Author Archives: David Carlton

About David Carlton

David blogs about video games, agile software development, personal organization, and other topics at Malvasia Bianca. He is also one of the moderators of the Vintage Game Club. In his day job, he works on security software for Sumo Logic.

January 8th

January 8th, 2012 | Posted by David Carlton in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 8th)

Welcome to the first This Week in Videogame Blogging of 2012! It’s been a long time since TWIVGB first came on the scene; I confess, I rather miss the tapestry pictures that graced the earliest episodes. This week’s host is David Carlton: I’ve proofread these not infrequently in the past, but apparently the entire regular roster of editors is still hungover from New Year’s parties (So very true – Ed.), so we’re dipping down into the minor leagues this week and having me do some actual writing this time. (To be more accurate, the other editors are probably still recovering from our twin year-end extravaganzas.) Don’t worry, whichever editor is looking this over before hitting publish: I only included one link that points to someplace completely inappropriate in my browser history, three apostrophe confusions, two missed italicizations of game names, and as many uses of “video games” instead of “videogames” as I could work in: not much for you to fix! (Well, that plus most of this first paragraph.) (What is this, I don’t even… – Ed.)

But enough of my TWIVGBabbling, on to our regular business. The week between Christmas and New Year’s was relatively light on blogging, but the Brindles reminded us of what the season is all about: gamification and incentives. As they say:

Since randomised rewards are more compelling for players than certain ones, all the children were hooked, but concerted efforts were made to game the system. The great gerrymander that giving had become was characterised by two perverse incentives – the incentive to buy what you would like to receive, and the incentive to buy what you don’t want others to get.

(Don’t miss the turkey slaughter bit, either.)

Speaking of gamification, the end of the year also brought us the usual onslaught of “best-of-the year” lists; such lists traditionally are light on both criticism and distance, and perhaps the following is no exception, but Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton compiled a list of “All of the Best Video Game Music of 2011” that made me smile more often than any of the rest of the links here. Excellent music to TWIVGB by!

The piece that I’ve seen linked to the most this week is Chris Dahlen’s post at Save the Robot on Dark Souls as a “Great Big Puzzle Box“. Yes, the game is difficult, yes that’s important, but there’s more to the game’s design than that alone might suggest. As he says in a discussion of the game’s open world nature,

Why would the designers give us these options when all but one of them leads to disaster? Because if we make the decision, we own the consequences. When we talk about “open world” games, we think of words like “discovery” and “freedom,” and sometimes we conflate the terms: if we can discover the game on our own, then we must be free. But there’s no freedom in Dark Souls. The designers let us discover and experience the place on our own, while hooking us on an invisible leash to keep us more or less on task. Yet we still feel like we’ve conquered this space, because we put it together ourselves—unlocking our own shortcuts, discovering how the levels connect, and making our mental maps of the entire world.

I joked about lack of distance up above, but of course we’re quite guilty of promoting discussion of the latest games here ourselves; I’ll continue in that grand tradition with a couple of Skyrim posts.  In the first, RAD of The Gwumps claims that “Skyrim is for Communists“, delving into the game’s economic system. ((S)he touches in part on crafting; for a take on crafting in a non-Skyrim context, see “Can I Craft That For You?” by Eric of Critical Missive.) Meanwhile, Amanda Lange of Second Truth returns to a conversation that was kicked off by Deadly Premonition‘s release and continued off and on all year; she concludes her “Thoughts on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Its Critical Reception, After Playing it 130 Hours” by saying “…one might write ‘This game is pretty messy in every conceivable way. I played over 100 hours. I can’t wait to play it again.'”, and I for one would like more games writing that’s motivated by that feeling.

Adding a bit more distance to the mix: as I’m making my preparations for GDC 2012, I remember getting my first glimpse of Neptune’s Pride during GDC 2010. Electron Dance is still writing about the game; Laura Michet first shares her experiences with it, which are a sort of mirror image honest response counterpart to Amanda Lange’s article above and which caused her to give up on the game in short order. And Joel Goodwin acknowledges Laura’s feeling (and, in fact, says that he himself will “never play Neptune’s pride again”), wondering if the strong feelings of those who continue to be absorbed by the game are due to survivorship bias.

