2013: Gaming Year in Review

This is the annual post where I basically go through all the notable and interesting games I played this year, wax poetic about them, and create new forms of hyperbole to describe my personal games of the year. Last year’s post can be found here, and previous year’s posts can be found on my high school blog, which I’m keeping hidden for all the reasons. 

2013 will be remembered for two major movements within gaming: the rise of the American e-sports scene, and the proliferation of the queer games scene. I don’t belong to either of those scenes per se, but their growth is cause for celebration: the diversification of scenes to include people outside of that mainstream “gamer” community means that more and more people will become “gamers”, which is what I’ve always wanted. I hope to see soon a world where there will be a scene for every imaginable type of person, and I believe we’re making strides in that direction.

What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013's GDC will be important in years to come.
What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013’s GDC will be important in years to come.

Just a year ago, we entered a period of unprecedented change to how games are made, processed, and understood, leading to the proliferation of newfound developers, genres, subject matters, and modes of play. Now, that trickle of change has grown into an avalanche, and the game industry that exists today welcomes with open arms games like Surgeon Simulator, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable.

Five years ago, the thought of a world like this would have been unimaginable.

Meditating on change in the industry, the importance of our place in time, and the potential we now have to steer the course of gaming’s destiny is something that I’ve done in previous posts, and really, I’m just repeating myself here. But I can’t help but reiterate my enthusiasm: this is the gaming world that I’ve always wanted to live in. In 2010, I yearned for more daring games unafraid to try something different and interesting, and in 2013, those games exist everywhere I look.

DEAD GAMES WALKING

Telltale’s hit point-and-click adventure The Walking Dead was the first game that I played this year, and one of the most emotionally taxing games that I’ve ever played. Its a story-driven game about leadership, the core mechanic of navigating dialogue trees is contextualized in a way that every decision carries great ethical weight,  asking players questions not like “what is right or wrong?” but rather “who do I want to hurt least?”. Telltale manages to maintain this sense of constant heft and weight throughout the game’s five episodes, concluding in a cathartic, heart-wrenching ending that left me drained, shaken, and worn.

Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus

Next was The Unfinished Swana game by USC IMD alums Giant Sparrow, a first-person puzzle game that iterates upon its core mechanic beautifully. The Unfinished Swan is videogame comfort food, it’s a heartwarming, homey tale that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and loved inside. As I played this game with my friends, I couldn’t help but subconsciously maintain a splendid grin throughout the entire experience.

Shortly afterwards, we played through Shadow of the Colossusa monumental achievement of the sixth console cycle, which holds up with remarkable grace. The vastness of the gameworld dwarfs the player’s tiny, insignificant avatar, imbuing exploration with a tangible sense of forlorn loneliness. The giants which walk the Forbidden Lands trot with a quiet, fearsome majesty. Each battle with a Colossus carries a hefty emotional arc, ranging from the apprehension of the approach, the confusion and panic of trying to discover the beast’s weakness, the empowering, triumphant thrill of learning that weakness, and the catharsis… then sadness, of victory. Incredible game, definitely an annual playthrough for me.

Surgeon Simulator 2013
Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator 2013 is the game most indicative of where we stand in the history of this medium today. Here, we have a game developed in 48 hours at the 2013 Global Game Jam, a series of once-underground game-making competitions. It was not funded not by publisher, nor Kickstarter campaign, nor grant money. Surgeon Simulator wasn’t even a good game by traditional measures of design, featuring an intentionally unintuitive control scheme, the game is in essence an interactive joke. By all prior standards of game funding and publishing, Surgeon Simulator 2013 should have been quietly forgotten amongst the hundreds of games designed at these events. And yet, through an unforeseen wrinkle in how this world works, Surgeon Simulator was reviewed higher, and sold better, than AAA sequels like God of War: Ascension, Crysis 3, and Gears of War: Judgement. Consumers are changing, and are now welcoming new games willing to challenge long-encoded standards of design, making room for games about butterfingered surgeons. Its an underdog story so glorious that it could have only happened by accident.

