Group project summary, by leader Leo Alvarez
Tragedy is hard to pull off in video games, a medium so driven by the player’s desire to accomplish tasks and achieve the goals set forth by the game designers. What’s more, joining the formerly separated roles of the viewer and the on-screen character into one presents unique challenges in terms of creating motivation and working with the newly bridged psychical distance to create an effective tragedy. With all of these obstacles in its way, how can a game like Last Day of June possibly hold a candle to a tragic film like Der müde Tod? In its use of an episodic structure, a “retry narrative” and a final sacrifice, Last Day of June carries and builds on the legacy of Fritz Lang’s silent film Der müde Tod, ushering the death-defying romantic tragedy template into the era of video-games, and exemplifying how tragedy can be possible in a game.
One last post for September: I did indeed succeed in getting the second part of my new series on detective games out of the door by the end of the month. And it’s a long one, too! Long enough that I don’t feel bad about the dry spell that’s inevitably going to set in in October.
I’ve written about most of the games in this video on the blog before, mostly for things like capsule reviews and walkthroughs. This is the only time I’ve done any sort of analysis of them, though. (Excepting maybe Gone Home.) In addition to being long, it’s also mostly brand-new material, which is not something I can say about most of my videos.
Script below the jump.
I’ve inaugurated a new video series, on detective games. The inaugural video is an extended version of this old conference presentation, buffed up with new examples and more extensive sources. The second video will be arriving shortly—I knew I’d be super busy as soon as all three of my current jobs kicked in, so I planned ahead and worked on two videos simultaneously during the summer months, both of which I’m hoping to get out the door in September.
Script below the jump.
The analysis I’ve been working on has again resulted in me writing a full-on game walkthrough, this time to Parabole’s 2017 game Kona. Again, I have decided that I might as well just post the results here, as a gesture of goodwill to the world.
There are some useful walkthroughs to Kona out there already, each with its own limitations. The most thorough walkthoughs explaining how to get 100% completion are videos, a format that I really dislike when it comes to games of this style. On the other hand, the written walkthroughs all exclude certain useful details, or sometimes have out-of-date details because they were written while the game was still in early access.
This walkthrough was written with the following goals in mind: thoroughly exploring and retrieving all documents from the game’s principle locations, and fully filling out the game’s journal. If you want to do those things, this is the guide for you. It’s not going to cover some other things, like where you can find all of the talismans and treasure hunt locations. If you want that sort of thing, you should check out another walkthrough (like this one here, which has a great map).
The scope of new releases I have been playing has narrowed, as of late. I’ve been focusing in on a few choice genres and subject matters, as I round up my final list of case studies for my book project (as well as any upcoming video essay series connected with it). Practically, this means I’m spending a lot more mediocre games I hope I’ll have something interesting to say about, and a lot fewer games I’ve genuinely heard good things about, had fun with, and would in turn recommend. (It’s downright incomprehensible to me now that the first time I did one of these round-ups, in July 2017, I had actually played both Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 already, and was ready to write some words about them.)
So this post will be a bit more slight than some past mid-year wrap-ups have been. Below the fold, I offer thoughts on six little highlights released since January.
The saga continues. This one’s dedicated to the Siren franchise, which means it’s a more in-depth version of some ideas I first poked around in in the tail end of this lesson plan.
I wanted to finish up this ep because it caps off a four-episode sequence that begain with ep 4. But my hiatus from this series is beginning now. Next up: catching up on interesting games from 2018.
Script below the jump.
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.
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.
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.
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.