I make games now. Play my game.

screen1Return of blog, I blog again. Hello there, after an extended period of radio silence I have emerged from the ashes with a video game that I have made.

You can play it here: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/653101

This is my first ever game, hopefully the start of bigger and better things. It’s not a great game, but it exists and that gives it a significant advantage over my many ideas for things that don’t.

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Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)

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Ah, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Obligatory background talk: MGS2 was one of the most anticipated games of all time. The long awaited sequel to the critically and commercially successful PSone gem, Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 was hailed as amongst the first and greatest truly defining titles of the PS2’s illustrious catalogue of games. This was something new for the industry, video games by and large hadn’t seen this sort of hype before. People had MGS2 pegged as possibly the greatest game of all time long before it was released.

So how did it hold up? MGS2 amazed me when I first played it way back when. I was always a big fan, I even liked Raiden (yes, I’m one of those people). So let’s talk about it now that I’ve returned to it with added, y’know, maturity and stuff. Before I dig into the plot I’ll talk about the technical and gameplay changes. For starters the graphics were amazing. Crisp, gorgeously detailed and still amongst the best on the PS2. It also had some physics effects that were any self-respecting nerd’s wet-dream. Insignificant objects in the game were given painstakingly detailed animations so that, for example, if you shot a bottle, it would realistically break from where the bullet hit it. Yes, MGS2 sure was (and is) visually impressive.

mgs2 tanker
Ta-dah!

The sound design also saw a significant jump in quality. Creator Hideo Kojima recruited bigwig Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams to do the score and it’s really impressive. It makes you appreciate how significant a musical score is to feeding into something’s production value. I mean, I loved the soundtrack of Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid but this went above and beyond what was expected from a video game. It has a really fitting electronic soundtrack that plays with minimalism really well but is also downright epic in places (but who would expect anything less from the great Gregson-Williams?) That said, being slightly controversial it was a bit repetitive here and there, especially that the same tune is used for almost all the boss fights.

Onto gameplay, it’s pretty similar to the first Metal Gear Solid but it introduces enough new features to change the general feel and approach in a more engaging and believable way. The basics are the same, solo infiltration mission, equipment procured on-site, sneak past the guards, getting caught springs alarm, mechanics heavily favour stealth, etc, etc. Enemies are now a lot smarter, they have realistic fields of vision that isn’t perfectly illustrated on your radar so you are required to use more cover and common sense when sneaking around. They also now need to actually call in backup over their radio before an alarm triggers which gives you some welcome leeway before the whole damn facility is instantly aware of your precise position. The alert mode now has enemies doing realistic sweeps and covering exits. You can aim for specific parts of the enemy to take out their radio, their firing arm, their legs, a shot to the heart or head is an instant kill. You have a useful first person aiming mode, a tactical dodge-roll and a broader range of close-combat skills. The level design is another step up, interesting layouts, varied patrols, a larger range of options to progression. Generally things feel a lot more tense and interesting and crucially a lot more realistic. Your character now moves with his gun aimed at the floor (as opposed to the James Bond style gun against the shoulder stuff of the first game), and the feel of the game is a lot more organic, you spend a lot of time looking at where the enemies line-of-sight is falling and planning you way across the landscape. You also see the first appearance of the tranquilizer gun, which adds a nice variation to the gameplay whereby you can put a guard to sleep rather than killing him, which won’t trigger an alarm nor will it fill you with a dreaded feeling of guilt.

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Critically, it has some of the same downfalls as the first game. Backtracking means that you end up rushing through some areas at the expense of stealth. A lot of the rooms have all of the guards instantly in view, so you can just whip out a tranq gun and get all of them to hit the floor and then sprint from one side of the room to the other. It takes you out of the experience. The level design also frustratingly gets more derivative and easier as the game goes on, having a totally backwards slanting difficulty curve (though not half as bad as the first game). Also, whereas a lot of the shortcomings of the first game can be explained away with hardware limitations that isn’t really the case here. It’s kind of silly when you can shoot numerous hydraulic powered syringes with powerful sedatives into somebody’s face only to have them go for a little nap for a few minutes and then wake up as if nothing happened. Plus it’s really difficult and impractical to knock somebody out, which makes a no-kill run (although an admirable thing to feature in your game) pointlessly more difficult than it needs to be. I also think some of the controls were needlessly complicated, shooting from around a corner involves holding multiple awkward buttons simultaneously. The worst aspect of the gameplay by far is the optional collectables: dog tags. To get a soldier’s dog tags you need to sneak up behind him and hold him up at gunpoint. I really love this game so I was considering going for all of the achievements until I realised that that involves holding up every soldier in the game on every difficulty level. That means beating the game in this stupid, unappealing playstyle at least four times. This is not a good way to shoehorn extra content into your game.