And jumping between older and newer games (and, as a bonus, filling in two more squares of your game criticism bingo card!), we have Michael Peterson of Project Ballad’s post “Good Morning, Crono!” relating Chrono Trigger‘s opening with Skyward Sword‘s. As he says:

The problem in every creative industry is that we do what has already worked before, even when that thing no longer fits. For some, that means the very nature of a thing, such as turn-based combat, and for others, it means beloved referents such as the hero waking up in his small town before the adventure has truly begun. The problem is, games grow more complex, more “real,” and have larger ambitions. As they do so, these things stand out more than they ever have. Storytelling, pacing, and flow cannot be afterthoughts.

Andrew Meade’s asking “What if at the end of Uncharted 3, Drake came out?” on Gamasutra led to quite a bit of commentary in my Twitter stream, as well as several followup posts. Jim Sterling wrote an article in Destructoid saying why he thinks that would be a fantastic idea; Andrew Meade expanded upon his initial article into an explanation of the “Nobler Cause” that is at its core, his belief that

We have great power. We can change lives, we can entertain, and we can bring people together. Let’s do it. Let’s work towards a nobler cause – and not just this cause, but any cause. Anywhere where you see someone needing support from society, pursue it.

See also Mattie Brice’s “An Escape of One’s Own” on The Border House, pointing out similar problems, in particular that “games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one”. And that post also led to a response, this time by Dan Cox of Digital Ephemera, musing on what it mean that, in Dragon Age: Origins, “Desire demons are female“.

It’s slightly older news (it took me a while to get around to listening to it), but Frank Lantz spoke in an MIT Comparative Media Studies podcast about “The Aesthetics of Games“, and it’s well worth an hour and a half of your time. As the introduction says, he “explores what it means to consider games an aesthetic form”; I’m rather tired of the “games as art” arguments by now, but I found Lantz’s approach to the topic rather refreshing. Also, as somebody who has spent rather more time playing go than any other game, I was particularly taken by his positing that

I think it’s also true to say that go is beautiful because we’ve been playing it for hundreds and hundreds of years, that in a way go is just a corner of the universe that somebody carved out and pointed to and said “What about this?”

Also touching on non-digital games (and reminding me of L. B. Jeffries), we have Jenn Frank of Infinite Lives discoursing “On games of chance and ‘cheating’“. She starts with a discussion of what the boundaries are between cheating and fair play, and ends up meditating on Calvinism and determinism. It is clearly cross-blog conversation week, because this inspired a follow-up from J. P. Grant of Infinite Lag on “Fair Play“; I won’t include links to the subsequent posts on the blogs Infinite Logic and Infinite Ludologists, though if it were just a bit more games related and/or safe for work, I would definitely link to Infinite Llama’s quite unique contribution to this dialogue (pentalogue? infinitelogue, I suppose) on cheating. (It turns out that, when you have an infinite number of llamas, they cheat on/with each other in an eye-opening range of geometries.) (I’m not even sure if David’s being serious here or not… – Ed.)

Many thanks to those of you who sent in links: I was quite nervous about this going in, but I ended discarding another dozen articles that I could have easily included. As a reminder, you can contact us via email or Twitter. A happy 2012 to you all!

Jesse Schell, ‘Design outside the Box’

April 21st, 2010 | Posted by David Carlton in Critical Compilation: - (16 Comments)

At the 2010 D.I.C.E. Summit, Jesse Schell gave a talk entitled ‘Design outside the Box’ that set the gaming blog world on fire.  Now that the pace of resulting conversation has slowed, we’d like to take the time to gather links to some of the resulting discussion. But, before doing so, the primary source material: The talk itself is less than half-an-hour long, and is very entertaining so I highly recommend that you take the time to go watch Schell speak.  For more detailed study, I also refer you to his slides and a transcript of the talk.

Early Detractors

One of the earliest responses was David Sirlin’s “External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture, and it set the tone for much of the subsequent discussion.  Sirlin said that “The unspoken premise of his DICE 2010 lecture is that people are prisoners to external reward systems” and, lest you have any doubt about his feelings on the matter, followed that with:

“External reward” is practically a curse word to me, a thing I’m ever vigilant against.

