Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Released in October of 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, developed by Rockstar Games and distributed by Take Two Interactive. This installment outsold its already best selling predecessors (Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City respectively), taking place in a fictionalized variant of LA in the early 1990’s. The game’s encouragement and emphasis of in-game violence had already caused a considerable amount of uproar from several advocacy groups, but did not receive its true level of infamy until early July of 2005, when a “mod” was discovered called “hot coffee” that allowed the player to participate in a sexual act, which was construed as a violation of its Mature game rating (instead of Adults Only), and has sparked a flurry of lawsuits, media attention, and reactionary legislation against video games in general.

Before I discuss the game itself, let’s address the Hot Coffee scandal a little more directly. The content within the mod is overtly sexual, though nothing is actually seen beyond the player’s character behind his in-game girlfriend, making sexual movements. Because of this, it is true that the game should have received an Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), had the content been available to players. The only way to access this content is through manually altering the code through external means (on the PC, this involves physically altering game files; on the Playstation 2, this involves using another device such as a “Game Shark” to manipulate the game data or downloading and installing a patch on a system that has no direct method of downloading or installing patches). Insisting upon an Adults Only rating because of this content is roughly akin to insisting that a movie be given an NC-17 or even X rating because of a scene that was filmed but then cut from the final version of the film. Given that the game’s rating was already Mature, which has the same requirements for purchase or to watch as an R rated movie (age 17 or higher), this uproar becomes even more ludicrous. It has unfortunately caused a flood of knee-jerk legislation[1] and use as a political tool by those seeking re-election,[2] despite clear first amendment violations within the proposed laws that have already shut down early attempts at similar legislation.[3] The overwhelming amount of bad press and shoddy handling of the situation on the part of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive has caused company assets and stock value to plummet, inciting an additional string of lawsuits by the companies’ own stockholders.[4] Regardless of whether or not any of this furor is merited, it may well mean no more Grand Theft Auto games, and potentially hard and restrictive times for the game industry as a whole.
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Katamari Damacy

While my personal focus is on story-centric, or narratological games, I would be remiss to not also address some gameplay-centric, or ludological games. Without some ludological elements, a game would not be a game; it is essential to the definition of what a game is, and good gameplay is often pivotal to an immersive storytelling experience. With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a closer look at Katamari Damacy, which was published by Namco in 2004, and is arguably one of the most pure modern examples of a ludo-centric game.

The basic premise behind Katamari Damacy is simple and surreal: your father, the King of All Cosmos had an accident, and destroyed all the stars in the sky. Your task is to gather up material to recreate the stars, using a rolling ball called a “katamari” that picks up any object smaller than itself. The game starts by rolling up items around a house, collecting push pins and ants and stamps and pencils and tape dispensers, and proceeds to target larger items as the game progresses, until you are able to roll up cars and people, and then even buildings. In the final stage, the task is to recreate the moon, which involves creating a katamari so large that you are able to roll up the islands themselves. The story is really an excuse for the gameplay, which is itself an evolution of an early gameplay pattern seen in games such as the Pac-Man series (navigate an environment collecting objects, try to avoid running into things you can’t pick up). The game is simple, but engaging and more fun than its description suggests.
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While I may comment on the unfortunate lack of effective narratological games, that does not mean the field has been entirely devoid of effective titles; I would be hard pressed to make an argument for greater narrative in games if there weren’t games that have done so in the past with varying degrees of success. Most of the Final Fantasy games are good examples, though they are not the only ones. In my estimation, one of the best narratological games to date is not in fact a Final Fantasy game, though it was created by the same developer. Released quietly in 1998 by Squaresoft, Xenogears quickly gathered a cult following, due in large part to quite possibly the most epic and involving story yet attempted in a video game.

Xenogears is actually part of a larger storyline known as Xenosaga, of which Xenogears is episodes 5 and 6. (In a similar fashion to the Star Wars trilogy, the prior episodes had not been developed or released; also similarly, these earlier episodes are now in the process of being developed and released, though with nowhere near the critical acclaim and fanbase the original had.) The game starts with an animated sequence that takes place 10,000 years prior to the events in the game, showing a starship being overrun by some unknown force and being destroyed, the remains crashing onto a nearby planet. The game then shifts 10,000 years forward, in a small village, where a young man named Fei lives, who is the central protagonist in the game. Fei is asked to collect some things for a wedding to be held the following day from the doctor who lives above town. After making his way to the doctor’s house, on the way back the village, a large “gear” (a mechanical piloted robot) flies by and crashes into the village, pursued by other gears. Fei rushes back to the village, where a fire fight between the gears has ensued. While helping evacuate the village, Fei notices that the gear that was being pursued was now unmanned, and impulsively leaps into the device to try and defend his town. Things are going well, until an event occurs that causes Fei to lose control of the gear, which causes a blast of energy that utterly decimates the village. Upon waking up, Fei is exiled by the remaining villagers, which begins his journey into the larger world.
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Final Fantasy IV