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Let ye be warned, this rest of this retrospective is a critical examination of the game’s story and themes and assumes you’re already familiar with the plot. Here we go.

Ah, MGS2. This game is famous for it’s mad-cap story, multiple confusing plot-twists and outright insanity. There is far too much to summarize but the essence involves a rehash of the first game with our new protagonist, Raiden. Kojima describes MGS2 as a “postmodern” video game, but that doesn’t really mean anything (I don’t remember any period of “modernism” preceding it), I take it he means that the game has subversive elements, and I certainly won’t take that away from him. MGS2 really takes to the realm of philosophy more so than any other MG game. This succeeded in isolating fans of the gameplay and confusing the hell out of fans of the story. Me? I loved it. I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that people weren’t really ready for MGS2 in a lot of ways. There are a lot of retrospective interpretations that talk about fancy things like “ludonarrative dissonance” but the fact is game critics didn’t really have the necessary frameworks to critically evaluate MGS2 at the time it was released. The thing is about MGS2 though, I think a lot of the philosophy behind it, or at the very least the philosophy that people see in it, is very playful by nature. None of it really radically affects the actual canon of the story. It sets up a series of thought experiments and gives you the option of dissecting them or not, there are clues and secrets to root out, but none of it really interferes with the story. I don’t know how much of it was intentional, but there certainly is a lot here to think about, if you’re willing to put on your conspiracy cap.

MGS2 is all about subversion. There are a huge amount of visual clues indicating that something is not quite right in the logic of the world. When you die in first person mode, the screen cracks along the centre. Raiden says things like “It feels like I’m in a nightmare”, “I could wake up any minute”, “you can’t tell VR from the real thing”. The areas at the end of the game are decorated with computer code, they are surrounded by a bottomless expanse, mechanically the whole genre of the game is altered. There is even a part where Snake, completely in earnest, says not to worry about running out of ammunition because he has a bandanna that provides him with “infinite ammo”. This is in reference to a special item unlocked in MGS1 after completing the game. One has to explore the possibility that the entire game is a simulation. I thought about this and I thought about how it fits in with the canon of the rest of the series and then it hit me: of course the entire game is a simulation. That’s what a video game is. If the purpose of this “post-modern” video game is subversion, well that’s it. Think about it, the infinite bandanna is an unlockable, equipable item in the first MGS, it’s not a cheat code, it’s a canonical item within the structure of the game. So why shouldn’t it be featured as a plot element? So much of the game takes liberties with realism, breaks the fourth-wall, has characters that say things like “press the select button”, so why is the infinite bandanna so unsettling, so subversive. Why is that where the line is drawn in the virtual contract the player makes when suspending their disbelief?

infinite ammo
Is this just one big joke to you Kojima? Is that it?

Expanding from here brings meaning to almost the entirety of the game’s symbolism. It’s also a direct extension of the same theme brought up in the first MGS. Consider Raiden as an analogue for the player. Firstly, he’s intentionally left without a backstory for the vast majority of the game and his personality is fairly generic. He’s very different from Snake and more reminiscent of the sort of ordinary, farmboy heroes that people are supposed to project themselves onto. Also, he has no field experience except for virtual reality simulations of the previous games and he’s vaguely altruistic but admits that he doesn’t know what he is fighting for. These can all be said of the person who is manipulating his actions through a small piece of plastic connected to their television. Think about the crucial scene from MGS1 when Liquid addresses the camera and says “You enjoy all the killing don’t you?” This point is driven home even harder in this game when Raiden, the player character, confesses to enjoying the killing, to not having a greater reason to fight except for following orders, in the same way we sit down to play and follow the mission objectives. We don’t play the game for moral reasons. This game provides us with the option to go through the whole game without killing a single person, but how many people bother to use the tranquilizer guns and non-lethal combat? If so, why? The enemies aren’t real, right?

