Category Archives: Culture

Response to Gamespot’s “Reality Check” on Video Game music

Blake here!  Dinofarm’s resident artist and, as you’re about to learn, one of its composers.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a more “topical” Dinofarm post, as we’re all working around the clock on our heavily-delayed labor of love, AURO.  I recently watched a segment on Gamespot called “Reality Check,” in which journalist Cam Robertson asks the question, “Why do we love video game music?”  He attempts to explain the phenomenon of the continual veneration and sentimentality towards classic video game themes, not by talking about how great their compositions are, nor did he talk up any of their qualities.  Instead, he goes with arguments from evolution and neuroscience that basically boil down to the idea that “because it has inherent shortcomings, people must like video game music for some reason unrelated to its inherent quality. ”

He also encouraged viewers to correct him if he made any errors.  Here’s the video:

 

maxresdefaultClick to watch at Gamespot.com

If you watch the video you’ll see that this is pretty uncontentious and contains a lot of sufficiently researched explanations of the neurological phenomenon of linking memory to emotion.  The long short of it is, we have evolved to remember highly emotional situations because they used to be in the context of survival situations.   Neuroscientists have discovered that music has an especially high yield of emotion, which causes a highly vivid emotional time stamp.  This phenomenon is what causes the feeling of nostalgia. Pretty straightforward.

My issue actually isn’t even with the crux of his video.  Where Mr. Robertson is mistaken is in his baseless and inaccurate claims and assumptions in the beginning of the video. read more »

What I Want To See In Hardware

I’m not the only one who wasn’t excited by this year’s E3 presentations.  In terms of games, it was obviously bad.  Actually, it sort of feels like everyone just accepts that the software will all be bad every year, and it’s become this kind of meta-game of trying to come up with something to say about them.  Often, it will be some big discussion about something tangential to the actual software itself (like the recent hullabaloo over the latest Tomb Raider game).  Anything to keep our minds off of how our favorite hobby became a joke over a decade ago, was killed, and is now stuck to the bottom of our shoe like toilet paper.

But nevermind about the software.  Today I want to talk about the hardware.  Actually, though, I don’t want to talk about Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft’s hardware.  What is there to really say?  They’ve all missed the mark.  They’ve come nowhere near doing anything that would interest game-players (or game designers).

I may temper that a bit and say that Nintendo almost came close with the Wii U.  It was almost the right idea.

Oooh, SO close. Unfortunately the Wii U can barely support even two of these things

I’d like you to please imagine this very simple scenario…

Imagine you and three friends are sitting around in your living room, each with tablets in your laps.  Each tablet has its own controller attached to the bottom of it, and the screen is a large (slightly larger than an iPad, maybe) surface.  All four of you have one of these tablets in your lap.  They connect wirelessly with each other (just like a Nintendo DS does), and they can also be hooked up to your Wifi.

What’s so cool about this?  Mainly, two things:

 

Secret Information

When I first saw the Wii U’s separate screen, the first thing I thought was about the possibilities for secret information among players.  The idea that there could be one player who has game information that another doesn’t could usher in a whole new generation of actually new games.  People who play boardgames know exactly what I’m talking about.  Traitor games, simultaneous action games, Poker — really, any card game where you have a “hand” has an element of “he has some information that I don’t, and I have to try to figure out what that information is”.

This is an example of a hardware innovation that – unlike touchscreens and motion-waggle accoutrement and Sega Action Chairs – actually does invite incredible new kinds of gameplay.  Imagine playing a traitor game (for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a cooperative game that has one or more “traitors” whose identities are hidden), in real time, for example. read more »

The Subjective & Objective in Video Games

Can we all agree that when we type things into the internet, that the purpose for doing so is that we hope that the stuff we typed is of some kind of value to others?  Slashdot has their “Insightful/Informative/Funny/Interesting”-based ratings system;  things which are none of those are buried.  One of the things that should always get “buried” is a comment that’s nothing but pure, subjective opinion.

A lot of people might find that strange coming from me, because a lot of people mistake me for “saying my opinion” a lot on the internet.  While I certainly do that from time to time, it will almost always be in passing, as a bit of an aside to a larger comment that’s actually about something of substance.  I have long understood that nobody cares what my, or anyone else’s opinion is.

