Month: June 2014

The Game of Defining RPGs

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome!

Dear Chris,

Lately I’ve been thinking about how video games are identified as RPGs by different people. I’ve concluded that the identification of RPG video games is a game in and of itself. For example, Craig Stern has a very interesting piece that shares a universal definition for “computer RPG.” As meticulous as Stern is in rejecting and revising various claims, the comment section shows that a definition of an RPG video game is never quite universal. The reason for this seemingly perpetual disagreement relates to your third rule in The Rules of Game Worlds: “No-one plays alone.” Indeed, our understanding of RPG video games are influenced by “design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community.” But “Is it an RPG?” is nowhere near as simple as “Is it a shooter?” The reality is that people will continue to debate RPG genre parameters in video games due to different sentimental experiences.

To borrow from your broad approach to prop theory, our sentimental experiences are props that we use to put games in various contexts, including genre parameters. The original Final Fantasy on the NES was a sentimental prop that I used for most of my life in regard to defining an “RPG video game.” For me, Final Fantasy was not merely a benchmark in terms of design quality for a particular type of game (the RPG); Final Fantasy told me what could be considered an RPG in the first place. There are two sentimental reasons that this was true. First, a close friend of mine introduced Final Fantasy to me as an RPG, and he was the only kid that I knew who played Final Fantasy or even used the term “RPG.” Second, Final Fantasy was unlike any other video game I had played. Because of these two facts, I would go on to dismiss the idea, for instance, that The Legend of Zelda could be considered an RPG. Although I played The Legend of Zelda before playing Final Fantasy, no one introduced the former to me as an RPG. The Legend of Zelda was simply something all NES kids played back in the day.

Other people use the original Final Fantasy as a prop in understanding what a video game must have to some degree in order to be called an RPG. Sentimental experiences with Final Fantasy might differ, but it is a common standard for defining an RPG video game. We definitely don’t play alone — especially not as RPG-defining folk. There are other RPG definers we must fight, such as the people who say The Legend of Zelda is an RPG (nevermind that these people more than likely recognize Final Fantasy as a legitimate RPG!). Typically, when we debate what is or isn’t an RPG, we come as sentimental outsiders. But really, all we’re doing is debating other people with sentimental props. We’re not that different.

The funny thing about this RPG-defining game is that many of the Final Fantasy vs. The Legend of Zelda gamers understand RPGs mostly within the context of video games. They arguably “know less about RPGs” than those who started with the original tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. If I understand prop theory correctly, D&D people might experience RPG video games much differently than me, as they bring their personal experiences from that historically important game into the equation. Perhaps a historical perspective might argue that they, having played the original tabletop RPG, should have the final word on what constitutes an RPG video game.

Nonetheless, I’ve written two pieces — one about Mainichi and one about Actual Sunlight — that argue for a new type of RPG: the “unsentimental RPG.” Notice that this term differs from terms like “action RPG” or “strategy RPG,” which emphasize mechanical differences in combat and linkages to broad genres. My goal with the “unsentimental RPG” term is to challenge the idea that an RPG, by definition, must lean on our sentimental understandings — our individual and community props. I see value in this argument: games like Mainichi and Actual Sunlight can inject new sociological meaning into “role playing.”

I think an easy way to understand the potential sociological value of “role playing” is to look at the example of John Howard Griffin, who wrote the groundbreaking Black Like Me. Griffin, a white journalist, artificially changed the pigmentation of his skin to pass as black, with the idea to see how his place in society would change. People, even those who knew him, treated Griffin differently when he looked like a black man. Black Like Me explored uncomfortable social realities, and Griffin didn’t merely undergo stress during his experience — the threats his family received after the book’s publication drove him to Mexico for safety. By daring to role-play (or role-take?) in real life, Griffin revealed and dealt with the consequences of social power.

A game like Mainichi or Actual Sunlight allows us to see social reality from another perspective without the danger of Griffin’s real-world journalism. But these games aren’t simply stories about differential power in the real world; they comment on the power structure of RPGs and how we define RPGs — a power structure that, if not oppressive, is limiting in its sentimentality.