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If the game begins by presenting Raiden as a bland character we are supposed to project ourselves onto, this is not how the game ends. In the breadth of a few minutes we discover that he has a hugely complex backstory being raised as a child soldier, his clothes and equipment are stripped from him, he is naked and vulnerable, totally antithetical to the player who is controlling his actions. Suddenly this almost non-character who we’ve grown frustrated at for being so void and uninteresting is somebody we absolutely cannot connect with, he is distanced from the player in a significant way, he joins the ranks of the gamey cast of characters and we never really get to connect with him again. All of this happens just as it’s revealed that a secret organisation in the game world control and manipulate almost everything, in fact the entire sequence of events from the previous game was orchestrated by varying degrees by this same organisation. The name of the game is deconstruction. Just before the credits, Raiden throws away a dog-tag with your name on it, the name you input at the start of the game, symbolically severing his ties to the player. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but this makes Raiden’s next appearance as a hacky-slashy cyborg ninja at least slightly more logical (slightly).

raiden
Hmm. Makes sense.

The way MGS2 deals with the illusion of choice in video games is genius because it extends the choice into your own living room. At the start of the game Raiden knows almost nothing about the mission, the briefing is peculiarly brief and uninformative and the player is left in the dark for much of the game. So why does Raiden carry on? Well it’s the same reason that you continue to play the game. I got to wondering if Solidus was really the “bad guy” in this game. Other than being callous and ruthless, he was ultimately working towards the same goal as Snake, Otacon, Liquid and Ocelot. Raiden kills him at the end because the Patriots tell him to and they have leverage against him. I realised, maybe that’s the point. Maybe he isn’t the bad guy. But I still killed him, through Raiden, because that’s how you advance the plot. When you think about it like that it becomes a striking metaphor. Why do we go back and replay the game? Why make Raiden go through the whole thing again? He isn’t real sure, but the game makes the point of saying that something is only as real as your brain tells you it is. I mean, when playing from the start why listen to what the Colonel has to say when we know he’s just a manipulative artificial intelligence? Isn’t the act of not playing the greatest solution to the story?

raiden naked
Insert joke here

Examine the plot twists in the series so far. MG1: it’s revealed that your commanding officer is actually the leader of the facility he ordered you to infiltrate. MG2: The C.O. from the last game is actually alive and leading the second facility too, plus the man you saved from the first game has converted to working for the same C.O. MGS1: You are actually a clone of the C.O. from the first two games, your twin brother is the terrorist leader, the whole operation was orchestrated by the US government, one of the henchman was actually a spy for the president, and that dude from the last two games is now a crazy ninja. MGS2: Your whole mission was an elaborate experiment by a secret organisation that effectively runs the world, your character is actually a manipulated war orphan, the henchman from before actually works for the secret organisation except now he’s possessed via the dismembered arm of the twin mentioned before, the former president is the terrorist leader and also another clone of the aforementioned C.O. Now, consider the irony of all these twists, escalating and escalating and yet still nobody seems aware of the possibility that none of it is real, everyone (like us) seems totally willing to embrace the lunacy of their own world. Consider once more, the ultimate conspiracy that Raiden is being controlled by somebody playing a video game.

I can also fully appreciate how much of this sounds utterly convoluted. I wonder how much of this deconstruction was actually intended by Kojima, but then again, it doesn’t really matter. The game is rife with symbolism and certainly up for numerous open-ended interpretations. I’m not going to say that MGS2 is perfect, but it was certainly progressive and it’s hard for me to do anything but respect it when I was left pondering it for literally days after I completed it. Of course the MGS fanbase was less accepting. MGS2 got overwhelming critical acclaim but the main criticism levelled against it was its confusing, philosophically inclined plot, and it’s no surprise that the next game in the series (a prequel), MGS3, played it a lot safer thematically. Even MGS4, the game that tied all of the others together, kind of glossed over the Big Shell incident to a large extent. I wonder just how bizarre things would have gotten if the fans were more onboard with the philosophical underpinnings of MGS2.

mgs2

I also always had a soft spot for Raiden. He was different from Snake, and that was okay. In a lot of ways he was easier to connect with as a character and I think that was intentional. An important aspect of the focus shifting to a newer character was also how it allowed Snake to be characterised in a way he couldn’t before. Suddenly we can see Snake as somebody who is clued in, somebody who has learned from his previous endeavours and can offer support and backup to somebody who has to learn it all from the beginning again. Raiden inherited Snake’s cluelessness and echolalia so Snake didn’t have to be burdened with it anymore (“Metal Gear.” “Metal Gear!?”) and that is something that I’m perfectly okay with. That was actually one of the problems I had with MGS4, when Snake seemed to lose all of his characterisation and resort back to a blunt instrument designed to soak up exposition.

