Video Game Culture: A Retrospective

Yesterday I finished what will probably be the coolest class I will ever take in college. That class was Writing 334 at Oakland University; aka Video Game Culture. That’s right; I got college credit for taking a class in which I essentially reviewed and played video games. But it was more than that, obviously. We all know that every college class has a set of goals and objectives that the student is supposed to learn by the end of the semester. This class was really no different in that regard. It just remains to be seen if my end-of-semester, stress-addled brain can recall these goals and objectives. So, here we go!
In Video Game Culture, I was introduced to the rhetorical, ethical, stylistic, and technical principles of video games and gaming culture. It wasn’t a very intensive class per-se, but the authors we engaged with this semester were pretty interesting. We started with game designer Jane McDonigal, who suggested at a TED talk that games can offer solutions to real world problems. Video games are the fastest growing entertainment form in our world today, and they have the power to bring people together in a spirit of blissful productivity. Video games can be – and often are – fun, novel and entertaining. These are not attributes that most people would apply to their daily workplaces. But throw games into other economic sectors like healthcare, education, and business – as McDonigal suggests – and just watch learning and innovation take off.

However, there are still plenty of political and social issues with video games that would stall McDonigal’s utopian vision of a pervasive gaming culture. Just Google Helen Lewis or Anita Sarkeesian and you will see just how closely aligned violence, sexism and misogyny are with video games. This is a present-day problem in the world of Video Game Culture and is the singular reason why video games as a medium are not going to gain cultural legitimacy unless they carry people to a new kind of aesthetic level.

That is why we began to deal with authors like Ian Bogost and Jesse Schell. While Schell gave us a conceptual framework for designing successful games, Bogost offered some theoretical concepts on how video games can direct emotional insight. Indeed, with video games becoming increasingly realistic, game directors must concentrate more heavily on other aspects of game design as well. These aspects are the rhetorical ones, such as game philosophy and narrative storytelling. Any game with artistic ambitions – and I would argue any game with any ambitions at all – must work to affect meaning in terms of their emotional impact and philosophy.

And so what? Perhaps none of this is really all that new. Gamers already know that the video game debate can be particularly divisive. The way I see it, video games can be either constructive or destructive. If you take a game like Darfur is Dying, the player can observe remotely what it might be like to live in another person’s shoes in a devastated, war-torn and famine stricken area. A game like Darfur is Dying might encourage ideas on how to improve the social reality of misplaced Darfurians. Conversely, we can look at a game like Ethnic Cleansing, in which the message is one of racial hatred. These are examples of games which are controversial. They may not exactly be popular, but they illustrate how games can pull from a wide subject area. Here, we no longer have simple entertainment; instead, we have games that have forced themselves into a polemic that can get politicians all up in a tizzy (of course, we know that said politicians are just upset that they didn’t grow up in an era where there were awesome video games).

Video Game Culture is still very much a subculture. But it may be that in another twenty or thirty years video games will be part of our dominant culture. If so, it should be interesting to see how our values will change and normalize as a society. I’m sure there will still be violent, misogynist video games like a Hitman: Absolution; but these games will be in the minority. The debate surrounding video games will no longer be one obsessed with violence or sexual objectification, but one of high-culture, literary and artistic values. Only time will tell.
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Interdependency as Immersive Technique or: The Role of “Zach” in Deadly Premonition

Deadly Premonition is a budget horror title that continues to divide critics and gamers alike three years after its release. The game arrived in February of 2010 with no fanfare and little press, but after only several months on the shelves, Deadly Premonition began to outsell the year’s bigger titles for one week on Amazon.com. What accounted for this brief success was a combination of mixed reviews and headline-making strangeness that elevated the game to cult status. Reviews indicated that the entertainment industry was either disgusted or moved by the game’s unforeseen presence. Indeed, Destructoid gave Deadly Premonition a perfect 10/10, while IGN settled for one of its lowest scores; a searing 2/10. For a game to have a reputation for splitting critical opinion in half is rare, but Deadly Premonition has shown itself to possess a certain power in overwhelming the gaming community, for better or for worse.

