Enthusiasts of the construction and craft of games perennially seem to be stuck between celebrating the successes of titles that are popular and powerful commercial mass-market experiences and the tension that really only the “indie” microcosm has any sort of interactive simulation that carries any actual meaning that is transferable to the lives of the player. As far as I can tell, this happens for two reasons. The first is media envy. Some game makers want their works to be seen as capital I important and the media that does that well: books, cinema, songwriting, etc., seem to do that by actually being about something and trying to better the consumer’s life in some minute way. The second reason that we crave titles with meaning is the same reason we crave meaning from those other aforementioned media: it makes our lives better, deeper, and more fulfilled.
Of course, the discussion of how and why we derive pleasure and meaning from media is complicated and beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here. My point in bringing it up is to frame that we seem to take a barbell approach to games: either our successful games are completely nihilistic (Halo, League of Legends, God of War) or they are highly directed to be about a message (Papers Please, Gone Home, Depression Quest). The middle ground provides difficult territory and seems to create dissonance such as the hamfisted shoehorning of charged imagery into Bioshock Infinite or the middle-school doodling of Metal Gear Solid 4. We seem to react strongly not to a message or the lack of one, but to the expectations of message. In the case of where the mechanics suggest a message while the narrative suggests a different message, Clint Hocking called this ludonarrative dissonance. I think there is something to be said about another type of dissonance, where the mechanics create a type of message that is dissonant with expectations. Sometimes messing with expectations can be good (see The Stanley Parable or to a lesser extent Train, or even the recent comedy movie The World’s End), but often the practice just feels incomplete or incorrect.
7 Grand Steps, Step One: What Ancients Begat is a little independent game with an insufferably long title (so I will henceforth call it 7GS) that I picked up recently on Steam. It was nominated for an award at a recent Indiecade, but I had not known it made the trip to Steam until it popped up on a flash sale. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a Euro-style board game. I’m quite fond of Euro-style board games. They tend to have a depth and thoughtfulness to systems that I find fulfilling to play. 7GS even has a passing resemblance to the Euro game T’Zolkin as they both feature large moving wheels.
In 7GS, you play a lineage of ancient individuals who are attempting to better themselves generation after generation. They do this by cultivating tokens that represent resources and spending them to move their pawns away from the ever encroaching crocodiles. Tokens are mainly cultivated by having sex (complete with inappropriate tribal rhythm sound effects) with either your married partner or other AI players that are represented by creepy silhouettes. Eventually, you will “begat” a child or half-dozen. The children then have to be “fed” tokens which will increase their understanding of the various resources so that when they come of age that they can, in turn, earn more tokens. Additionally, you must attempt to land on beads that are strewn about the game board in order to make discoveries that either change the resources on the board or upgrade your family to a higher social class on the wheel. At a high enough level, you will play an unrelated Lemonade Stand game that manages the resources of your people.
The dynamics that this system creates leave a lot of odd messages to be absorbed by the player. First, additional children beyond the eldest are at best unnecessary. Sometimes kids happen (because whoops), but there is no mechanical reason to ever feed them tokens. You will only carry one child into the next generation, so it makes sense to only use your resources on the eldest as they will have the most time to develop skills. There will be messages generated about so-and-so’s jealousy, but nothing ever seems to become of it. There is no penalty for having a massive family because you never have to actually spend resources on them. Spend resources on advancing yourself or preparing your eldest kid. So have a bunch of kids or not. Who cares? They don’t matter. Is that the intended message?
Second is the meaninglessness of the tiers. I spent a few hours and a few generations climbing up from digging in the muck to leading a civilization. Yet the only benefit I seemed to have gained from doing so is additional work in the form of the civilization management slider game. One can yield bonus tokens by being a corrupt leader, but the game’s messaging seems to suggest not doing so as yields lower with higher corruption levels. It’s the one actual tradeoff that was evident in the game, yet it carried no weight as the point of being an excellent civic leader was unclear. It suggested that the right path was to do whatever the hell you wanted as leader because you will outlive any repercussions. Is that the intended message?
