Being a Superhero

People always look for ways to distract themselves from their daily routines. Throughout human history people have done this by immersing themselves in stories told through many different mediums. Books, music, movies, plays, and most recently video games, have captivated billions with their ability to project fantastic stories into the minds of the people enjoying them. From tales of love, to tragic war stories, people choose to take many different adventures. The ability to interact with these adventures allows them to be more immersive for many.

Contrary to many other forms of media which passively or actively engage their audience and are essentially self-contained, video games are completed through interaction with the player (Papale, 2014). By controlling the character in-game, many players begin to identify with their avatar and react to the game world with very real emotional reactions. This is especially evident in games featuring a human-like avatar.

In his paper on the relationship between player and avatar Luca Papale, a former EA employee and professor in game design at IUDAV, argues that while identification may indeed occur during play, it’s far from being the one and only type of psychological response that a player can have. One response, outside of identification, that he believes plays a crucial role is empathy. Players can experience emotional reactions outside of identification, by empathizing with characters that they are not be able to identify with. He uses the example of feeling empathy for somebody who loses a loved one by imagining the person’s emotions and somehow sharing them. (Papale, 2014) Sympathy works the same way in video games as players are able to imagine the feelings of characters in-game and experience them in real life to a lesser degree.

The concept of player sympathy is crucial to Infamous. The game sports a “karma meter” which is a reflection of moral choices made as the main character. In-game processes change drastically as the player makes different choices that affect the karma meter. The primary motivation to spare enemies and improve karma revolves around sympathetic responses in return to the player.

Infamous Karma Meter- InfamousWiki.com

As a reward for good karma, civilian NPC’s (non-playable characters) will join the player as he fights enemies in battle. The opposite is true with regards to bad karma. This dynamic is enhanced by the dialog enemies present you with when there is a chance to kill them. Many enemies will say, “hey I have a family man” or other responses that are meant to elicit a sympathetic response by the player. Through playing Infamous and experiencing these moral decisions the relationship between player and avatar is shown to go beyond identification.

Papale, L. (2014). Beyond identification: Defining the relationship between player and avatar.Journal of Game Criticism,1(2), 1-12. Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://gamescriticism.org/articles/papale-1-2/

Source: Being a Superhero

Game Log 3 – 3: Moral Sensitivity and The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is always praised for its immersive storytelling.  For me, part of what makes the game feel so compelling is that the narrative is dynamic.  In a dynamic narrative game, the story responds to the player’s actions. I have always loved games like this as they require you to really consider the choices before you and how they may impact the narrative as you play.  Some of my favorite examples of these types of games are Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Fable series, and Jade Empire, just to name a few.

RPG Classic, KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic)

Despite playing numerous titles like these throughout the years, I never considered how a lot of times these games were, in a way, evaluating my morals.  In a journal article in Games & Culture titled ‘Training Moral Sensitivity Through Video Games’, the authors engage in a study of 20 different games and how well they encourage ‘Moral Sensitivity’ on the part of the player.  Basically, the authors see a game as excelling at employing MS when it successfully pushes the player to make decisions with regard for the moral implications of their character’s actions and how they align with their own values.  In the study, the authors point to a specific quest in The Witcher 3 where the player catches an arsonist who attempted to burn down a blacksmith’s forge in retaliation for his working with the invading army. The player is presented with the choice of turning him in, resulting in his execution, or letting him walk free.  The authors see this as a fine example of MS because the player is able to immediately see the results of their actions and the moral ambiguity of the arsonist’s motives encourage the player to evaluate the situation. An additional important thing that the authors failed to mention is that this quest takes place relatively early in the game, so in my mind it kind of the sets the stage for the rest of the game.

The arsonist, after being turned in

It’s interesting to think about how games can be bad at compelling moral sensitivity.  For me, a game like Grand Theft Auto doesn’t have great MS. When I play that game I act like a madman and absolutely do not consider the moral or ethical implications of my actions.  My goal is to just have fun. However, I think it’s important to recognize that Rockstar, the studio behind the GTA series, doesn’t seem too concerned with encouraging MS. Their games are filled with camp, such as cartoon characters and over the top storylines.   In my mind, this is all an effort to disconnect the player from reality so they can act uninhibited by their morals or values. This reveals a key distinction in the goals of TW3 and GTA. A game like the Witcher 3 wants to you to get into the mind of the character Geralt and make the character your own by making him act as you would.  A game like GTA wants to provide you with a total escape from reality and your own responsibilities.

