on Thursday, September 27, 2012
Sexism in gaming is most frequently discussed in terms of objectified women in scant clothing that pervade action games. But let's not forget other, arguably more insidious forms. Like this deal from Amazon: The Viva Big Bundle of Games for Girls. Because girls certainly only care about Riding Academy 2 or the classic, My Boyfriend. Anyway, here's a screenshot of this wonderful collection in case the promo page gets taken down when the sale is over:

I find it pretty awful. Why not just call it something like the Kids Animals Pack or something and omit My Boyfriend?
on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A recent paper by film critic Thomas Elsaesser (Elsaesser, T. 2011, New Review of Film and Television Studies 9, 247) offers an interesting take on how certain Hollywood  movies invoke interpretation in the spectators. (You may want to at least skim it before reading this post.) He posits that a new sort of auteurism ("post-auteur") has arisen, and he discusses it by analyzing the work of James Cameron, especially his Avatar. In short:
This (for lack of a better word) post-auteur authorship can usefully be discussed in the case of Cameron under several headings: auto-representation and personalized narrative, affective engagement with diverse publics, ambition to effect through technology a change of paradigm. The first I shall discuss as 'control through access for all', the second as 'control through switches of premise and double binds', and the third as 'control through performed self-contradiction'.
The control that is essential for any auteur theory is thus manifesting itself in a new way. Without reiterating the whole analysis, Elsaesser argues that Cameron carefully systematizes control of the audience's reactions by presenting mixed signals that induce cognitive dissonances. These dissonances "provoke the spectator into actively producing his or her own reading, in order to disambiguate the 'mixed messages' or to untie the knot of the double bind." Each spectator, then, arrives at a reading of the text that is at once at odds with the film and other readings but which results in a stronger "'ontological commitment' on the part of the viewer to his or her particular interpretation – a commitment that works in favour of the affective bond formed with a given film."

But what does this have to do with video games? It strikes me that this is essentially a description of how interactive media functions with its audience. The narrative contradictions that create this effect – dubbed "cognitive switches" by Elsaesser – manifest themselves in games as player choice. The dissonance that a filmic auteur like Cameron can choose to create in his audience is inherent to all interactive media by virtue of the changing experience from play-through to play-through. While Avatar induces different experiences in the spectators' minds, interactive media makes these differences literal in the text. While an author of interactive media may be able to achieve a level of control that fixes the number available readings, the default mode of creating meaning is one of these cognitive switches because the player is forced to make ontological commitments toward a particular reading with every interactive choice.

Game critics often compare interactive media to filmic media, and we often interpret games using cinematic modes of thinking. Game developers, too, clearly follow many cinematic conventions in structuring their games. Most commonly, this approach manifests itself as a straightforward discussion of narrative structure and visual presentation. These modes of interpretation lie squarely within the bounds of classical narratological arugments and types of spectatorship such as the voyeurism of feminist film theory. But these methods are clearly inadequate for games, which require ludic approaches as well. In games, the spectator is empowered, so we cannot, either in design or interpretation, use only passive approaches in our thinking. We cannot apply passive film theories to active games.

What film critics like Elsaesser make clear, however, is that filmic media, especially within certain recent trends, also create meaning within an active context analogous to that of games. We see this spectator empowerment emerging prominently with the rise in popularity of "puzzle films" or "mindgame films" (see, for example, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, 2009, ed. W. Buckland, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell for an extensive treatment or the extensive bibliography over at Film Studies for Free). Auteurs such as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman, M. Night Shyamalan, and others are disorienting spectators in ways that reward detailed pattern recognition, and they are crafting films with viewing experiences that are substantially different on subsequent viewings. To extensively quote Elsaesser from his chapter in the aforementioned Puzzle Film edition,
[T]he main effect of the mind-game film is to disorient the audience, and put up for discussion the spectator–screen relationship. The notable emergence (some would argue: reemergence) of mind-game films since the mid-1990s would be one sign of this "crisis," to which they are the solution at a meta-level.... [T]he mind-game films set out to aggravate the crisis, in that the switches between epistemological assumptions, narrational habits, and ontological premises draw attention to themselves, or rather, to the "rules of the game." These rules, in addition to what has already been said about them, favor pattern recognition (over identification of individual incidents), and require cinematic images to be read as picture puzzles, data-archives, or "rebus-pictures" (rather than as indexical, realistic representations).

Thus, what appears as ambiguity or "Gestalt-switch" at the level of perception, reception,and interpretation is merely confirmation of strategy at the level of production and marketing: with the mind-game film, the "institution cinema" is working on "access for all," and in particular, on crafting a multi-platform, adaptable cinema film, capable of combining the advantages of the "book" with the usefulness of the "video-game:" what I have called the DVD-enabled movie, whose theatrical release or presence on the international film festival circuit prepares for its culturally more durable and economically more profitable afterlife in another aggregate form. Which would lead one to conclude that the mind-game films make "mind-games" out of the very condition of their own (im)possibility: they teach their audiences the new rules of the game, at the same time as they are yet learning them themselves.
We thus see that recent films have activated the spectator by changing their artistic mode, and that this style is partially driven by the multi-platform, database-like way that we now consume media. Just as cinema has so informed how we structure games, there is little doubt that games have changed how we consume cinema.

What I hope to accomplish with this post is to demonstrate that filmic media, especially in the last few decades, activates its audiences in ways apart from narrative and cinematic images, which are the typical, but insufficient, points of comparison to games. These films empower the spectator to discover their rule-sets and make ontological choices, not unlike players do in games. The grammar of film studies is well-developed, but critics are just beginning to grapple with these new types of active interpretation and consumption. As game critics grappling with the same difficulties, we would do well to understand how an active audience informs our understanding of film, because that will certainly inform our understanding of interactive media as well.
on Monday, September 3, 2012

    • Biart
    • Simulator, First Person Shooter
    • Release: Jan 18, 2012 (US)
    • Platforms: PC

    Some projects feel as if they were created without purpose or direction. They stumble along with no idea how to achieve their goals, because their goals never really existed in the first place. To my great disappointment, Depth Hunter is one such title. As a diving game (or is it a shooting game?), it had a unique niche of the gaming world to explore; it sadly left it empty.

    Depth Hunter touts itself as a "Spearfishing Simulator." This is sort-of true; you always have a spear gun with which you can shoot fish underwater, which you then attempt to haul in by managing the tension on the line. This is trivially easy if the fish is within about 8 meters and impossibly difficult outside of that. The problem is that there is no real reason to kill these fish. The game has a campaign mode of sorts, in which you are placed in the water and given tasks to complete. These tasks come one after another without context; you will be told to kill two fish of a certain species and then you will be told to kill as many fish as you can with a certain time frame. Sometimes, the tasks aren't fishing related at all. The player might have to find certain "treasure" objects on the sea floor or photograph a certain number of moray eels. The photography tasks are particularly bizarre; the player must find a correct angle that changes an on-screen number to 100% before the screen capture will count. All of these tasks take place over two of the game's three locales.