Perhaps I am wrong to call Mainichi and Actual Sunlight RPGs. Perhaps they deserve a different term, but I am convinced they must be called something in regard to “roles,” because they’re precisely about the roles we play in defining reality, even on that less important scale of defining RPG video games. I also believe calling these games “interactive fiction” is a joke. “Interactive fiction” is already muddy enough when it comes to text-based games, so the term doesn’t clearly describe an avatar-based game that resembles Final Fantasy during a series of stop-and-chats in a town.

In an interview with First Person Scholar, you mention the importance of nurturing “pioneering spirits” in video games. This raises an important question: how does one trumpet “pioneering spirits” in RPGs without sounding like one is playing alone?

Sincerely,

Jed Pressgrove

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Replay Racer: The Joy of Child’s Play

by Jed Pressgrove

The racing game comes in multiple forms that can carry very different types of significance. Zolani Stewart draws the helpful distinction of racing games that focus on “stylizing and depicting the experience of driving” vs. racing games that emphasize “competitive systems.” Chris Johnson’s Replay Racer manages to do both of these things while evoking the simple times of childhood.

In depicting the experience of racing, Replay Racer doesn’t attempt to dazzle us with visuals. Stewart’s analysis of racing games discusses visual beauty in Wave Race 64, both in terms of camera pans and art design. In another recent article, Brandon Keogh describes how the latest Mario Kart has an unparalleled sense of place (within the franchise) with innumerable “little [visual] details.” Replay Racer clearly can’t compete with such visuals, but more importantly, Replay Racer has a different focus than presentation and place. Its clean, tiny look is reminiscent of a race car toy set that complements the game’s sensual, nostalgic anchor: the music.

With only a single music track, Replay Racer urges you to keep going. Composed by John Oestmann, the tune almost immediately makes Replay Racer into part of a fond memory, subliminally conveying the bliss of childhood. A sense of wonder and adventure allows the music to transcend what’s going on in the game, much like a child’s imagination that transcends the limitations of toys and environments. The neverending quality of Oestmann’s composition encourages you to continue what Stewart affectionately calls a “revolving cycle.”

Of course, the top-down perspective of Replay Racer makes for a different kind of revolving cycle than what you’ll find in Hang-On, Wave Race 64, and the Mario Kart series. Those latter games create more compelling settings, but the old-school perspective in Replay Racer is the best fit for Chris Johnson’s gameplay innovation. The competitive system of Replay Racer revolves around the idea of the time trial mode in Mario Kart: beating your best time on a given track, which can then be compared to other people’s best times. But unlike Mario Kart’s time trial, you’re not racing against the “ghost” of your best time on a track. Every lap you complete represents the pathway of a new physical threat for the next lap(s). By the sixth and final lap of a track, you are making your way around five cars that are taking the exact paths that you took in the previous five laps. The top-down perspective gives you better vision for the resulting bumper car dynamics, though “bumper car” isn’t quite accurate — you can’t alter the paths of the cars in your way. Essentially, you create a juggernaut with each lap.

You’re not just racing around these physical manifestations of your former laps, though. There’s also a timer involved, and the only way you can increase the seconds is by finishing a lap. Thus, getting the best time on a track in Replay Racer requires far more strategic thought than a run-of-the-mill time trial exercise. You have to complete each lap with the knowledge that your position during any part of a lap can slow you down on a subsequent lap and put you in danger of running out of time and having to start back at the first lap.

Of course, you could try to improvise every lap, but when your reflexes and intuition fail, you become at risk of running out of time. The game is challenging enough when you think ahead. Not only do you have to try to remember how you raced each lap, but you have to deal with the fact that the track width can barely contain five cars, much less the six cars during the final and most crucial lap. The lack of space might lead you to little shortcuts in the grass that can work in your favor. There are fewer things more satisfying in a race than being rewarded for going off the main track (I very fondly remember discovering shortcuts in the first Mario Kart). Although having a plan is important in Replay Racer, the improvisational moments within your plan exemplify what Stewart calls the “intense and intimate precision” that characterizes the joy of racing.

It’s important to recognize Replay Racer isn’t a gimmick. Chris Johnson has devised a fresh single-player race where every car is generated by you. This level of player control allows Replay Racer to be closer to the experience of playing with toy race cars. Sure, trying to beat all the top times on Game Jolt’s leaderboard is fun, but Replay Racer does more than scratch a competitive itch. It uplifts in a way that Nintendo’s well-milked Mario Kart franchise no longer can.

