In Which I Fall in Love with Games All Over Again

Screen capture wasn't really working, so, whatever. I'm not fancy. I used a camera.

First Impressions

 It's not OK.

This was not the point in Blendo Games' Flotilla at which I fell back in love with games. Nor was it meeting Fun Factory and Chu-Chu.

Or even the Goddess Afrodita.

No, to tell you how this game unclogged the fatty deposits around my heart, the cholesterol slowly but surely muddying appreciation for a brave new medium, we need to go back. Back to last year's PAX 10, and Blendo's Atom Zombie Smasher.

I was among the probably two thousand people to walk up to the Blendo display, manned by the studio's single coder/interface designer/3-D artist/3-D programmer/AI programmer/dialog writer/monetization strategist/brand evangelist/blog editor/game designer: Brendon Chung. In fact, as he'd later post, the man manned the booth single-handedly, all three days of PAX.

And I thought I was tired. Parts of the show had been cool - hanging out with some cheeky, mischievous devs, seeing a lot more of old friends than any previous PAX - but the main showfloor was depressing. Frag Dolls used, functionally, as makeshift booth babes. Endless lanes of clone shooters, a Skyward Sword indistinguishable, visually, from Windwaker. Branded beanbag chairs. So I went upstairs, where they'd cordoned off the indie games.
Blendo's setup at PAX 10, 2011.

Undercaffinated and shambling, I almost missed Atom Zombie Smasher. Walking in from the other side of that giant 10 poster (above), it almost looked like a couple unattended laptops, ala Jon Blow showing Witness. A fit Asian guy with close-cropped hair, in a particularly nice shirt, he looked at me neutrally. I see the flatscreen now. I point at it, then at him, then shrug.

Umm,” I say.

Oh, yeah!” He says.

There's a bounce in his step as he comes over. Now he's pointing at the minimap screen of AZS. I kneel down, take the mouse, and hover it over level 2 and 4 zed outbreaks. He's grinning, when I look back.

You might want to start with a 1.”

Pffaaaaahhh! Goes brain. Later, playing on my own, the rabid difficulty of early AZS would be one of the most pleasurable, compulsively repeatable failures I'd experienced in years. I still haven't beaten it on hardcore/permadeath. But I just look over at this gentleman and say, “Okay.”

I'm setting up snipers and artillery haphazardly. I ask one or two questions, but mostly am rarin' to hit the big red 'Done' button. It is, to the chagrin of my League of Legends friends, a staple playstyle. Works out in a lot of commercial games, though. They like rewarding us for lazy blundering. AZS's interface stops me before I can start, lets me know that I've not yet placed the civilian extraction helicopter. Not that any of them are making it out alive. I place it anyway, hit the red 'Done' button, and two Napoleon Dynamitesque aviators zoom in towards me with the text, “Let's Go!”

Gas mains are ruptured. Snipers lost in collapsed buildings. Over a hundred civilians dead. But I'm having fun. A shocking amount of it. All with this hovering guy, earnestly and clearly entertained by my epic chain of failures. He seems lost in concentration, logging mental notes.

I ask if the helpful attendant worked on the game at all. I mean, even with the indie games now, it's common enough that you only ever meet the PR department. And this guy was putting a solid, nerdy face on the game. He mentions something about having made it. I babble something about the genius blend of tropes and minimalist representation. More than anything, it's the difficulty that stays with me. Contrast with anything I'd played in the last four, maybe five years, the game itself didn't care whether I liked it. Didn't care what I'd tell my friends, once it'd thoroughly trounced my lazy ass. It was content to be exactly as it was. As I turn to go, this man who worked on the game (at this point I have no idea in what capacity) says,

Oh, hey, hold on. I keep forgetting about these.”

And he hands me a small card, with a code to download a full version on Steam. For free. This is the only piece of swag from PAX 2011 I keep. So it makes sense that it would sit, at the bottom of my canvas laptop bag, for three months.


Life had been sort of sucking pre-PAX 2011. Sort of sucking for years. The specifics are about as boring as the games I'd played during that time, so it was a good thing AZS had me giving a fresh look to Steam. Didn't take long for a fresh look at Steam to turn into another look at GoG. A couple indie bundles later, the brain was waking up after a good long Rip Van Winkle.

Then, for want of a more Blendo Brand difficulty and irreverence, I grabbed the Flotilla demo. It was free, as demos typically are. But this was especially good, in that Blendo's website was asking ten dollars for Flotilla. Sure, I'd shell out on Steam sales and indie bundles, but ten dollars for one game!? (Having gotten AZS literally hand-gifted to me by its creator, paying the man via his website wound up feeling wonderful)

Cracking it open, I think I got my first taste of directorial voice in games. Here was a work (yes, work) where everything aligned. The writing, the visuals, and they had this perfect juxtaposition with the space combat. Comedic or not, the whole experience had a synchronized direction, lo, it was no surprise it'd all been put together by one person. For anyone following the whole Games as Art conversation, one of Roger Ebert's major gripes with games is lack of unified voice, especially where it relates to market-centric entertainment. That commercialism, alongside the huge teams typically required, and how antithetical choice and interactivity are to a cohesive artistic message? They're a formula for mindlessness.

