Monday, January 30, 2012

Super Mario 64: Phenomenology of Values

video games are a kind of phenomenology of values. for each functioning action there becomes a response, a visible effect of that input, directly placing itself upon the system and interacting with the respective pieces. as more of the system acted upon is revealed, a deeper understanding of the underlying elements that drive it becomes apparent. in this way the player forms ritualistic series of actions- a certain gun may become more desirable for them, generally picking it over other means available. a long jump may be realized to go further distances quicker, and may prefer that to diving or just running. others search for a deconstruction of the system and attempt to discover the flaws in these worlds for their exploitation. regardless all games are based  in some form on accumulating values and demystifying systems.

even in the most remote, obscured corners of super Mario 64 the rules are the same. the walls can be jumped off of, the same things serve as obstructions, and you still have your same moves. what I'm noticing more as i try to understand the game though is how often the exact same input will receive entirely different responses if changed even slightly within the environmental context.

in the corner pictured above i have spent a good couple hours figuring out various ways of toying with the walls and the hill which bends slightly overhead. depending on angle, height, speed, the exact point you hit, and how quickly you react after the first jump, it becomes possible for a seemingly infinite amount of individual possibilities. they generally are very similar but still have personal differences which separate them.

in fact i noticed that the hill if approached from a nearby point with a tree can be scaled from the right angle, long jumping and diving along the way. this allows for a bending of the system, collecting the lives from Yoshi that otherwise wouldn't be accessible until all 120 stars had been collected. this is what i mean when i talk about an accumulation of noticeable interactions though- changing a small piece of the context and receiving vastly different output, and trying to work it into an understanding of the greater whole.

in a way super Mario 64 is more of a playground than anything. there is an end "goal" of collecting stars and beating Bowser, but that is not really the fun of it. it's rooted in exploration- trying to find new ways of using these strange abstract forms, working through masses of ideas and even smaller systems. the end point is merely a motivation of sorts to unlock more worlds. between those points there is a strong analysis of play, the things we do for entertainment are generally viewed with cynical distaste, but i think all important discoveries are made through exactly this sort of "childish" play. experimenting, toying with ideas and forms, tearing the meaning from the apparently meaningless. the things no one cares about examining are generally those with the most unlocked potential, as their purpose has not yet been understood. the idea of "productive play" instead of work, instead of rigid ideologies. the entirety of environments as a playground, a system unknown and ready for exploration even under the veil of modern thought.

mediums of the unknown, misunderstood and lost in colossal heaps of consumerism. these are actually the forms most based in action- the process of, as opposed to the goal reached. they serve a purpose as a simulation of actions and their values. something that in a way reflects the meaning of everything people do. not through making the game more "mature" or "adult" with its subjects, but merely by showing the importance of action and reaction. the games that we played as children, physical or digital, are the medium all others come from: play. by retracing the history of culture all things stem back from experimentation and playfulness. the "accidental" discoveries that define entire centuries are not just accidents. they are people playing with ideas. get lost in these seemingly worthless endeavours and you just might find something. dig deeper into the pits, the unknown.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Maniac Mansion

The odd genre marketed as "adventure" computer games began with text parser input and the promise of interacting with a virtual environment or situation through the use of natural language. "Natural language" here meaning "brutal cave-man imperatives." OPEN DRAWER. GET KEY. GO DOOR. GET KNIFE. These are sentences or fragments frequently stripped of "noise" unnecessary for communicating intent to the machine: articles, prepositions, etc. This doesn't just reduce the amount of text input required by the player, it makes it easier to identify syntax problems. If you want to GET the KNIFE and you know the machine recognizes the meaning of "GET," an error could mean that the machine will recognize only the object's full name: SHARP KNIFE.

Maniac Mansion typifies a kind of graphical adventure game that dispenses with the pretense of natural language altogether and distills the brutal cave-man imperatives into a curated verb list.