A player escapes from reality by beating someone up as Princess Peach in GTA

Sources:

Playing Around With Morality: Introducing the Special Issue on “Morality Play”

Malcolm Ryan, Paul Formosa, Rowan Tulloch

Games and Culture  

First Published October 31, 2017
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1555412017719344#articleCitationDownloadContainer

Source: Game Log 3 – 3: Moral Sensitivity and The Witcher 3

INSIDE: THE PROBLEM OF PLAYER-CHARACTER DEATHS

In an article about the problem gamic narratives face in representation of death, Jason Tocci writes:

“Here, the object of analysis is not the characters the player kills, but the death of the player’s own character. Death is considered here not as morally problematic or dangerous to audiences, but as an unnecessary narrative disruption due to the typical game structure of trial-and-error, die-and-retry. Video games may be the only narrative medium in which the death of the protagonist isn’t just devoid of drama, but is entirely routine. If players have any emotional reaction, it is usually frustration rather than reflection”

Tocci, I think, raises the issue of playability and narrative thrust/effectiveness. The question becomes: how can I make a playable/entertaining game that, in the case its developers craft it to have a compelling narrative, still renders the player-character’s deaths into meaningful, authentic moments?

Experiments with bombs take place in the background. The force of the explosion causes the boy’s body to be flung like a ragdoll. It’s gruesome, to say the least.

There is this simple fact: death loses its gravitas, its solemnity, when it comes packaged with a quick restart. Even when the punishment for dying is severe (a loss of all of your accumulated gear a la Runescape, or a loss of all of your souls a la Dark Souls), the emotions felt by the player often amount to frustration. It does not feel like a death; it is seemingly impossible to generate the affect of filmic or novelistic narratives. Tocci does allude to the famous Final Fantasy VII death scene. While this sequence proverbially tugs at the player’s heartstrings, the problem remains that, assuming the player has failed previously, those deaths still has not meant much to player other than as a source of frustration. Certain deaths are given more weight than others, but the ones that matter appear to be those the developer has control over. But if you make the game too easy so that the player does not experience an ‘unemotional’ or trivialized death, would the game be any fun?

While I did not find this article prior to writing my close play of Inside, I believe my paper provides an example of a game that works to infuse death with player pain. Inside, despite its trial-and-error mechanic, subverts the trivialization of death, countering the problem Tocci finds in many games. I won’t go into detail explaining how Playdead imbues affect and genuine suffering in their player-character’s deaths as I have already done that in my close play. But even in the case of Inside, if the player dies enough, he/she–I imagine–beings to be desensitized with the protagonist’s deaths. I end my post here still pondering what the best balance is.

A particularly frustrating sequence where a devilish aquatic gremlin killed me numerous times. Frustration definitely trumped any connection I had to the character.

Work Cited:

Tocci, Jason. “You Are Dead. Continue?”: Conflicts and Complements in Game Rules and Fiction.” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, 2008, www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/43/81

 

Source: INSIDE: THE PROBLEM OF PLAYER-CHARACTER DEATHS

One With Nature: The Witness as an Environmental Text

Besides its mind bending puzzles, most players praise The Witness for its vivid, beautiful open world. With expansive bodies of water, lush greenery, and colorful flowers, the graphics of the game are breathtaking However, I argue that this world does more than simply look pretty; rather, it encourages players to contemplate the beauty, importance, and enormity of the natural world. I read the game as what scholar Alenda Y. Chang calls an “environmental text,” encouraging the player to work with the environment, appreciating its beauty and value without plundering it for resources.