    In short, the campaign lacks direction, which makes it astoundingly uninteresting and painfully boring. It injects arbitrary tasks into the player's exploration of the game world, seemingly because it is undecided as to whether it wants to be a linear, goal-oriented game or an open-ended, environmental-exploration driven game. It therefore does neither well, despite having ample opportunity to do something unique with either. By injecting a goal-oriented game mode, it suggests a narrative and character for the player. Indeed, the players boat sits on the surface of every level. I was profoundly disappointed that I could not get out of the water and into the boat. Aside from the potential as a fast-travel mechanism or a place to change your loadout like you would expect for a simulator, it would have allowed the game to create a real character motivation. The game could have, for example, given the player a back-story to motivate the tasks; that narrative could have uniquely explored any number of subjects, such as the economies of traditional fishing cultures, the impact of tourism, or even just a competitive sport-related theme. But the game does nothing, and the tasks appear pointlessly.

    One might note, however, that a narrative is not essential to a game. In a game-world, the environment itself might construct meaning and engagement. And it very well could have here. A fully realized ocean environment could provide more than enough content. It could act in an educational fashion, for example, elucidating the mysteries of reef environments or the perils that they currently face. Alternately, the game-world could simply create wonder in its audience with a truly beautiful, detailed, interactive world. Before beginning my playthrough, I hopefully recalled the under-appreciated Mini Ninjas (dev. IO Interactive, dirs. Jeremy Petreman & Henrik Hansen, 2009), a narrative action-adventure game that sometimes slows to encourage calm wonder at the beautiful, stylized environment as the player-character floats slowly on rivers while fishing. Such moments are not attempted by Depth Hunter.

    Depth Hunter is too poorly realized to pull off any of these things. The few types of fish in the world have even fewer behaviors. Big creatures (manta rays, sharks, moray eels) don't react at all; they swim in a fixed pattern or sit stationary. Small fish either swim back and forth or swim away if approached too close. It's good that they swim away if you get close, because the models and textures aren't particularly detailed or convincing. They are far better than the repetitive, plastic-looking ground textures, though, which are decorated by the same piece of coral thousands of times. The whole art design is just far too simplistic for the environment it tries to capture, so none of it works. Perhaps if it had attempted a more stylized design, such low detail could have worked, but the game attempts a veneer of realism that clashes with what it actually achieves. Couple that with the total lack of interactivity, and there is simply no content in the environment to drive the game.

    Ultimately, I suspect that Depth Hunter was conceived as a something like a tech demo for its game engine, and that no one really thought about how the game should function. Its disparate elements (spearfishing, photography, explorable underwater worlds) never cohere, and none is done well enough to be anything of note on its own. I applaud Biart for taking an uncommon premise to production, but that is about the only praise I have to offer. I wish a game would really run with the underwater exploration conceit; sadly, Depth Hunter does nothing but botch it.

    Technical note: I hate having to discuss mundane software issues, but it's worth noting that Depth Hunter validates your serial number on every start up. About a quarter of the time, however, it seems to fail, at least on my machine. I'm not sure if this is some sort of broken, local check or if it is trying to connect to the developer for validation, but it is annoying nonetheless. Restarting the game usually corrects the problem, at least until the next time it goes awry.

    on Thursday, August 23, 2012

      • E. McNeill
      • Real time strategy
      • Release: Unknown, out now.
      • Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Android

      Auralux is a study of sorts. It is an experiment, like Eufloria before it, in the most basic mechanics that define a real-time strategy game; it attempts to boil the genre down and show us how it works. There are no tech trees here, and there is certainly no grand historical context for a setting. There are no control groups, and you will not need to memorize scores of hotkeys. Auralux simplifies in the extreme: one unit, one command, plain primary colors against black.

      The one unit at your command is a simple dot, and the one command they accept is a move command with the cursor. These are produced at capturable, sun-like spheres (your production "buildings") laid out in geometric patterns to comprise a game map. Red, green, and the player's own blue each begin with one sphere on every map. When a dot encounters a dot of another color, they annihilate each other, and if many are tasked on an enemy or untaken sphere, they enter it to capture it. With more spheres, more dots are produced. Capturing all of the spheres on map means victory, and there are 24 maps of varying sizes and difficulties waiting to challenge the player. The complications are few and far between: Sometimes spheres can be upgraded to produce more dots, and the player has the option of playing in a high-speed mode. There also seems to be a population cap on the larger maps; I found this slightly disappointing because it is an extraneous rule in a highly simplified system. It is likely a necessary feature, though, to ensure smooth functioning on a variety of systems.

      It's easy to see how this setup relates to more standard RTSs. Micromanagement has been (mostly) eliminated, so all decisions are of the strategic, macromanagement variety. At any given moment, you have only the decision of where to commit your units. They can stay to defend or move to attack an enemy, or they can be invested in an unoccupied or upgradable sphere. The former actions comprise the combat aspect of RTSs, the latter is a simplified economy. The game becomes interesting because this reductive version of the RTS formula still leads to familiar, if smaller, versions of common RTS tactics, strategies, and battles. It calls attention to the types of balance that make such games successful, and it allows us to see how they function in great detail. For example, difficulty in Auralux is controlled largely by the starting positions of the three colors. In developing a successful tactic for a given map, the player must develop a way to balance the organization of the map before the other colors gain too strong a foothold. It quickly teaches the player the different ways that positioning can affect game balance.

      As much as this minimalist approach amplifies the strengths and subtleties of RTS games, it also, perhaps to Auralux's detriment, highlights weaknesses. People have always railed against strategy game AIs, and nowhere is AI weakness more apparent than here. In a way, perhaps by accident, this is an interesting commentary on the weakness of RTS games compared to other genres. Unfortunately, however, Auralux fails to adequately explore the impacts of AI opponents because it has only one type, and that type is not sophisticated enough. An AI that fails to implement or defend against flanking moves is hardly an AI worth discussing; an attack away from the front lines always catches the AI off-guard here. This severely undermines the emergent complexity of the game, and reduces the game's power to illuminate strategic mechanics. It means that difficulty and complexity of planning are functions only of uneven starting positions and army sizes - important aspects, but rather uninteresting. I would have loved to see some way of tweaking the AIs or even the ability to pit different AIs against each other.

      Auralux has another major omission with regards to opponents. The game is single-player only, despite the importance of multiplayer to games of this ilk. I'm sure this was a practical decision, arising out of the constraints of making a low-budget, one-developer game, but it nonetheless remains a glaring omission. Without it, the game is small, short, and limited in its ability to explore the genre. We can only wonder about the possibilities it could have offered.

      In a way, Auralux thus becomes a puzzle game. With such constancy in the opponents and their flaws, the player must sleuth out the correct set of moves that the AI can't deal with without destroying each other. Perhaps any sufficiently simplified game system becomes something that we would identify with a puzzle game.

      So where does this all leave us with Auralux? There is no doubt that it is a polished game with a very interesting take on familiar mechanics. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention it's lovely sound design, with spheres pulsing with the music as a battle creates a randomized melody, all emphasizing the rhythm of the gameplay. As a whole, Auralux is enough of an exploration of the genre to leave me interested in further experimentation, but the game's inability to delve deeper because of its lone, primitive AI and lack of multiplayer means that it is inherently flawed. In a game that searches for how complex strategy emerges from simple gameplay rules, an inability to provide an opponent with which to create that complexity is an unforgivable limitation, even given the game's considerable strengths.

