Let the Good Times Roll

Posted: October 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

I remember when I was younger, I would play video games all the time. It was an emotional experience–sometimes one of joy because I got to be a different person in a different world doing amazing things, which was a direct contrast to my everyday, monotonous daily routine: Wake up, go to school, come home, go to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat. But other times, the joy exploded in a great fireball of rage inciting me to throw the controller at the TV and inspiring creative expletive strings. Thank God for Nerf controllers.

Lately, though, I’ve been writing and analyzing and obsessing over Skyrim because that’s the game I’ve played the most since it came out in 2011 and it’s the one freshest in my memory. I’ve started, at the very least, three (maybe four?) different games and haven’t even managed to get through the exposition, which is really sad because each of them promises such a good story. So far, my list includes Parasite Eve, Chrono-Trigger, Persona 4, Fallout, and a DS game with a film noir theme. During that time, I’ve watched my husband play Nier; FF VI; Catherine; Persona 3 (twice); Persona 4 (twice); Resonance of Fate; Zone of the Enders; Fable; Shadow of the Colossus; Uncharted: Among Theives and Drake’s Fortune; Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Brotherhood, III; and various romps through Flower, Flow, and Journey He uses games as an escape, too. Escape is a fundamental reason people play video games.

Despite my lack of zeal lately, I’ve discovered some important things about my experience as a player. The funny thing is that it’s easy to tell when someone who writes about games has played them versus someone who writes about games they haven’t played. Each game is a unique experience for each player that plays. It can be true that studying games ruins the joy of playing, but that’s not always the case. Playing them through completely (when there’s an end at all) and then pausing for personal reflection has been the best way for me to be able to analyze and enjoy games at the same time. Another thing I’ve noticed is that studying games tends to be a little like studying books and film and that you can find commonalities between different mediums.

Personally, I see games as a gesamtkunstwerk–this total work of art that synthesizes everything we’ve already created–visuals, music, story. I’m sure I’ve probably already expressed my awe on this before (I wait so long between posts that I forget what I write!). But it really is awe-inspiring that we have been able to create these works of art–total art–and that we can interact with them in a way we’ve never been able to interact with any other type of medium. They are the literature of our generation that represent the times in which we live. It’s a cycle:  toying with various current social discourses in the virtual world helps us situate ourselves in our own world, which in turn affects how and what we play–there’s a much bigger picture at work here than what many negative critics don’t seem to realize.

So WTF, Me? Time to get rollin’. But first, beer and ice cream.

Article by Edge: “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and the Evolution of Story”

This is a really neat article about a new game by The Astronauts called The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. According to the article, the game is more story-centric in its approach to gameplay and is all about exploration. The Astronauts say their game is all about immersion, but it will be interesting to see what level they are aiming for. According to Richard Bartle, there are four levels of immersion. Each level depends on the thing the player is controlling and how the player relates to that thing. The first level is object, which is considered un-immersed because the player does not at all relate to the thing they are controlling. The second is avatar, where the player is controlling something that carries out their will, but that is all the thing is good for. The third is character, which the player acts out. The fourth is persona. This is considered full immersion, where the player IS the thing they are controlling; they consider themselves to be IN the virtual world.

I will definitely be checking this game out.

Link  —  Posted: September 21, 2013 in Academic, games, gaming, Uncategorized
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The narrative in Skyrim is wonderfully complex. There are three narrative layers consisting of quests the player can choose to complete or not; the story created by the player’s actions in the gamespace; and narratives contained in objects such as books, diaries, and notes the player can choose to read or not read.

Undoubtedly a quest-based game, Skyrim’s main story arc is to defeat the dragon, Alduin, who has returned to Skyrim  to destroy the world. As the main character, you have the privilege of being the Dragonborn, a figure foretold in ancient prophecy. You get to speak in the language of dragons, and your power is the only way to defeat Alduin. This is not the only arc, however. One of the major sub-plots of the game involves warring factions that are on the brink of civil war over the power structure of the country. On top of this, there are literally thousands of quests, each with their own story.

