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Saving the Monster, Saving me

The first time I talked to Vander Caballero, Creative Director of Minority Media Inc., was one and a half year ago. We had a great chat about game design, and we discussed about videogames as artistic tools for expressing personal experiences. That conversation was possibly the real starting spark of my actual conceptualization of Meaningful Content and Meaningful Gameplay.

"To my mother, brothers and sister, with whom I survived the monster in my father." (1)

Videogame developers can translate part of their lives into interactive experiences understandable by the audience through a process of interpretation that is not very common in videogames. An authorial drive that only few game developers such as Anna Anthropy have.

With Papo & Yo, Vander aimed to share with the audience the difficult relationship between him and his alcoholic father. Few nights ago I filled my heart with emotions when I finished this beautiful and rough experience.

Papo & Yo is a game that everyone should play, not because of particularly new game mechanics, and not even because of its execution. Everyone should play Papo & Yo because it’s beautifully personal.

The real meaning behind the metaphorical game mechanics is never explained, and this is what makes Papo & Yo extremely special to me. Avoiding being explicit is the biggest merit of Vander’s work. No poet explained the meaning of his poems after all. And if I’m not sure about the real identity of the little robot Lula, I know for sure that the game had an amazing emotional impact on me, resonating with my existence and my personal life.

"The only thing you learn with Mario is ‘If I work really hard, I’m going to get it in the end, that’s all you get. Sometimes it’s not about how hard you work at it. Sometimes there are things you can’t fix.” (2)

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(1) Papo & Yo’s opening dedication
(2) Vander Caballero interviewed by ArsTechnica

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Violence in games: acceptance and hypocrisy

I’m not a big fan of violence in games. I also don’t mind violence in games.

I didn’t find Mortal Kombat disturbing when I was a kid, and I’ve never been shocked by the gore on screen.

What I find fascinating is that there is a sort of invisible line that games need to respect in order to be accepted in our society. This line is mainly influenced by the context in which the violence is presented to the audience.

If you are an Eastern European guy called Niko Bellic and you are killing people, hey, that’s a major no-no and the game should be banned! On the other hand, if you’re a good-looking American adventurer called Nathan Drake, and you are killing hundreds of guys in an island because you want to find a treasure, that’s not a big deal.

People already talked about the controversial trailer in which Hitman is punching sexy nuns, and I have to admit I found that video quite disturbing. That’s because a guy hitting a girls is disturbing in every possible circumstance, both in real life and in mediated products. IO Interactive is promising to give a context to that scene, so that the fact that you punch girls in the face is justified. Interesting.

The reason why I’m writing this rant/article is because I’m struggling finding a clear definition of what is acceptable in videogames and what is not, both from the user’s perspective and from the developer’s one.

A few days ago I have seen two friends of mine playing Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja, a very fun game in which the players controls a ninja who’s ready to violently murder whoever tries to stop his journey. The game usually gives the freedom not to kill the enemies, but at the same time puts a strong emphasis on the killing animations: knives cutting throats and a lot of blood everywhere; nothing new, you could say.

What I find funny and hypocritical is how the character’s behavior changes if confronting with dogs. “Hey, the dog is not a human being! You should treat it nicely!”. How about just a punch on the neck? That seems to be more reasonable, right?

Now, what I find interesting and in a certain way silly is how our society is more likely to accept a guy murdering people than a guy killing dogs. Both of them are horrible scenarios but, again, it seems like we got used so much to seeing a hero killing a human being, that it is less disturbing than a scene of violence between a man and an animal. I am curious to know what was the design decision that brought to that choice, and how Klei Entertainment took care of the violence in the game.

My impression is that in the game industry there’s so much hypocrisy when talking about violence, that we are totally losing the track of what is good and what is bad. I remember that there was a lot of buzz around the controversial (and denied) rape scene in Tomb Raider, but I felt like everyone was missing another big point: what about the fact that Lara spends most of her time sticking arrows in other people’s heads? Isn’t it violence? Is it acceptable?

It is very difficult to determine what is acceptable and what is not, but I find almost ridiculous the way most of the game developers approach violence in games. I believe game developers should be able to create any kind of game and any kind of content as far as they don’t treat violence with total hypocrisy. I hope the term “Mature” will not depend anymore on the amount of blood on screen but on the quality of the content and the choices presented to the players.