Deadly Premonition takes its cues from the survival/horror genre and the 90s television show Twin Peaks, which aired for two seasons on ABC. Twin Peaks has become a primary example of a serial drama turned into a cult favorite. There are obvious similarities between the show and Deadly Premonition, even after developers chose to scale back references after a demonstration at the Tokyo Game Show in 2007. However, despite some minor character adjustments, the premise of Deadly Premonition has an unmistakable correlation to Twin Peaks. For instance, the game’s protagonist is a big-city FBI agent who comes to a rural Washington State town to investigate a murder. FBI agent Francis York Morgan – who prefers to be called York – is a protagonist with an interest in murders of young women. The fictional town of Greenvale – a logging town modeled off of the one in Twin Peaks – has recently borne witness to a gruesome murder, and it is York’s job to investigate the crime scene. However, subsequent murders during his investigation open up Deadly Premonition‘s narrative to explore the hearts and minds of the game’s characters. If anything, it is the emotional punch of York and other characters which draw favorable reviews from critics.

Deadly Premonition‘s detractors point out the obvious flaws in graphics, animation, controls and sound effects in the game. Not to mention the campy, B-horror feel to the game’s dialogue. But one may argue that the farcical comedy in Deadly Premonition gives the game its unique personality. Even the reviewer at IGN, Eric Brudvig, credited the game for having “goofy characters and [a] twisted story.” However, even in the field of Game studies, there is a growing ideological schism almost as wide as the critical divide of Deadly Premonition. For instance, there are media theorists – such as Andrew Darley – who argue that “the primary benchmark of success in digital game design is the game’s graphical verisimilitude, its representation’s approximation to external reality.” Darley’s position might be characterized by the ludological approach to video game design. In other words, a game’s merit should be based on its abstract and mathematical rules rather than its narrative. Therefore, a successful video game should carry with it a high priority on production value. Heavy Rain is a game similar to Deadly Premonition that has a heavy emphasis on production and providing an experience that is grippingly real, preferring to eschew the jocosity that Deadly Premonition is notorious for.

Jim Sterling of Destructoid, who reviewed Deadly Premonition, has inadvertently sparked a debate about which game is better: Deadly Premonition or Heavy Rain. He opts for Deadly Premonition because of its narrative ingenuity and plot integrity. While Heavy Rain loses much of its immersive effect by trying to get players to do too much at the expense of telling a story, Deadly Premonition focuses on narrative depth and emotional insight. In order to focus these objectives, the game relies on long cut-scenes to tell a thrilling story. Therefore, the game is less about interactive cut-scenes – a central occupation in Heavy Rain – and more about linear gameplay and open-world exploration which leads to cinematic expression. Finally, Deadly Premonition shows that if a game is to affect emotional perception in players, then character development and backstory are necessary ingredients for cut-scenes. Indeed, Kristine Jørgensen – Associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway – argues that character design directs narrative gameplay. Jørgensen cites game designer David Freeman by arguing for “the use of characters as the driving narrative force [in video games].” Furthermore, according to both Freeman and Jørgensen,“characters can work as tools to create emotions in games.” In order to do this, characters must be deep and interesting. In this case, depth refers to character complexity in terms of psychology and emotion, and interesting refers to the uniqueness, originality and imaginativeness of the character. Despite its cheesy humor and farcical dialogue, Deadly Premonition does not superficially gloss over its characters mental states like Heavy Rain has a tendency of doing. Deadly Premonition does, in fact, have serious moments of pathos, and takes into consideration the role of past experiences in shaping characters personalities.

York is an eccentric character with a confusing psychology. Before the player even watches the first cut-scene with York, he or she will inhabit the “Red Room;” a game-space of York’s dreams and unconscious memories, which are revealed one-by-one throughout the game. After this sequence, a cut-scene of York driving through pouring rain towards his destination shows York speaking to someone from the Bureau on a satellite phone. Discussing a co-agent’s case with presumably York’s superior, York profiles a pair of killers who are dependent on each other in order to carry out their crimes. York says, “They both need each other. It’s called ‘Inter-dependency’.” No sooner does York hang up the phone that he begins to talk to an imaginary friend in the car named “Zach.” Zach is basically a dialogue partner that bridges the gap between the character on screen and the player. This is Deadly Premonition‘s central conceit, and it works to great effect. York only springs to life through the decisions of Zach (the player). In this sense,protagonist and player are interdependent. This is a unique immersion technique, and the true identity of Zach is built into the game’s backstory. It becomes painfully clear later in the game that Agent York has a multiple-personality disorder which resulted from a childhood trauma. This trauma has led him unconsciously to Greenvale.