We're not pretending I can apply every conceivable English verb to this situation. I can PUSH, PULL, OPEN, CLOSE, GET, USE, READ, GIVE, GO TO, TURN ON, or TURN OFF things. That these were specifically chosen from countless other verbs lends them significance or credibility. I'm not wondering what range of interactions could be possible in Green Tentacle's room. I'm wondering what will happen when I PUSH, PULL, OPEN, CLOSE, GET, USE, READ, GIVE, GO TO, TURN ON, or TURN OFF its different elements.

The spaces in this game are depicted with uniform scale and perspective on a shallow proscenium inside the black border that houses the interface and the dialog bar. You can see the wiry lines that separate the floors from the walls from the ceilings. It's a kind of modular template into which doors and objects have been stamped--a pristine world in miniature, like a doll house. This is also noise reduction. The dense accumulation of dirt and objects that would actually litter an environment like this have been omitted. Any game environment is blatantly artificial, but the sparseness and uniformity of these rooms betrays the way in which they were designed and constructed. It makes plain to the player that each element has been deliberately placed. Every object is equally suspected of concealing some transformation to witness or secret to unlock. The mind buzzes with possibilities. What happens if I PULL one of those giant speakers up in Green Tentacle's room? Is there something behind it? Will it tip over? Well, no. You can't PULL the speaker or any other object in the room because it's not one of the few interactions that was assigned a unique response. (There's actually no way to interact with the speakers at all, beyond reading their description.) You can't PULL the poster off the wall or the stereo off the shelf. You can't PULL Tentacle himself. PULL winds up being a funny verb--like PUSH, TURN ON, and TURN OFF--that applies only to a handful of situations where the generic interaction of USING something was deemed "too vague." You can't USE a bush to rip it out of the ground, but you can PULL it. For some reason, OPENING it also works. There's a lot of overlap, which is an attempt to broadly accommodate player intent and save them the effort of figuring out how to express what they want to do once they've figured out they want to do it--but this was a large part of the intent behind creating this list of mostly superfluous verbs, rather than incorporating a parser, in the first place.

By the mid-90s, these games generally began folding all of the intended nuance of PUSHING, PULLING, OPENING, CLOSING, GETTING, USING, READING, GIVING, TURNING ON, or TURNING OFF objects into a handful of super commands. USE or "generic interaction" usually means "do some unspecified, context-sensitive thing to something in the environment." It opens doors. It turns on appliances. It can knock things off shelves for you. READ gets folded into "LOOK." LOOK at something with text on it to read the text. GET might still be its own verb, for collecting objects, or it might also be folded into USE. Cyan's Myst (and many of the endless Myst-likes) uses one generic "interact" command for everything. Click to move forward, click to read the note, click to collect the object, click to pull the lever on the machine you're figuring out. That works for Myst and other games with sterile, empty worlds. They're not about characters. They're about the environments. Moving through the environments. Observing the environments. Manipulating the environments. Hence the focus on the tactile business of fixing broken-down machines all the time--the adherence to a mildly magical realism in the setting demands that objects adhere to a fictive logic. It's a lot easier to design alien, artificial/mechanical constructs that behave in a complex and passably logical way than it is to handle the natural world. Imagine Myst, same game, no machines, everything you interact with is a plant or a rock or an animal. Complex deer-feeding puzzles. You fucked up. The deer are unhappy. Now they ran away. Oh boy, the deer came back. Time to try the deer puzzle again.

Games in the tradition of Maniac Mansion lean far more heavily on characters and personalities. Those are the selling points: the writing, (and later, the voice acting,) the jokes (if any,) the drama (if any.) If there are only three verbs, two verbs, one verb, it's hard to create the illusion that the player is embodying a character. It ceases to feel like decisions are being made, starts to feel like hotspot hunting to trigger cutscenes--which, in those cases, it usually is. This is what the inventory has come to be used for. The parser and the array of general-purpose verbs were jettisoned. Every inventory item is a verb, typically capable of enabling one action in one area before vanishing, having served its purpose. Sometimes you can use them for more than one thing. This is why these games tended to get progressively "wackier" or more esoteric inventory items--because the sequences triggered by using them are usually the ones where central characters are capable of affecting the greatest degree of change in their fictive worlds. The item, the instrument of this, has to bear the weight of the personality the player otherwise lacks the tools or commands to express. Use item A on character B. Watch cutscene. Get item C. Walk to next room. Walk to next room. Combine item C with item D to create item E. Use item E on object F. Watch cutscene. This is a script on a drip feed. Your Rubber Chicken and your Crowbar and your Can Opener are keys that unlock doors within this prison world. The doors only lead to more rooms within the prison.

