Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Player Immersion and Narrative in Skyrim

There are many game theory topics to discuss when talking about Skyrim but I feel as if I have neglected two of the most important topics of video game theory. There are two things for me that really make a game worth playing. One is a great narrative that can vary and the other is player immersion in the game.
One thing that I never had much of a chance to discuss about Skyrim is the narrative. There are a few main story narratives that tell a pretty decent story, but what is really impressive is the option for someone to complete side quests that add to the main story or add to the characters personal story. In Skyrim, you have the option to be what you want to be from the very beginning. You can side with either faction or side with no faction. You can be a mage, a warrior, a master thief, or a combination of these. You don't even have to complete the main story line; you can carve out your own story with side quests. There is also narrative in the form of cut scenes. there is a great limited interaction cut scene at the beginning of the game that helps ease you in to playing. There are also small finishing move cut scenes when you kill the last bad guy in a group your fighting. Another cool thing that was done in Skyrim is having the option to talk to random townsfolk; they don't always have anything useful to say but sometimes they have helpful information. I think the developers for Skyrim did a great job incorporating a narrative into the game that can fluctuate and give the player more options. However, I think this game lacks detail in the narrative. This is a give and take situation; the more options you give a player in a game, the less detail the narrative will have. This makes sense because in order to incorporate more options in to the game you would have to have a story line that was vague and could be filled in with more information with the completion of side quests and progression through the game.  
I think player immersion is a very important aspect of Skyrim also. I hadn't thought about this much before but reading Ready Player One really got me to thinking about it. There is nothing quite as immersive as OASIS happening in Skyrim but it still has immersive qualities. One thing I noticed while playing this game, is that what seems like 30 minutes of gameplay ends up really being a couple of hours when I play. When I think about this, I have to ask myself if the game world is more interesting than the real world and my answer is duh!. I can definitely relate to Wade and other OASIS players when the topic of escaping the world around me comes about. You can do anything in Skyrim. You can cast magic, be a thief, or a great adventurer. There are many things you can do in Skyrim that you can not do in the real world.

League of Legends and Gaming Theory... Unite!

"Captain Teemo on duty!!!"
   Every time I start to make a post on this blog I think  "What game should I discuss? What is something I want to write about?" and I give myself the same answer every time, League of Legends. Yet I always decide that I should avoid it because Half-Real doesn't apply to League (<---Very wrong), but after essentially looking for any excuse to geek over League and flipping through the book again I realized it could have actually been the ideal example to so many parts of the book, and a near perfect example in many cases. It was as if Teemo had Q'd me with his Blinding Shot and I could not see how this book had anything to do with a no narrative unconventional game like League of Legends

Typical League gameplay near the blue nexus.
    League of Legends is a part of a insanely fast growing sub-genre of Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games called Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA's and is currently the most played video game in the world. The basics of League can be summarized by using Juul's three rules for defining gameplay which consist of:
  1.  The rules of the game
  2. The player(s)' pursuit of the goal. The player seeks strategies that work due to the emergent properties of the game.
  3. The player's competence and repertoire of strategies and playing methods.
    LoL's rules in their simplest state are that you must defend your nexus, while also trying to destroy the enemies' nexus that stands on the opposite side of the map.
LoL map showing blue and purple nexus locations.
There are many rules governing how you can and can not achieve this goal but the means in which you can accomplish the objective are nearly infinite. This leads to the second point as having a lot of options to pursue in trying to accomplish the goal means that no one option is the best and keeps players seeking out that strategy that usually works. This could include teamwork or being a one man wolf pack, whichever the player decides to do. Lastly we have the the player skill level which is a massive part of LoL as it was created with the intentions of being a competition based game with a focus on Esports.