      Update: See the comments section of this post for a response from the developer of Auralux.
      on Saturday, July 28, 2012

      • Charlie Hoey, Pete Smith, Dylan Valentine, Michael DiMotta
      • Platformer
      • Release: 2011
      • Platforms: PC, Mac

      Sometimes, it's difficult to know where the packaging ends and the art begins. Are the original frames of paintings intrinsic to their presentation, or are they merely containers? Are the liner notes part of the music? Is the packaging part of the game? The Great Gatsby for NES demands that we answer these questions if we are to discover its worth. 

      In 2011, the game's website popped up and went viral on the internet. The main page on the website contains a flash applet. After apparently loading an "NES ROM," a simple, 8-bit-style platformer with the title "The Great Gatsby" appears. The packaging (i.e., the website) adds more details, though: it provides elaborate "scans" of the "original" NES manual and packaging. A photo of an NES cartridge also appears, and the website states that it is a prototype game found at a garage sale. Of course, all of this is a fiction; the game is an original creation written in Flash (and even open-sourced).

      Evidently waiters walk on the windows at Gatsby's house?
      The game itself is simple. It is a pixel-perfect representation of mediocre, early platformers. We have a setting and list of characters derived from the namesake novel, but none of the plot or development. Our protagonist, Nick Carraway, throws his hat at flappers and drunks while bounding from platform to platform with the precision of the best platformers of the 8-bit era. The setting of the novel is captured perfectly, with a moody-blue color palette and a gorgeous, melancholy score. But the game as a whole lacks motivation or purpose, as Eric Lockaby noted. Indeed, one of the first characters that we encounter in the game is Owl Eyes, who, as in the book, marvels that Gatsby's books are real. They are not empty of their pages or content, as we might expect from the superficial nature of his parties and home. This, perhaps, is the key to understanding the game.

      The game and its website, it seems, are expressing that empty feeling that occurs between expectation and delivery. Everyone that played games during the 8- and 16-bit eras knew it. The packaging for expensive games showed gorgeous, exciting illustrations while promising complex game mechanics driven by narrative purpose. Gaming had such potential! More often than not, however, the games were primitive and purposeless. The games were a novel and fun use of technology, sure, but ultimately most were empty of procedural purpose that could give them meaning and deliver on our expectations. Here, the player is asked to recall those feelings by viewing the artificial packaging materials and playing the game that does not live up to them. The use of The Great Gatsby to recreate this feeling is a brilliant choice. The novel itself deals, among other things, with how society's perceptions and superficialities shape our lives. It uses memorable symbols that are often simple objects (e.g., possibly empty books, a billboard ad) intrinsically devoid of meaning but that are imbued with purpose by the characters and the narrative. How appropriate, then, that this game about missed expectations is full of these symbols but never uses them with purpose.

      Such an evocation of the disappointment with gaming in a particular era immediately suggests comparison to modern gaming. The game may be asking us to remember that recognition of untapped potential and wonder if we still experience it today. Could we adapt a classic novel today, and have the gameplay give it purpose? Has (or will) gaming had (or have) its The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane? In an era where game advertising budgets number in the millions of dollars, we must wonder if the pre-rendered trailers we see on TV are the modern equivalent of those exciting pictures on the covers of NES boxes. In The Great Gatsby for NES, we don't really know Nick Carraway's ultimate goal, and we don't seem to know our goals with interactive media, either. The fact that a simple platformer and its website can evoke these feelings and questions make it a quite interesting work of interactive media, and a game well worth playing.

      on Wednesday, May 23, 2012

      • Going Loud Studios
      • Action, platformer
      • Release: Nov 2, 2011 (US)
      • Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA), PC (version reviewed), Mac

      In cinema, short films are a remarkable variation on the medium that allow for themes to be explored concisely and in isolation. The same is true for short stories in literature. In games, however, players far too often criticize titles that fail to consume many hours of the gamers' time. DLC Quest, however, stands an excellent example of a "short game," showing the error in judging games based on play time. It artfully exploits its medium for satire, and it uses every moment that it spends with you to its very fullest.

      There is no shortage of motivation in this narrative.
      DLC Quest takes the hyper-commercialization of the video game industry as its theme. As a satire on gaming itself, it is fitting that the game takes the form of 2D side-scrolling platformer, perhaps the most prototypical of video game types. The player takes control of a pixelated main character, and motivation for the game is provided, quite literally, by a princess kidnapped by a bad guy. The format immediately evokes comparison to games like the Mario series and the differences in their business models. The game's humor and gameplay really comes to the forefront when the player first tries to move, only to realize that there are no features to this game other than moving to the right. Soon, we stumble upon a shopkeeper who reveals the game's conceit; we must collect coins to buy fictional DLC.

      There is no need to discuss the individual DLC. Each is itself a humorous take on real DLC packages that are sold all of the time, and many highlight the importance of aspects of video game design often taken for granted (such as sound design). They are slowly revealed as the player explores the colorful, expansive level. There is no real difficulty here. Rather that creating the frustrated tension that arises from danger and difficulty in other games, DLC Quest creates tension through mild frustration at missing features. The catharsis, of course, is the humorous reveal of the DLC you eventually earn. These events are punctuated by "awardments," little acheivements (like Steam acheivements or PSN trophies) that seem entirely arbitrary. The game pulls no punches in poking fun at the Pavlovian motivation that drive so many games - there is no shortage of coins to collect and awardments to unlock in this world. Ironically, some of these, like the coins, manage to poke fun at meaningless collectibles on another level by actually being essential to the gameplay of this title. It is a clever device indeed.

      DLC Quest never overstays its welcome. In less than an hour, the game has been exhausted. But that is when the game reveals its greatest irony of all: the game was great fun despite the paucity of DLC and features. Many recent high-profile indie titles have been held of as examples of art in gaming, but perhaps we should also be looking at DLC Quest when considering such topics. Like the greatest short films, it is perfectly edited to use its entire running time in the service of its themes. Its gameplay and the charming humor of the simple narrative work together seamlessly to fully exploit the gaming medium so as to create the satire. The game is both enjoyable and insightful. In short, DLC Quest works wonderfully.

      UPDATE (2013-04-17): DLC Quest now features an additional story campaign. This update is not part of what is discussed above, and, indeed, I feel that the padded length actually reduces the effectiveness of the conceit.
      on Sunday, May 20, 2012
      I've always been a bit annoyed by games like Nintendo's Brain Age series (also known as the Brain Training series in some regions) for the DS. The marketing for these products is very clear in its implications: playing these games will improve your mental skills and capacity. And yet, to support such a sweeping claim would require a great deal of empirical study that Nintendo has not undertaken. Indeed, Nintendo, despite the implications of their marketing, carefully distances themselves from explicit claims of effectiveness. Nintendo's head of US marketing, when pushed on the matter, affirms that Nintendo is simply "in the entertainment business." This dissonance between marketing, official position, and public perception naturally raises the question of what actual utility Brain Age does or does not offer. I'll try to summarize here what research is available on the matter.

