Sunday, July 17, 2011

INDIANA JONES FIGHTS THE COMMUNIST POLICE: Czechoslovak Text Adventures as a Transitional Media Form

In May, I had a chance to come back to Cambridge, MA, and MIT's Comparative Media Studies department and present a piece of dissertation project at the MiT7 conference. The conference embodied my personal relationship with new media and media change: critical fascination. I especially enjoyed my fellow ex-CMSers Colleen Kaman and Kevin Driscoll's presentations and Marina Levina's provocative piece on citizen bioscience. Of course, there was also a track on games, with Clara Fernandez's insightful paper on emulation, Ian Peters' on archiving MMOs and others.

You can easily read my paper here.
The Prezi for it is here.

What I wanted to share is the background of this paper. I had been researching old Czechoslovak gaming magazines and games for my dissertation, but the inspiration for a piece on text adventures as such was a call for chapters for a book on Central European digital narratives and electronic literature. I set out to write a paper about the history of digital textuality (including word processors, so ubiquitous and yet so underresearched), but ended up writing mostly about text adventures.
I was especially curious about the two big projects connected to nationwide contests - the 1989's Město robotů (City of Robots) and 1990's ...a to snad ne?! (...what the heck?!), so I interviewed some of their authors. Interestingly enough, one of the authors of the latter game is now a renowned economist and a member of the National Economic Council. It was amazing meeting him in his office and listening to him tell the story of a group of students from Pilsen who moved into the countryside to one of their parents' farm and set out to write a hypertext game and actually SELL it (remember, it was just after the Velvet Revolution and there was not yet any functional software market).
In many ways, the history of digital games in Czechoslovakia is a history of the downfall of central planning, the disintegration of totalitarian regime's authority over culture and technology, and the transformation of the society into a free-market democracy (as we wish to think of it).

Monday, February 15, 2010


Icepick Lodge's The Void is a strange game. It is deliberately confusing, contradictory, obscure and opaque. I must admit that I enjoy playing strange games and that is why I bought it in the first place. But The Void actually manages to be more than a curio. It made me think. Not only about its own story and world, but also about games and gameplay experience as such.
The following paragraphs are by no means a full-fledged interpretation, it is more of a collection of ruminations and a work in progress. I might come up with some interpretation and a critique later.
For those of you who haven't played, here is a short description. By its publishers, The Void is described as a "survival horror". Although it has nothing to do with Resident Evil, the words ring true. You will certainly be afraid of dying. As a nameless and transparent soul, you enter the Void, the strange place between Life and Death. First of all, you have no clue as what to do. But your purpose becomes clearer after some time, thanks to the information given to you by Sisters and Brothers, the only sentient beings alive here. The Void is a system of interconnected chambers, with each part of the void being a dominion of a certain Sister and the Brother who guards her. Once you enter a chambers, you move in 3D and collect the rare "Color" and kill monsters that try to annoy you in the process. Color comes in seven... colors. Having certain colors in your hearts enhances your "stats": red makes you stronger, blue makes you faster and so on. You can also mine and plant Color - when you give Color to trees, they bear more Color in the next cycle. Cycles introduce a turn-based mechanic. In the chambers, the game clock is still, but while you are in the pathways of the Void ("on the map"), the time is running. You have 100 units of time to get wherever you need and then the new cycle begins, spawning monsters, making trees and mines yield Color. From time to time, you are assigned quests by the Sisters and Brothers. While on the map, your body transforms the Color you collected in your hearts into the Color you can paint with, and thus interact with the world - this is done by drawing glyphs, like in the acclaimed RPG hit Okami. But once you have no more Color in your hearts, you die. And you will die a lot. One of the goals of the game is to open hearts of the sisters by filling them with the colors of their preference. By doing so, you are granted passage through their dominions.
The game fits into no particular genre. It looks like an RPG, sometimes morphs into a shooter, but esentially plays like a strategy game, because planning your progress and managing resources is absolutely essential. In fact, it is a game frustratingly difficult to describe - reminding us how much we rely on established genre conventions while writing about games. As I mentioned before, the game made me think. I also immensely enjoyed it. I will try to outline three main reasons why I think this game captured me.

