Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Witness comes out tomorrow

And I am getting flashbacks of trying to go to sleep the day before Christmas. I have been following the development of this game since I replayed Braid five years ago. There are reviews out now.  Most of them are seriously positive (though I have kept myself from reading more than the excerpts) and I’m just waiting to get my hands on it and finally get to experience this thing.

I have plans to write about the Witness, but I want to do it justice. I know I’m going to love the game, so anything I write will be useless as the usual sort of “Should I buy it?” criticism. So what I mean when I say I want to do the game justice is that I want to slow myself down. I want to write deliberately and focus on something special about the game.  I don’t want to shape anyone’s opinion, I don’t want to convince anyone of anything.  I just want to partake in the experience of the game, and document it. I will play and write and absorb and record.  Then, with a collection of my initial thoughts, criticisms, and struggles, I will work slowly and seriously towards a more thoughtful type of ‘review.’

And perhaps review is the wrong word again. I want to present my interpretation of the game. Of its explicit narrative and of its implied message. So from now until this thing comes out, this stupid little time-waste of a blog will be my repository for all things the Witness-related.  Hopefully I’ll come up with something to feel proud about.

More sometime this week.


follow n8 @UncleEggma


N8 D-B8: Emily is Away and “Volitional Fiction”

So last week I said I was going to play more Ludum Dare 34 jam games… But I’m suuuper burnt out on those liddle diddies, so I’ll come back to them at some distant point in the far post-The Witness future.  Instead, this week marks the first meeting of this little discussion group I’m trying to start. The idea is to come together in classic book club format to chat about ‘games that matter.’  Check out the subreddit here if you’re interested in having some meaningful conversation about some meaningful games!  For our first discussion, we talked about Emily is Away – a short narrative-based game by @KyleSeeley23.


But rather than talking solely about the game as I normally do, I wanted to turn my focus to an article by Casey Muratori I recently happened upon. In his article, aptly titled Volitional Fiction, he focuses on two terms that are necessary to “…make a game feel like you’re actually playing it, not watching it.” Intention, to Muratori, is exactly what you’re familiar with. In the frame of video games, it is the ability for the player to make a plan or construct a goal, and then take actions in concordance with the known rules of the game universe to attempt to see it through. Perceived consequence, is the reaction the game has to the player’s action. In a very basic sense, I intend to do something in a game knowing the rules it’s presented to me so far (the goomba killed me last time, this time I’ll jump on it) then, after I take action, the game reacts and creates a feeling of push-and-pull (the goomba gets squished.) This push-pull is essentially what Muratori means by ‘play.’ The game throws some shit at me and I react to that shit. Then, if it’s a good game by his standards, I get some feedback, which then informs my future intentions. He says, “The cycle leads to a satisfying feeling of real interaction where the player chooses both what to do and how to do it, and the reaction of the game to their actions doesn’t feel arbitrary.”

This should all seem pretty straight-forward and agreeable. A game feels good and legitimate if the game’s reactions to my input make sense in the simulated world that has presented to me. Quite easily, you can see why this understanding of what makes a ‘good game’ will lead to the conclusion that there is something ‘wrong with current interactive fiction games.’ Going by the standards of intention and perceived consequence, there’s something wrong with games like Dear Esther, The Beginner’s Guide, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by default. In this type of game, there’s no ‘intention’ and no ‘consequence.’ You just walk around and experience things. How can a Good Game™ possibly ignore these fundamental design paradigms??


So let me wrap this back around to Emily is Away. You take on the role of a teenager at the end of his last year of high school. The entire game is constructed in a simulated AIM window in which you have instant message conversations with your long-time friend Emily. One of the first choices you make is to either go to a party or stay at home. So putting it in our earlier terms, let’s say my intention is to get Emily to fall in love with me. (The game rings loudly with the tone of dating sims, so this is not an unrealistic goal.) So I think, “well if I don’t go to the party, maybe she’ll wish I was there and we’ll have more of a chance later on.” So I choose not go to the party and she winds up dating this other guy and life goes on until later Emily tells me that if I had gone to the party, she would have taken off with me on a romantic escapade. So my action resulted in a consequence that I did not expect, which is fine. That happens. The game world is teaching me its consequences. I simply restart the game and choose to go to the party with her, that way I’ll get my intended result! But that’s not what happens. She just winds up with a different guy. This throws dirt in the face of the ‘perceived consequences’ the game had previously established. Mr. Muratori would hate Emily is Away.


And it’s not just because the game’s internal logic appears inconsistent that this game would rub him so wrongly. It’s because there’s something inherently non-volitional about narrative-driven games as we currently know them. He says, “These choices are merely single, scripted instances in time, presented to the player without their initiation — the player never makes a plan or decides what to do. They have a situation thrust upon them and are asked to decide which to do.” You can either go to the party or not. You can either invite Emily over to your dorm or not. You can decide between fork A and fork B, but the result is rarely what you intended. Indeed, I am unable to disagree with Muratori here. Fiction by default is NOT push-and-pull in the gamey sense that he’s so invested in. And interactive fiction merely gives the illusion of that push-and-pull. It presents a range of options from which the player can choose (but never bypass) and then sends them down a scripted, static road based on that choice. There is no emergence, no dynamism, no give-and-take. A narrative-based game like Emily is Away can’t be a good game without those integral elements of complex interaction.

What a load of bullll shit.

