I Beg of You, Do Not Play The Line

//Every fiber of me wants to post this without a spoiler warning, but I’m not actually capable of being that much of a pillock. Spoilers ahead//

You may have heard that Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game, and it is. You may be considering playing it. You may even have bought it. I am here to save you, and the whole of Dubai from that reckless action. You must not Play Spec Ops: The Line. I have already travelled down that dark path, and all I can do is send this message back to you in the hopes that I can redeem myself. But I know that I can’t. This is all I can do.

Your mission in The Line will not go as planned. You will burn 50 innocent people to death, you will destroy the remaining water supply, and you will kill the entire 33 platoon, who are only there to help. You will get your squadmates killed, you will doom the region, and you will be blamed for every drop of blood spilled as you work your way through Dubai. Not just by the developers, not just by the people within the game. By yourself.

“Surely there must be a way around those things” you might say. “They can’t design a game that gives me the ability to commit terrible acts without at least giving me some choice. I have paid 60 (or maybe 30) dollars, why would Yeager want to punish me and all of those innocent people for supporting their company?”

But there isn’t. There is not choice that you can make within the game that will prevent you from killing thousands of people needlessly. Whether this was to make a point, or to grab headlines, or merely out of sadistic pleasure, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Line traps you and forces you to do terrible things. Perhaps you will choose to put the blood of Dubai on Yeager’s hands. I leave that to you, and your god if you have one, to sort out.

Whether or not you blame the developer, you are still making the choice. I am warning you now, you have no excuse. At the very end of the game I was reminded that my original mission was recon and nothing more. That I was to exit the region once I found survivors.It’s too late for me, but you can select that option from where you are sitting. Don’t put the disc in your console. Don’t download the game from Steam. The only way to save Dubai, is not to play.

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Adrian At GDC!

This is the version of my game that I brought with me. Even if you’ve played it when I posted it previously, this has a bunch of improvements and additions.

I’m sitting on the last leg of my plane trip home after GDC, and I figured there was no better place to write out a nice little summary of my experience this year. This was my second year, and it could not have been more different than the first.

Last year I came in having just realized that I didn’t know the first thing about how games got made. I therefore saw the conference purely as a learning experience. This time around I had a portfolio project, Horizonticality, which had been eating most of my spare time since August. My goals were threefold:

1. Learn More

2. Get an internship

3. Get feedback on my project

Horizonticality was initially conceived and developed as a learning exercise and portfolio piece. I had no plans of developing the idea further after GDC, preferring to go back to working on narrative problems instead of spatial-reasoning games. In fact, there was a period during work when I was seriously concerned that I didn’t know enough about the minutia of action games to develop something worth pursuing.

I only spent about half my time at the conference going to sessions, since I needed go out of my way to get Horizonticality in front of people. This meant running around the career expo and stopping speakers after various panels. A special thanks goes out to Wes at the Microsoft booth who was the first to sit down and take a look at the project, and who also pointed me in various useful directions to get feedback. Anyway, the response was fantastic. As far as things that need changing, some features received consistent criticism (the controls), while others were more divisive (the “suicide” mechanic). I also encountered some surprises, like the emphasis that players placed on melee combat. However, one thing that everybody could agree upon was that the game has “good bones” as one onlooker put it. One designer went so far as to say that the game should have been showing at the IGF, though I think that’s getting a bit ahead of where the game really is. I’m still using character sprites taken from Contra III, and the game is still woefully under-iterated.

With all of that feedback and a lot more, I have decided that Horizonticality deserves to be built for real. This pretty much means starting from square one: the game needs to be completely recoded to work on the 360, a much more logical home for the multiplayer twin-stick shooter. I have a few people I’m going to talk to about joining me in the endeavour, and I’m on the lookout for a good artist to give the game the visual life that it deserves. This is one hell of a commitment for both me and whoever comes along for the ride. Wish me luck.

Oh yeah, the rest of GDC was awesome too. I shook the hands of many Volition employees, and I made several friends. People who like video games are great!

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Upcoming Awesome Things that I’m Doing

With GDC coming up in a few days all of my time is spent on either schoolwork or my big portfolio piece Horizonticality. However, I have a couple of extremely awesome things that I’ll be doing by the end of the month and I wanted to jot down a  quick record of them before I take off for San Francisco.

A: The Large-Audience D&D Session

50% of my Philosophy of Art grade is wrapped up in a group presentation, which take the form of any medium we desire. My group has agreed to do a D&D session with the entire class, and I’ll be DMing. The thesis of the presentation is twofold. Firstly, that experiencing a story is a more engaging process than reading or observing it (The logical extension of “show don’t tell”). Second, that D&D follows in the footsteps of classic theatrical styles that  use a blend of real props and the audience’s imagination to create the complete scene.

The details of the plot aren’t worked out, but we have our framing device in place. Another member of the group will be playing the role of an author who is writing a work of fiction based on the audience’s exploits. I am a wizard who observed the events, but I have brought this band of adventurers in to describe events from their perspective. In this way the D&D session is contextualized, and we have injected the necessary themes to work our thesis’ into the production.

