Here’s my dilemma: I want to talk about the game that we worked on last summer, and tell all about the thinking that went on it. On the other hand, I’m also reluctant to explain what the game is about, since I consider making games an art, and I do not feel like imposing my own reading to the audience. It’s an old problem, which I’ve already talked about in public several times. An additional factor is that there have already been quite a few run-of-the-mill games, which shall go unnamed, getting attention and shining because of the way they have been presented, based on their topic, their supposed results, or the people involved. This annoys me because my games also deal with some of those topics and are based on sophisticated design concepts, but I don’t want to beat people over the head with it. My problem partly has to do with me being the kind of subversive person who likes to drop messages between the lines, and always keep an ace up my sleeve. Plus I don’t feel comfortable peddling myself and my work.

My favourite part of my job is seeing how people make sense of my games and enjoy them, and I don’t want to spoil the fun either for my players or myself. Some takes understand the specific thinking that went in the game; if I’m lucky, others will provide insight on the game that I had not even thought about. Other times, people can’t make heads or tails of it, but that’s also fun.

The predicament also results from being a theorist-practitioner. As a theorist, my job is to help make sense of my field of study (digital media), and generate new insights through my work. In the same way that I learn a lot from analyzing other people’s games, talking about my process should be a way of disseminating what I have learned through making games. As a practitioner, I still feel a bit uncomfortable privileging my take on the work; plus most of the games are really the result of team work, and I would become the spokesperson of what the games are about. Additionally, I need to hear what players think of the game without me explaining anything, because learning how people play and interpret it is also part of my research.

This quandary has got in the way of me writing about The Last Symphony, a hidden object game where there’s much more than meets the eye (and the ear!). Since I’ve found myself in a Hamletian trap of inaction, I’ve decided to break this vicious circle and talk a bit about the game. After all, I’ve already been talking about it in various venues, although not in much extent. It also helps that one of the team members, sound designer and music composer Richard Gould, has also started writing about the process of making the game too. So it’t not only me; I hope the rest of the wonderful development team also chimes in.There are different ways in which I can talk about the process: as a cinephile, I love reading about the process of making film, watching “making of” documentaries, and listening to film commentaries, because it provides context on the work itself. One can also talk about the craft itself, without going into an exegesis of one’s own work. So perhaps the key is providing that kind of insight on the process, without spoiling the fun (and always read my explanations after playing the game).

Revisiting this interview with John Ford, I realized I couldn’t really shut up or be flippant about my work. It also takes someone as grumpy as John Ford to implicitly telling know-it-all Peter Bodganovich to sod off. I’m no good at facetiousness either. The scholar in me loves talking about the thinking that goes into making a game, and the maker in me also enjoys talking about the process of creating a game.

So here’s the deal: I’ll talk about The Last Symphony, the basis of the research, the general concept, and some of the things we learned from making it in my next blog post. But first you have to go and play the game, and tell me what you think (I actually need that for my research). And then, one day, I’ll explain what the concept of the game is about, just like other people who care more about their image than their players or being an actual artist.

Games by the BookLast Friday was the first day of a very special exhibit at the Hayden Library at MIT. Games by the Book, curated by myself and Nick Montfort, is a small exhibit of literary works adapted to the medium of the videogame. The games in show display a variety of approaches to adaptation applied to videogames. Luckily for us, they’re all available online, so you can get to play them too.

  • The Great Gatsby is loosely based on the novel, and is presented as a lost Japanese NES cartridge, although it’s really a Flash game made in the US.
  • The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a new take on events on Douglas Adams’ novel. It’s also the only one where the author was part of the development of the game.
  • Yet One Word is an adaptation of a specific interpretation of Oedipus at Colonus. You would have never thought tragedy was so cute.
  • Avon takes characters and situations from Shakespeare’s plays and turns them into contrived and strange puzzles.

You can read the more detailed description of the story on the exhibit’s website. Nick has also posted some photos of the exhibit on his own blog. The exhibit will be ready at the Hayden Library until October 8th and it’s open to the public. So if you’re anywhere near MIT campus, be sure to come by and check it out.

