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Friday, September 19, 2008

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Garden: Exploration

There is an environment which the player may walk through and observe. When this exploring is the dominant element of an experience, you've got an exploration game.

The primary content of an exploration game is world design, which is to say the aesthetic or intellectual value of a virtual environment. There are many genres of worlds: forests, urban, abstract, fantasy, horror, etc.

The pure (computer) exploration game does not, to the best of my knowledge, exist. I know it can exist because I've had some satisfying exploring in the real world, where the exploring was the whole point. But in gamism so far, exploration is used only as a subordinate element, or at most one of several dominant elements in a complex Form. Some games have such vivid worlds that you could probably remove everything but the world and the interface and have a good (short) exploration game, but it should be emphasized that this would not be the same experience as playing the original games. I guess it'd be like listening to the soundtrack of a movie.


Since it's so uncharted, the best way to understand exploration games is to compare them to other Forms which we are familiar with. Most importantly, exploration games are closely related to architecture, landscape design, and other such visual arts. (I think the theoretically ideal exploration gamist would be an architect, a sculptor and an animator.) The difference is, a game has no limits. Real-world creations are restricted not only by the laws of physics but also by the limitations of real materials, the costs, and overall functionality. An exploration game does not have these limitations unless they are self-imposed. There is nothing preventing a gamist from placing a magnificent palace with melting and regenerating walls on the back of a moving horse.

With that sort of artistic freedom, what is it that it inherits from architecture? Well, there are infinitely many (or if the interface is restricted, at least many) ways to view an environment, and all must be taken into account. It can be viewed from different angles, it can be viewed at different times of day, it can have many random elements wandering around which a good designer can account for to some extent. So a good world or piece of architecture, as opposed to a more easily grasped medium like paintings, is a work which continually reveals new facets of itself, and can keep surprising the viewer for a very long time. For that reason, an exploration game is not meant to be played once and then discarded. It is meant to be returned to over and over.

Enough about architecture. It is also close, in structure if not purpose, to the movement game. They both revolve around the simple act of moving. The difference is, in a movement game the moving itself is the point. In an exploration game where you're moving through is more important. If that world is compelling, how you move through has less importance. But these two Forms are intertwined, because you can't really have one without the other. If you are moving, you're moving through someplace. And if you're moving through someplace, you've gotta be moving somehow. The question (for classification) is which is dominant and which is subordinate, and that question isn't always so easy to answer.

It can be useful for the world designer to consider what avatar(s) he is building the world for. An endless series of beautiful mountains might not be so suitable for a human, but what if the player is playing a bird? And the concept of scale changes very much if the player is playing a baby or a giant. In such cases, it's nice to have good controls but hardly critical- the avatar is there to give context, not content. In fact, the avatar (as it is typically thought of) is not a necessary ingredient at all! The gamist might wish to give the player an "objective avatar", who either moves like a person (as though the player were actually walking through for himself), or more abstractly.

Much like a painting, an exploration game can indirectly tell a story. This makes it similar to adventure games (by my "future" definition), which are similarly predetermined experiences. But the presentation is different. In order to present a story as part of world design, it needs to be complete from the start. The player chooses in what order to experience it, but otherwise is not connected to its progression. If he were given more choices which effected the outcome of the story, the game would be an adventure and not exploration.

Taking a self-absorbed plot (even a good one) and putting it into a carefully-crafted world is not good storytelling for an exploration game. If an exploration game is telling a story, that's secondary content. The primary content is still world design, and an appropriate story will call attention back to that. It can add an intellectual layer to the aesthetic one, where you can sit and think about what the arrangement of objects around you is meant to symbolize in relation to the story.

Now that we've got a good idea of where exploration stands, let's take it on its own terms. What can world design be made out of? There's the obvious walls and structures and abstract shapes. There can also be plant life. (Climbable trees are always welcome!) There can be animals and people, either static for the effect of a photo or in motion. A marketplace wouldn't be complete without buyers and sellers! For that matter, a marketplace isn't complete without buying. And in that spirit, there's no reason not to have mini-games where they are called for by the world. Certain surfaces call for movement mini-games, certain environments call for interaction mini-games.

