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Jump'n Shoot 9000

IT'S A SECRET TO EVERYBODY

 

So it turns out that the age-old Tamagotchi uses the architecture from the 6502! What is even more startling is the discovery about how Tamagotchi toys actually work. The programming of Tamagotchis revolve entirely around one-bit logic: all of the interaction between a Tamagotchi and the player is controlled through switches, checking to see if a player has pressed a button at the right time. Further, all of the data associated with games on the Tamagotchi toy is bound up with the frames of animation.

It\’s all so simple, despite the need for more reverse engineering due to the use of mask ROM within Tamagotchis: since the toy manifests its programming in discrete transistor logic, it notoriously difficult to ‘dump’ its data. The author of the presentation hypothesises that if she can get a hold of the test program associated with the industrial mask ROM burning process, a program used by the chip company to prove that hardware errors are not their fault, she might be able to finally shed light completely on how Tamagotchis work.

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A very fitting pun for what is being done to the Star Trek franchise lately. In this post, I’d like to echo the sentiments of old-school trekkies about this J. J. Abrams ‘era’ of Star Trek.

For some reference, read this very well-written Gameological Society article about the new Star Trek game that has just been released. For some entertaining listening, the reader should also direct their attention to second part of ContinueCast’s podcast discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, where they express some mixed feelings about the changes made to the execution of Star Trek media.

Both of the sources seem to agree that Star Trek has been subject to more mainstream Hollywood production values. This is alarming, given what the series was meant to mean. Star Trek was meant to represent a social ideal of overcoming social conflicts through communication and shared understandings. This common core message was conveyed in both implicit and explicit ways throughout all of its media (TV, movies, even games) until recently, and one of the concrete things that it achieved throughout all this time was character growth and development. The original Star Trek ethic for character development is the complete inverse of franchises like Seinfeld, where characters are never meant to grow or change, existing exogenously–Star Trek characters developed through endogenisation, by learning through making mistakes and coming to understand the reason why things are the way they are. This is why characters like Commander Data, Seven-of-Nine, and Mister Spock are absolutely critical elements of the series, they provide a kind of blank slate from which to build upon rationalist humanist ideals. They provide a kind of relief against which the contradictions of humanity and can explored and explained.

What the contemporary iteration of Star Trek has done is refocused the franchise on the age-old hero genre. The complex web of personal relationships upon which the traditional Star Trek formula subsisted has been done away with, and instead the (no less traditional) Hollywood formula involving the defeat of a great obstacle has been foisted on the franchise in its stead. Two arguments can be made at this point, and I think both of them are equally pursuasive:

    1. Star Trek, as a series, was better off under its old formula;
    2. The old Star Trek formula, for all its flaws, is objectively better than the ‘hero-questing’ one now being saddled on it.

Heroes may grow and learn under the hero-questing formula (i.e. Star Wars), but they always grow in the same direction–towards enormous power and wisdom. The humanist Star Trek formula never demanded ubermenschian qualities from its characters, it only asked them to perform the most comprehensive self-reflection they could manage, and I think this rewarded the viewer with a far deeper, and more fulfilling entertainment experience.

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This post would’ve benefited greatly from consistent alliteration in its title had Bad Company been named something else, but, like the substance of that game, it’s obvious that not everything is perfect, or even wholly good. Gearbox’s Borderlands and DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company encapsulate almost entirely everything that is wrong with the current trends in popular video games. While Borderlands is by no means a bad game–I find its sense of progression very rewarding–it suffers from exactly the same thing as Bad Company, along with games such as Call of DutyGears of War, Crysis: all you have to do is shoot things. They also reveal something very interesting about the development of the video game industry, and the current state in which it finds itself. While they might be terrible games, they’re incredibly popular, and that means something.