      Perhaps it's best to start with the origins of the games. Who is that goofy face that gives you advice on how to play? As one could quickly infer from the name plastered all over the titles, Brain Age was inspired by the work of Tohoku University neuroscience professor Dr Ryuta Kawashima; the game draws heavily from his book, Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain. The book is written as a fun self-help guide, and it directly states that users will be able to prevent mental deterioration and will have "more neurons and neural connections." To support these claims, the book simply states that the exercises derive from the "latest research" from Kawashima's "neuroscience lab." Though two simple, qualitative sketches of experiments are given, there are no citations of the actual research. As a result, we'll have to go elsewhere to find out what such exercises really do.

      Before we focus on the Brain Age software itself, let's look at more general results. A number of studies have looked at the effects of cognitive stimulation, often in the form of computer-based tasks, on the impact of dementia and/or Alzheimer's in elderly people. For example, Spector et al. (2003) engaged a group of people suffering from dementia with a form of cognitive stimulation therapy consisting of exercises not dissimilar to the Brain Age games. They found improvements in mental state and quality of life due to the exercises that were comparable to those induced by drugs for dementia. Similarly, Belleville et al (2006) looked at a sample of 47 elderly, many with mild cognitive impairment, were treated with "tasks of episodic memory" such as list-recall and association tasks. They found a statistically significant improvement in treated groups over the control group. Other groups have focused directly on the preventative effects of such tasks with respect to Alzheimer's disease. Raúl de la Fuente-Fernández (2006) found that small changes in cognitive activity can result in large reductions in the rate of Alzheimer's in the population studied. It has also been suggested that computer-based tasks can lead to improvements in unrelated tasks such as driving in the elderly. All of these studies, along with many others, suggest that tasks that require cognitive activity, like, presumably, the Brain Age games, can help fend off mental decline as one ages.

      Other research has focused on the use of games in people of a variety of ages. Even Kawashima's own research group is involved in an ongoing, but incomplete, study of the use of the game GO as an intervention tool with elementary students. The evidence for positive impact in cognitive ability due to brain training games at other ages is less clear, however. For example, Owen et al. (2010) conducted a six week online study of 11430 participants. They were subjected to a variety of tasks similar to those found in commercially available brain training software.  Though the participants were seen to improve on the tasks that they were performing in their training, the study found no significant effect on other tasks, even if they were cognitively similar to the training tasks. This study casts extreme doubt on the argument that tasks like those provided by Brain Age can improve the mental skills of healthy adults.

      But what about Brain Age specifically? Learning and Teaching Scotland conducted a study of 634 Scottish elementary students from 32 schools who used Brain Age daily. They found moderate increases in learning due to the game. Unfortunately, this study does not appear to be peer reviewed. Additionally, the tests used to measure learning gains were only simple arithmetic tests nearly identical to parts of the Brain Age game; a more general test was not used. Further, it is an observational study without a proper control group. As such, these results must be viewed skeptically. Indeed, work by Alain Lieury reports on a study of ten year olds who used Brain Age. He found that students who spent their time on Brain Age performed 17 percent worse than a control group on a battery of tests. Students who used their time on pen-and-paper exercises rather than Brain Age performed 33 percent better than the control group. Lieury extrapolates to adults, suggesting that "if it doesn't work on children, it won't work on adults." Unfortunately, this study, too, does not appear to be available in peer-reviewed form, and all of its details are not available. The sample size is also somewhat small. From what information is available, however, it seems to successfully refute the Scottish study. Kawashima himself has also been involved with studies that investigate Brain Age's effectiveness. One such study compared the use of Brain Age to Tetris in a small sample of 28 healthy elderly persons. Though the study finds a moderate improvement in certain tasks after training with Brain Age, it finds comparable improvements due to Tetris use. In other tasks, however, both groups do not improve and sometimes even do worse.

      The net implications of all of these studies seem fairly clear, at least in a qualitative sense. Cognitive activity seems to help stave off mental decline and disease that comes with old age. In healthy populations, whether adult or juvenile, the effects are less clear. Cognitive training may have very modest effects, but no study has conclusively demonstrated a significant one. Brain Age in particular, however, does not seem particularly good at causing any improvements in any population when compared to any other activity. In school children, it may or may not have a positive impact, but, in any case, it does not perform significantly better than any other training activity, including traditional ones. In the elderly, a larger positive benefit is seen, but, again, it is no better than other games, such as Tetris. In short, the literature suggests that there is no compelling reason to play Brain Age over any other game with a goal of improving mental capabilities. Brain Age should be regarded as an entertainment game like any other, unless new evidence comes to light suggesting otherwise. Nintendo's marketing for the game, then, is misleading at best and outright incorrect at worst.
      on Saturday, May 19, 2012

      • Remedy Entertainment, Rockstar
      • Action, third person shooter
      • Release: Dec 6, 2001 (US)
      • Platforms:  PC, PS2 (version played), Xbox, Mac, iOS, PS3, Xbox360

      Max Payne is a game of legacies. The character is driven by the legacy of his past, a past that he can't escape. The game itself is driven by the legacies of media. It never lets the player forget its love of film noir, but it knows that it is bound by the conventions of action video games. It all comes together quite well, most of the time, and it remains one of the highlights of its era.

      I'll start by noting that I played Max Payne on the wrong platform. This is a PC game through and through. The precision required for the shooting demands a mouse instead of analog sticks, and flexibility in saving makes the whole thing more enjoyable. Even among console versions, the PS2 port that I played is probably the worst. The frequent and lengthy loading screens are excruciating, and the system's shortcomings continually remind you of what you're playing on. But I don't want to dwell on such details.

      The game begins in media res, with Max atop a sky scraper. As in so many film noir titles, the game convolutes itself, and we find ourselves taking control of things years earlier at the senseless death of his family. The loss of his family leads Max to go undercover for the DEA, and he quickly finds himself embroiled in a mess of a violent conspiracy.

      The game quickly makes it apparent that the initial plot and structure similarities to film noir are no accident and that a comparison to those works is meant to be noticed. Max seems to think of himself as a noir anti-hero, comparing himself to Bogart in his dramatically-phrased voiceovers. The third person perspective works well to emphasizes this comparison, as it affords the player a more cinematic viewpoint than would a first person shooter. The much-discussed bullet time mechanic, in which the player can slow time and execute a series of difficult shots, ties into this cinematic perspective in addition to working as a fun shooting mechanism. It allows the player a new viewpoint, one in which the scene can be taken in with the leisure that watching a film affords. Indeed, upon firing a sniper round or eliminating the last enemy on a level, the game shows a slowed down, up-close rendition of the gore.

      But why is the game doing this? Perhaps the developers are commenting on the elevation of gaming media to the level of cinema in terms of artistic respect. Noir is an ideal touchstone; once viewed as mere pulp, it now holds a respected position in the film canon. At one point, in a halucinatory sequence, Max even acknowledges that he may be in a game, and that that is a horrible thing. It is horrible for two reasons. He is doomed to play out his role in one linear direction, and he is doomed to pulp status as a game character instead of a film character.