    Anyone who read Half-Real knows that there are few things more fun than definitions and rules, and as much as I would love to spend a couple thousand words on them I am no Jesper Juul. With LoL gameplay at least vaguely defined I have some key points as to why League fits into this book so well, even perfectly in many cases. Juul states in chapter three that when players search for that effective strategy in multiplayer games you will usually see a common theme of teamwork even though teamwork is not necessary as stated by the games' rules. The reoccurring  pattern of teamwork and successful strategies are casually referred to as the "meta" in LoL. The meta is the base to whatever style of play is currently considered the most effective strategy to win the game and almost always places a heavy emphasis on teamwork just as Juul suggested multiplayer games with teammates.
Teamwork is the only way to accomplish certain objectives
 in LoL such as slaying the Baron Nashor.
   Later in the chapter Juul discusses what makes quality gameplay and concludes that it is being able to make a series of interesting choices and defines them as:
  1. No single option should be the best.
  2. The options should not be equally good.
  3. The player must be able to make an informed choice.
League could not possibly fit this better. The constant shifting of the current meta-game demonstrates how no option is best for any reasonable amount of time and that some options will be better than others at any given time.
Playing the game and understanding when to choose one method of play over another revolves around knowing the game thoroughly. With how well League fits these three points it should be considered a definitive example of "quality gameplay". Gameplay is a large part of enjoyment according to the book but still relies on many other factors that League is a prime example of. One such factor is improvement and challenge. This is where many games usually fall flat for me by being too easy once I have reached a set skill level. League combats this with an ELO matchmaking system which essentially rates your skill and as you improve you will begin playing better players. This avoids any one person being so skilled that they game does not provide enough challenge to be fun. 
   While these are some of the more dominate themes of the book that LoL represents there were also many smaller ideas present in League that were mentioned in the book such as choke points, the game world, and the presence of time.
The three lanes of League.
Choke points are map locations where team combat is likely to occur, such as the middle of the lanes in LoL. The game world is only ever shown in the form of one map, yet there is tons of lore in the form of text describing an entire universe that is never actually seen. A timer is present and plays a large role in keeping track of spawning, when to make a certain move, and keeping track of performance yet there is no in-game sense of time such as night. 
 




It is hard to think that my first time venturing through Half-Real I kept telling myself that none of this applied to League and how unfortunate it was that I could not tie in my mild League addiction with my gaming theory class, but a few weeks later and it finally hit me about just how off I was.
SuperCow7 just laid down a wicked sick penta-kill on the
other team. You should probably add him on League.
Just because LoL does not have a narrative or typical gameplay does not mean that it abides by different rules and definitions. Juul really did write a book covering every type of game in some manner or another leaving no exception. It is a book that I will not easily forget since the content pertains to something I love and is part of my every day routine. I can't engage in a team fight as Fiddle without thinking about how the rules leave me the option to not help my team, yet I always find myself diving into combat due to an unspoken set of rules that give me a better chance of winning if I do work as a team. Rules, gotta love 'em.


- SuperCow7

The Hero is the God


Over the course of the five weeks I have learned many new things about games and particularly video games; the definition of what makes a game (structure, rules, storyline, playtime, etc.), the flow of time both in the game and in real time and how it effects playtime (Half-Real, Juul, 6-7...141-156), debating the effectiveness of cutscenes, and personal opinions on the value of certain games. Probably the best part of the course was reading the novel “Ready Player One” by Earnest Cline; it was an excellent book which delves into the pros and cons of the players’ immersion into gaming, and the power of play. In fact this book is what inspired my final project here which I look into playing video games as a form of playing “God”.
Let me explain, in the story there is a MMOG (massively mulitiplayer online game) OASIS that almost every person in the dystopia world of 2044. The creator, James Halliday, dies and leaves in his will game of hunting for the ultimate Easter Egg to win the entire company, and ‘gunters’ must use their avatars to find it in the game. Based on this I came with this discovery; it appeared to me that the main character Wade controlling his character to complete the tasks that Halliday set up was very similar to a demigod directing his champion to complete the trials set by the God to raise himself to take the place of the God.
Another part that formed the “Player God” theory is the article “Playing the hero: How games take the concept of storytelling from representation to presentation by Teun Dubbleman. In his article he discusses two logics of interactivity of the player to the game; one is that of the player as a guide of the character’s actions, and the other is a more active participant of the game-world and the story.