Not that he minds. He wrote, “I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go.” He's saying that the interplay scatters the ability to create a cohesive message - prohibits any fabled 'games artist' from making statements on par with Romeo and Juliet. A happy ending for Star Crossed Lovers misses the point. But with so much riding on games – $60 mil budgets and dozens of employees – commercial games usually can't help but give the audience exactly what they want.
The 35-year New Yorker editor William Shawn spoke to voice and markets, for journalism, calling out the atmosphere of writers only ever giving an audience what they want.

There is a fallacy in that calculation . . . That fallacy is if you edit that way, to give back to the readers only what they think they want, you'll never give them something new they didn't know about. You stagnate. . .

We sometimes publish a piece that I'm afraid not more than one hundred readers will want. Perhaps it's too difficult, too obscure. But it's important to have. That's how people learn and grow. This other way is bad for our entire society and we're suffering from it in almost all forms of communications.

I don't know if you tried to start up a New Yorker today if you could get anybody to back you.”

Games teams being so scattered, and large games being so essentially commercial, Ebert wanted to say that the medium would never get to the point of voice. Flotilla gives a clear example of how interactive voice can work, though I won't presume that's Chung's aim. Between his games, and what he's written about his process online, he strikes me as someone who's having fun. 

On his blog, he points out Manny Farber's essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. [...] The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.

Though I’m completely bastardizing the point of the essay, I love that description of nibbling forward purely for the love of nibbling. Is it a smooth ride? No. Will it function well? Probably not. Will it appeal to a mass audience? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

But it’s damn satisfying on a personal level. There’s great joy in diving headfirst toward a direction you think is interesting. That joy is reflected in your work, and players instantly recognize it.

Flotilla, like AZS, is a great example of a satisfying, short game. You can get through a play in roughly 15-30 minutes, depending on the number of space battles. That's different from, say, realizing you've spent three bloodshot days binging on Civilization. Flotilla takes the very rare risk of fulfilling the player. Prior to a 20-100 hour investment of time. Or the perpetual motion, team hamster wheels in most social games.

It's 106 light years to Iloko. We've got a full tank of gas, half pack of cigarettes, 
it's the dark of space, and we're wearing sunglasses.

You start a game, usually with a selection of the white-lit, occasionally-safe planets, and red-lit planets which (so far as I've seen) always mean battle. Visiting a planet means a randomly-drawn card, which shows you a chunk of your procedurally-generated story. Think Choose Your Own Adventure. Help out Fun Factory and Chu-Chu, and you may eventually meet Little Lion.

Sometimes it's fowl space pirates.

In those cases, you go to the tactical battle screen. Here one typically moves hard-won ships like precious rooks, pawns and queens in a 3-D version of chess. Armor being weak below and behind ships, attempts to flank lead to weaving, complicated fights. You give the commands and hope that your missiles, torpedoes, and close-range beam weapons connect before theirs do.

More importantly, you give the commands and wait.

30 seconds. A lifetime in first-person shooter land. The battling flotillas take their turns simultaneous. You can zoom around the field, in all three dimensions. Look at it from the enemy's point of view, from yours, but in the end, that's the only interaction for half a minute. If you've moved in a silly way, exposing the unarmored sections of a ship, all there is to do is watch missiles glide through space. See whether they narrowly avoid your little destroyer, or send pieces of its smoldering hull toward the rest of your flotilla.

Once you've sent them on their way you must, essentially, let go.

And everything up to this point – all that procedural story, a very humble introduction to AZS and Blendo, by a harried Brendon himself, then planning the movements of my own flotilla once I'd bought the game – it was all great. It was. But it wasn't what relit my gaming torch.


Part of that might have been synergy. Battleships gliding through space, to Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude. The deep-running current of personal attachment one gets through interactivity. But, for me, it was the moment of surrender. I set my pieces to move. I watch. I let go. When the flagship of my flotilla explodes – let's say a battleship outfitted with Afrodita's artifact, then a piece of it takes out a ship I've had since the start – it's real. It's atrocious. It's OK.

And so antithetical to everything else in games right now. Edge called it melancholic. I'm not sure I agree with that. Brendon described it as 'sombre' and 'tragic', in the same piece.

Edge also included Chung's nod to Sam Beckett, and the chunk of his Worstward Ho that's easily and often truncated to “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Which feels ingrained into the directorial voice one gets in Blendo's works. The fact that neither AZS or Flotilla allow saving. That we cope with failure. Failing well is so essential to the human experience, yet so often trivial in the gaming experience.

Beckett's Worstward Ho may not end on the cheeriest of notes, but just beyond the 'fail better' part there's a neat context for games.

"Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand."