      Most of the story is told through graphic-novel-like stills with Max's voiceover.  This is a really great way of delivering the narrative. By using an inherently broken-up, episodic delivery, it keeps the momentum going between play sessions by keeping the game from feeling interrupted. It also suggests a comparison to TV, which is prevalent throughout the game world. The voice work for Max does a lot for making this work; it hits just the right combination of pulpiness and realism.

      But the game doesn't execute its thesis perfectly. Certain levels, especially a series of hallucinatory ones, are contrived and aggravating. There are two instances in which the player must balance on a thin line in the dark while solving a maze. These feel like instances in which the developers needed a level to convey the mental state of the character but also wanted it to have a game-like challenge. The failure to integrate the gameplay of these levels into that of the whole weakens the game and frustrates the player. The game also devolves into action a bit too much. By the end, Max is more the mindless action superhero of most shooters than the noir anti-hero. The developers failed, to some extent, to maintain the consistency of his narrative character while also attempting to match the consumer demands of a prototypical shooter; it's an instance of ludonarrative dissonance causing problems.

      The game world conveys a remarkable atmosphere. A cold, uncaring city is rendered about as well as could be done with 2001-era graphics. The world learned the lessons that Half-Life taught us, too: around corners, people are talking, and TVs and radios left on by their last users flesh out the world with both fiction and news. As we have fun exploring and collecting weapons, we see the sort of world building that video games can offer.

      on Monday, May 7, 2012
      Back when Mirror's Edge came out, there was a flurry of writing about it in the online gaming criticism community. I didn't get around to playing it until it recently, so I'm a bit late to the party in posting some thoughts on it. So I'll start by rounding up the existing writing on the game before offering my thoughts.

      What People Have Said
      Some Thoughts From Me

      I can't say too much about Mirror's Edge (hereafter ME) that hasn't already been discussed (I'm just not that original compared to some of these fine folks!), but I want to bring up Faith's role as a female lead again. It seems to me, especially given the developer's stated disappointment at the objectifying fan art, that the game was something of a conscious effort to address the role of female characters in gaming. Personally, I thought the game made some good forward progress in that respect, despite also making a few missteps, so I want to do some brief (and very incomplete) analysis of the game as a whole in that vein. Others have written about how well (or not so well) Faith herself works to address femininity in games, but not too much writing has looked at potential interpretations of other game aspects with respect to the state of female characters in the gaming world. I'll point out just a few things in the game that seem to comment on that topic, mostly in a simple allegorical way.

      If we start from the premise (a mere hypothesis for the sake of this thought experiment) that ME is a commentary on female characters in gaming, it might be worth considering the ME universe as being symbolic of the gaming community. I don't think it's a stretch to assert that no artistic medium can really mature as an art form as long as it inherently excludes large segments of the human population. Gaming, in many critics' eyes, still suffers from this problem to a large extent, though a handful of games have dealt with gender and sex in a more balanced way. In a way, the art design of the ME universe at the largest scales is much like that state of affairs. It is rendered bland by it's lack of color, with only a few bright spots that stand out, not unlike how a medium is rendered ineffectual by lacking inclusion, save for the few developers that manage to do something different. Faith literally bounds from highlight to highlight, as if struggling to find meaning in a world that is otherwise hostile to her.

      The gameplay itself argues for a rejection of the most common gameplay mechanic out there: combat. While the player is capable of fighting, it is a decidedly underpowered mechanic, so Faith's running ability and agility are favored in most situations. Even in combat, most moves don't kill but merely disarm. This is an implicit rejection of most games out there, which often rely on combat alone. Mindless aggression is a common stereotype of the male persona, so such a rejection is a comment, albeit a simple one, on male dominance in games. Just as gameplay mechanics are more interesting when fully developed into multiple modes (Faith still can fight, it just isn't her only move), games as a whole are more interesting when they embrace the whole of human experience, including that of other genders.

      The character development of ME presents a bit of a bigger challenge in this interpretation, and I think that is because the developers missed the mark to a degree as far as the story, and thus character development, goes, as many reviewers have noted. Faith is the obvious one. Refreshingly, she is a strong female lead that, in this interpretation, serves as a proof of concept for a successful female character driven game. She is modeled more like a real woman, in contrast to the heavily objectified and sexualized characters that populate so many other games, and that helps to make the game inclusive and appealing to both men and women. While she is attractive, she is not sexualized simply for the sake of the male gaze. For the most part, I think Faith is a tremendous step forward in character design in games, but she's not without flaws. In some respects, the developers have simply made her a bit of a parody, by having her physically overcome hugely strong men. She's relatively skinny and lacking in muscle, and there is no way such a person could do some of the things she does. To some extent, suspension of disbelief works, but on the other hand, it seems that the developers were having her act like a man while looking like a woman. Still, she works overall.

      There are other characters in ME. I was particularly intrigued by the janitor, arguably the most minor of characters. He (we know he is a he from a note on a computer screen) is unseen, but he leaves notes and objects throughout the levels of ME. He is characterized comically as rather dumb, and he is friends with his pet rat, seen throughout the game. To me, he seems to represent ignorant, but not malevolent, gamers that tacitly support the status quo. They, and he, do this to some extent through expectations for how a game should look and function. An action hero is surely a muscly man, as the janitor assumes in a drawing of the mysterious character who has been knocking down all the red doors. Still, the janitor senses that things aren't quite right, as is seen in another drawing featuring a rat in a cage, surrounded by watching eyes and armed men. Yet another drawing (inside the truck in the level, "The Boat") shows many featureless faces with one unique dark-haired individual, all surrounded by question marks. Perhaps this is the janitor's shock at catching a glimpse at the real main character of ME. I surely missed some of the little details regarding the janitor, as most are barely noticeable, so there is likely a good deal more subtlety in this regard.

      Ultimately, ME seems to take a hopeful view of gaming's future ability to be inclusive of female characters and mature into the art form we all hope it will become. This hope is most elegantly expressed through the beauty of the city. It's grey and, in spots, ugly if you look closely, but upon backing up, you notice that there is a great deal of beauty about it. Indeed, in the final scene we see the city at twilight for the first time, and we see, amidst a sea of colorful blue lights, that it is capable of lighting up. That is one of the lessons of ME. While games are quite imperfect, including ME itself, there is great beauty there now and even more in its future, as long as we keep running forward against the odds.
      on Sunday, May 6, 2012

      • THQ, Digital Extremes
      • Action, FPS
      • Release: Mar 15, 2011 (US)
      • Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3

      Homefront is an encapsulation of the problems that plague many video games. While it has the polish and technical prowess of a top of the line, AAA gaming experience, it falls totally flat due to its inept conception.

      The single player campaign finds the player's character, an American pilot, captive to the Koreans, who have invaded and conquered much of the United States in Homefront's near-future setting. Soon, however, he teams up with a resistance group, with whom the player endeavors to throw a wrench into the Koreans' plans by unleashing a whole lot of violence. As implausible as the premise sounds, that is not the game's problem.

      Nor are the graphics. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine 3, and the developers have managed to adapt it to beautifully render some lovely, open, outdoor landscapes. Because the game centers around a American resistance movement, the setting is is a battered version of suburbia. The battlegrounds are neighborhood streets, the aisles of large abandoned stores, and the open spaces of parking lots and sports fields. It is a competent representation of the premise the story puts forward.

