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It has arrived! Episode 3 of the CDC Podcast. This week we discuss the approaches to videogame narrative, specifically the differences between showing and telling narrative in games. We have a very special international cast this week. So sit back and enjoy as once again we interrogate game narrative, go off on an array of tangents, and eventually come back to the question of “show and tell.” Feel free to leave us feedback on the Critical-Distance comments thread and continue the discussion on IRC. That is the freenode.net server, the room is #GBConfab.

The Cast:
D. Murray: http://www.graduateschoolgamer.com
Erik Hanson: http://www.elementsofmeaning.blogspot.com
Justin Keverne: http://gropingtheelephant.com
Arthur Tellurian: http://tellurianspetshop.wordpress.com
Eric Swain: http://www.thegamecritique.com

Show Notes:
Corvus Elrod’s article on “Show & Tell”
Ken Levine’s GDC 2008 Keynote

RSS: http://www.critical-distance.com/podcast/cdc-podcast.xml
iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/cdc-podcast/id415241874
Direct Download: http://www.critical-distance.com/podcast/CDC_003_050409.mp3

Soren Johnson Discusses Sid’s Lessons

May 4th, 2009 | Posted by Nels Anderson in Link-out - (Comments Off)

Soren Johnson discusses a number of lessons he learned from Sid Meier during his time at Firaxis.

All four observations are good, but the third and fourth are especially resonant for me. Calls for thematic simplicity and “show, don’t tell” have grown increasingly loud as of late. When Jeff Kaplan says at GDC “we need to stop f*cking writing a novel in our game [World of Warcraft]“, I doubt he’s saying that the story in WoW is completely wasted effort. Rather he’s observing that presenting a massive wall of un-engaging writing to the player is the laziest and least engaging way to create a world that feels real.

As game developers, it is our obligation to find ways to communicate the story and themes of our level/quest/game without abusing the player with ham-fisted textual salvos. That in a medium so rich we so often turn to the most rudimentary of tools (or their marginally better cousin, lengthy dialogs) is simply embarrassing. That’s not to say that text has no place in games, but like anything else it should be boiled down to its most essential and used in the best way possible. When the player reads text or hears some dialog, they should realize it’s something with gravitas and importance. Supplemental information can certainly be present in the game, but it should not be the default method of communication. Especially when there are so many other ways to communicate in our diverse medium.

bayeux_ontehblogs

Welcome to another exciting instalment of This Week In Videogame Blogging. Before we dive in, I should probably explain how I go about compiling this list of the best stuff from around the blogosphere from the week. It goes something like this:

I have a Word document. When I read something on a blog that I think is worth noting, I copy and paste the URL into the document. That’s it. The downside is I only have so many blogs in my RSS feed and I can’t cover them all. When I suffer a debilitating case of The Swine Flu like this week I tend to miss stuff – thus, TWIVGB makes no claims of comprehensiveness – only quality. Think of us not as gate-keepers, but as tour guides to videogame blogging. Look at the woodland; observe the peacocks on the lawn; be the king of your own calm kingdom.

This week Brilliam writes about the need for a better, more accurately descriptive term for ‘videogames’ (or ‘video games’ if that’s your flavour) in “renaming the game“.

JC Barnett of Japanmanship has been a bit dormant in recent months, but he seems to have regained a new vigour and is back posting some great stuff about his life as a Western developer working on games in Japan. Check out his post on the IGDA and the Quality of Life issue. He’s actually decided to let his IGDA membership lapse over the issue.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun (it has been mentioned critically) is almost guaranteed to get a mention in TWIVGB. But it’s not because I’m a mindless worshiper (honest!) but because they are so consistently good. This week, Jim Rossignol does the hard work in checking out Mods for STALKER: Clear Sky, so you don’t have to. Alec Meer writes about Dead Space in ‘Looking Back: Dead Space‘, a slightly freaky coincidence for me given I’ve been playing Dead Space this past week as well. On a bit of a retro bender this week, Kieron Gillen also played Manhunt “for sheer perverseness” and wrote up his initial impressions of the straight-up-bonkers Stalin vs. Martians. He seems to imply that you will get probably more out of trying to decipher how much of the game is a satire than you will the game itself. Which begs the question — does it matter if we only enjoy a game on a meta level?

Kotaku quality blogging time: Brian Crecente has a good old think about “What Ails the World’s Biggest Gaming Platform” and comes off sounding not dissimilar to RPS. Yikes! Then Leigh Alexander picks up on the Art/Innovation issue again with a discussion of The Path.

Speaking of The Path, PixelVixen quite effectively contrasts song lyrics from a new Rock Band release with the story content of The Path, saying

What was this horrorshow? Some indie nightmare? A bad boy shooter? Actually, it was the download of Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking for Rock Band. I was pulling your leg. We all know it’s okay for rock to go there. This was just a lighthearted way to introduce what I really want to talk about, which is rape.

And the rest is well worth reading.

