Video Games

Nintendo Switch

Yesterday, Nintendo released a trailer for its next-gen device, a console/handheld hybrid. There are some weird moments in the trailer—really, you're highlighting a built-in kickstand?—but in all it looks like a cool piece of tech. The upshot is ultimate portability and versatility: you can play a game on your big TV at home, then literally pull the device from the dock and take it with you. You can use the two-piece portable controller separately, or slide them onto the mobile screen to turn it into something like the PS Vita. You can watch videos. There's Mario, there's Zelda, there's even... Skyrim? And sports games? Huh.

It looks pretty cool, I have to admit. Take a look.

But as cool as all of that is, I have some questions about how big the market will be—if nothing else because the single-use portable games device is definitely a dying breed, just like the single-use e-reader is. Nintendo's competition here isn't the PS4, the XBone, or any future-gen device. It's the iPad and the Kindle Fire. It bears nothing that when my own kids got Kindles, their much-beloved and heavily-used DSes were stuck in a drawer and never really came out again.

It looks like you can watch videos on a Switch, sure. But can you chat with your friends? Play around with Can you take selfies or play a little Hamilton or check to see if your ride home is getting close? If you can't, then the Switch is a runner-up device at best, and will always lose out. (That's not even getting into the huge psychological difference between $40-$70 console games vs. $5 mobile games, no matter how the playable hours-per-dollar works out.)

There's also a space issue that gives me pause. I live in a multi-user and multi-device house. The dock to your big TV is great, but what happens if you get three or four of those bad boys? Do you get a new dock every time, like it or not? Since it's mobile I'm assuming there is another way to charge, or do you need to dock for, say, crucial software updates? The thought that I might need four docks in a row sitting in my living room is already annoying me, and the device isn't even out until March.

And those tiny little snap-on controller the configuration as a single remote controller it looks unusably tiny to me. It's going to be even more difficult for a small child with developing motor skills, usually Nintendo's core market. And it's just begging to get lost, stepped on, cracked—it does not look like a robust piece of gear. Guess Nintendo lost the memo about how fewer moving pieces makes for a better and more durable device. 

And finally, I'm not actually sure that taking your games with you is even as big a draw as all that. It sounds great, yes, but different games excel in different environments. Skyrim on a mobile screen isn't going to seem quite particularly sweeping and epic; it's going to feel crowded. There's a pretty fundamental difference in how to design games for seven-inch and seventy-inch screens, so are designers going to need to essentially create two distinct games and interfaces in parallel?

It might be great. It might sell millions or billions! And I've been wrong about this stuff before. But I can't get over the feeling that this would have been really, really, really years ago, before the iPad changed everything.

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Dynamic Loot in Our Time

I'm doing a playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, and I keep running into The Loot Problem. On the one hand, 95% of everything I get is well beneath my level and current capabilities. This is a problem common to lots of RPGs, and even MMOs. From my mom on Facebook, which got me thinking about this:

(Apple doesn't fall far from the tree.)

But I also just finished the DA:I Descent DLC, and apparently a few levels early -- so I have the opposite problem, carting around a bunch of super great weapons and armor I won't be leveled up enough to use for some time to come.

I feel like loot drops mapped more closely to the player's current capabilities are a thing whose time has come -- and especially in a single-player game. It's not *super* hard to programmatically make it so that a boss drop or a level treasure chest always yields something %+5 better than what you came in with. A lot of games do this with the actual monsters already, right? And it would neatly solve a lot of linearity problems RPGS have, where they don't want to tell you which place you have to go next... but if you go there first, man, you're gonna get squished.

So why not make all of it dynamic? And then the player is guaranteed to get the zingy feeling of always progressing in power and capability over the course of the game.

It's a little more complex in an MMO, of course, because you don't want people grinding an easy boss to get ever-better weaponry. But if you lock the loot a boss or an area will drop to the level of the character performing the looting when it first mastered that area, then you can still guarantee the first time will be amazing, while also guaranteeing diminishing returns for the grind.

It's a thought, anyway. And I'd be surprised if it hadn't been tried already. Anybody know an example?