The reader is perfectly entitled to arrive at the sentiment that what is about to be discussed is here merely a rehash of a pop-culture debate that is almost certainly careening away from any kind of rational coherence (much like anything to do with pop-culture). But, given the social and economic significance of games like CoDGoW &c (although there is probably much to be said about the business model upon which their production values are set, given the stellar profitability of casual iOS games), revisiting this popularly discussed subject is unavoidable. Millions upon millions of copies of these first-person shooters sell year after year, and continue to be critically acclaimed by an influential, if not wholly uncorrupted video game media. BioShock Infinite stands as a case in point. I hope to deal with Infinite later, once I have enough money (hah!).

The pseudo-theory that I developed while discussing platformers earlier asserts that games that place special emphasis on substantive elements–in other words, conveying meaning–always make the better game. On the other hand, games that emphasise procedures and rules more or less always fail aesthetically. This argument was based on both logical and empirical claims–for example, some understanding of human cognition in a concrete sense is very important for getting a game to \’connect\’ with a player. This conceptual schema is the basis on which I criticise Borderlands and Battlefield: Bad Company.

Both games rely heavily on first-person shooting concepts in the wrong way. It is by no means bad for a game to rely heavily on a small set of ideas and concepts (NB. Tetris, Pokemon), and with respect to first-person shooting it is entirely possible to convey substantive, meaningful ideas to a player by exploiting such a genre (Half-Life (2)?), but the two have not been combined successfully, here.

Aside from the fact that it is almost impossible to play–its battle mechanics being very difficult to master given its dichotomously enormous landscapes but then unbelievably cloistered and claustrophobic close-quarters environments–Bad Company merely requires you to murder everything in sight in order to complete the game. It relies entirely on a single truth-procedure that fails to convey anything of substance to the player in order to be ‘played’. The tone of the game is light-hearted, and you get the sense that you’re a kind of post-Iraq war swash-buckling soldier-pirate, but that’s all the game gives you in terms of context. Like almost all first-person shooters, BioShock included, the story is delivered to through a radio. However the story floats on top of the actual ‘game’. Bad Company‘s story is an excuse for the actual game: it’s like telling you to go for a jog while you listen to an audio-book. You could just as easily go for a jog listening to anything.

The same thing goes for Borderlands, except its RPG elements make patently obvious the hollow repetition involved in the game’s execution. The idea of melding an FPS to an RPG places an additional obstacle in the way of satisfying the game’s truth-procedure: collecting things serves as a distraction from mindlessly shooting things. The emptiness of the game is apparent very early on, as you learn to sift through thousands upon thousands of dropped items. The incredible thing about games like Borderlands and Bad Company is that they have sold many millions of copies. Developers have achieved their goal to maximise sales and revenue without having to worry about important things like good plots or sound character development–substantive conveyance of meaning.

This situation reminds me of an infamous argument regarding Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Proponents of this argument charge that specific features of human biology such as the ability to perform abstract analytical thought, and practice highly complex forms of communication are incredibly wasteful and inefficient behaviours from the viewpoint of maximising individual and/or group species survival in a competitive environment. This is a pretty convincing claim; things such as talking and thinking would, in an immediate sense, certainly get in the way of any given animal’s interest in surviving and propagating itself. Coupled with this persuasive argument, however, is the fact that biological reproduction is not in any sense uniformly simple and straightforward. This doesn’t render it false, however. The argument and that observation are compatible, as we shall see.

What this argument from evolution has to do with video games bears directly upon the almost endless success of shooters these days. It holds a lot of explanatory power in elucidating why these games are so successful, despite any normative ideals we might hold about what a ‘good’ game is. The reason why terrible FPS games are so commercially successful is because they are very definitely graphically appealing, and at least enjoyable at face value. Those factors secure the absolute minimum measure of success in the video game industry: their purchase. The same goes from the game-Darwinian perspective: success is relative to the degree of a title’s dissemination.

However, just like the almost pointless complexity of human behaviour from a biological standpoint, even the stupidest first-person shooters seem like a pretty big waste of time and energy just to maximise the level of fun you want to have. Why not just take drugs? Some drugs might be really expensive, but they’re certainly more efficient at making you feel good. Why waste days trying to hone your motor skills when you can just chemically stimulate your brain?