Again, imagine my intention is to get Emily to fall in love with me.  I therefore interact with the few choices I have based on the world the game has presented me. But I still find that nothing seems to work in respect to achieving my desired outcome. I could go on a tirade and start complaining about true choice and volition in interactive fiction. I could criticize these narrative-driven games because they don’t allow the player to truly assume the role of the main character and don’t actually allow me to make real decisions about what and how I want to do things. But why? Why does the player deserve that much power? Since when has that been how stories (or even most video games) work? Are we supposed to feel so in control when we play through a work of narrative? Is the goal of fiction to give us the impression that it is truly us in the role of the main character? Or is it to communicate something important, to give us a slice out of someone else’s biography, to remind us that it is not just us here with these memories and emotions and experiences? Interactive fiction gives us the ability to assume the role of another, from the intimate first person.  That does not mean all narrative fiction ought to be about ME and MY volition. I don’t want the future of interactive narrative to be more like Façade.

facade screencap

Emily is Away succeeds as a narrative-driven game because it allows us to explore a relationship in a way that a classical piece of fiction AND a classical volition-heavy game would not be able. It doesn’t use groundbreaking technology to give us the ability to interact at any moment or in any way in order to achieve our intended outcome. It gives us a severely limited range of choices followed by a highly constrained set of responses. But how is that so different from real life? When you were talking to your crush on AIM way back when, did you really have the option to say anything you wanted? Were you really able to bypass the boundaries of social conventions, ignore all historical and personal context, and just tell that person you loved them? And if you were able to do all that, were you ever really able to choose otherwise? All this determinism junk aside, Emily is Away presents a look at how a real relationship works. You don’t actually plan out your every action based on what your goal is. Most of the time the ‘perceived consequence’ is vastly different from the actual consequence. The world is messy and relationships are messy and Emily is Away doesn’t need to give the player more volition just to appease control freaks. The game is short, sweet, and a solid slice of life.

follow n8 @UncleEggma

Tagged , , , , ,

N8 R8S 8: Ludum Dare 34 Part 3

Just as the last 2 times, N8 is R8ing a wonderful bunch of Ludum Dare games – this time picked more or less at random.  Even though the jam is officially over and the votes have all been cast, I’m still digging through the hundreds and hundreds of games that have been released.  Next week I will be playing the top 8 games from the jam and the compo, so look out for that!

1/8. Lawn Mower Fight – You’re a lawnmower (the machine, not the person) and you gotta mow more grass, hay, and ascii characters than all the other little lawnmowers. There are powerups that make you mow better. The three levels are all easy. It’s a neat game! It’s got an explosion sound! Definitely a mark of progress for a developing developer!


2/8. Golden Rush – You take control of a golden fish and swim around a small, linear passageway. The fish is animated so fluidly, kind of like a straight up 4 real fish. Seriously looks good. The movement (which is really all there is to this little experiment) is smooth and feels really nice. I would love to play a version of this when it’s actually a fleshed-out game. But since there are other games in this jam that are just plainly more ‘game-y,’ I don’t have more to say.


3/8. Agropolis – A click-and-drag growth game with very little to it in turns of objective. You grow your plant-like structure higher and wider as you get new types of blocks that have different growth patterns. A peaceful game, which would be far more interesting with some type of basic objective. All-in-all, though – it’s a little lacking compared to some of the other games in this selection.


4/8. Milgram – A pretty silly little story game where you have to follow instructions by pressing two buttons (cute lil’ rip on the jam theme there.) There are three endings to discover and they’re all pretty obvious and I’m not really sure what the point is in terms of morality or meaning, but I like games like this, even when they’re this basic. The voice acting is kinda bad, but hey. And I was worried it was just a corny rip on the Stanley Parable, but it gets a pass cuz of memes. Just what the world needs more of.


5/8. Kubble – A turn based puzzle-platformer (though platformer isn’t really the right word) with a pretty snazzy synthy background track. I found this short game pretty difficult at times, but when it wasn’t difficult, it was realllly easy. So it was in this weird spot of being hard for the wrong reasons and easy in a way that wasn’t really fun. Twice, I won a level without really understanding how or why. I really like the turn based concept, and though the game was pretty cool, there wasn’t much more to it after level 2.


6/8. Personal Valley – One of the cool things about playing all these jam games is that you get to see all the talent that is out there. A game consists of so many moving parts – the sound, the music, the static graphics, the animations, the gameplay, the story. All of these little pieces combine into something that can be tremendously beautiful. And even though that’s not quite what I’d call this little game, it is the game that made me think about it. This game is such a little slice of fantasy with the ambient music and gentle pixelated graphics. Even though there isn’t much to it in terms of gameplay (I played the pre-finished version), it does bring you a feeling of having your own little ‘personal valley’ to spend some time in.


7/8. Drought – Peaceful little puzzle game with some wonderful atmospheric music that reminded me a good deal of the music from English Country Tune. The game consists of tile placement. You place water, dirt, grass, and seeds which grow into trees with fruit. It’s not at all complicated or difficult. Honestly speaking, I was having a stressful day when I tried out Drought, and though I didn’t find the gameplay intensely exciting or even very compelling, it relaxed me and brought my mood up in a way that kind of surprised me. It’s cool how something so plainly nice can come out of a game jam.


8/8. Orb Lords – A two-button pinball game in which the only way is up. Hitting left shift and right shift will flick flippers as you’d expect, but doing so has the interesting side effect of turning on/off orange and blue coins, boosters, and warp pads. The game is over when you reach the top of the board, and the objective is to either do this as quickly as possible or pick up as many coins as possible on your way up. Easy to get into and challenging to do well – just as pinball has always been. Though it did get a little janky with the ball physics at a time or two, Orb Lords is good shit for a jam game and definitely worth the play.


I’ve got nothing else this week except to say that I’m also hosting a discussion group for ‘thoughtful’ games that will be taking off this week.  The idea is to play a game once every 2 – 4 weeks and discuss, criticize, and understand it better as a form of art – kind of like a book club might.  We’ve got a (quite barren atm) subreddit set up for this and we’re looking forward to finding out how this goes!

follow n8 @UncleEggma

Tagged , ,