Through the noise #6

My gold digging equipment is left behind in some diamond filled crevice. Putting my ears to the tracks, I hear a tap dancing hobo from miles away. He’s tapping morse code, spelling out hypertext transfer protocol adresses. Beep for beeep, I write them down. This is the real treasure. 

Todd Howard’s DICE keynote
Todd Howard, the creative director of Skyrim, gives an interesting and revealing talk about how Bethesda creates their games. Definately worth your time if you’re into game development.

Top five regrets of the dying
Well,we’re all going to die. Here are the top five regrets expressed by the dying, according to someone that used to work in palliative care. Let’s not make this list ours when the time comes, OK?

The end of evil?
The word “evil” is deeply problematic, expressing nothing but ignorance of the real processes and desires that drive people. Whenever someone with power speaks of evil, reach for your gun! He’s either lying or he’s a fool. This article discusses why neuroscientists claim there is no such thing as evil, and I wish that idea could claim some ground in the public debate.

Gelaskins
If you’re ever looking for protection for your smartphone, tablet or laptop, check out Gelaskins. They make durable skins that look amazing. I bought The Great Wave (Katsushika Hokusai) for my netbook and iPad Touch a long time ago, and now I’m considering getting it for my HTC Desire Z.

51 words for snow

The eskimos are said to have fifty different words for snow. It’s not remotely true of course, but so goes the modern legend that we love to retell. I guess it’s a romanticization of the relationship to a natural phenomenon (and of the idea of indigenous people in tune with nature), probably saying less about eskimos and more about the people repeating the saying. We want to be closer to nature.

I think it’s often true that the modern human, with her apartment complexes and information feeds, secretly longs after the woods, mountains and rivers she has organized away. She desires a deeper sense of snow.

Perhaps those of us up here in the northern part of the world ought to have a slimmer version of the same myth, with our long winters. Thirty words for snow? Twenty? I probably have no more than a handful, but I sure know snow.

Truth to be told, I am sick of winter. See, we Swedes have a short summer. Spring comes late, and autumn always seem to arrive too early. Then we face many months of snow, cold and darkness. We count the day as blessed whenever our pale skin gets some sunshine, and we huddle in our brightly lit homes to keep the cold and the dark away. This winter I started longing for spring already in october.

Funny, then, that I enjoy the winterous landscapes of Skyrim so much.

Perhaps it is the contrast between sitting comfortably in a warm and bright apartment while exploring a steep mountain in an intense snow storm. Perhaps it is all the mysteries awaiting the curious who chooses to leave the beaten path. Or maybe it is the diversity of environments – the many variations on the theme “snow”.

Most of Skyrim is clad in snow, and yet it never ceases to surprise you. Moving from area to area, you encounter one unique snow landscape after another. The intense snow storm that seems to drown the world in white, the strong cold wind that blows newly-fallen snow from nearby ridges, the green grove that receives the year’s first snow, the…

Even as a swede, I have no words for many of the types of snow Bethesda has captured. That is not a reflection on my vocabulary but a celebration of Bethesda’s world design. If the saying about the eskimos had not been false, it’s easy to believe that even they would run out of words. I don’t know what strange country Skyrim’s art director comes from, but wherever that might be his people must speak a language with 51 words for snow.

It’s not only the variation. Each type of snow filled environment has been carefully crafted, giving you a rare sense of climate and weather. It genuinely surprised me how cold I felt when I climbed the game’s first mountain. Not only do the areas immerse you, but they evoke specific feelings. You will feel cold, but also melancholic, hopeful, filled with awe and so on. Couple the strong artistic vision of each landscape with the variation of environments and you experience an ever-changing emotional state as you walk the land.

With my dislike of winter, I would not have expected Skyrim’s defining feature – the one that made me fall in love with the game – to be snow.

Playing Skyrim

The move to Sweden was an ordeal. It should have been fairly easy – Norway is a neighbouring country, and I am Swedish after all (although with 50% Finnish sisu). But the completely insane housing market in Sweden (good luck trying to find an apartment without renting one from someone already renting it or paying a bribe of half a year’s salary), and the fact that we were defrauded gave us more than one headache.

Yes – defrauded. We we’re royally screwed on an apartment by a sociopath. It’s long story that I might tell another time, but for now I’ll just conclude that the parasite is doing time.

Anyway. Games.