Finally was the message of mechanical toil. After leveling up out of the Copper age, I entered the Bronze age which seemed to great me with different icons, yet the same grinding tasks. What is the benefit of spending all of your hero points to escape an age? I don’t know. There are hints to a problem of an age, yet I played for a few hours without seeing any payoff. It seems like all the work in the game is pointless. Is that the intended message?
This brings me back to my original comment on dissonance. What bugs me is that I think this game has a lot of potential. Choosing which tokens to spend to move your pawns into appropriate positions is a fun subgoal. It’s a “core loop” that works very well (to use the industry parlance) surrounded by systems that both fail to provide meaningful ludic consequence and simultaneously provide odd semiotic impact. The idea of crafting generations towards one overarching goal has loads of promise (see also Rogue Legacy, Hero Generations) as it hasn’t been popularized in this sort of odd board game/RPG hybrid.
Part of what is attractive about board games is the abstraction of decision-making into incredibly discrete moments and resources. By focusing on just the interactions of systems with decision makers, board games have the opportunity to craft very salient moments of meaningful decision-making whereas continuous simulations like many real-time video games hide their meaningful moments in loops of dominated or rote task completion. There is room for digital games that create the same density of meaning as the best board games. And often they look like board games. An example that comes to mind is Introversion’s Defcon. But when the decision making is trite, dominated, or is filled with odd connotation, it seems to this player like a wholly missed opportunity. If 7GS wants to be a Euro-style board game, it needs to have more interesting and impactful decision-making. If 7GS wants to be a game about life in ancient times, the mechanics need to have relevance to that theme.
7GS is interesting and worth playing, but the next six steps need to support more weight.
2013 was a light year for reading mostly because of graduate school and busy life things. I’ve moved most of my logging to GoodReads. Anyway,
2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles, 10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008: 31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (471)
As you can see from the rest of this list, this was a year of reading through Banks’ Culture novels. This one was far and away my least favorite. Any explanation of why would spoil the plot.
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (272)
I’m honestly a bit surprised that this got nominated for the British Fantasy Award. Really the only thing I could really get into was the New Weird elements. The plot, the dialogue, and the world was mostly forgettable. In my Kindle version, there were a number of odd usage and spelling mistakes. Some of them could have been on purpose as stylistic flourishes, but it just happened too much to think it was on purpose. For instance, Hellequin magnified 1000°? Did she mean 1000x? Is that a Britishism I’m unfamiliar with? And the name Hellequin is just cringeworthy when they do a flashback and you realize that is his given name and not a circus pseudonym. The last 20% of the Kindle Edition is a novelette about one of the extremely minor characters. Pass.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (499)
Really not as bad as everyone says it is. Is this one of those too-cool-for-school things to hate on? I found it enjoyable, if a bit uncomfortable at times.
The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin (400)
I struggled through this. It has the ambiguous political noodling that is characteristic of the sci-fi of the period, but I found the characters so woefully boring that it made it difficult to continue. An interesting book overall, but I bet if you ask me in a year, I will have trouble remembering anything about it. Lathe of Heaven was much better.
Excession by Iain M. Banks (499)
This was kind of inversion of the normal Banks flow for me. I was really engaged with the plot and characters for the first two-thirds and it kind of fizzled out at the end. I really like the idea of the “Outside Context Problem” as its a helpful label for a sci-fi trope yet still has enough potential to be worthwhile as long as it isn’t hand-wavy away. Isn’t it a good explanation for what happens in the Hyperion series eventually? And again, Banks has the best ship names in the genre.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (256)
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov (450)
Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (528)
The first three books here are excellent, absolute classics of Sci-Fi and still hold up well today. The final two here were written decades later and are frustratingly bad. The finale is extremely unsatisfying because it really has next to nothing to do with what made Foundation interesting (the Seldon Plan) and is terribly formulaic. Asimov is unfortunately a one-trick pony by the end. There is always another layer higher controlling the characters behind the scenes. The Foundation controls the Galaxy. The Second Foundation controls the Foundation. To avoid spoilers, there are at least two more levels of hand-wavy control. It takes away all agency from the bleak characters. He even explains away the main character’s stupid Zapp Branigan-esque tendency to sex his way out of any situation that involves a woman. Major plot points are just assumed to be true and never tested. Dumb dumb dumb and detracts from the brilliance of the first three.