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Meaningful Gameplay is not meaningful enough

When I started writing here on Game. Art. Love. my first intention was to address the idea that great videogames need to deliver authorial messages through their game mechanics.

The way for doing this is by creating meaningful contents through meaningful gameplay. I believe that game developers should make more personal works, touching their lives, their mood, their vulnerabilities, and generating game mechanics that can address a message to their audience.

Back then, I started working on a very personal project called Project Bloom, a game about the troubled relationship between me and a person very close to me.
I believe that videogames can do much more than just providing plots and dialogues to the player, and that’s why I worked on a game mechanic that perfectly addressed the message and the meaning I wanted the game to provide.

Due to a lot of different external factors I’ve been forced to stop the development of Project Bloom for quite a while, and only few days ago I started discussing about it with Stefano Gualeni. As usual, the conversation was full of interesting ideas and thoughts.

We ended up questioning ourselves about the efficiency of a meaningful mechanic if extrapolated from the the game itself. In other words, “is the meaningful gameplay still meaningful if presented to the user in the most essential way?”

The first thing that came up to my mind was The Marriage, by Rod Humble. I think The Marriage is a perfect example of meaningful gameplay, since its mechanics exist with the only reason of addressing a specific message to the player. These mechanics were built with the specific intention of delivering a message.

The Marriage is essentially pure gameplay, since its aesthetics exist not for enriching the experience, but exclusively for giving visual clues to the user.

Now the trick: what happens if The Marriage doesn’t have this title? What happens if it’s called XYZ?

Rod Humble seemed to be aware of this problem, and that’s why he felt like he needed to explain the game to the user:

This is a game that requires explanation. That statement is already an admission of failure. But when working with new art forms one has to
start somewhere and its unfair to an audience to leave a piece of work (even if its not successful) without some justification. […]
The Marriage is intended to be art. No excuses or ducking. As such its
certainly meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the
traditional sense most games are. This means I am certain to be
perceived as being pretentious by some who read this, my apologies.
This is also a very difficult game to understand, again my apologies,
I have tried to assist those who are interested but frustrated with
the rules summary below.

Even though a game mechanic contains a message, it is very difficult - if not impossible - to address it to the user without providing other additional elements. In the case of The Marriage, the main key for the interpretation is its title together with the long analysis written by the author himself.

To the question “Can a videogame address a message only through game mechanics?” my answer is “No.”

The difference is that I don’t see it as a failure of the medium, rather as a confirmation that videogames are an incredible mix of elements that are all important parts of a universal whole.

Rod Humble could have possibly managed to deliver the same exact message by embracing all the components of the medium rather than focusing exclusively on the game mechanics. I have absolute respect for his work since I see it as a pioneering work for our expressive medium, but I believe videogames need to use their full potential to deliver meaningful content.

If you want to create meaningful content, use all the tools you have to make the message understandable for the user, but don’t rely exclusively on the narratives or game mechanics: it’s possibly the most disrespectful way to treat your audience.

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Controls: a filter in the design process?

Today I started talking with J.W. Nijman about something that I find very interesting and, in a certain way, frustrating about game design: controls.

isn’t it annoying that when you design a game, your mind accepts constraints in the design process, such as the control device?

What I’m mostly concerned about is that when you design a computer game, you need to take in consideration the fact that the player’s experience is going to be filtered by a physical device that is NEEDED to experience the game.

The game designer has to adapt the game to the machine.

I’m not looking at the problem from the player’s point of view; I’m considering it as a problem in the creative process.

During the discussion on Twitter, I tried to make a comparison with painting:

A painter doesn’t have this filter since the end-user uses the eyes to experience the painting, while the player needs an in-between filter to experience the game and, as a designer, you need to take that filter in consideration while creating your work.

Doesn’t it make the creative process less pure? I tried to make a simple and nice-looking scheme to address my idea:

J.W.’s answer is simple and clear:

controls are something players learn to deal with. Showing a kid a Mondrian won’t instantly work too. You gotta learn shit

Even though this is absolutely true, I think there’s still a big difference: the user’s level of knowledge/understanding doesn’t influence the creative process of the painter, and this is the exact point I’m trying to make.