Female Protagonists: How An Indie Revolution May Never Happen

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: “AAA” is in quotation marks throughout this piece because of its presumption of high quality.

I have no great expectations for Ubisoft — or any other “AAA” company, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I want big-budget games to be good, especially the ones that I spend money on. But I have zero faith that a “AAA” game will inspire a revolution in regard to any worthwhile or interesting idea.

Anyone who keeps up with game writing knows that “AAA” female protagonists is a highly discussed topic. This discussion often comes in three forms:

1. Some people say a “AAA” game should have a female protagonist for purposes of representation and/or a new approach to a series. In response, some people say the company/developers/artists should have the freedom to do what they want with protagonists, while others dismiss the concern about female protagonists as something not worth thinking about, sometimes via insults and generally immature attitudes. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which was announced by Ubisoft at E3 (which has gone from a necessary informative event that excited me as a youngster to the most annoying game-related thing of the year that clogs up my Twitter feed, generally rendering any attempt to talk about games outside of a marketing context as futile, unwanted, and irrelevant). Even Time featured an article about the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

2. Some people say a “AAA” game needs to handle its female protagonist in a different way. In response, some people do the exact same thing I described above. Others argue that perhaps the female protagonist in question is a good thing. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Rise of the Tomb Raider — another E3 announcement. Leigh Alexander wrote the most interesting piece on this subject.

3. Some people point out a “AAA” game will or might feature a female protagonist. This discussion doesn’t typically result in as much heated debate. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is the Zelda Wii U game announced by Nintendo at E3.

At this point in the year, it’s fairly obvious that if you’re talking about female protagonists, you’re talking about “AAA” female protagonists. While I don’t begrudge people for having these discussions … OK, that’s dishonest. Frankly, the “AAA” focus is a disservice to any current discussion about female protagonists. At the same time, it’s not impossible to understand why these discussions occur. Ubisoft is the reigning king of moronic PR. Male protagonists do tend to dominate “AAA” games. Leigh Alexander makes several fair points about how male and female “AAA” heroes are treated. And even I, the guy who hates E3, am intrigued by the idea that the new Zelda could star, well, Zelda.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt an indie revolution in regard to female protagonists can occur if the misleading “AAA” bias continues. When the most reassuring article about female protagonists focuses on “AAA” games featured at E3, we have a problem. In a world where we can read about indie games more than ever, it seems counterintuitive to say indies don’t receive the credit they deserve, but it’s true. Braid, Journey, and company have accomplished virtually nothing for indie games from a critical standpoint. Sure, people write and read about indies a lot. Yet discussions overwhelmingly lean toward what’s happening in the “AAA” sphere. The discussion about female protagonists is prime evidence of this trend.

Nevermind the question of whether it’s even a good idea for an immoral game series like Grand Theft Auto to include female protagonists. How about the fact that indies are doing things with female protagonists that critics rarely reference? When Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out, many will discuss Lara Croft’s therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder, but will many bother to mention that The Cat Lady featured a female protagonist talking about her life and depression in therapy sessions? What if the new Zelda stars Zelda? Will anyone mention Shipwreck, the Zelda-inspired indie game starring a female protagonist? Indies even have trouble getting attention for doing completely different things with female protagonists. Last year, writers were happy to talk about Choice: Texas, a then-unreleased indie game about abortion featuring multiple female protagonists, when they could deem it a potentially controversial game. However, since going live on May 14, Choice: Texas can’t seem to get much attention from anyone. So much for controversy in regard to indie female protagonists, right?

Indeed, going by the current dialogue, readers will be lucky if they learn anything other than what big game companies announce, or fail to announce, at E3 in regard to female protagonists. The impression I get from many commentaries is that “AAA” games must function, at all costs, as the vanguard for female protagonists in gaming. Sounds like a nice prophecy to me: if “AAA” games do somehow spark a fantastic new trend in female protagonists, many can be happy that they, in a small way, contributed to the cause. An indie revolution is truly impossible when people look to the big studios for every answer to their critical concerns about female characters.

Inclusivity and Values in the Game Community

by Anthony Murray

The game community is working towards creating an environment that is open and respectful to everyone. However, rather than waiting for the fruits of diversity to sprout, we are breaking out the frozen dinners because we’re hungry now. The inclusivity rush has presented us with an interesting problem: where do we draw the line between our values and our inclusivity?