The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper (315)
Some sci-fi tries to tackle political or social issues to the detriment of the story. In some it fits so naturally that, if you are willing, you can ignore the allegory because the story works so well. This is the latter. Tepper is becoming one of my favorite authors. While the characters play into their stereotypes a little too well, there is a plot reason for it which is revealed at just the right time. I very much enjoyed it.
His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem (199)
I had a bit of a double-take when Goodreads said this was only 199 pages. It is so incredibly dense with philosophical asides that I could have sworn it was twice the length. Lem packs so much into every paragraph and here especially spends such little time on dialogue and set pieces. This is the prototypical science fiction book about Ideas. Man stumbles upon what may or may not be a message from the stars and the government sequesters Top Men in an abandoned nuclear testing facility (I know, right?) to try and “decode” it. I found the musings on language to make much more sense here than in Babel-17. While I can see how many could find this dull and plot-less, I thought it was charming and thought-provoking. The aside about halfway through where the scientist lambastes the uselessness of science fiction earned him many points with this reader. This book could never, ever be successfully converted to television or film.
Inversions by Iain M. Banks (343)
An odd change in genre for the Culture series. Lots of nods to Game of Thrones here, but it’s a great Culture story by the end. Unlike the previous one in the series, this one has actually good characters with meaningful personality traits.
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross (335)
I was of mixed feelings about this book. It turned me off early by deciding to sound genuine about game designers and totally flubbing it (There aren’t lectures at E3 and no one says “Electronic Entertainment Expo”, they say “E3″.) And the game design ideas were things I’d lecture my students on as naive. But anytime a writer is writing for a job outside his element, he risks making those mistakes so I can forgive it for a good story. Unfortunately Mr. Peanut jumps all around and is largely concerned with casting women as inscrutable irrational creatures so fragile that they are willing to starve themselves to death just for attention. It was a little (a lot) tasteless. The middle third of the book changes perspective to a fictionalization of the Sam Sheppard case which is essentially irrelevant to the main plot with the exception of a few Twin Peaks-esque hints. Pass.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (288)
It’s amazing how easily I can be distracted by poorly-designed games in fiction – quidditch comes to mind. This novel really nailed the mindset of strategic play and how it affects a person’s workaday decision-making. And it’s a good sci-fi yarn.
Raising the Stones by Sheri Tepper (480)
Pretty much everything I look for in SF/F. The plot was lively and kept me interested. The characters were multi-dimensional. The sci-fi ideas made sense and served the story, the Big Ideas were meaningful and dealt with some relevant philosophical questions and there were just enough oddball things (like the Porsa) that the story will stick with me.
However, I can see this one being not for everyone. There are almost as many characters as Game of Thrones and it doesn’t seem like their stories will tie together…until they do. It also might be a little too magical for what starts off seeming pretty low fantasy.
Sideshow by Sheri Tepper (496)
While “Raising the Stones” was the best of the trilogy, I still enjoyed this quite a bit. Tepper reuses some of her plot points and can at times be a bit hand-wavy, but the societies she creates are just compelling. Unlike the first two, which were largely independent, you do need some knowledge of the events of those stories before jumping into this even though it is set centuries later.
