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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Illusory exodus

The depression always kicks in at the end of the vacation, faced with the prospects of returning to school. Not that there's anything unnatural about depression- it's a completely natural rejection of a completely unnatural world. And it can be quite interesting on occasions. But it would sure be nice if I could stop having to reach that point. Where vacation has just passed by in a moment, and the Real World comes back to get me. And it only was a moment. A fleeting moment. A moment about to end. A momentous moment poised for-
-and what now? Now I will return for more school. Joy.

It was fun while it lasted. Although it went so fast, I can barely remember what I did. Let's see, I played a few games, which were pretty fun, although nothing worthy of mention right now. And I watched movies, too. And TV shows. And that pretty much is it for the whole week. There's not enough time, really there isn't. I did go out with the family three times.

The first was a trip to the Israel Museum, which was really fun. There was a really nice exhibit of photos of natural landscapes. I'd say about a sixth of it was amazing, the rest sort of blah. But most of it was in black and white, and that just doesn't convey all you can with color. But then, a color picture can't fully convey the experience of being there, so there's still plenty of room for improvement. :) The nicest in that exhibit was a really really wide photo of the sky (in color), which was simply breathtaking. Miriam was just trying to speed through the whole museum, and she wanted to see the regular exhibitions which I've already seen several times, so I went with Dena to the temporary exhibitions, of which that was my favorite. Oh, right, I forgot to mention that they came too. So they came, and my mother too. There was also an exhibit about the way light has been portrayed in art, which was nice but seemed oddly incomplete. And another exhibit about the beauty in modernist art, which was also entertaining. All in all, a good trip.

My father was looking through the paper for things to do. We were all sitting around the dining room table, waiting for him to find something worthwhile. At least, I was- I can't speak for the rest of my family. He wanted to do something which everyone could enjoy, which would involve social interaction. I doubted the feasability of this concept, knowing my family. We're just too different. No common interests. I wanted to stay home, Miriam wanted to kvetch, Dena wanted to be with friends, my mother wanted to go to Gush Katif to show solidarity, and my father just wanted to be involved in whatever we did. He would get new hope from every advertisement he read, not willing to fully recognize that we weren't interested until he had read the entire ad out loud and discussed it. I can relate.
It was my idea to go climb a tree. You know, good old-fashioned tree climbing. Hey, stop giving me that look- it's fun! Haven't you ever climbed a tree? And so we did. Just my father, Miriam and I. We went looking for a forest. Unfortunately, what we found was more of a desert, with frail, sickly looking trees all over the place. Miriam and I wandered around, through lots of trees and the like, because we were bored by the path. Straight paths are naturally boring. We didn't find any good trees, but we had fun exploring. Then we went back to my father, who had found a tree. Not a tree like I was thinking of, but it was a good tree for climbing nonetheless. It was split into two long branches, going in two directions. I climbed up far to the one going on a 45-ish-degree angle, Miriam climbed the same one a little lower, and my father climbed the other branch which went almost straight up. Then we sat in the tree, playing "Ghost". It was fun.

The third trip was not so good. We were going to a party being held by my parents' friends, out in god knows where. I waited for us to do something, and eventually we did- we played Pictionary, just our family and one other kid. Everyone else was inside schmoozing and generally being boring. We didn't actually play Pictionary to the end. My parents left to go to Gush Katif, abandoning me out in the middle of nowhere with their friends. They had asked a family I don't know to take me back to Beit Shemesh with them. So I waited. And I waited. And I waited. And I waited. The wife asked her husband at one point whether they should leave. And I waited. And I waited. And I considered that they had no responsibility to get me home, had not promised me anything, owed my nothing, and I considered that my parents had left me with them. And I waited. Eventually, we did leave.

I didn't forgive them for that, so I didn't go with them on their fourth trip, for which I am thankful, as I was able to stay home and play games.

Which brings me to now. Here I am, after the vacation for Pessach, the festival of freedom. That vacation has just ended, and already I am being brought back into slavery. So, next year, as they say. Next year in the complete Jerusalem.

Until then, I'll just be moping in this corner here. Don't mind me.



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Friday, April 22, 2005

GameSpy's Fargo looks at the trend toward realism

PlanetFargo: A New Era in Real-Time Strategy



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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Who's telling this story, me or you?!

