Let’s Talk About Sandboxes

Phew. I was gone for awhile. I could give you a valid excuse, but where’s the fun in that? Instead we’ll pretend nothing happened, and I’ve been posting this whole time. Because everyone lies.

And I mean everyone lies.

And I mean everyone lies.

So after slinking around it for awhile, I’d like to talk about Minecraft. Yeah, who didn’t see that coming. After all, Minecraft has grown inevitably huge–with just over 9.7 million users at the time of this post, Minecraft is arguably one of the most successful indie games of the decade (thus far). Many gamers who have yet to steep themselves in the game often ask “Why? The graphics are so bad! It’s all blocky and cartoony. What’s the point to it?” Well I’m not going to argue with that. If you want to know what I think about those points, I think Digixav made a wonderful post that I share similar opinons with.

But regardless of the pluses and minuses of Minecraft, it opens up a realm of possibilities for everyone. From educating children to simply building an incredible community of gamers, artists, animators, educators, and bringing people together. This is primarily thanks to the open world, sandbox manner of Minecraft–a type of game that has been rather under appreciated in the gaming world.

Or EA just ruins their reputation.

Or EA just ruined their potential.

Simply put, by providing a simple and accessible world to players Mojang has created the perfect environment to build an incredible community that is constantly growing and evolving. But what makes Minecraft stand out from other games? Especially sandbox games? Well there are a few key factors that give this Swedish indie game an edge.

  • Minecraft is immersive: there’s no hand holding, but the learning curve is low. You have to teach yourself how to play by reaching out to the community, and it’s easy to pick up. However…
  • It’s “open endedness” provides incredible depth: Though Minecraft is fairly simple at the base level (after all the world is made of blocks) the open nature provides players and their community with impressive options.
  • Creativity is your only limit: If you’re bored with Minecraft, then you’re not really playing. Even if you’ve run out of things to do in game (which I don’t believe, because Redstone) the modding community behind the game is impressive, and opens up a new realm of possibilities for everyone involved.

Mojang has created the perfect recipe for what a sandbox game–and games in general–can do for the world. If you’ve yet to try Minecraft out, I strongly suggest it–gamer or no. Who knows what you’ll think.

Cheers

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Games

Diluting Morality

Well the spring semester is in session, and all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting semester. While I get back into the swing of things I’ll be posting slightly irregularly, but I shouldn’t be missing any posts.

And so it begins.

And so it begins.

Anyways, today I want to talk a bit about morality. Oh boy. Morality is a tricky concept when you really dig deep, because it varies from person to person, as well as culture to culture. However games like to boil the idea down to a very basic good and evil scale. The morality system used by many games isn’t new, that’s for sure. Though I can’t say with certainty what the first game to use the system was, Black and White was the first game I played that used it, and not much has changed for the system since its advent.

If by some chance you haven’t played a game that utilizes a morality system, it’s fairly simple. The game includes choices that are considered to be good/benevolent or bad/malevolent, and sometimes it includes a neutral option as well. As your character makes these choices various aspects of the games change. The most commonly used one is appearance. Many of you will know Fable as one of the more iconic morality based games, where you can become the tyrannical ruler, or the benevolent king, with angel or devil wings to match accordingly. The Fable series uses many of the other mechanics that are common in morality based games as well, including the way an NPC reacts to you. Changing, and sometimes completely eliminating, certain plot lines in the game due to your character’s actions is also common.

For the past few weeks I’ve been on a Mass Effect marathon. I heard about the game ages ago, and I’ve always been interested with it, but even though my friend loaned it to me nearly a year ago I didn’t pick it up until recently. I’ve yet to finish it, but I must say it’s possibly one of the best series I’ve ever played. No joke. If you haven’t played it, go out and get it. I’m ashamed I waited so long.

As any fan knows, the Mass Effect series also uses a choice based morality system as well, and the basic mechanics of it are quite similar. However where Mass Effect stands out is how your choices affect the game. Simply put, the outcome of each game is completely determined by your choices. Futhermore the system isn’t boiled down to simply good and bad. The two paths are called “paragon” and “renegade”, and each have their own distinct quality. Put in the most basic terms, however, paragon actions and speech tend to be more selfless and altruistic. Renegade on the other hand is more selfish. Neither of these options are ever “right” or “wrong”, however it is often used to raise questions and pose us with choices that are almost too much to handle at times.