“X IS A METACOMMENTARY ON Y”

In March, Bioshock Infinite, a game which I had eagerly anticipated for years, finally came out. It was the week of GDC, and all my game studies classes were cancelled, so I completed the game in a day. While upon reflection, the game is brimming with design and narrative flaws so basic that it’s a wonder how it passed playtesting, I found Bioshock Infinite to be an enjoyable, albeit overhyped and subsequently disappointing, shooter. My enjoyment of it came mostly out of its uniquely postmodern subtext, which challenges the notion of meaningful choice and autonomy in story-driven games. My analysis of it, which got featured on Gamasutra, has become basically my only claim to fame.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite

Next up was the delightful FEZ. Like many, I discovered FEZ through Indie Game: The Movie and was tightly invested in Phil Fish’s painful, triumphant, underdog story. FEZ was fantastic with its daring experimental structure and wondrous difficulty. FEZ’s obscure puzzle designs and interdimensional platforming harkens back to memories spent of school playgrounds, secrets and rumors of the Mew under the Viridan City truck and the Triforce chest in Forest Temple spread like gossip. FEZ is a game meant to be played in parallel with a good friend, sharing every delightful discovery along the way with childlike wonder.

I didn’t know what to think of The Last of Us when I first learned about it a year ago. A third-person action game set in the zombie apocalypse featuring an old guy and a girl seemed pretty unoriginal given Naughty Dog’s fantastic pedigree, and thus, I went into it with doubts. When I finally played it, I found it unique and incredible in a multitude of ways. Combat is disempowering, limited resources and a relatively underpowered protagonist lends the game a sense of dread and despair that gives way into a panicked chaos of gunfire, culminating in the cathartic release of survival. The game’s story, one of the strongest told this year, calls into question the social demarcations separation “us” and “them” and meditates on themes of love and sacrifice.

The Last of Us

Thomas Was Alone was one of the cutest games I’ve ever played. It is both one of the best puzzle-platformers to come out of a scene rife with them and perhaps the best demonstration of gameplay-as-metaphor and the proceduralist aesthetic to have come out this year. The way it characterizes its quadrilaterals and lends them personality through kinaesthetics and functionality elevates this puzzle-platformer into a delightful story about friendship, jealously, need, and identity. Thomas Was Alone’s rectangles undergo entire character arcs with meaningful conflicts and conclusions, and the game communicates those arcs through simple game feel, lending its characters a humanity not seen in all the dialogue trees and facial animation systems developers have produced thus far.

GO HOME

I disliked Metal Gear Solid when I first played it, but decided to give the series a second go after studying writing about postmodernism, a cultural aesthetic that the series adheres to very much. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which sheds the series’ cyberpunk postmodernism to focus on a Cold War-era spy fantasy, changed my perspective on the series substantially. A delightfully Japanese pastiche of 20th century spy fiction, Metal Gear Solid 3 is perhaps the most restrained and grounded game in the series (which is not saying much given Kojima’s predilection for vampires, cyborg-ninjas, and the Illuminati). Every room in Snake Eater‘s vast world is a playground for emergent strategies for traversal, coupled with a variety of tools from guns, to chloroform rags, and alligator hats, Metal Gear Solid 3’s sneaking system is an incredible sandbox for self-expressive play.

Gone Home

Standards for environmental storytelling have shot up over the course of the generation. Flavor text that was communicated by pressing the “interact” button next to an object is now communicated visually, through intricately detailed 3D models in a gameworld. The juxtaposition of objects creates place and story, and narrative discovered rather than delivered. This made traversal through the beautiful environments of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Metroid Prime a delight, and it is wonderful to see a game like Gone Home emerge from this burgeoning tradition. Evoking nostalgia for the nineties, Gone Home communicates a tale about a family that underwent a great change while its older daughter was off at college. The means of progressing through the story is snooping through the spaces each family member inhabited. Characters go through entire character arcs as the player creeps down a hallway, the catalysts for their change evident in the things they carried. Its a tough game that dances in and out of some uncomfortable themes, many of which strike close to home, and one of the most structurally interesting games of the year.