One of the first text adventures I ever played was Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". I downloaded it for several reasons:
  1. I loved the Hitchhiker books and radio show, and was curious to see what the series would be like in other mediums.
  2. I was curious to see what text adventures were like.
  3. It is often called a "classic". Nowadays, the word "classic" is used to mean "old", not to describe content. You know, there was a time when it actually meant something. [sigh]
  4. The game was written by the late Douglas Adams! Has to be good, right?
The first thing I noticed when I started to play it was the amazing strength inherent to the written word. The strength to conjure up a detailed environment and tranquility with minimal words. The strength to provide a meaningful experience.
The second thing I noticed was that the game was using this strength to punch me in the head.

Everything you do in the game is done through extremely simple text commands the player types in, like "look at window" or "take screwdriver". Now, before I start complaining, I'd like you to understand what this sadistic little game is like. I will use the example of the infamous "babel fish" puzzle, and for this I apologize in advance. Your character has just found himself on an alien ship. There happens to be a dispensing machine of some sort in the room. By typing "examine dispenser", you find out that there is a button on it and that you will get a babel fish from it. When you "press dispenser button", you are told that a fish has sailed "across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook." So you take off the dressing gown you're wearing, and "hang gown on hook". When you press the button again, the fish should hit the gown, and slide to the floor, so you can pick it up, right? No, of course not. "The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain." So you cover the drain with a towel you got earlier.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.
So you take a satchel and block the panel with it.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.
The solution is (of course! How could you not have thought of this!) to take the junk mail you had picked up earlier and put it on top of the satchel on top of the panel.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.

There are two ways to solve this puzzle. The first, which I turned to, is to use the in-game hint system to tell you the entire solution. It doesn't tell you it all at once- it tells you one step at a time, hoping that you'll be able to pick up from where the first few hints lead you. The second way to solve the puzzle is to look at everything you own, try it on everything in the room, and see what happens. This method is not helped by the fact that there is a limit to the number of commands you can use before the game pushes you forward. But even without that problem, this puzzle is not interesting, or funny, or challenging for your creativity, but tedious, and maddening, and mind-numbing. Toward the end of this puzzle, the hint system helpfully comments that "At this point, brave men have been known to break down and cry." This puzzle is supposed to be funny, and you know what- it may have been funny if you were watching the computer do it instead of having to do it yourself. Douglas Adams, like the most famous adventure game writers, liked making incredibly contrived puzzles, because the suggestion that one should solve puzzles so contrived that no sane person could ever solve them is funny. But if that humor is all they are going for, then the interactivity is a waste of time.

The player is constantly reminded that he is not the character, because the character is to think of things which the player would never think of. He is constantly reminded that he is not the character, because the narrator of the game must fill the player in on what the player is thinking and experiencing. So the player is there to empathize with the character, right? To watch what the character does and what the character is going through, and laugh at it, or think about it, or feel sad about it, or be entertained by it. And if this is the ideal for text adventures, then the interactivity is a waste of time.

How is interactivity useful? In theory, it should allow the player to empathize with the player better, because if you're acting out the character, then you ought to be thinking what the character would think, no? But no. The player will only experience the story if he believes he is in it. The game must help him suspend disbelief if it wants his reactions to be genuine. But how can you suspend disbelief in a text adventure? By its very nature, you'll be switching tasks every few moments: from the passive experience of reading detailed text, to the active experience of writing minimal commands. How can you believe within such an unnatural medium?

Also, using interactivity in this way seriously limits what the gamist can accomplish. Say you want to make a detective adventure, where the main character is Sherlock Holmes. Well, you can't- at least, not without dumbing down the character. If the main character had the perception and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, then only a person with the perception and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes could play it, which limits the potential audience to around three people altogether in the world. No, you've got to give Holmes a case so obvious that any moron could figure it out. Ron Gilbert did this with The Secret of Monkey Island: making the character someone who doesn't know a thing, so that the player is on the same level as him. But any game which features a main character who is not exactly like the player is a bad idea in the current framework. So the character cannot do anything professional, have any knowledge whatsoever prior to the start of the game, have any meaningful relationships with other characters, etc. For a storytelling medium, it is absurd to accept such limitations. In the past, interactive fiction creators have "cheated" their way out of these limitations by sticking in entirely noninteractive segments which develop the main character's personality in a way which does not conform to the player. But this never has any impact on the interactive portion of the game, because once the player is given control, the character reverts to a generic avatar! Better to just make the whole thing noninteractive, then! Have some consistency in the story, not having to provide watered-down challenges which any player could overcome! In this framework for interactive fiction, the interactivity is a waste of time.

