A new video article series on Valve’s Portal is coming to Birb Friends!
Hello Birbies! I know it’s been a long time, but new content is coming very very soon! I’m proud to announce a game design analysis series on Valve’s monumentally successful Half-Life spinoff, Portal! I’ll be taking a look at all aspects of Portal, from GlaDOS’s quips and the visual design to the implications of the portal gun itself, in Birb Friends’ first ever video article series: Thinking With Portals. Each chamber will have its own dedicated article so we can delve as deep as possible into the choices that make up the game and its design. While this will be a look at the original Portal game in isolation, assuming the player jumped in without playing the other games included in the Orange Box, which was a video game compilation box including some of Valve’s best titles like Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, there’s still much to be gleaned from its design both as a literary work and as a monument of game design. So stay tuned for more information in the coming week if you’d like to start Thinking With Portals!
Paying for games has always been a dilemma for developers, publishers, and consumers alike. How can developers be properly reimbursed for their hard work and investment while also moving to bigger and better works? Can they accomplish this without hurting the consumers they depend on? Where do publishers fit into this equation? The answers have changed over the years, and with the advent of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, we may be in the midst of a new era right now.
Developers make the games and, as consumers, we need as much of our hard spent gaming money as possible to go towards making new and improved content we love in a way that we can find and consume it. That’s where publishers would normally step in to make sure that developers create consumable, profitable, and visible video games. In a less connected age, such as when Electronic Arts began its work as a publishing company, this was not only necessary but a great way for new developers to get out there. Now that the internet is taking front stage in transforming our business world, the game industry is starting to look more and more like the music industry. In the information age, video games are adopting a service model.
In the past, the music industry’s record labels served to help artists record, publish, and market their work but today many successful artists handle each of those aspects themselves, collaborating with others when needed. The indie scene is flush with creators like Chance the Rapper who have found their market without any sort of affiliation with a label. Music was once a product market in which the consumer purchased an album and kept it as their own, but has since transformed into a service market with streaming competitors like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Piracy was a huge factor in forcing the shift towards streaming services. While gaming isn’t exactly the same, the pressures impacting creators decisions in gaming are very similar.
I’m curious how this shift will impact lower income gamers specifically. GameStop is the largest source of working used games in the United States and home to a plethora of forgotten and niche games just waiting to be discovered. For lower income gamers, it presents a selection of products within their price range that no other gaming company will, or perhaps can. Sadly though, GameStop is dying as digital downloads dominate game sales and physical copies become less desirable. It’s my belief that the gaming community should want to keep physical copies and GameStop alive due to their bolstering of diversity among game consumers, aid in cataloging and providing access to games from the past, and support of the cost effective console market.
For gaming, consoles have an undeniable advantage over computers: they cost a fraction of a gaming computer’s cost and last about as long if not longer. This is especially true if the console you buy is a refurbished unit from GameStop, so support GameStop with trade-ins (another way GameStop can reduce costs even for high income gamers), console purchases, and by rejecting the digital download future. Where GameStop fails is supplying developers with a direct profit line from their consumers. Some publishers and developers have even called GameStop and the entirety of the used game market piracy with extra steps (which it can be, but it’s not without its benefits… which I’ve listed above). If GameStop is the game industry solution to consumer friendliness, Kickstarter is the game industry solution to developer friendliness.
Kickstarter allows higher income consumers of video games to invest their money personally into projects of their choice without having to bother with a publisher. On the flip side, it also allows established industry minds to take on projects that would never be funded by a publisher through the financial support of their fan base. While this can lead to some terrible disappointments and wasted cash (I’m looking at you, Keiji Inafune and Mighty No. 9), it can also be a huge benefit to developers and consumers alike. With a much larger portion of profits heading to developers and a guaranteed install base, losing money would require a catastrophic or intentional failure on the developers part. This means that when games succeed, everyone wins big! Projects like Shovel Knight, Yooka-Laylee, Hyper Light Drifter, Shantae: Half Genie Hero, and the innumerable and high quality CRPGs from Kickstarter prove just what a great tool it can be for the industry. Patreon is similar, but instead provides a path for service based monetization.