Preparing the exhibit has been an enjoyable undertaking, and more laborious than one would think. The initial process of curation required taking into account what would be both an interesting selection and a good fit for playing in a public space like a library. I started by browsing Mobygames, which already features a group called Inspiration: Literature; I also browsed the pages of one of the new incarnations of Home of the Underdogs, which is one of my t0-go resources to find interesting and off-beat games. Part of my goal was finding games that one would not think could be adapted to a videogame. So the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Tom Clancy were out, and in was my old friend Will Shakespeare.

The trickiest part was finding games that would do well in an exhibit. I had to be easy to set up and maintain, since the library staff couldn’t do tech support, and neither of us could be checking on it constantly.  Complex setups and special peripherals were out of the question, because the library is a public space with no security. Most importantly, it had to “play well” in a public space. Patrons would not spend hours playing these games, but only a few minutes, even if we weren’t counting on heavy traffic. That left out a lot of adventure games. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Avon, both works of interactive fiction, where chosen because they feature tricky puzzles and game over states,  which results shorter play sessions by design. Interactive Fiction is also a good fit for the library, because it has no sound, so we don’t have to worry about headphones being unplugged. The other two games, Yet One Word and The Great Gatsby, are flash games with short play sessions as well, and although they both have music, neither is loud or obnoxious. In the end, computer games were favoured over consoles, because a console would have needed a cage or custom cabinets, so people could not take the game cartridges or disks; game controllers may be tempting to abscond with, while keyboards and mice are cheaper to replace. A last consideration was keeping the computers offline, or limiting the websites that could be accessed. Patrons to the library tend to use the computers to check their email or social websites, instead of looking up books in the catalogue.

During the process of setting up the actual exhibit, I found myself using a lot of my game designer brain, because an exhibit is also an experience. Having worked on adventure games for quite a while now, the process of designing the actual set up of the exhibit requires asking oneself similar questions. Where does the visitor start? What do they see? How do they know what to do? How can this break, and how do we prevent it? The answers to some of these questions resulted in specific design features, such as using the screensaver as a prompt to attract people to the computer, or including game manuals and brief instructions. The postcards on how to play interactive fiction are part of the display, since the genre is not as intuitive as us IF lovers would like. Other things, like using parental controls to limit access to certain websites, creating direct access to the games on the desktop. The exhibit also required some handiwork. Any recognition to the idea to tie the books with a cable to the computers has to go to Nick, who also drilled the holes through the books himself. You can see how that looks like. It’s been a cheap way to keep the books in place, and so far it’s worked.

I haven’t lurked around the exhibit long enough to see how people approach the exhibit. So far, most people walk around it, look at the books, but don’t sit down to play. Maybe a stand would have been a bit more inviting, since some people may feel self-conscious about playing videogames in public, and sitting down implies a commitment. (We didn’t have money for stands, we were lucky to get one of the Library’s computer carrells.) Looking at the activity logs, people have been playing the games, from 8 to 12 people per day, most for one minute, and 4 or 5 from 15 to 20 minutes. So we do have visitors. After a decent stakeout at the library, I should be able to report more details soon.

The process of creating this exhibit has been quite enjoyable and gratifying. The overlap between curation and exhibit design and the process of making a game has enough points in common to allow me to use my background designing games. So I hope this is the first exhibit of many!

At the end of May, I gave a presentation on the underlying systems and tools that we used to develop the games Symon and Stranded in Singapore at the Procedural Content Generation workshop during the Foundations of Digital Games Conference. Most of the other presenters were computer scientists, as well as my friends. Thus I had a kind audience for this humanist to present the paper I wrote with Alec Thomson (now available online). Feeling a bit of the outsider in terms of background and methods, I also sensed the cultural differences between their approach and my own. In general, the presentations  focused on generating the game (including mine). What I found considerably absent was a discussion of human factors: are these games playable? How does PCG transform how we make games? How does it change how we play them?

The workshop obviously had a technical focus, so when it came to talk about evaluating the systems, the discussion focused on how AI solvers / computer players were used to see if the game generated is consistent. Few of the presenters seemed to have used human players (more sophisticated and accessible AIs which you don’t have to implement) to evaluate their systems. On the other hand, there were presentations that dealt with the systems exclusively, not really dealing with why this approach was better for games apart from the pre-existing arguments efficiency in creating more content with smaller teams.