York is a tortured soul who reveals that his only friend is Zach. A handsome man in his early thirties, he is socially maladroit and has a propensity to interrupt cast characters to dialogue with Zach throughout the game. When this happens during cut-scenes, York will look directly at the “camera,” effectively breaking the fourth wall to communicate with the player. It is through this process that narrative immersion really takes a hold of the player. This is aided by the fact that the player must be cognizant of the story that unfolds from cut-scenes in order to continue the investigation. For example, after each chapter of the game, York types up a report to send to the Bureau. Not surprisingly, it falls to Zach to remember the key events of the investigation. York will ask Zach a series of questions relating to preceding events, and three photographs appear onscreen; one which will provide the answer to an appropriate new lead. This keeps the player’s mental focus on the narrative, and enforces the interdependent relationship between playable character and player.
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray refers to agency as being a critical component of immersive video games. She defines agency as, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.” Murray mentions two orienteering configurations in which a game’s narrative can take place: the solvable maze and the tangled rhizome. Deadly Premonition conforms to each of Murray’s narrative concepts. In the solvable maze, the protagonist must find his or her way through labyrinthine corridors. At night – and when it rains – a strange parallel world opens up in Greenvale. When York finds himself alone on an investigation at night, his surroundings morph into the game’s “Otherworld;” a dementing atmosphere in which exits become sealed off by mysterious red vines. York is inevitably attacked by the apparitions of murder victims, and at the end of these mazes he ultimately comes face-to-face with the Raincoat Killer – the perpetrator of the insane murders against the town’s young women. If the player is successful, York will survive these encounters, but he refuses to tell anybody about the Raincoat Killer because the town regards the killer as a local superstition.

In terms of the tangled rhizome, Murray explains that this is a theoretical concept in hypertext fiction that can be applied to game narratives as well. This is where a player’s agency in a game can affect the game’s narrative storyline. Deadly Premonition‘s open-world environment gives the player a choice to explore the town and approach the citizens of Greenvale; either choosing to observe them or talk with them. Depending on the character York approaches, the interchange may be brief, or it may signal a cut-scene that provides important clues. In this way, Deadly Premonition exhibits Murray’s tangled rhizome, or the branching narrative which may result depending on players actions. However, in terms of the main quest-line, the scope of the player’s agency is limited. For example, after you complete a chapter, the game will showcase an interactive cut-scene. York will have the option to go back to the hotel to sleep, or enjoy some down-time with the deputies he is working with. Therefore, aside from open-world exploration, the agency in the game is based on a dual choice system. Of course, if the player chooses to be sociable, they will get a lot more of the lengthy cut-scenes which will make the overall game experience more enriching.

Deadly Premonition is a game which highlights a variety of themes and does so with startling panache. Along with the theme of murder, Deadly Premonition deals with subjects of free-will, military experiments, androgyny, personal discovery, romantic love, mercy killing and more. There are plot twists which seasoned reviewers have only been able to describe as insane. The game even brings into question the Raincoat Killer’s culpability by allowing the player to control the serial murderer of Greenvale. While Deadly Premonition may not have a branching narrative that roots itself as deeply as games like The Walking Dead or Mass Effect 2, the game offers up a genre-defying experience that shatters conventions. Its reliance on pastiche, in the formof Twin Peaks references, 80s movie trivia, and artistic symbolism make Deadly Premonition a viable contender in the games-as-art debate, and perhaps the first example of a truly postmodern game that has struck the right balance. In the witty words of Agent York: “The balance of milk and butter you’ve achieved here… oh my…”