Our unofficial favourite interviewer-cum-blogger Chris Dahlen talks to Mark Essen (aka Meshoff) about his provocative, edgy, and generally insane “Art” game Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist in this tidy piece for Edge Online. RBMA was actually my second favourite game from ’08 behind You-Know-What. Just sayin’.

Duncan Fyfe writes this week about the audio-tour of Alcatraz he went on while taking a break from GDC and the parallels it has with game level design in a post titled ‘Chaos Theory‘.

The Dynamic Duo of Jorge Albor and Scott Juster from the Experience Points blog had a discussion of Gears of War 2 on their podcast. I can’t recommend ‘Episode 23 – Gears of War Roundup‘ highly enough.

Manveer Heir shows his humanity and humility in a post this week called ‘Mea Culpa – The Black and White World of DRM‘. It also serves as a cautionary tale for fact-careless bloggers like myself.

David Carlton (fellow Critical Distance Editor) writes on his eclectic blog Malvasia Bianca about Chrono Trigger and the Vintage Game Club’s recent play-through which has mostly now concluded. He seems genuinely impressed by its quality, saying that it’s:

Quite a game, when all is said and done. I can only imagine an alternate universe in which JRPG designers actually paid attention to Chrono Trigger, and emphasized a density of experience over stuffing you with dozens of battles with minutes of animations pitted against seconds of thinking. Or, more profoundly, an alternate universe in which the video game industry realized that grand narratives about saving the world from destruction had less of an impact on the players than sketches of what our daily lives, loves, families are or could be like

Go read about his experience with Chrono Trigger.

Going all the way with L.B. Jeffries this week, he’s produced an excellent ZA Critique of Gears of War that looks at the ‘classical hero’ and finds some real similarities in Marcus Phoenix, et al. to characters in The Iliad and The Odyssey. He also writes about how games are different from movies in a completely unrelated post.

A quick shout out to one of my RL friends who has recently started blogging. Not strictly from this week, I still quite liked his retrospective of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. With the recent release of the Xbox sequel/port/upgrade it has timely relevance.

Lastly, the fastest blogger in the game-blog-o-sphere would have to be Simon Ferrari (lolpuns! Sorry Simon;) ), and this week he wonders aloud about the effect that our choices of difficulty setting have on our experience with a game and as a result on our critiques and analyses. Check out ‘Our Amps go to Eleven‘ and tell him how you usually approach the difficulty issue. Me? I suck at anything that isn’t a PC FPS and so I usually pick the easiest or next-closest. I’ve played Far Cry 2 on the hardest setting (and nearly finished it too) but, interestingly, I actually enjoyed it more at that ‘sweet spot’ of difficulty which just happened to be the penultimate difficulty.

And that’s your lot for the week, readers.

Chris Avellone on RPG Conventions

May 1st, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in Link-out - (Comments Off)

Last week saw the ‘Framework’ conference in Melbourne, and Kotaku Editor David Wildgoose attended a lecture given by Chris Avellone – he of Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 fame. In a nice recap, Wildgoose talks about how Avellone turned his disdain for RPG clich├ęs and conventions to his advantage:

In Knights of the Old Republic 2, Avellone hated Star Wars and the Force. In particular, he hated the concept of predestination implicit within the Force. So he built the game’s story and characters around this idea. He focused on what a Jedi might gain from turning away from the Force or what they may lose when they embrace it.

Hit the link for some more anecdotes on how Avellone used his annoyance at ‘predictable encounters’, the concept of death, and being burnt out on RPG’s as a motivator for some rather novel design decisions.

No Culture? Gameplay Aesthetes

May 1st, 2009 | Posted by Joe Tortuga in Link-out - (Comments Off)

Sure, it’s about a board game, and a forgettable one at that, but Greg Costikyan makes a point that it’s important to know about the history behind even bad or un-interesting games:

For what godforsaken reason are we featuring Twiggy Game today? To make a point: the danger of lack of culture.

What do I mean by “lack of culture?” Just this: with novels, cinema, music and every other form of art, we have long-standing traditions of criticism, analysis, reviews, and discussion. People know something of the history of the forms in which they are interested, something of the process of creation, and over time develop individual aesthetics, ideas by which they judge the merits, or lack thereof, of a particular product.

As critics, we can’t help but applaud this sort of sentiment – and while Costikiyan says “We do, at least, have something of a videogame culture” which is aware of it’s history, it’s hits and misses, it’s important contributors, he decries the lack of ‘nuance’ in games discussion:

…gamers passionately debate the merits of the games they play. And yet, those discussions are curiously uncultured, too; the average gamer’s ignorance of the history of the form, of the contributions of different creators, of the evolution of genres, is staggering. Games suck or rock; no nuance here. And gamers have been trained to expect and reward spectacle over originality

Criticism is important for more than just ensuring the value of products for consumers and obviously we here at Critical Distance think it’s important. Perhaps it’s even a prescription for us for things we’re missing.