What is the purpose of interactive fiction, anyway? If you want to passively enjoy fiction, you read it. If you want to actively enjoy fiction, you write it. These two activities are like night and day, not least because they are two sides of the same. A reader believes he is in the world of the book, and is powerless to change the ending but can feel connected to the story nonetheless. A writer must believe he is outside the world of the book, so that he can think about how the characters will act when they are not like him. But interactive fiction should explore the territory in between the two extremes- where both the gamist and the gamer can contribute to the end result.

The closest thing to this which I am familiar with is improvising on the piano. Eliezer started our tradition of improv in the Academy a year ago. I had been improvising alone (for fun) for a long time, but that was my first experience with duet improvisation. I sit at one grand piano, some other pianist (sometimes Eliezer) sits at the other grand piano, and we just start to play. Sometimes it's with a violin or a saxophone. We're playing, but we're also listening, because we need to complement each other. With these improvs, you never know where it's going, because the other player might suddenly get an idea, and you'll go in that direction with him. Or you might get an idea, and he'll join you. It's fun. But it's very difficult to have a coherent overall structure.

Now say we were to appliy a similar concept to writing. A good work of interactive fiction should be a collaboration between gamist and gamer. Since the gamist is not present to bounce ideas off of the player, AI will have to suffice. The player would not give commands like "press dispenser button", but full sentences like "Arthur Dent pressed the button." This may seem like nothing more than a nuisance, but it would serve to reinforce that the player is above the game, so that he will empathize with characters who are not like him rather than forcing all characters to be like him. As to how, precisely, this would play, I haven't a clue. I'll get back to you.



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Monday, April 04, 2005

Semantics, Part 2

Here is what I posted on the Gamecritics forums today:
I hope you'll forgive me for doing something a bit different.

Since the creation of videogames, developers have been eager to push past boundaries which previously accepted types of games took for granted. This has given us many great experiences, but unfortunately we have not acquired any new terminology with which to speak of these games, and hold on to our old terminology. Some terms are straightforward -for example, everyone knows what a first-person shooter is- but some terms have become rather vague, most notably "videogame". The purpose of this thread, should you help me out, is:

1. To learn how we define videogame terms, and if there is a consensus in this forum over those definitions.
2. To question whether the language we use is sufficient for a serious discussion of videogames, and if not, come up with the terms we need.

This thread will of course get nowhere without your help, so I ask that you recognize the importance of precise terminology for any kind of discussion. Please answer these questions, and challenge other's answers for adequacy.

* What is a videogame?
* What is a role-playing game?
* What is an adventure game?
* What is an action adventure game?
* What is a platformer?
* What is a puzzle game?
* What is a simulation?

Also, based on your answers to these questions, how would you categorize:

* Animal Crossing
* Rayman 2
* The Legend of Zelda / Beyond Good & Evil
* Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
* The Legend of Starfy
* Harvest Moon
* Myst
* Metroid Prime
* Wario Ware
* Electroplankton (for DS)
* The Sims

Thank you for your time.

No one has answered yet. I started the thread in order to refine my own definitions by observing how other people respond. In the meantime, I will touch on some things to be elaborated on later. For the answers to my questions, I will reserve judgement until I have read what my fellow forum-posters have to say.

In Part 1, I defined gamism as all Forms of art and entertainment in a digital medium. I would now like to adjust that slightly: I will refer to this as "absolute gamism". Gamism, as it exists today, is defined as: "All digital Forms of art and entertainment which were created by the Game Industry". Absolute gamism is the ideal state of gamism, and one of the responsibilities of a gamist is to bring gamism closer to that state. Any member of gamism is a videogame.

I'm not yet sure how to define adventure games, but an action adventure is any adventure game which incorporates action without relegating it to mini-game status. I haven't played many adventure games, and none of them qualify, but from what I hear there are such games.

The Legend of Zelda and Beyond Good & Evil are not adventure games, but what I call "metaludes". In fact, they are two different genres of metalude: Zelda is a "structural metalude" while BG&E is a "narrative metalude".

I would also like to propose another original definition: the "exploration" game. This is a game which focuses, first and foremost, on exploring an environment. I am not familiar with any standard exploration games (where the entire game is only exploration), but there are genres of the Form with added game elements. Most notably, Metroid is an "action exploration game", and Myst is a "puzzle exploration game".

That's all for now. I expect that I won't get any responses for some time, given that it is a tremendously hard issue to deal with and even I, the creator of the thread, have to have more time to think it over.



Breaking the metalude into two genres was a lot of hooey. I will never refer to these terms again.


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