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Games and Romance: Made For Each Other

It's no secret that I have an enormous crush on Alistair from Dragon Age. Enormous. 

I've also developed a few secondary crushes on some of the characters in the Mass Effect series in recent months. Now that I've about run out of single-player Bioware games, though, I find myself longing for more: more banter, more awkward or urgent or heartfelt moments. More obstacles to overcome together, more emotional drama. More romance.

Unfortunately, the state of romance in games is pretty dreadful. The closest you get as a standalone genre are dating sims, some of which are more like sex sims. (The latter are almost invariably designed only for male players.) But whether you're talking about the mild Princess Debut or the explicit Ganguro Girl, both types of game follow a similar pattern: the player makes choices about how to spend time and money in order to develop a romantic or sexual relationship.

If there is any element of effort to these games, it is in solving the puzzle of what words or objects might be necessary to begin (or consummate) a relationship with the would-be object of your virtual affection. Mechanical elements of the game typically require minimal skill or knowledge. They're meant to be wish-fulfilment and not challenges.

On the surface, these love sims look like they're adequate at modeling how relationships are formed. You meet, you try your best to make a good impression, find out how to please your would-be love, finally bust a move, happiness. There's just one thing missing. But it's a pretty big thing: feelings.

Games and the Emotional Journey

As an art form, video games have the corner on an incredible and under-rated market. In the discussion about are-video-games-art (and peace be with you, Mr. Ebert), we talk about whether games can make you cry as if that were some unassailable and objective benchmark for quality. But that's selling short games and what they're best at. Games can do something books and film can't: evoke emotions of agency. These are feelings you only feel when you've had a hand in causing a situation.

Books, movies, plays, TV shows can make you laugh and cry. (Well, the good ones can.) But a game can -- and probably has -- made you feel frustrated or proud. Games can also make you feel guilty (Shadow of the Colossus.) Or betrayed (Dragon Age 2.) That's because you're the one calling the shots. You're the star, the protagonist, the hero. When there is a difficult decision to make about how to treat Little Sisters or which squad member to send to death or which suspect to finger for the crime... the one making it is you, and the one who has to live with the consequences? Also you.

When well-written -- and without a doubt Bioware sports some of the best writers in the business right now -- that also means that interactions with a character feel like an actual relationship is forming between the character and you, the player. You become teammates. Allies. Friends. And maybe... maybe more.

Romance Novels Aren't As Good

Don't get me wrong. I loves me a good trashy romance novel. Even a mediocre one, if I'm honest. My Kindle is full of 'em. There's something primal about the story of one human being making a connection with another, falling in love, making it work despite the odds. That story speaks to a desire in all of us to not be alone, the hope that no obstacle is insurmountable.

But video game romance is way, way better.

In a game, one projects the self into the avatar being controlled. You're more likely to say "I died," or "Hey, watch me get that guy. BAM!" than to say "Lara died," or "Hey awesome, Chelle knocked down that turret." For the duration of the game, you're not playing the game so much as living it.

And by extension, when a character tells you not to die because they love you and can't live without you... the one they're speaking to, the one feeling that poignant brew of resolve and regret, is you. Novels? Hah. No romance novel in the world has ever -- could ever -- make me feel like I'm the one embroiled in the love story.

But... that's not so different from a dating sim, right...? Is is just a matter of better writing and clever relationship-status algorithms? No, no, a thousand times no. The reason the Bioware romances work so well is a function of excellent writing, to be sure, but also the fact that the games aren't fundamentally about the romances at all

The straightforward arc of a successful romance is somewhat dull and small. That's why every romance novel printed has some other plot going -- stories of espionage, engagements to the wrong person, opponents in the courtroom, enemies by circumstance or culture or tradition. Conflict is the engine of drama, and a dating sim doesn't generally have much conflict beyond "how do I make this person like me?" 

But because Bioware's romances are just the B-plot, the emotional dynamic winds up feeling deeper and truer than any shallow dating sim can. You're not just hanging out with the object of your affection on dates or at parties. You're risking your lives together in fighting for a common purpose. You're sharing horrors and triumphs. You're bonding through shared experience, the way human beings are wont to do.