      The control and mechanics work adequately as well. The gunplay holds it own with titles like Call of Duty, and there is no shortage of weapons with which to experiment.

      So why does the single player campaign fail so totally? The answer lies in the story and how the gameplay was used to convey that narrative. These choices are at odds with the game's strengths. The appeal of the implausible premise and setting is the novelty of fighting for a world that attempts to be the some one that the player lives in. One gets to see the destroyed suburbia, and those fighting alongside you are normal, scared people like yourself. A game that makes the most of these strengths would allow the player opportunities for exploration of the environment, perhaps by providing multiple possible routes to achieve objectives. Such a game would develop the characters; their back stories would provide motive for the fighting while exploring how terrible situations change people. The prejudicial tension between Americans of Western European descent compared to those of East Asian descent given the invasion of Koreans could provide fascinating plot points to be explored.

      Homefront, however, does none of these things. The gameplay is linear to a fault. There is frequently one path forward, and that path is always highly scripted in both time and space. You cannot climb a ladder or crawl through a hole until the characters with you go first, and, even then, you will simply press a key that tells the game to do the crawling or climbing for you. You cannot explore the neighborhoods that you must fight through. Only one path forward will be allowed, so there will be no opportunity to look in abandoned houses, stores, or other scenery. It is all merely a backdrop. The other characters, too, are merely a backdrop; though they fight alongside you, they are shallow, undeveloped shells of characters. The main group consists of a tough black guy, a scared woman, and a featureless, techy Asian. Each is an empty stereotype that is present only as a nod to diversity, and none contributes to the story. With no characters to care about, a world that feels tiny despite its large size, and no freedom to accomplish anything, it is very hard to care much about the game as a whole. As a result, there's not too much fun to be had, and there's nothing interesting to think about, either.

      How about the multiplayer? It is highly derivative of the Battlefield series. The maps are pretty decent, and the different game types are standard of the genre. Homefront mixes things up a bit with the introduction of "Battle Points." These points are earned by doing things like killing enemies or achieving objectives. Then they can be spent on vehicles (tanks, trucks, etc), accessories (flak jacket, RPG, etc), or special abilities (like deploying a drone). This adds a touch of new strategy, but in practice it doesn't work too differently from just spawning the items at intervals. The vehicles seem underpowered in this game, and I think much of that issue arises from the non-destructible environment. In Battlefield: Bad Company 2, for example, a tank can force it's way through a flimsy wall or fence; in Homefront, on the other hand, the tank can do nothing to a flimsy fence and is thus easily trapped. This renders the use of vehicles fairly uninteresting. As a whole, the multiplayer can be enjoyable, but it is clearly inferior to several other games.

      As a whole, there is much to learn from Homefront. Despite its high production values, it makes numerous mistakes in its construction of gameplay mechanics and its botched attempt to create an interesting narrative. Further, it has no idea how to combine that narrative with those mechanics, so each fails completely and separately. One can have some fun with Homefront, so perhaps players that simply want a different FPS to play will find enjoyment. But, ultimately, it's a shallow and unfullfilling experience.
      on Tuesday, April 17, 2012
      I'm quite enamored of the free game, The Cat and the Coup. It's a sort of docu-game about Mosaddegh and the Iranian coup, cast as a physics puzzler against a disjointed collage art space. The player controls Mosaddegh's cat, who nudges Mosaddegh to action, as events are told in reverse-chronological order, until the timeline reverses to chronological when the gameplay portion ends. The player is, in a sense, looking back in time only to realize that these things are still progressing forward. But here I just want to talk about one device used in the game. Among many other things, I found the choice of the cat as the player's avatar, as well as other uses of animals in the art design, quite interesting.

      One of the main historical points the game tries to convey is the role of Western powers in orchestrating all of these events. As the little black cat, the player compels Mosaddegh from event to event in his life, by doing things that seem quite inconvenient to Mosaddegh, like knocking him over or spilling ink on him. Interestingly, the leaders of the Western powers are depicted in the collage art as having the heads of animals, such as pigs or lizards, while common people are represented by clippings of real people from historical art sources.

      First of all, this sets up a deliberate dichotomy between the two groups. It places Mosaddegh clearly with the people, and the cat clearly with the Western leaders, and, by extension, the player, too. To some extent, then, the game is an accusation, a statement that we, the game players, are responsible through our apathy for events of this sort that transpire. This is quite different than most games, which typically cater to appeasing the player entirely.

      The use of animals in the Western leaders' character design also functions as a device to dehumanize them. They represent the authoritarian structures in place in our society that are carried out by these people rather than the people themselves on a personal level. The game makes no judgement of these leaders as individuals; they are taken in by the system and converted to these tools. They're a cautionary tale about what anyone could become, and, indeed, the player has become one.

      But why a cat for the player? The cat conjures images of household intimacy. It is inherently nonthreatening and comforting, sleeping lazily on the mantle or on an owner's lap. It seems to suggest the level of reach of these structures. On a plot level, it may even symbolize some sort of operative working close to Mosaddegh. More generally, though, it is the ability of authoritarian structures to touch every aspect of our lives, even in the most intimate and private spheres. What could be more private than words spoken in the presence of only a household pet? By making the cat the prime agent of all that takes place in the game, even that trust is subverted. Since individuals seem to have so little control of their destiny in the political sphere represented in the game, we might even wonder if this extends generally, if we have any control at all.

      This all combines to contribute to a wonderful directionless and melancholy feel to the game. The path events will take feels so set and hopeless to the player with all of these structures in place, whether the player consciously notices them or not. The soundtrack heightens this feeling, with Erik Satie's slow, aimless piano melodies creating atmosphere. Finally, the events become truly hopeless when we begin to go back to the beginning chronologically. Notably, when the actions are no longer interactive, we see real photos of the Western leader with no animalization, and they are just people like us. This ending packs an emotional punch, and much of it was set up by the use of animals to comment on the level of agency exercised by individuals.

      on Monday, April 2, 2012
      Recently, someone on Reddit asked, "What are some must read texts for game design and fluency in reading deeper into games?" I gathered up all my favorite game-writing links and gave a brief summary of some of my own personal advice, and I posted a response. The content of that response has relevance to the stuff I write about on this blog, so I've transcribed it here in slightly edited form for the benefit of anyone grappling with a similar question:

      My standard advice for becoming proficient in analysis is to not limit yourself to reading about games. To be truly good at it, you need a broader base; you should become fluent in film and literature and their analysis as well. Obviously, this also requires experiencing a decent selection of the important games, films, and writings, in addition to the essential games.

      Some other reddit discussions that might be helpful in this regard (I replied to all of them with links and ideas):
      Generally useful game websites:
      For becoming literate in film, you can find out what some of the more important ones are at They Shoot Pictures. I won't add a list of film writings and websites because there are just too many. It might be worth picking up an intro to film studies text book like Film Art: An Introduction and a compilation of critical film writing like Film Theory and Criticism. If you want more detailed suggestions on readings in film, let me know; I'm a huge film nerd. Similarly, picking up a book on analyzing literature might be helpful, too.