The Final Fantasy series of games, developed by Squaresoft,[1] have proven to be one of the few places one could consistently go to for a reasonable narrative within a story. The games are simple in terms of interface, and ludologically speaking generally don’t need a great deal of timing or frenetic pace. Final Fantasy IV was originally developed by SquareSoft in 1991 for Nintendo’s Super Famicom game console. Shortly afterwards, it was localized (translated), and brought to the U.S. as Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo (the original Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III never left Japan). This was really the first console based video game to heavily emphasize narrative, and enjoyed moderate commercial success for it.

Final Fantasy IV is a story centering around Cecil, a dark knight in the service of the king of Baron. After questioning a particularly brutal order, Cecil is stripped of rank and sent off on a courier mission, which ends with the destruction of a village. This is the last straw for Cecil, and he begins his quest to put an end to Baron’s villainy. The plot takes several twists and turns, and ultimately ends on the planet’s moon, where an evil being known as Zemus has been manipulating the chain of events transpiring on the planet. As far as subtle and complex story lines go, it’s pretty simplistic. The dialogue is on par with a high school fantasy adventure, and none of the plot twists really take you by surprise at all (I should mention that I can say this about even the first time I played this game, when I was 11). Yet it still managed to immerse the player, encouraging attachment to the characters you enlist the aid of in the course of the story.
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Annotation: The End of Eternity

Isaac Asimov did more to validate Science Fiction than any other author I can think of. He was seen as a gentle giant by his friends, and is to date the only man to have ever written at least one book in every major subject of the Dewey Decimal system. He wrote hundreds of books, so many that I honestly have no idea where he found the time to sleep, let alone have the life he had. The End of Eternity is just one of dozens of science fiction novels he wrote, all revolving around the belief that Mankind is meant to go to the stars.

The End of Eternity takes place in a Reality where in the 27th century, mankind develops a temporal field that exists outside Time, and extends to the end of eternity, which they call (imagine that) Eternity. This facility is used to monitor the advances of civilization throughout the millenia, to make sure that nothing dangerous occurs (nuclear war, plagues, even high drug addiction counts), and alters world in the past to change the Reality of the future. The main character, Andrew Harlan is a Technician for Eternity, which means that he is the one who determines and enacts the Minimum Necessary Change in order to achieve the desired change in reality.

In the course of his work, Andrew meets a woman of the 482nd Century, whom he falls in love with — a cardinal sin for an Eternal, since that woman exists within Time, and thus is subject to any change in reality that happens. He secrets her away into Eternity, and becomes involved in a critical project necessary to begin Eternity, sending someone back in time to become the “inventor” of the temporal field. He sabotages the project, but not irreparably (they would have ceased to exist if he had), and is sent back in time to collect the inventor, so they can try again. He brings the woman with him.

Piecing together clues throughout the book, he realizes that the woman is not in fact from the 482nd Century, but significantly further “upwhen”, in the 111,000s, which is considered a “hidden century”, where Eternity is blocked from entering or meddling in the time stream. He figures out that she is here to stop Eternity from ever existing, to stop them from meddling with time. Realizing that perhaps Eternity’s meddling brings more harm than good, he chooses not to stop her, ending the existence of Eternity.

The story is good, and works well as a science fiction mystery, filled with intruige. The characters, in particular the protagonist Andrew Harlan, are a bit flat, however, which puts a bit of a hinderance on my enjoyment of the book. I like the underlying message, however: that safety and innovation are unfortunately mutually exclusive, and that the only way we’ll survive is if we stop mothering ourselves to death. The pacing is good. I managed to read it fairly quickly (about a day).

Would I recommend it? Alone, probably not. In conjunction with the read of Asimov’s work, absolutely. Asimov tended to write in one story-universe, even though the books were separate. Even his two most well known series (Robot and Foundation) are actually connected and made of the same world, and The End of Eternity is no exception. Seeing the mosaic as a whole is really remarkable, and where I think the story gives the most enjoyment.

Asimov, Isaac. The End of Eternity. Greenwich: Fawcett Crest Books, 1971.

