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Get them! They killed adventure games!

Now that I’m at the ETC trying to find my way through Real Life by Building Virtual Worlds, trying not to get lost on a tangent about the whole apparent contradiction of the matter, I find myself looking at my old, beloved adventure games, no longer at some fossilized artifact of a bygone past, but more as a moribund selfless martyr waiting to be nourished back to health so that it can go back to being productive, beautiful and beloved. Is my assessment accurate? And if it is, am I the one to do it, or to take part in that movement?

It’s generally a good thing not to dwell too long on past wrongs and better to focus on future endeavors. So let me be very bad and dwell a lot. Even if adventure games are not, in fact, dead, they are in many respects as good as dead. And I call murder! Murder, I tell you! And I will, just like an Agatha Christie detective, point a stern finger at those responsible. At least according to me.

Games as software rather than entertainment

You’d have to be really old to remember this, but there was a time when video games were sold as software, not unlike office software. The number of lines of dialog, number of rooms in the game, duration of the music included, were listed in bullet points as features on the back of the box. What is a “box”, you ask? Look it up, that’s not the point.

This was not particularly harmful for adventure games. True, VGA graphics did not translate as beautiful graphics, but beautiful graphics existed and did influence games for the better. Where this started to make a real difference in the output is when features started mattering more than content

FMV and 3D

The beginning of trouble came with Full Motion Video. Now some of my favorite games of all time were made with FMV. Full Motion Video was the practice of basing most of the graphics of the game on pre-recorded video. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within was such a game and is, in my opinion, about as great as an adventure game can be. (From Sierra, by Jane Jensen.) Yes, some of the dialog was cheesy and the background music was silly and some of the effects and the acting were a bit over-dramatic at times, especially during the intro, but this is, overall, forgivable given how young the medium was and how tight the story turns up in the end. But then, FMV became the main selling point of the game, rather than a tool, a medium for great content. Released at about the same date, Phantasmagoria, also from Sierra, by the very person who created the very medium of the graphical adventure game, Roberta Williams herself. Phantasmagoria, while innovative in many ways, did suffer from a repetitive structure and — form my point of view at least — overly gratuitous violence.

A good example of how technology can get in the way of good fiction can be found by following those games chronologically to the third Gabriel Knight title: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The 3D engine for that games was clever, versatile, clearly benefited from extensive user testing and despite all that mostly came in the way of a good gaming experience. The story of the game was not bad, but very clumsily plotted. In the previous two Gabriel Knight titles, the backstory was slowly hinted at through the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the whole backstory is dropped onto the player towards the end of the game in one very long slide show. No 3D in the world is going to make players enjoy that. In the previous Gabriel knights game, Jensen seemed to have put a considerable amount of effort in making her characters as humanly flawed as she could, people the player could relate to, no matter how great they looked or how pathetic they appeared.

Still, adventure games could have lived through that. They could have used 3D in a positive way. Some did, particularly the Tex Murphy series. Or they could have persisted in staying 2D after a while. But the gaming world as a whole evolved in a way that turned out to be terribly harmful to adventure games as a genre.

 The opposition between core and casual gamers

Nowadays, there is a clear split between casual and core gamers. Core gamers play games like BioShock and Mass Effect. Casual gamers play games like Angry Birds and Peggle. Or do they? Do core or casual players play Super Mario Galaxy? What about Plants vs. Zombies? But without getting entangled in that tricky debate, it’s important to keep in mind that in their heydays, adventure games were very much targeted towards core gamers. One of the reason for this was that at the time, there really was no such thing as casual gamers. At that time, if one played video games at all, one was a gamer without that many subcategories.  A funny and very accurate description of how casual gamers somehow recently became a very important demographic for games can be seen in Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review for Peggle.

But this has changed. People who actually play video games or computer games are core gamers. People who play Wii Sport or Angry Birds are not gamers at all, according to most people you will ask around, including the players themselves. These are just people who happen to play games. And yet they should matter: as of 2009 Wii Sports was the best selling video game of all time. This, on its own should mean something. The vacuum within the very identity of casual gamers is a problem. Let me explain.

The first adventure games were hard. Very hard. Zork was created at M.I.T. for M.I.T. students by M.I.T. students. That is not exactly a broad demographic. As the genre became more popular, many efforts were made to make the gaming mechanics easier and allow more people into the genre. But the change went from “very core players” to “less core players.” Take a game like Plants vs. Zombies. This games is the result of the opposite shift. Pop Cap originally made games for extremely casual players and slowly shifted towards more core-like titles.