You can see the seeds for that in Maniac Mansion, see how the "genre" arrived there from here, but Maniac Mansion was made before this establishment of an unspoken consensus that player agency couldn't be allowed to upset the puzzle chain or the static characters and events within. It has unpredictable reactive and multi-linear elements that were abandoned by nearly everyone working within the "genre" in subsequent years. It opens with a choice--pick two of six kids to complete your "adventuring party." The kids' abilities differ, to a degree. The kids react differently to situations, to a degree. Cowardly nerd Bernard runs when a monster appears. Amoral nihilists (musicians) Razor and Syd are the only ones willing to microwave Weird Ed's pet hamster. Only Wendy can rewrite the villain's terrible memoir and end the game by procuring for him a publisher and instant celebrity. Only Michael can develop Weird Ed's microfilm, earning his assistance in entering the game's final area. Get Green Tentacle a record contract and he'll offer similar assistance. Show him your own record contract and he'll kill you. Show Weird Ed his exploded hamster and he'll kill you. Microwave radioactive water from the pool and the steam kills you. Drain the pool to expose the nuclear fuel rods within, causing a meltdown and killing everyone. Ultimately dispatch the villain by getting him that book deal, calling the space cops on him, launching him off the planet in a rocket-powered car, or feeding him to a giant carnivorous plant. There's a special ending for killing all your characters. The happier endings are modified to acknowledge playthroughs that resulted in the deaths of one or two of the three.

All the business with record and book deals is handled through a dude at one agency. He has unique reactions for almost all of the objects you can send him--only two of which result in anything happening that helps at all with "finishing" the game:

That all these reactions were implemented exemplifies something about this game: it's small, it's old, it has an interface that wasn't fully exploited. It's still more open, more interested in reacting the to the player's prodding than most other games I've seen in this vein--even very recent ones. What's the story in Maniac Mansion? Given the random character combinations, the branching paths, the multiple endings (successes and failures,) how do you summarize it? How many other games of this type can you easily distill into a narrative based on the fixed and linear chain of events that inevitably must occur? Maniac Mansion describes instead a general situation populated by entities who might or might not collide in various ways according to the characters chosen to feature and the player's whim in applying their abilities. All of the accumulated variations on and outcomes of of the rescue mission are the "story." I see ideas like this in "role playing games" that justify this degree of agency or this interest in multi-linear situations through the rigorous application of statistical checks to measure whether a character has earned the right to do what the player wants--a different set of keys for a different set of locks. Maniac Mansion has locks to be opened, but those primarily are bookends to a brief but interesting period in which you can ditch the official business of settling the plot and scrape around to discover the surprising hidden details. There's a seed in there for a different idea: an interactive situation focused on the goal of thoroughly exploring the various outcomes found by applying a limited range of commands to a limited environment.

EDIT: 12/2/2011: COOL COMMENTS BELOW \/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bat Castle (PC) (im9today)


The first area in Bat Castle presents an incoherent situation that's designed to kill you.

Every subsequent area in Bat Castle presents an incoherent situation that's designed to kill you.