The problem of controls in game design is that, whatever the experience the designer is envisioning, it needs to be attached and adapted to a filter that mediates the work.

Is it possible to think about a pure game design process that is not influenced by the controls and that is not mediated by any kind of filter?
Is it possible to design a game without taking into account how the user will interact with it?

Possibly not.

Isn’t it a relevant difference between videogames and other media?

Feel free to share your thoughts about the topic.

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Photorealism and Emotions: don’t panic.

As many of you already know, 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann recently unleashed the fury of many game developers for what he said to GamesIndustry.biz:

Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough, or at least very sensitive in this country… it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies. Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now.

To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console.

First of all I want to clearly state my opinion on photorealism. I believe that photorealism is not needed for triggering very deep emotions.

I can list tons of non-photorealistic games that moved me in very different ways, starting from indie titles such as Don’t Look Back (by Terry Cavanagh), I Wish I Were the Moon (by Daniel Benmergui) or Proteus (by Ed Key and David Kanaga), and following with some photorealistic AAA titles such as Metal Gear Solid 4 or Heavy Rain.

Now, here’s what I believe everyone misinterpreted:

Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough

I think Christoph Hartmann was talking about rendering emotions in-game, and not about triggering the players’ emotions. In other words, the more photorealistic the games get, the easier it’s gonna be to believable emotions in-game.

From this perspective, Hartmann’s point of view makes much more sense, and partially justifies this quite extreme idea:

Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres.

Photorealistic visuals will help the AAA industry (the one producing almost exclusively “shoot everything that moves on screen” games for now) to explore new possibilities, and it’s very difficult to deny it.

The problem with the big industry at the moment is that high quality narratives need to be supported by high quality graphics (because that’s what their target audience is looking for), and the easier it’s going to be to bring emotions into games, the better it’s gonna be for the medium to produce different AAA products.

Stop hating guys. Coexist.

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Developer’s Blindness and Developer’s Overvision

Developing a game is not easy. Sometimes you fall in love with your game, sometimes you end up hating it. In both cases, as a developer, it is important not to get affected by two possible threats, Developer’s Blindness and Developer’s Overvision. This article is supposed to be a reminder for the readers and even for me, since I got affected by both of them during the development of two different games.

The Developer’s Blindness is well-known among game developers, and occurs when the developer gets used to play her game to such a level that all the problems and mistakes cannot be spotted anymore. Sophie in the Sky is a game that I worked on during the Global Game Jam 2012; a 3D platformer in which all the sounds made by the player get stored and are played as background music of the next player’s playthrough. The game was characterized by a camera fixed on two axis of movement, so my main challenge was to build a level that was working according to the logics of the camera. I moved and fixed the platforms so much that I could have been able to finish the game without looking at the monitor: all the jumps were perfectly balanced.

Once we released the game, it was shocking for me to see how the players had difficulties performing even the easiest jump: a sense of depth was missing due to the illumination, and only few players managed to finish the game. Of course this happened because in events such as the Global Game Jam it is almost impossible to find time for play-testing, but it was incredibly revealing to notice how I got blind in front of the game’s problems. Sophie in the Sky was still praised for its audio-recursion concept, and the spacial movement problems didn’t ruin the overall experience. Lucky me.

On the other hand, what I like to call Developer’s Overvision is, in a certain way, the exact opposite of the Developer’s Blindness. A lot of developers get so attached to their craft that they spend hours and hours polishing it and striving to make it perfect. I belong to this category, and I want to fix this. As a developer you can hope to deliver a great gaming experience, but you will always see flaws in the game. I’m experiencing this with Blood Suckers, a game that I am finally releasing and that has been in my Game Design folder for too much time. It’s a game about vampires racing in the desert, protecting from the sun beams, and eventually transforming in flying robots. Not much poetry in it, but I still consider it as part of me. A game designer gets attached to her crafts, and after a while it is very difficult to let it go.