Deadly Premonition: At a Glance

During late January and early February I played through a game called Deadly Premonition. I’ve given my reasons (in class) for wanting to review this game; it’s critically divided, it’s considered an example of games-as-art, it’s similar to Heavy Rain, etc. So it seemed like a good candidate for this assignment. Also, I’ve been making my way through the definitive gold edition boxset of Twin Peaks. I am not a tv junkie (The Walking Dead and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations are about the only things I watch), but Twin Peaks has got to be the best show of all time. The similarities between the game and the TV show were so strong that the developers of Deadly Premonition were forced to scale back the references. That kind of makes it an interesting case study for me. But it has me seriously trying to debate whether Deadly Premonition is a unique game, or pretentious trash. At times, it can be really hard to tell…

Ok, I guess I should make a few points now. While there are plenty of things about this game that I find appalling and illogical (the worst is the killer’s ability to be in two places at the same time), the one thing that shines in Deadly Premonition is the character building and backstory. The protaganist is an FBI agent named Francis York Morgan, and he has an invisible friend named Zach who he consults regularly throughout the game. Zach is basically a dialogue partner that bridges the gap between the character on screen and the player. York only springs to life through the decisions of Zach (the player). This is an unique immersion technique, and it’s built into the game’s backstory. In other words, it becomes painfully clear why Agent York has a split personality. There is emotional trauma at the heart of every important character in the game; even the raincoat killer. It makes me think of a quote from Red Dragon, which I watched a few nights ago: “He wasn’t born a monster; he was made one through years of abuse.”

The game has extremely long cut-scenes; a few lasting for nearly 10 minutes at a time. So it’s very much a cinematic experience, and it’s through these cut-scenes that emotional connection is built between York and the town’s inhabitants. It’s helpful that some characters have strong emotional appeal. That’s one thing about the game; the quality of the graphics are pretty terrible. I think it may have been deliberate because the murder sequences are extremely graphic and they needed to be watered down a bit. But as far as the cut-scenes and characters go, the graphics are really crisp and facial gestures were obviously very important to the developers. There’s a wide range of expression going on in character’s faces, which makes it easy to feel something for them.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a whole lot of agency involved in Deadly Premonition during the main “quest-line.” Of course, the game has a story to tell, and it can’t let you deviate from that story too much. So, if I recall, there’s 8 chapters in the game which revolve around some central mission. After you complete the mission, there will be an in-game cut-scene where you’ll have the option to go back to the hotel to sleep, or have dinner with the police force, go for a drink with Emily (picture above), explore the town, etc. So agency in the game is basically a duality. It’s either one or the other. Of course, if you choose to be sociable, you’ll get a lot of the lengthy cut-scenes which will make the overall game experience more emotionally enriching.

Deadly Premonition is a unique game. I’ve heard it described as a mix between Resident Evil (mostly 4), Grand Theft Auto and the TV show Twin Peaks. That’s stretching things a lot, but it does combine elements of all. It’s an open-world survival/horror game that lets you drive around town and learn about the community, its invidituals and its history. Half the characters in the game world are believable, but the other half are off-the-wall and almost too weird to be considered realistic. However, the game developers were intent on providing a realistic setting. Site locations were mapped out in Washington state and the Vancouver areas. The game is meant to have a real scale, and a real time. It’s not exactly real time, but for a video game it’s close: 30 seconds in reality is about a minute in the game world (I may be wrong though, because the in-game clock seems to fluctuate weirdly around the one minute mark). This can get extremely tedious when playing the game, but it gives the NPC’s time to simulate real-life routines. The director has stated that if you spy on the game’s characters (which York can do), you’ll see them performing daily tasks: going to the toilet (Indeed! Although its not graphic), washing their faces, brushing their teeth, etc. If you want to speed things up, you can just go to your destination and trigger the cut scene. But I think this could be construed as another immersive technique.

I forgot to mention that in addition to playing Agent York, there are sequences where you get to control other players. In one instance, York is kidnapped and you get to play as Emily. This part of the game goes back and forth between Emily trying to find York, and cut-scenes of York thinking about Emily. This is very effective in establishing the emotional connection between the two for the player. There’s also a flashback to the 1950s when you get to control the original Raincoat killer (Indeed, the 2010 RcK is a copycat) and basically go postal on the town’s inhabitants while a rendition of “Amazing Grace” plays in the background.