He then discussed the final segment of Schell’s talk, presenting a world pervaded with games taking the form of external motivators. Jesper Juul of The Ludologist also addressed external motivators in his post ‘Demotivation by External Rewards‘, but with a twist: he believes that external motivators may not be as effective as presented by Schell’s talk.  In fact, he claims that they may have the opposite effect:

A famous 1973 experiment (“Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward“) showed that when nursery school children consistently received external rewards for drawing, they lost interest in drawing and began drawing less.

Dan Lawrence of Robotic Shed adds yet another twist to the psychology underlying Schell’s talk, his post ‘Behaviourist Game Design‘ dives into the different forms that external motivators can take.  Variable reinforcements turn out to be particularly effective and are not at all foreign to games. They are:

…exactly how the random drops work in a roguelike such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. It’s no wonder that people will spend hours grinding for loot if their brains are conditioned to do so by the most efficient reward system that we know of.

George Korkoris of Burning North is, like Sirlin, no big fan of external motivators; his post ‘Achievement Unlocked: Read The Article Header‘ goes into this issue in further depth, both talking about how the less dystopian earlier parts of Schell’s talk aren’t as rosy as they seem and about how the picture Schell paints isn’t of the future, rather it’s in many ways the present.  He concludes by “…wondering if I’ll even have a place in the game industry five years from now” but, decides to go his own way, even if it makes him already obsolete.

Further Discussion

Ferguson of Interactive Illuminatus discussed in his post ‘Rewards: the art of incentive‘ how rewards are baked into games.  As he says, “A reward is something that the player gets as a result of completing a goal” so rewards are found throughout games. Beyond games, he distinguishes between goals internal to a game, goals that end a game, and goals that are located outside of the confines of the game.  My own post at Malvasia Bianca on ‘Jesse Schell, Games, and Extrinsic Motivation‘ similarly used Schell’s talk as a springboard to wonder about external motivators; I ended up concluding that, within reason, they have their place in games (indeed, that they in the form of rules are part of what makes a game a game), and that some mechanics that seem on the surface like external motivators (e.g. achievements) don’t always function that way in practice. Chris Breault of Post-Hype dug into Schell’s talk in quite some detail in ‘The Future Is A Grind‘, laying out many negative aspects of the world presented therein and going so far as to say:

I doubt Schell himself likes these sorts of games… I dislike Lee Sheldon’s grading system as well.

Despite that, however, he comes back to a less negative view, if only because he doesn’t see the outcome as being so inevitable: he concludes by claiming that burnout, sensors, divergence, and greed may all work to save us from the worst aspects of that future  (a bit odd to see burnout and greed as saviours, but I’ll take it). In his Gamasutra article ‘Persuasive Games: Shell Games‘, Ian Bogost dives into the moral aspects of the world that Schell presents. He cautions against the use of external motivators even for good ends. Following up on Sirlin’s post above, Bogost says, “I’ll put it more strongly: when people act because incentives compel them toward particular choices, they cannot be said to be making choices at all.” Bogost concludes with the following warning:

Instead of revealing the processes that define values, schell games tend to hide them away, compacted into the ideologies of corporations and governments. In that regard, if Jesse Schell is right and such games are on the horizon, we ought to bear in mind a warning. When we ask the question what is worth doing through games, we’d better hope the operator is not a shill.

Reflections, Worries and Optimism

Jim Rossignol’s Rock Paper Shotgun post ‘Counting For Taste‘ takes a rather sad reflective tone; he talks about the transformations that games have had on people’s lives, linking them to Schell’s talk with his claim that

Those people who were scared by Schell’s vision of the future are the ones who have, like Smith in his Texan hometown, identified something magical and transformative about games – something which is present in other places too, like comics, or movies, or even drugs.

Rossignol acknowledges that Schell presents new potential possibilities for game design, but worries that “this absurdly addictive thread within games will end up polluting them.” Raph Koster’s post ‘Gameifying everything‘, one of the earliest responses to the talk (and apparently a second-hand report) talks about various potential worries that the talk might raise: who sets up the incentive structures, privacy issues, and the psychological hacks involved.  As he says, these are valid extrapolations and concerns; he sees them, however, as concerns that apply beyond games.