1. Experience through world building
The Void takes a very minimalistic, yet bold approach to world building. It boils fiction down to minimum. The world has no elaborate history or mythology. Many contemporary games take place in a huge fictional world, while letting gameplay happen only in small sections of it. But the Void is shown in its entirety. It is a closed-off, temporary world, barren and dangerous, "a desert on the threshold of death". In the monologues, it is repeatedly referred to as a "dream" of a "sleeper". It is thus also a decidedly and openly made-up world. I think this is very important for the way The Void works with immersion: the whole world exists only for the player, there is no part of it that cannot be explored. The laws of the Void equal the rules of the game. There is nothing less and nothing more.

A partial map of The Void

The fact that the game admits its world is a made-up one also allows artists and designers to let their imagination run wild. And let me say, the art in this game is beautiful and utterly original. You might have seen the almost-naked sisters (by the way, this game, which features lots of nudity, is 12+ according to PEGI) and the Tetsuo-like meat-machine hybrids that call themselves Brothers, but this game walks down so many avenues of weird that you will hardly find a match. Each chamber is a foreboding pocket universe.
To contrast with the rare and vivid Color, most of the environment is grey. It makes the experience of lighting it up quite striking. My friend and colleague Doris Rusch has written repeatedly about games as emotional experiences - arguing that the mechanics and the fiction do not account for the game's meaning by themselves, but that it is meaningful experiences that matter. Experiences are a very good way of looking at The Void. Lighting up trees with Color is one of them. Sucking Color out of the trees is another one. While harvesting a tree, the camera, always in the first person view except on the map, starts to lift and pan away from the tree, letting you view the tree's boughs as they are dimming down. It is a strange, out-of-body experience, which made me think of drug-induced states. Although it might be a minor detail in presentation (it is not even a game mechanic), it makes you "feel" that Color is great - that it gets you high.

A tree glowing with Color

You will often wander into the same chambers repeatedly, checking for new Color. (In terms of raw gameplay time, most of it is spent walking in the chambers - that is why the game has been criticized as "slow".) You will learn about the sisters and brothers. You will get familiar with them. But the logic of the world design is unforgiving: It is a world made for you, the player, and so will it with you perish. At one point in the game, the first Sister gives up on life and descends into darkness. At the same time, more and more monsters start to roam the chambers. You feel like the Void is fading, going away. This Void is claustrophobic and you might want out, but it is the only thing you have. But you will have to leave it behind or die with it - quite literally, because the Void is destroyed at the end of the game. There is a lot of melancholy involved in the visual and sonic design of the game, but knowing that this world you have become so intimate with, the world whose rules you have mastered, will cease to exist has its sad, cold-blooded logic. Well, the game is Russian after all.

 Brother Pit

2. Being lost
The Void is an ambitious game. I resist calling it an art game, because the term brings in connotations I wish to avoid. I'd rather call it an "artistic" game. At the same time, it is decidedly hard core. Not that experience with other games would give you a significant advantage, but it does require perseverance and a great deal of patience. Is it a bad decision on the side of the developers, because the overlap between the hard core audience and the artistic game audience is likely to be quite small?
Partly, yes. The Void is hard in many unfair ways. It uses the damnable mechanics of time limits and random spawning. Its controls are rather shoddy. It reminded me of the early 90's computer games - from before controls were standardized and genres as well. Do you remember the original Dune game, Bloodnet or Cybermage? Messes of games which could never decide what they wanted to be? At the same time, those games were often quite adventurous, as is the Void. As Daniel Benmergui put it, experimental gameplay is "gameplay still not proven to work".
At the same time, The Void is hard in more subtle ways. Mainly, it never explains itself. The tutorial is misleading. The game provides you with information vital for your survival after you have figured it out yourself. Many game mechanics are totally obscure. Let me give you one example. Once you paint a tree with Color, it yields more of the same color in the next cycle. It bears twice as less Color in the following cycle, and so on, until it becomes "depleted". When you want to harvest a depleted tree, a message will pop up, "It can be revived in a few cycles". But what is a few cycles? Two, or five - or ten? This piece of information might be absolutely crucial to the planning of your future progress. In fact, different kinds of trees are revived after a different number of cycles. Of course, you can find this information on the game's forums, but that doesn't change the fact that the game is secretive.
Most of the information about both the game's fictional world and the game mechanics come from NPCs, especially the Sisters. But the information is invariably cryptic and vague, and frankly, some NPCs just plain lie to you. Aya, one of the Sisters, tells you "Oh, guest... You really do not comprehend...", which sums up the situation quite nicely. In another great stroke of minimalist design, the main character is mute, so he cannot really ask any questions. He has to rely on a dissonant fugue of other characters' voices who may or may not be honest with him.