The game is bat-squeak insane, but it suffers from poor graphics, poor animations, and really clunky controls. Also, the game is the epitome of 90s cheese and B-horror. The game’s dialogue thrives on farcical comedy which one may discern as a distraction to the game’s objective and more serious nature. That’s why it got such bad reviews. But at the same time, even though the game has PS2 graphics and bad dialogue, there are many redeeming artistic qualities and moments of pathos that feel original and unique.

The new PS3 director’s cut version sounds very promising, though. In addition to updated controls and a graphical overhaul, it’s going to exhibit a branching narrative, which is what we’ve been focusing on all semester. Like I said, the extent of agency in the Xbox version only allows for exploring the town of Greenvale and making one of two choices in social situations. I’ll have to buy the PS3 version for my fiance, because she’s the one with the PS3.

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games

I played through the first 2½ episodes of The Walking Dead on Xbox. I purchased the first episode months ago and never got around to playing it, and then yesterday I got immersed and purchased the rest. I’ll probably finish the game before the semester is over. It’s quite good.

While reading Understanding Video Games, I found myself agreeing with the authors’ take on cut-scenes in video games. In fact, I can’t imagine a good game without cut-scenes. However, I have never been a fan of cut-scenes that look different from in-game graphics. But this is why I’m enjoying The Walking Dead so much. The cut-scenes introduce narrative tension, convey information, usher in pre-events and get you acquainted with the surrounding environment. More to the point, it is done in a fluid-like manner. You barely feel like the cut-scenes and the game are differentiated. This is because the main character, Lee, has dialogue options within the cut-scenes. In this sense, the game is diegetic; the entire game is immersive, and not just the playable material. I really like the cinematic direction in The Walking Dead as well. There are interesting “camera” angles (for lack of a better term) where we see the main character, Lee, viewed through the eyes of another character. When you walk closer to the foreground of the screen, a cut-scene triggers with dialogue between Lee and the character who was watching you. This offers a really neat psychological framework for viewing the game.

What is so cool about The Walking Dead is that actions in the game have consequences and mold Lee’s personality, as well as how other characters interact with Lee. Many times throughout the game, you will have to choose a dialogue option to intervene in a conflict or diffuse a potentially deadly situation. You have to do this in real time, too. In other words, you only have a few seconds to choose what to say, and depending on how you respond in a given situation will determine different narrative sequences.

There are a few plot bottlenecks in The Walking Dead. For instance, in Episode 2, Lee has to distribute four items of food rations disproportionately among the group. The game makes you distribute all items to move on to the next part of the game. I didn’t want to give food out this quickly, so I found this part of the game to drag on a little bit. But eventually, I realized I had to distribute the food in order to continue the narrative. I ultimately chose to give food to Mark and Larry (because they needed the energy to fortify the walls), and I gave food to Kenny and his boy (because I was trying to convince them to stay with the group). This is one of those gritty decision-making moments in the game which make you feel horrible as the player. Especially since the little girl, Clementine, who you are looking after, watches you with longing eyes and basically tells you she’s starving. After I made my decisions, I wanted to go back and just say, “Screw you, Kenny” and give the snackable to Clementine.

Anyways, settings and moods are important when it comes to immersing players in a game. Immersion and agency work best in games that allow the player to be an active creator in the story. In order to do this, a game has to have players get involved emotionally with other characters to try and figure out what to do. In video games, the level of immersion is higher than in other art forms because of the interactive nature of gaming.

Of Janet Murray‘s two orienteering configurations, The Walking Dead is more akin to the tangled rhizome. However, the game is not entirely boundaryless and without closure. No matter what, you’re going to wind up at the Macon pharmacy or the St. John Dairy farm. This much is given away in the episode previews. But it makes me wonder how much of the story does change depending on Lee’s decisions. All I know is that, at this point, I am damn glad I saved Carley instead of Doug.