Though games as a whole are beyond any traditional type of narrative such as the novel, the quests can be identified and related to them. To borrow Henry Jenkins’s terminology, quests are enacted narratives.  More specifically, they are spatial stories that can also function as micronarratives, which

[privilege] spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map [. . .] so that obstacles thwart and affordances facilitate the protagonist’s forward movement towards resolution. (124-125)

What is key about micronarratives is that they invite “intense emotional impact” and “shape the player’s emotional experience” (125). From a proceduralist perspective, each individual quest—each micronarrative—can be seen as a sort of unit operation (a process) that creates a more complex system (an arrangement of interlocking units), which is the overall story of the main character. The quests signify a breaking down of time and space that are then re-constructed to form a whole, or what Ian Bogost calls a Configurative Literary Space (159, 160). This suggests that Configurative Literary Spaces are not only enacted narratives, but also embedded narratives, wherein “the game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the plot” (129). If the player is the director of her own experience, then playing in an open-world adventure RPG means that the story of the main character must be totally constructed from the narratives already embedded in the game. Quests, however, are not the only way to accomplish this. Any action the player takes in the game is a construction of the main character’s story.

Other than quests, there are also books, diaries, and letters that can be obtained throughout the game, and these constitute a pre-structured, embedded narrative. Many of the books explain the myths and history of the culture.  Some are written in tight poetic structure, while others are written in prose. Interestingly, some of the books the player can read are about events the player might remember—if she played them—as quests from previous Elder Scrolls games that have made it into the recorded history of Tamriel. According to The Elder Scrolls Wiki, there are over 820 pieces of readable material. Some of this material can be found while spelunking through dungeons for one quest or another. One example is a quest in which the player is directed to obtain an ancient and famed weapon. If the player reads the book found in the dungeon right before the boss battle, the player can learn about the bosses she is about to fight.  According to the book, the draugr (think ancient Norse berserker zombies) were once lovers.  One became ill and the other left to seek a cure.  When the cure was administered, the lover who found it was bitten by a snake and died, causing the lover who received the cure to commit suicide. Their story is finished with the player’s discovery of their tomb: they were buried together, they fight the main character together, and they die together for a second and final time. The book operates as a pre-structured, embedded narrative because it is placed as a prop in the mise-en-scene of the dungeon, waiting to be discovered by the player (Jenkins 126).

The narrative elements of Skyrim reveal much about the culture of the gamespace, making the gameworld more believable. These elements allow the character to create their own story out of the fragmented narrative units scattered across the map and embedded in the gamespace, creating memories and initiating emotional responses. As an author of experience, the player functions as an archivist of the gameworld, affecting the environment and creating a unique history. This is true even of multiple play-throughs, making open-world adventure RPGs like Skyrim extremely re-playable.

Sources:

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. (154-164). Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. (118-130). Print.

Last post, I wrote about how beautiful Skyrim’s digital landscape is and how it is one of the reasons the game is so immersive. Music is another factor that aids in immersion. It works with the digital environment to create a specific tone for the game. 

Jeremy Soule composed the soundtracks for the Elder Scrolls games Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. In each OST, there are instrumental motifs that provide a certain tone, and this differs from game to game. For Skyrim, Soule created pieces that audibly describe and enhance the Nordic culture, cold climate, and sublimity of Skyrim’s landscape. It is very ambient, instrumental music that can describe a place or, when that ambience changes to more sinister and higher tempo pieces, cue the player to encounters with dragons, Forsworn (think fur-and-bone-clad  berserkers), marauders, thieves, and other hostile NPCs.

Here’s a question for you: If the tone of the game is partially defined by the music, what happens when you replace the original music with something else? What would happen, say, if we replaced the Skyrim OST with…Metallica. That is a whole new game, my friend. To me, instead of the medieval Nordic vibes I get from the original OST and graphics, I would probably think post-apocalyptic if we were to replace the OST with Metallica. Why? Because Metallica uses modern, electric instruments. When you couple that with the medieval-ness of Skyrim, it signals a regression to and reliance on more primitive ways of life, particularly when the game juxtaposes the “current” medieval lifestyle of the Nords to the technologically advanced, abandoned dwarven ruins that dot the landscape. Of course, the quests would still be the same. The overall narrative would still be the same. But with the change of music, the tone changes and implies something different about the history of Skyrim that might affect how players play the game.