So the next time you buy a game, think about where your money’s going and how you can make the most out of it, not just for yourself but for the rest of us, too. Let your wallet do the talking!
I can see the gamer in your head. He’s overweight or undeniably lanky. He hasn’t showered for awhile and his breath smells like the carcinogenic additives they spray on food nowadays. His pits are stained with sweat, and his heavy $100+ headset leaves depressed indentions in his hair when he removes it to call out in response to the mother he hardly notices yet still depends on for financial stability. He shouts every time he fails, throwing his controller on the ground or pounds the bed/couch he sits on… maybe he also muffles his shouts with a pillow if he’s the repressed type. And he is a HE. You can tell by the content of his games that he is a he. There is an abundance of objectified and powerless women, muted sexual fanfare, and “masculine” repugnancy drenching the media he consumes. And how prolific his consumption is! As if Pavlov rang a bell, he preorders the next game, the next console, the old game for the next console, the expansion that exists on the new game’s disc but which he’s been told is extra content that will markedly improve the experience for such a low low price. I can see him, too. He disgusts me, but games don’t… or at least good games don’t.
I am a gamer… or at least I was until I came of age and discovered the terrific impression of gamers in this modern day. My games had existed in the numbers on the math board, how they could be manipulated and teased apart into whatever beautiful little systems I desired. I lived on the lined sheets of the college ruled spiral notebooks we bought in bulk for 10 cents a piece during school preparation. Inside them, I designed boards and named pieces and created rulesets, playing each out against myself and against other rulesets. In Windows 2000’s MS Paint, I carefully selected the moveable bits of fully playable games contained in simple image files. I found joy in the algorithms of games and in the way they could produce more solid and absorbable forms of information. I fell in love with the science of zeroes and ones and the outputs for inputs of computer function. When I learned cell biology in fifth grade, I set to work on a game of cell evolution and warfare in which players would attempt to optimize their cell and spread its population to conquer the whole system. I was enamored with the results. I was having fun, but I did it alone. Later, I mapped out fantastic, traversable worlds in measured scale complete with multiple biomes, many friends and enemies, histories all their own, and markets in which goods could move. I’d show them to my brothers and my father, but never my mother for she despised role-playing games, but they never played them with me and my games were soon forgotten.
Perhaps that why I play video games, to be part of a group, but they contained their own systems, too. The cacophonous laughter of queueing every major city in the late game of Sid Meier’s Civilization II to produce multiple copies of the virtually costless Fanatics units under the Fundamentalist government and the subsequent mad march that allowed me to conquer the whole of Civ II’s world entranced me. The way cleverly assigning attribute points in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords allowed me to create a hyper intelligent, sharpshooting Jedi with a silver tongue and supportive Force powers half-cocked my smile and brightened my spirit. It seemed however, that as I began to grow, the games grew out of me. First person shooters required reflexes I didn’t have and memorization skills I couldn’t recall. The text-based adventure games I had laughed at by testing the limits, snarky responses, and idiosyncrasies of their parsing programs bloomed into visual trials of patience and repetition, dragging and dropping each item and systematically testing each pixel of the screen. Despite this, video games still gave me the intrigue of yesteryear in some small ways. Battlefront I and II allowed a strategic dance of command posts and rock/paper/scissors-esque unit selection, not to mention the lateral solutions required to best Battlefront I’s heroes. The shift of games, however, was troubling to me.
More and more I watched as video games stopped being breakable, playful systems of decision-making and transformed into Skinner boxes or movies with interactive psychological hooks. They served a different purpose now, I would think to myself, but they served the same audience. So I changed, socially, with that audience. I couldn’t collect coins as a gamer any longer or aspire to be an accountant/economist in the future. I’d instead consume and critique media en masse, learn how to tell and craft a story, play with basic animation techniques, and abandon the playful systems I fell in love with for the different, but entirely similar, systems of storytelling. In those systems I learned the joys of manipulating the English word. I purposefully crafted the longest, most cumbersome, hardest to parse, and yet grammatically correct, sentences I could imagine. I never led my stories back to tonic, their pitches ringing in the ears of those who read, baffled at the decisive jazz of a story mistold for literary reasons. It never felt like enough though. There was always something missing.
