My novel is now on sale. In the US, the Kindle version is $5.99 and the paperback is $11.00. Thanks for reading. Big Jack is Dead – A visually striking Southern Gothic novel.
A month or two back, I was alternating between several games – the shipping version of Gone Home, a nascent version of the Novelist, and Far Cry 2, which I wanted to replay for the third time on the Infamous setting with Dylan’s Mod and SweetFX installed. Around the same time, I played the brilliant and moving Papers, Please – a game that is hard to include in lists because of the way commas fuck with my head. Papers, Please is a really good example taking a situation and exploring it deeply.
Compared to the amount of free time I have, I can barely keep up with the good games, books and movies being created.
Somewhere in that mix, I played through the IF game Sacrilege, and found that it had a fairly profound impact on me, continuing to resonate even now. It’s constructed of energetic, well-written prose, but since you’re driving it along, reacting to the ideas at your own pace, the impact goes deeper than that. More importantly, the protagonist-perspective and the mediation of the player’s options evoked a constant stream of realizations, popping off in my head as I played through four or five times.
Sacrilege filled my mind with realizations about the interplay of personality archetypes, feelings of abandonment that I still harbor, and the absolute cafe-bombing power of social failure. There were times when it turned me on, filling me with the drive to pursue. The entire thing was fascinating, seeing desire from within one particular woman’s perspective. It’s all about what people need from each other balanced against risks and the terror of social rejection; the delicate auto-manipulation required to maintain confidence and resist screaming from the anxiety inherent in seeking connection, which at times feels like trying to keep a kitten alive while its heart is out on the operating table.
The notion of youth and soul (and time) as precious, not to be squandered on sex with someone unworthy, is not a concept native to my thinking. Another way the game is a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of someone else, even if this praise risks categorizing the author-designer as too “other” from my own life.
Mild spoilers, but the notion of the friendly NPC slipping the hero a book was rad; reading it in a club made me laugh in a great way because it was something I’d do if I met such an NPC. The text makes a point about the way men are constrained, developmentally – leadership is a requirement, with all the failure and high stakes anxiety that brings about. The simple honesty of the term fuckplan is so great. Another non-native concept, but it instantly opened my eyes to another murky part of the world, of life. The evoking of the YEAH YEAH YEAHS through the game name and MAAAAPS created a kind of synergy. As someone with a lifelong kind of mild body/facial dysmorphia, I found the protagonist’s confident desirability very powerful. Sacrilege is rich, and was crafted in such a way that it produces an endless series of reactions in the player. I’m not sure if this means it’s packed with ideas, or if – even more clever – it unrolls in such a way that leverages the player’s own experience and prompts self-reflection that manifests as ideas.
Even as an atheist, I felt an embedded Biblical reaction to the names of the men. Insecurity ran through me when John was described as tall, and upon hearing a “twenty-something body” described as hot. Awe-struck, I stopped playing and sat back to absorb this moment that made me feel like I’d been in the perimeter of some kind of minefield; deadly territory that seconds ago I’d been skipping through, but now had to stand frozen, considering how to inch out and away. Playing, you’re caught in a social trap that you cannot even see, which is fucking terrifying. It’s all made worse because we’ve all lived through those social situations that make up the game’s narrative world, where you cannot stop and consider because the clock is running and to pause would be weird, so you push ahead. And as you do, you’re screaming internally at the mistakes you’re making. Sacrilege, more than anything I’ve experienced, touched upon the power we give other people over us, to define us – to define our status as winners or losers – which is completely illusory in most cases, but can be mind-destroying anyway.
There were bits I found brutally cynical, touching upon heart-breaking aspects of some romantic tangles. At one point the game drives home the protagonist’s dilemma, the choice between two of the men, in such a painful way that I wanted to stop playing, but couldn’t:
The guy you are going to hurt
The guy who is going to hurt you
The are only two options
So brutal. So much hunger, need, desperation and risk.
because you might not be offered
something like it again
they never actually
give you anything
Instead only take
When they want
place you out on the chessboard
egos think they will always have pawns
Sacrilege is worth your time, but I’d recommend playing it when you’re alone and in the right frame of mind. It’s short enough to play a number of times, which will let you see all the angles.
About the game, Ellison says, “…I really wanted to make a ‘dating sim’ for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping Dating Sim Jam and instead of making it about weird and wonderful sexual experiences I wanted to make it about the heart stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing. So I made this Twine game. However, I famously have somewhat manic-depressive tendencies, and therefore it takes place in a red-hot club atmosphere where your eyes are being singed and music is forcing its way into your skin and you love every second of your descent into hell. Oh, yes, and turn your volume up, there is music at a certain point.”