"Why can't we all just get along? CAN'T YOU SEE YOU'RE HURTING ME!?"

“Why can’t we all just get along? CAN’T YOU SEE YOU’RE HURTING ME!?”

We can learn a lot from the Mass Effect series in the fact that they didn’t take the morality system lightly. If anything the morality system feels more like an afterthought in contrast to the general choice system. The player’s reputation is a perk to having a game that relies on choices to determine the plot arc. However that’s what makes it so good, and allows it to work so effectively. Numerous times I felt the need to pick a renegade option while playing paragon, simply because it seemed more “right” to me. However the effects it would have on not only the outcome of the game, but also my relationships with my squad mates, kept me from choosing what felt right in the interest of the big picture or desired relationships. I’ve never had a game make me hesitate with choices like this before. In most games the right and wrong paths are quite obvious–this is good, that’s evil. Although Mass Effect tips you off to which option is renegade and which is paragon from its location on the dialogue wheel, it never makes it clear what’s right and what’s wrong.

No. That's not how it works.

No. That’s not how it works.

Morality isn’t a simple concept. It’s complex and deep, and it can’t be measured in a linear scale. When it’s diluted down, as many games do, then we’re not posing powerful questions. Instead we’re giving black and white options so that players don’t have to truly stop and think about the actions they’re committing. Many games could benefit from the way Mass Effect portrays the complexity of morality. Even though the series has yet to truly perfect the system, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I’d like to see the black and white system eventually scrapped, because in order to invoke thoughtful and emotional responses from a player we need to explore the pool that is morality, rather than walk along the edge.

Thanks for reading.

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Games

Insomnia

So I’ve been suffering from a touch of insomnia for the past two weeks. Last night was the first night that I’ve gotten more than five hours of sleep, and thus my mind feels like mush. I apologize, I won’t be doing a full blog post today. Hopefully once school starts back up I’ll get all of my sleepy ducks in a row and posts will have regularity again.

For now, however, I’d like to share with you all a wonderful short film I found during one of my sleepless nights. One of my favorite bands, Sigur Ros, posted this film on their news feed. The creator, Nick Abrahams, won “Best Short Film” at the London Short Film Festival. Definitely worth the watch.

Thanks for reading. Sleep tight.

-Gabriel Adam

Posted in Other

In Defense of Games

Not too long ago I was referred to a blog post that adressed the question of video games being art. For those of you who haven’t heard, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is adding a video game exhibit to their collection (for more info click the link above). This is a big deal.

Our medium has been striving to be taken seriously since its birth, and it’s been an uphill battle. Though the medium is beginning to make progress in the art world many still consider games to essentially be toys and nothing more. In addition, the recent outbreak in shootings has made videogames a target of blame. In my last post I ended by saying that our industry wasn’t ready to approach serious and historical topics such as war, crime, and social issues. A friend of mine, who is much more in to games than I am, argued that this point wasn’t true. He believes that games can have an educational aspect while still being fun. He used the Assassin’s Creed series as an example, stating that there is a fathomless amount of historical reference and data that went into simply creating the game, as well as supplementing players with history for the background.

I completely agree. There are plenty of games out there that provide us with educational information, or at the very least make classical or historical references that lead us to research a topic itself. I wonder how many people began to look into Greek mythology after playing the God of War series.

"What was that? I was too busy brutally killing minotaurs."

“What was that? I was too busy brutally killing minotaurs.”

What I meant in my final words of last week’s post is this: video games are not at the point where they are widely considered art, and thus they are not taken seriously. Many outside of the industry view games simply as toys–ones that can be both addictive and psychologically dangerous as well. Until this stigma dies out, approaching controversial topics in video games is not going to receive the same sort of critical claim that a movie or book would. It’s not going to die out without a fight, either.

“Ultra-violence” in video games is a constant struggle for the industry and its community, especially since violence is so prevalent in games. However just because violence is a common occurrence in these games does not necessarily mean that it isn’t trying to portray a message or explore a moral dilema. Some of the best games of all time explored some incredibly shaky topics through violence. After all, violence is a basic human instinct, and it can be a visceral and powerful method of getting a point across  Take, for example, 2k’s classic hit Bioshock.