The progression between room doesn't have to be literal. The room next door could actually be the same room, but in a different time period. Or it could be an entirely unrelated place. If a doorway acts as a "portal" between areas, that's a world-building technique rather than a literal plot point. And it doesn't have to be a doorway per se- hallways are more gradual ways of shifting setting, for instance. Or the player might as well be given a button which switches between areas. Old-fashioned ideas of how things connect to each other don't have to be used at all, or can be actively subverted.

Reaching an area the player is already familiar with is comforting. When he walks off in a new direction and stumbles onto somewhere he is already familiar with, suddenly a more complete model of the world is created in his mind. If he goes too far without any point of reference, he may get disoriented and want to backtrack to somewhere he knows. Placing large areas which intersect with many paths makes a world seem less foreign, because it ensures that the player will loop back on those areas many times and construct a better model in his head.

A world could theoretically be a straight line, in which case the little details need to hold up the game on their own. The maze is the opposite extreme: a world whose entertainment value comes entirely from trying to find your way forward. In the middle ground the player can both entertain himself finding a path, and be given art wherever he goes. That way he can be engaged in both the short-term and the long-term: The staying power of exploration games comes from nostalgia and wanting to see things from new angles, but searching for shortcuts and routes to specific places is fun right from the start. The attempt to navigate is entertaining in itself, an experience which contains elements of perception and memory.

When gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, the exploration game will give us worlds which are fantastically vivid but fundamentally indistinguishable from the real world. It will give us not just sights and sounds but also smells and atmospheres. We'll be able to touch the things around us, see how they feel. We'll be able to take other people there with us and show them around, we'll be able to bring in other activities like books, to enjoy in the environment. Some people will essentially live in virtual worlds, to replace the costs and space limitations of real housing. But regardless of how they are used, that level of immersion is what exploration games strive for.

Droplets: Exploration

The player shifts back and forth through two possible futures. Or the houses of two different people, who started from the same spot. Or a society which keeps rebuilding itself almost instantaneously, as new people come in. Or the player shifts between reality and an abstract symbolism. One spot does not have to be one spot- it can be many spots, all covering the same space.

A real-time exploration game in a fictional real-world area. There is no avatar, and you can follow people around as they go about their daily routine.

Exploring a single, frozen moment of time.

An abstract representation of a person's personality. (Possibly a real person the gamist knows. I am not thinking of anyone in particular, though.) Exploring the world lets you get to know the person, in the sense that your feelings toward the world mirror the gamist's feelings toward the person.

Exploration by association. Clicking on an object (or person, or idea) brings you to an environment which represents that thing, and clicking on any object there will bring you to yet another environment. This is exploration serving the purpose of character development, where each new environment shows you more of the character's worldview. (Actually, this idea disproves what I said about exploration necessitating movement.)

An exploration-construction hybrid. The player explores a vast but somewhat empty area, and adds to it however he likes. He experiences the world he is given by using it.

A world which keeps growing. Worlds within worlds. The smaller you get relative to the world, the more you perceive explore-able detail in tiny elements. Eventually you find a tiny object which grows to be the original environment, so the loop is complete.

M.C. Escher-inspired worlds. Gravity is not a constant, perspective is not a constant, objects become environments and environments become objects. You know what would be especially cool? An M.C. Escher-inspired adaptation of Alice in Wonderland!

Simulations of real places. This might actually exist already, since it's an obvious idea. If it does, I haven't seen it.

A 4-dimensional world. Don't ask me how it'd work- I've never been able to wrap my head around 4-dimensionality.

Static political commentary, for comedic effect. You wander around a vast, nonsensical representation of how the gamist thinks his political opponents see the world. This world could be accessible via the internet, with new sections being added continually as the news happens.