“Tell the story through gameplay,” I would say, “avoid ludonarrative dissonance at all costs.” In truth, I wanted my systems back and I wanted them to say something powerful like they had so many times before. I wanted to be the farmer on the Oregon Trail who bought more bullets than pounds of flour because of my small income and the abundance of game along the way to Willamette Valley. I wanted to be that same farmer who lost a child to disease because he was forced to push his family at a grueling pace to reach the destination before the winter turned harsh. Deep in my heart, I knew, and still know, that games were important for more than the mind numbing escapism they now provide. Their design could speak volumes, in an experiential way, about the systems we live in and the people we live in them with. I knew we could empathize through games, I only wished that gamer guy that hides in the dominant marketing demographics of the industry could see it, too.
Just like games without play fall down into a pit of commercialized media monstrosities, gamers that don’t play devour the wealth of good within gaming. The next time you think of a gamer, I want the person in your head to be any gender you want, any sexuality you want, any race you want, any weight you want, et cetera, but I want them to be a player above all. If you give them a Rubik’s cube, they should spin its every bit, smile with amusement, take notes of each algorithm they discover, and pull the bits of plastic apart to see how the puzzle works. If you give them a stick, they should note the rings within the wood in remembrance, test its buoyancy, and, with great zeal, attempt to snap it over their knee. Once gamers become more akin to scientists that learn for their own pleasure and less akin to addicts flying towards the next fix, I’ll be pleased. Until then, let’s ask more from our games than we ever have and, seeing the strength of the industry, relinquish the fear that constructive criticism might kill the thing we love. As a multibillion dollar industry, games aren’t in their fragile infancy anymore, they’ve reached their “terrible twos” and we need to give them the guidance they deserve.
I could describe Amumu in one of two equally telling and emotive ways, and that’s why I love him so much. Amumu as a character is not, as many characters, mythologies, and stories are in gaming, divorced from his mechanics. You can learn as much about the sad mummy from playing Riot Games’ eSports giant League of Legends as you can from the pristine promotional video and song created to market his use. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest possible achievements in game design. In solely artistic terms, storytelling through mechanical means is the highest use of the interactive medium, and the small way in which League of Legends utilizes this is what I seek to explore in this article.
Let’s become acquainted with Amumu. Amumu is dead in both a figurative and literal sense. He has no community through which he can find value and recognition, so his identity is forced to deteriorate down to the one feature that can describe someone who others are repelled by: lonely. Everything Amumu does when he first meets another is in good spirit and friendliness but his emotions always manage to get the better of him. He cries and he pouts as human and beast alike are frightened or disgusted by his very existence. Normally, this wouldn’t be concerning and some kind soul would accept him anyway and help him grow as an individual, but Amumu is dangerous. His tears burn and his bandages whip as his emotions rage like the storms of Jupiter. As his potential friends flee, he hastily chases them, unaware of the damage he is responsible for until it is too late.
Now that you understand Amumu as a character, let’s note the way his character design functions. Amumu’s four abilities are as follows; a bandage toss that drags him to whomever he hits, tears that spread around him and deal damage to anyone daring to draw near, a tantrum that lashes out at an area around Amumu with a thrashing animation, and a wide spread rune-like magic ability that stuns enemies in a certain radius. In practice, these abilities tell Amumu’s story with elegance. His opponents will run at the sight of him or become paralyzed with fear. They’ll desperately dodge his every attempt to come near as his tears spill to the ground and he pouts with frustration.