It's a game about letting go; we're all dying here. But in that, there's an absurdist beauty. There's triumph, and spectacular failure. Maybe when it all gets too grim, you self-destruct, go out in a blaze of glory. Or maybe you send your ships blasting forward, shouting with satisfied exasperation when the best of them explodes to sizzling chunks. Flotilla gave me a perspective on life that I didn't have before. An aesthetic nested in the interplay between system and experience. An aesthetic, in other words, that works best as a game.

And it moved me. That's all. 
Much respect, Blendo.

Cosmetic Enhancements Are Go

Really, really long time since I screwed with the blog layout. Little on the fabulous side, but that whole drab grey shit had to go. 

Also, screen caps from the weekend's adventures at the Pasco Walmart (with Sasquatch the Rock Notch as Fett). Joel, filming it, has so far only posted his video of all this via Facebook. I'm hoping it goes to youtube before long, he did an awesome job of cutting it to Fett's Vette.


Pondering the Reading List

I like books. Felt spectacular to sell one, even if it was three or four years ago. That after another couple years of sewing together the Frankenstein monster. Then it was out, ravaging the countryside, harrying the peasantry. These days, I can't stomach to look at parts of Game Addiction. My co-author's sections – child development, brain plasticity, psychological hardiness – I love those. My sections on immersion and games culture? I can but meh.

Reading Stephen King's On Writing was the turning point, though a long time in coming. All through writing Game Addiction, I never cared about nice (or even palatable) language. I cared about gaming, then occasionally riding my word processor like a bucking porcelain pony. I dreamed that finishing it – after my last wipe and flush – I'd be off writing, kick the habit. 
Years went by. I taught at DigiPen, a door largely opened by the book I couldn't stand. Even hammered out a novel-length derelict of fiction. The spine of King's book winked at me, once or twice. Still didn't pick it up. And then, for no discernible reason, I needed to be better. For nobody but me. King's autobiography/handbook was right there, and I slopped it up in one sitting. On Writing has been special to me, since then. I associate it with the decision to care. 
Outside that, I'm skeptical of books. I'm never quite sure how useful they are, for the mysterious art of putting words in order. As a mad professor, who regularly curses artistically-inclined students with reading on comics, art, design, even reading itself, I may have given this unhealthy levels of thought. Mostly because, just as often, it's action that teaches. Whether they're Artists or Musicians, Designers or Programmers, DigiPen students or Real Live Devs, there's a time to stop reading and just goddamned finish a thing. Or fail spectacularly and repeatedly until you can finish a thing. It's why the old writer's axiom has two parts: 
Read a lot. Write a lot.
Is one the more important for the procedural pudding? And if there's a place for books, movies, even games, in teaching games, then is there canon? Are some worth requiring? 
So, good time for partial disclosure. Here's a handful of nonfiction I really like:

Introduction to the art and science of design: Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Paraglyph, $16.15 on Amazon
Textual immersion: J.R.R. Tolkien's On Faerie Stories, Del Ray, $7.99 on Amazon
Relationship of text to image: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, William Morrow, $15.63 paperback on Amazon
User Interface: Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think , New Riders, $22 on Amazon
The brain's processing of text: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Viking, $11.56 paperback on Amazon
Writing (big surprise): Stephen King's On Writing, Scribner, $10.88 paperback (or 2 bucks at Goodwill, common book)
Physiology of vision, from the eye to the brain: Anne Marie Barry's Perception Theory, in Handbook of Visual Communication
Relationship between mediums: Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, $7.68 paperback on Amazon
Characterization: Constantin Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares, $16.64 paperback on Amazon
Academic sweep of meaning and process: Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games , MIT Press, $17.86 on Amazon
Games culture: Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life $19.37 paperback on Amazon

But these aren't, generally, the kinds of books the axiom refers to. I've always interpreted Read a lot. Write a lot. as more saying that if you want to write Westerns, then read Westerns. Know your genre. Crime drama? Try Garth Ennis and Elmore Leonard. Horror? Stephen King, or maybe some of Neil Gaiman's youth fiction. In cinema, George Lucas got a lot from Akira Kurosawa, and in Michael Bay we see the clear influence of full frontal lobotomy. This last GDC, we heard CliffyB cite the Legend of Zelda, and John Romero Pac-Man.

But are those the most influential? The most useful? It's a fair question, with dozens of professors and devs hawking textbooks to games colleges. Students have got every right to challenge their texts. I've got a few quippy answers ready for just such an occasion, and suspicions on Useful Knowledge, but the truth is I really don't know if these books help them to do games better. 
If required gaming, viewing, and reading are all on the table (along with their fiction and nonfiction variants), is it fair to ask about required living? Philip K. Dick, in his How to Build a Universe that Doesn'tFall Apart Two Days Later, made the claim that writers created rough facsimiles of a truer reality. Base your works on older works, and you're making copies of copies. The original picture degrades, until all substance is derivative. If some of our artistic doings – our writing, filming, and developing – gets based off life, is that more the ideal? 
Fuck if I know. But I am curious.