The ordeal meant that most of our stuff waited for us in a warehouse, in the twilight zone between the previous apartment and the next one, and we had to wait until early December until we got it back. That translates to a lot of time without my PC or my Xbox 360. My already intimidating games backlog continued to grow and grow.

But it’s been well over a month since my hardware returned, so the backlog should surely have been reduced by now. Right?

Well, Skyrim happened. It’s not like I don’t want to finish Deux Ex: Human Revolution, it’s not like I don’t want to try out Battlefield 3, but…

I was never that impressed by Oblivion. And Skyrim is not a perfect game. But by god was it a long time since a game captured my imagination like this. When I’ve played it, I keep thinking about it even when I should be sound asleep. I think about the things I might want to try, and potential scenarios that might unfold the next time I enter its captivating world.

The game lives in the mind, and it was years since that happened to me. I remember having games stay with me during downtime when I was a kid, but these days it’s very rare… and I treasure whenever it happens.

Backlog of games

Currently not having my own place or even most of my things, I got no hardware to play games on. Well, I got my trusty netbook (which I use to type these words), but it even struggles making video calls over Skype.

I did get it to run Half-Life 1 with a decent framerate, though. But it ended up just being a nice experiment. I’m not going to spend my evenings replaying games I have already spent too many hours with. Perhaps someone reading this could give some suggestions on good, modern games that works well on a netbook? I’d appreciate it.

As I don’t have my desktop, or my Xbox 360, my games backlog grows and grows. I did get to play a bit of Deus Ex: Human Revolution during a weekend in Oslo, and I can’t wait to get back to it. I love deep, open game worlds, and that game seems to scratch that itch. Of course, not being able to play it just makes the itch worse.

Here’s my current backlog:
– Deus Ex: Human Revolution
– Risen
– The Witcher 2
– Bulletstorm
– Dead Island

Just those games could easily swallow a couple hundred hours (especially the RPGs). And that list only contains games I really do want to play – my Steam list of games I own but have yet to play is far longer. Games I don’t necessarily want to play, but need to play.

That is the plight of the game designer.

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, of Zero Punctuation fame, usually enjoys feasting on the shivering carcasses of mediocre games. However, for his Duke Nukem Forever review his words were colored by a genuine sadness about the state in which it was finally released.

The review’s parting words, I think, summarize the feelings of many gamers out of gum back in 1996.

“So, this is how the anticipation ends, people. First show of the long awaited comeback tour, and the singer’s hang himself on the microphone cord. But he’s trying to sing anyway, forcing on a smile and choking out lyrics inbetween grotesque spasms. And you wonder if it’s kinder to cut him down or swing on his legs to help him on his way.”

The worlds we were promised

It began in a simple village. Just a few houses in a field, hardly worth calling a town, was still a lot to take in for someone who had never before set their foot in such a place. My jaw dropped as I arrived for the very first time, watching a fellow player approaching to offer his aid to the newcomer.

A fictitious world whose characters were made of real flesh and blood. It was amazing!

My first MMORPG was new and exciting and bursting at the seams with unexplored possibilities. I was absolutely captivated and immersed by it. It was a fantasy world, but because it was populated by real human beings it was also a real place, somehow. What I did actually mattered, because I was part of a community. Because when I went to bed, far too late in the morning, the world kept going even as I slept.

This kind of nostalgia, and love, is really quite common among gamers reminiscent of their first MMO. It could have been Ultima Online, Everquest or Anarchy Online. For me it was Asheron’s Call, with the quirky and enormous world of Dereth.

But it’s more than nostalgia. Sometimes I look back at the continent of Dereth and feel saddened that the genre stumbled into the territories of accessibility and growing numbers. Pick up a mainstream MMORPG today and you will be led by the nose from start to finish, each square meter of the land crafted for a spectacular tour. What was once no more than a metagame of the RPG, gaining experience points and leveling up is now designed to be the dominant motivation.

Perhaps they have transformed into great games, but they are no longer worlds. Asheron’s Call was not about racing to the end, but about participating in a living realm.

It’s likely that Dereth, and the promises it made about the future of gaming, influenced the choice of my life’s craft. I am thankful for the never fading ideas it etched into my mind, but I mourn the worlds we were promied.