I take issue with the post-structuralist concept of the author of the written word exerting control, or tyranny over the reader. In a way, there is more tyranny in a video game, because readers (in this case players) experience the same interpretation, which is always visual, but also textual; even if a game does exhibit a branching narrative. For instance, in a game like The Walking Dead, upon consecutive playthroughs, players will eventually uncover all the different modes in which the story unfurls. I feel like the visual and graphical elements of video games hinder the imaginative processes that would otherwise have free reign over a different medium, like literature. So I don’t exactly agree with the Understanding Video Games authors’ when they say “the language of modern video games allows for as much sophistication as that of literature and cinema.” I know this might sound crazy, but by this reasoning, I value books over video games (even though I can’t imagine my life without video games):

“Games generally use language only instrumentally. . . rather than to convey subtleties of description or to communicate complex emotions. They offer a schematized and purposely reductive vision of the world.” – Murray

Still, I feel like The Walking Dead is a very meaningful and emotional symbolic drama. Out of all the game’s I have played, this one is up there in terms of games that have made me feel uncomfortable, sad, confused, hemmed-in, etc. But feeling out the game yesterday, I was particularly drawn to Murray’s words about walking through a rhizome: “One enacts a story of wandering, of being enticed in conflicting directions, of remaining always open to surprise, of feeling helpless to orient oneself or to find an exit, but the story is also oddly reassuring.” I’m not sure what is so oddly reassuring about The Walking Dead. Perhaps the fact that Lee is enacting a story of redemption, and he’s working desperately hard to be a savior to the group; and especially to little Clementine. At least that’s what I’m trying to do, as the active creator of this story. So there are really great narrative qualities to this game, and I can’t wait to finish it.

Nanook’s Tale and the Iterative Design Process

(This is an essay I wrote for Writing 334 – Video Game Culture at Oakland University. The essay is on effective game design principles and the design process of a five-level video game I created, which can be played here – http://gamestarmechanic.com/game/player/1708043. You will need a GameStar Mechanic account in order to play.)

The website GameStarMechanic allows registered users the option to create simple platform or top-down games after they have completed the site’s main quest. While the site is geared toward a younger audience, the lessons on game design taught through GameStarare foundational for any novice designer. After spending several weeks on GameStar, and reading Jesse Schell’s conceptual handbook The Art of Game Design, I have come to understand that successful and effective video games are all made from the same stuff. And it is true. Video games are a composite of four basic elements: mechanics, story, aesthetics and technology. With modern video games, these elements are often complex and highly programmed; relying on teams of hundreds of individuals. But Schell maintains that a successful and elegant game can be designed by using a bare bones approach. Of course, having good ideas will ultimately determine a game’s – and therefore – designer’s success. The game I created on GameStar, however, was a study in design principles as outlined by Schell.