I guess that the presentations at the PCG workshop were clear examples of the  proceduralist stance in game development, since the discussion of players seemed to be out of the question. Many of these presentations are more hypothetical, and implemented as early prototypes, still far from being actual games. I’m not saying that this is bad, we do need this kind of studies and tools. It was also the nature of this seminar, which was grounded on computer science, and the expectation seemed to be focusing on the systems and not players.

Throughout the workshop it became evident that we also need the space between procedural generation of content and evaluating that content through playtesting. After two years of working on games using PCG, the conclusion is that, in our case, we can generate procedurally generated narrative puzzles. It’s a lot of work, but it’s true it’s only half of the work. The other half is making them playable and fun. For that, I have less faith on AI and more on actual humans designing and playing.

I’m advocating the creation of a research space closer to HCI, where we study how procedural generation actually affects game design and gameplay. There is a need to study how the process helps both designer, the design process and the players. We need to see this in games that can go beyond academic experiments, that are played by people who don’t know and probably shouldn’t care that these games are part of research. Reaching out beyond the academic sphere is not easy: there’s Facade and Prom Night, and my own games Symon and Stranded in Singapore. (If there are more, please let me know in the comments!) We cannot feel snug about creating a system and making a game that our friends will play. If we want to make an impact on game development and design, we must take it a step further, we need to evaluate how games using PCG are played by people who are not those who developed the system.

There are already some easy questions that we can start looking into:

  • If we think of content as something like puzzles, or level design, how do we provide cues for interaction to players? Think of hints to solve a puzzle, or user feedback about where to go. This is a common problem–Gillian Smith had run into these issues as well during the development of Endless Web. We can certainly design a system to provide these cues and feedback, but the best way to do it would be studying how players interact with the game first.
  • What are the aspects of game development that can use procedural generation best? Design? Art? Code? QA? Writing?
  • All the designers I can think of working on PCG come from computer science. How can we make procedural content generation accessible to non-programmers, or at least people who don’t have a strong background on CS?
  • What mechanics and fictional worlds fit PCG best? I believe PCG is one approach to game development, but not the only one. After working on Stranded in Singapore, one of the conclusions was that it was really hard to design puzzles to be procedurally generated when they were based on the real world. Dreams, on the other hand, seem to be a good match for PCG, as seen in Symon and Endless Web.

These are the immediate questions that come to mind, based on my experience making games. I have a few preliminary answers for some of these,  but we need to expand our thinking on what PCG means with relation to games.

The workshop taught me (amongst many other things) that many of the people working on PCG already take playtesting as part of their process. There were also slides that made my blood curdle, which reduced human behaviour to mathematical formulas. One presenter had a formula for “fun” depending on the type of player (who I’m guessing it’s also determined with another mathematical formula). Another presenter called the story “filler” in the context of RPGs, which can be just generated to give you a motivation; when I called him out, he admitted that it may not be the best term. The fact that human feelings and behaviour are reduced to numbers, and that narrative is considered filler, may be symptoms of the subconscious disregard certain computer scientists may have for human behaviour. This is one of the dangers of focusing on the procedures so much: look at the screen for too long and one loses sight of play as a human activity, doesn’t question how our brains and hearts fill the gaps so that we don’t have to really generate all the content, and stops giving enough credit to players. By approaching fun and storytelling as things that are generated mechanically, negating that fun is an awfully vague concept (and non-quantifiable), and that stories are not only about events but about worlds and the people in it, we’re heading towards playing with mathematical formulas empty of human meaning.

I’m probably preaching to the converted–most of my friends working on PCG will talk about their playtests and what they learned from them. This post is calling out a certain type of discourse which, also necessary, also seems to leave out the humanity of games. Rather than complaining (too much) about it, we should see this as an opportunity to opening up a new area of study. The combined study of procedurally generated content and human-computer interaction is waiting to happen.Who’s up for it?

I realized videogames have been my subject of study for the last 10 years. At first, they were a secondary field of interest while Shakespeare on Film was my research focus; I went on to study games full time in 2004, when I started my PhD in Digital Media in Georgia Tech. Now my professional life revolves around videogames.

I can remember the moment I realized I wanted to study games. Although I do not recall the exact date, I remember it was a Friday afternoon in late May, during the doctoral seminar on early Gothic Literature. It was hot, and I felt rather spacey. We were discussing several short texts in class; and one of them was “Sir Bertrand, A Fragment” by Anna Laetitia Aikin. This was one of those short stories presented as a “found fragment,” in order to lend some minimum credibility to what is really a fantasy story.