The reason why gamers play games, and don’t just shoot up when they want to have fun is the same for why humans have evolved to be capable of incredibly intelligent behaviours: both are by-products of evolution. Communication and abstract thought are derived from two very simple processes having completed many iterations over a long period of time: interpreting the environment, and coordinating behaviour. Games, correspondingly, are form of entertainment that has evolved from the humans repeating the satisfaction of the desire for pleasure.

The important thing to take away from this is that the process of evolution is by definition:(a) totally random and entirely contingent on accidents, (b) slow and incremental, and (c) unfair. Following this way of thinking, the entire development of the video game industry makes perfect sense, and a water-tight explanation for its current status quo is achieved. Think about the way Nintendo is treading water in terms of conceptual development in its most recent titles, in this light. They might be ‘failing’, but they are appealing to the exact same motivations as their competitors: base pleasure satisfaction.

The amazing thing about the above evolutionary argument: it unifies the causal factors for all games. Aesthetic success (a ‘good’ game) comes from the same process as aesthetic failure. This might trigger the objection that evolution can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad game because it reduces everything down to pleasure satisfaction, but that misses the point. Just because evolution can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean rationality doesn’t exist. We have developed critical reasoning skills and observed the process of evolution from outside of it. The same should go for game development.

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Something I feel compelled to comment on is the powerful role of language in the original BioShock. Formally speaking, much of the game is nothing more than a fetch-quest set within a first-person shooter. The player is guided through these sequences by the recorded voices of non-player characters. The language of these NPCs frame the access that the player has into BioShock‘s game environment, and conditions the interaction that the player has with it.

‘Guidance’ and ‘being guided’ here means something a little more than just the straightforward instructions that the player must perform in order to cause the plot to progress. The audio clips that are littered throughout the game fill out rooms, hallways, theatres and roads that are otherwise dank, repeating the thematic elements of the levels they inhabit. Offices become real places because they are connected to people’s (albiet frequently sick, twisted) lives. This idea dawned on me when, paradoxically, I became annoyed that there were so many opportunities for BioShock to ‘just talk at you’. One can, at times, feel as if they are being chased by Tenenbaum, Atlas, Fontaine and Ryan. Furthermore, if one felt compelled to listen to everything they came across, one might find the fears and desires of all the people throughout Rapture quite suffocating. Despite this, however, it is possible to express, in words, what one is doing. The difficulty with games like Borderlands and Half-Life 2 is that human contact is frequently vary sparse, if not totally unsociable, and this makes comprehending one’s environment incredibly difficult. In Half-Life 2‘s case, the player has to be coddled by Alyx Vance–for much of the game, you just copy what she does. By contrast, BioShock is painted with thousands of pieces of detailed dialogue, describing things, explaining the purpose of an area’s contents. Often, different people will corroborate information, or maybe contradict one-another. Everything is, in a ghostly ethereal manner, socialised. This is ironic, given Rapture’s ostensible purpose. The communicative function provided by the dialogue clips provide a medium through which people can source and construct identities. Everything is, funnily enough, understood a lot better because it is better communicated.

By making gameplay explicable, able to be parsed in lexical terms, conveyed to anyone just by talking, BioShock is converted into an experience that is able to be shared universally, rather than one which requires someone to have ‘been there’. It also allows a game that is merely about moving through a series of corridors killing things to transcend its formal structure, and take on the very convincing appearance of a fully-fleshed out world.

I think that the genre of platforming elucidates a lot of interesting things about the ludological perspective of comprehending games. Ludology (contra narratology) stresses that games should be understood in a formal, abstract manner–as a system of rules and abstractions. Central to this perspective is the idea that games should be views as games, as opposed to the narratological perspective, which sees games as yet another medium through which to convey meaning. Before going further, the reader should take a look at these three posts that Electron Dance wrote (123) about the relationship between ludology and narratology.

Simple early platformers are really good examples of the primacy of ludology in games because game developers were quite obviously physically limited by what they could make a game do. The limitations with which they were faced forced them to make their game concepts simpler and more abstract, which led them to focusing on their game’s rules.

