Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Love For Dark Water

It was recently announced that the complete series of "The Pirates of Dark Water" is being released to DVD. Wired.com is having a little contest to win a free copy of the DVD, so rather than spend my money to support one of the most important pieces of media in my life, I will put wear my heart on my sleeve instead. I mean, I don't have to write about only video games, right?

"Dark Water" first appeared as a 5 part kind of mini-series on afternoon TV while I was in the 5th grade. I remember the Monday it came on the air: I was home sick with laryngitis, which was such a shock to me at the time because I had never had it before. So I basically got to sit at the house all day playing with toys and video games and watching TV. By Thursday I felt fine, but the show was being aired at 2:00 and school didn't let out until 3:00, and after four days of sitting around in pajamas watching this new amazing show I wasn't about to miss the last episode so I lied and said I was still sick. That was the first and only time I missed a complete week of school, and it was a serendipitous one.

5th grade was my height of fascination with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I had fashioned myself as an artist amongst the kids at school and extensively drew Ninja Turtles, and only Ninja Turtles. And then came Dark Water...

I remember being immediately amazed by this world. It was fantasy, but it didn't feel like what I thought of as "typical" fantasy worlds like The Hobbit or Legend. I never liked horses, never cared for fairies, and didn't like how everything felt old-english and ostensibly in the middle ages of Earth. The setting and tone of Dark Water shaped my create sensibilities to think of fantasy worlds and picture them as planets in other solar systems. To pull worlds and ideas from something like Star Wars (with binary solar systems and forest moons) and think of those worlds in their respective ancient times. By and large the look and setting of the show really made me more of a critical thinker in terms of fantasy and inspired years and years of world and character development which now comprises dozens of sketchbooks and multiple filing cabinets in my home.

Of course these lofty aspirations had a very carbon copy starting point. I don't remember the specific time, but either the week of the show's first airing or the following week I broke from the mold of TMNT and drew my first "original" concept. I called it "(Austin Ivansmith's) The 4 Rulers of Izon: the Three Rubies of Zarkon." I was elated with the work I had done. It was my first attempt at drawing humans, coming up with original names for them, and naming the world itself. And most of all, I did it all in one try without much erasing or re-dos. It was a complete success from start to finish, and I imagine if I had messed up in any major way I would have given up and never tried again. As any good 5th grader would do, I drew it on yellow lined paper and stapled all the sheets together to make it a complete set to show off to friends and family.

I created a cover page, complete with the signature sword which looked nothing like the one in the Dark Water logo.

The four heroes sail the globe in their own ship, getting into adventures along the way. From left to right:

Longwing was like Niddler, but with an attitude. He was sick of monkeybirds being complete morons and wanted to prove there were a few brave souls amongst them. He is outfitted with a crossbow and even wears a stylish medallion.

Martin is the son of the king of Izon but does not know it. He is a great warrior with a sword, bow and arrow, or even a knife. He has a small stud and small hoop earring in his left ear, and his fashionable shirt features the red forked tongue.

Gardeina is not your stereotypical woman. She is a tough fighter but still wears a pink outfit. Really my first foray into the idea that a woman does not need to be helpless. When I created this name I was sure it was 100% original.

Arrowhead is a master marksman. He was once a warrior for Cleaton (as you can see by his elbow and knee pad) but has changed his ways. He has bigger hooped earrings and his hair covers his eyes.

Then there is the group of enemies (which I stapled before the heroes page. Good job me)

Cleaton is the baddest dude in all of Izon. He captains his own ship and has a slew of soldiers at his disposal. He of course has a bare chest and beard, the signs of a brutish evil man. His right eye is dead and petrified, and looks like a piece of onyx in the socket (really the only cool thing I came up with.) He is not big and fat, because I didn't feel that added any fear to the equation.

Sluth is a vicious right hand man to Cleaton. Despite him being of very small stature, I never thought of it as a disadvantage to him. I gave him a deformed face because it made him look more evil, like the monsters from the Last Starfighter. And the peg-leg is made of metal like the arm of Colossus from Marvel comics. I never pictured him being scrappy in any way, just shorter.