Of course, getting a random audience of people to become involved in an interactive presentation is a challenge. We have a couple of ways in place to do this. Firstly, we have props that will be handed out to the audience that are designed to remind them of their characters. Second, we are going to seat the audience in the front of the house instead of in the regular seats (if possible given space requirements). We are also going to work in a great deal of direct addressing early on with an eye to force players to flesh out their characters. Once we have at least a few people ready to engage us, we start handing out contextualized rewards (read: chocolate) for doing things, with the hope that this will bring everybody else on board.

There are some serious concerns about production that we are a little concerned about (we are trying to use a lot of different theatrical techniques…including a smoke machine and our own lighting…), but the biggest fear that we have is that we won’t get anybody engaged. The solution is an alternate thesis: that the benefits of interactivity as a medium come with the price of audience pacivity. It’s important that we can’t be criticizing the audience with this thesis, but rather demonstrating a tradeoff. We are prepared to do this, but we would rather that everybody get involved and (most importantly) have a good time!

B: Bastion, the Dramatic Reading with Music and Stage Direction

For the second year running the Classics department at my university is holding the “Pythian Games“, a public speaking competition. Last year I did a dramatic reading of select passages from 1984, but I wanted to do something a little more impressive this time. I decided that a dramatic reading of Bastion would be both an interesting exercise, and a way to introduce the game to a new audience. I have the script transcribed and edited, and I have somebody in place to sing Zia’s song as part of the production. My hope is that I will be track down enough people that I can simulate the “carrying of Zulf” with real actors, but if not I’m going to talk over a video.

The neat thing about this is how well it works (with an appropriately edited script).  The only really tricky bit is the ending, because the Rucks is describing events differently from how they actually occur. This is why we need to have a visual component of the kid carrying Zulf: It’s one of the most interesting parts of the game, and any kind of interpretation MUST include it.

Ok, back to coding

Adrian Hall

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A Few Notes on A Book of Lenses


I have only ever liked one textbook cover and this isn't it

This was originally posted on Giantbomb.com. I removed the preamble as it didn’t seem to fit in on my personal blog.

This isn’t a review of Book of Lenses, as the book is an industry standard and I don’t feel qualified to judge it. Instead, this is a short commentary on 4 subjects: What it covers, Its general attitude, how it has been useful to me, and the perspective that it can give to game players who are NOT trying to actually conduct game design

What Book of Lenses Covers

Schell doesn’t do this, but having now read the book I feel comfortable breaking it into 4 general sections:

  1.  How do think about design
  2.  How to think about designing games
  3. How to get games made
  4. How to get games made given the current nature of the industry

We could get into some discussion about where each of those sections starts (again, these are completely my creation) but if you only wanted to know about one I would feel
comfortable telling you which chapter to start on. The titular lenses are paradigms for looking at each of these topics (why he felt the need to make exactly 100 of them I don’t know), each of which are summarized in little boxes that one could easily pepper about their workspace for inspiration.

The first section is a general introduction to basic design concepts like unity and various ways of analyzing design. This section is very short and is more of a basis to work
from than an in-depth account of design.

Schell builds a useful, if cluttered, map as he discusses each topic

The second section is by far the longest and gives you enough of an understanding of everything that it talks about that you can go off and learn the intimate details on your own.
This includes creating unity of design among all of the different elements of games, thinking about players, mechanics, game balancing, designing spaces and a wealth of other things. I don’t know that anybody who doesn’t know much about pre-existing video games would be able to make much of any of these things, but I could instantly apply things that he was saying to games that I had played, heard about and worked on. If all you care about is the nitty gritty of game design, chapters 10-21, but the preceding chapters are vital to a complete understanding of the subject.

The chapters dealing with “getting games made” are primarily about working with teams, staying organized, communicating ideas and keeping everything working given available resources. Finally, the fourth sections are about the business realities of the games industry and how to realistically manage the impact that they have on making games.

The last few chapters are a space where Schell can bring the rest of the book together. They are more about the social impact of games than they are about how to make them. They include the responsibilities that he perceives game designers having, the way that games can affect social change, and the possible future of the medium.

Schell’s Tone and Attitude

A recent issue of Game Developer listed Jesse Schell as one of their top video game evangelists of 2011, with an emphasis on his push for games as a catalyst for social change.
This comes across strongly in the book. He deals with game design on a very broad level, taking it to mean the crafting of complete experiences that can deeply impact a player. Each section is geared towards developing the best player experiences possible, except for those in the final section that deal with how to do that while still dealing with outside pressures.

They don't all need to be so explicit, but Schell uses Peace Maker as a compelling example of games that change attitudes by letting people play with systems

This holistic attitude requires that he reference sources from a wide variety of fields. This ranges from obvious things like architecture and theater to more esoteric things like people he worked with when he was a professional juggler. As much as this can occasionally feel a little contrived, it does give quite a bit of credibility to Schell’s statement at the end of the book that video games are “the medium that will subsume all others.” If you have any love of video games, it is hard to not get excited by this approach.