Using these as inspiration I formed my idea as players are the ‘God’ of the video game. From my experience of playing over the past five weeks I have seen that as the player I have the power of complete control over every action of the character; in games like the Sims it takes it one step further by giving the character a bit of (preprogrammed) free will, and intervening only at the God’s a.k.a the player’s discretion like in real life religions.  But that is a different story.
New Super Mario Bros Wii - WIISince all my previous blogs have been over Mario games, I have decided to finish with Mario – Super Mario Brothers for Wii. The game is fairly straight forward; it is like a modern rendition of Super Mario Brothers with Super Mario World. In the game the player acts out a predetermined story, but even though the player has no control over the complete story they have complete control over the action and the existence of Mario and his gang.  Taking from the article and the novel, playing Mario allows the player to immerse themselves into the familiar story and rhythm of the upbeat whimsical world (like the first logic), but allows for the player to maintain the distance of their Godliness of the classical control of the game(logic two). (Playing the Hero, Dubbleman)

Narrative with a Side of Gaming Theory, Please. (Final)



Oh hai there. 
The horror genre has a very special place in my heart. From the time I was young, I valued horror among all other genres. Maybe it was my eldest brother who got me into it by locking me and my siblings in his room to watch him play horror games… in the dark. All of the monsters that twisted its way to the screen, each innocent little girl who turned evil, and every dark hallway that held surprises in each room and maybe even under the grates that you were walking on provided a lot of nightmare fuel. But what makes these games just so damn good? Well, narrative of course! 

Laura Parker of Gamespot.com wrote a very intriguing article with a lot of references to popular game theorists and others that were giving their two cents on video games as a storytelling medium.
“We tell stories through words, music, art, and dance; we record them on paper, paint them on canvas, and capture them on film. And now, thanks to video games, we can interact with them. When we play a game we are not merely passive observers; we become active participants in the story as it unfolds.” This is just how I felt as a young girl in my brother’s room because each one of us in that room became part of the story. We were Harry Mason traversing the ever changing world of Silent Hill. I hardly agree with the critics mentioned in the article with quotes like,

“There’s a deep division between the concept of a story as it has come down through tradition and the concept of a story as it is in video games,” Dutton said. “Games do not have the story structure we see in Greek plays, Shakespearean tragedies, or even soap operas on afternoon TV. They are, at their very heart, games and not stories.”

And

“The difference is, of course, that video games combine these traditional elements with interactivity,” Dutton said. “I continue to resist the idea that this can be done easily or effectively. Video games are a new form of make-believe, that’s for certain, but I don’t think I’m ready to call them a new form of storytelling, and beyond that, an effective medium to tell stories. It’s clear to me that Grand Theft Auto and BioShock have more in common with a tea party for teddy bears than they do with the plays of Shakespeare.”



Opening this door seems like a good idea...
Oh hey man, I'm just hanging out. 
Most games do not have narrative like those of Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have great stories. I love horror, so honestly, you know its coming. The story in Silent Hill is brilliant. It’s creepy and was certainly something new at the time. You control Harry and search through the town of Silent Hill for your lost daughter Cheryl. Now Game Studies writer Diane Carr does have a point when she writes that, “The survival horror game Silent Hill is comparatively tense, sparse and linear. It is monoglossic, and single minded.” Now at first… I thought she was dissing on Silent Hill (most likely because I have no idea what monoglossic means and single minded always seemed like an insult to me), and I was getting my powder ready, but she is right. Silent Hill is pretty straight forward. But the story is what makes the game progress so well. Sure, there isn’t much talking, as is mentioned in the article, but we have to consider that the article was written in 2001 and the writer didn’t get to see the rest of the series. Well, up to Silent Hill 3 anyways, because those games were pretty boss - especially the story. It’s not on par with any classic writers like Poe, Tolstoy, Emerson, etc. It does have potential however. Parker’s article mentions a few other critics that have an issue with video games being considered a storytelling medium. They make the point that it’s a very childish story and it does not stimulate adults. Well sure, it’s no War & Peace. There is more for video games to give, though.

