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.