Cleaton's Soldiers have a uniform which has some kind of padded chest armor, dark pants and shirts, and some kind of evil hockey masks. I liked this idea a lot because it reminded me of Stormtroopers or the Foot Clan; faceless drones.

This little piece of art really was the impetus for years of character and story development. I spent countless hours drawing in class when I should have been taking notes. I failed many tests and a few classes because I preferred to draw over doing anything else. I was offended when someone called it "doodling", because each drawing had a purpose; each character was integral to the world, and each drawing I made told their story and spoke volumes to their importance. After graduating from high school and not having any boring classes to draw in during lectures I found myself drawing less and less, and spending more time helping to take care of the family (and grow up, I guess. But I still have all the stories in the back of my head and plan on putting together something featuring them, someday.)

I really owe a lot to Dark Water because it was the first, biggest influence on me creatively, inspiring me to create worlds of my own and pursue the idea of being more than just a passive viewer; It drove me to be creative. The unique worlds and style really set a creative tone for me I carry to this day, always looking for a more unique approach for any unique piece of art or story I create. I always loved the show and knew it was important to me, but I never really tried putting it into words before and I am glad that I did, because now I know more than ever how important Dark Water is to my life and I will cherish the memories of it forever.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why all the swearing?

Recently I was touting the amazing time I am having with Monday Night Combat to my buddy at work: "Oh man me and the wife were playing split screen and shooting a bunch of robots and it's so worth the money because can play online or locally" and then my jaw melted and fell of my face. So yeah, it is a face melting good time, but he asked "Can I play it with my 7 and 9 year old kids?" Sure there is violence, but is there any swear words in the game? I think the answer is "no" and that it is safe to play in that regard, but should swearing be the deal-breaker?

As for me, 10+ years ago I played Perfect Dark with my younger brother all the time. I was somewhere around 20 years old at the time, and he was about 8. Our favorite thing to do was team up against a couple of tough sims, handguns only, and turn on slo mo. It allowed him time to react to what was going on around him and created some really intense moments while waiting for the aiming reticule to make its way across the face of the opponent. All around a lot of laughs were had, some digital blood was shed, all the while not a swear word was heard (not even during any of my temper tantrums.) Now if the game had swearing in it, we would never have played.

To some people this may seem odd: why would someone care about swearing and not about the guns, violence, or death? To me the answer is simple: The violence in games, no matter how realistic they are trying to be, is stylized, but words are not.

Swearing is relatively new to the gaming industry. Early on the only games which prominently featured swearing were also full of other adult themes. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series where characters talked about having sex, doing drugs, and killing. The game was already so full of adult content that the swearing fit right in, both in the narrative cut-scenes and in the everyday shouting of the people roaming the streets. It felt as natural as watching the Sopranos or the Godfather; the swearing accentuated the tone of everything. But some games with swearing just feel like a 13 year old trying to be cool by swearing a lot but not really saying anything.

There are two things recently which really made me think about the swearing in the content: Nip/Tuck and Crackdown.

Nip/Tuck was a series on FX featuring a lot of sex, a lot of drama, some killing, and a lot of graphic plastic surgery. My wife only recently started (and not long-after stopped) watching the show on Netflix, and I got suckered into joining her on a few occasions. By all accounts the show is incredibly adult in nature, but there is really no more swearing to speak of compared to other shows on network TV (other than the ONE "shit"-bomb per episode they are allotted.) I sat in amazement as characters grew more and more angry at each other (or when a sexy nympho looked into the eyes of the hunk of man-meat star just before banging), and I waited for their lips to make a ripped paper sound with their upper teeth against their lip, but the fffff's never came. It is strange to see, but the kicker is: it works! Shows like this, and some good network dramas, illustrate that swearing isn't necessary to add impact to language.