Fortunately Schell does not forget that this is a practical book. He does not act as though the realities of the industry don’t exist, hence the third and fourth sections of the book. He could easily have written a book about game design without these sections, but it would not have been the complete text that made it an industry standard. It also serves to let you know that Schell’s ideas can be implemented, and that his advice is not pie-in-the-sky rambling.

How Book of Lenses Has Affected Me

As a philosophy major, I have come to have certain expectations from texts that I plan to actually think about and use:

This book did not meet my stringent demands. Book of Lenses did. Unfortunately, Schell's was not a required text for My "Justice in a Global Perspective" class.

  • They will reinforce and hone some of my ideas and viewpoints, hopefully giving me new ways to use them
  • They will convince me that some of my ideas are misguided, preferably by giving me a way and a reason to alter or replace them
  • They will contain a few points on which I respectfully disagree and which I can formulate complete and non-obvious arguments against

Book of Lenses has all of these features. Part of the reason that it took me so long to start reading it in earnest is that I found the early parts to be so blatantly obvious that I wasn’t learning anything, even though I knew that the later sections were full of useful tools and information. However, immediately after the section that I had originally stopped on the book began to take ideas that I had and really hone them. It was a very satisfying feeling to know that many of the ideas that I had independently come up with about game design were in the book, but it wasn’t until I saw them organized in this methodical fashion that they went from general notions to proper analytical tools.

To the same degree, I had to sacrifice many notions that I had. For example, I joined many in believing that multiplayer games aren’t really as much work to design as single-player experiences (with the obvious exception of games balanced for high-level play). Schell convinced me otherwise fairly easily. This ultimately caused me to change the goal of my current project in both tangible and subtle ways.

The book also taught me a great deal about how this industry works. I now feel much more confident that I can talk to somebody within the industry and understand what they go through. I can also see the component parts of games and how they came to be the way that they are. Perhaps most importantly of all, I have a greater appreciation for the fact that games which appeal to the tiny niche that we occupy get made at all.

Of course it is hard for me to sort out exactly what changes in perspective have come from Schell and which are a result of my own work and having had a chance to interact with real game developers. In reality is a confluence of all these things. I saw my project before as being developing games with an emphasis on narrative. I now have a very different goal: to learn as much as I can about traditional game design so that when the opportunity presents itself I can begin to violate rules to make something that is unique, compelling and hopefully changes the people who play it. Of course, in an industry that moves this fast I’m not sure that there is such a thing as traditional game design anymore. If not, that just means that there is more of an infrastructure out there to help me do something new!

How Book of Lenses Might Affect You

I have allowed my more design-oriented self speak, and now I’m going to give the microphone to the part of me that just likes playing games for fun (he himself has been relegated to a tool for some time now, but he does represent a typical audience to some degree). He will tell you briefly how you might find portions of Schell’s book interesting and useful even if you don’t give a sod about actually designing games.

For better or worse, a basic gameplay image like this one looks quite a bit different to me now than it did before reading Book of Lenses

To begin with, the most obvious: if you see a design element you can actually figure out why it’s there! This is especially helpful if it is something that annoys you, because it might allow you to actually enjoy the feature. Of course this is a double-edged sword: That other design oriented guy that lives in my head is always running my fun by stressing over design elements. If you don’t think that you can shut him up and just enjoy a game you should tread carefully with this, or really any game design book.

It is worth appreciating that even within the soulless womb of Konami lies the potential for thoughtful and compelling games

Another double-edged sword is what this book does to your perspective on how games get made. On the one hand, it’s depressing to know that when games get to you they have gone through all these business filters that can potentially make them worse. However, Schell gives the impression that really great designers are doing everything that they can to circumvent these forces and give you what you really want. People who care enough about games to actively educate themselves about them are a small group. It is only because the people who make games love them as much as we do that even games aimed at the mass market are designed to appeal to us. I cannot envision a day when this isn’t true, so there will always be games out there for us.

Perhaps the most important thing that Book of Lenses might do for you is to bring you closer to the people who make games. When you understand the details of the process, you suddenly have shared knowledge with the people who make the things that you love. That knowledge becomes a shared experience, and through games you can develop a stronger (though of course still one-way) relationship with those people. And hey, if you know what they have gone through you can provide more thoughtful and useful criticism when a game designer makes a decision that you disagree with! Good designers care about what you think, and if you can provide meaningful feedback you might actually make a game that you care about better!

With All of that Said

God damn this has gotten long. If you actually got through all of that I thank you for taking the time to listen to me. This book left a strong enough impression on me that I felt the need to write a bit about it, I didn’t realize that I had this much to say! I tried to keep this as broad and cursory as possible, so I’m ready and waiting for any questions or comments. If everything goes according to plan, after Christmas break I will be ready to show some material about the project that I referred to.



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