On the complete opposite side of the gaming spectrum, XCOM: Enemy Unknown consumed a substantial amount of my time early in the semester. Its an incredibly difficult, incredibly addictive turn-based strategy game that maintains a constant sense of desperation in every aspect of its design. The dread can become overwhelming as players become strapped for time, resources, and personnel, lending dramatic weight to every single decision. The death of a single high-ranking soldier from a stray bullet can cause entire plans to crumble in an instant. But when the dice land in one’s favor and a plan goes perfectly as intended, the triumphant rush of victory is unparalleled.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is surreally magnificent, and maintains a consistency of vision that bleeds into every single corner of its dreamy aesthetic. It is a magical-realist point-and-click adventure game with art inspired by late 20th-century theatrical set design and poetic writing imbued with a nostalgic sense of Americana. It’s as if Steinbeck’s sentimental prose met the magical wonder of Rudolfo Anaya’s, creating a spiritually evocative tale of Conway’s journey down the Zero’s rabbit hole. For anyone even mildly interested in the unusual, Kentucky Route Zero‘s whimsical and forlorn world is one worth exploring.

Personal Game of the Year

Naming a personal game of the year is a substantial ordeal for me, simply because I feel a sense of guilt for overlooking all the great games that I considered for it, especially in 2013, a banner year for unusual and interesting games: digital, physical, analogue, and installation. And in the shadow of that regret, I must name The Stanley Parable as my personal game of the year.

Yes, systemically speaking, The Stanley Parable might not even be a game, academic standards of language and game studies considered, it fits more under the umbrella of interactive fiction than videogames, but that’s beyond the point. The point is that The Stanley Parable is interesting. 

The Stanley Parable

If Bioshock Infinite called into question ideas of the existence of autonomy in an authored piece of fictionthen The Stanley Parable takes that metacommentary to its intellectual extreme, calling into question ideas of player motivation, narrative structure, meaningful choice, the lusory attitude, the player-avatar relationship, freedom in authored fiction, and the conflict between player and designer. The game posits those questions in short, fifteen minute bursts that demand reflection and study, performing its commentary more elegantly than Ken Levine’s bloated, frustrating shooter ever could.

Look, the core mechanic of the Stanley Parable is making binary choices to influence the outcome of a story, which in itself isn’t very interesting, essentially being tantamount to any number of terrible dating-sims. But when contextualized with questions about narrative structure and game design, The Stanley Parable‘s mechanics become ironically rife with meaning, evolving into the catalyst for engaging conversation. While many may rightfully criticize The Stanley Parable for not being a game per se, that does not make it any less interesting as a piece of interactive media, and in a period where all we’re asking for are games that take daring risks, engage with challenging themes, and are in essence unique and interesting, isn’t The Stanley Parable exactly what we wanted?

Thank you and Merry Christmas! 

Postmodern Gaming, Post-E3 Rambling, and Something New

Whoa, what happened to the interface?

My newest article for The Artifice is online! Its an analysis of three postmodern games that feature metacommentary on their form! One of my better pieces I believe. I cover Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line, and Metal Gear Solid 2 respectively in it, give it a read.

Believe it or not, Metal Gear Solid 2 shares a lot with this fountain.
Believe it or not, Metal Gear Solid 2 shares a lot with this fountain.

Also, my personal impressions on E3 and what it means for the near future.

And I’m working on a new gaming site/channel with a few friends! Check out a test preview of our podcast! We’re working out a few kinks, but we’ll be ready within the month!

I’ve been playing “The Last of Us” for a review for The Artifice next week. Let’s just say its one of the better survival horror games to come out this generation.

Have an awesome weekend!

Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on the Nature of Video Game Storytelling

I’m going to spoil a lot of Bioshock Infinite for all of you, so beware this blog post if you’re planning on playing this game. 

Bioshock Infinite is a game about a lot of things.

Bioshock Infinite

Religious zealotry, American Exceptionalism, theories of space-time and interdimensionality, patriotic jingoism, the inevitability of economic disparity, Occupy Wall Street, colonialism, and problems faced by political radicalism. While few of these plot threads arrive at a productive conclusion, it piques interest, causes uncanny discomfort, and provokes conversation and interpretation within its colorful fan community.

However, my view on the meaning of Bioshock Infinite, which has conflicted with the interpretations of the many friends that I have discussed the game with, involves a subtle level of self-reflexivity that I saw pervading the game’s entirety. Bioshock Infinite is about the nature of narrative in games and the conflicts between emergent and fixed narrative, returning to the conflicts between ludology and narratology that had died down years ago.