In many video games, such as Minecraft, players are encouraged to treat the game’s environment as an infinite provider of usable resources. The actionable parts of the environment, Chang writes “are most often things a player can use immediately… acquire for later use… or destroy,” such as power-ups or supplies (60). Chang then proposes that “games are opportunities to create entirely new sets of relations outside of those based on dominance or manipulation” (60). This relation to the environment, one of collaboration and respect, is present in The Witness. In my last play session, the solutions to the puzzles were imbedded in the natural environment, the trees in front of the puzzle boxes serving as clues to the puzzles’ answers. Hiding the solution to the puzzle in the environment serves two important functions. First, it requires the player truly to examine and appreciate the natural world. If the player is focused myopically on solving the puzzle without considering her environment, she will undoubtedly be stumped. Paradoxically, to solve the puzzle, the player must look at the world beyond the puzzle. Second, hiding the solution to the puzzle in the game’s environment models a way of working with nature that is not predicated on directly taking or using natural resources. Instead of taking from nature, the game encourages the player to learn from it, which is a pretty significant environmental message.

The solution to this puzzle is hidden in the tree pictured

Additionally, The Witness encourages players to contemplate the vastness, power, and beauty of the natural world. In discussing the parser-based interactive fiction Adventure, Chang writes that the game encourages the player to consider “the sheer scale and complexity of its natural environment” (66). The Witness is much the same. Isolated on the island with no NPCs to distract her, the player’s focus is solely on the world around her. Even while sitting inside and looking at a screen, the enormous, beautiful world of The Witness encourages players to consider the vastness and splendor of nature.

While a video game is no substitute for time spent outside, environmental texts such as The Witness nevertheless instruct players on the value of nature. Interacting with the environment without plundering it and considering the beauty of the open world, players of The Witness are met with timely themes of environmental respect and appreciation.

Works Cited

Alenda Y. Chang. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle, vol. 19, no. 2, 2011, pp. 56–84.

Source: One With Nature: The Witness as an Environmental Text

The Art of Murder III: Exclusivity in Gaming

In our class discussions, we briefly examined the characteristics of a game and its promotional advertisements in relation to its implied audience. After a session of Blood Money, I wondered about its marketing campaigns and whether or not it achieved its target audience. And if it did, how?

In Debugging Game History, Carly Kocurek states that the earlier advertisement for games catered towards male audiences, however, in recent years, the identity of the gamer has broadened towards females as well. The chapter mentions Ubisoft wanting to promote the idea of a “female gamer”, yet will not add female main characters to their games. The Hitman franchise’s IO entertainment is no different. While the content of their games may not explicitly reveal misogyny, their advertisements have always garnered controversy for their depictions of violence and women. In the advertisement for 2012’s Hitman Absolution, Agent 47 is seen slaughtering several scantily dressed nuns. While the video places women in an empowering state, they are still served as eye-candy for the male players and ultimately die beautifully against the signature hitman. A few years prior, during the release of Blood Money, the company went through the same kind of controversy as they released ads of murdered people. One of the ads portrayed another woman in lingerie with a bullet in her head. While the release of Hitman (2016) seemingly learned from its previous mistakes and chose to promote a more cinematic gameplay, it is clear that certain masculine-dominated elements are still needed to sell contemporary games.

However, this exclusivity does not solely exist in a binary male vs. female structure, but across several axises. In the article “The Structure of Video Game Preference”, studies reveal two dominant associations: inclusive (family oriented games) vs. exclusive (dark-themed/mature games) and niche vs. mainstream games. Both of these axises correlates with a demographic divide between infrequent, female gamers and frequent, male gamers.

Figure 1. “The Structure of Videogame Preference”

The graph above divides the two axises with Hitman falling near the Exclusive-Niche quadrant. This would provide evidence that the franchise caters towards dedicated, male gamers that avoid larger, exclusive games. Divided into seven broad categories of gamers, Hitman seems to be dominated by the “Lads”, a group that is overwhelmingly male with only a 4% female demographic and plays more than any other group (47% play more than five days a week).

Table 2a. “The Structure of Videogame Preference”

Table 2b. “The Structure of Videogame Preference”

So while certain game companies, like IO, may cater to certain demographics, it is not necessarily just male gamers that are being targeted. It is catered toward male gamers who dedicate a lot of time to gaming, prefer darker themes, and want difficult gameplay. Despite this particular market’s display of potential violence and sexism, it would be wrong to say that the entire gaming industry is not progressing in its mission to include others.

 

 

Bibliography

Lowood, Henry, et al. Debugging Game History: a Critical Lexicon. The MIT Press, 2016.