Current core-player games focus on using complex graphics systems, themes that appeal to young males, a focus on speed and thrill. The large number of horror games are war games should serve as a testimony for that. They bring out thrill, not thought. Compare BioShock and Loom, for example. They hardly have any themes or mechanics in common. The slow pace of adventure games, the focus on reflection rather than thrill, these rebuke those who became gamers since the late ninties. Those sought more or less the exact opposite sensations that adventure games provide.

I would argue that that means that adventure games have become a genre that should be directed towards casual gamers. And yet, it still carries its legacy identity of being a core gamer’s genre. Trying to sell adventure game to gamers has failed since about the year 2000, mostly because the demographic that is actually likely to enjoy adventure game, casual players, does not even identify as gamers at all.

Lady on the Plane

Casual gamers tend not to care about pixel shaders, 3D sound or fragging in multiplayer. They would probably care more about plotlines being deep and yet flexible, about motivations being complex yet believable, about the world they’d visit being intriguing and yet reassuring. One would feel comfortable escaping to.

Text-based adventure games are an excellent example of an incredibly powerful resource gone wrong. Tools like Inform7 offer a huge ration of ease of use compared to power of creation. It’s a programming language that looks very similar to English and is meant to be used to create text-based adventure games. Yet many of these cater to a small, hard-core crowd; they often take pride in being difficult and they don’t seem to care much about potential newcomers to the genre. As Extra Credits reminds us, easiness in games is generally not a problem is the game had depth. Then, ease is merely a transparent interface to an immersive experience. Again, this is an instance of the potential new audience for adventure gamine and interactive fiction being placed on the wrong side of the core gamer/casual gamer divide, mostly based on what should be an archaic focus being placed on technology. That, right there, is what killed adventure games.

Can adventure games be rescued? I think so. I think the key element if one intends to revive adventure games is to hold on to  a lot of what used to make them great, but to rethink a few aspects of how they work. These might actually be fundamental aspects, such as how they deal with interfaces, introductions and tutorials, or their standard themes and their verbosity, for example. Many of these are symptoms of how they still hang on to their status of core player genre. It is a very harmful misconception that casual players deserve a lower status. (Some successful casual games, maybe, but that’s another issue.)

A couple of weeks ago, on a plane, I showed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to woman in her fifties. She looked very curious about it. She said that to her, the experience looked similar to reading, but with interaction. She said she loved reading, which is not a statement commonly attributed to core gamers. She seemed tempted by the idea of giving Monkey 2 a try. However tempted may she have been by the genre as a whole, as themes go, she would probably be more interested in a psychological conflict than in a story about an inexplicably evil villain bent on taking over the world and the axiomatically selfless hero who is bent on stopping him.

Who’s right

It’s important to keep in mind that neither theme is better or worse than the other. The question is more: who does which one address? And can the answer to the previous question be used to save adventure games? Aren’t some big studios (both in film and in gaming) trying to trick their respective audience by selling them technological advances rather than content mostly because the quality of one is much easier to gauge than the quality of the other?

When the iPhone and iPad came out, many reviewers thought they would fail, or be only mildly successful, because most people were not asking for any of the feature in either of the devices. No one wanted all-touchscreen phones. No one wanted a large tablet device. They didn’t know it was an option, except after the device’s announcement, where they only knew about it in theory. But both of these have shown to be extremely popular.

Casual gamers aren’t asking for adventure games. But hardly any adventure game is really catered for them. Trying to impress casual gamers with AAA titles is very likely to fail because the technical or thematic aspects where these titles shine is not something that casual gamers care about.

An excessive focus on technology without regard to its relevance and an strong and yet somehow artificial divide between casual and core players is what killed adventure games. By fixing those problems, we should be able to bring adventure games back.

Are Video Games Art? (part 1)

This question is asked more and more around me. Whether or not video games are art is a point often brought up in both Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation and the excellent video column from the same site, Extra Credits. I had no clear intention to actually give a final answer to this question when I began this first post. At first, I just wanted to take the question apart to, as it were, see what it is made of. After doing that I did come to the answer: “Are video games are? Definitely maybe. Or perhaps certainly probably. It depends.”

Before we go any further, I really need to point out that I am not an artist. I don’t create art. I am not an art expert; I am not an art dealer. I’m just somehow interested and curious about the matter. Any inaccuracy one may find in this post will be welcome, as long as it is somehow constructive.