iroquois plisken

I think unfortunately MGS2’s major let down is that it spends so much time getting you to think that it forgets to get you to feel. The individual components just aren’t as memorable as in the other games. We have no history or emotional connection with the cyborg ninja, Olga. Your codec support is a lot weaker. The Big Shell itself lacks the sheer atmosphere of Shadow Moses or Zanzibar Land. Emma Emmerich is a good character and sets up a genuinely poignant moment but not in the same way as Gustava or Meryl. The biggest disappointment by far and, honestly, had it been different I would probably definitively say that MGS2 was my favourite in the series, is the absurdly weak boss battles. They are absolutely the worst in the series. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but in the Metal Gear series it actually serves as a massive boon to the overall game. The boss battles are so unmemorable that they actually seemed new to me as I was playing them, and then immediately forgot about them again. I mean, Fatman is probably one of the better bosses if only because it tried to do something somewhat creative but it’s still terrible. The Metal Gear RAY showdown at the finale is boring and easy too. The final boss with Solidus is pretty good, and the best in the game but certainly the worst final boss in the overall series, reaching nowhere near the emotional high of the first two Big Boss showdowns, the two battles with Liquid atop the Metal Gears or the battle with the Boss in MGS3 (yup, that’s literally all of them).

fatman
When I’m saying that this guy is one of the best bosses in a game, that game got problems.

The plot of course is the same sprawling twist-ridden guilty pleasure as always. Ocelot really starts to turn insane at this point, he’s always a joy to watch. Structure wise I’d say there’s arguably too much in it. The world is given so much complexity that it’s a genuine challenge to keep track of everything that’s happening. There’s literally a novel in the main menu that summarises the MGS1 and the events leading up to MGS2. I won’t attempt something so deluded as a plot summary but I can assure you that I’m a veritable fountain of inane Metal Gear trivia at this stage. I mean, I’m tempted to say that the Metal Gear series is in fact badly written, but it’s so fun and full of passion that it’s hard not to get sucked in to. It’s the kind of writing you just throw adjectives at. Exciting, dense, convoluted, atmospheric, stupid, memorable, complex, ridiculous, melodramatic. I mean, some of those words are good.

I bloody hate Rose.
I bloody hate Rose.

I feel like I should focus at least some attention on the big reveal at the end. The Patriots, a clandestine group seeking to control the digital flow of information in order to mold the shape of history into whatever way they see fit. That’s important. People can learn from that. It’s very 1984 but it’s delivered with such sincerity that I think it really works. They do linger on the “bad guy explains his cunning plot for no reason” part but that’s okay, it sort of added to the atmosphere. I actually found it to be quite a powerful bit of fiction with real relevance to the world we live in today.

colonel ai

I could honestly write about MGS2 for days. There’s just so much here, and I didn’t even bother to try and dig into the plot and write about the actual nuts and bolts of it. What I really love about MGS2 is that it’s a game that’s willing to take risks. It’s willing to create a brilliantly fun and creative bit of spy fiction and then actually say something about the world on top of it. It’s a downright clever game and it’s topical. I won’t say that MGS2 is a masterpiece but it is an excellent example of how somebody can create something that supersedes its own genre by intelligently and playfully bringing in philosophical themes and social commentary. I still think it’s probably my favourite game in the series and I would be delighted to ramble on about to anybody who chooses to provoke me.

ocelot

Now, back in time to the Cold War and onwards to Metal Gear Solid 3!

Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear (1987)

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Gearing up (ha, puns) for the release of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes later this year I’ve decided to run through all of the canonical Metal Gear games thus far in release order, starting with the first title in the series, 1987’s “Metal Gear” originally on the MSX. I’ll be playing the remastered version that comes with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (thankfully free from some of the faults in the more popular NES version, like the notable absence of the actual Metal Gear and some hilarious “Engrish” translations.)

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The Metal Gear Solid series meant a lot to me growing up. My copy books in school were covered with doodles of Solid Snake and badly drawn SOCOM pistols. Despite my love for the series, I never actually got around to playing the two original games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

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In case anyone doesn’t know, Metal Gear is a series of stealth video games (well, “stealth” games with one notable exception)

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I’m looking at you, Cyborg Ninja Raiden.

where you play as a grizzled super-soldier code-named “Snake”. The series is famous for popularizing the stealth genre and also for its wacky humour and recurring features, like hiding under a cardboard box to avoid detection and the titular bipedal nuclear tanks. Series creator, Hideo Kojima, is known as quite the eccentric fellow in the world of video games and with every new installment the plot gets increasingly dense and convoluted, in the best possible way. I’m long overdue a good Metal Gear Marathon and I’m looking forward to taking a drive down memory lane. Without further ado, let’s get on with reviewing this classic piece of gaming history.