Munro, Shaun. “10 Outrageous Video Game Adverts That Caused Major Controversy.”WhatCulture.com, WhatCulture.com, 23 July 2013, whatculture.com/gaming/10-outrageous-video-game-adverts-that-caused-major-controversy?page=3.

Klevjer, Rune. “Game Studies.” Game Studies – The Structure of Videogame Preference, gamestudies.org/1702/articles/klevjer_hovden.

Schreier, Jason. “Hitman Director Says Controversial Trailer ‘Wasn’t Supposed To Be’ Sexist.” Kotaku, Kotaku.com, 13 June 2012, kotaku.com/5917899/hitman-director-says-controversial-trailer-wasnt-supposed-to-be-sexist.


Source: The Art of Murder III: Exclusivity in Gaming

The Climb Never Stops (Overwatch Log #2)

As mentioned in the previous log, Overwatch lacks a structured narrative. Despite its extensive mise-en-scene, there’s no story mode, no plot to speak of, not even a definitive companion chronology. However, there is one element of the game which provides a certain narrative interactivity: Competitive Mode.

Competitive Mode places players in matches with others around their skill level. Each season, one plays ten placement matches and receives a skill rating based on their performance in them. Based on their skill rating, they’re placed in one of eight possible tiers.

Again, there’s no structured plot here. But there is a sort of implied narrative in the design of Competitive Mode. Higher numbers denote higher skill, and as the skill tier increases the icon representing it becomes more intricate and brightly colored. These small details turn the skill ranking players receive into a sort of implicit value judgment. The better you are at Overwatch, the more prestige you have. Of course, this is only logical for the Competitive Mode in a team and objective based game, but it’s still an element of narrative that seems carefully constructed.

Another interesting aspect of Competitive Mode is the sort of metagaming that goes along with it. Overwatch allows people on a team of six to select one hero from a range of over two dozen options, each with different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This means that at any given time a team must have six different characters in play. While the development team behind the game has continually tried to balance the heroes so that a player can choose any of the options and have an equal chance at victory, they haven’t really succeeded.

This leaderboard shows the top 500 players in my region and their most played heroes. Although there is a decent amount of variation, the most common characters for these players only represent 14 out of a possible 26. Because it is impossible to make a game perfectly balanced, certain heroes will always be better equipped to win than others. The current hierarchy of the characters is called the meta, and knowing it allows players to choose the best options to win.

Of course, the meta isn’t a part of Overwatch‘s programming. When one works with the meta, one moves on Galloway’s categorizations from diegetic operator action to non-diegetic operator action. They are no longer working within the mechanics of the game, but are still striving to win it by using outside methods.

Source: The Climb Never Stops (Overwatch Log #2)

Earthbound: A Peculiar Case For and Against Emulation

A few weeks ago in class, we discussed the pros and cons of emulation and how emulation can be thought of as preservation. I argued that a pro of emulation is that you are preserving games that otherwise would have been lost in time. On the other hand, I argued that by emulating games, you are only preserving gameplay, not the experience of playing said game. Earthbound, released in 1995 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), provides an argument for and against emulation that I want to investigate further.

I am currently playing Earthbound on an SNES emulator because it is the easiest way for me to play the game. I do not own the appropriate hardware or software in order to actually play the real game. I realize that I am not getting the full experience of playing the game but I cannot justify spending almost $200 (Price Charting) to play a game that was made over twenty years ago. That crazier fact here is that the majority of that price comes from the game, not the system! Why is Earthbound so expensive? Upon release, Earthbound was not received all too well. When advertising the game, Nintendo decided to mimic the unconventional sense of humor found throughout the gameplay.

Ads like this revolved around the stench of the game. Not a traditional way to advertise.

You have to keep in mind that this was during an era of gaming that warranted “ads with attitude”. Nintendo was in competition with Sega to win over teenagers with more mature games. Needless to say, the advertising was not very effective and the game only sold around 140,000 copies in the US (compare that to Super Mario World, which sold around 20.6 million) (www.gamecubicle.com). Though the game did not sell well, it was welcomed with a small cult following. Fast forward to today, collectors who are looking to complete their collection, or just have a fun game to play, are looking to spend about $150 to buy just the cartridge. Earthbound is not the only game in this situation. Games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64) and Little Samson (NES) are perfect examples of games that just did not sell well, but are sought after for their fun and exciting gameplay. Games like these provide perfect arguments for emulation. Emulation makes hard to find games more accessible to the general gaming community. Without emulation, I would have no way to experience the quirkiness and absurdity of Earthbound. But what am I missing by digitally emulating the game instead of playing the physical cartridge?