Which brings me to my other example: Crackdown. For the sake of argument, lets compare Crackdown to Halo. Both games do not feel like M rated games to me. The colors are bright, the characters are heroic, and the deaths of the enemies are very "ragdoll" and only occasionally have a blood splatter, but the splatter feels small, quick, and insignificant; to me they feel no more violent than a good PG-13 action film. I can play Halo online with the TV blasting at any time of day and not worry about offending prudes in my vicinity. But Crackdown is another story. Random pedestrians drop the f-bomb on numerous occasions, and it feels completely out of place for the tone of the rest of the game. Friends of mine can't play that game in their home during regular hours of the day because random profanity coming from the speakers will go against the house rules they set up with their families, but they can play Halo without any problems.

No matter what your opinion is on the subject (IE: "You're an idiot for not caring about violence." Save it, Dr. Douchebag Phd, I've heard it all before), developers need to recognize this as an issue for their customers and pursue simple, low-risk, low-impact solutions. I myself am someone who enjoys swearing, almost too much, but don't feel that those around me need to be forced to feel the same way, especially people who will be playing the games I make. So what are our options?

Developers can replace swear words with silly words, but I am personally against that option. Sure there are your Battlestar Galactica's, Firefly's, and Pirates of Dark Water's with their Fraks, Gorams, and Noiji-Tuts, respectively. But there are only so many times I can hear "fudge" or "hecka" without wanting to throttle anyone in my vicinity. (If you need an adverb that bad, just say the word, you sound immature.) Or they can cut whole lines. But either way you do it, simply make it an option for the player.

There have already been measures made to adjust violence in games; turning off gore or blood in violent games allows players to still play the game but with less elements of realism in terms of the violence, and the same could be done with audio with ease.

The developers of a game like Crackdown could easily set a flag to all of the phrases in which the pedestrians swear. Then when the player chooses "No Swear Words" from the options menu they won't be surprised by random f-bombs being dropped. For games like this, or online shooters like Modern Warfare, players can play to their hearts content with their TV volume turned up without offending someone in another room with profanity (or in some occasions, being offended themselves.) And while this is easy for most of the sandbox elements of a game where there are multiple, interchangeable phrases, a story section like in the GTA series wouldn't be able to simply drop whole lines of text, so the developers would have to record alternate lines with different words or phrases. A pain in the butt, I'll grant anyone that, but it is not that complex of a solution.

Ultimately, no matter your own personal opinions, this is a medium full of options and choices for the end-user, and it would be great if consumers who are concerned about such things could benefit from these options and still enjoy fun games without having to worry about being offended by profanity.

Friday, July 16, 2010

New title and layout

As the few of you who come here may have noticed I have changed the layout of my site a bit. Pretty nice, right?

Also I decided to change the title of my site. "Carrot v Stick" obviously is not something coined by me, but it is always a key aspect of design I come back to on a very regular basis. The definition is obvious and simple, because as a designer you are creating a world and inviting a player to explore that world. When the player, inevitably, does things in this world which you never intended for them to do you are ostensibly left with two choices: punishing the player for doing something you don't want them to do, or rewarding them into doing what you want the player to do. Punishment and reward.

I am a big believer in positive reinforcement in all facets of life, and it is such a part of me that it finds its way into my design with little resistance. But I feel a common misstep among many designers, and would-be designers, is to immediately go for the stick. It is the easy answer If the player is doing something undesirable then the first thing to do is punish them. Of course this may be the ideal answer when the player is outright capable of breaking the logic of the game.

I think a great example of well implemented Carrot is the multiplayer of Modern Warfare 2. I could only imagine how play sessions went during development, but if it is anything like the flow of "anger" from the mouths of scrubs playing the game then surely there were major balance decisions to be made.

A common complaint is the power of the grenade launcher, or noob toob. Now the developers can either nerf the launcher; make it less accurate, less powerful, slower reload time, (all examples of "stick.") Or take the carrot route and introduce items like the riot shield and blast shield. When combined, explosions do little or no damage. But now you have a turtle running around the stage invulnerable to many attacks, so now what do you do? Slow their speed down more, have the shield break over time, don't let them carry a second weapon? Or follow the path of the carrot again and introduce the Semtex grenade, which sticks to whatever it is thrown on. The shield is a larger, slower moving target, and is a guaranteed kill when stuck to the riot shield (though my wife swears wearing the blast shield in tandem will save you, but I never had such luck), and is a really quick way to accomplish the challenge of sticking semtex to 25 players.