Back in 2007 Bioshock was under the microscope of Qunicy’s Patriot Ledger for its inclusion of a mechanic that resembled killing little girls. For those of you who have never played the game, players can harvest the “atom” from creatures known as “Little Sisters”–once girls that were turned into twisted monsters that produce the serum players use to upgrade abilities. I think it’s important to note that the Little Sisters are never really shown being killed by the player, however it is still… creepy.

Creepy may be an understatement...

Creepy may be an understatement…

The mechanic in the game is simple: kill and harvest a Little Sister and you’ll reap the maximum amount of atom possible. Alternatively you can choose to save them, and turn them back into little girls but you only get a fraction of the atom you would get from harvesting them. I won’t deny the fact that 2K was throwing a risky moral curve ball here, and I definitely experienced a lot of hesitation when given the aforementioned choice in Bisoshock. However, Kenneth Levine put it perfectly when commenting on the  controversy, “As a piece of art, we want to deal with challenging moral issues and if you want to do that, you have to go to some dark places.”

It’s difficult to explore moral depth without making someone feel uncomfortable, and even outraged at times. Perhaps the fact that these controversies among games exist in the first place is a good sign, because it means that the public is taking notice of the topics games are beginning to explore. However we’re going to have to stand up, as an industry and a community, for the art that we’re making. We’re going to have to defend our work and our media as art, not just as games. If we don’t our equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye will never see the light of day. Fortunately it looks like the MOMA is helping us take a step in the right direction.

Thanks for reading.

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Games

Getting Lost in Skyrim

There’s something to be said about a game’s ability to completely immerse you.

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim, ever since the Dragonborn DLC came out. I also accidentally deleted my character, so I’m starting from scratch… it kind of feels like losing a child. Now, it’s kind of surprising for me to be coming back to a game like this and logging yet another hundred or so hours into it, because I’m a game hopper. I pick up a game, play through it, then put it down and pick up another. I play games for their story more than anything else, and once I’ve finished it I don’t come back unless I want to feel a bit of nostalgia.

Oh the feels.

However I’m not ashamed to say I’ve spent hundreds of hours in games like Skyrim and Minecraft. Sandbox games and games that focus on player immersion have a special flavor that can be incredibly difficult to get into at times, but once that power is tapped into it can be extremely addicting.

For those who haven’t played an Elder Scrolls game, well… I don’t really blame you. They’re chock full of extensive lore that is fascinating and quite deep, however it’s overwhelming if you’re new to it. The beginning of every Elder Scrolls game places the player in the position of a prisoner (for unknown reasons) who happens to be in the right place at the right time. In Skyrim’s case you’re destined for the chopping block, with the axe about to fall on your neck, when a dragon attacks and you escape in the mayhem.

This opening sequence that’s common in all of the Elder Scrolls games puts us in media res while also assaulting us with lore (and an awkward character creation section shoved somewhere in there) that, the first time through, tends to fly right over our head. Then we’re dumped into the world, typically with a specific quest from the main storyline but we can choose to ignore that and do whatever we want. More importantly we can be whoever we want.

And yet we always end up chasing butterflies...

And yet we always end up chasing butterflies…

I’ve been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind. However I had absolutely no clue how deep the Skryim role playing experience could get until I found the subreddit for the game. I like to lurk around the subreddits for videogames to pick up tips and look into the community. I was already addicted to the game, but through r/skyrim I quickly discovered there was much more to the game than running quests over and over.

Many players repeatedly brought up methods to “increase immersion”, or in other words make it feel less like they were playing a game and more like they were in it. Some of these included turning the HUD off so you wouldn’t be distracted by the compass and status bars overlapping the environment. One method that many players swear by is to never fast travel, which I tried. Have you noticed how big Skyrim is?

"I need a horse..."

“I need a horse…”

The experience wasn’t really for me. However players were doing exactly what Bethesda (the makers of the Elder Scrolls series) wanted them to do. In a role playing game such as Skyrim we are asked to create a character, and fill in the blanks on our own. Rather than riding our way through the story line as a fictional character, we make our own. This makes for a rich experience that’s of the player’s making, not the designer’s. Not once in playing Skyrim does the player subconsciously think they’re Link or Samus. I don’t think I have to point out how this benefits the gameplay. Anyone who has picked up Skyrim and trudged through the opening knows how incredibly addicting and immersive the game is.