State of the Art (199) by Iain M. Banks
I don’t think Banks works so well in the short form. His plots come off as pointless at this length instead of suggestive of a larger whole. I think he needs the length to make an attractive world for his ideas to sit and he just doesn’t get enough time here. The titular story left me feeling “so what”.
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (411)
I really struggled through the first half of this, almost giving up and putting it away. It all seemed so deliberately vague and pointless. Luckily the last 10% of the book pulls things together in such a compelling way that I went back and paged through a bunch of earlier passages just to pick up on the clues. It’s rare that a book starts slow and ends strong for me; usually it is the converse.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (359)
While reading it, I thought it was fairly mediocre global warming sf with awful dialogue and characters. But after putting it down for a few weeks, some of the ideas keep creeping back to me. The yellow cards, the “calorie men”, the kink-spring batteries. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here even if the novel itself isn’t that satisfactory.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer (1152)
I saw this massive anthology sitting on the “new” shelf at Barnes & Noble early in the year. Flipping through, it had so many of my favorite stories and a whole bunch I’d never heard of. Having earned my trust with previous Vandermeer anthologies, I bided my time for a Kindle version to come out as holding an almost 1200 page book night after night would be less than optimal, especially with the Bible-thin pages. It’s formatted perfectly, unlike some other e-anthologies I’ve tried, with a nice blurb about the author prefacing each entry. The anthology is organized chronologically, so you can really get the ebb and flow of influences over time (ghost stories, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc.) Every anthology must be missing something for readers to complain about. I found it odd the lack of Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick. But it is hard to complain about an anthology that has pretty much a who’s who of speculative fiction in it: Oates, King, Mieville, Gaiman, Barker, Butler, Kafka, Borges, Jackson, Chabon,. It even had a out-of-sorts SF story from George R.R. Martin that I kind of dug. I was turned on to numerous new writers as well. Highest recommendation.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (256)
Hauntingly beautiful and a bit frightening. Painfully thick with metaphor, but nonetheless compelling and natural.
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright (430)
A page-turner. Wright paints an extremely vivid picture of the “prison of belief” from Scientology’s beginning to where it is today. He makes it quite clear (heh) how people are able to be sucked in and how innocent spiritually inquisitive people can be taken advantage of by a system that gets progressively more troublesome the higher you go. From the sad paranoid schizophrenia of the founder, to the sadism and terrorism of its current leader, the book’s characters and anecdotes get stranger and stranger. Where does the science fiction stop and reality begin? So many pains are made to attribute every claim made that the final third of the book is footnotes. Fantastic read.
How Do You Kill 11 Million People by Andy Andrews (83)
It’s shameful that they are charging for this. It’s a cliche-themed blog post with an interview with the author about how transformational it is. Let me save you the 30-minutes it takes to read this: politicians lie and “good” people do nothing. Well, no crap.
Quiet by Susan Cain (333)
Really interesting. It seems like a lot of the odd things that I thought were just personality quirks turn out to be fairly universally well-explained by the introversion-extroversion continuum.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (275)
I felt an overwhelming sense while reading this that the author hadn’t really set out to make any particular observations. You just join him in his stream of consciousness about the subject. Anecdotes are great (and there are some ones in here that pack a real punch), but they are best to support a thesis. You can’t just eat a bowl of sprinkles.
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (544)
A nice review if you already know about Bayes and modeling, but mostly some good pop-anecdotes to review when someone quotes some junk prediction from the news as fact.
Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham (180)
I became a teacher with almost no formal training about how people learn. So when I saw this, while it is “popularized” science, I felt I could at least glean some useful takeaways. The book exceeded my expectations and should be required reading for those who want to teach, not just formally but informally as well. The book debunks popular teaching standards like “teaching modalities” and at least gives me something better to hang my hat on than my kneejerk reactions “teach kids biology by making hand puppets because some are tactile learners” hokum. Besides debunking the silly, there are a ton of great little conclusions that have practical application for teachers of all trades, even game designers.
