June 27, 2008

Leveling up

robot-girl--piercing.jpg Here's something I said about video games last year: "Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life."

A month ago, game designer Steve Gaynor issued a call to arms: sketch out a game design that expresses a feeling and explores it through a conflict. He offers the following as suggestions.


The sadness of loss
The satisfaction of a job well-done
The joy of discovery
The vindication of upholding one's convictions
The anxiety of uncertainty
The thrill of infatuation
The alienation of being in a foreign land
The comfort of true friendship


Duty vs. Passion
Indulgence vs. Prudence
Faith vs. Skepticism
Ostracism vs. Acceptance
Patience vs. Impulse
Masculinity vs. Femininity
Tradition vs. Progress
Innocence vs. Cynicism
Pragmatism vs. Romanticism

He's got a dozen submissions so far, though it's worth noting that the most interesting ones rely more on exploring/messing with the conventions of gaming than manipulating emotion. Which brings me to BioShock, one of the best games I've ever played.

Gaynor is currently part of the team working on BioShock 2. BioShock got a lot of hype, and then a lot of criticism, for its cheap moral dilemma (which Gaynor notes isn't even a dilemma). But what made it for me a transcendent gaming experience -- at least until the third quarter letdown -- was not the choose-your-moral-path conceit but, well, the way it explored and messed with gaming conventions. The big reveal in the middle not only satisfied me on a narrative level (I, for one, didn't see it coming, yet once it happened, could think of nothing else that would make sense), it was a development that could only happen in a videogame and that served as a wry if somewhat haunting commentary on what it means to play narrative games. It was exactly what I had said we need: a narrative device not borrowed from cinema, but built entirely on the language of gameplay.

I'm not sure there needs to be a BioShock sequel, but the fact that Gaynor is working on it is a good sign.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


You try Mass Effect yet? Solid narrative there as well.

If you like Mass Effect, play the first Deus Ex. There are PC and Apple versions of the game.

Mass Effect certainly has a lot of narrative -- or at least a lot of talking -- but I'm not sure how compelling it is. No wait, I am sure: not very. I loved KOTOR and Jade Empire (and Deus Ex). I bought the 360 largely in anticipation of ME. But I just found it dull and tedious. I pretty much gave it up after a few missions when it became clear that that it wasn't all going to snap together. Also, the inventory management system is pretty much impenetrable. The dialogue system is cool, and I expect to see it put to use in a more fun game eventually, but overall, ME is one of the most disappointing games I've ever played, given my expectations.

Fallout 3 had better not suck too, dammit.

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