Thus the quality of romantic drama on offer by Bioware winds up feeling richer, more complex, and truer than games that are supposed to be about love through and through. The relationships have more complexity and texture to them because the characters are all bigger than the love story. They have a place in the world that doesn't revolve around how much you want to date them.

It feels more genuine, more really real. It feels more sweeping and epic. Dating sims simply don't create the kind of romantic drama that makes you feel all of those powerful feelings. 

Bringing It Home

There is, alas, a stigma to simulated relationships, both in making them and in desiring them. No doubt some readers are speculating by now that I am a sad, lonesome spinster, probably homely and without prospect, whose only chance at true love lies in pretending. Hah, no, don't shed any tears for me, I'm OK over here.

It's true that I feel a little uncomfortable playing through romantic story beats with my husband in earshot. But regardless of embarrassment, I'd venture that a good romance subplot in a game has a halo effect that benefits him and our own very real and meaningful relationship.

Let's back up. I, at least, consume stories because of the emotional journeys that they allow me to have. I like to feel things, you know? Odds are I'm never going to save the world. I'm not likely to be initiated into an elite society of dragon-hunters, either, or be run through potentially fatal "experiments" by a crazed AI. But in a game I can pretend. I can feel all of those amazing things, those fears and hopes and so much more. I live those lives, and when the game is over, I put the memories safely away and happily carry on with the real business of living. (And I measure the success of a game's narrative based on how well it evoked those feelings... or any feelings, really.)

Romance is the same. I certainly hope I never fall in love again, because I couldn't be more delighted with my life and my marriage. But oh, those feelings when you first fall in love! The excitement, the uncertainty! It's nice to feel that again, for a little while, just to pretend. And later -- the dark moments when you have to make a difficult choice that decides the fate of your digital beloved. I'm just as happy for that to always be pretend, but the act of going on that emotional journey opens me to be more compassionate to the real experiences of others.

Yeah, it's dorky to have a crush on a video game character. But it's also a safe way to experience a dynamic range of emotions that are either unavailable or just a really, really bad idea in real life. This is something video games are uniquely suited to do among all media. Here is where we will earn our merit badge declaring that Games. Are. Art.

When a game is over, the drama ended, I return to my real life and relationship, and I am grateful for all of the feelings the game has let me experience -- and doubly grateful for all the ones I don't have to feel for real, because drama is fun for pretending, but it's a terrible way to live. And back in the real world, with my real and wonderful and safely drama-free husband, I fall in love just a little bit more.

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Games, Story, and An Extended Metaphor

There's a thought out there that all games have a story, because even in a game without an authored plot, you're constructing a narrative in your head of what's going on. This is what is the most important part, say its adherents; the experience you come away with is the story.

This has never sat well with me. To my mind, this is nothing but a semantic argument intended to obfuscate a real and meaningful difference between games that do, and do not, have an authored narrative. I maintain this is an important distinction, and trying to erase it on vague philosophic grounds does us all an enormous disservice.

But I've been hard-pressed to explain why. On the face of it, these semantic arguments aren't wrong, not exactly. And yet agreeing with the idea that you still get a story even out of a game without a plot misses an important point.

Inspiration has struck! So here I have an extended analogy to explain why I find that way of thinking so insufferable, so dismissive of authored narrative, and why there is a qualitative difference between the two kinds of experiences.

A game with an actual story in it, like Mass Effect, is like a restaurant. A game without, like Minecraft, is a grocery store. They both have the same net result: You get a meal (or an experience). But the process by which that meal arrives is so markedly different that you simply can't elide the two experiences under the banner of 'eating' and expect everything you say about the one to hold true of the other.

Look at how this analogy plays out: In a restaurant, you get fewer choices about the meal you're going to have (but not none!) In return, you can expect the chef to provide you with a certain baseline quality of cuisine -- a story with good pacing, characters, internal consistency. In a grocery store, the choice you have is vastly larger, but you're also going to have to put a lot more work into the experience to come away with an actual meal -- or a story that compares to what a chef might prepare.

