group play? It is not fair to collapse all of these variations into one binary response. The surveys are therefore hard wired to produce restrictive typologies. They do not permit any complex contextual understanding of players or their motivations.

Like Bartle’s taxonomy, which divides players of multiplayer games into the groups of achiever, socializer, explorer, and killer, BrainHex idealizes player types, and conflates motivations with behavior. Two players may perform similar actions, but with very different reasons behind them. Bartle attempts to partition players based on their activities, while BrainHex attempts to classify them according to affinity for neural responses. In BrainHex, player motivations may as well be the same as their neurochemistry. Like rats pushing levers for pellets, the players of the BrainHex typology seek out and engage in activities which is rewarding to them. Both Bartle and BrainHex implicitly imply that players are belong to only one category, or at most, a combination of two. They do not allow for the possibility that players may enjoy many types of experiences, or have more than a few shallow desires or motivations.

Typologies are damaging and unnecessary. They are detrimental to the idea that games could be used communicatively, rhetorically, or expressively. They imply that players are much less complex and rich than they are, and imply that players are limited to only one or two categories. Typologies marginalize games that do not fall within the generic types that cater to the types, and they marginalize players who escape classification.

Minor breakdowns

[General] (07.07.09, 1:12 pm)

I think it’s time to get a new phone. Granted, it’s been a while coming. Also this phone is something on the order of four years old, probably way outside of its life cycle… Nonetheless, the massive, bulging battery is a sad development.

Additionally, the other day one of my gaming consoles got a terrible malady. I am going to ship it out sometime this week. This is a shame, particularly because I was about to finish the fantastically silly Lost console game. The latter is an interesting example of adaptation, and how good ideas can become destroyed by sloppy execution.

Which reminds me, I should go back to working on my writing.


[General] (06.28.09, 11:02 am)

The past few weeks have been taken up doing writing and coding for a couple of projects. The writing has been slow, but ultimately, I hope, productive. The coding has been for Statics and my self-motivated crash AI course. The Statics stuff is nice because I recently made a few very useful usability fixes, and fixed some really insidious bugs that should lead to much better stability.

In the meanwhile, I have Pandora to keep me company.

For those uninitiated, it is a radio station that allows users to build radio stations, consisting only of music that the user likes. They are an offshoot of the music genome project, which employs an interesting classification system to categorize songs. The player will find songs with characteristics similar to what the user reports to like and dissimilar to ones that the user doesn’t. This is very interesting to me from a technology perspective. Evidently Pandora has been around for a while, but I only just heard about it a few weeks ago. I really love internet radio, and I think that, despite a few annoyances, Pandora has managed to find some miraculous way to keep listeners happy, the music publishers happy, and themselves afloat. Which, given all of the nonsense that internet radio has needed to put up with recently, is pretty miraculous. I’m in there under “ashmore62“.

Minor news

[General] (06.12.09, 10:31 am)

Not much has been happening this summer. I’ve been doing some writing, some project work, and the like. Hopefully the writing will live to see the light of day and the project work will come out smoothly. At some point, I want to write a bit about games and entertainment, based on some productive discussions with Audrey, also referencing “player-centric design” which I have been reading about recently. I am going to be taking an AI class in the fall, the first AI class that I have ever taken, but it is actually an advanced one: specifically on narrative and AI. A friend of mine has described his recent disenchantment with AI, but I remain hopeful. Since I haven’t taken an introductory course, a few others and I are going to be doing some prep work before the class. The textbook we are reading is “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”, which is a bit stuffy (and curiously written, given all of the AI critiques I’ve read), but nice and thorough. A new edition of the book is coming out in October, so I’m borrowing a copy for now, and will probably get a real one later. One thing that surprised me, though, is after doing a cursory search online, there don’t seem to be many good open APIs for AI. At least not in the three minute search that I did. A lot of the algorithms described lend themselves very well to good abstract design principles, so maybe I’ll see about whipping something up later on.

More on Jason Rohrer

[General] (04.25.09, 12:14 pm)

Posted by Ben Medler. Watching this may be easier than reading my notes….

Then again, I don’t know why it’s not possible to skip ahead.

Beyond Single Player – Jason Rohrer from Ben on Vimeo.

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