A complete in box version of the game. It included the cartridge as well as an important guidebook.

When Earthbound was originally marketed and sold, it ran you about $70 ($115 dollars in today’s money) but you also received an important guidebook that not only taught you how to play the game, but included a lot of unique artwork and secrets that you could only find in that guidebook during the time. They even included scratch and sniff stickers that were part of the advertising campaign. The book included lore and other information about the towns you would be visiting and was overall, a helpful companion as you played through your quest. The book also gave the player tips and tricks on how to progress in the game. You have to remember the internet was in its infancy at this time and if you got stuck in a game, you could not just Google your way out. In an RPG like Earthbound, the path towards progress is not always a clear one. You can see that by emulating the game, you are missing out on the experience that the game developers intended you to have while playing Earthbound.  Here in lies the problem with emulation, you are merely replicating the gameplay, not the gaming experience. Of course I could go and spend $200 for a system and game (cartridge only), but I would still be missing the guidebook and would be spending quite the penny on a twenty year old game I could play for free on my computer. Interestingly enough, the developers of Earthbound put some interesting measures in play to combat piracy of the game.

An error message appears as you boot up an unofficial PAL version of the game.

On unofficial ROM’s of Earthbound, the game will actually display a warning message at the beginning of the game. Thankfully, the emulation software and ROM I downloaded got past the anti-piracy measures but I found some pictures here.  Along with a harmless error message, the game will actually spawn more enemies for you to fight. This was in an effort to make the game less enjoyable. But the real measure comes in a more permanent form. If you make it all the way to the end boss fight, the game will freeze, reboot, and delete all your data! Obviously, the developers anticipated pirating of their game so these measures were put into place to encourage players to purchase the real game. This is where emulation gets a bit tricky. Since you are technically not playing original software that you purchased, it is illegal to be playing said emulation. Emulation comes with a negative connotation because you are cheating the developers of the game out of their rightfully earned money. So what makes emulation excusable?

Earthbound provides ground for and against emulation. It is one of the few games to do so as well. Emulation has a time and place in the industry, for preservation of older hardware and software that cannot be easily accessed. It is important to keep these relics of gaming history as a way of preserving the culture surrounding these games; almost like a time capsule. But emulation should be used knowing that it is not replicating the experience of playing the game, merely the gameplay itself. Additionally, emulation should be used responsibly and not in an effort to scam developers out of money. I believe my use of emulation is justified because I am a broke college student who does not have a few hundred dollars laying around to spend on “prehistoric” video games 🙂 I would argue however, that if you have the means to do so, to buy an official emulation of Earthbound on the WiiU’s Virtual Console eShop.

 

Source: Earthbound: A Peculiar Case For and Against Emulation

INSIDE: CONTROL AS RESPONSIBLITY

Inside is a fitting title for a game with such a focus on the diegetic world. The game does not employ a narrator, nor does it furnish the player with instructions. As I averred in my first game log, Inside eschews anything extra-diegetic (excluding, the menu and sparse audio) that could divert the player’s attention from the gamic world. To use one of Alexander Galloway’s terms, Inside flourishes because of how much weight it places on “diegetic operator acts.” This notion of a player’s control plays into a theme of the game: the loss of individual agency in a state led by a militant, malevolent force (the black, white, and red color scheme are, to me, an allusion to the Nazis and to Schindler’s List).

A ravenous canine chomps away at the protagonist’s neck. Shifting to a diegetic machine act, the player, without the ability to skip, must watch the gruesome scene.

Encountered in select places, a brain-control device hangs. The player can attach the boy’s head to the device, endowing him with the ability to control nearby husks (humans that cannot do anything without someone attached to the aforementioned device). When the player, for example, presses the right arrow key, the boy, legs dangling and head connected to the apparatus, moves his legs as if he were walking right; the husk actually walks to the right. Here, there are levels to this control: the player-operator inputs the command for the boy to move right, and by doing so, sets off a command chain that results in the husk’s movement. This moment bespeaks the relationship between the protagonist and the gamer: we are controlling the boy, a husk that needs a player to animate him.