I just had the chance to play CAPSULE, the space (?) horror game by Adam Saltsman and Robin Arnott. It’s amazing, the kind of experience that only comes from the tiny subset of games that work on me.
Stark and understated, it’s the interactive medium’s answer to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sound effects and art direction in the game are stylish, but in the service of the game’s desperate, doomed mood – discolored glass (or is it icy?), creaks and groans, darkness closing in as you run short on air.
Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide. And this is a sensation that seems increasingly uncommon, as game developers continue to strive for clarity and “ease of use,” usually at the expense of the most powerful parts of the interactive medium. Through all the years, I still seek out this experience: The early days of experimenting with the physical forces in Lunar Lander, learning the give and take of the systems; that first stealth encounter in Thief, where you’re trying to gauge the acuity of the senses of the guards, the effects of lighting on stealth, and the distance at which you’re safe; a clever puzzle solution snapping into place in Portal as you manipulate the geographic flow of space itself; moving time back and forth in Braid, ears attuned to the associated changes in music; simply exploring the world in Sword & Sworcery; realizations exploding in your head the first time several of Far Cry 2′s systems close on you like a noose – fire propagating through tall grass, distant enemies being drawn into a fight, listening to your downed ally crying for help from (somewhere!) nearby, herd animals getting caught in the crossfire. (This murkiness and that uncertain exploration of controls and mechanics was one of the goals Raphael Colantonio and I discussed for Dishonored. Whether we achieved it or not, it’s rare in games now and CAPSULE does it incredibly well.)
The game mechanics are simple, but brilliant, forcing the player to balance oxygen and engine power. Unless I’m inferring too much, when you’re rich in air, you can afford to go very slowly. And when you’re up on fuel, you can burn it fast to save oxygen. None of this is relevant until you’re ready for it, because another thing the game handles superbly is the ramp-up curve; each time you dock with another in-space entity, the mechanics change, making the game harder and more complex. The only thing I struggled with in CAPSULE was breaking my brain away from interpreting the game as 3D first-person navigation. That, and the heart-stopping tension. (Play with headphones, in the dark! Alone!)
Part of Austin’s indie scene for a while now, Saltsman is kind of a cosmic superhero boy scout and Arnott is like that thing that has been following you through a scary forrest, with bells and bits of bones interwoven through its hair, only later you realize it’s some kind of friendly spirit guide. This is my way of saying that they’re both amazing creative people, making interesting games that I’ve been lucky enough to play.
So far, I’ve only played CAPSULE up to the point where I got meters away from the Science Lab before asphyxiating. The desire to play again – right now – is gnawing at me in a good way, but I’ve learned to savor games like this.
Special thanks to Brandon Boyer for helping to motivate this sort of project, all Gertrude Stein-like.
PS) As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily (or not even probably) set in space.
Download CAPSULE here:
Statements from Saltsman and Arnott:
Hard to describe how I feel about this, but it’s out there in the world now; my first novel is launching. Thanks to the many people who helped me out and made the book much better. In some ways, it’s been a life-long endeavor, and it represents something I’m leaving behind and something that will always be a part of me.
The Penny Arcade Report (hosted by Ben Kuchera)
Dishonored’s Harvey Smith explains the genius of Far Cry 2
Wed, Dec 19, 2012
When working on Dishonored with my co-creative director Raphael Colantonio, Raph and I would often race over to excitedly share stories with one another after some moment during a solo play session. While these moments were sometimes related to a gorgeous vista the artists had cooked up, or a payoff moment in some level designer’s mission, our most intense reactions were reserved for those times when – as a result of player input and systems – something dramatic happened that we consider emergent, rather than embedded, narrative.
“I pulled myself up onto a low wall, but knocked over a bottle, which fell and crashed. A guard around the corner heard it and said something about checking it out. Just before he rounded the corner, a rat squeaked by and I possessed it, effectively hiding from the guard.”
This is significant and sheds light on the creative values shared at Arkane Studios and, I assume, with the makers of numerous games across time that facilitate emergent narrative, like Far Cry 2 or this year’s excellent indie title FTL: Faster Than Light.
The stories we tell ourselves
Games exist in their most “alive” state when their adjacent systems have an influence on one another, driven by player action. (Without the last part, it’s just simulation.) Game systems that – even beyond the plans and intentions of the designers – allow the player to improvise, not with a single dominant strategy, but along multiple parallel tracks that can be chosen for tactical or expressive reasons, are the way to grant players the most powerful intellectual and emotional experiences the medium can offer.