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So. This is where it all began. Metal Gear puts you in charge of a young mercenary named “Solid Snake” tasked with the solo infiltration of a dangerous nuclear-armed military base called Outer Heaven, run by an illusive and unidentified mercenary leader. You belong to Special Forces Group FOXHOUND, who’s previous infiltrator “Grey Fox” has been captured inside the facility. Your mission: rescue Grey Fox, learn about the mysterious weapon “Metal Gear” and neutralise the threat if necessary. Exciting stuff.

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Compared to the multi-layered mind melting you get from the convoluted plots of the later games, the series starts with relatively humble beginnings. The plot is fairly threadbare and honestly it’s referenced with more gravitas in the later installments than is suggested in the original itself. It is interesting to see the framework that would lead to the franchise’s defining series, Metal Gear Solid, laid down here. You really get a glimmer of genius playing through it, and you can see the gears (ha, I can’t stop myself) turning in Kojima’s mind. Much of the series’ iconic features are birthed here, from cyborgs to cigarettes, bipedal tanks to off-beat fourth-wall humour.

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From the get-go it’s clear that Metal Gear is intended to be more cinematic than its cousins of the same era, a trend that carries on in later titles. There’s a real air of Hollywood floating around, not surprising when you consider Kojima was heavily inspired by Western action flicks.

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ImageIt’s interesting from a design perspective that Metal Gear has always pushed to make its games closer to film in a lot waysyet the games also pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished solely by video games, being truly pioneering within its own medium.

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Like anything dated, I think to really appreciate its significance you need to understand the context in which it came out. The 1980’s saw incredible innovation in the fledgling young games industry as people were still trying to figure out what exactly a game could or should be. Does a game need points? High scores? Lives? Should it require skill? How does narrative fit into any of this? 1986 saw pioneering titles like The Legend of Zelda, an early example of action-adventure, open-ended gameplay. The first RPG was released the same year in Dragon Warrior. Crucially for the young Kojima, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was released in 1985, supposedly opening the flood-gates of possibility for the concept of interactive story-telling. Metal Gear led the charge in genre innovation by being one of the first “stealth games”. Enemies were given a primitive line-of-sight and only attack when the player crosses their vision. It’s easy to take for granted just how revolutionary Metal Gear was.

 

I can assure you in comparison to many of its contemporaries, Metal Gear is immensely playable, thankfully void of concepts like lives and high-scores. From a game design perspective, its actually pretty remarkable. The map layout is appreciably organic, enemies patrol in unpredictable patterns and you do get some great on-the-fly finger-biting moments when you shuffle down a narrow alley that a patrolling enemy promptly decides is on his patrol route. Pretty amazing when you consider what’s governing the enemy intelligence is a sequence of a few hundred on/off switches.

 

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Riveting…

Speaking of, you do get a nagging sense of hardware limitation. The radio calls that would become a series mainstay mostly consist of “SNAKE! INFILTRATE THE BASE. OVER.” Apparently they originally cut lower-case characters to save file-space. In fact a lot of concepts that appear in later games are in their infancy here. The cardboard box, for example, is basically running a line of code that says if under the box and not moving, do not trigger alarm mode. It’s funny, and opens up some of the self-parody in later titles.

 

One thing I really liked about the game was how much paper I used in real-life. It soon becomes clear that the only way to navigate the facility is to make complicated hand-drawn maps. It’s also fun to keep track of your radio frequencies that you need to contact your various informants. I like a game that’s light on hand-holding. There’s something rewarding about having turn the frequency dial on your transmitter while your character says “This is Snake, come in!” My inner child was screaming “this is so neat!” It’s a lot rarer to see stuff like that in newer games.

 

One feature that’s present here that I’m surprised didn’t return in subsequent titles is a level-up system. Scattered around the facility are prisoners of war and if you rescue enough of them you earn another class star, up to a total of four. By raising class you gain more total health and increase your carrying capacity for items and ammunition. There’s also a resistance leader who is so proud that she will only offer radio support once you reach a sufficient class level, which again I thought was a nice touch. I understand why it was left out of the rest of the series, if its goals are to press for realism it isn’t logically consistent to have an arbitrary rank system that increases the amount of bullets that can fit in your gun, but I still thought it added some welcome depth.

