Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Word If You Can Spare

Her eyes dart. There's me, left, below, and sometimes nothing. She's juggling, but doesn't think to catch her parts. They simply wait to hit the ground. Her face is focus, and wonder underneath. If you peel you find quiet fears with loud reasons. Her answers aren't clear but they are transparent. When enough words swell and battle to describe her, she fades, and in her absence, her emptiness speaks to me:

Newborn memory
You stand before me
And taunt me with
The arms at your side

Your blood makes me move
Your bones keep me still
I need your skin to keep me

But when I see through you
I do not see you
When I speak to you
My words do not travel

Where do they go, the things we hold in our hands?
How do we find them, the things we never lost?
When will we remember the things we never learned?
Why I do not love you

So I answer with my fleeing words and sounds, and all the things that emerge from my fingers, eyes, and sores. I answer with my unseen stares, my unwashed heart, and unwanted needs. In whispers to the world, and notes sacrificed before so many altars I say:

You cannot tickle your own foot
Though you might feel its scratch

You cannot frighten your own hand
Though it bows in its submission

You cannot yearn for things for you have
But might miss what you've misplaced

You cannot see yourself
Except before a mirror

I know no metaphor or trickery
I can only tell you what you are
A filled cup desperate to pour
A defiant falling

I have no solution, but am thoroughly immersed
I mistake double meanings for twice the words
Curiosities for desires
Wisdoms for truths

Love is not a thing you wait for
Come to
Or bring

Passion is not a paper trick
Of many-fold wonders
Hung by a string

And alone is not a number

They are the bubbling parts of your mind
The transformable parts of a world
And the means of my meaning

They are words

I'm writing them now, but may come back to hack off parts. What she has is still a mystery to me, but I know I have both longing and love. Freshly plucked with no jar to keep them. Her eyes no longer dart, but remain, and in her stillness her absence wanes. The earth is quiet again beneath me, but remembrances below me still flood with meaning.

I may be here for a while.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Categories: Gameplay Instance and Sequence

When trying to categorize and describe gameplay experiences, there's one huge difference in experience that I've been thinking about lately, which is the difference between an isolated and repeatable gameplay experience and between the long-term experience of progressing a game.

The former experience I think I'll refer to as a gameplay instance. Note that I'm making up these terms as I go along, so if someone has better ones for me to use, let me know. A gameplay instance includes the decisions involved in completing a specific task, usually in a single gameplay session - like "take the opponent's king" or "roll up the largest ball possible." As I'm describing it, gameplay instances are layered on top of each other - completing the task usually involves completing minor objectives along the way ("lure the opponent out of his defensive position" or "get onto that hill so I can pick up the stuff on top of it").

So with a definition of an "instance" that broad, what is left? The unspecific goal - "progress the game." Usually progressing the game involves completing specific tasks, but there's a separate experience that emerges out of these specific tasks that is more than their sum. In a Final Fantasy game, each battle is a gameplay instance, and navigating a dungeon is a gameplay instance, but then there's the motivation to see what happens next driving you even when you're tired of killing your 300th zombie dragon. That's the gameplay sequence at work.

So while most games these days include both kinds of gameplay experiences, they emphasize each to different degrees. Games far on the instance side include almost all board games, and games like Left 4 Dead that emphasize repeatable mutiplayer experiences. On the sequence-heavy side of things we have adventure games and interactive fiction. Between the extremes we have most modern games, which include overcoming challenges as part of an ongoing progress toward an uncertain final goal.

So I intended to say more, but I think I'll just stick to this for now and come back to it. Generally speaking, the point is that figuring out early on what kind of experience you want to provide and focusing on elements to provide that is important, and among other things you should figure out to what extent you want to emphasize a instanced or sequential experience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chess and Resource Management

My local Starbucks has a chess board sitting around, so I decided to play against myself. Since this gives me perfect predictive power about what my opponent is going to do, it obviously removes some of the standard elements of Chess, but there was one thing I realized when playing it: Chess is first and foremost about mobilization. That is, you begin with all pieces in play, but since most of them are behind a wall of pawns to start with, they don't immediately threaten your opponent. The way you gain options is by moving them into positions where they can form threats.