Indie game competition in Norway

Today was the finals of the “NM i Gameplay” (Norwegian Championship in Gameplay) at Filmhuset in Oslo. I attended as audience, not as one of the sleep depraved, but was happy to meet both old ex-colleagues (Thomas Wollbekk of Frost Software) and some of my students (Håvard Skjærvik, Olav Helland and members of Krillbite Studios).

Most of the developers in the competition were unestablished hopefuls, yet to publish a commercial game.

I was surprised over how small the audience was (NFI need to do a better job at marketing the event next year), but the quality of the competing games was higher than you could hope for when the contestants have only had a week from start to finish. There’s obviously a lot of talent in Norway, waiting to dazzle the international gamer community. I really wish many of them will make it – for their own sake and for the sake of having a healthy dev environment in Norway.

The theme of the competition was “light”. Every entry had to focus on light, however they chose to interpret it.

One team that didn’t make it to the finals, but should have, was D-Pad Studio. Their game was a 2-player platformer, where 2 ghosts competed to steal money from each other by taking control over some poor fellow by possessing him. The ghost that did not control the possessed then had to try to wake him out of it by turning on lights, place bananas to fall on, etc.

They probably didn’t stick by the “light” theme closely enough to get the jury’s approval, but for me it was the most entertaining title of the bunch – I laughed out loud watching the presentation.

D-Pad is a promising studio – check out their work-in-progress game Owlboy, having already gotten a bit of international attention.

The winners, Kenneth, Stig-Owe and Andreas, deserved to win. Their (playable) software had unique and fun gameplay, wrapped in good looking visuals. The foundation of their game was the blending of colors; a platformer where you have to solve puzzles by combining different light sources into specific colors.

They get 100 000 NOK – I hope they spend every öre on developing games.

Koster on “gamification”

A great annoyance to many game designers, the idea of “gamification” of websites is getting increasingly popular. It’s the idea of borrowing a foundation of game mechanics to motivate consumers to interact with content, to stick around and become loyal to the site – by giving the consumer (I almost wrote “player”) points or other rewards for doing so. It’s not only cynical, it’s a misunderstanding of what games are.

Raph Koster said it much better than I can hope to do, so I’m quoting him:

“When we train game designers, when we critique projects, and when we discuss what makes games compelling, we certainly do discuss feedback. But what we dwell on is the game systems, the core loop.”

Click your way to his blog – and if you haven’t done so yet, read his excellent book A Theory of Fun.

Please, stop! Part 1

Clichés so worn the lining shows. Characters so laughable it’s a tragedy. Gimmicks so hollow their desperate echo drowns out otherwise meaningful experiences.

I’d like to talk about some of the flat and tired tropes the games industry keeps repeating, seemingly almost compulsively. Because maybe, just maybe, it will keep my blood pressure in check whenever another AAA budget is wasted on one of these atrocities.

Depending on your point or view, or perhaps your mood, this is either my plead to the games industry or just another rant. But I beg you.. You’re hurting us. Please, stop!

Wizards and dwarves!

Let’s start at the very beginning, with the most overused and abused genre. Yeah, you guessed it. Fantasy. I don’t need to say anything more, I’m sure, but I can’t stop myself. We’re only wasting time and electrons here.

You know, I like what Tolkien wrote. I like fantasy. But just as I haven’t read most of the me-too fantasy novels about yet another fellowship on some quest, I’m happy to not play the countless ultra-generic fantasy games out there. Elves aren’t that interesting, mate, and calling them “dark elves” doesn’t make you edgy or “mature”.

Perhaps the idea is that the races themselves are so fascinating that no further characterization is needed. But we’ve seen it all before. We’ve also seen the conflicts, the drama, the relationships and the overly simplistic and naive idea of morality of Tolkienesque worlds, and frankly, it’s boring.

It doesn’t even have to be all that new, just stop reheating the same old leftovers again and again! If you don’t have anything fairly interesting to say, then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing the writing.

Shoulder pads of Doom!

Look at my armor. I am so powerful!

I completely get why 12 year old boys think that these big, strong and emotion-less space marines are cool. It’s a great manifestation of the male power fantasy, occupying a great deal of many boys’ imagination as they’re about to mature into adults. What I don’t get is why grown men think it’s ace.

Game after game with almost identical space marine aesthetics. Someone has to be buying it. A lot of people, in fact. Plenty of designers must still think that the metal shoulder pads, and what must be the heaviest helmets ever conceived, are the best thing since… well, fantasy.