Movements, like in music. Each movement has a very specific ending. It's clear where it is, but there are many ways to get there. Each path is fairly nonlinear, but two separate paths from the beginning will very rarely cross over with each other. When you get to the ending, you find yourself in the next movement. Each movement represents a different set of emotions, and each path through them is a different variation on those emotions. So every time you go through the game you get roughly the same sequence of emotions, but each time through can be a new experience. (Unless you want to do the same path you've seen already, of course.)



These are the sorts of games I'd design if I'd devoted more time and formal education to visual art than to programming and writing. As it stands now, however, they are also the kinds of games I'd love to play. I can already think of many games already in existence that I loved solely because of their architecture. (The Neverhood is one in particular that comes to mind.)

It's also worth mentioning that I myself have had a similar idea to what you termed "exploration by association", only with words rather than objects. Think of a Wikipedia into a character's mind. I'm thinking of actually doing one of these sometime... might be a fun exercise.


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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Marvel / DC Comic Rivalry

Warning: This post deals with superhero comics. If you are not interested in superhero comics, read on at your own peril!

American superhero comics are almost all published by just two companies. Both Marvel and DC have big "universes" where all their characters and books can cross over with each other. They both dress their characters up in bright spandex and have them punch each other often. They both have noble heroes doing the right thing and insane villains with dastardly schemes. They both have long-term soap-operatic plotlines which twist around in all manners of convoluted ways. (I love all this.) On the surface, they're really quite similar.

But much has been made about the two universe's differences. The DC characters are perfect, the Marvel characters have flaws. The DC Universe is more likely to have zany things happen for no particular reason, the Marvel Universe is more grounded. The DC stories are set in fictional places like Metropolis and Gotham City, while Marvel stories are set in real places like New York City and San Francisco.

Some people might say that these are the reasons I read a ton of Marvel comics but very few DC ones. I've got a simpler explanation: Marvel comics are usually good, and DC comics are usually not.

There isn't really any fundamental difference between the two companies. Statistically speaking, you'll find slightly more reality in Marvel. But to every generality about either universe, there are many exceptions. Marvel has perfect characters like Captain America and Thor, while DC's most famous character (Batman) still whines about his parents. Marvel often has wacky nonsense happen, and DC often has grounded character bits. I don't think there's anything that would fit in one universe but not the other.

So what is it about Marvel comics that has me hooked, when almost every DC comic I've read has left me cold? It's the people involved in making them.

It's not like you can't tell a good Batman story. Look at The Dark Knight- what a fantastic movie! And yet, the current Batman comic is all about Batman hallucinating. And take Superman- he's such an iconic, provocative character, and no one can find anything interesting to do with him!

I'm not going to place all the blame on DC's writers. (Well, I am going to blame Grant Morrison. He can't tell a story.) I can't say for certain how much is bad writing, and much is editorial meddling.

Take the case of Kurt Busiek. He's a wonderful writer, whose enthusiasm for superheroes comes across with everything he does. They put him on Aquaman, a character who's rarely interesting, they gave him an ambiguous set-up he had to use (where Aquaman isn't really Aquaman), and he was still knocking it out of the park. He was doing a whole big fantasy epic underwater, and I was riveted. And then after just a few issues it all fell apart, lost all focus, and Busiek left for Superman. See, I can't say that that was all Busiek's fault, because I know from his Astro City comics that he usually knows where he's going and follows up on it. Anyway, he then took over Superman, and for a little while it was terrific. First he lost his powers, which was fun. And then it got into the whole question of whether Superman makes society too reliant on him, and seemed to be promising big pay-offs. And then it lost its way, started telling random stories that didn't add anything and didn't quite work on their own merits. And he quickly resolved everything and left for another comic. Which I read a few issues of and got bored.

No, really, he is a great writer. Astro City is terrific, where he creates a whole superhero universe with lots of good stories and no bad ones in sight. His series Marvels, presenting the history of Marvel comics from the perspective of the average person in the Marvel Universe, was also terrific. So he's capable of better. I blame the editors.