I presently have no idea how to progress from where I am or if it's even possible. Maybe I just can't figure it out. Maybe I've wandered into an elaborate dead end that leads only to other elaborate dead ends. Bat Castle is a game about elaborate dead ends. It prods you to talk to all the dudes and push against the walls looking for secret passages, nearly all of which drop you into trap rooms which either don't have exits, contain comically fast-moving insta-kill enemies, or trigger huge, horrible graphics from the web that obscure most, if not all of your screen.
It knows it's hilarious, too. An early flashback explaining BEEFMASTER BOSSER's troubled past is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a game. Every custom failure state is a labor of love. It's a mountain of funny garbage you plow through just to see the rest of the funny garbage, reloading your last save every 60 seconds.

A chunky, appealing pixel style is used for some of the tiles; others are just solid-colored squares or pure black. It's a bit like walking around in a scrambled, corrupted NES title, and it feels like a bit of a piss take of what playing those games was like--beating your head against impenetrable systems and labyrinths, getting stuck in a pit with no way out but the reset button. It's a mess. It's a mystery with no apparent answer. It recalls games that were allowed to exist as mysterious messes experienced only in fragments. It may help you recall how many of those baffling fragments were fascinating in ways that contemporary "polished" games aren't.

The first fight is going to kill you a lot. Figure it out. There seems to be barely any combat after that. It's like opening with some kind of hazing ritual. Just pretend it's a Final Fantasy boss fight and you'll make it through.

Yume Nikki (PC) (Kikiyama)
Download link here. Don't read this if you haven't played this game.

I'd say I'm stuck, but I just opened Yume Nikki and immediately found something new. Talking about "progress" seems pointless. The only reason I even know this game has an "ending" is that Google told me while I was searching for a download link. That there's an ending at all seems to counter the intent behind most of the game--an experience of wandering, exploring, discovering the new, being surprised by the new appearing in the banal. To surprise your audience with the appearance of the new in the banal, you must first create banality. Yume Nikki does. Areas with higher densities of unique events to discover are accessed through open, repetitive hub worlds, through which the player will travel again and again and again. Tedium sets in. Suddenly, a structure you've never encountered or an event that randomly teleports you to a new area. Discovery; new turf. Explore it all. Now what? Back through the same hubs. This is the rhythm after hours of play. The beginning is different. All is discovery. Each new area and encounter is a surprise. You could switch it off for good once the novelty's left, but I just opened Yume Nikki and immediately found something new. I'd have told you I was stuck.

Deep in the game's guts are events you're unlikely to see if you're playing without access to the Internet--if you're playing somewhere in the middle of a deep forest. They have no effect on gameplay. They occur in obscure corners of the world. A banal action in the middle of nowhere will trigger something strange 1/64 tries. Perform an obscure action before a mysterious character in an area accessible only though random chance to see a strange animation that has no consequence on gameplay. Stumble upon one of these and every element of the banal, the familiar areas becomes suspect. Where else are these things hiding? What's the ratio of noise to signal? Unknowable, except GameFAQs can tell you exactly where to go and what to do to see everything. These obscure bits are celebrated on the web, in YouTube videos. YouTube and GameFAQs can destroy the experience of Yume Nikki. With the veil lifted, the mystery dispelled, there's nothing to appreciate but the effort that went into the game's creation and the premise of its deliberate obscurity--the effects that obscurity might have created are gone. The existence of the ending, the tangible goals, the sense of "progress" inadvertently contribute to this, feed the compulsive drive to see all "content," have a "complete" experience. Going to X location before acquiring ability Y to trigger event Z is no longer pleasant, mysterious wandering. It's steps you'll have to retrace later, the "right" way. It's a waste of time. The banality becomes the player's enemy. It must be vanquished. Guide in hand, they set themselves to the familiar task of getting this game over with as quickly as possible so they can move onto the next. Yume Nikki is consumed in a manner identical to industrial product created specifically to feed compulsive drives. I suspect that this is not what creator Kikiyama intended, but what's happened to Yume Nikki was a consequence of dangling that carrot. The early experience reminded me of playing Myst for the first time. Wandering, discovery, surreal mystery, an open world slowly closing in as the boundaries are reached, paths are blocked by "puzzles." The "puzzles" in Yume Nikki are like the "puzzles" in old adventure games. Find a new item or ability, take it back to old areas and try it on everything to see if something happens or some new path opens. Find another item. Do it again.