What began as my “gift game” – which users create during their apprentice training on GameStar Mechanic – ended up being a five-level iteration based on some of Schell’s principles (or as many as I could apply working with GameStar’s limited parameters). Nanook’s Taleis an iteration on Nanook’s Den; a one-level game I created which featured a Siberian husky reclaiming the keys to his den from thieving canidae. It was a simple concept: a dog must learn the keys to survival after humankind’s untimely disappearance. In this sense, my game was a nod to Tokyo Jungle; a PlayStation 3 game with a similar theme on apocalyptic animal survival. But while reading the early pages of Schell, I decided to change my theme to accord with Schell’s ideas on unification. Schell says that the goal of a successful game is to create a powerful experience that will resonate with the player. Therefore, the designer must understand what experiences are universal, and then capture the essence of those experiences. Often this means digging into “the mysteries of the human mind and the secrets of the human heart.” Indeed, the goal of the designer is to cause the player to have a deep, emotional experience with the game and its theme.
Schell and others (like video game designer Ian Bogost) are quick to point out that video games borrow heavily from other disciplines. This is part of what makes them so successful. Designers already know to some extent what triggers emotional responses because of their familiarity with other expressive mediums. For instance, in Indie Game: The Movie, designer Phil Fish says “[Video games are] the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive.” Therefore, to achieve a unified theme to my game, I decided to pull influences from another expressive medium: Literature.
GameStar Mechanic’stext message blocks – which the player/designer can place in the game space and fill in with text – are the only way to tell a story within the game. My game – Nanook’s Tale – revolves around a novel written by Richard Adams called The Plague Dogs. That tale involved two dogs escaping from an animal testing facility, surviving on the fells and downs of England, and searching for deliverance from the evil that men do for the purported advancement of knowledge. This is my overarching theme for Nanook’s Tale, and it was chosen for a very simple reason. That is, the only avatar I found remotely believable in GameStar Mechanic’sWorkshop was the husky avatar. But to achieve Schell’s unification theory, I sought to pick out a truth-based theme; one in which the elements of story and aesthetics could come together in a homogeneous blend. Moreover, I attempted to satisfy Schell’s curiosity lens, in which the designer is encouraged to put questions into the players mind: “What is survival expectation conditioning?”, “Why have we experimented on animals in the past?”, “Do we continue to experiment on animals?” These are questions I hope surface in the minds of those who play my game.
On Gamestar Mechanic, technology is already built into the site’s support structure. So the designer only has to consider three basic elements; mechanics, story, and aesthetics. I primarily focused on aesthetics while designing Nanook’s Tale, because aesthetics are the most visible element in any game. In other words, they are what the player usually experiences first. However, Schell says that all the elements have to be in harmony to achieve good game-balance. This means that many things need to be given equal weight when designing a game. Story, rules, look and feel, timing, pacing, risk taking, decision making, rewards, punishments, etc; all of these need to be considered and utilized. One way to achieve game-balance is to create levels of increasing complexity. But I worked backwards in designing Nanook’s Tale. My gift game – Nanook’s Den – became the last level in my game. I then jumped back to level one, hoping to tie the loose ends together.

Level one is called ‘Escape.’ It is a basic maze level with an unbounded space. The player must wrap their way around the maze, collecting points as they go. The points serve no purpose in terms of story arc, but they add an extra challenge for the player. For instance, all the points must be collected to open the goal block, and the player must figure out how to reach all the points within a minute. Therefore, my game opens up with a mental activity. The player cannot finish in time without using the wraparound feature built into this level. This forces the player to think ahead, exercising spatial recognition. Of course, this is the animal testing facility, so the game space was meant to be cramped. I toyed around with the idea of placing other animals (ie, wolves and foxes) in concrete pens. But then I realized that the emotional impact would be greater if the player found the husky avatar to be utterly alone. Furthermore, this level was intended to be impersonal. There were no backgrounds on Gamestar that would suggest a laboratory setting, so I left the background black. There is also no music for this reason, either. I wanted the player to feel like they were locked away in a silent, foreboding prison for animals.

Once the player escapes and makes it to level two’s ‘Encounter,’ they are immediately faced with a message block. The message block tells the player that the way ahead is dangerous, which can clearly be seen by the number of enemies pacing around a surfeit of damage blocks. In The Art of Game Design, Schell mentions Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ when talking about the staying power of multiplayer games over single player gameplay. I used the Hierarchy of Needs so the player could consider Nanook’s plight. For instance, the minute Nanook leaves the testing facility, he forfeits his right to a meal every day. The message block in my game considers that the need for food is greater than the need for safety. There is also an allusion to death, which is just as prevalent in the outside world as it was in the testing lab. Finally, in a line taken directly from The Plague Dogs, Nanook realizes that there is no going back; he has decided to escape and his reason for doing so is clear.