Here the focus is on Far Cry 2, one of my favorite shooters of all time. This is largely because – as I experience play – I find myself ignoring the embedded plot about Africa and the Jackal, and focusing instead on the dynamic story that I’m telling with the game through my actions and the game’s reactions. FC2‘s strongest systems comprise a magical admixture: the game’s AI perception, the outrageously dangerous fire propagation model, the ambient wildlife and my tender feelings about animals, and the buddy rescue system.
Hiding in the grass while a leanly muscled young man passed, carrying an AK-47 and thumbing a text message into his phone was thrilling. I feared being discovered, but imagined he was texting a girlfriend or boyfriend and didn’t want to have to kill him. I will never forget the sounds of the key presses on his phone as he passed my hiding place. Such a synthesis of game elements and tension.
As I was dying in a fire-fight the first time a buddy was dynamically deployed to rescue me, I felt a tremendous wave of emotion. This was Nasreen, who I felt an action-buddy bond through close association over time during moments of duress. Once I learned the system, I always made sure to “reset” that buddy’s state so she’d be there as a backup when I got in trouble.
Much later, in one particular encounter where Nasreen was down, I went to vast lengths to save her. If I remember correctly, my save game was set in a particular awkward moment in time and each time I reached her, where she’d been shot and burned by fire, I could not revive her. In the end, I kept her alive by running for a jeep, using it to wipe out a group of enemies nearby, then sprinting for a safe house containing more adrenaline and meds. Nasreen died eventually anyway, which was stressful to me, but at that moment my investment and the game’s systems conspired to create huge potential for drama, unlike that found in any other medium.
Once I ran over a zebra in my jeep and it troubled me, since I’d gone out of my way to avoid killing animals via weapons, vehicles or even accidental fire propagation. This was not “abstract entity 429 has reached 0 damage points and will now play its nonfunctional animation.” This was “I killed a beautiful creature, wandering a visually moving, but troubled landscape.”
My ultimate moment of unbridled joy playing FC2 came during a side mission, picked up in the form of an assassination contract via radio tower. A couple of jeeps full of armed men were protecting a convoy carrying my target, a sophisticatedly-dressed man with close-cropped white hair and a burgundy suit riding in an SUV.
The short version of the story is this: I engaged in an intense battle with the armed guards, wrecking several vehicles, including my own ATV, and when the SUV tried to run me over I killed the driver at point-blank range with my double-barreled shotgun, through the windshield. It made me feel like a bull fighter. Then, the last man standing was my target, racing sideways in the tall grass, firing at me with a nickel-plated hand cannon.
We fought for a while, the grassfire roaring around us ignited by the burning vehicles. I ran out of ammo and had to scavenge from the dead thugs; solid game dynamics that afforded me the chance to improvise, something unlikely to happen in many shooters with endless or overly-plentiful ammo and less interlocking systems. The fight was coming down to the wire, but as I retreated from my target – badly wounded and trying to avoid the grassfire – a single, far-off shot at my back ended me.
A sniper from a nearby (unrelated) camp had seen us fighting from high up in his tower, and as we ranged closer he had put me down. The last thing I saw was a blur of burning, crackling grass and the sophisticated-looking man in the burgundy suit firing his pistol at me, straight out of a Euro-crime film. But all this drama was experiential; it was the result of play, my actions.
You might have different views than I do in terms of what games are or ought to be, but I’m telling you: In terms of reaching me as a player and an emotional being, you cannot touch me like this without interacting game systems that facilitate emergent narrative. Go deep with that and I am yours. Still high with thrill, I reloaded and kicked off the mission again.
This time with the benefit of impossible, out of time experience, I easily took down my target. Upon completion – after that second, cleaner pass at the mission – I put the controller down, hands literally covered in sweat, and just sat on the couch for a while. In part, I was breathing, recovering emotionally, and in part I was savoring the feeling of what the game had just enabled. No film, book or amusement park ride has ever given me that specific blend of feelings. As soon as I had collected myself, I pulled out my phone and called Clint [Hocking]; I was that excited and I had to share it with someone who could understand.
Of course, the situation with the man in the burgundy suit requires some suspension of disbelief: If you fail to kill the target, the vehicle convoy will simply make a full circle and return, looping endlessly across the same 2-3 kilometer path. I wish this had been a “fail-able” side mission, where the target had the opportunity to escape via helicopter. But the fact is, systems-based games can never be as clean or tidy as heavily-linear or highly-controlled, scripted games, something Raph and I talk about now and then.