 

Of course it isn’t all positive. There are some technical hiccups. Enemies can only see in straight lines in the direction they’re facing, so Snake can stand at a slight diagonal to their position and go completely undetected, allowing for some immersion breaking experiences. There’s also some gratuitously frustrating design choices, like slowly choking to death in a room of poison gas because you’re messing about with your eight numbered key-cards trying to open an unlabelled door (why do early video games do this? It’s not challenging, it’s just frustrating!) The graphics and animations too are very dated, although there is at least a decent variation in colour. There’s a wee bit too much backtracking too, a trend that carries on into Metal Gear Solid 1, but I never really pulled my hair out over it. The sound was also pretty bad, the main theme got very repetitive very quickly and was nowhere as deftly handled nor as defining as the themes from Zelda, Mario, Megaman or other games similarly limited by hardware.

 

Seriously, if I have to listen to that thing one more time I’m going to feed the composer his own ears.

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On the whole, yes it’s a little rough around the edges, but this is the game that started it all. Technical limitations aside, it’s still a game that fills me with more emotion than a lot of modern games. There’s tension, excitement, intrigue, betrayal and more than anything else it’s a game that’s full of promise. There’s a skeleton here that future instalments grew out of, the big names and features are established. Snake, Big Boss, Metal Gear, cardboard boxes, floating exclamation marks and deactivating electrified floors with remote controlled missiles. I’d recommend fans of the series to go back and give it a playthrough, I finished it in a pretty modest three hours or so, and it will give you a satisfying, if primitive, taste of tactical espionage action. There’s not much there in terms of plot, but it is a whisper of things to come.

 

I enjoyed my time with the series roots more than I anticipated. You could say my mettle has been bolstered, and I’m all geared up for the sequel. I hope it will do me solid, and not snake through my high expectations (kill me). Roll on, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake!

The Poetry of Game Development

Over the past two weeks or so I’ve been diving into the world of computer coding and making video games. The program I’m using is GameMaker (the free version, which I got off steam) because it seems to be the easiest to start off with. It’s pretty fun, and it has its own coding language which let’s you take it up a notch if you want to get more advanced. I was also learning JavaScript from a very cool website called Codecademy which turned out to be very useful since the languages are quite similar and the learning curve for this stuff is so steep you could get a concussion if you ran headlong into it. Since I always revel in the opportunity to shite on about video games, here’s a list of simple observations I made that really surprised me, given that I had virtually no experience with any kind of programming beforehand. Maybe if you’re computerly illiterate like me you’ll find them interesting too!

Disclaimer: if you do know anything about computers, please forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how true these impressions turn out to be the deeper you dive into this strange computery world. These are just simple thoughts I had that made me think all this tech stuff is more fun and artistic than I originally gave it credit for.

1. Everything is more complicated than I thought it was.

The first game I made on GameMaker was eloquently titled “My first game EVAR!!!” and because I cheaped out on the free version that won’t let you export to HTML, no you can’t play it. However, I can describe it to you in vivid detail.

I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!
I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!

Essentially there’s a little blob named Blinky and when you press left he goes left and when you press right he (can you guess?) goes right. It’s very artistic. Anyway, the first thing that struck me is just how damn complicated everything is. I mean, yeah, you can just say “when the left key is pressed, move left at 5 pixels per frame per set” or whatever but that’s a boring, uninspired way of moving. You get a much nicer, more fluid way of moving if you set it so that you accelerate up to a top speed, and when the key is released, you slide to a stop by playing with the friction settings. It’s really pretty fascinating. And to be honest, it’s that sort of macro stuff that’s the easiest to pull off, it really snowballs when you want to add a delay to a jumping animation so you can see the little dude bending down to ready himself. All of these things you take for granted when playing big budget games. It’s really the simple, nuanced things that make a game feel polished and professional that are the toughest to pull off.

2. Everything is way simpler than I thought it was.

I mean really, who knows how a video game works? For that matter, who knows how a computer works? I think I could give a pretty good rough explanation of how pencils and paintbrushes work, hell I could probably take a decent stab at explaining the camera, but the idea that all these letters appearing on this lit up screen in front of me is the result of some complex series of zeros and ones? On a scale of one to making sense that scores a grapefruit. It’s completely alien to me, but really once I started tinkering with the code, I sort of figured its all just maths, and not even particularly complicated maths.