J. V. Toups of Dorophone begins his post ‘Farmville and the Face of Transdehumanism‘ with Orwellian comparisons, and says that, “It is no exaggeration to say that we have entire industries devoted to rational subversion of the human will.” (Incidentally, in his GDC microtalk, Schell addressed these Orwellian comparisons, his response was that the proper comparison was not George Orwell but Aldous Huxley, hardly a comforting thought!)  Toups continues with these comparisons, moving on to omnipresent surveillance and ending his description of futures hinted at by Schell’s talk with a statement that

such advancements are an assault on our ability to exercise our wills and and we should react accordingly. The alternative is to imagine a future where a cloud of media suffocates a human face, forever.

Jay Bachhuber of Wise Gaming begins by talking up some of the more positive aspects of the vision presented in the first part of Schell’s talk. As his title ‘More Ludic Century Nonsense‘ suggests, however, he is dubious about an overly revolutionary view of these developments. Like many other respondents, he ends with a warning of the dangers of external motivators, describing them as “games to make a monkey push a button to get a food pellet.” In contrast, “Games for learning induce reflection, metacognition, and a real understanding of systems and rule sets.” Bryan of The Pretentious Gamer talks in ‘Convergence; Social Media Games (Part 1)‘ about the different compulsion cycles in various gameplay models (Sims, MMO, RPGs), and the engagement / reward loops that occur in social media games.

Mitu Khandaker of Girl Gamers Suck is one of the few responders to use Schell’s talk as a springboard for a more positive vision of the future: in her post ‘Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games‘, she writes that “the premise of blending real-life and game mechanics is potentially very exciting”, detouring through controller technology innovations to design and expressive innovations, ending with the statement that:

We’re currently at the estuary; what awaits us is an exciting sea of possibilities.

And finally, my favorite response to Schell’s talk was Annie Wright and Kirk Hamilton’s discussion ‘Regarding Jesse Schell’s DICE Presentation‘ for Gamer Melodico.  It’s wonderfully far-ranging, dancing between the concrete and the abstract, working with Schell’s ideas while challenging him and seeing his talk as impetus for future speculations.  Their final paragraph is as good a summary as I’ve found of the challenges that Schell’s talk leaves us with, so I’ll close by quoting it:

And therein lies the incredible potential, entwined, as incredible potential so frequently is, with some equally incredible challenges.  To me, something about the gee-whiz blitheness with which Schell blasted this stuff out was disconcerting. Sure, the dreamers and the big-picture guys are the ones who can sell us the vision, and we’ve got the tech and the engineers to make that vision a reality. But it’s up to ALL of us to figure how to master it.

Help fly Ben to GDC!

November 23rd, 2009 | Posted by David Carlton in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Help fly Ben to GDC!)

Ben Abraham, the editor-in-chief of Critical Distance, has been prolific through the video game blogosphere for the last couple of years, through his individual work, his discussions in others’ blogs and fora, and his work here on Critical Distance highlighting others’ writings.  Because of this, his absence at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year was sorely felt: it’s the center of in-person discussion of the art of game design, and I’m quite sure that Ben would have dug up discussions and perspectives that I completely missed.

So Michael Abbott and I decided that we wanted to do something about this, and have drafted Ben to serve as a sort of roving correspondent at GDC.  Ben has graciously agreed; in a further happy coincidence, Gamasutra is kindly providing an all-access pass for Ben at GDC 2010 as part of the agreement that allows them to republish Ben’s This Week in Videogame Blogging posts.

That gets the single largest expense out of the way; there are others, however, most notably the plane flight from Australia to the United States.  Which is where you, Critical Distance’s readers, come in.  We need to raise $1100 dollars to pay for that plane flight; if you’ve gotten something out of Ben’s writings here or elsewhere, if you’re as curious as I am to see what he’ll produce after a trip to GDC, please chip in (perhaps the cost of the last video game you bought, but any amount is welcome) and help bring that about.