As with games, sometimes the home-cooked meals will be the most meaningful to you; the holiday dinners with your grandmother, for example. But few of us are professional chefs, and so if we're looking for a sublime and surprising culinary experience, heading to the grocery store is not our best bet.

But there are also hybrids; buffet-style restaurants, if you will. These are games like Skyrim; series of authored pieces, where it's up to you to determine whether and how to fit them together into a proper meal. Not quite an authored story, not entirely a sandbox.

And there is no value judgement here, either. Both are valuable and necessary components of the food economy. But they are not the same thing, no matter how many surface similarities they have. You would never mistake the one for the other.

The experience isn't the story. The story is the story.

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Press A to Jump

Playing video games is mostly a matter of pressing buttons and toggling joysticks in certain patterns. There are definitely exceptions -- from Dance Dance Revolution to Prop Cycle to Duck Hunt and on to the age of Kinect. But for most people, most of the time, playing a game is an exercise in learning new patterns for button-mashing.

We don't mind this, because the game has provided us a meaningful metaphorical overlay for reality: when you press A, you aren't pressing a button at all. You're jumping. When you toggle the joystick forward or press W on your keyboard, you're really walking forward. You press A or X or the spacebar to jump or shoot or interact with an object you're standing next to.

You see the same basic controls in Halo and Dragon Age and Glitch and Super Mario. It's what we're accustomed to, and so games take on these controls as a baseline assumption in the design phase. Maybe there's a design discussion about what the other buttons should all be doing -- but the basic walking-and-jumping stuff is taken as decided from the get-go.

But this widespread convention is damaging to innovation in games. Assuming that our controls will make us walk and jump and shoot means we're always making games where the mechanic is... walking and jumping and shooting. That closes us off to incredible potential for variety, and that's a creative tragedy.

Do you remember how amazing Katamari Damacy seemed when it first came out? Part of the magic is that quirky King of the Universe, to be sure; the upbeat music, the weird items you roll up. But the underlying mechanic would never have worked with the classic control setup. In Katamari games, one joystick controls which direction one hand is pushing, and the other joystick controls the other hand. This elegant control scheme is what allows the rest of the game to hang together. It could just as easily have used one stick to push and the other for the camera, as is the common convention; but the game mechanic would have suffered for it.

When Wii first launched, the promise of games allowing entirely new metaphors was a powerful sell. We bought Red Steel for the allure of swinging our controller like a sword. (Though it turns out Fruit Ninja is what we really wanted.) We bought Wii Sports to play tennis and bowl. In the end, though, even Wii games kept going back to Press A to Jump. They usually nodded toward motion control, but rarely was that a core element -- probably because the same games were often ported from or to other platforms.

And to be fair, players don't universally love motion control. It's novel, and fun, but also high-effort. It turns out in the end, sadly, those are games we buy and intend to play... but they're not the games we keep coming back to.

But that shouldn't spell the end of exploration for different metaphors for your control scheme -- even if you're using the same old basic console controller. If we're interested in what games can do and where games can go -- if we want to make art -- then every assumption must be questioned. 

And it turns out that "What else could we make a joystick or button do?" can result in some Molydeux-level creativity. Could A mean smiling and B is frowning, the joysticks are a measure of intensity, and the game is to navigate a political summit without starting a war with your inappropriate reaction?

Or maybe you're a weather deity; the joystick controls the direction and intensity of the weather, while the buttons control what kind of weather it is -- wind, rain, snow, lightning. Your goal is to aid your worshippers and smite unbelievers. Or maybe reach a high score based on how tall your trees get, how big your apples get, how bright the flowers grow.

What if A was an earthquake? What if A made you bigger and B made you smaller? What if the two joysticks were your feet on ice skates? Hey, A could still mean jumping!

There is so much we could do in games. So much that we could do, and so much that we're just not doing. And with the proliferation of touch screens, there's a necessity to shed those conventions and adopt new ones. But we should be wary of creating new conventions that mean the same old things. Tap to walk and swipe up to jump? That just leaves us with more walking and jumping games. And I think we have plenty of those already.

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