Alan Wake was released in 2010 and totally blew me away. You are READING a novel while you play! I mentioned this in my first post and I think it deserves a revisit. Wake’s narrative involves the main character Alan Wake and his journey through Bright Falls. You push the story forward by following the map in the upper right corner, or reading the pages you collect to understand what’s up next. Of course there’s also controls that allow you to see what is up ahead, immediate threats, and Wake’s voice instructing you that you may need to go somewhere like to the gas station across the way. The beautiful thing about storytelling is that you know when it’s a good story because it’s always been around. Adding the ability to interact with your surroundings makes it a soooo-guuud. Something we have never experienced before in this medium. It opens all new doors. Like that of Heavy Rain which was a mostly decision based game. There are so many outcomes depending upon what you do with each character that you are allowed to control. You don’t fight much, from the game play that I observed/remember, but it was such an interesting game. You could kill off all your characters, keep them alive, or kill off certain ones to get new endings. Your decisions made the game come alive. You are the sole controller of the story. You… ARE THE STORY. But seriously, it was an amazing game that shows what narrative is truly capable of in video games… or at least, tapping heavily into its potential to be a storytelling medium.

With a wallpaper like that - you know the game is just as good. 


As for gaming theory applied to the games that I have mentioned so far – I draw on the writings of Jesper Juul in his book Half-Real. Most of the games I have picked are the “progression” type. In other words, a sort of adventure type game as described by Juul in his third chapter. Essentially, I like performing actions that are already programmed into the game… instead of emergence games where I have to think (wait a minute, I think I just insulted myself.) As for the six game features – I’ll pick the horror game Amnesia to demonstrate these criteria.

One: Rules. Amnesia has pretty simple rules as do most games. Avoid monsters, ration what you have, find items, check everything, and read what Daniel (your character) has left behind for you to find.
Two: Variable Quantifiable Outcome. The book gives an example of handicaps and such in order to level the playing field. Amnesia will… occasionally make things easier by setting a monster further back or removing them when you die.
Three: Valorization of Outcome. If you get close to the enemies or don’t hide well enough, you’re going to die. If you don’t save the guy that you come across, you get the bad ending. If you save him, you get a better ending. Spoiler: Either way, it still kind of sucks.
Four: Player Effort. You gotta be careful or else you’re gonna be nom-nomed by all those monsters. Not even kidding. It’s pretty horrible.
Five: Player Attached to Outcome. I think of the end when it comes to this feature. I feel attached to Daniel throughout the game because of the letters he has left behind for his future self. He makes it quite clear that Alexander is crazy as hell and that you have to stop him. When you come to that boss fight, you are either greeted with the “good” or “bad” ending. I was attached to the outcome because I believed Alexander was evil and needed to be done away with. So when I got the good ending, naturally, I danced.
Six: Negotiable Consequences. I couldn’t really tell you if this could be attached to real life consequences. Maybe my face hurting from the fact that I’ve been screaming or grinding my teeth can be considered a real life consequence of playing Amnesia.

So far, I’ve covered mostly narrative with a side of gaming theory at the end. I found narrative to really be the most interesting to me. Gaming theory, though still interesting, just didn’t tickle my fancy, but I appreciate that it is a discipline and people are no longer just seeing video games as a violent medium that DEVOURS CHILDREN’S SOULS. Anyways, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Playing Mass Effect while reading Ready Player One

First, this book has completely drawn me in and if it weren't for work I would spend all day reading it. Maybe it is supposed to draw you in so completely and that got me thinking about how video games are a source of escape from the monotonous nature of real life. In Ready Player One, the virtual universe, OASIS, is the number one played or accessed online program--period. Wade spends almost all of his time logged into the OASIS, either attending class or conducting research that may lead him to a clue regarding Halliday's Easter Egg. I am currently only a little ways into the book but so far the way the OASIS is said to immerse users into the virtual world reminds me of how I feel when I play Mass Effect. A lot of the time I feel like I am the one running around doing the quests, not the avatar Shepard. I will start playing and then, after what feels like maybe 10 minutes, I will look up and see that hours have gone by. Like Wade with the OASIS, I feel like Mass Effect has given me a place to spend my time doing things that are actually worth doing and far more entertaining and engaging than my day-to-day life.