That is the only good example I can think of, but I know the moment I come across it in another game I am going to make hop on here and write about it immediately. In the meantime I am looking forward to analyzing my own approach at design and hunting down the carrots and sticks in any games I play from now on.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Reading and Proofreading

I enjoy reading Kotaku. Whether I agree with the person posting for them or not, they are on top of most of the goings on in games and I have fun commenting on their forums. Two days ago Stephen Totilo of Kotaku wrote about his hesitation to kill buffalo in Red Dead Redemption. I had written of the same hesitance in a post on the 20th of June, so I linked him to my blog to show him my thoughts. I guess I could have copied and pasted it into an email, but I thought it would be fun to send him along to my blog and see what transpired. Much to my chagrin he wrote a Kotaku post about it, with a very large image of a Bison, and at the time of this writing has received over 18,000 hits and nearly 400 comments on the subject. Not the highest Kotaku reading of the day, but on average not too shabby.

It was pretty neat seeing my name on there, and completely unexpected. I had anticipated some kind of email from Stephen, but not a direct quote to my shitty post I wrote when I was very, very tired and on the verge of passing out from sleep deprivation and gaming to all hours of the morning. And in a few ways, maybe this was a bad thing. A lot of the Kotaku readers who shared in their comments were either upset and criticizing me for not being able to discern reality from fantasy, and others were agreeing and sharing their own hesitation to kill the buffalo in the game because they found it deplorable (though there were a rare few, and you know who you are, and you are rad). To me it was very odd because in a lot of ways my blog post had nothing to do with either opinion and I probably did a shitty job making this clear.

For the most part, it was an introspective look at WHY I was having any hesitation at all. I was actually quite shocked that I felt any hesitation as it was a rare occurrence when playing most of these games, and I commended Rockstar for inciting this kind of reaction in me. It is something I rarely encounter and I found it fascinating and thought provoking and I had to let it out in writing. And now I am struck by a whole new fascination; the idea that people do not read shit.

As a video game developer I am starting to get used to it, and that kind of sucks. For each game design document I write, I can tell who does and does not read the design document and/or pitches, and who just looks at table of contents and pictures. "Please make sure we do this in the game" a publisher will say, and all I can respond with is "oh, did you miss page 37 of the gdd?" when all I want to say is "yeah, I know, I already accounted for that, read the goddamn gdd motherfucker!" But of course someone paid to read documents would read those, but why would some random person cruising Kotaku bother to follow Mr. Totilo's link and read my blog post, even when instructed to "Read the whole post. And explain your buffalo-killing ways."? I mean, why would they bother to read beyond the two paragraphs Mr. Totilo felt were a good representation of what I had to say, to be sure they didn't take anything out of context, or to be sure Mr. Totilo didn't grab paragraphs in which I did a shitty job fully encapsulating my thoughts?

I can not IMAGINE being a writer, especially on one of these blogs. It must pain people like Stephen Totilo to write an article only to have a majority of people read only the headline, misinterpret it, and then post their messages as fast as they can just so people can see what their opinion is. That kind of thing would aggravate the shit out of me to no extent. Although, I can relate in a few ways. In my short five years in the industry (I am a veteran in gaming years mind you) I have released a handful of games mostly to shitty reviews, and I have seen a very similar thing in both reviews and message boards. Some people want to go out of their way to have an opinion and beat down your game, but not really take the time to understand it (I guess this is kind of a vague statement, but anyone who has worked hard on a project can relate in one form or another I am sure.) I am really hoping people will be able to play Galactic Tazball, Despicable Me, and the game I am currently directing, and look at them objectively for what we attempt to do, and not just what the reviewer is expecting from the game based on some arbitrary biases they bring to the table. But in some ways, every review is approached with this same shitty bias, so maybe the playfield is even.