Before we begin, let’s go over some key terms necessary to understanding this argument, not everyone is a game designer. Emergent narratives are unscripted stories that come out of a game’s play, they may include dramatic character arcs in The Sims, and alternate histories created by Civilization V matches. Fixed narratives are stories determined by the game designer, and are most prominent in single-player narrative games such as Bioshock Infinite

Constants and Variables: Emergent and Fixed Narrative

Single-player games like Jak and Daxter are comprised of both fixed and emergent narrative elements. Fixed narrative in these games amounts to preset moments that occur between or during moments of gameplay, and may manifest themselves as cutscenes, background chatter, or narration. Games like these are also comprised of emergent scenes, which can vary wildly depending on player choice. Game narrative is not entirely dictated by the author, and exists as a strange amalgam of both embedded and emergent narrative. Game writers do not have complete control over how a game’s story will play out due to the nature of interactivity and player behavior. Even a single-player narrative game like Half-Life 2 can have an infinite number of narrative permutations dependent on how players approach combat and exploration sequences.

Which is a topic Bioshock Infinite addresses in its brilliant, mind-bending ending. Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia through an interdimensional portal into the Sea of Lighthouses, a mysterious world beyond the constraints of time and space where every possible permutation of the universe at any possible time in history can be accessed through an infinite number of doors. “There are a million, million worlds. All different and all similar. Constants and variables. There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city… Sometimes something’s different… yet… the same.” says Elizabeth.

This scene is soaked with metacommentary about the distinction and conflicts between embedded and emergent narrative. Everyone who plays Bioshock Infinite will be telling a different story in their playthrough. Combat situations will play out differently depending on player strategies, Booker may or may not find all the collectible upgrades in Columbia, he may spend hours playing carnival games at the fair, he may ride the carousel in Soldier’s Field, and he may scour every trash can in Columbia for food. These are the “variables” that Elizabeth is talking about, the “million, million worlds” that are all different and the same, Bioshock Infinite‘s story is comprised of an infinite number of permutations coming out of the game’s emergent nature.

Decision time!

And yet, the rich range of narrative permutations that come out of interactivity is mooted by authorial intent and traditional narrative. Bird or Cage, ride the carousel or ignore it, fight with guns or Vigors, Bioshock Infinite‘s overarching narrative will always play out the same way regardless of player choice. All this is reinforced by the game’s single ending. While many games try to make player choice meaningful by providing a variety of outcomes based on player’s participation in the story, Infinite mocks the idea by making players powerless over the progression and ultimate outcome of the game’s plot. These are “constants”, the elements of a game narrative that are “always the same”.

The Illusion of Meaningful Choice

Bioshock Infinite is peppered with moments where players have to make a split-second binary choice, such as a decision to threaten or press a ticket seller, and the decision between two different brooches for Elizabeth. While most games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain hinge upon these moments as an integral part of their branching storytelling, these moments in Bioshock Infinite make no meaningful difference to the overall outcome of the plot.

Games are characterized by having quantifiable and variable outcomes, and player choice in gameplay dictates these outcomes, leading to meaningful play. Bioshock Infinite challenges the notion that binary choice is meaningful by making its choices meaningless, that is, if meaningful choice is to be defined as a choice that influences the game’s outcome. The first Bioshock had a rudimentary morality system where player’s choices in dealing with Little Sisters influenced the plot’s variable conclusion and marketed this system as an integral part of the game’s appeal. Infinite subverts player expectations by making these “moral choice” moments irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign, at most, leading to a minor cosmetic difference on a character or two.

One of the “decision-time” scenes

The artificiality and insignificance of these moments reinforces the notion that Bioshock Infinite is about the conflicts between player-generated and designer-dictated narrative and the diametrical opposition between ludology and narratology. Players are led by prior experiences with similar games to think that these binary choices matter with respect to the game’s narrative, and by subverting these expectations by making these choices almost irrelevant to the game’s conclusion, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about whether or not truly meaningful choice can really exist within a designer-driven narrative.

Does Autonomy Exist in Narrative Games?

The Lutece “twins”, the memorable and quirky duo of scientists lost everywhere in spacetime,  provide perhaps the most thought provoking insight on game narrative in Bioshock Infinite. The Luteces are fourth-dimensional beings, and simultaneously exist in all places, at all times, in every possible universe. Adam Sessler of the fantastic Rev3Games channel likened them to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their self-referential nature on the nature of fate and free will. This is fitting given their role in the game’s narrative.

Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead retells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of minor characters. The play deals with whether or not free will can exist within the world of a play, amongst other meta-things. The titular characters, doomed to die in the original Shakespeare play, attempt to defy their fate by escaping to England in one scene, but are rendered incapable of doing so by virtue of existing in a world dictated by an omniscient, godlike playwright. Video games are said to break from this problem by having the player enact the narrative by assuming the role of a character, thereby imposing free will into a universe traditionally thought to be dictated by an author. Bioshock Infinite challenges this idea in an early scene.

Upon arriving in Columbia, Booker encounters the twins blocking a doorway. They walk up to him and give him a coin, “heads, or tails”, they ask. Booker flips it, calling heads, and it lands on heads, like it did for the last 122 times.

Bioshock Infinite’s coin-flip scene is not a “decision-time” scene

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a similar scene occurs where a coin lands on heads 92 times in a row. This leads the characters to wonder if they are under the control of a supernatural force. In real life, coin flips are determined entirely by random chance, and exist as a fair and impartial way of making binary decisions. This cannot exist within the constraints of a work of fiction, even computers at a machine level are incapable of simulating randomness. The coin-flip scene in Bioshock Infinite is not determined by random chance, and is scripted by the developers to always land on heads.

What this means is that autonomy and procedurally generated narrative cannot exist within a narrative game like Bioshock Infinite no matter how hard developers attempt to give the illusion of an open-ended narrative. The coin-flip scene represented an ideal point to give the player the decision of calling heads or tails, but Booker is scripted to always call heads. This is done purposefully, as removing player autonomy from this scene tells us it is impossible for a game with scripted elements to be truly player-driven.

This notion of the impossibility of autonomy in single-player narrative games is reinforced immediately after the player regains control over Booker. The Luteces walk to the side and open the doorway for Booker to proceed and stand there. If the player stays near them, Rosalind will tell the player to leave several times before saying “If you don’t go, I’ll be forced to start repeating myself.”, after which, she does.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

This interactive scene is a prod at the artificiality of NPC’s in video games, and despite attempts at creating rich and realistic characters in fiction, characters are ultimately fictional constructs created by authors devoid of autonomy and drive. Lutece is scripted to repeat the same limited number of prerecorded lines until the player inevitably leaves the area and continues the game. Despite the fact that players regain control Booker in this scene, it is impossible for players to do anything but proceed down Infinite‘s narrative path.

Look past Freudian interpretations, and this play has interesting things to say on free will.

Bioshock Infinite‘s themes of the illusion of free will extend from the artificiality of NPCs to the very nature of interactivity later on in the game. In the game’s final sequence, Booker finds himself reliving the moment he sold his daughter to repay his debt. Booker tries to resist, and players, disgusted at this grim realization, will too.  “You can wait as long as you want, eventually you’re going to give him what he wants. You don’t leave this room until you do.” says Elizabeth. At this point, the only option available to the player is to pick up the baby and hand it over to the man at the door, players cannot fight back or escape the room. Players will inevitably surrender the baby, since they cannot progress until they do. Both Booker, and the player, are rendered incapable of making any other decision by the very nature of Bioshock Infinite‘s method of storytelling. Aside from surrendering the baby after waiting for an indefinite time, the only other option available to the player is to quit the game.

So is Booker an autonomous being, or is he controlled by an omniscient force called the Player? Perhaps the question being raised here is whether players are autonomous beings or simply actors controlled by the invisible hand of game design. The interactive nature of the medium would suggest that players are truly autonomous and capable of making rational decisions that influence the world of the game, but all this is an illusion. It is impossible for true, meaningful autonomy to exist in a single-player narrative game because the authored nature of fiction prohibits players from making choices outside of the ones that a game’s system allows.

Heavy Meta

Its totally possible that I’m reading way too deep into Bioshock Infinite. However, even if my interpretation of the game strays far from predominant interpretations of Infinite, the questions raised by multiverse theory, the illusion of meaningful choice, and the myth of autonomy in single-player games raises interesting questions about the nature of video game storytelling. Just like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern raises questions about the nature of fictional worlds dictated by authors, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about universes collaboratively authored by both designers and players.