This week’s viral video masterpiece is a surreal Russian dash cam road rage incident. Thanks to longtime Electron Dance reader Ketchua, it hit my Twitter a couple of days ago and the ensuing laughter brought tears to my eyes.
Then I started thinking about the context around the video, why it was funny and how it's an analogue to the problem of games that act all serious.
When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don't feel guilty about it. It's not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.
But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.
And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.
Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.
I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).
Technically, it's the first mission of the game, but it's still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.
We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.
For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?
Game developer Erlend Grefsrud is working on Myriad, an abstract-themed shooter that I wrote about last year. But Grefsrud can also be painfully blunt when it comes to critique so I asked him what he thought of #warningsigns then hid under a blanket. Instead of a bullet point list of disagreements, he offered the following thoughtful response, published with his permission.
Back in 2010, I said we needed tools for the democratization of game development.
Those tools existed already, but many were in denial about it, including me. There were still questions about delivery channels (browser, mobile, console, PC?) since the whole indie thing was really born out of Flash games on Newgrounds and the more hardcore devs sharing stuff written in Allegro or whatever on TIGSource. One dominant model emerged: selling games.
The proof was in the pudding. By then, the first wave of successful indie games had already happened, with straggler Fez quasi-triumphantly emerging on the tail-end. This moment grew persistent thanks to Indie Game: The Movie and endless scribblings about how indies would change games forever.
It’s while I’m pacing through the haunting, empty megalopolis of NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) that it occurs to me. I’ve had enough of the derogatory phrase “walking simulators” even though some are attempting to adopt the term as a positive label. Ya know... that doesn't mean I have to like it.
This kind of crap goes a lot further than “walking simulator”. Game have also been characterized negatively as toys. Or a theme park rides. It's all about the magic ambrosia known as “interactivity” which is as well defined as a drop of water in a puddle, because “sitting, walking, listening, looking, playing, just fucking being is interaction”.
Attempting to rigorously define interactivity is about as joyous as rigorously defining the word game into your preferred pigeon hole. You might see healthy debate in this conversation. I see a black hole event horizon through which my will to live is disappearing.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Especially as you've probably figured out that today I want to discuss “himitsu-bako”.
A detective searches for answers after investigating a mysterious series of crimes. But the answers find him first.
#warningsigns is a short film about videogames and the future. Twitter has already issued its verdict:
And Kieron Gillen has also put in a nice word. You should set aside fifteen minutes to watch the entire film. If you have the bandwidth and screen estate, please note you can watch at 1080p HD resolution. The film, preview screenshots and credits can be found below.
A year in the making. Turn out the lights and settle down. This is #warningsigns.
HM is on sabbatical for June and guest writers are filling in for him. This week it’s the turn of Dan Cox, who has previously written for Nightmare Mode and been a strong supporter of Twine. He has authored both a Gamasutra series on Learning Twine and a video tutorial series. He has also figured out how to use Google Drive to host Twine, explained how Twine authors could distribute and sell their work through itch.io and, most recently, been working on getting Twine to work on Ouya.
In many ways, I’ve come to think of Twine as a religion of sorts as I’ve watched the tool and its greater community grow these last two years. It has its followers, rituals, and customs. It has its saints and celebrities. There are numerous sites and people dedicated to promoting it and, of course, it definitely has its detractors. Yet, if I view my own relationship with Twine in this light, I think I might now describe myself as having lost my faith.
I am no longer comfortable with some of the community practices. I feel that Twine's two core promises, that it doesn’t require programming and is for everyone, have changed. What I once promoted as tenets of the Twine “faith” I no longer believe or celebrate. I’ve increasingly become worried that the Twine community might be headed in the wrong direction.
HM is on sabbatical for June and guest writers are filling in for him. This week it’s the turn of Emilie Reed, who wrote the blackly comic twine Duck Ted Bundy and has been published in The Arcade Review. This essay has been cross-posted from her website.
It’s probably 1998 or 1999…ish. My pre-adolescent memory doesn’t care much for dates. Like just about every other evening that week, I’m perched on the big green chair in my dad’s computer room, where he keeps his old engineering textbooks, a filing cabinet full of stuff like our birth certificates, and of course, the family PC. It’s an HP in that ever popular mid 90s computing shade of taupe, which frequently bluescreens and whirrs like an air tunnel. This one is probably our second computer, since there’s a picture of me on the desk next to the monitor. Me: a chubby baby bald as a cue ball and butt-naked, standing up on a metal folding chair to reach the mouse and keyboard of our first PC. That one only played floppies, but now CD-ROMs are the order of the day.
Last month, while writing an article for Rock Paper Shotgun, HM asked several developers for their thoughts on the physical interface between player and game. Robin Arnott, the audio engineer behind Deep Sea and Soundself, responded with a short essay. Extracts of this essay appeared in the completed article, but today Electron Dance presents the essay in full.
The original motivation behind Deep Sea was a dirt simple question: how do I maximize immersion? It was a curiosity drive! I started out knowing from my own experience that fear can short-cut the rational mind and touch players at a pre-cognitive level. But all the design decisions, like blinding the player, or playing back their breathing to obscure the critical information, all of that was me blindly reaching into the darkness and holding onto what seemed to work. I'm very fortunate to have stumbled onto some ideas that worked incredibly well, but the great irony of Deep Sea's development is that I didn't know why they worked. It took about two years of watching people play Deep Sea for me to reverse-engineer my own game and figure out the why.