Article Tags / essay (45)

Curating Steam: Moral Complexity versus Automatic Norms

Steam, owned by Valve, is the world’s biggest digital distributor of computer games. For years, it’s had frustratingly inconsistent and unpredictable rules on what games could be sold on its platform. After the most recent kerfuffle, Valve’s Erik Johnson published a post to the Steam blog titled “Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?

It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my summary: Deciding which games can be sold on Steam is a hard problem that Steam has struggled with for years. There’s a long list of controversial topics and kinds of content - and for each one, many people in Valve’s huge multinational audience feel strongly that it should be allowed on the store and many people feel strongly that it shouldn’t. Many of these topics are also controversial among Valve’s own employees. So rather than continue to struggle with the increasingly impossible goal of consistent curation, Valve is scaling back to block only games that are illegal or “straight up trolling” (later clarified somewhat to mean “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict”). Valve’s efforts will instead go toward creating tools to allow people to control what content they see - customers will be able to block specific kinds of games from their own slice of Steam and creators will be able to avoid harassment if they release something controversial.

We’ll have to wait and see the filtering and anti-harassment tools to know whether this plan will succeed, but the reasoning and intent seem solid and likely to lead to a vast improvement over the current unpredictable mess. So I was shocked to see that the reaction from the game journalism community featured widespread rage and contempt.

Who's the Boss: Player Choice, NPC Consent, and the Designer's Unseen Hand

Last week, we discussed the spectrum of allowance - a way to describe how allowed a given action is within a game, ranging from impossible to required. A key point is that the game’s designer places each action on the spectrum. Aside from bugs (which violate the designer’s intent) and hacks (which partially override the original design with another), in a game you can only do what the designer lets you. This is true even when you have freedom of choice - that freedom was granted by the designer.

Some games understand this well and play with it effectively - see for example The Stanley Parable, especially the confusion ending (warning: spoilers). But not all games that examine player choice understand the designer’s role.

The Journey Of Me is a free browser game. It’s a 2D platformer and it takes about fifteen minutes to play. I am now going to spoil the hell out of it, but honestly I don’t think you should be too worried about spoilers in this case.

The Journey of Me title screen

That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability has persisted in later games in the series, and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary is careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point.

“After a player pays for services from a prostitute, they can run over, beat, and even kill the prostitute and then simply take back the money that was paid. . . . It’s worth noting that this controversial element in Grand Theft Auto is not required by any part of a mission, side quest or storyline: it is something that [is] available due to the open world/sandbox style gameplay.”
—Michael Klappenbach, Grand Theft Auto Series Most Controversial Moments

“[You can] pay a hooker to talk dirty and service you in your hooptie. It gets better: After you get your rocks off, you can run her over with your car or riddle her with bullets – it all depends on how you roll, ya big stud. . . . It’s important to note that GTA players don’t have to kill prostitutes, although they certainly can if it occurs to them.”
—Tracy Clark-Flory, Grand Theft misogyny

“Grand Theft Auto is known as the game in which you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and get your money back. You never have to do that to advance in the game; the world is simply so open-ended that you can do it.”
—Chris Baker, It’s Not Just About Killing Hookers Anymore

Of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.

I Wrote This So You'd Know I'm Smart: Games Criticism and The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner's Guide

Spoiler warning for The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a short (ninety minutes or so) narrative game by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden. I like it a lot and recommend it to folks interested in how we create and talk about games. If you’re intrigued by the game but haven’t played it yet, you might want to do so before reading further. The game has generated a lot of analysis and discussion - my personal favorite being Ian Danskin’s video essay The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide - but there’s a trend among some critics that I find troubling and want to dig into.

Who Frustration is Good For

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy went fairly viral so you may already be well familiar with it. If so, feel free to skip down past both pictures; I’m going to spend the intervening paragraphs explaining what the game is and how it works.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy is a connoisseur of frustration. His first hit game, QWOP, took the simple act of running and made it nearly impossible by wrapping it in a seemingly-straightforward four-button control scheme with each button dedicated to a thigh or calf muscle. He’s made a few other games along similar lines, but his latest work, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, takes things to a new level.

Why People Pirate Amiibo and What Nintendo Can Do About It

Amiiqo disc

The Amiiqo is a recently announced device that can be used with an Android phone or tablet to back up and restore data from Amiibo figures. This data can easily be shared online, which means that the Amiiqo also effectively enables piracy of Amiibo.