Covering characters in armor and then not allowing them even a hint of emotional tension is not a terribly good recipe for storytelling.

Zombies? Mein leben!

Zombie is the new Nazi. Ok, so it fulfills a need of endless waves of completely dehumanized gameplay targets, so I get why it is popular among content creators. What I find annoying is when otherwise serious settings all of a sudden explode into some sort of zombie apocalypse.

World at War, supposedly taking the terror of World War II seriously, has a zombie mode. Red Dead Redemption, an epic adventure in the Wild West, has a DLC add-on that sees zombies invading the prairie.

Come on. We can’t expect to be taken seriously if we just add whatever we feel like to any setting because “it’s cool”. Spielberg didn’t have alternative scenes with zombies on the DVD of Saving Private Ryan, and Clint Eastwood didn’t duel the undead in the director’s cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Tentacle faced horrors!

Did you know that you can make anything interesting by quoting a few Lovecraft stories? Your material will magically transform into something fascinating and dark, and you will be seen as a great designer – just add tentacles to something’s face and you’re good to go! Man, your intellectual property just got so much cooler! Well done, you artistic genius.

Truth to be told, Lovecraft hasn’t been used nearly as much as Tolkien or the space-marine-oh-my-is-that-testosterone-coming-out-of-your-every-orifice thing (yet), but it has become a staple whenever a game project wants to add some otherworldly horror into the mix, and it’s getting old.

So, game designers everywhere – there are other ideas out there. You don’t need to remake the same setting over and over again.

It hurts. Please, stop!

How do I love thee: Limbo

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

The first sign of life is when his eyes light up. The little boy wakes up all alone in the midst of a dark, omnious forest. The only other light in this monochrome, nightmarish world comes from somewhere beyond the forest. A background glow, a contrast to the ever-present darkness, will be our companion until the end. You see the same light in his shining eyes, and it’s clear he’s not from this shadowy realm. Throughout the entire journey, I wanted to take the boy to that light. I wanted to bring him home.

It’s a puzzle platformer, but that description doesn’t come near to capture the feeling of playing Limbo. The levers and gears and traps are at the core of the game, but the atmosphere is just as important.

The game has a two sentence story, communicated through the Xbox Live description, but we do best in forgetting all about it and allowing the game experience to tell it’s own tale. A tale of waking up in a nightmare, a strange and fearful place, with the only goal of getting the hell out. A goal communicated by the traditional mechanic of going left-to-right, where going forward is the only measure of progress.

The progress is rewarded by a childlike sense of discovery. Although I would have liked to have longer stretches of it without interruptions by puzzles, the discovery feels somewhat like a twisted take on Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous movies.

After a while the gloomy trees are replaced with other environments, but the forest is well above the others in mood and in how well integrated the puzzles are. That’s not to say that the early puzzles are the best (they get increasingly interesting the further you get), but unlike the later puzzles they’re not abstract and appears as natural parts of the environments.

The boy seems so fragile among towering trees and enormous spiders. But the slow pace, minimalistic audio and the sheer beauty of it all gives a strange sense of peace. Among all this darkness, all these harrowing situations, there’s a calm and perhaps even a sense of serenity.

When crushed, pierced, decapitated, squashed, the little boy does not scream or struggle. He just dies, illustrated by the light of his eyes fading to black. So while there’s tension, and fear, there’s no panic. The peace remains even as our avatar gets torn apart by a beartrap.

The many different deaths, drenched in a dark sense of humour, are funny – and they’re designed to be. You die often, time and time again. This could be frustrating, if it weren’t for the fact that the deaths themselves are entertaining, and because there’s hardly any death penalty. If you die, you will start again at an invisible checkpoint just a few moments away.

There’s a reason why they’ve approached death this way. You explore the boundaries of most puzzles by trying and dying. But it’s not tedious trial-and-error, as some has critized it to be. The deaths merely communicate the rules, and then it is up to you to solve the puzzle with the newfound rules as your tools.

We’re all different, but I experienced the puzzles as perfectly balanced. Once you’ve gone passed the early part of the game, each puzzle is a real challenge. It’s never too easy, and never too hard. Most puzzles were just about to become frustrating, when I saw the solution. Time and again, I found the solution in the right moment.

I have never seen that level of balance in a puzzle game, and neither have I encountered a similar atmosphere. If you haven’t played Limbo, you are missing out.