Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
Her new book, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games (Penguin Books, 2015), seeks to explain in detail the SuperBetter method, which aims to teach how to live and overcome every life obstacle with a gameful mindset. McGonigal defined what “being gameful” means to her back in 2009: “having the positive traits of a gamer” (or a game), such as strong motivation and goal orientation, confidence in one’s own capabilities, enjoying the pursuit of new challenges, perseverance in the face of obstacles, and a passion for learning new skills 1. SuperBetter explains how to bring this mindset to everyday life.
The presence of meaningful choices or, barring that, the illusion of meaningful choices has long been a considered a solid standard for a successful narrative game. Normally, developers do this by creating multiple possibilities for the story to follow, allowing player actions to alter the course of the story. Instead of creating an enormous amount of possible states, Her Story, a story-based game by Sam Barlow, experiments with allowing players instant access to its entire story, provided players use the right search terms. Her Story’s structure, and how it differs from other narrative games, is the key to understanding how Her Story functions as a successful narrative game. To do so, I’ll have to explain the computational concept of the finite state machine, why it is a good model for narrative games, and how Her Story’s state machine differs from those of interactive fiction. Based on Barlow’s personal work in interactive fiction and the genre’s place as the earliest style of narrative video game, I will stick to comparisons between Her Story and interactive fiction (IF).
First, I will use Jean-Marc Limoges’ work on reflexivity and mise en abyme – a figure whereby a work’s structure is self-replicated within itself, i.e., a play in a play, or a film in a film – which he constructed from his predecessor Jacques Gerstenkorn (Gerstenkorn, 1987). I will use his summary table and adapt it briefly to video games, placing the examples of reflexivity in Shovel Knight laid out by David Boffa in his essay (2015). In so doing, we must recognize a kind of difference that Gerstenkorn and Limoges traced in film, between the cinematographic and the filmic. Similarly, we would do well to distinguish between the ludic (referring to playing and games in general, abstract principles and terms), and the gamic (the individual games themselves). From their work, I argue that reflexivity can, broadly, occur in four types in video games:
In June, Sam Barlow (Aisle, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) released Her Story a game where players search through a database of archival footage from a police interrogation. In his interview with Austin Walker at Giant Bomb, Barlow spent a lot of time talking about how literature and film inspired much of the game’s design – as recovering/sometimes literary and film scholars ourselves, we discuss some of the underpinnings of crime fiction and how they hang together in Her Story while also talking about the game’s relatively unique take on interactivity. We talk at length about the game play, the open ending, and detective games in general. This is a highly unique game that we can’t recommend enough. Have a listen to our thoughts about the game and tell us what you thought about Her Story in the comments!
Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight (2014) has been a retro-gaming hit, lauded as much for its crisp gameplay, attractive visuals, and catchy chiptune soundtrack as for its success in channeling and revitalizing the feel of classic 8-bit video games. The game focuses on the eponymous hero’s quest to rescue his companion Shield Knight from the evil Enchantress, doing battle with knights from “The Order of No Quarter” and collecting treasure along the way. As players and reviewers have noted, the game is effective because it does not rely simply on nostalgia, even if (as its developers have stated) it is strongly influenced by games like Zelda II, Castlevania, and Super Mario Bros. 3, among others. Rather, Shovel Knight employs nostalgia as just one of many tools in its impressive arsenal to create a meaningful and rewarding gameplay experience. I’ve now played through it nearly three times (twice normally and once in “New Game Plus” mode, in which I have yet to conquer the final stage).
Flow is an immediate, task-based construction. Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow exists in a ‘flow channel’ residing between anxiety and boredom, both of which measure challenges as they relate to skill level (ch.4). He believes people experience anxiety if challenges are too great for their skill level, and boredom if their skills are too great for the challenges provided (ch.4). Within the flow channel, however, “the difficulty is just right for [their] [. . .] skills” (Csikszentmihalyi ch.4), and people can become “completely absorbed by the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi ch.3). The exact activity matters very little; all that is required to enter the flow channel is an actionable task that possesses clear goals, adequately matches a person’s skill level, demands a certain level of concentration, and gives immediate feedback (Csikszentmihalyi ch.3). Indeed, flow is simply a task loop – goal, action, feedback – immediately registered by the player, traversing upwards through the flow channel as both skills and challenges increase in tandem.
Before Sega retooled the series for MMORPG audiences, Phantasy Star was one of the most prominent JRPG franchises of its time. It had always remained ahead of the pack by experimenting with themes and narrative models years before its rivals could catch up. The first Phantasy Star game featured a slight political dimension to JRPGs seven years before Final Fantasy would do the same. And its sequel only continued that trend. One of the first RPGs for the Genesis, Phantasy Star II strengthened the political themes with a grim narrative and Daedalian dungeon design.