Generally speaking, the principle rules into which we can break down a platformer is that such a game will:

    1. have a main character that has to move around in an environment with some convincing implementation of Newtonian physics (whether two-dimensional or otherwise);
    2. require the player–through the main character–to collect things and/or move from one place to another;
    3. (perhaps really a component of Rule 1, but we’ll make this distinction separately to help us to rule out games like rail-shooters more clearly) the player will usually have a high degree of freedom with respect to their movement.

I realise that, at this point, these rules probably don\’t allow us to discriminate between some sports games and that which we traditionally conceive of as platformers, but for the purpose of this post I think they’re good enough.

XBLA-jolly-roger[1]It’s interesting to consider, absent of any other details, that the key rules of a platformer are usually just to travel somewhere and collect things. It’s obvious to us now that the point of a game like Mario 3 is just to get to the end of the level, or in a game like Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot 2, find some collectable object, because I don’t think that that’s the most entertaining aspect of these games. I think this is why the supposed pesudo-genre of atmospheric platformer has gained such a great incidence of mention among gamers lately. The atmosphere of games like Banjo Kazooie is indeed frequently toted as a a key virtue of a good platformer, alongside other features as ‘exploration’ and ‘freedom’.

Atmosphere, exploration and freedom are very qualitative concepts to be advancing as central elements of a good platformer and they seem to be more derivative in relation to the implementation of the actual rules of platforming, rather than a direct consequence of the the player’s strict pursuit of the game’s goal or ‘purpose’. Despite this, I think they’re valid virtues to value highly when setting out to appreciate a platformer.

Why? An example might provide the best entry into an explanation. Remember the levels that lead into the chamber where you fight Bowser in Mario 64 (and their corresponding throw-backs in Sunshine and Galaxy–and, come to think of it, all the bonus, and later space-themed levels in Crash Bandicoot). While they possess their own theme and atmosphere, these levels stand in stark contrast to the bright, colourful, and reasonably realistic levels that exist everywhere else in the game’s castle. These levels are composed of highly linear, abstract platforms that serve to test your raw platforming skills. The platforms have no meaning in connection to the environment around them–the player has have no point of reference in this environment other than the platform they’re on, and the platform they want to get to. These levels are brilliant examples of the purist execution of ludological platforming. Watch this part of a Super Mario Sunshine Let’s Play to get a feel, if you think you need to re-familiarise yourself.

Needless the say, even simple such levels are nerve-wracking. The player almost always feels disoriented and must focus carefully on the game environment in order to properly interpret it. It is pretty easy to jump from this observation to the conclusion that players must need some greater degree of contextual information in order to better engage with their environment.

The significance of this difficulty in ‘immersion’ that players experience when playing abstract levels has direct consequences for how we should approach the study of video game aesthetics. The study of a game through its rules simply isn’t substantive enough to help us explain why we become so with engaged with them. While it’s true that people can train themselves to become exceedingly proficient at even the most abstract of games (Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy), the fact that a person has to drum out their common sense in order to successfully interact with a game should be taken as a symptom of the weakness of the ludological approach to appreciating games.

Moving outside the realm of platforming, think about all the pointless rooms you encounter in both the single player and multi-player modes of GoldenEye 007. I only just had this brought to my attention! All those rooms make the game-play better by helping the player better come to terms with the game environment, help convey information in manner that is more effective because it is congruent to the way people’s cognition works. One could of course just counter here: well that could be expressed in the form of a rule! All we have to do is pay attention to the way human cognition works in order to come up with better procedures for conveying the information contained in game rules.

