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

Flexible Times

need Flexible Game Design

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Since games emerge from and reflect upon culture, it is becoming more and more important to find ways to accommodate the various cultural relationships to games and play that already exist globally. As the barriers to technology drop, accessibility to the tools of games are increasing, but the syntax of game making remains largely unexamined from the context of multi-cultural languages of games and play. Game development is a small world and has not demonstrated a willingness to deal with the cultures of play around the world that are now being reached with new global audiences. Mindful Play is our attempt to investigate the ways in which games are made and find ways to adapt existing game design methodologies to accommodate these emerging forms of play. Continue Reading

Following the Green Light

Designing Inclusion in Game Distribution

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Though personal computers have become more affordable and ubiquitous in the past 30 years, deeming this as a “natural evolution” that lead to an increased technological literacy in America would be simplistic and technologically deterministic, and overlooks the organized efforts performed by companies to expand the use of these technologies to begin with. Steam, for example, had some adoption obstacles in the beginning: unveiled at the 2002 Game Developers Conference and released a year later, the distribution platform was reportedly buggy and unfriendly towards users. 2 years later, though, the video game giant that owns Steam, Valve, decided to release all of its games for PC asking for a compulsory installation of Steam in order to play. Coincidentally, in 2004 one of Valve’s biggest games was released: Half-Life 2, now an industry staple that cost $40 million to make, sold more than 1.7 million copies worldwide. Continue Reading