Most other games that I have played, such as the Halo series and the LotR games feel more like what they are and lack the feel of being inside the game and a part of the story. The only other game that affords me the same "measure of immersion" as it is described in Ready Player One is the MMORPG World of Warcraft a.k.a WoW. WoW has created a universe that is so multi-faceted in regards to the shear number of quests that are potentially available as well as the amount of different activities that a player can participate in that no player is the same. Unlike other games, there is no "end" in the normal sense because there are a million different tangents that are available yet not required. Once I heard of someone who wanted to see if she could level from 1 to the max level without ever killing anyone or anything. This was always my reminder that, though WoW is no sandbox, players are free to do anything and everything they want. I often traveled down to the Caverns of Time for the view while i chatted with friends or waited for a queue to pop. Because of this diversity, people become their toons and vice versa. Sometimes I even catch myself signing the wrong name on things, instead of Taylor Morgan I will sign Rolyat the Hallowed.

Platform Evolution

In Jane McGonigal's talk on TED, she compared the time gamers dedicate to playing to the time it took for humans to stand up right. She said that the time gamers spend on gameplay is, in it of itself, a form of cognitive evolution. I agree with this aspect of gaming because I see it in every gamer's experience. People are exposed to different genres of games and therefore develop or "evolve" to master that game. This change is caused by the very evolution of games themselves.

 Jesper Juul commented in his book, Half-Real, that games have drastically changed since the very first recorded form of gameplay, Senate. Many games are computer based now and have gone through several genres like arcade to home console. In fact, I believe that there is already a huge gap in the evolution between arcade games and console games. There are many people, like myself, who play console games that were originally formatted for older arcade style gameplay. Then there are people who grew up playing nothing but arcade games in malls or restaurants. There is a case to be made that if a gamer who plays a certain game on consoles, (and is really good at it), tried his/her hand at the same game on the arcade format, the results would be very different. In fact, there is a strong possibility that the gamer would not perform well.

I am not just making a theory, I have personally tested this on one of my favorite games series, Soul Calibur. I am proud to say that I am a fairly seasoned veteran at this fighting game, but the game was originally on the arcade format. Learning this, I was tempted to think I was just as good at the arcade variant, (or more accurately put "original format"), as I was at the Playstation 2 version of Soul Calibur 2. I quickly learned, however, that the muscle memory and skills of my console gameplay were nowhere near the same as the arcade version. The difference was literally in the formatting. No, I am not trying to blame the game for my bad performance, but the controls themselves were of two different time periods. I was not trained to use the older joystick and button layout that the arcade version offered. Plus, there was the x-factor of how the player was positioned during gameplay. I was used to playing while sitting in a chair or couch, but the arcade version doesn't provide seats so the tension of standing while playing also affected me.

The simple truth was that I was not exposed to this form of gameplay, so I was not evolved enough to play it well. I was trained to play the evolutionary step up from arcades. If I spent just as many hours playing the arcade as I did the console, my performance would improve drastically. However, because of today's market, consoles like PS3 and X-box 360 are more convenient for people who don't want to go to a specific location outside of their home to play a game.

I have seen people struggle to play platform games that are usually good at arcade games. I have also seen gamers struggle with switching between X-box 360 and PS3 games. I am one of these people as well. I tried to play the newest release of the Soul Calibur series, Soul Calibur V, on the Playstation 3 and I dominated, but when I played it on the X-box 360 I was not as good. It was the same problem I faced when dealing with the arcade version. The controls were alien to me. The buttons were the same but the joystick and the d-pad on the left side of the control were different than the PS3 setup. Plus, the unknown sense or feel of the controls just didm't sit well with me. What is really strange was when I played a different game for X-box 360, like Halo 4, and I was not bewildered by the same problems when I played Soul Calibur V. I had evolved to deal with the format of Halo 4 because it is specific to only the X-box, so there was no problem of switching mindsets.

Now it is more than possible to be good at more than one console or platform. The real challenge is having the time to evolve with each one. I can only imagine how complicated future games will be for my generation when we try to play.      

Female Roles in Games


One of the things that attracted me to Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was the fact that on the cover they had female characters. And when I read up on it, that Mario has female companions to help him the battles. This is something that is rarely scene even in newer video games. Most video games (especially violent ones) are notorious for the macho male roles and women as the damsels. As a female I have always found this irritating since I despise most “damsels in distress” that awaits for their man to rescue them. Not that I’m saying it’s wrong, I’m just the type of girl that would rather fight my own battles and kick ass than wait. This is one of the reasons why I don’t like many of the first person shooter games because it does not allow you to select a female to play. So, I decided to play Paper Mario: TTYD because I thought it would actually maybe surmise some of these tropes among video games (especially Mario’s) however, it still lacked very much. I figured on the whole rescuing Peach (who I loathe by the way) by some kidnapper’s hands, but I was excited on having a female in battle. To my great disappointment, Mario only enhanced the gender stereotypes especially in the fighting female roles.

