Designer Lenses

A Review of Jennifer deWinter’s Shigeru Miyamoto

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“Beware of Heroes.”

Frank Herbert offers these words as an overarching thesis for his novel Dune, which chronicles the exploits of Paul Atreides as he rises, unwittingly, to his destiny as an intergalactic messiah, fuelled by prophecies of genocide he can foresee, but can no longer forestall. Continue Reading

The Game Jam

Creativity and Community

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Game jams are not without controversy. Ostensibly a community-based event that fosters enthusiasm and creativity, game jams do not always reflect these ideals in practice. As the lead organizer of two game jams in Waterloo, Ontario, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a perspective on what this event is—and no, it doesn’t live up to its hype, but jamming is not a terrible idea. The enthusiasm, creativity, and community promised by game jams are important and needed in a performance-obsessed society, and although game jams do not always deliver on these ideals in practice, they have the potential to do so. Continue Reading

Design and the Broken Game:

Wayfinding and Affordance in Shelter

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Shelter is a game about figuring out what the hell to do next. You play as a mother badger trying to guide her children to a new den. Gameplay consists of roving across predatory landscapes, securing food in the process, and feeding this food to your kids. This sounds fun. For me, it was not. Continue Reading

Monkey See, Monkey Do:

Semiotics and Affordances in Monkey Island

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At their heart, adventure games are about exploration and discovery. Players must connect with the world around them to solve puzzles and progress forward, making player/game space interaction a key component of the genre. When looking at the design of these games, investigating them through the dual lenses of semiotics and affordances can help describe the subtle nuances of interactivity and game design, which can make or break player experience. According to Saussure (1983), semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and the meanings these have in communication, while Norman (2003) argues affordances describe human interaction with objects and spaces. Continue Reading

Silent Performers of Myth:

Structuralist and Poststructuralist Approaches to The Stanley Parable

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Released in 2013, The Stanley Parable is a piece of interactive fiction created by independent developer Galactic Café. I introduce the game as an “interactive fiction” to underscore its attentiveness to narrative, because while it can be “beaten,” that is most certainly not its focus; besides, to argue the definition of a game is a topic for another essay entirely. The point is that, rather than focusing on nuanced mechanics and systems, the narrative structure of the game and its interrogation of player agency comprise the heart of The Stanley Parable’s experience.

On the latter point of agency, the game drives home the idea that, though games may afford players with a sense of control over the outcomes of both predetermined and emergent narratives, the range of outputs is limited by virtue of the limitations of assets and coding. In Grand Theft Auto V, for example, players can hold up gas stations, run over pedestrians, and go skydiving, but they cannot attend classes at a university, leave the fictional game-world of Los Santos, or perform any action that would require assets or feedback loops not provided for in the game’s files and programming. Continue Reading

On well-formed fiction

and Her Story

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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). Continue Reading

Shovel Knight Redug

The Retro Game as Hypertext and as Uchronia

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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: Continue Reading