If all that game music mumbo jumbo doesn’t make sense, think about it in terms of reality: If you walk into Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma, you are not going to hear Van Halen or Journey blasting loudly on the radio. Instead, you will probably hear something more instrumental to convey that “well-cultured people with a fine palate and taste for gourmet foods shop here.” When you walk into a sit-down restaurant, places like Chili’s and Eskimo Joe’s (if you don’t know what Joe’s is, you should Google it–friggin’ best cheese fries EVER) will probably play classic rock to encourage faster eating and table rotation, while a fine dining restaurant will probably play something more classical or ambient to encourage patrons to take their time and enjoy their expensive meal. Same kind of thing goes for games. The music creates an atmosphere.

So, moral of the story: Jeremy Soule is awesome, and so is Skyrim. Like I said, it’s a small obsession.   

 

Fo’ rlz. I am obsessed with this game. I have a bajillion hours on it, but I’m only level 31. That’s because I like exploring the digital world Bethesda created. As Cartman states continuously on South Park, “I DO WHAT I WANT!” And that’s true of games Bethesda creates. I think that freedom is what makes the game so interesting.

I recently wrote a paper on Skyrim in which I discussed (more briefly than I would have liked) the digital landscape of the game. What I mean by digital landscape isn’t just “Ohhh, look at how gorgeous the mountains are, they’re so… OMGDRAGONSRUNRUNRUNRUN.” Of course, landscape in the sense of painting is indeed a part of the digital landscape, but it also includes characters, too (and yes, dragons are characters, too). Among other elements, NPCs (non-player characters) and the landscape create a believable environment for the open world adventure RPG that makes immersion possible for this particular genre. What’s really interesting is that it’s not necessarily realism in terms of the art that makes it believable. An 8 bit game can be immersive, too. Tetris, for heaven’s sake, can be immersive. So what is it that makes games immersive? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer because people’s enjoyment of games is subjective, but it does have to do with forgetting the world around you and being a character in the game, not just playing one.

But what makes Skyrim so great is that the landscape is gorgeous to look at.  I mean seriously, that aurora at night? Where spriggans hang out? That is art right there. The visual beauty is part of the reason I love that game. Also Jeremy Soule, who composed the sountrack, is a BOSS. Can we all agree on that? I think so. But that’s for another post. For now, I’ll leave  you with this screen shot from IGN:

Damn, is all I have to say.

Academic Humor

I’m just going to leave this awesome here.

Image  —  Posted: July 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

Game Studies: A Summer War Zone

Posted: July 28, 2013 in Academic

It’s been a long time since I last posted. A long time. But, as I’ve griped about before, grad school tends to get the best of your social life and hobbies. It hangs them up, tortures them, and throws them back in your face like your favorite pair of shoes that got chewed up by your Beagle. Or Min-Pin. They’re equally bad.

I spent this summer (so far) researching video games.  I’ve read a few of the “biggies” like Espen Aarseth, Ian Bogost, and articles by Markku Eskelinen, Jesper Juul, and Henry Jenkins.  I even tried to read Marie Laure-Ryan, but fell asleep three times trying to get through five pages.  Same thing happened to my professor, so my excuse is legit. (Also, sorry Marie–your subject matter is just so dry.) What I first recognized about this relatively new field is that is a freaking war zone! It’s like a Facebook cat-fight up in there! But you know what? That’s a good thing. The field is growing and people are taking it very seriously–although sometimes they go a little overboard but hey, gotta love the enthusiasm.  One very important lesson I learned is that you can glean a lot of stuff from games.  I particularly like Ian Bogost’s proceduralist approach that asks three very important questions: 1) What do video games do? 2) What happens when players interact with them? 3) How do they relate to, participate in, extend, and revise cultural expression at work in other kinds of artifacts? (Unit Operations, 54). Games are capable of reflecting who people really are based on their reactions to…lets call it simulation fever (simply put, the anxiety created by the blurred boundaries of reality and the game world)…and you may not like what you see. How is that not something worth looking into?

This kind of grates on my nerves, but I have been asked in reference to my academic pursuits, “What are you going to do with that?” It’s almost as if what I’m doing is not important because it won’t make me any money. To this type of question my answer is as follows: Well, I shall sit in an office. Writing nonsense. Starting various little academic quibbles (I will pwn people left and right). And then I’ll force-feed it to the next generation who decides to go to college. All because I think  it’s important. And THEN I’ll draw all over student papers with red ink and meaningless symbols and write only the first four letters of the alphabet minus “E”. How you like them apples?