Basically, you are left to explore the mechanics yourself. This brings about an unsettling feeling of uncertainty. Yes, you actually do feel lost and stranded in a strange and dangerous world whose laws you do not understand. I said before that I liked strange games. I also like games with worlds which I can get lost in. I think that being lost is one of the most intense ways of experiencing a world, including the world we live in. I also think that the sensation of being lost is slowly being eradicated from game design in favor of making sure that the player knows what to do at all times. The question is, can this sensation be communicated without the prohibitive difficulty? I'm not offering an easy answer. Actually, my question leads to another, more controversial one: Is difficulty a means of expression in games, or just a mere matter of fine-tuning of the mechanics? Is difficulty meaningful?

3.Give and take
I mentioned that the fiction of the game is very tightly coupled with the game mechanics. Even the "conversations" with NPCs hardly ever refer to anything not intimately connected to the rules of the game. There is a master narrative - that of the ascension to the world above, a world that you get glimpses of as the game progresses, but I will not attempt to interpret the game as a whole. Instead I will focus on the core mechanics of "metabolism".
As you gather Color, you collect it in the form of lympha. You have only limited storage for lympha. To survive in the pathways of the Void (on the map), you have to fill your hearts (you will have up to 21 of them) with Color. You do so manually. Once you have no Color in your hearts, you die. On the map, with each tick of the game clock the Color from your hearts is being transformed into nerva and stored in your palette - that is the Color you can paint with. The storage space for nerva is also limited.

The body screen: Lympha on the right, body with hearts in the middle, palette with nerva on the left

This mechanic implies very interesting dynamics: First of all, the process that gives you power is also killing you. That in itself requires careful balancing of your actions. Secondly, there is no possibility of long-term accumulation of resources. The Color flows through your hearts constantly and you must be always hunting for new color. Thirdly, you can hold only so much nerva in your palette, which makes you use it or give it to the Sisters. Sister Ima says it herself:

"You're only a vessel. A still, converting the old into the new. You grow nerva, yes, but there's nothing great about that. A heroic deed would be giving away all thay you have grown. (...) Only you can grow Color, kind Guest. It's your nature to try to pass our entire world through your body."

You are caught in an endless cycle of hunting, planting and giving away. You must check your hearts all the time; you are always on the move. There is no moment in which you can just sit back and look back at what you have accomplished. Only within the chambers can you take your time and reflect - although the chambers get more and more dangerous in the course of the game.
In terms of gameplay experience, this is part survival horror, part life - pure biological life without capital and without property. All that you own is in your hearts. You might have have a garden of trees, yes, but there is no guarantee a Brother will not come and ravage it. You let the Color flow through your body and pass it on. This makes both taking and giving of color enjoyable. There are other incentives for giving, too. When you fill a tree with color, it will ultimately yield more color than you painted it with. And of course, the best known fact about the game is that by filling up the Sisters' hearts, you unshackle and undress them and that they do these little dances for you. It is more tasteful than it sounds. Even when you realize that the purpose of a Sister is to "give new life" and come to the conlusion that filling their hearts from your palette is in fact a mystical sexual communion.