The game was made in RPGMaker and borrows its tile-based world from the 8- and 16-bit RPGs that program was intended to emulate. Movement is mapped to a grid. Characters and objects can be "on" or "off" tiles, never in-between. This sense of a rigidly formal world is violated by occasional mouse-drawn elements and creatures that don't conform to the expectations set by the vaguely uniform, vaguely 16-bit pixel aesthetic established in the opening areas. The pixel aesthetic itself is violated by the appearance of a thoroughly implemented 8-bit look in the "Famicom Zone" or the hand-drawn appearance of the "White Desert" (and a few other areas.) The world is constantly shifting. Only the player's character, the girl, remains a constant, but she shifts at will--trying new costumes, new hairstyles, new bodies. Her forms are drawn mainly from what could be taken as quotidian concerns of a child's life: cute animals (a cat, a frog,) common objects (a streetlamp, a stoplight,) folklore (Yuki Onna, Oni.) Then there are the more dreadful forms: the severed head, the knife wielder. Transformation and mutilation of the body are present throughout as identities are adopted and immediately discarded. Take the knife and kill everything in sight, grasping to understand what violence is, what murder is. Reset the world. Become the cat and the wandering creatures are drawn to your presence. You are loved. Your sense of the body, your tiny avatar's body, shifts depending on the scene; you're highly aware of it in claustrophobic mazes patrolled by hostile entities. In the wide-open, void-like hubs, awareness of the girl's specific spatial location is frequently irrelevant. Tiny landmarks like candles or colored blobs drift past in a sea of black and it comes to feel like you're just scrolling the screen, moving the environment around the girl instead of moving the girl through the environment. The only enemies I encountered were the googly-eyed bird women, who have the ability to imprison, rather than kill you. "Time out." Punishment for a child from a vaguely maternal authority. They're mildly terrifying. Nothing else has their capacity to disrupt play, they move fast, they appear suddenly. They're susceptible to the stoplight, which freezes them--an instrument of control from the adult world invested with supernatural power in this childlike, imaginary space. The trial-and-error of locating secrets unlocked by specific identities could be taken as an analogous to the efforts of a developing mind testing the boundaries of its world, testing its identity, forming a sense of self.

Yume Nikki does have an "ending," and that's an "ending" defined as "the point where the game won't let you play anymore and shows you some credits." You collect these identities, go into the dream world, discard them in the main "hub" room and wake yourself up. Then you jump off your balcony and get a little cutscene that shows the girl's turned into a blood splat. So much for developing a sense of self, then. I suppose you can interpret the discarding of the collected identities as the girl rejecting that abstract progress or rejecting her forming identity and thus becoming so despondent that she can't bear to run around in Neon Hallway Land with all the honking monsters anymore. Why is the player explicitly prompted to do this in the compulsory instruction screens? Why is this one of the only things the player is explicitly prompted to do in the entire game? If this game had to have an ending, this might make more sense as one of many the player could discover--making something of the preciousness of these forms and the self-mutilation of shedding them. As it is, it feels like an attempt to put a hundred exclamation points at the end of a meandering stream-of-consciousness experiment. It extinguishes the ambiguity of all that preceded it--this is what it's about, it's about depression, the girl's suicidal, just brutally filter everything through that premise--even the parts infused with childlike wonder which seem not to fit that premise at all.

Look at how the ending alters Yume Nikki and look at how we're interpreting it. It feels like more of a weird failure state than a conclusion to the story the zone exploration might represent. I had to look it up on YouTube to write this post, I hadn't the time or inclination to dig through the game long enough or read a FAQ to figure out how to collect all the things and access it myself. My impression of the game was rather different before I knew about it. With some distance, I got that impression back; the girl's suicide feels like a consequence of our ability to create open and ambiguous interactive or reactive works yet still attempt to enclose them in narrative bookends in an emulation of closed, fixed, linear storytelling techniques developed for traditional media. Open up Yume Nikki and run around until you're surprised by something new or something old you'd forgotten. Close it again. Why was that experience "incomplete?"