During the discussion of the piece, I commented that the story reminded me of a videogame. Sir Bertrand enters this castle, following a light, and gets to a vault where a living armour attacks him:

“The vault, at length, suddenly opened into a lofty gallery, in the midst of which a figure appeared, compleatly armed, with a terrible frown and menacing gesture, and brandishing a sword in his hand.”

It was the following sentence that (literally) gave me the key:

“Sir Bertrand undauntedly sprung forwards; and aiming a fierce blow at the figure, it instantly vanished, letting fall a massy iron key.”

Growing up playing videogames, I had seen this a thousand times: I fight an enemy, I kill the enemy and bleemp! there was an item that I picked up and used somewhere else. It gets better: the key opens a “brazen lock” which takes Sir Bertrand to the next room, where a coffin appears. It would be trite to think that  Dracula was going to jump out of the coffin. But no! It was a lady in distress, and as the player Sir Bertrand gets close to it, two large statues come to life and brandish their swords. A timely kiss makes the whole place collapses before the statues get to him.

The scene just felt like the beginning of Vampire Killer (the original Castlevania, people, but that’s another story). The elements were familiar: arriving to the castle, enemies attacking you that “drop” items that you can use to advance in the game, there’s even a coffin! I made my case to my professor, Manuel Aguirre, who did not know much about videogames. My exact argument was probably delivered though a siesta cloud, whose dreamy mood inhibited my talking clearly. The sleepy rambling would have gone unnoticed, if it weren’t for my professor intently listening to me, encouraging me to keep talking and, worse enough, bringing up Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. My paper for that class ended up dealing with the relationship between arcade games (or what we call in Spain “arcade games,” which are 2D action games and do not have much to do with actual arcades) and how they replicate (or not) the structure proposed by Propp and Joseph Campbell. (Later we realized it’d be difficult to justify the relevance of the paper to the seminar, but both my professor and I were too enthusiastic about the topic to consider such trifling matters.)

I took this seriously enough that while I was still in Spain I went back to playing videogames, and catch up with what I had missed while studying my undergrad. Games then were a vastly unexplored field, and there was so much to learn. Since in my work then I studied theatre and was part of the drama company in my school, I started musing whether one could make games as part of studying them. When one of my (most mediocre) professors heard I was coming to the US to study, he came up to me and told me that I should forget about videogames, they were a waste of time, and I should stick to Shakespeare. That was another spur to move into games. I still love my Shakespeare, and at times I miss being in a field where there is a tradition and you don’t have to define foundational terms. But I would be very bored without the challenges of studying games.

So that’s where I began. It’s been a long road, and at times I feel like I spent forever in graduate school, but on this journey I’ve also learned a lot about games, players, and the culture surrounding them. Since some of the ludologists not only have admitted that games do indeed relate to narratives and have started applying narratological frameworks to games, now it seems okay to say that one started studying games as narratives. What I started by following Sir Bertrand as a player character was relatively basic; ten years later, the adventure goes on.

So, if you study or work in games, what’s your story?

For the last few months, I have been contemplating the possibility of creating a blog for my work, as a venue for my musings and short writing, an incubator for papers, and as a way to have conversations about games which are not limited by 140 characters. So here it is: Vagrant Cursor.

Starting a new blog is always daunting, because I already know how hard it is to keep it going. I already have a blog in Spanish, in which I focus on movies and TV, which has proved a great way of keeping up with my mother tongue. Talking about my love for movies more informally is also a good thinking break from my work, although it’s still related to the field of game studies.

The hope I have is that writing this blog can help me write more and better. Writing begets further writing. My blog in Spanish has helped me overcome writer’s block; at times changing the topic helps getting unstuck on a paper due in three days. The idea is to write short posts, focus one idea and explore it, but with the idea of getting shorter posts out regularly. Plus writing is like exercising, the more you do it the easier it gets. (Or so I’m told, getting into a regular exercising schedule is something I have not quite achieved yet.)

The name? Well, my work focuses on adventure games, in which the text cursor or the arrow is allows players to wander around new worlds, explore them, manipulate the environment and talk to people. It also has a nice adventurous ring, and I like taking my work as an adventure.

The journey begins here.