Drawing the glyph of giving on Sister Eli

But again it all comes down to life. The unique experience of living in the Void is that you feel your hearts beating and converting lympha to nerva, that you are in hyper-awareness of your bodily functions and your mortality. For the main character, the Void is a proving ground for life in the world above, where he wants to ascend.

I made three points about the things I found fascinating about the game. How does it relate to its use of the video game medium?
1. The laws of the game's world correspond very closely with the rules of the game, therefore the player enters a very intimate relationship with it. Dream worlds give designers freedom. Also, a dream world does not mean a world without rules. It can be a world abstract enough to fit the rules. Dream and nightmare worlds are often used in smaller abstract games (Time Fcuk comes to mind), but even a bigger 3D project like The Void can sustain it.
2. The player never gets full briefing on the rules of the game. Discovering them is a painstaking, but rewarding process. Having no clue is also a meaningful experience.
3. The game mechanics abstract and adjust the very basic procedures of our life, while giving them an interesting ethical spin. You consume and generate energy, which is to be passed on, not wasted on one's self.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DEUS EX VIENNA. 16-color lifetime achievement

I am back from Vienna, from the amazingly friendly Future and Reality of Gaming conference. I will try to sum up my impressions of the conference later, now I'd like to share the topic of my talk.

First, some personal history. Last fall, while living in Willow Street in Cambridge, MA, I rediscovered the weirdest game of the 1980's - Automata UK's Deus Ex Machina. I thought it would be a nice fun event to do a real-time playthrough of the game in the Gambit Game Lab, where I was a visiting researcher at the time. Each playthrough of the game takes exactly 45 minutes, as it is to be synchronized with the audio soundtrack. The invitation for the event read:

A Bizarre Multimedia Experience straight from 1984
50 minutes of awe!
Projected on a moderately big screen!

Somewhere between Shakespeare and The Wall, between Breakout and the Holodeck, there is Deus Ex Machina.

Designed by the repeatedly failed visionary Mel Croucher, who not only wrote the game, but also played banjo, Korg Vocoder and a zillion of other instruments on the game's soundtrack, this is probably the first commercial art house game. It came on two cassette tapes, one with the game, the other with the soundtrack, which was to be synced with the computer program.
In many ways, it was a total failure, which brought its publisher Automata UK Ltd. to bankruptcy; in many ways it's an amazingly non-conformist take on computer entertainment, which left the reviewers baffled, disoriented and strangely pleased.

The game, whose treads the thin line between artsy and campy, takes the player through the Seven stages of man, each one a different minigame, hinting at comparisons with both Will Wright's Spore and Jason Roher's Passage. The soundtrack features compositions such as "I'm the Fertilizing Agent" and "War Crimes Are Easy" and bears eerie resemblance to trip hop, which was to arrive many years later. Also, it features John Pertwee of the Doctor Who fame and some other British actors who used to be famous in 1984.

A playthrough of Deus Ex Machina takes exactly the duration of the soundtrack to finish, which is why it is such a great game to play and screen with curious friends and colleagues. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of the game running on a emulator will be synced with an MP3 of the audio track, the keyboard will be passed around (you cannot win or lose the game, anyways) to anybody who wants to play and the rest will get carried away by the immersive 256x192 attribute-clashing visuals and insane soundtrack.