The Developer’s Overvision occurs when you have such a deep knowledge of your game that you tend not to accept any of its flaws. To avoid this problem it is important to say “It’s never going to be perfect, and I can’t spend my whole life working on it.”. You just need to let it go; you need to stop considering flaws as problems and start embracing them as part of the craft. Borrowing Jonathan Blow’s words, you should stop rounding all the sharp corners. It’s the only way you can finally go to sleep with a smile on your face.

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On Frank Lantz’s Grand Unified Theory of Games as an Artform

Few days ago I had the chance (via Petri Purho) to watch Frank Lantz’s talk about his Grand Unified Theory of Games as an Artform.

If you didn’t watch it yet, I would advise you to do it; it’s only 10 minutes long, and it deals with the concept of games as an art form from an interesting perspective.

Frank Lantz, borrowing part of Johan Huizinga’s definition of play, defines games as an “activity in which we create things and experience things for their own sake.”

What is interesting about this perspective is that, according to this definition, an activity such as painting can be considered to be a game. As far as I know, Lantz didn’t formalize this concept in any book or essay, so I take in account the fact that he could have used the wrong words to clearly explain his ideas during the talk.

This definition seems to incorporate the author’s point of view and the user’s point of view at the same time. The first part is clearly about the shaping process that brings to the creation of a work, while the second one is about the perception of the work.

The presence of these two points of view confuses me when trying to define art, since I tend to see art as the creative process that brings to a craft. I always look at art from the author’s point of view, and I avoid focusing on the user’s one because it seems to me too subjective. The author’s creative process is self-defined: writing a book involves a creative process; the same goes with creating a chair for a carpenter.

I can look at that exact chair and think that it’s just a normal object that is not worth the label of piece of art, but this is just because the process of judging is too subjective and relative.

Frank Lantz believes that this “process of judgment is the essence of an art form”, which is a fairly interesting concept. What art is we really don’t know, but the fact we discuss about it and try to label stuff as art forms is exactly what makes art art: an ambiguous and confusing concept. 

But what is valuable enough to be considered art, and what is not? With the intention of removing this confusion, Lantz decides to embrace all the possible crafts under the “Artform” category. The real meaning and essence of it is given by the questioning about where to place things in a spectrum of personal preferences.

"Even after putting things in the spectrum, it’s difficult to understand what’s valuable."

I believe that the ambiguity derives precisely by the fact that, again, art is usually tried to be defined from the user’s perspective.

After defining Artform in his talk, Frank Lantz moves on defining games as “Aesthetics of Interactive Systems”. He states that games are about the relationships between objects defined by rules, and the player affects and is affected by that system. I like this last bit because it implies the emotional impacts that games have on the players outside the game itself.

Another really interesting concept emerges by Lantz’s talk, when he tries to compare games to other artforms such as painting and music:

"Games are, to thinking and doing, what painting is to seeing, and what music is to hearing."

It is true that such a concept is pretty obvious, but the way it is formalized and explained is really intuitive and, in a certain way, revealing.

I’m not a big fan of semantics, but I really think Frank Lantz’s talk gives some interesting inputs to the never-ending “games as art” debate.

Quote IconYou know, Deus Ex had its moments of violence, but they were designed - whether they succeeded or not I can’t say - but they were designed to make you uncomfortable, and I don’t see that happening now. I think we’re just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature.

Warren Spector - Interview on GameIndustry.biz

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Lost in a Forest

I started writing here on Game. Art. Love. to analize game development as a form of artistic expression. I’m sick and tired of people firmly stating that games are just about fun. I believe videogames should cover a wider spectrum of emotions that they never managed to trigger in the past.

One way for addressing new content for the audience is by crafting a game that is shaped around a personal experience. Today I want to talk about Where is my Heart?, a beautiful and unique puzzle platformer developed by Die Gute Fabrik and primarily based on Bernie Schulenburg's real life experience. The game is heavily inspiring my next project - working name ProjectBloom - and is a perfect example of how meaningful gameplay can lead to the creation of meaningful content.

It was a summer day, and Bernie was hiking with his father and his mother. Unfortunately, they quickly realized they got lost in the forest and, due to this event, all their negative personality traits emerged.

This game is Bernie’s clumsy attempt to come to an understanding with himself and his parents as a family

I don’t want this update to appear like a game review, but I want to analyze the different elements and mechanics that, on my opinion, underline the importance and power of meaningful game development.

