Archive for August, 2010

Boston GameLoop 2010 – Overview

Saturday morning, at Too Damn Early AM, I was sitting in a large briefing room at Microsoft New England and clutching a cup of not-quite-hot-enough Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A hundred or so other people, game designers, artists, programmers, academics, and writers like myself were listening to Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan explain exactly what the hell we were doing here.

Well, Darius was trying to explain. Scott, and most of the audience, were trolling him. Still, he managed to get a few key points across.

  • GameLoop is a small local conference that is seeing rapid growth. ’09 had about 100 guests, this year was closer to 200.
  • We were here early to raise topics for discussion and vote on sessions that sounded interesting. Anyone was free to bring up anything, though it was best if he was prepared to run a session.
  • Once a session had enough interest, it won a slot in the schedule.
  • Expert talks should be clearly labeled as such, and moderators should keep the discussion on track so that it remains the proper knowledge level.
  • Bail on sessions that you’re not getting enough out of. No hard feelings.
  • Tabletop gaming is not dead and this audience doesn’t think it’s funny if you make jokes like that.

It’s a great concept and quite a ridiculous amount of fun. Before I get into some of the conversations I had during this conference, however, I should point out a couple things that didn’t seem to work quite right.

For one thing, GameLoop seems to be getting big enough to the point where it is causing problems. The informal nature of the conference agenda (the fact that it is created on the spot) seems like it would work brilliantly for a hundred people. Beyond that, it seems like it started to cause problems. Voting took forever, and the morning schedule filled up with the most popular topics while there was a bit of a “leftover” feel to the afternoon talks. Not that these weren’t valuable, it’s just that there were schedule conflicts in the morning, where 3 out of 5 sessions sounded great. In the afternoon, I was having a hard time finding any talks that I was keenly interested in. But it was the nature of the chaotic morning vote.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Darius and Scott have made GameLoop too welcoming for guys like me. Mind you, I really hope I can attend next year and they’ll still have a spot open for writers, but I also picked up on some frustration from some of the more advanced professionals attending the event. There were not enough talks for working professionals, and the discussion level tended to operate at an amateur level. If I were at BGL wanting to hear about new design tools, principles of level design, or get a primer in a new coding language, I’m not sure it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. I’d be interested to know whether this jives with what other people observed.

For instance, my day was bookended by two discussions that sprawled into armchair design by people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but were plenty willing to share opinions. I was one of them. They were great discussions, one about making conversation in games a more satisfying from a gameplay perspective, the other about creating the illusion of life in AI-controlled characters. But the first conversation trended toward some truly ridiculous armchair design that had more to do with what people thought sounded cool than with what was actually practicable for a working designer. The second was largely about what people found lifelike in AI characters, and not about how to make life-like characters.

One last point: Bioshock seems to be growing more important with time, not less. The simple fact is that absolutely no discussion of any game-related topic occurs without reference to it. Narrative, level design, morality, choice, character… someone, every time, will bring up Bioshock. And it is never out of place. It is well on its way to becoming a crucial part of the conceptual framework that everyone uses to interpret and understand games.

The Bioware oeuvre is similarly important, though mostly within discussions of narrative and character. No discussion of storytelling in games passes without someone using Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to illustrate something. I think what these works have in common is that they point the way forward in a number of ways, but that only serves to underline their limitations.

The Train

Not long ago, MK and I watched John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and I was amazed all over again at what a tense, beautifully photographed, and surprisingly thought-provoking action movie this is.

The Train opens in the middle of the night in a Parisian art museum. A German officer, Colonel Waldheim (Paul Scofield), stands in the darkness surrounded by luminous masterpieces. The German occupation of Paris is in its final days. The museum curator appears, and together they regard the art in silence. Then she thanks him. For not being like the rest of the Nazis. For treating her and the art with such respect. For protecting it.

Then the spell is broken as he tells her that he is going to continue protecting it. The art will be taken from the museum and brought to Germany before the Allies take the city. As if on cue, a small army of German soldiers burst into the museum as the lights come up, armed with creates and packaging. As the curator looks on in horror, France’s artistic heritage is entombed in crates with names like “RENOIR” and “PICASSO” stencilled in black lettering across their lids. The scene ends with the curator, standing stunned beneath stark white light and surrounded by empty walls.

The Train is shot in black and white, and is probably the last major action picture shot that way. Throughout the film, Frankenheimer goes for brutal, stark contrasts, cutting frames in half and thirds. His scenes are packed with action all the way into the background, and the camera stalks through the scenery alongside the characters. The first time we meet Burt Lancaster’s character, French railroad engineer and yard manager Paul Labiche, he is striding across the train yard as German troops bustle too and fro with their retreat. Without breaking stride he dodges past arriving trains, armored vehicles, and lines of soldiers.

All of it is actually happening. This is not an effects shot. Every frame is teeming with living detail because there really are things happening in front of the camera. You get the sense that Labiche could just as easily change directions, walk deeper into the frame, and go about an ordinary day. The Train seems to be taking place within a world, not creating one.