“Listen and Repeat” by Rachel Knoll is an installation of a megaphone in an empty forest in Washington State that repeats tweets that contain the phrase “nobody listens”. Yes.
I’ve written before about how my game design career was kicked off by ZZT, a low-fi game making utility that was Epic’s first ever release. Anna Anthropy is writing a book about ZZT, and I’m intensely excited and a bit jealous because I didn’t think to do it first.
I was having my weekly existential crisis about teaching when I started thinking again about how I learned to program using ZZT when I was 11 or 12. For nostalgia’s sake, I started digging around for my ZZT floppies (I didn’t realize at the time that my current PC literally doesn’t have a floppy drive, but that is irrelevant to the story). I realized that I had floppies of my games and some games I got off of the AOL message boards of the day, but I never actually bought a copy of ZZT. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a disk of ZZT to frame and put in my office among my other gaming tchotchkes?
So off to eBay I went. Surely there was a market for old shareware floppies, I figured. Actually, it turns out that there was just one shady guy selling a CDR of a bunch of old shareware titles. And there are a lot of hits for ZZT that relate to some part of an old Toyota Celica. That would have been the end of it as it usually is for my fits of nostalgia if I didn’t have a crazy idea: what if I just Googled “zzt order form” and found the shareware catalog order form that came with all the Epic games back in the day and placed an order? The worst that could happen is someone could steal my check for a few bucks.
So I did.
Today I received something in the mail from “Epic Classics” in Maryland:
He sent back my check along with the order form, which was unnecessary. I was willing to pay for it, at least for the labor of digging it out of a box somewhere and mailing it.
But I think the best part is on the back of the order form:
Some subconscious neurons fired after I received this and all of a sudden I remembered reading this article on Gamasutra over four years ago where Tim Sweeney mentions that his dad is retired and still ships out copies from the house where Tim grew up and where he started Epic. I guess that was true until a few days ago when I was sent the last floppy of ZZT Epic will ever send out. It’s exciting for me, but a bit of a bummer for anyone else who used ZZT to learn about games “back in the day” and would want some physical token of those times.
Isn’t it awesome that his dad kept up fulfilling orders for so long? It’s so anachronistic these days to personally ship a game to someone. Indies almost exclusively digitally distribute and the only ones pressing discs are large corporations where the purpose of its physicality is to attract eyeballs on a shelf in a store, not because of any distribution limitations. There’s no love in the physical object anymore. Every once in a while you will see a Kickstarter that includes a physical artifact which is a reflection of the love of an individual or a small group of individuals for their work. But it just doesn’t happen often. It’s nice to see here, even if it is for the last time.
So thanks to Paul Sweeney and Tim Sweeney. You are both cool folks.
Project Horseshoe is a conference of sorts that happens every November somewhere outside San Antonio, Texas. This year, it was held in rural, scenic Comfort, Texas at the Meyer Bed & Breakfast. Limited to around fifty participants, it is able to accomplish something that I find unique and valuable and which differentiates itself from any other activity of its kind available: you are able to establish deep, personal connections with incredibly smart and talented people without the baggage of split schedules and corporate responsibility that you find at other conferences.
Noah Falstein introduced me to the term “charrette”, which is the perfect explanation of what Project Horseshoe really is. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Charrette”. Its definition is “an intense period of design or planning activity”. Horseshoe is centered around the concept of a “workgroup” in which a spontaneously formed group of folks gets together to address a problem which they define pertaining to games and society over the weekend. The tagline of the conference is “Solving Game Design’s Toughest Problems”, but I think that is an oversimplification. It’s more accurate to say “Identifying Game Design’s Toughest Problems and Taking Wild Stabs at Them” but that doesn’t have nearly the panache. It’s a ludicrously intense period of philosophic debate punctuated by silly activities and board gaming.