Amiibo have only been around since November 2014. They aren’t the first major toys to life franchise - Skylanders came out in October 2011 and Disney Infinity launched in August 2013. (U.B. Funkeys in 2007 was a bit before its time, and I’m not sure when Hero Portal started because it’s not even on Wikipedia.) They all use similar technology (Amiibo uses NFC while others use RFID) and can thus all be backed up and pirated in roughly the same way. While the Amiiqo is not the first toys to life backup device to be announced (see, for example, MaxLander) it’s the first targeted specifically toward Amiibo and is getting more attention.

Why would Amiibo piracy be so much more interesting than Skylanders or Disney Infinity figure piracy? While Amiibo are in many ways similar to those franchises, there are several key differences that encourage piracy.

"Are Videogames Art?" was Always the Wrong Question

The debate has been over for a while now. Videogames are art.

I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that videogames are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.

It was from a column called “The Arty Semite,” and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn’t make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn’t claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of videogames. It just said hey, here’s an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.

In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That’s how I knew.

Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? “Are videogames art?” seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it’s really two very different questions. The first is, “Is the medium of videogames capable of artistic expression?”

This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It’s a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert’s) then videogames can’t be art. Period. It’s not a judgment on videogames, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it’s just the logical implication of the terms involved. It’s just what the words mean.

My answer to this first question is: “Yes, duh, of course the medium of videogames is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?”

The second question is, “Have any videogames yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?“

Danganronpa and Trustworthy Reviews

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is overrated.

The game is basically fine. It oozes personality with a distinctive aesthetic that’s serviceable at worst and compelling at best. It boasts some clever twists and well-done mysteries. It’s also a bizarre mishmash of mechanics, some of which work and some of which don’t (the “Re: Action” system is flat-out the worst attempt at conversation branching I have ever seen in a game) featuring paper-thin characters and a bevy of plot holes. (There are also a few moments that are shockingly insensitive or offensive, but that’s another story.) It borrows heavily from influences including Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, Persona 4, and Battle Royale, but almost always in shallow ways that fail to emulate what made them great. The end result is entertaining, flashy, and kind of dumb.

Danganronpa box art
The game’s producer has even said in an interview that the characters are deliberately exaggerated and that the variety of game mechanics were sprinkled in after the story was already written because visual novels are on the decline:

[Gamasutra:] A lot of the characters fit into really strong stereotypes. The concept of being “The Ultimate” whatever means they stand out as stereotypes. Can you talk about why you went in that direction?

[Game Producer Yoshinori Terasawa]: What were we thinking about? It’s hard to answer that! [laughs] The scenario writer, Kazutaka Kodaka, he’s the one who basically thought of those stereotypes, and he created those characters. He’s the one who thought it up. When I spoke to Mr. Kodaka, I requested that he make [the player character] Makoto as non-special as possible, and make the other characters stand out in their own way a lot, and that’s why there’s this balance. That’s how Mr. Kodaka was able to create these characters.

Unlike a lot of other visual novels, there are a lot of other gameplay elements such as free exploration, and the trials having multiple different gameplay elements. Did that grow from the story or did those ideas come first?

YT: It was originally a basic visual novel, but visual novel games are not that popular in Japan anymore, either. So we figured that if Dangan Ronpa were to be just a visual novel, it would not be as popular we wanted it to be, these days. So that’s why, in order to show that the game is really interesting, we decided to add a lot of different features – after the scenario was written.

—Christian Nutt, Dangan Ronpa: Death, stress, and standing out from the crowd

Still, there’s a ton of potential here. If they’ve learned from their missteps, the sequel could be amazing. So we just have to wait for the Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair reviews, right?

Disney Magical World is Full of Surprises

Disney Magical World box art
I’ve been playing Disney Magical World recently. It’s well-dressed busywork without a lot of depth but there’s a good variety of activities (including some surprisingly nontrivial combat) and plenty of customization options (I want some of those shirts in real life). It’s also consistently warm and loaded with treats for the longtime Disney fan - for example, one of the quests is to find a pumpkin so that the Fairy Godmother can make you a coach to ride to Cinderella’s ball. If you’re nostalgic about Disney, it’s a good way to relax after a long day. But there are two particular things about it that have caught my attention.