I get it!
I get it!

I don’t know who invented the “if statement”, but whoever it was is the patron saint of compooter things. It’s a stroke of genius, you give the program a condition (like if the left key is pressed) and then the computer stares at it, and it keeps giving off zero, zero, zero, zero, and once it lights up and turns into a one, it executes whatever code you put in the if-statement (go left). It gets really cool once you have a string of them together. If the up key is pressed, and if the player is on the ground, increase vertical speed, if vertical speed is greater than zero, play jumping animation, if player is off the ground, set gravity variable, if player is on the ground, set gravity to zero, if vertical speed is zero, play stationary animation. There’s a really beautiful synergy to it, when all the different parts of the code come together and run smoothly. You get the hang of threading these things together really quickly and it’s very rewarding.

For science!
For science!

3. Your personality is inevitably going to come across.

I always thought that the real magic in game design came from the idea men, the storyboarders, the artists, the musicians. I thought the actual programming was a monotonous, mechanical process that was simply necessary to glue all the other bits together. Boy was I wrong. It’s really a lot like making music. You have a sort of rough idea of how you want the game to play but in the end you’re just pumping in figures and variables, play-testing, and seeing what feels good. You’re not going to program the perfect jump in one go, you’ve got to play around with it until it feels right. I found that it’s really the accidents that make for the best game experiences, it’s all about recognizing what works. A lot like how most of the major developments in electronic music have been people making mistakes, but realising that it sounds good, so they stick with it. It’s a lot more of an artform than I gave it credit for.Space Invaders

It sort of blew my mind when I realised that your individuality is inevitably going to come through in any bit of programming you do, no matter how generic. A lot like how if you got 50 people to paint the same tree, you’ll get 50 different paintings. If you get 50 programmers to make Space Invaders from memory, you’ll get 50 different games.

4. There’s art in games and games are art.

The late great Roger Ebert once butted heads with the gaming industry by saying “video games can never be art”. Honestly I think its a fairly ridiculous argument that pretty much just boils down to a semantic disagreement. Firstly, art has to be defined and secondly we need to decide if video games are “games” in a true sense. Neither are things I’m particularly interested in doing. I’m sure if games were called “interactive audio-visual works with peripherals for generating input” there would be no debate but because they’re called games we have to clash with critics (similar to how “comics” are stigmatised even when they’re not comical).

Anyway, I always knew that there was art in games. There’s concept art, narratives, soundtracks etc. but this is the first time I realised that the mechanics themselves can be art. I’ve spent a little time searching for interesting contemporary examples of people using technology in innovative ways to create poetry and it’s definitely something that will only get bigger in the future. I for one think it’s already there, there’s definitely a sort of intrinsic beauty to a block of functioning code, and there’s an amazing physical sensation you get from the visual feedback in a game. It’s amazing when a jump you programmed feels just right. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental!

The future of gaming is here.
The future of gaming is here.

Here’s some examples of some neat code poetry. And here’s a Wikipedia article on digital poetry. Lastly here’s a cool competition I found if anyone feels like making some digital poetry of their own.

The Profitable Explosion Principle

Video games! We all love them and we all want to see them continue to enrich our lives in interesting and innovative ways. I think most of us already know that a lot of the common tropes associated with games and gaming culture are outright fallacious but let’s look at it in a little more detail.

In 2012, the Entertainment Software Association published this report with many statistics concerning the gaming industry. Some findings are surprising, some aren’t. However it certainly does go a long way towards disproving the myth of the “average gamer”, this notion that we’re all fat, pimpled American teens, swearing down our headsets and shoveling pizzas and doritos down our faces while playing BulletFuck V: Redemption. One of the more interesting finds is that 47% of gamers are female. (I wonder what qualifies as a “game” in these studies, I imagine games on mobile devices and social networks go a long way towards equalizing the percentages. The reemergence of heavily gameplay centred gaming, particularly on mobiles, is fascinating and I wonder if there should be more of an effort to class these as a distinctly different art form. But hey, “defining games” is a really interesting topic and deserves it’s own full article!)

“But Josh!” I hear you shout defiantly through the monitor (is that healthy?), “if 47% of gamers are female, then why are all the mainstream games so clearly marketed towards men? Personally, I find it hard to believe that all of these game developers are so blatantly misreading the market data.” Hmm. An excellent point. Let’s take a look.

This is a list of the best selling games of 2012.