This question gnaws at the minds of game developers, journalists, gamers, and personalities concerned about appearances over understanding. Afraid to formulate an answer, they begin to form circles where inclusivity meets their values. While some circles are friendlier than others, a contradicting perspective could find a person bullied, shamed, and isolated by labels.

Recently Nintendo announced Tomodachi Life, a quirky life simulator parody, for the West. The game was attacked when it was found that it didn’t support same-sex marriage. Rather than digging further into the reasons why this decision was made, some members of the press had very strong opinions about the “beating, bigoted heart of Nintendo.” Despite evidence explaining why gay marriage wasn’t implemented as a feature and could not be changed so close to launch, the offended circles accused Nintendo and those who defended them of bigotry and shamed them. Interestingly enough, the person who wrote the most balanced piece about the situation, taking the time to find the truth over reacting blindly, was a gay married man — a person directly affected by the situation. Are our values about marriage more important than including people that have differing opinions about a company? Or is the line gay marriage in games?

Earlier this year when Bravely Default was announced for the West, we received news that some of the character outfits would be censored. Those that cried censorship were labeled pedophiles and perverts in comments. As far as some were concerned, those against censorship were just trying to find an excuse to justify wanting to see sexualized young women and didn’t matter. Are our values about how a person is represented in a medium more important than including those that may actually care about censorship in games? Or is the line sexualization in games?

Everyone has a line, and we have to admit to ourselves that our inclusivity is shaped by our values. These values drive how we think, act, and pick our social circles. When applied to art, music, writing, and content creation, these values color our content. This is why welcoming people from all walks of life into the industry is important; having a broader palette of perspectives means that we can paint more diverse experiences and look at things from more angles.

Does this mean that circles are bad? Absolutely not. It’s human to surround ourselves with people that we feel safe around. In fact, having small circles can help reduce the noise of having a ton of people share the same space and create an environment for more intimate discussion.

But being complacent in our circles and allowing one perspective to dominate without opposition is unhealthy. We have to understand what makes us uncomfortable, defensive, angry, and the reasons why. We have to accept that while we may not be able to tolerate everything, we can respect a person’s right to have an opinion or create content, and that maybe, just maybe, we prefer and esteem people who think like us and accept us for who we are. Civil conversations, not knee-jerk reactions based on subjective values, are the foundation for creating thriving, sustainable, and inclusive communities.

Does this mean that we have to accept bigots? Well, that depends on your interpretation of the word. A bigot isn’t someone who has a strong opinion you disagree with; a bigot is a person who refuses to consider other people’s opinions to the point of being completely unreasonable. We must understand this difference as a community. If a person isn’t willing to consider the possibility of another opinion, that person is not worth your time. Why would you waste your time trying to reason with someone who doesn’t want to listen?

Inclusivity is making a color wheel out of perspectives, not making everything muddy. Inclusivity is about building bridges between circles without the fear of being treated like you can’t belong. Inclusivity is a seed that needs patience, love, and care to thrive in an industry that’s still struggling with its identity. If our inclusivity is based on the values of people who would rather shame than consider opposing perspectives, how inclusive are we really? And are we letting people draw lines for us?

Anthony “Mister Armory” Murray is a game designer with a fascination for all things game development. His goal is to provide practical pieces of information to aspiring game developers and to lend a helping hand to those that he can as he moves through the industry. Follow him on Twitter (@misterarmory) and check out more of his writing on his personal website.

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Notes on Street Fighter II Turbo’s Violence

by Jed Pressgrove

These notes are based on the SNES version of Street Fighter II Turbo.

I think it’s reasonable to say that Street Fighter II Turbo has more powerful violence than Mortal Kombat II. Granted, this statement wouldn’t have made any sense two decades ago. Mortal Kombat II was a violent revelation in the early 1990s, especially on the SNES. The uncut Mortal Kombat II on SNES satisfied a bloodlust caused by the neutered SNES version of the original Mortal Kombat, which traded the arcade game’s blood for gray sweat. With the prospect of more fatalities and vibrant blood and gore in your home, Mortal Kombat II on the SNES was the baddest of the bad in 1994.