When Labiche arrives at his meeting, a clandestine gathering of Resistance members, we get the setup that will take us through the rest of the film. Col. Waldheim’s art train must be stopped at all costs, but without harming the art. The Resistance members initially want nothing to do with it. They have lost friends in this war and the end is in sight. In a few days the Germans will be gone, and they’ve sacrificed enough. Paintings aren’t something worth dying over. The curator is struck dumb when one of Labiche’s men suggests the paintings just be replaced.

This brings us to the most fascinating aspect of The Train. It seriously considers our relationship to culture. Nations have ideas and touchstones, but for most of us they’re not real objects. The Smithsonian is not a part of my life. I haven’t been to the Art Museum of Chicago in years. I haven’t read most of the Western Canon. And neither, I suspect, have you.

Most of us are too damn busy working hard and keeping the wolves at bay to form a personal relationship with the things that supposedly define our civilizations, or our nations. Yet for all that, we identify with a culture based on touchstones that we’ve never actually touched, on ideas we’ve never contemplated. Millions have died “for France” without ever touring the Louvre or taking Communion at Reims Cathedral. Why? How can patriotism, not that of jingoist sloganeering, but the real love of the patria, burn bright enough to make willing heroes of working stiffs and jaded cynics? How does it survive in a disillusioned world?

We begin to alight on an understanding when Papa Boule, a broken-down and mutinous train operator discovers he’s being given the job of driving the art train out of France. Boule is a drunken troll, and hasn’t been allowed to drive trains for some unknown (but easily imaginable) infractions. A conductor at the yard takes him aside during the night shift and explains the cargo, and tells him that these paintings are France. He starts listing the masters on this train, and Boule stops him at Renoir. His eyes go out of focus as he explains that once, when he was a much younger man, he dated a girl who modeled for Renoir.

For reasons he never really explains, Boule decides to save these paintings and sabotage the train. What he sets in motion will eventually involve Labiche’s small Resistance cell and numerous other Resistance members. But it’s Boule’s curious choice to intervene that remains the pivotal point of the film. When he is caught by the Germans, Labiche attempts to win some mercy for him by protesting of Waldheim that Boule is just a foolish old man, who didn’t know what he was doing. Boule turns on him and snarls that he knew exactly what he was doing. Does Labiche?

It’s interesting. Boule refuses to be made a victim or a sucker. This is a film from the early 1960s, distant enough from WWII to be skeptical of the heroic narrative, but not yet soured by the great disillusionment of the 60s and 70s. In just 14 years, Burt Lancaster would wheel on an idealistic young soldier in Go Tell the Spartans and angrily accuse him of being a “fucking hero.” But here in The Train, between World War II and Vietnam, we find a film that considers heroism and self-sacrifice with neither irony nor pity. The paintings are France, and in spite of everything, including a futile massacre in in the trenches and a bloody, ignominious debacle  in 1940, a burned-out blue-collar engineer decides to throw his life away for an idea he’d have mocked if he ever heard someone trying to express it.

The Train is ultimately an action film, and Frankenheimer does a typically expert job of building and sustaining suspense, and laying out clear, coherent, and thrilling set-pieces. But it’s an action film with its mind on bigger questions. Go take a look (it’s available for streaming on Netflix). It’s a great example of the beauty of postwar black-and-white photography, and one of the most thought-provoking action pictures  you’re likely to see.

Struggling with Victoria

To my astonishment and horror, Metacritic decided that my B- is a 67 / 100 for Victoria II. Personally I’d put the game in the neighborhood of 75 if I were grading on that scale.

It’s annoying, because Metacritic already weighs on my mind when I’m assigning a score. I had a hard time deciding whether Victoria II was a C+ or a B-, and I decided that Metacritic’s penchant for low-balling letter grades would be the tie breaker. I didn’t realize that it would still interpret a B as disdain. But if I weight Metacritic any more heavily, the scores I assign will be useless for GameShark readers.

However, the Metacritic score is emblematic of a problem I’m having when I talk about Victoria II: I keep coming across as more negative than I strictly want to be. I know why this is, of course. You can analyze and explain problems much more easily than you can express praise, and Victoria II’s best aspects are difficult to put into coherent thoughts. Zoom in on any part of Victoria II, and a lot of problems appear. Look at it more holistically, and it’s virtues are clearer.

The other week on Three Moves Ahead I brought up my concern that it’s harder to strike a middle-ground with reviewing games than it is with other media. For one thing, so much of the audience for games writing seem to interpret reviews and scores through a thumbs-up or thumbs-down lens. For another, games are kind of expensive and playing them takes a lot time, two factors that I think discourage risk-taking on the part consumers. When I write a review of a new game, I have this fear that for a lot of people the decision they make on launch day will be final. That they won’t remember what I or other reviewers said in 3 months when the game is on sale, just that the game didn’t sound like it was worth buying. Plus, anyone who follows the industry knows that publishers and developers live and die with early sales.

Maybe none of this should be my concern. But it’s hard to ignore.