The recent Diablo 3 situation is a good example.  I wrote my article on it months ago during the beta, but it recently got a lot of attention due to someone posting about it on reddit.  At about the same time I also was on a particularly critical episode of Roguelike Radio wherein Diablo 3 was thoroughly throttled.  In both cases, there was a predictable amount of backlash.  People were upset, thinking that I was saying Diablo 3 is “no good”.  Actually, I’ve never said that the program isn’t “good”.

What I have said is that it lacks ambiguous decision-making, that it lacks a loss condition, that there is far too much noise in the system for it to be balanced or meaningful.  These are not subjective statements, they are attempts at objective observations about the nature of that program. read more »

Follow-up: Kickstarter Post

Hi everyone!  I just wanted to write a small follow up to our previous post, and quickly make sure our feelings on the matter are entirely understood.  It’s clear to me now that I was not coming through as I intended to a lot of people.

  • We accept complete responsibility for the failure of our Auro‘s Kickstarter.  Actually, a lot of comments in the last 24 hours have been exceedingly helpful in terms of us learning the real reasons why it failed.  We really appreciate that.
  • We have no problems with someone not wanting to fund us; even a person who does fully get what Auro is, and still feels that way.  We don’t feel as though we’re entitled to people’s money, or any such thing.
  • The article’s main point was intended to simply be that there seemed to be an unfair hostility towards people even asking for money.  I now realize, however, that honestly… it’s the internet.  There are always going to be people saying stupid things like “wait are we paying for the game, or your living expenses?!”  We shouldn’t have taken this kind of absurdity as seriously as we did.
  • We’re super happy about the successes that Double Fine and inExile have found on Kickstarter, and very excited to see what they come up with.  Mostly, we just think it’s great that they’ve been able to tell the big publishers to go screw themselves — that’s something we can all agree on, I think.

Anyway, please let me know if you have any other questions regarding our positions on these matters in the comments.  In the meantime, we’re not sure if we’re going to do another Kickstarter at some point, or perhaps another alternative like Desura alpha-funding.  Thanks again for reading!

False Choice: Bad for Stories, Bad for Games, Inevitable in Story-Games

We at Dinofarm enjoy great things.  A screenplay is great when an empathic link is forged between audience and character through a seamless, delicately woven web of plot threads.  Eventually, a profound value is revealed after a surprising, yet inevitable climax.  Such a screenplay can change someone’s  life, or at the very least, lead to weeks of contemplation.

A great game can lead to the same kind of enrichment, but does so in its own ways.  After several matches of games like Go, Texas Hold ‘Em or Tetris, the mind is tickled in a way that only great games can tickle it.  They too cause contemplation, but not in the same way a narrative does.  Great games leave a person pondering over the deep possibility space they have only just begun to see.  A true lover of any great game will lay in bed and dream up new, lateral, creative ways to overcome the infinite challenges that lie in this ocean of a game space.

In thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that both mediums, while inherently very different, do have a strong corollary, and that corollary is real, meaningful decisions. Again, since both mediums are so inherently different, this is going to mean something different for each, but just the same, it all comes down to choice.  Real choice.

I’m no expert in fiction, but I am an avid hobbyist, and have taken to considerable self-study.  In these pursuits, I have discovered some useful lenses through which I evaluate the stories I take in.  I became interested in learning why it is I like a character and why I care about what happens to him.

 

Character Development

I’ve observed that “character development” is a term thrown around by every moviegoer age 13 and upward, and every discussion I have on the matter seems to yield a different definition of the word.  To many, “Character Development” is simply a combination of backstory, physical descriptions and expository dialogue.  Many friends of mine through the years have complained, upon exiting the theater featuring the latest superhero movie, that the story was “okay, but lacked character development.”  If I were to ask them what they meant, they too would probably turn to backstory, description and more expository dialogue.  I argue that this does just as little, in many cases, to develop a character as the senseless action everyone complains about.

First I should point out what I believe the goal of character development to be.  I believe that it’s all about forging an empathic link with the character, so that when the climax arrives, we feel what they feel.  Whatever life-changing value they take away from that climax, we too must take.  If that is our goal for character development, then character development must lie in the character making ambiguous, tough, irreversible decisions under pressure, the outcome of which is surprising, yet inevitable.

Suprising, Yet Inevitable

This is the holy grail of storytelling.  Anyone could do surprising(“and then our heroes were….TELEPORTED BY A MAGICAL DOLPHINOID ALIEN”) which, on its own, is cheap.  Anyone could do inevitable(“She gets pulled over by a cop as she speeds to her son’s big game.  Her excuses don’t work until she decides to tell the TRUTH and the cop goes ‘i’ll let you off with a WARNING.’*cue 90s orchestra theme*”) which we buy out of because it satisfies our predictions 1 to 1.  It’s my belief that only when you get the audience to say “I can’t BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED….but…it couldn’t have happened any other way…” do you have a great story.  It’s so… hard to do.  I certainly can’t do it!  And it only comes from real, ambiguous choice, or dilemma.