It’s hard for me to feel the same way about Mortal Kombat II in 2014. Since the early 1990s, we have seen countless games with blood and gore. At this point, Mortal Kombat II is just an old game with blood and gore. Its violence has lost meaning. However, I can’t say the same thing about Street Fighter II Turbo’s violence, which retains significant power for a few reasons:

1. The vomiting in Street Fighter II Turbo is relatively unexpected and disgusting.

Gory violence is a main attraction of the Mortal Kombat games. Any hit to the head in Mortal Kombat II causes blood to fly out. You can also expect blood to spew when sharp objects like Kung Lao’s hat are successfully used. Even the finishing moves have a predictability about them — “Finish Him!” is the game giving you permission to perform ultra violence.

In contrast, superior technique is the undisputed focus of Street Fighter II Turbo. That is, we typically don’t play Street Fighter II Turbo because we want to see vomit. Vomiting occurs semi-randomly during battle, which gives it a more surprising effect than Mortal Kombat II’s requisite gore. Sure, we know that a fierce attack, as opposed to a weak or medium attack, is required to cause vomiting in Street Fighter II Turbo, but a fierce attack doesn’t always result in vomiting, unlike the certainty of blood from a kick to the head in Mortal Kombat II.

I often forget about the vomiting in Street Fighter II Turbo. I will never forget about the prevalent and predictable blood in Mortal Kombat II. Part of this memorability goes beyond relative randomness/predictability. If Street Fighter II Turbo had been titled Vomit Fighter II Turbo, I wouldn’t be writing this. “Mortal Kombat” is a title that refuses to allow us to forget about the blood. Not only that, but Mortal Kombat was very influential in the increase of video game blood and gore; thus, Mortal Kombat II’s violence appears normal, even laughable, decades later. In a world where we often expect blood in games, semi-random vomiting during battle becomes a more powerful sign of violence.

2. The aftermath of violence is permanently emphasized in Street Fighter II Turbo.

Before you start a match in Street Fighter II Turbo, you see portraits of the two challengers facing off. After the match is over, you see these portraits again. The portrait of the winner is unchanged (and, of course, the trash talk beneath the portraits comes from the winner), while the portrait of the loser shows the effects of violence. Some of the loss portraits almost suggest death — for example, the life in Sagat’s one good eye appears to be gone.

The loss portraits in Street Fighter II Turbo have retained more power than Mortal Kombat fatalities. Unlike loss portraits, fatalities aren’t about the aftermath or consequences of violence; they simply play into the “We want blood!” motivation behind playing Mortal Kombat in the first place. As Ed Smith suggests, violence loses power when game design encourages killing. In this regard, the designers of Mortal Kombat II tried to satisfy the bloodlust of players by going well beyond the original Mortal Kombat, which only featured one fatality per character. Mortal Kombat II gives each character multiple fatalities, including silly Friendships and Babalities for further cheap entertainment. The problem is that you don’t even get to see these finishing moves if you can’t perform the right button presses. Mortal Kombat II’s insistence on input for fatalities points to another reason why Street Fighter II Turbo’s violence has stood the test of time better: regardless of how you finish off your opponents in Street Fighter II Turbo, you will always see the loss portraits after battle. The loss portraits carry a more certain and permanent sting.

Side note: Street Fighter III took loss portraits to a new disturbing level. Loss portraits in Street Fighter III expanded the focus to the characters’ entire bodies. This approach resulted in material that would receive harsh criticism if released today, such as Elena’s sexualized pose. Interestingly, while Chun-Li was the only Street Fighter II character who cried in her loss portrait, the Street Fighter III loss portraits featured both male and female characters crying, including Dudley, Ken, Necro, Elena, and Ibuki.

3. The Street Fighter series has cleaned itself up.

As new Mortal Kombat games try to top the gore of their predecessors, the Street Fighter series has gotten tamer. Zangief’s infamous biting hold, for example, has not made a comeback in the Street Fighter IV iterations, which have traded the vomiting, occasional blood, and loss portraits of its predecessors for a more exaggerated, cartoonish style of violence. As one watches Ultra Combos from their multiple camera angles in Street Fighter IV, one might find that Street Fighter now has more in common with Looney Tunes than it does with fighting games of the 1990s. If future Street Fighter games continue to refrain from blood and loss portraits, the understated but powerful violence in previous Street Fighters, including Street Fighter II Turbo, will carry more and more weight.