      Another trick to finding out what you should be reading for any area like this, whether it be game design or film studies, is to search for syllabi for university courses on the subject. Typically, such documents have lists of suggested reading. Of course, if you're a student still, you might even be able to take such a course.
      Hope that helps someone out there!
      I've always had very mixed feelings about the Kingdom Hearts series. (Well, the Playstation 2 games, at least; I've never played the ones on other platforms. And Re:Chain of Memories is another story, that I won't get into here.) When I first read about it, I thought the concept sounded wonderful. The marriage of Disney stylings and injections of Square Enix characters and art sounds like an arrangement that could allow a wonderful assortment of tones, ranging from lighthearted humor to over-the-top melancholia. Playing Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2, was indeed a fun experience. Something, however, was always lacking. I had fun, but I got nothing more out of it. My frustrations with Kingdom Hearts stem from its squandered potential. The brilliant concept was used to produce a standard game, when it could have been so much more, and, in a medium dying for original ideas, this seems like a bit of a sin. Here I'll examine how Kingdom Hearts failed despite being a fun game and a commercial success. It's unique position with regards to originality of concept, popularity, and high sales make it a great test case for a problem that plagues gaming in general.

      Perhaps the first thing to do is to look at why the game was so loved by so many players. Patrick Molloy, in an article originally published on Bitmob, suggests that player identification with familiar ideas is a prime component. He identifies the familiar hero-journey archetype experienced by Sora with that of Odysseus and other mythical figures. I find those specific examples uninformative merely because Sora's quest is so vague and chaotic as to be identifiable with nearly any story if the proper parts are chosen, but, I think, Molloy has the right basic idea. He goes on to point out that the simple and frequent light-vs-dark, good-vs-evil, heart-vs-soullessness themes and symbology used in Kingdom Hearts are culturally conditioned into most Western players and are thus easy touchstones. Further, they are primary themes in nearly all Disney stories (which are themselves re-purposed from older tales), which have become "a new 'epic' history that nearly everyone absorbs," to quote Molloy. I'll take Molloy's premise a step further and point out that the gameplay itself contributes in the same way, by drawing on our collective knowledge of games. We have saved princesses since the first Mario games, the on-rails shooting of the gummi ship recalls early arcade games, and the action-RPG format is much loved on every platform. In short, Molloy's basic premise is that Kingdom Hearts "resonates" with audiences, hence its success.

      Where I differ with Molloy is in the choice of the word "resonate." Resonance in media has a positive connotation. The word itself is borrowed from physics and math – a resonance is a phenomenon that creates a sort of amplification by aligning with what's already there. Similarly, the connotation of the word "resonance" in media is that, by creating identification in the minds of the audience with what is presented in the work, the work amplifies the depth of the themes that it presents. I don't think that Kingdom Hearts does this. While it creates identification in the mind of the player, it uses it to no end. Instead, I propose that simple nostalgia – a mere longing for the familiar – is a better, and more negative, term for how Kingdom Hearts functions in the mind of the player.

      To see what I mean, we must return to the main themes of Kingdom Hearts. The series is primarily a (dual) Bildungsroman in form. Sora and Riku reach adolescence and must adapt to a life of responsibility while simultaneously evolving their various friendships and world views. They must work out their (perhaps, or perhaps not, platonic) love triangle with Kairi in the midst of new-found responsibility. They take different approaches, with Riku initially favoring a static state of affair while Sora pursues forward, and thus forces evolution within the group. In the midst of these interpersonal explorations, the game uses the characters' responsibilities to the world to assert unambiguously the existence of good and evil. It posits that a harmony of emotions is the only way to deal with this, vaguely arguing that one must listen to one's heart rather than mere logic while maintaining control of the evil aspects of yourself ("darkness").

      But do the various forms of audience identification induced by the game actually enhance these explorations of theme? In my mind, not really. The overall planning of the structure of the story seems non-existent, with the various Disney worlds existing merely to function as gameplay levels forced into the narrative whole. The ideas implied in the player's mind by the Disney source material almost never cohere with the current state of character development in the main narrative. The world based on The Lion King, for example, occurs near the end of the series narrative long after Sora has committed to taking the weight of all the world's problems on his shoulders – why do we need to remember that its sometimes hard, but necessary, to accept responsibilities, as Simba's experiences reminded us, at that point at the game rather than when Sora, too, was struggling with such concepts early in the story? The Disney allusions thus induce some nostalgia, but they do nothing to enhance our understanding of the themes that the main narrative focuses upon. As a result, the themes of Kingdom Hearts remain very simplistic, and the work does not function well as a whole.

      Now, let's imagine what could have been. What did the art of gaming miss out on when Kingdom Hearts delivered a disorganized, unfocused work despite its spectacular setting and concept?

      Perhaps most obviously, the games missed a wonderful opportunity to explore how fiction, and art generally, impacts our lives as part of the collective unconscious. Disney films literally represent a sort of canon for a Western childhood, and, by extension, they figuratively represent a more general art canon for humanity's cultural evolution. The games could have explored the positives and negatives of this scenario. Since the game asserts the existence of good and evil, perhaps it could have looked at how prototypically good or evil characters influence our ideas of good and bad by exploring more depth of character than simple archetypes typically allow. Old Disney films, for example, are often overtly sexist or racist – the game could have gone back and explored these aspects of "good guys." Or perhaps developing how bad guys end up bad would have been interesting. Are these characters that Kingdom Hearts uses with so little thought really the best conveyors of morals? The use of the Disney canon also opens the question of how works are selected (perhaps unintentionally) to be in an art canon. The reliance on archetypes to create meaning also raises the question of fair use in art, so the game could have examined whether Disney's oeuvre is just somewhat derivative or if it is exploitation of a cultural past.

      More directly in line with the games' themes, the series could have better explored the relative merits of emotional and rational decision making in our lives. As it stands, Kingdom Hearts celebrates the use of one's heart (i.e., emotional, gut feelings) unconditionally and without justification. It contrasts this with the unfeeling but logical Organization XIII, who are clearly presented as evil in the game. This is essentially the conflict in the Romantic and Enlightenment movements in art and philosophy, which would have been easy to explore in a game built around fictional allusions. Instead, Kingdom Hearts's approach is simplistic and borderline irresponsible, as it almost derides rational thinking when closely examined.

      Finally, by using films within a game to create an audience response, Kingdom Hearts encourages a comparison between the two mediums. It suggests the question of how games function as art. The comparison to cinema is apt, as it is another new art medium, and its evolution could have been explored in light of gaming's evolution. The contrast of the old-school, arcade-like, gummi ship segments with the (at the time of release) cutting edge main game provides a perfect moment to call attention to this evolution. Gameplay's connection to narrative could have been explored by re-purposing the films to create new meaning through the gameplay. As it stands, though, Kingdom Hearts fails as art because it fails to ask any of these questions.