Victoria II is a game that I would buy regardless of its problems. I wrote the opening of my review with myself in mind: someone who loves history and the Victorian Era. Someone whose daydreams are filled with Prussian armies, British ministers, and American progressives. Someone who mourns the world that was lost in the trenches, and the stolen future that might have been ours, if cooler heads and better angels had prevailed. Even though I ultimately shift gears and criticize Victoria II as a strategy game, I think it’s an important game for a certain kind of player. And I hope he’ll read my opening paragraphs and decide that’s enough for him.

Caught in Translation

My GameSetWatch column returns with a piece on DLC for Napoleon: Total War. I couldn’t resist checking out the “Peninsular Campaign” Creative Assembly released a month or so ago, because I could not for the life of me imagine how Creative Assembly were going to translate that fascinating, messy campaign to the highly conventional, orderly Napoleon: Total War campaign engine.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with it, I have to say “The Peninsular Campaign” is a minor masterpiece of scenario design and maybe the best campaign yet for Napoleon. I explain why over at GameSetWatch.

My interest with “Keys to the Kingdom” is one of translation. Games so often take their inspiration, their theme, from complicated real-world subjects. But it’s always interesting to see what designers choose to emphasize. Sometimes they do nothing more than take their appearance from history, as in Empire: Total War. That game had a great deal of 18th century flavoring, but very little of the gameplay bore any resemblance to what you might find in a history of the Seven Years’ War. It was a bad costume-drama without a shred of substance beneath it.

On the other hand, a flight of sci-fi fantasy like Sins of a Solar Empire made a valiant and partially successful effort to make players role-play their empires by introducing co-operative mechanics into an ultimately competitive game. “Frienemy” mechanics are familiar in board games, but unusual in an RTS.

When I write about something like the “Peninsular Campaign” DLC or Europa Universalis III, I try to make the reader see the connections that I see. That these design decisions don’t just come out of the ether, and they are not purely driven by a desire to create a good game. There are a lot of ways to reach that destination, but the choices along the way are often made with an eye toward something that happens in the real-world. The goal with games like this is not just to give the player a good time, but to make him face decisions that other people, in other times, also faced. Games like this are, in part, attempts to let you live the fantasy of being a desktop Wellington or Richelieu. Much of what makes them unique and interesting is owed to the negotiation between game design and the concepts being translated into design.

Anyway, go check out the new piece, and leave comments on it at GSW.

Making It Suntory Time

Last week, MK and I blew out of town to go hang out with Julian Murdoch for a few days, and the ensuing visit was like a G-rated Swingers: hard drinking, gaming to exhaustion, running around in a forest, playing games with Jen and Peter, dinner with Hasbro’s Rob Daviau and Lindsay Braun, and a surprise visit from the ATF.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. But it was pretty awesome nonetheless.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the board gaming strategy scene is far healthier than what we generally have on PC. It’s not that the games themselves are superior, but their variety and playability leaves me envious. So many board games can be fully understood by the end of the first or second turn, while I can play a game like Europa Universalis or Starcraft II for months without really grasping what’s happening underneath the hood. If strategy depends on understanding, then board games get players strategizing almost instantly. With PC games, there tends to be a long, perhaps endless, period of fumbling in the dark before the game becomes clear. Board games have a short run-up from Learning to Fun. PC games tend to play a more dangerous game, promising that more and deeper fun awaits if you’re just willing to play these half-dozen tutorials and wear out your “alt” and “tab” keys  flipping between the game and the PDF manual.

Different platforms, different markets, I know. But still, I love the straightforward trade-offs of Fresco and Agricola, with their cruelly limited number of actions per turn and scant resources. I was amazed at how Formula D, a board game about auto racing, so successfully translated the essence of racing onto a playing field of spaces, dice, and counters. Rob and Lindsay brought over a game, Catacombs, that involved little more than hurling little blocks across a board and stealing turns, but it managed to offer great team play and fast-changing tactics.

On the other hand, board games have it easy because the game’s community is right there in the room with you. Who cares how big the player base is, when all it takes to get a game going is one copy and a couple friends? Board games can court minimalism, and choose oddball themes, because they require so much less of an audience than do PC games.

Beyond that, I also learned valuable information such as: G’vine gin makes a brilliant martini, Suntory’s Yamazaki single-malt is a solid but indistinct scotch, and the new Sherlock is brilliant except for one little problem: the mysteries and plotting are actually not very clever at all, which leaves Moffat’s Holmes looking uncharacteristically dense and careless at times.

Final thought: I love the setting and the themes behind Bioshock Infinite, but I hate the Bioshock branding. More than that, however, I resent a gaming community that complains about branding and lack of “original IP” (a term which adopts the bloodless corporate term for what we used to call an idea) while doing nothing to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and originality.

Thank God, I Have Done My Duty

You may have heard something about me working on a review. The game was Making History 2, and the review just went up at GameShark.

This was a game I volunteered to review because I was interested in it, and I liked the guys making it. Had I known, going in, that I would dislike the game so much, I would never have volunteered for the assignment. With something like this, you go into it hoping you’ll have something to champion. Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that something you wanted to like will turn out to be a huge disappointment.