You can do that by clicking on the widget below.  It’s a bit flaky, so you may not see your contribution show up immediately; I assure you that all contributions are being recorded, and I’ll make sure to e-mail you to confirm your donation.

On behalf of the staff of Critical Distance, I thank you in advance for your support.


May 18th, 2009 | Posted by David Carlton in Critical Compilation: - (9 Comments)

Flower was released three months ago, and has spawned an amount of discussion that is quite disproportionate to the game’s brief length. Given all this, we thought that it was time for a Critical Compilation on the subject. If you’re aware of pieces that I missed, please link to them in the comments.

One of my favorite early reports on the game was Michael Abbott’s shout on The Brainy Gamer that “I LOVE THIS GAME. IT MAKES ME VERY HAPPY.”  He followed up with a somewhat longer musing on “[h]ow a video game can convey such emotions without words or a formal story”, and then dug into the details of how it works – the controls, the wind, the choice between structure and play, the pathfinding, its narrative, and its music – but his original unmediated response is one that many others share, and shows one of the defining characteristics of the game.

Another early experience report is Chris Suellentrop’s description of it in Slate as “the only video game I’ve played that made me feel relaxed, peaceful, and happy”, as the reason why he “decided to spend more than $400 for the privilege of playing a $10 game”.  We also get reports of gamer’s parents’ experiences with the game: Eric Swain of The Game Critique and Scott Juster of Experience Points both tell us of their fathers’ enjoyment of the game; the latter story ends on a sadder note, as Scott’s father can’t download it for his Wii. Both authors also return with more analytical takes: Eric Swain writes on Flower‘s User Experience design in Creative Fluff, while Scott Juster together with Jorge Albor in an Experience Points review of the game addressing its “comfortable, almost confident feeling”, its “sense of purpose”, its “exploratory learning”, wondering if “In the quest to find the Citizen Kane of video games, are we not in danger of ignoring the Fantasia of video games?”

Much of the discussion of Flower centered on what traditional game elements it omits.  Stephen Totilo reports in MTV Multiplayer on revelations by Jenova Chen at GDC that the team considered and discarded using timers, desert terrain, spells, and orbs; interestingly, they discarded these features not because players didn’t like them but because players reacted in a way that the team wasn’t looking for. Matthew of Magical Wasteland goes further in this direction, talking about what traditional game elements remain in Flower as well as its reception on both sides of the gamer/non-gamer divide.  Steven O’Dell of Raptured Reality probes our expectations more broadly, even considering our expectations of the objects we encounter in our everyday life.

Dan Kline of Game of Design discusses the fact that, in Flower, “[t]here is no way to say ‘I die’.”; Shane Hinton of First Wall Rebate also explores this theme, discussing the lack of failure as a mechanic in both Flower and in thatgamecompany’s previous title, flOw, while also pointing out the difference in accessibility between those two games and between Flower and Braid.  The First Wall Rebate team also produced a podcast episode devoted to Flower, with Shane being joined by Trevor Dodge and Shawn Rider.

Jebus of Noise Tanks also contrasts flOw with Flower; he takes particular note that narrative and a sense of accomplishment play more prominent roles in the later title.  Steve Gaynor of Fullbright digs into Flower’s mechanics, focusing on its “transmitting a concrete, sensational aesthetic”, on its “discoverable progression elements and intuitive controls”, and its “small scope, high fidelity”.  In a Gamasutra blog, Joseph Cassano also contemplates Flower’s successful use of the SIXAXIS motion controls, speculating on how it could be used in other games.

Many commenters were particularly moved to comment on the fifth and sixth levels of Flower, usually rendering a less-than-positive verdict. Bill Harris of Dubious Quality goes so far as to describe the fifth level as “a heaping bowl of I Don’t Give A Shit”; Randy Ma of GraduateSchoolGamer pens a “diatribe” where, among other things, he describes its ending as “a counter-thematic tone that completely subverts everything I have done before”.  And in Destructoid, Topher Cantler isn’t pleased by the bait-and-switch that “After spending several levels with a game that’s done everything in its power to lull me into a state of carefree relaxation, I’m now meant to wiggle between these hulking masses of twisted steel and cable to chase my flowers, and I can’t touch the sides?”