The first female partner that Mario gets to join his team is Gumbella: a student that went to Rogue Port (a town within the story) to study underneath the Professor.  Gumbella’s only real talent within the game is to “tattle” a notorious female gender stereo type about females “gabbing” too much. While this can be useful in some battles, she is otherwise utterly useless.




The second female partner that Mario encounters is Flurrie: An actress (go figure) that decided she wanted out of the limelight and when to live with some of the little creatures in the forest to get away from the hum drum city life.  At first I was extremely happy to get Flurrie because she was actually a powerful partner (though one of her moves were gail winds (blowing, yes I’m aware how perverted this is) except I came to realize that she played on the fat female stereotype. She was infatuated with Mario (making inappropriate statements) and did very well at body slamming FLATTENING the opponents, using the whole “you can sit on the person and squash them” statement that people pose towards fat females, especially when they are angry. Of course this move would be powerful *eye roll*.

The third female partner to join Mario’s party is Vivian: the abused sister of Siren sisters that are working for the bad guys to resurrect a demon. Vivian eventually switch sides to help Mario on his question. Vivian is basically useless within the battle and sometimes useful during the game. One of her key moves is hiding and essentially sneaking. This is kind of stereotypical of women as we are known to “snoop” around and hide to find things. I also found it irritating that she essentially was a weak character in the game.

There are some more partners that Mario gets: Koops (Koopa), Admiral (bombomb), and my favorite, a Yoshi (we names ours Punk). These three single handedly are the most useful in the game and in battles, often being able to wipe the enemy out before the next round. While I like these players, they are also annoying because they play on the male macho types.
 
At the end of the game, Mario rescues Peach and it’s assumed they are together forever – well, until Peach gets kidnapped again. Ezra Gweon states “That once you save the damsel in distress, love will occur. This idea highly affects our perception on women. Women are seen more as sexual objects that can be attained,” which is a common reoccurrence within video games and stereotypes. Even now, there is women being taught that if you’re smarter than a man, you must not show it; you must hide behind the scenes. There is men being taught that they have to be the macho men. They have to provide for their family, have muscles, etc. All gender stereotypes that are taught at an early age.

SPOILER ALERT One of my new favorite books “Ready Player One” even slightly touch base on the roles of gender within video games (and in the world) with the character Aech (who by the way, is one of my all time faves now). When Aech is first introduced it’s as Wade’s best friend inside OASIS and even outside of OASIS even though they have never met in person. His avatar portrays him as a Caucasian male. At first, he seems like a typical male until close to the end when we find out that Aech is an rubenesque African American lesbian. Seriously, I love her! She is very very kick ass! But this is besides me point. When Wade finally meets him in person, she confesses that the male avatar was her mother’s idea. That her mother sold things online and business would be far better if she is portrayed and thought of as a white male instead of a black female. There is racial stereotypes in here as well as gender. It used to believed that women weren’t smart enough to be able to run a business and it was considered disgraceful. Now, most of us know better. However, it doesn’t change the fact that even in a virtual world as huge as OASIS that gender does play a role in how people view you.

Gender roles shouldn’t be displayed in videogames. It hinders everything that humans have striven to drive out of our culture. Why don’t they have a game where Peach (who I loathe) is the heroine out to save Mario instead of how it normally is?  Why are females viewed as weak sexual creature in the games? Whether or not you believe videogames affect your outside life, it does. It sends subliminal messages to all of us, especially children that are still developing their outlook on life. I think we should push for a change in the stereotypes and gender roles within videogames. Demand more female games, I’m not meeting the cooking games geared towards girls (another gender role), but female fighting games where women are anatomically correct. Hell, even a rubenesque woman fighting game that has nothing to do with sex or sexual implications would be amazing.