My aspirations are so high. 😉

P.S. If you’re interested in this field, try reading these for a decent start (they aren’t in any particular order.  Just read ALL OF THE THINGS). They’ll set you up with the basics of people and theories you need to know:

  • First Person (MIT Press)
  • Cybertext by Espen Aarseth
  • Unit Operations by Ian Bogost
  • Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga
  • Game Studies (Blog–Espen Aarseth)

A New Type of Literature

Posted: January 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

Here’s a thought: video games are the new literary frontier.  When people ask me what I want to study, they give me the weirdest looks when I tell them, “Video games.”  They think I’m joking.  I am only slightly crazy–like 40% crazy.  But that’s all.  And that kind of crazy ain’t got nothin’ to do with intellectual pursuits.

So here’s the thing.  People who study literature look at books and film.  Film is a fairly recent development in the world of literary studies, too.  At first, with books, you get words on a page.  Maybe a picture.  Film revolutionized what we consider text.  It’s not just sub”text” anymore.  Now we get to analyze visual and auditory subtexts!  Video games take it a step further.  What do video games have that books and films don’t?  Direct interaction with a virtual environment.  Direct interaction with text.  Except you can’t see the majority of the text.  The text (at least in my opinion) includes the code–invisible signs that signify to us what we see and hear in that virtual environment.  Of course, as a gamer, you’ll probably still have things to read in-game.  But you’re in a different reality as long as you are playing the game.  You aren’t you.  You’re someone else.  So what does this mean?

This is a MAJOR opportunity for the education world.  Think Transcendental education–learning through action.  Except without the  physical consequences of messing up.  Chemistry, for example.  Say you accidentally mix things you shouldn’t.  Maybe your virtual self dies.  And you get to try again.  It’s an opportunity for learning faster and more effectively than by just reading a textbook.  In fact, there are already educational video games called “serious games.”  Don’t faint.

Also, just so you can see what game developers have to think about when designing games:  BAM.  Cognitive Load Theory.  Check that bad boy out.  It’s not all fun and games (<—punny, right?).

I could probably go on all day about literary theory and its application to video games, but I’ll spare you.  Besides, I’m super rusty.  It’s been about a year since I read anything of that nature.  The university I attend doesn’t really give me time to focus on my own stuff.  I’ll be posting more about this.  Maybe making this promise will motivate me to read Aarseth, Baudrillard and Hayles in my spare time.

 

Christmas vacation is over as of tonight at midnight, and tomorrow begins my new assistantship (which is apparently going to be the best job ever) and get my first taste of how my three seminars will go (I have three this semester from 5-7:45pm).  Though I will miss lazing around playing Skyrim (Level 34 Khajit stealth archer, arch-mage, and leader of the Dark Brotherhood) and watching South Park all day, it will be nice to have a goal other than trying to get something like 20,000 gold so I can buy a house in Solitude.

For the sake of mental health, there has to be a balance between work, play, and socializing.  That’s hard to do.  I read a post recently on Facebook about one of the world’s greatest musicians playing incognito in a train station.  Only about 6 people stopped to listen to him (and only for a couple minutes at most), and one ticket to this dude’s concerts cost $100.  It made me think about the things I miss out on everyday because I can’t stop for just one second to appreciate something beautiful.  I’m going to try to do that more. Even if I only take a big ole’ huff of the gardenia growing in my garden.  Memories are one of the few things you can take with you through life.  I remember wondering as a child if I would remember certain instances, places, or feelings–like on the morning of my fifth birthday after I had just woken up and was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  I’d rather have a lovely gallery of good memories than regret missing out because I HAD to be 15 minutes early to work.  What could I have seen in those 15 minutes if I had just opened up my eyeballs and tuned in?  Probably a lot.

Lesson learned:  I’ve got goals, which is good.  But getting side-tracked for a few minutes can lead to all sorts of possibilities.

Why Good Writing Matters

Posted: January 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

Why Good Writing Matters.

Awesome article.