I personally love Where is my Heart? because all of its mechanics exist for a reason; everything makes sense in the whole game vision, everything holds and hides a message that the player can reach only by looking for the real meaning of the game.

Where is my Heart? has no narrative elements, and everything spins around one main mechanic, which consists in the fragmentation of the space; each level is divided in different comic frames non-linearly connected to each other, so that the spatial coherence is absent. In a similar way as Bernie got lost with his parents in the forest, now it is the player that looks at the different frames wondering which is the correct path to follow.

In such a tense and difficult to handle situation, it is very easy to lose patience and start blaming each other, which is basically what happened during that summer hike in the forest. The only way for solving the problem is by collaborating, and it is the case in Where is my Heart?. In order to finish each level, the player needs to collect hearts for removing obstacles or adding platforms. Again, another game mechanic that serves as a tool for delivering a message, something that is extremely rare in videogames.

I could go on examining other elements (even the aesthetics), but the fact that the game is also influenced by German fairy-tales makes me unable to understand it 360 degrees. I found Where is my Heart? a genuine and very special game experience like no other, because it overlaps with the personal experience Bernie brought to the original game concept. I had the chance to give my congratulations to him during the last GDC12 in San Francisco, and I saw true happiness and pride in his eyes; this is what happens when you lift game development from mere ludological and commercial activity to a personal and emotional process.

As I already said, my next project is very influenced by Where is my Heart? in a certain perspective. I’m working on a game that will basically talk about my life and my family, something very personal that I want to shape using meaningful mechanics, mechanics that are able to deliver a message. It’s a bit early to talk about ProjectBloom, but I guess I have to thank Bernie before getting back to it.

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Value of games at risk

The video game industry has evolved a lot in the last few years. I remember when the digital delivery wasn’t a solid distribution channel yet, and I used to spend around 60€ for each console game I wanted to play. I was also a ‘game collector’, and I was ready to empty my wallet for buying the latest (not)Limited Edition of a very anticipated title: having it in my hands made me feel like it was totally worth it.

I also remember when I started buying retail games on UK online stores that let me save around 20 euros for each title: from that moment on, I personally found very hard to go and buy a new game at the full retail price.

In 2008, thanks to games such as Braid, the digital delivery services started distributing must-have games unavailable on retail stores: with a lot less money, I was able to buy unique games that I never had the chance to play before. In that case, the lack of something physical seemed to justify the low prices, so I embraced these new channels and started spending money on smaller games that I considered to be much more interesting than the ones hanging on the shelves. The price of those games ranged between 5 and 15 euros: a perfect deal for an avid videogamer.

After the iDevices boom, small games being sold through the Apple Store for a couple of dollars introduced the beginning of the massive digital delivery distribution: a lot of people - included me - got used to download games for a little money or even for free, which on my opinion led to an involuntary undervaluation of games.

I believe that a certain category of games suffered from this kind of evolution, and I’m referring to the “big small games”, games such as Limbo, Jamestown, and Super Meat Boy, games that demonstrate how small developers can deliver high-quality products, games that are in between the triple A productions and the small titles for touch devices.

In my opinion, the element that is contributing a lot in amplifying this discrepancy, is the advent of game bundles. I want to be clear: I love game bundles. They have a beautiful and admirable objective, and they help both developers and videogamers to spread and enjoy great games all over the gaming world.

However, these bundles are bringing a very dangerous side effect that heavily deals with the value of the games: bundle after bundle we are getting used to get a lot of great games for an absolutely small amount of money, which inevitably influences people’s perception of the right economic value of videogames.

I am honestly ashamed of myself if I think that, one week ago, I wan’t sure about buying Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP on Steam because “it is too expensive”, I said. A beautiful game is available for only 5€, and I’m not sure about buying it or not. I thought about waiting for a new bundle in order to spend less and get some other games in addition; what is wrong with me?

Of course I ended up buying the game, but just the fact that I thought about that is really disturbing me, as a videogamer and as a game developer. I cannot exclude that there are a lot of other people out there having the same reaction, and I can only see this as a real problem that we have to take in consideration if we want to preserve the value of games in this fast-evolving industry.