Art and entertainment

So, before jumping to conclusions, let’s carefully consider the question. It reminds me, first of all, of a line in Federico Fellini’s , when, running after the main character, movie director Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, a critic asks, “Is cinema art or entertainment?” My first reaction to that question is: how is art not entertainment.

That last question may seem rhetorical in tone. I really don’t mean it that way. I ask it that way as sneaky entrapment to those who like to accuse someone asking this of being philistine by bringing up the very possibility that art and entertainment are the exact same thing. Phrased differently, “How is art not entertainment” could mean, “Art is just a form of entertainment.” Some would pounce on that sentence to accuse the one saying it (in this case me) of being a philistine. If that is what you thought, I’m on to you.*

What I really meant was, “In what way is art not entertainment?” There is a part of entertainment in art. People are willing to pay to enjoy it. Some pay to own works of art, but if you pay to go to a museum, or to go to the symphony or to a rock concert, chances are that one of the many roles of that act is to relieve you of some amount of boredom. That is one way to define entertainment. I’m not denying that art is much more than that. I’m actually stating it outright: art is much more than that. But some works of art, particularly works of art that are structured around a narrative, certainly comprise elements of both.

A designer friend of mine once asked me, “Do you know what the difference is between art and design.” I gave the correct answer without an instant of hesitation: “No, I don’t know.” He told me it was that design adds an aesthetic to something that already has a practical purpose and that art has no reason to be other than itself. For example, if your computer is beautiful and sleek, it’s design. If you keep it on a shelf long after it’s become obsolete because it’s just so beautiful, it’s art. (I have an Mac G4 cube I keep that way.) Another example, if a urinal is well designed, it has a simple aesthetic that doesn’t clash with its purpose. If a urinal is in a museum under the name, “Fountain,” chances are it would be in bad taste to actually go ahead and use it.

Why do I bring that up? In part because according to the definition I just gave, design and art are exclusive from one another. Even if they use the same techniques and tools, one cannot be both one and the other. Note that this definition is not absolute. You may choose to consider that design is subsection of art, but that wouldn’t really change much: there would still be a dichotomy, just not the same one. In that case, some works of art would clearly be in the subsection “design” and some would not.

When it comes to art and entertainment, I would argue that there is, on the contrary, a gigantic overlap. If one takes films like the aforementioned or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there will be, I hope, little objection to their being called works of art. So here, I’m asking: is their artistic aspect and their entertainment aspect parallel? Or are the two different aspects of one thing? Or, if I were to put in a corny, proverbial way, two sides of one coin?

Not a definition of art

So, are video games art? If any of you at this stage are thinking, “Wait a second, you’ve given examples of works of art, and you’ve defined design and entertainment but not art! You sneaky weasel! Why have you not defined art yet?” Then, I defer to your good judgement. I don’t think that any definition of art can be made both wide enough to accommodate all instances of art in the world and at the same time narrow enough to actually keep any sort of relevance.

So where does this leave me? This time I’ll defer to Freud and psychoanalysis in general, where one of the main elements that contribute to classifying a neurosis as pathological is its lack of social acceptability. If you are particularly vain and insecure, it may be a form of neurosis, but it may not be pathological. If you have a strong compulsion to take off all of your clothes in all of public places, it is.

The aspect of that definition that relies on context fits my point about art. What art is, too, depends on context. Would Andy Warhol’s cans of soup have been art in the nineteenth century? How about during the Italian fifteenth century renaissance? Let’s take another example and say that Kazimir Malevich‘s Black Square fell in a time machine and fall into fifteenth century Italy then someone finds  the painting and claims it as his own. Would his contemporaries be impressed? Would they consider it art? It’s unlikely that it would have been considered so outside of its context. This is an example — however crude may it be — of how art is dependent on context and on social acceptance. In some cases, art may even depend on social rejection. When Duchamp made a urinal into a work of art in 1917, part of artistic gesture was that it was scandalous. Nowadays, scandal is in many ways integrated into the concept of artistic merit. When an artist tries to be scandalous, we consider that it’s part of what artist are and we let it to the more conservative groups to be offended by saying that any deviation from the most conventional definition of how one should lead one’s life in “not art.” In any of those cases, the constant is a strong link to a social context.

Reminiscing about Buzz and Wave at the birth of Google+

It’s not a secret that I love Google. I love their original web search service, I love Gmail, I love Google Docs, I love Google Maps, I love that they use Linux, I love that they use Python, I love their products.