      There is no doubt that the Kingdom Hearts series is fun and enjoyable, but how it creates that enjoyment raises other questions that it fails to explore. Its numerous allusions are used to induce nostalgic enjoyment rather than to explore the issues they raise. In this way, perhaps Kingdom Hearts is symptomatic of a problem plaguing gaming as a whole when it is considered as a meaningful medium. As much fun as I had with these games, I was unfulfilled, and I believe that that is because Kingdom Hearts was rendered largely meaningless by its choice of nostalgia over thematic purpose.
      on Sunday, April 1, 2012

      Braid is perhaps the most talked about of the the current crop of highly acclaimed 2D indie games. It's creator, Jonathan Blow, has inspired polarized opinions, ranging from pretentious jerk to gaming messiah. I think it's safe to say reality lies somewhere in between. In any case, Braid seems worth talking about, because it seems to be impacting how people think about gaming. The internet is full of interpretations of the plot of the game, and those interpretations most frequently center around the somewhat simplistic conclusion that Braid is some sort of commentary on nuclear weapons. While there are undeniable references to the atomic bomb's creation, such an interpretation is incomplete because it fails to successfully implement the gameplay mechanics themselves when deriving meaning from the work as a whole. Other readings focusing on the nature of accountability, regret, and blind ambition tie the game together more convincingly (I will write up an analysis of this reading at a later date). There is another potential reading, however, that I'll turn my attention to here. I find that Braid can be convincingly interpreted as a comment on the state and progress of interactive art (i.e., "games as art") in addition to its more obvious personal and political themes.

      To consider Braid fully, we must integrate meaning derived from the two nearly orthogonal modes through which Braid conveys meaning to the player. The first consists of the highly evocative and nonlinear text segments that comprise the plot, while the second is the extremely logical, linear (albeit convoluted with respect to plot) gameplay system that makes up the gaming portion of the title. It is worth noting immediately that the dichotomy of these two modes itself seems reminiscent of the medium of gaming. As an artistic medium, games are necessarily that intersection so far in their history. To function as a game, logical gameplay mechanics are required so as to allow for meaningful interaction across a range of players. The crux of the problem of expression in interactive form is how to implement such mechanics while still allowing the interactivity to contribute meaning beyond what non-interactive portions (e.g., cutscenes) of a work create on their own. If the the mechanics themselves contribute nothing, then the medium is wasted, and a non-interactive form, such as film or prose, could achieve the same effect. Perhaps, then, Braid is suggesting through the sharp juxtaposition of those two components that the player should be considering these issues when contemplating the themes of the game.

      The prose portions of the game are present in the level-choosing hub worlds as a series of books that do not interrupt player control. This is significant in that it both suggests an attempt towards integration while keeping text entirely outside the game world. It does away with the frequent need to click through dialogue that is found in other games, and the player might therefore skip through it even faster. This is especially likely early in the game, when it becomes apparent that the text is not one coherent plot but before the gameplay has seriously deviated from an ordinary platformer. Later, in the game however, the player is forced to reconsider the integration of the prose. Because the final level forces two different readings upon the same scenario through the time reversal mechanic, one wonders about the integration of previous plot points with the gameplay. Reinspection reveal both the disorganized plot as well as the aforementioned thoughtful attempt, but partial (and intentional) failure, towards integration of prose with gameplay. This revelation, coupled with the time control mechanic, seems a comment on the state of games. So far, the medium has failed to adequately integrate exposition and gameplay, and the fixation and reliance on traditional gameplay modes has left the medium misinterpreted and incomplete.

      Plot wise, the main character, Tim, is complicated. Initially painted as a hero, the final level suggest he is to some extent the villain, harboring stalker-like motives disguised in escapism. If his Princess is taken as a stand-in for an idealized state of the gaming medium, then we initially see Tim as a savior, one who pushes toward the ideal, only to find that he is stalking old tropes - he becomes the state of redundant development so often complained about. The persistent allusions to the Mario and Donkey Kong games support this idea. Those games embody the collective unconscious our society holds toward gaming; the mechanics and characters are nearly innate in our culture. If this is a game about gaming, then, what does it mean that there is never a Princess in need of rescuing in the castle? Tim seems to be simply escaping in those familiar images; he is, as the gameplay suggests, only able to continually look into the past while limiting his future. Like the general plot of the game, the Mario-like flags at the end of the worlds always fly backward compared to the ones in the games from which their inspiration was taken.

      Parallels to the Manhattan project are suggested by the in-game text, perhaps hinting at gaming's origin. It is a technology that can be misused, and, perhaps, we are already at a state where it is hard to change its course. Complicated development cycles and closed formats hinder creativity, and few artists have emerged in this new medium. Perhaps development of the atomic bomb and the irreversibility of such a development, indicated by certain plot details, should be seen as a contrasting outcome to that of the development of cinema as an artistic medium, perhaps indicated by the serene graphic and sound design. We can go the route of unthinking blockbusters alone, or work at developing something new.

      At the center of all of this is the gameplay. It is tight and focused, with logical and difficult puzzles that utilize a relatively unique gameplay mechanic. It is littered with little hints toward the potential of gaming. For example, Braid's universe is necessarily incompatible with the real world: in one level, velocity in space is linearly proportional to velocity in time, falsifying special relativity. Players must demand, it seems to suggest, that games utilize these world-breaking abilities in ways that actively add to an experience (this is in contrast to simple unrealistic artifacts of finite computing speed and imperfect simulation). The gameplay is exceptionally polished, which is in contrast to most other attempts at high-art gaming out there. Those games (I'm thinking of titles like, for example, those by Tale of Tales) mostly fail to use gameplay effectively to create meaning, and they thus maintain the dichotomy between gameplay and narrative. Braid rejects that dichotomy. The gameplay fundamentally enhances our ability to interpret the narrative. The continual manipulation of time, frequently in the context of otherwise standard game puzzles, forces us to displace our perceptions about the linearity of narrative. Games can create ambiguity of meaning through all of the unexplored potential paths that interactivity allows, in direct contrast the mediums like cinema. In Braid, the way that we have been playing the game is what tells us how to interpret the narrative.

      Mixed into all of this is the overall structure of the game. Braid avoids a main menu or end credits, which keeps the player active from the moment the game is launched until it is shut down. It suggests an endlessness to the experience and hence to the creative process on which it is commenting. Similarly, there is the hidden collect-the-stars minigame. The stars are absurdly tedious to get. One requires more than an hour of inactive waiting, while another is impossible to get if you've completed all the puzzles as the game implores you to do. In return for collecting them all, the player is rewarded by being allowed to catch the princess and see a more bombastic ending. The game might be poking fun at the prevalence of mindless reward-based motivation as seen in many other games. In reward for all of the player's pointless work, a more mindless, but also more traditional, alternate ending is earned.

      At the end of the game, a Mona Lisa can be seen going forward in time, but it changes to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. when going backward in time. This change encapsulates one possible reading of Braid that I have roughly outlined here. If gaming is to mature as an art form, it must break from tradition in an irreverent way. The game asks us in an early level to commit what is traditionally platformer suicide by jumping blindly into a bottomless pit, only to be saved by time reversal. It asks us to do that with the future of games; we must make games that are willing to discard traditional game conditioning and learn from how past mechanics affected people. Braid is not perfect, and, indeed, that's part of its point. Gaming does not yet have a great masterpiece, but, like the castle built from levels at the end of the game, Braid "feels like an acceptable start." While there are certainly other thematic levels in Braid, such as the personal themes of learning and forgiveness, the game is intimately tied to its medium as well, and serves as an interesting commentary on that topic.