However through my adventures exploring the game itself and the community around it, I couldn’t help but ask myself if this kind of experience could be used more effectively. Not to say that any Elder Scrolls games uses the mechanic ineffectively, but what else could it be used for? Not only could we use this complete immersion to wrap up the player in an emotional and epic story, but we could use it to send a message. We could use it to educate and inform. After all, when do we remember things the most? When we directly experience them. Forcing a player to directly experience a historical event in a safe environment has loads of potential.

I don’t think that our industry is at the point to handle something like this though. Video games aren’t respected enough, and aren’t seen as vehicles of art and narrative in the public eye. We have a lot of growing–and a lot standing up for our medium–before we could use a first person RPG to educate and inform about things as heavy as war, crime, or societal issues.

Until then we’ll fine tune the mechanic by slaying dragons and shouting. When the day comes to use the mechanic to educate and inform, we’ll be ready.

Thanks for reading.

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Games

Framing a Story

Hey, we’re all alive. Christmas has come and gone (hence the no post on Tuesday). So welcome back! Hope everyone had a good holiday.

Last week I talked about in media res and it’s use, as well as misuse, in books and movies. This week I’ll be talking about an alternative to in media res known as a frame story. I love the frame story because it keeps the audience constantly engaged, and can be used to draw attention to various points in a narrative–such as an unreliable narrator. So without further ado, I present to you my first example of the frame story: The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

Dogs of Babel Cover

If you haven’t read The Dogs of Babel I encourage you to do so. I’ll admit that it’s not one of my favorites, but that’s just personal preference. The main characters are rich, the narrative is excellent, and the buildup is wonderful. In fact it’s going to be turned into a movie this next year starring Steve Carrell as Paul, the book’s main character. Probably his first serious role in years.

Before I jump into the book though lets define a frame story. Once again really boiling this description down. A frame story is when we take multiple stories or narratives and nest them within one story. This can be done in a number of ways, such as the way Chaucer had multiple stories told by the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales. Alice in Wonderland uses a frame narrative, and so does The Wizard of Oz. Just like in media res, the frame story can be used in a number of different ways, some more recognizable than others.

It can also be easily confused with in media res due to its engaging nature. To outline this let’s look at The Dogs of Babel, and I’ll try to be as spolier free as possible. The book starts off with our main character returning home to find his wife, Lexy, dead. The police claim it was an accident (she fell out of an apple tree in the back yard), but Paul believes there’s something more sinister at the roots of her death. Unfortunately the only witness to her death is their dog, Lorelei. So in order to find the mystery behind Lexy’s death Paul decides to teach Lorelei to speak so she can tell him what happened to Lexy. Which is totally a normal thing to do.

Apparently loving a vampire is also normal, but I don't want to get into that.

Apparently loving a vampire is also normal, but I don’t want to get into that.

So there’s our base story: Paul teaching Lorelei to speak. Right away we’re wrapped up in the middle of the story, and have very little knowledge about the first point of the three point arc. However within the main story is Paul recounting his life with Lexy, including their first meeting and their first date, Lexy’s mask making profession, and just his general experiences with her. These are told basically in flashbacks, where Paul is telling the audience of his memories of Lexy, and as the story draws on we see more and more of their character and values peeled away and laid bare for us to see. The brilliance of using the frame story in The Dogs of Babel is that it not only allows us to stay engaged from the start (like in media res), but it also allows us to see the flaws in both of the characters. In addition it demonstrates Paul’s role as an unreliable narrator, which further adds to the depth of his plight and the mystery behind Lexy’s death.

I could go on, but then I’d spoil the book. However it just goes to show that we can effectively tell a story that grabs attention without reverting to the norm of in media res. Another good example of this conceit is Slumdog Millionaire. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (seriously?) most of the rising action is actually the main character (Jamal Malik) telling stories about his past while being interrogated by the police. The whole movie, up until the climax, is told in this way.

"I told you, I don't know the muffin man."

“Tell me Jamal, do you want to be a millionaire?”

This method leads us to ask questions that get us involved while still telling the character’s background and fleshing Jamal out to be a believable and relatable character. This is why I love using the frame story as opposed to in media res. While in media res involves us in the action right away it can often leave holes in the character’s past that could have been used to make them more relatable, or in Prometheus’ case explore the intricacies of a subject such as faith. Frame narrative still manages to engage us by starting in the middle, or sometimes the end, and then posing us with questions that keep us engaged as we learn about the character’s past and wrap ourselves up in the rising action.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Books, Movies

In Media Res

Yup. More Latin.