Level two also gives the player their first look at the outside game world. The components here are the same throughout the game. There is a snowy, cobblestone background which is stretched across the screen. The parallax is set to zero, so the avatar can move across the screen without any extra movement, and the music is set to ‘Naviron Safari;’ an airy little tune which is both ominous and redemptive at the same time. As far as blocks are concerned, everything was chosen to accommodate a winter scene. There are glass blocks (which incidentally look like ice), cloud blocks (which incidentally look like snow drifts), dirt blocks, wood blocks, ice damage blocks, snow blocks, soil blocks, and blocks called north flowers, which look kind of like daisy’s. In choosing the aesthetics, I took a minimalist approach. I kept in mind that many successful art-gamesto borrow Jason Rohrer’s term – are by their very nature, minimal. Jonathan Blow’s Braidhas only three enemies and a protagonist that can only run and jump. Limbois similar, but even more exiguous. For instance, there is no music in Limbo and the protagonist inhabits a black-and-white world. I kept this in mind while working with GameStar’s simple interface.
Analyzing levels two and three together, there is a sharp contrast in gameplay. The enemies in level two move faster than Nanook, and they are set to patrol around ice damage blocks. At each turn, the player must master the physical task of dextrously maneuvering around damage blocks, quickly enough to avoid enemies. There are points in “safe spots,” which reward the player for surviving on the run. Also, for the first time, the player is made aware that their energy is limited. Keeping up your energy is a crucial part of survival, and this is made clear in level three’s ‘Survival’ after Nanook meets Tod Geemstaar. I put Tod in the game for added dialogue, and he is a reference to the fox that helps the dogs survive in The Plague Dogs. Tod speaks in a Geordie dialect, which is spoken in the larger Tyneside region of North East England. This may get frustrating for younger players, but it adds a linguistic challenge that encourages the player to be attentive and deconstruct the story.
In level three, there is a fundamental choice system. The player must choose one of two paths. If they choose the wrong one, their energy will run out and they will die. But there are a number of principles from Schell in this level. Namely, there is the principle and element of chance. The goal at this point becomes nebulous and uncertain, and according to Schell, uncertainty in a game means that there is a surprise which could be good or bad. This simple element in the game includes a number of Marc LeBlancs “game pleasures” as well. There is narrative centering around the choice, but there is also discovery, anticipation, possibility, surprise, thrill, wonder, and eventually, pride in accomplishment. All these things follow from a simple confluence in my game.

Levels four and five back off from the story a bit, and begin to focus again on timing and pacing. There are ten points to collect in level four, and as in level two, the player must accomplish a physical task to retrieve them. Enemies are either on patrol or pace about in a straight line, and the player must avoid them but move quickly enough to replenish energy. Here too, there are turns in which the player must deftly avoid ice damage blocks, which add to the physical challenge. Level four’s ‘Livelihood’ is the largest level in the game, but it is the simplest. At the top of the level, Nanook discovers the den that Tod has scouted out for him. This is the den that gave life to the entire game. Upon reaching the den, there is descriptive language in the narrative which alludes to a hidden message from Tod: “Tod. . . utters some words that are indistinguishable, but their cadence dance on Nanook’s tired mind like a poetic song.” This quote opens up the way for symbolism that deals with Nanook’s namesake, but the player must finish the game to discover its meaning.

Level five’s ‘Home,’ – which was originally Nanook’s Den – rounds out the game and focuses on continued survival after the journey with Tod. There are keys in this level which must be reclaimed for Nanook to survive. Little was changed in this level during its iteration, other than a few words to connect level five’s story with the rest of the game. One message block tells the story of the famed serum run to Nome, which is a historical event that further illustrates the heroism of the Siberian husky. But when the keys are reclaimed and the player wins the game, the climax (as climactic as GameStar can get, anyways) occurs when Nanook recalls what Tod had said to him. There is praise – another principle of Schell’s – conferred upon Nanook and the player, as Tod declares their status as a living legend.
In designing Nanook’s Tale, I tried to embody the idea of proceduralist rhetoric. This is Ian Bogost’s definition of games where emotional and artistic “expression [arise] through the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics.” I may have created a game dependent on Richard Adams, and some players may consider this reliance on pastiche a cop-out. True, they may argue against my ability to create an original story. But I think my game is reasonably effective in eliciting a number of emotions and providing an experience that is resonant. This was the goal for this project, as guided by Schell. What I learned from this design process was that effective design is an iterative process. This lesson carries over to just about any area in life. Indeed, in order to become proficient at something, anything, you must do things over and over again. I have also learned from reading Schell that the value of aesthetics and good storytelling can offer a truly transcendent experience. GameStar’sinterface is hardly transcendent, but it does serve as a microcosm for showing what video game stories and aesthetics are capable of.