On reflection, this is more similar than I'd thought to modern strategy games and their treatment of resource management. Think of Magic, where I've chosen cards to place into my deck - the cards are there, but they're not in a usable state, they're not active threats, until I draw them (and have enough mana available to use them). Even if I play an RTS game, say Starcraft, I have a potential army that becomes realized when I gather enough resources to build it, and the question I constantly have to balance is how long I should spend mustering threats before I try to use them - if I'm playing well, I should attack as soon as I think I have a force my opponent won't be able to defend against. This is the same kind of strategy I'm using in Chess - I'm trying to move my units into a position from which they can simultaneously threaten my opponent, and as soon as I think I can launch an attack my opponent can't defend against, I will.

So revelation of the day: mobilizing units and building them are, from the perspective of their impact on strategy, extremely similar (as long as it takes a similar amount of effort). The big difference, of course, is that my units can still be used to defend in many situations before I've moved them at all. If you like, however, you can imagine these situations as my opponent bringing the units into play (like if my opponent plays a card that results in me drawing new cards, or allows me to respond by playing one). It also suggests a certain consistency between the way classic and modern games conceive of strategy.

Just thought that was interesting.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some Haiku

I don't know why in particular I've become interested in haiku, but I have. I post them from time to time on Twitter, but it occurs to me that they're likely being lost in the flood of 140-character posts, so I'm assembling them in one place, and may do so every few months if I produce them at a sufficient rate. These were all written this summer, and are in chronological order:

Summer sky beckons/An empty desk behind me/It's time for dinner

Shit-stained sidewalk/Ambulating down the hill/Cars pass on my left

Banana carcass/Its purpose perfectly served/Lies and stares at me

A "frappelatte"/An airport's quiet hours/And a slow-paced walk

Constant dull humming/With a book and a window/Sound of returning

In addition to the 5-7-5 structure, there are a few rules I tend to apply to haiku. First, they should describe a particular moment. Second, you should not only have 17 syllables, but really respect what it means for them to be different lines. That is, I don't think it passes to take a 17-syllable sentence and present it as haiku. In that case the haiku structure is nothing more than an inside joke, whereas if you respect the structure and what the limitations mean, they can force things out of you that you didn't expect.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Short Games: Canabalt

Firstly, I see that I've been away for a month now - a variety of tumultuous things have happened in my life recently, so I don't feel too guilty about it.

So anyway, from Raph's Website I just got the link to Canabalt and it got my thinking about short games. You see, the game is very cool - it procedurally generates levels, has nice art, and is capable of producing a "that's badass" experience with simple presentation and single-button interaction. However, it is also immensely unsatisfying, because once you get over the "ah, that's cool" reaction, there's not much else to the game. It's not simply that the game is too short or needs more features - by concept, the game cannot provide anything more than it does.

The issue here is that it takes time for me to fall in love with a game, and even when I like short or experimental games, I never really fall in love with them. This troubles me because I care about art, and I care about games, and I'd like these two concerns to overlap at some point, and it seems that experimental games are an important part of getting there.

Maybe it's just that no one has hit quite the right chord with me to make me fall in love with such a short game, but I don't think that's quite it. The problem is that games, I think, need to allow for exploration, and if I feel like I get it right away, then there's nothing to explore. Exploration here doesn't simply refer to having a big map to cover, though that can work (I'm looking at you, Bethesda games!). A player can explore a game mechanic, or different strategies, or possible narrative paths, or a single narrative path, for that matter.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from making experimental or short games, by any means, but I do worry that games that don't at least provide a couple hours worth of exploration (whether its by having a two-hour long linear path, repeatably simple gameplay with deep strategy, or just lots of stuff to discover in a virtual space) are ultimately limited in how deeply they can affect us.

That is, for games and art to converge, I think we may need to have larger-scale experiements.