Such an argument, however, conflates narratology and ludology. Ludology is about decision-making, and patterns of behaviour, and the role that the communication of meaning plays adjacent to those two concepts is of course important, but it gives the idea of meaning an insanely narrow reading. Taken this way, ‘atmosphere’ gets boiled down into something instrumental–a way to help players better process information contained in the game environment.

capefly[1]What about those times in Mario 3 when you have the P-Wing, and you totally transcend the level’s construction, completely exploding its challenge? Or those bonus levels in Mario World where you just fly around and collect tonnes and tonnes of coins? The feeling of complete freedom, and the contrasting purposelessness of the level you’re leaving far behind form an integral element of those games–the idea that you’ve gained special powers, and that the environment that you’re inhabiting is magical and mysterious, full of secrets and hidden truths (see more about flight in Mario games). It should be readily admitted that these moments do not do much in the way of advancing a narrative in these games, but it should be accepted that they form the first few steps developers need to take in order to achieve in order to construction one: the evocation of emotion, the construction of something affective and not merely mechanistic or ‘challenging’ in an everyday sense.

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Bending the rules: Wall-jumping in Super Mario Bros. 3

I think that if it can be shown that something affective about even an old NES platformer plays a prior role in its aesthetic significance than just its rules and mechanics, then it surely must hold that way for most games. I think the best way to put this might even be to say that meaning-construction is so important in games that it’s probably best when a game’s rules are purposefully sought out to be broken and ignored, that when you move beyond the ‘purpose’–not in an obsessive Otaku sense but in a transgressive sense–of a game (a kind of game in itself), unlocking an unintended transcendent game-form, that’s when gaming is at its best. Why else would we care so much about game glitches and tricks? Following this line of thought, surely to understand gaming, perhaps approaching it as a culture must be a priority. The most salient things about gaming aesthetics must in all the feedback loops of emergent meta-narratives and communicated gaming practices (like players only using the shotgun in Gears of War).

I came across these two webpages only just recently: Josh Nimoy’s MiniPong and Hakon A Hjortland, Havard Moen, and Alf Storm’s unassumingly named 5×7 LED dot matrix pong.

The most immediate thing you\’ll notice about these two pong clones is that they are tiny. Their display resolution can be counted on fingers, and their hardware can be packaged into dimensions just as unbelievably small. Ignoring any discrete components involved in their construction, they, quite amazingly, only really need a cheap five-dollar microcontroller.

The units seem definitely playable, and this really pushes home the most important thing about these pong units: electronic communication is a serious aesthetic medium with its own distinctness. Although this is now obvious from the fact that everyone possesses a handheld computer many hundreds of times faster than most home PCs from a decade ago, the primitive concreteness of these tiny pong clones serves as a reminder that the fantastic virtual worlds we now live in through our tablet computers and smartphones are based on manipulating our physical reality.

Take a look, for instance, at these two photos taken at (basically) the same event, one captured 8 years after the other:

popebenedict-300x196[1]

popefrancis-300x200[1]

These two images place in stark relief the impact of the digital technological revolution that has been undertaken over the last 30-40 years. These pong clones are significant in this light because they are a reaction to the rapid digitalisation of everyday life. This is especially true in Nimoy’s case, because of its subversive message. The purpose of MiniPong is that it is to be quickly and securely installed into public places for mass attention. The transgressive act of mutilating a piece of the public environment with an attention-arresting electronic meme carries with it obvious political and ethical overtones–who controls the information you receive?–what is it being used for?

On this point the description of Nimoy’s pong clone at an art exhibition reads:

The present generation of new media artists espouse an approach that is a reaction against commercial software-driven art. They have little concern of the media critique of their immediate predecessors. Rather, they dabble in commercial software critique, and see programming as a means to become empowered.The result is a complete circle, where the earliest analogue computer generated images of the 50s are duplicated in the software art we see today. The pioneers of computer art have always been writing their own software in the 50s and up until the 80s before desktop computers and packaged software became broad consumer products. Today, the reactionary artist resurges: the new Modernist who seeks to liberate art from commercial media.

Aside from the social commentary of which these simple pong clones are capable, it is not difficult to be very impressed at the ease with which it is possible to clone, at a hardware level, a game that took the world by storm forty years ago. You can do it for around twenty dollars, in an afternoon. You can find a video of Hakon, Hardvard and Alf’s pong clone being played here

Yes indeed – we are to be back from hiatus. Schoolwork, the efforts of hackers, and personal affairs have kept me away from blogging for far too long. Expect more material to come back to this wordpress blog, where personal information finds itself most secure!

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