We’re all unconsciously familiar with the power of dilemma in our stories, and we’re also unconsciously offended by its opposite: FALSE CHOICE. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood headhunters hired to find great screenplays and spruce them up for blockbuster appeal must have read at some point that “The hero must have a choice to make at the climax.”  Apparently not understanding why this is so important to the art of story, they often shoehorn in these choices when there really isn’t a choice to make.  It’s the illusion of choice. All the dramatic music and earth-shattering deliveries of an A-lister cannot make the choice real.  And our brains know it deep down.

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One Possible Disconnect

I was reading through some comments I got for my recent article titled, “On Score”, and there’s definitely a pattern.  Probably 90% of the comments that seemed to disagree with what I was saying went something like this:  “games aren’t about score, games are about fun.  Why would I care about some arbitrary numbers?  And if it’s objective based then that means it’s work.  I want to have fun when I play games.”

In response, I would usually rattle off a quick comment to most of these people telling them that “fun” has no explanatory power and that goals are a fundamental part of a game.  But I think there may be a deeper level to this, actually.

It occurred to me – and maybe this is one of those things that doesn’t seem obvious to me, but perhaps is actually obvious to everyone else – that most people are not thinking about games the way I am.  For most people, normal people who play games, games are nothing but a vehicle for fun.

A game to most people, perhaps, is like a party.  And who wants some “party expert” coming into their party and saying “no, parties shouldn’t be like this!  Parties need X!  And Parties should NEVER have Y, are you people insane?”  Most people want a party to be free and fluid, and I understand that.

But the thing is:  Games are more than a party.  They are more than just fun.  In fact, technically, games actually don’t have to be fun at all.  Some examples of games that are not normally considered fun might be a mock war scenario for people who are actually in the military, or the system of “grading” in schools.  Or better yet, a hypothetical scenario wherein prisoners are forced to fight to the death in some kind of arena.

Don’t get me wrong:  I play games to have fun, just like a lot of my detractors.  But it seems like a lot of people don’t understand that there is something in between PLAYER and THE FUN.  This thing is called THE GAME.

The Disconnect

The disconnect is the “game” part.  I will be talking about a game – which is the rules, mechanisms, actions players can take, goals, etc – and then players come in and say “no, that is not what games are about!  Games are about fun!”.

This is like telling a car mechanic who is trying to fix your car’s engine, “dude, the problem isn’t the engine, the problem is that the car won’t DRIVE!”  “Driving” is the outcome we want to get out of the car, and “fun” is the outcome we want to get out of a game.  I am trying to help fix the engine.  Fun is not a component of games, just the same way that driving isn’t a component of a car.

To my detractors:  why is it, exactly, you think that I am trying to establish these guidelines for game design?  It’s to make games that are more fun!  Did you think that this was just some useless intellectual soliloquy?  You know that automobile manufacturers have guidelines for how to design a good engine.  You know that in music we have guidelines for harmony and melody and rhythm which show us how music can work.  I am trying to help us come up with the same thing for games.

We all want “fun”.  The question is, how do we make games that are more fun?  I will continue to propose solutions, but I don’t want to hear “but what about FUN?” in the middle of an explanation of a game design guideline.

Gaining Speed and No One’s Steering

We all know that things are changing pretty dramatically these days in the gaming world.  From how games are designed, to how they are produced, marketed, sold and played – it is all dramatically different than it was even ten years ago.  And the evidence indicates that we are not near the end of this period of change.  It’s likely that ten years from now, the world of games will have changed ever more dramatically, into a shape none of us would in 2012 would recognize.

So things are going to change.  The question is – how are they going to change?  Well, how do you want them to change?  We, the people who play, design, and write about games, are going to have a significant impact on how this change occurs.

Personally, I do not like the direction that things are headed in.  No one is steering.  I feel a responsibility to help angle us into what I see as being the correct direction.  This is nothing new;  this is the basic nature of any dialogue on any topic.  I want to participate, because I have something to say and because I care about the future of games.

We’re talking about games a lot – but what very few of us are doing is coming out and saying “hey – this is what games ought to be”.

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