In other ways, I should be a better writer and a better proofreader. If, in the future, I want people like Stephen Totilo to quote me and take my professional opinion seriously, then I should have paragraphs which are easily more quotable with less that can be misinterpreted. I may forever go down as the wuss who could not shoot Buffalo in Red Dead Redemption when googling my name, when I could have just as easily (with the simple stroke of some keys and better grammar) been the guy who pointed out how buffalo don't come back and it is a rare thing in games. I suppose from here on out I will proofread my writing better, and become the writer and designer I want to be, and perhaps incite as much thought and debate as I did today with a large number of Kotaku readers (but after tonight, because I have had way too much wine to validate any proofreading.)

And to anyone who actually ventured to this blog and read through each shittily worded paragraph, I thank you and ask you to comment here so that I can someday high five you and call you my friend.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Extinction within a game?

Recently I have been up to my eyeballs in Red Dead Redemption. I am quickly coming to the end of the game and starting to pursue achievements I feel I could easily... achieve. While looking over the list of achievements I came across "Manifest Destiny", worth 5 achievement points, where I must: "Kill the last buffalo in the Great Plains in Single Player."

For some reason this makes me feel oddly uncomfortable. This is strange to me because it is a feeling I have never come across in a game before. It is one thing to run around shooting animals I know to be on the endangered species list. So far I didn't mind shooting beavers, cougars, or owls; there seems to be no end to them. Like most games they are killed and replenished.

A part of me feels that if the achievement simply called for killing a whole number, maybe 30 buffalo, and knowing that more will appear on the plains at some point, is something I am ok with. But in a game where storytelling elements have pointed out the stupidity of the white man, and the atrocities imposed on the natives of the land, I feel like I am morally wrong to pursue this achievement.

Now maybe I would be less inclined to care if it was simply a hunting game, instead of a game which introduces many moral dilemmas throughout the narrative, and a character who, surprisingly, is of a higher level of moral fortitude than I was expecting. And because the game so liberally portrays characters and situations in a strong good and evil light, I feel like I am partaking in too much of the evil. Perhaps it has more to do with the context of the game itself and how I feel I will shape the world of the game than it does with feeling like I am recreating a horrible portion of the past.

I guess I feel almost sad in the same way I would feel sad to kill a major character in Fallout, knowing full-well that they are never going to be alive again within my saved game, and that is the end. It is truly the exception, game characters which can be killed off at the discretion of the player, not by the forced narrative or intended structure of the main game, never to be respawned again. It is something that literally makes me stop and think, because I need to weigh whether I will want this person around in later playthroughs of the game.

But with the buffalo, there is no real benefit. They are simply animals wandering a section of the game world. So in a way I suppose there is a combination of guilt and discomfort, performing an act with overarching social implications. Knowing that the thing you are going to do will set a chain of events creating years of despair and completely ruining the lives of millions of people. It is different than simply killing an individual character in the game which is a carbon copy of a seemingly endless supply of the same character.

I have no problem killing an individual character in a game, usually because I have no idea who this person is or how they exist in the world. But I suppose if I saw a flash into this characters life the moment I pointed a gun at them I would feel different. Imagine it: you aim your pistol at their head, then the screen flashes to white. You are given a glimpse of them at home, providing for their family, playing with their children, and other happy things. Then you are brought back to the game with the crosshairs on their head. Do you continue and kill this character, or are you second guessing?

I know I was in a similar predicament when I knew I was face to face with a cannibal in the game, and I had to hogtie a man and bring him to the cannibal. I didn't want to do it. I already knew this guy was bad, I had seen multiple family members crying over missing loved ones, seen the piles of bones out in the wilderness, then heard the cries of the man I chased down as he said "Don't do this, he is crazy." But when I tried shooting the cannibal first, I failed the mission. I begrudgingly did the mission again, and was able to kill the cannibal before he killed the man, so I felt ok in the longrun, but I was really sucked in by the whole thing, and I am still impressed by how emotionally swayed I was by this simple mission.

And as for killing the buffalo? I don't think it is weird for me to feel this way. Yes these are just characters in a game, but so was Aeris and I cried when Sephiroth killed her. But there is a lot more going on here, everything I listed that I don't feel like listing again, which the developers did an amazing job layering over and over in order to illicit and emotional response and investment from the player, and I have to applaud Rockstar San Diego for creating such a moral dilemma for myself.

Thursday, April 8, 2010