Still, like more or less everyone, I hated Buzz and I got very disillusioned by Wave very quickly; though I probably held on to some hope about Wave a bit after most people had given up on it.

It would be very easy at this stage to make a list of why I think Google Wave went meh and Google Buzz went bust. Today, as Google is trying to keep their new service, Google+, from going down in flames the way Buzz and Wave did, that list is what I’m shamelessly about to do. That said, it’s not really a list: all the items on it can be rephrased as, “The problem was that it was more about Google than about its users.”

Buzz

First, Buzz. It never bothered me that Buzz disclosed users’ locations or that it peeked into their contact lists. I never let Google know about my location at the time and I never actually went so far as to give Buzz a serious try. And here is why: what bugged me was that Buzz wanted me to change all of my friends or maybe even get new one. Let me explain. I have one general-purpose microblogging system I use: Twitter, like pretty much everyone. There are two main places where my Tweets show up: Twitter and Facebook. Actually, when people see my Tweets, most of the time, they see them on Facebook.

If Buzz had seamlessly let me pick up Buzzes from Twitter or let me send Buzzes to Twitter and Facebook, I would probably have given it serious consideration. But that’s not how it went. Buzz was, at its launch, a completely independent service that required everyone who used it to get everyone they knew to switch to it. According to Google, if you wanted to stay friends with me, you’d have to give up Facebook and Twitter for Buzz. But why would I inconvenience everyone I know plus myself in that way when not switching to Buzz and keeping Facebook and Twitter was so much easier?

But Buzz didn’t stop there. It nagged. Oh, how it nagged! My main email interface is web-based Gmail. Google put a link to Buzz in the main Gmail menu, as if it were part of Gmail. But following the link opened a new window making it a double annoyance: adding a link where it did not belong and opening a window unnecessarily. Then, they did the same with iOS interface of Gmail. The there is very little available space at the top of the screen of the iPhone and Google put not one but two links to Buzz there: a text link and a horrible, nagging little Buzz logo. I thought of leaving Gmail. Then, when users were trying to read their mail, a nag screen prevented them from using Gmail in order to urge them to try Buzz. I almost left Gmail at that point.

Wave

Wave was a sad, similar story. It reminded me of how brilliant Gmail was. Gmail added so much to the existing concept of email and did it all by staying discreet and in the background. Wave could, technically, have done the same thing. You could have sent a wave to someone on Google and if they only had Gmail, they would get it as a an email and if they also have Wave, they would get it as a wave. Sure, there might have been a few issues, mostly that Wave-specific features would not have gone through by email: the then famous Wave apps would not have worked and the conversation could not have continued as a Wave, but it would have been smooth and easy to use and, most of all, non-intrusive. It would not have mattered whether people had Wave or not to just use it and it would have encouraged them to switch to Wave if they had received a wave as an email. The focus would have been the users, the people, and not Google.

Instead, just like with Buzz, in order for Wave to work, everyone had to stop using email and start using Wave. This, of course, did not happen. If I know someone, let’s call him E Maginary, and I’m not sure if E has Wave, it’s much easier to send him an email. If E does have Wave and I send him a wave, that means that for me he has to check his waves and for everyone else he has to check his email. Even if more than one person sends him waves, it’s still an annoying extra step until more people use waves than email. And that annoyance is exactly what makes such a tipping point impossible to reach. So E is going to find it annoying if I send him a wave. And honestly I sympathize with him. Had it been possible to receive a wave as an email, this would not have been the case.

Plus

Now there is a major difference between Wave and Buzz. Buzz had pretty much no reason to exist rather than profit Google. It tried to become popular almost exclusively by nagging Google’s users. Wave, on the other hand, was a fantastic product with potentially unlimited potential that got destroyed by putting Google first and Google’s users last. I won’t hide the fact that I’m still angry about that.

Some great ideas that were made unusable by a few big flaws can be fixed and changed into amazing stuff, even after a long time has passed. Apple users know that. The G4 Cube led to the Mac Mini; the Newton led to the iPhone; and what is probably still Steve Jobs greatest technical accomplishment, NeXTSTEP, led in great part to the creation of Mac OS X. For some of these, particularly the Newton and the iPhone, I still think that despite their difference in success, the first one is more worthy of praise than its successor. But that’s just me.

Maybe Google+ will have something genuinely useful to offer, maybe not. My main hope for it is not really that it’s good (I’m not part of Google, so I don’t really care) but that if it is good, its greatness is be unencumbered and unrestrained by anything around it.