Amumu is the clearest example of the kind of character and game design Riot Games practices. Riot Games have strictly adhered to innovative design philosophies for the past 7 years, growing their small game into the largest, most played interactive experience in the entire world. Finely balanced character rosters and gameplay that rewards every kind of play imaginable make League of Legends a stomping ground for experienced gamers and new ones alike. That being said, League of Legends lacks a central narrative and all the artistic weight and significance that entails. It will be important as the game industry grows to think back to the sort of designs at play in the psychology of the MOBA. League of Legends might exhibit the human experience, but it does not evoke specific, powerful, and educational thought on its own. It’s important moving forward that we are able to abandon the episodic and purely developmental basis on which League of Legends is formed. Amumu can’t grow up any longer, he’s a shell of his former self, but interactive media is still in its infancy. We’re just now hearing its first words.
Bloodborne is not as brutal a game as it first appears. The “hack and slash” action RPG is truly frenetic in its required reaction time but relatively slow in terms of its pacing. I died a total of 3 times to the first boss before discovering that, at least for my level of video game expertise, grinding was required before I could finish him off. It’s proper to note that I didn’t follow any sort of walkthrough or research before playing the game and instead followed Central Yharnam’s level design choices while playing. My skills of observation, or lack thereof, led me to Father Gascoigne before I ever approached the Cleric Beast.
By turning away from the Scourge Beasts who had crushed me on every other attempt to follow the bridge, I discovered a looping path to a gate I was able to open leading me back to the primary lantern of Central Yharnam. Fighting through the whole path created a clear gameplay loop for this section of the game. Complete the whole path, take the lantern back to Hunter’s Dream, level up using my blood echoes, repeat until I’m strong enough to defeat either Father Gascoigne or the Scourge Beasts.
Interestingly enough, I was able to defeat Father Gascoigne first, then return to the Scourge Beasts and then take down a significantly underpowered Cleric Beast. I think this sort of free flowing decision in level design undermines a truly central narrative but encourages player agency and heightens the impact of decision-making for the player. Investment in the game increases as impact of player agency does, at least in theory. This makes Bloodborne, as a whole, less brutal than older more restrictive titles like 2000’s Phantasy Star Online in terms of player morale.
While revolutionary, Phantasy Star Online, a launch title for the Dreamcast and one of the first console games to utilize online gameplay, had a host of design frustrations and was ultimately easy to disengage from. It’s level structure, while almost always beautifully recurrent like the loop created by my choices in Bloodborne, is fixed and entirely designed to stifle agency. I would suggest this is required by the limitations of the hardware, but only vertical expansion is out of the question for Phantasy Star Online’s map system as the character cannot jump or fall.
Another tax on Phantasy Star Online’s sense of agency and, by association, player morale is its veiled stat assignment system. Feeding support items to your Mag, a floating virtual pet that assists you after it is charged from a certain amount of damage, is the primary way the player exerts their agency on the strengths of their character. This is briefly explained to the player, but no effort is made to detail the way feeding the Mag different items effect its statistics. That sort of system can be viewed as both a hinderance to clarity of design and as an opportunity for discovery and individual achievement within the system. The fact that Phantasy Star Online gifts you with multiple Mags throughout your quest lends itself to the second interpretation but only at the risk of player frustration as they are forced to use a subpar Mag before discovering a new one. Alternatively, this means that stat assignments in Phantasy Star Online are never permanent and can be interchanged based on the situation, a brilliant design whose purpose is underused in the normal difficulty of the game.
Despite its failings and occasional drudgery, Phantasy Star Online bears a striking resemblance to the “Souls” styled games from From Software and is, in my personal opinion, one of their largest inspirations in terms of design. While Phantasy Star Online lacks a dodge move, both discourage the player from encountering more than just a few monsters at once, create a dedication to an initial attack pattern in which the only way to cancel one of your attacks is to attack again, and contain stereotypical boss battles, in which cooperation with a teammate is of immense value, to book end their areas. I would strongly encourage any lover of the From Software series of games to at least give this older game a chance. It can easily be played on modern computers, but is also on the original Microsoft Xbox, the Nintendo Gamecube, and the Sega Dreamcast.