For the talk, I did an interview with the author/auteur Mr. Mel Croucher (he's still a witty, sarcastic and eccentric guy) and did a detailed analysis of the game. I will post the whole paper when it's done, but for now, you should at least try Deus Ex Machina yourselves (if you haven't seen it yet). Download a ZX Spectrum emulator for your system, the game and the audio. I'm always surprised by how positive people's reactions to the game are and how much they love the music. Initial distrust and condescending smile always gives way to involvement, immersion and singing along.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

GAMERS' BAD CONSCIENCE: Moral emotions in games & other news

The semester is over and I am reading through my students' essays and assignments. I realize that it is very hard, almost impossible, for some of them to write anything else than a game review. The question is: to buy, or not to buy. Or rather: to download illegally, or not? This confirms what José Zagal wrote about in his paper on teaching about digital games.
Apart from that, my paper about "moral" decisions in single-player games just made it into a book called Ethics and Game Design. It basically explores the feelings of guilt and bad conscience we get while playing scoundrels in video games. Kicking innocents, teaming up with vampires, abusing doctors sans frontiers, such things. I tried to come up with a model (oh yes, a model!) of what has to be considered while thinking about our moral emotions in gameplay. Of course, much of what I'm talking about came up in the discussions in the Valuable Games Harvard-MIT sessions, which I dearly miss. Another source of inspiration was John Walker's incessantly entertaining and disturbing account of playing evil in Knights Of The Old Republic.
It was one of those papers that make you read stuff, read more stuff, turn your brain into jelly and read some more. I read many an investigation on moral decision-making and moral identities. Most of them were even completely useless for my purposes. In the end, I found that Prinz's and Greene's neo-Humean (and relativistic) take on moral emotions were most inspiring. Especially Greene's dissertation is great read, although I did not find it as shocking as the author seems to think it is. I guess I had already been a moral relativist. See you in hell.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

BOBBIN ATTACKS BRNO: Loom paper, teaching game studies (updated)

The editor of eLudamos, the journal I submitted my close reading of Loom to, turned out to be a big fan of the game as well. The result is that the Loom paper, my labor of love (and given it's not that long, it was actually a lot of labor), was published and it is now your turn to read it, comment, agree, or disagree. It's here.
In other news, I started teaching game studies at the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University in Brno. It's a full-on assault, seven 3-hour lectures total, with attendance of over 70 people, many of whom have very interesting gaming histories (there's even a fan of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream). It is a part of their Interactive Media Theory programme whose existence is fitting given that Brno is the Czech capital of game industry with 2K Czech and others having their offices there.

Update: My friend Clara Fernandez has just sent me images from the last FuturePlay conference in Toronto. To have this post visually stimulating, I'm going to put one of them right here... Or, is it stimulating?

Thursday, January 22, 2009


I've always loved Loom and had this feeling that even though The Secret of Monkey Island is the classic graphic adventure game, Loom is more... special. It has got a unique interface, in which you play melodies at things instead of using objects on objects - thus eliminating the inventory. It has a very deep and mysterious, however sparsely sketched, story. And it also attracted me by being a black sheep of the Lucasfilm's oeuvre.
Inspired by detailed analyses of games my Gambit colleagues Doris Rusch, Matt Weise and Clara Fernandéz-Vara wrote for the forthcoming Well Played book, I revisited Loom again to try to find out what's so special about it. I also read some online reviews that called Loom "the buddhist of videogames", for example, and tried to capture the elusive magic of the game in words. The recurring theme of fan reviews is the notion of lightness and intangibility.
I totally agree with them. But what intrigued me is how these feelings are brought about by the game's narrative and interface (especially given that adventure games are by many considered clumsy and not gamey enough). So I decided to write an "academic review" of the game.

I submitted the whole paper to the game studies journal Eludamos, so I cannot repeat the whole thing here. But in principle, Loom is a damn smart game. Instead of sucking the player in by the standard immersion techniques, it rather takes Bobbin, the main protagonist, out of the game world. He is a weaver, a member of a tribe that can alter the fabric universe with their magic of music, just like the player can control the game. He cannot bring any objects with himself on his journey, just as the player cannot bring any real-world objects into games. These parallels run very deep on all possible levels. Moreover, the identification of the player with Bobbin is made easier by him not having a face.
I spent so much time dissecting Loom that it bordered on obsession. Hopefully the paper will be published - and maybe it will even inspire people to look for smartness in games or to make smart games. If it is, I will instantly link it from here. Of course, there will be no screenshots, for reasons explained in the previous post.