It’s not for everyone. I tell people that there are two types of Horseshoe attendees. Those who go one year and decide it is not worth their time and money and lifers. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. When I see people who haven’t gone to Horseshoe criticize it online, it usually goes something along the lines of “it’s not practical… you don’t actually solve anything… it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.” I think all of those are fair criticisms. But they miss the point. The point of Horseshoe is not a game jammed version of scholarly research. The papers that come out of the conference are really just meeting notes and should largely be taken as such. The point of Horseshoe is the pride and excitement of doing impractical work and the harmony produced by people who drop their egos and come together to share in their own personal experiences with the subject matter that contributes to who they are. If you want to stand up in front of people and lecture about how right and awesome you are, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to sit back and just absorb the lectures of others, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to participate, challenge, be humbled, be inspired, and play, then Horseshoe sounds like it could be up your alley.
This was my fourth year at Horseshoe and despite many opportunities, my first chance of working with two of my favorite Horseshoers: Stephane Bura and Jason Vandenberghe. Our topic was about taking Jason’s wonderful Five Domains of Play talk which has great explanatory power over why we play what we play and extend that to the possibilities of why we continue to play what we play and why we quit. Three of us read psychology journal articles for fun so it was a perfect topic to latch onto and relate popular theories to possible explanatory behavior without the slightest shred of physical evidence. Nonetheless, we did a great job and I’m particularly proud of the model we are proposing. I also got the chance to work with some other great folks and between the seven of us, we had diverse enough backgrounds and experiences to challenge each other in creative and clever ways. The workgroup’s report will be up on the Horseshoe website by the end of the year.
Honestly, I don’t go to Horseshoe for the workgroups though. I go because it’s the highest signal-to-noise of any event I’ve ever been to. I get to have real conversations with some of the smartest people in the industry without having to schedule time with them or do the awkward business card dance. People who worked on Drop7, Triple Town, Artemis, Deus Ex, Words with Friends, and Everquest Next. People who worked at Riot, Telltale, Insomniac, and Infocom (Rest in Peace). Developers, researchers, teachers, writers, and the unclassifiable. Mostly everyone acts on the exact same level, instead of the master-apprentice form that GDC forces on us. And while I learn a lot every time I go to GDC, I feel that it is the fast-twitch kind of learning that becomes obsolete by the next GDC whereas what I get out of Horseshoe is more slow-burning and timeless. I’m inspired every year and have made some knee-jerk resolutions based on sleep-deprived resonance that I may come to regret in the coming months.
And who could ask for a more idyllic place to do this kind of work?
Highlights that are likely a combination of personal experiences and deeply inside inside jokes:
- A deer feeder across the creek attracted dozens of tiny deer that looked like small white-tails. They didn’t spook easily as they just chilled on the other side of the creek most of the week no matter the noise we made. Some ventured over to our side, but bounded away when someone would walk outside. There’s a great peace to be had in watching them eat and play.
- Frank Lantz gave a great keynote talk that was about philosophy, science and games. I think he mentioned it was going up online somewhere, but it was the perfect aperitif for what goes on at Horseshoe from someone who had never been.
- I almost get as much from reading board game rule books as I do playing the games themselves. From the collection that the attendees assembled, in waiting for open games in the evening I read the rules of a number of strange indie RPGs brought by Spry Fox’s Pat Kemp. I don’t know how much I’d enjoy playing them as I didn’t make the time for it, but as a sub-sub-genre, they scratch a very unique itch.
- A number of the attendees confessed in hushed, embarrassed tones that they are working on personal projects (the game of their dreams) within giant corporations. I told them to shut up about it because I tell my students no one ever gets to do that.
- I’m largely convinced that getting a PhD would be a detriment to my career in that it would take time away from creation and discovery. I’m still up the air here though.
- I didn’t know that Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were an American thing. They were out as a snack during some event and an European friend acted as if someone discovered a new ambrosia.
- Tim Fowers’ Wok Star is a better co-op game than Escape.
- Giving early feedback on a friend’s game is amazing when you can tell it has loads of potential.