I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what my next blog post would be about. Naturally I kept coming up with video game related posts, since that’s what I’ve been up to once break started.

WHY WON'T YOU LEAVE ME BE!?

WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME BE!?

However I try to avoid two of the same mediums in one week. Then the other night I was talking to my room mate about the latest book I loaned her, The Dogs of Babel, and I brought up in media res.

In media res translates to “into the middle of things”, and is one of the most common literary conceits used in storytelling. Why? Because it’s just that. It’s in the middle of things. All of our popular media use in media res frequently to hook their consumers and drive their story because we live in a fast paced, instant consumption world.

SImply put a typical plot arc can be boiled down (and I mean really boiled down) to three major points.

1. We’re introduced to the character, their daily life, their friends and family, background, characteristics and personality.

2. The character is posed a task, question, or anything that generates conflict. This is where the bulk of the story takes place, and there are plenty of different subpoints to this part of the plot arc. We’re just focusing on the big three, though.

3. The character overcomes the conflict. This is best known as the climax, and is often characterized by the character gaining new skills or insights that they gained from the previous points.

Now I’m sure someone out there could explain it much better than that, but we’re just using this as frame work. In media res plays with this three point plot arc in order to drive us directly into the action and hook the readers/viewers/players, and it does so by starting with the second plot point as opposed to the first. Once the conflict is established we’re told the missing pieces over time, or all at once. Two excellent examples of this are Breaking Bad and Star Wars: A New Hope.

Most of Breaking Bad‘s episodes start with us in the middle of the conflict, then we jump back to the “beginning” and work our way up to that opening scene. A lot of season two actually foreshadowed the finale in this manner by using a form of in media res. However the clearest example is in the pilot episode of the series (as is the case for almost any TV show), when Walter confesses to his camera in the opening scene.

Since when did Malcolm in the Middle get so violent?

Since when did Malcolm in the Middle get so violent?

Star Wars: A New Hope uses the other tactic. It uses the opening scene to introduce the villain, our hero(es), and then jumps right into the journey that Luke must undertake. While we’re going on this journey, we’re revealed bits and pieces of the past and Luke’s qualities from the first plot point. These points were later made into a new trilogy that no one needed to see.

Those movies don't deserve a picture on my blog. So here's a kitten instead. You're welcome.

Those movies don’t deserve a picture on my blog. So here’s a kitten instead. You’re welcome.

Both of these methods are effective and powerful because it does one of two things: a) it raises questions that we want answered, or b) it involves us immediately–and sometimes it accomplishes both.

Other times it just doesn’t work. Although I encourage the use of in media res as a literary conceit it’s often times overused or used incorrectly. “How can you use it incorrectly though?” you may ask. Well it can happen in one of two ways. Either we start too far in the middle (like the aforementioned prequels), or we start with the second point and then never fill in the blanks of the first point.

Now this can be used to our advantage, causing the audience to ask questions that lead them to be more interested in the character. Other times it leaves them feeling like they’ve been given an empty character. I really hate using this next movie as an example, because I love it, but…

Much scarier than a Xenomorph.

Much scarier than a Xenomorph.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is an excellent example of in media res not working as well as it could. It’s a great movie, and it has so many good qualities (acting, pacing, foreshadowing, I could go on). However, post opening scenes, the story is propelled using in media res (spoilers). We know that the ship Prometheus is going to an unknown planet to discover humanity’s origins. Elizabeth Shaw, our protagonist, is revealed to be a religious woman who lived with her father in another country for unclear reasons (maybe missionary work) in the first few scenes. Later we’re shown that she’s also infertile, and… well that’s pretty much all we get about her.

We’re given a character who has loads of potential to explore the origins of man and the implications and importance of faith. Instead the focus is on the origins of the Xenomorphs in Alien. It’s more than alright to reveal little about the character’s past when using in media res, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in revealing too little. There’s a fine balance between consumers having questions about the character that entice them and questions that leave us confused or lost.

There are alternatives to in media res that I find much more involving and useful, but then this post would twice as long. So unless the world is ending today, I’ll see you all next week when I talk about The Dogs of Babel and its use of the literary conceit known as frame story.

Thanks for reading.

-Gabriel Adam

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Posted in Books, Movies, Popular Culture

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