Interesting Games of 2017: GUIness

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I first broached the topic of GUIness in the context of talking about cinema and television. In recent years, everyday, quotidian technology has thrown visual storytellers for a loop. Telephone conversations are well-built into the foundations of cinematic storytelling. Even the most mediocre director can successfully weave a phone conversation into a variety of scenarios, from suspense to romance.

Texting presents far more of a challenge. It’s sort of ironic, really: Even working within the medium of silent film, D. W. Griffith realized how powerfully cinematic a telephone conversation could be, as illustrated in his 1909 film The Lonely Villa. Today, though, texting makes some directors pine for the intertitle, that vestigal bit of cinematic vocabulary that lost most of its relevance with the coming of sound. The most advanced forms of experimentation along these lines have thrown out the traditional language of moving image storytelling altogether, instead telling stories by directly throwing GUIs on the screen.

Google’s 53-second “Parisian Love” ad for the 2010 Superbowl marked an early instance of this trend, but the style soon leaked out of advertising and into commercial narrative filmmaking. The experimental student film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013) seems to have been a bellwether here. In its wake, both The Den (Zachary Donahue, 2013) and Unfriended (Leo Gambriadze, 2014) used the technique as a twist on the “found-footage” horror trope. The Modern Family episode “Connection Lost” (2015) brought the GUI style to mainstream television.

When I first considered this trend, I connected it to videogames in only the most slantwise manner. 2017 made me reconsider this, though. We are very clearly in the middle of a GUIness trend in gaming.

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Wii Hardly Knew U

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So, last night, Nintendo pulled the plug on its Miiverse social network. This means I just lost a convenient method to take screenshots of Wii U games. Not only that, I also lost the only method I had to take screenshots of the video feed on the Wii U Gamepad.* I hope the screenshots I’ve saved so far are enough to illustrate any future writing!

Of course, we could ask why players ever needed to connect to a social network to take screenshots of a game in the first place. (Certainly, the ever-reliable twelve seconds required to reach the Miiverse servers was never welcome.)

But, in honor of its passing, let’s cut the Miiverse some slack. The Wii U was, after all, the first console to launch with a built-in screenshot taking mechanism, catching up to Steam’s well-worn “F12” key. And it remained, up until last night, admirably responsive. Despite the network-induced downtime, you were still guaranteed to capture the exact frame up on the screen when your thumb hit the “home” button, with none of the guesswork-inducing delay of the PlayStation 4’s “share” function.

That’s not the only feature the Wii U sported that was demonstrably superior to those of its competitors. It gave the world the first web browser for a home console that didn’t completely suck. To this day, I still curse the Steam and PS4 browsers for not auto-filling your browser search bar with the game you have suspended, a cherished Wii U feature. And the notion that strategy tips posted on Miiverse would transform every game on the console into a pseudo Souls-like was intriguing, even if never got implemented beyond a few choice first-party titles like Super Mario 3D World.

Ah, and now I’m getting all misty-eyed. I missed a prime moment to post a retrospective on the Wii U console, back in March when the Switch launched. But the Miiverse’s death seems like a worthy milestone, so let’s commemorate.

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Less Efficient Means

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In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits offers the following definition of a game:

[T]o play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.[i]

What does Suits mean by the favoring of “less efficient means“? Well, we could imagine a reductio ad absurdum version of any given game, in which players truly want nothing more than to achieve the game’s end goal. Suits offers this famous description of golf: “if my end were simply to get a ball into a number of holes in the ground, I would not be likely to use a golf club in order to achieve it, nor would I stand at a considerable distance from each hole.”[ii] Of course, the real goal of golf is not to get a ball into holes in the ground. The real goal of golf is to be good at … well, golfing. This leads Suits to his pithiest formulation: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[iii] Games aren’t really about their purported end goals. They are about consenting to manufactured inefficiencies, accepted as the constraints that make play possible.

One means of introducing “less efficient means” into the completion of a task is by using deliberately abstruse user-experience design. We see this in analog game design in classic party games like Twister or Operation. We see this in digital game design in the fumblecore genre, which I have written about before.

Today, I’ll be writing about two games, both of which harness deliberately inefficient control schemes as a key component of user experience: Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games, 2015) and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016). Neither precisely qualifies as “fumblecore” (at least according to my own definition), as neither involves the control of a human body. Instead, both games task players with piloting spacefaring vessels, using a technologically-aided science-fiction setup to justify their cumbersome controls.

Despite this congruence in abstract terms, you’d be hard pressed to find two games more tonally divergent, which made pairing them together even more irresistible.
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Mourning a Lost Feed

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Since the unexpected and shocking death of my friend Hannah Frank last week, I have been thinking a lot about the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (Series 2, Episode 1, dir. Owen Harris, 2013). Since the time I first saw it, I’ve thought it was a very good slice of speculative fiction, but it was not until the past week that its insights into 21st century psychology truly hit me.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 2

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Today marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I am celebrating the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, and turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game, across two posts.

In this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s definition, “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political. In this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords.

Yesterday, I compared and contrasted Walden with Minecraft, including a consideration of the Life in the Woods: Renaissance mod pack, which heightens Minecraft‘s Thoreauvian aspects. Of central concern was each game’s treatment of the natural world as a collection of resources. Today, I turn to the matter of “inspiration,” and how Walden, a game transforms enlightened, deliberate living into a game.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 1

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Tomorrow marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I have decided to celebrate the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game. I ended up having too a bit too much to say about it to fit into a single blog post, so I’ve split up my thoughts across two days.

Just a quick refresher: in this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s definition, “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political. In this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords. Today, that means turning to the life and work of everybody’s favorite environmentalist pseudo-hermit, Henry David Thoreau.

The itch.io page for Walden, a game claims that the game is the product of a “very small core team” at the USC Game Innovation Lab working on the project for “the past ten years.” I first became aware of it in November 2011, when Tracy Fullerton sat down and had a wonderful talk with students during a session of the University of Chicago’s New Media Workshop. Back then, Fullerton described the project as a difficult balancing act, balancing the quantitative and systems-heavy “gamey” aspects of games—which are actually right there in Thoreau’s text, making this entire project of adaptation especially tempting—with the need to present nature, and the labor one does when living in it, as a source of unpredictable inspiration, worthy of our respect and wonder.

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A Hodology of Videogames: Proteus

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Ian here—

Welcome to the third of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.

If, as Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, than all you need to make a videogame is an island.

The island-game gave us Myst (Cyan, 1993), and it gave us last year’s The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016). It has also already made an appearance in this very series, with Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). But my favorite island game of all time might be Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013). And to really talk about what it gets right, we have to dip into issues of genre. So, buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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