The mind control apparatus that the player must use to progress through the game.

Yet, while the power dynamic appears in favor of the player, one should not forget that the husks allow for the boy to progress: they are necessary for his salvation. Now, as players, our lives are obviously not dependent on this child. Nevertheless, we cannot gain access into the game without the child; our experience hinges on his survival. To me, this reads as quite selfish and returns me to the game’s theme of control. I ended my first game log on the thought that the player feels responsible for every time the protagonist dies. While I have not finished the game, I find it interesting that the boy’s survival depends on how well we can control him. Perhaps, this is a metaphor for the great influence we have on others’ lives.

Copy the husks or be killed. The player, while still in control, must act according to the others.

Source: INSIDE: CONTROL AS RESPONSIBLITY

GT-Audio

Lawrence King

Digital Narratives

Sample

March 2, 2018

In this game log, I want to focus on the audio of GTA V. I’m going to talk about how the sound of GTA V affects the game. I’ll focus on the diegetic sounds of the game. I’ll also talk about the effect the audio had on me personally while playing the game during my session.

GTA V has a lot of audio. It’s a free-world game and there’s an entire city full of people and they all have something to say. When I’m walking the streets, I hear people talking about their problems and casual topics. I can hear the cars passing, the waves of the water and the animals. When I’m driving, I have the option to choose from multiple radio stations. I can play music from multiple genres like hip-hop, rock, and Spanish music. There’s even one station that is hosted by real-life comedian and actor JB Smoove. He’s mostly known for his recurring role in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” starring Larry David.

In addition to music, there’s also the sounds of the weapons. The gunshots are clear and authentic, the roar of a car’s engine, the explosion from a rocket-launcher, etc. All of the sounds make the GTA world more realistic and believable. These sounds are sounds that you hear in real life and so you expect to hear them in this kind of game otherwise the immersion spell is broken, and you believe the game’s story a little less.

The audio in this game did have an effect on me. Hearing the popular music from today made me happy and set the mood for me. Listening to some of my favorite comedians, like JB Smoove, speak on the radio made me laugh. Listening to the slang of some of the characters made me feel like I was in my old neighborhood. The sounds from the weapons made me focus more on the game and the environment and put me in survival mode. Without the audio, GTA V would not be as immersive or realistic. It’s an important aspect of the game that would drastically affect the game’s popularity and appeal if it wasn’t included.

Source: GT-Audio

The Art of Murder

source

disclaimer: This game is different from the game I had chosen as the console game in the first round of game logs. I realized I hadn’t play the game enough to get a good grasp on it and it would be awhile before I am able to play it again.

Hitman: Blood Money is extraordinarily juicy game that has absolutely terrible immersion. Rather than playing through a series of maps or advancing through different areas, Blood Money forces the player to on several missions that often have nothing to do with the previous one. First, I have to talk about perspective. The game is naturally set in third person which already eliminates most of the immersive element. The objectives for each levels are explained by a disembodied authoritarian figure, similar to a Bond girl feeding information into 007’s mic. There are extensive cut-scenes filled with details and narration that take away from any realistic depictions.

While the actual framing of the game is fairly poor, one of the good immersive aspect is the gameplay itself. Although we are given who to kill and why we are killing them, there are numerous ways we can do it. The game doesn’t show you the best way to sneakily assassinate somebody or where any of the weapons and shortcuts are. What a player does, excluding the killing of the target, is pretty open ended. You don’t have to kill any civilians or non targets, but are given the option to. Most of the time you are allowed to use any weapons you want and you must complete a series of task efficiently through a series of trial and error. While there are plenty of diegetic sounds, the game would not be completed without dramatic music whenever you alert a bunch of guards or the glorious sounds of “Ave Maria” during the final sequence as you slaughter all those who betrayed you. Although it is not most immersive game in an aesthetic sense, the choices and freedom that you are given while playing makes up for all the shoe-horned cut-scenes.

Source: The Art of Murder