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Captain Blood (Atari ST)

Here's one of the best god damn things I've ever seen in a video game:

Never mind that most of the activities beneath all this surface detail are standard dialog trees and fetch quests. Conversations in Captain Blood are accomplished through something like a text parser merged with a keyword list. The system is referred to as UPCOM, a means of communicating in a language called "Bluddian," and all exchanges must be encoded to/decoded from sentences assembled from Bluddian glyphs. This isn't presented in the game's fiction as an abstract system for speaking naturally; the interface the player uses is the interface set into Captain Blood's console, the cursor is Captain Blood's hand, and the ship's computer is speaking to the aliens by proxy.

Contrast Captain Blood's approach with that of Mass Effect:

Captain Blood's fiction contains an idea of proxies nested within proxies. The computer speaks as the proxy for Captain Blood. Captain Blood is, curiously, proxy for "Bob Morlock," a designer who's been transported into his own video game. This unseen character, "Bob," is proxy for the player.

There's no such remove in Mass Effect between the player and Shepard; the intent is that the player feel as if they are in direct control of this character's actions and destiny, yet the options offered to the player during dialog are limited to short lists of responses that only paraphrase what Shepard will actually say. Expensive graphics and adopted film aesthetics are intended to lend Mass Effect a veneer of audio/visual verisimilitude, yet its conversation system is less complex and far less verisimilar (in terms of correlation between player and character action) than Captain Blood's was 19 years before. Captain Blood successfully integrates its interface into the fiction of the game. Mass Effect's dialog interface is a pop-up menu that floats over the action like a health bar or any other HUD element, grating against the game's "cinematic" presentation.

Low-rez sprite art lends simplicity, abstraction and ambiguity to characters and environments; Captain Blood provides a verbal equivalent to this effect.
The UPCOM system narrows the range of possible player inputs (as opposed to the full range a traditional text parser would allow) and holds alien speech to the same limitations. Each conversation in Captain Blood is a translation from spoken Bluddian to glyphs on the UPCOM console, which in turn are decoded by the player into their native language. Every exchange is understood to be an approximation of what is actually being said. The game was written in broken French, translated into broken English. A character might say:




while he twitches through a half-dozen or so frames of animation. The design and fiction of the game impress upon the player that this is a mere sketch of a conversation due not to limitations of the programmers at ERE or the Atari ST hardware, but due to limitations of UPCOM as a function of the techno-organic system Blood himself employs; this is a complete attempt at representing a world that is, by its nature, unknowable to the player.

Having laid out its entire toolkit in the form of UPCOM, the game performs a kind of transparent magic trick by deftly characterizing its various aliens using a vocabulary of fewer than 200 glyphs. Emotional states are frequently indicated by emphasis through repetition; a terrified character might output the glyph for "FEAR" multiple times, but among more coherent statements this reads not literally as


but as an outpouring of emotion that the ship's translator can only summarize; a partial representation of the actual, unknowable event. Captain Blood ventures frequently into these extreme emotional states; most aliens are preoccupied with personal vendettas or desperation, genocide, extinction, war. The player is cast more or less as the most powerful being in the universe, arbiter of life and death with the ability to incinerate any planet or disintegrate any individual with the press of a button.

Fractal-generated landscapes are devoid of structures or flora. Every alien waits alone in a barren wilderness, supplicant before God in the person of the player. These are intimate exchanges. Captain Blood contains moments of dark comedy, but it's just as frequently creepy or tragic. The titular character's mission is to assassinate and vampirically consume his escaped clones. It's villainy, but it's the only means of survival.

This dark tone is just the result of making a game where the most significant actions available to the player are massively destructive. A system like UPCOM is a license to play with the effects of broken language. Its application could yield radically different results in a setting removed from Captain Blood's moral abyss.

When volumes of natural English dialog are difficult to produce, it's possible to create an alternative.