Justin Keverne of Groping the Elephant also “nearly stopped playing” upon reaching the fifth level; the game redeemed itself for him with its sixth level, leading him to conclude that playing Flower is “exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.”  I had my own say on those two levels at Malvasia Bianca; I began by finding them problematic, but ultimately ended up with a reading of the game in general and those levels in particular that I was much happier with.

Steve Amodio of 8-Bit Hacks wasn’t impressed by the “Operation-style penalties” of Flower‘s fifth level, either, but most of his post focuses on the game’s “sublime” music; he contrasts it to the music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, saying that “Where the majesty of space demands a Strauss waltz, the wind requires a Paganini caprice, and that’s what we get.”  Those with an interest in game music may also wish to read Jeriaska’s GameSetWatch interview with Vincent Diamante, the game’s composer; Diamante goes into details on the game’s instrumentation and layering.  The Flower team as a whole was quite generous with their availability and I particularly enjoyed Michael Abbott’s interview with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen on the Brainy Gamer Podcast and Gieson Cacho’s Mercury News interview with Jenova Chen.

In (mashedmarket), Matt Vernon classifies Flower as “‘lucid gaming’ – interactive experiences so unpolluted by reality they recall nothing save for the joys of tinkering and discovery.”  Daniel Johnson of Daniel Primed tells us “the part that everyone missed”, saying that it’s “this constant reliance on landscape (the game’s sole protagonist) that allows Flower to suck you into the narrative and atmosphere.” And Clive Thompson of Collision Detection classifies Flower as “the first game about global warming”, at times finding the game’s messaging a bit heavy-handed but on the whole feeling that “what’s most remarkable is that Flower manages to do this without being cloying and preachy.”

Simon Parkin of Chewing Pixels is impressed by its “vibrant cause and effect”, and by its successful contradictions: “It’s wonderfully abstract and yet wholly tactile at the same time. The strength of the game is in its wholesale embrace of its fragility: the confidence to be an art game without apology, the courage to be textless, the strength in focusing on a subject matter with such feminine overtones and association on a platform that has neither.”  He also notes that its divisiveness is assured, evidence of which we can see even within the writings of (what we assume to be a single voice) the pseudonymous Rachael Webster of PixelVixen707. Rachael begins by being rather surprised that Flower isn’t “corny as all damn”, that “it doesn’t seem that way in a game. The only way I can explain it is that the interactivity brings it closer to real life. After all, a flower isn’t corny until somebody takes a tacky photo of it. The flower itself did nothing wrong.”  On second thought, however, she turns to describing it as “hope in a pill”, saying that by the end, “Flower didn’t remind me of a ‘haiku’ or a dream so much as a commercial.”

On a meta-analytic level, Leigh Alexander lets it be known via a trio of  SexyVideogameLand posts that she’s less than impressed by the discussion of the game.  In her first post she says that “[Flower] does not create belief; instead, it asks us to suspend disbelief. It works not because it defies the traditional bounds of video games. It works because of how well it adheres to them.”  Her second post turns to the designers’ intension, claiming that “the deliberate intention of creating emotion is manipulative.”  And she ends with a lament on “Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game.”  Not everybody agreed with her criticism: Iroquois Pliskin of Versus CluClu Land doesn’t appreciate her “accusation of bad faith”, and also disagrees with the above quote on the manipulative nature of creating emotion.  Schlaghund of Schlaghund’s Playground also disagrees with that quote, and with Alexander’s claim that what Flower does has been “done to death”

To close, I leave you with a Mister Raroo Moment from Bill Sannwald to encapsulate one of the defining aspects of this brief but remarkable game:

The noise and congestion are stifling. Even in the sanctity of my own home, the grimy outside world creeps in. Suddenly, I’m away from it all. Not a soul is  in sight. A lone flower sits before me and soon a single petal flutters free. The petal and I fly forward through the valley, skimming across the blades of grass, grazing their tips as we wake up the rest of the flowers. More and more petals join the parade. In a cornucopia of colors, we zoom across the landscape and breathe new life into the world.