  • 1. Call Of Duty: Black Ops II
  • 2. FIFA 13
  • 3. Assassin’s Creed III
  • 4. Halo 4
  • 5. Hitman Absolution
  • 6. Just Dance 4
  • 7. Far Cry 3
  • 8. FIFA 12
  • 9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • 10. Borderlands 2
  • 11. Mass Effect 3
  • 12. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes
  • 13. Need For Speed: Most Wanted
  • 14. FIFA Street
  • 15. Mario & Sonic At The London 2012 Olympic Games
  • 16. Skylanders Giants
  • 17. Battlefield 3
  • 18. Call Of Duty: Modern Warefare 3
  • 19. Max Payne 3
  • 20. Sleeping Dogs

Notice a trend?

flickr-3330913348-original
I’m not overcompensating, I just love war!

All right. How do we get to the bottom of this? Why is it that the most saleable games appear to involve copious amounts of violence and teabagging? Well to help us out, let’s look at gaming’s nearest cousin: film.

This is a list of the best selling films of 2012.

  • 1. Marvel’s The Avengers
  • 2. The Dark Knight Rises
  • 3. The Hunger Games
  • 4. Skyfall
  • 5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • 6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
  • 7. The Amazing Spider-Man
  • 8. Brave
  • 9. Ted
  • 10. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
  • 11. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
  • 12. Wreck-It Ralph
  • 13. Lincoln
  • 14. MIB
  • 15. Django Unchained
  • 16. Ice Age: Continental Drift
  • 17. Snow White and the Huntsman
  • 18. Les Miserables
  • 19. Hotel Transylvania
  • 20. Taken 2

Notice a trend?

What he said.
What he said.

Okay so there’s a couple more kid’s movies than there are high grossing kid-games but let’s not forget that children have rubbish coordination and can’t be expected to pay large sums of money for entertainment they’re not able to operate effectively. Why? Because kid’s are lazy. Back in my day I spent hundreds of hours parked in front of a television playing video games. Kids these days. What happened to the world?

This still doesn’t explain why more games aren’t geared towards women, but it does explain what kinds of things people seem to be willing to pay for. I think the biggest factor is to do with development. To make a film all you need is a camera and some can-do attitude. To make a game you need a hefty amount of IT experience. It means that there’s big pressure on games to deliver and if something is selling, they’re going to exploit that. A film studio can justify more risky endeavours, and I think we can all think of a few low-budget gems. Depending on what type of game you want to make, you may need several developers all working on different areas which makes it difficult to get a unified goal. Plus the cost of making a top-selling game is astronomical and getting more expensive, not to mention the shear length of time it takes to develop a modern video game. We can grow disillusioned with the repetitive formula in the Hollywood bigs but in gaming it’s a nightmare. There’s no room for risk when your dealing with cash and time investments on that scale. The growing prevalence of indie games is certainly a redeeming factor though, and honestly it really deserves a full article to itself too!

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Let’s analyse the data. What comparisons can we draw between blockbuster games and blockbuster films? Three simple words. Ex PLO! sions.

There's literally an explosion on the cover, like it's a member of the freakin' team.
There’s literally an explosion on the cover.

I watched the trailers for the top five highest grossing films of 2012 and counted the number of explosions in them. My findings were explosive.

The Avengers: 19 explosions

Dark Knight Rises: 12 explosions

Hunger Games: 1 explosion… Sort of. The logo bursts into flames. This proves nothing.

Skyfall: 6 explosions

The Hobbit: 1 explosion, BUT! they had plenty of ancient equivalents to explosions, like rocks crumbling and hitting other rocks, and fire. Lots of fire.

So it’s clear. Men are willing to pay top dollar to see stuff explode. Some directors even make a living out of exploiting this fact.

Case and point. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, had 283 explosions! This video on youtube has almost 12 million views.

I call this the Profitable Explosion Principle.

Reddit user MikeDane drew up this graph on imgur. Using advanced mathematics, it proves conclusively my theory correlating profitability to explosions (also that M. Night Shyamalan is terrible and after what he did to The Last Airbender he should never be allowed near any filming equipment ever again).

Utterly disgreased!
Utterly disgreased!

To me, the answer is simple. We all want better video games. We want games that are deep and meaningful and enrich our lives. For too long have these types of games been considered “risky” or “not profitable”. All we need to do to make these artistic games saleable is to periodically make something in the game explode. So simple. It was staring us in the face this whole time.