Even for all that was good in FC2‘s buddy system, I once lost an ally I’d invested in because – I believe – he randomly stepped into grassfire while I wasn’t paying attention, at a time we were not even fighting anyway, and he died unceremoniously without my notice. This is what another developer friend calls “systems gone bad,” and it’s one of the reasons that it’s harder for games made of systems that facilitate improvisational play to shine against highly choreographed, controlled, cinematic games.
And yet somehow the situation with Africa and the Jackal was some critical part of enabling my experience. I’m not an advocate of games with zero embedded narrative, made up exclusively of abstract game entities. In FC2, my understanding of the conflict and my mood were contextualized by the framework of the game’s story and the mythos of the Jackal. The conversations of my buddies, when we were standing around in bars, added some kind of gravity to their later systemic rescues of me or their cries to be rescued by me.
The challenge of narrative
You might ask – since the best moments of emergent narrative drama arise from the interplay of player agency and game systems – why we still rely on embedded narrative. Why give characters names, histories, lines of dialogue or personal goals if it’s not needed, or more specifically if it has nothing to do with the craft of game design, centered as it is on players optimizing toward victory conditions, rules as constraints and the resulting dynamics? The mechanics of chess work well whether you think about your mighty, cleverly-mobile “Knight” falling to a mere “Pawn,” rather than piece X being removed from play by piece Y, or whether you have some associated feelings for the uniqueness and value among your pieces of your Queen or King.
If you could accomplish the aesthetic goal of satisfying emergent narrative in a game where your spheroid avatar uses its physics attraction game mechanics to arrange black cubes as a means of solving puzzles and advancing, why bother with even the basic elements of story. Just as Rod Humble’s brilliant, fascinating game The Marriage benefited from – or integrally depended on, even – the name “marriage” and the colors blue and pink, the spheroid concept described above immediately gets more grounded and less abstract if I describe the spheroid as a robot like Pixar’s Wall-E, his physics power as magnetism, and the black cubes as iron.
If the number of games created, played and paid for are a useful indication, more people find the less abstract version of games more appealing; people want to play games that enable them to make a series of interesting decisions, but they want these games grounded in an emotionally evocative setting. You personally might want less embedded narrative or a different flavor that shares less in common with action cinema – as I do sometimes, even in games I’ve worked on – but that’s a matter of taste. Having some concrete identification with the subjects and subject matter found in video games grants those games universal entry points, as an aid to learning or emotional attachment (and thus gravity, meaning or importance).
Works like Eve Online and (notably indie) titles Dwarf Fortress and Day Z are all games where the player experience is highly focused on emergent narrative, in part eschewing the embedded narrative elements commonly seen in commercial, big-budget games. Through context they still represent a blend of embedded and emergent narrative. Games like Skyrim blend the two approaches as well in ways that create memories treasured by the fans of the game.
The watermark game Journey uses its setting – traditional media in the form of visual and aural embedded elements – to engender in the player a sense of spirituality and spiritual journey; then Journey creates moments of emergent narrative from brief, moving visits from other, ephemeral players, where the realities of each avatar briefly overlap, but the players have very few (minimalist) channels for communication.
Dishonored is a game that Raph and I spent over three years creating with Arkane Studios, a place dedicated to these ideals about the blend of emergent and embedded narrative. Dishonored tries to achieve emergent narrative moments by empowering the player in numerous ways related to movement, combat, evasion and killing, and creating connections between the associated support systems. Further, many of our systems involve some level of uncertainty or entropy, as a means of increasing the likelihood the player will have to improvise on the fly.
If games focused on embedded narrative are more polished, why do many of us prefer games that focus on the dynamics of emergent narrative? Is it some intuitive sense that ferrets out what is most meaningful in games? Is this a situation akin to independent film, where an audience steeped in the critical aspects of the medium wants a bare experience, uncluttered by bombast, filler or special effects, delivered in an understated or experimental way? On initial contact, Far Cry 2 was somewhat unwelcoming in that it did not invite players in; the subject matter was brutal and the game’s advancement curve and difficulty tuning required patience.
The reward for those who stayed with the game was potent. Some of the most interesting game design commentary of the year orbited the game, including the Permadeath experiments conducted by Ben Abraham and others, which I take as an indication of how thought-provoking and challenging (to video game conventions) Far Cry 2 was. The game stands as the shooter title that has given me the most compelling, player-driven moments to date.