Or take Sean McKeever. Perfect example. He was writing for Marvel, and the quality of his comics went between "decent" and "spectacular". He wrote an Inhumans miniseries, making a bunch of alien teenagers relatable without making them less alien, and then he wrote the Mary Jane (later renamed "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane") series, whose characterizations were complex and realistic but always relatable and engaging. Then he signed an exclusive deal with DC, and since then "decent" has seemed out of his reach. It goes from "disposable" to "horrifyingly bad". He was given Teen Titans, which seems perfect for him. But ever since he started, there's been barely a hint of the quality he used to be pulling off often. From what I understand, much of the stories he's writing are dictated to him by his editors, and he doesn't even get final choice of who's on the team. (Granted, I'm only getting a reader's perspective. So I could be totally off.) And they're just unbearably grim and silly- there was a very minor internet controversy about the last issue, which had two characters eaten alive by a dog.

Now, Marvel's editors are hardly perfect. The stunt they pulled last year with Spider-Man -having him literally make a deal with the devil in order to shift his status quo back to where it was in the 70's- did not impress me one bit. That came entirely from the editor-in-chief of Marvel. The only difference is, there are actually excellent stories after that. Not stories which couldn't have been done without the quasi-reboot, but still. Excellence. And if there are excellent stories being written, then the editors must be doing something right.

See, DC (like Marvel) has lots of big things happen. Usually things which don't last six months, which I'm sure will be the case with Batman losing his mind. But still, big things. And once they happen, there still aren't any really good stories being told. And if you're not going to have that, then what's the point?



I'm not a fan of superhero comics, but I get the impression you're allowing yourself some too broad generalisations (as well as some oversights; I'd argue that Superman, not Batman, is the most famous DC character).

I have difficulty understanding how Marvel comics are more realistic. Perhaps some of the stunts may be a little more grounded, but the premises are invariably beyond ludicrous. How do you get laser-eyes through evolution?? (In fact the whole of X-men is so outlandish I can barely read them). Not that DC is a monument to plausibility, but the premise behind Batman is still much more credible than that behind any Marvel character.

Overall I agree that writers should be let free to work on their material. But as someone who doesn't read much of these comics, I've got a question: what about Alan Moore and Frank Miller? They've worked for Marvel and their names tend to get thrown around pretty often. It's quite surprising to see they've got no space at all on this post.

All the best mate.

Marvel comics are not, as you say, significantly more realistic than DC. There are tiny elements here and there which are more like the real world, which Marvel's editors like to bring up. (Their slogan is "Your universe".) For instance, you have George W. Bush showing up every now and then, while DC has a fictional president. Stories often take place in "real places", at least in name. And the fantasy explanations for superpowers are more likely to pretend they have something to do with real science like genetics or radiation.

But yeah, none of that is particularly significant. Whatever you call it, comic-book science is fantasy. And as for the real places, Marvel stories often take place in fictional countries like Wakanda, Attilan, Madripoor, Latveria, etc. etc. As I said, I don't think there's any real difference between the two universes except who's writing and editing them. Superman could be a Marvel character and Spider-Man could be a DC character.

On reflection, I don't know who's really more famous, Superman or Batman. I guess the word I should have used was "popular".

As for Frank Miller and Alan Moore, um, what about them? They're hardly major presences in comics these days. They do their own thing, which is usually too vulgar for my liking. Frank Miller is writing an out-of-continuity Batman book where Batman is a raving psychopath kidnapping Robin and killing people left and right and cursing at everyone: "I'm the goddamned Batman!" It's sorta amusing, but mostly pointless. And Alan Moore's last major work (a few years back) was porn. (I don't plan to read that.) Neither of them have anything to do with the two big superhero universes, except in the sense that they wrote influential stories a long time ago.

It's not that Grant Morrison can't write a story.

You just can't read and understand one.

You have to be a complete MORON to think that Marvel is better than DC. Almost all of their characters are ripoffs from DC. Avengers: Justice League. Hulk: Solomon Grundy, who actually predates the "Hulk" by more than 20 years. Next time you write such a STUPID story, make sure you have your facts straight.


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Friday, September 05, 2008

No work done.



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