Annotation: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is one of LeGuin’s more lauded novels, having won a slew of awards including the Hugo and the Nebula (the two highest awards in science fiction). Indeed, it’s a brilliantly executed novel, with an amazing writing style. The ideas she posits in this novel were relevant at the time, and continue to be relevant now, which is quite the accomplishment. That’s the problem with it, though, at least in my opinion. It’s an idea book.

The story alternates between the past and present per chapter, both timelines centering around Shevek, a brilliant physicist who lives on the planet of Anarres, which is run as an community-centric anarchy. Personal responsibility and the opinion of one’s neighbors (since everyone must work together in order to survive) are the paramount principles of the society, which formed as an autonomous colony of its sister world Urras as a place to send the rebelling Odonians (the anarchist movement lead by a woman named Odo).

Needing the additional resources available on Urras in order to complete his Unified Field Theory in the field of Temporal Physics, Shevek leaves Anarres, rousing the enmity of many of his peers. The story bounces between the events leading up to his departure and his time spent on Urras (a “propertarian society”). From there, the story is largely about the nature of being in an alien society, and the greed of that world. He ultimately completes his theory, and escapes, arranging for it to be broadcast throughout the known universes, so that no government or world can “own” the idea. He then returns home.

There are interesting events that transpire within the book, and the setting is well thought out. The characterizations are well formulated. The book is technically flawless. Something about it rankles with me, however. Taken as an abstract it really feels like a setup; a way to preach about political, economic, and philosophic ideologies, couched inside a fictive universe. It’s the same setup Heinlein used in For Us, the Living, though he didn’t do it as well. The basic structure is the same: thrust an individual into another world (whether through time or space), and let that individual and the other world’s inhabitants have a dialogue about the differences in their cultures.

I don’t really have a problem with “idea books”. They can be a great deal of fun to read, and I tend to enjoy them. Hell, I enjoyed The Dispossessed, don’t get me wrong. I think what makes it sit uneasily for me is that this is LeGuin we’re talking about. She made a point of dunning expositional lumps in her book on writing Steering the Craft, and yet is guilty of writing a book filled with them. It just seems a little hypocritical.

All that said, I’d still recommend the book, but with the warning that it IS an “idea book”. If you are looking for conflict and resolution, this is not the book for you. Still, it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of an anarchistic society that might actually work. It reminds me that one of the fundamental roles of science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you want to be more precise) is to push ideas forward, to couch the dangerous or frightening in ways that allow us to face them. To say, “Danger be damned, what if…”

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: Eos, 2001.

Annotation: A Night in the Lonesome October

After reading Lord of Light, I decided to go on and read a bit more Zelazny, opting for A Night In the Lonesome October, which is a witty, funny, charming horror story. Written in first person, the novel centers around Snuff, the canine companion/familiar to Jack the Ripper. The story is broken down into days of October, leading up to the climax on Halloween night.

The premise breaks down like this: every 100 years, people of certain inclinations gather around a point of power (the point changes every time… it might be in Bangladesh one century, Paris the next, et cetera), and undertake a ritual concerning the Elder Gods, who have been locked away for ages. Some come to close the gate that will appear, others come to open it and release the Old Ones. If there is a deadlock in power between the openers and closers, it defaults to the closers.

The being known as Jack the Ripper is an old hand at these ceremonies, having attended several in the past. Other folks who show up over the course of the story include a witch, Count Dracula, Frankenstein (monster in tow), a mad monk, a demon worshiping pastor, and several others (even Sherlock Holmes makes a few appearances). Since the story is from the perspective of Jack’s familiar, most of the interaction that occurs is with the familiars of the other “players”.

There’s a lot more to the process of the ceremony than just collecting items of magic and sacrifice to help sway the gate in your direction. Since the location changes, no one knows where it is (as Snuff comments, there were times when no one figured it out correctly, even). A good deal of the book involves the deductive efforts of Snuff to calculate the location of the place of power, which involves triangulation based on the domiciles of the players in the area (it is always in the center of that triangulation, but the trick is figuring out where everyone lives, and even who everyone in the Game is).

The edition I have of the book has some delightful illustrations done by Gahan Wilson, which augment the simple narrative style of a dog (albeit a very intelligent one). The very first chapter really establishes the nature of the book quite well:

One night when we were in a graveyard recently an old watchdog came by, though, and we talked for a time.
“Hi. I’m a watchdog.”
“Me, too.”
“I’ve been watching you.”
“And I’ve been watching you.”
“Why is your person digging a big hole?”
“There are some things down there that he needs.”
“Oh. I don’t think he’s supposed to be doing that.”
“May I see your teeth?”
“Yes. Here. May I see yours?”
“Of course.”
“Perhaps it’s all right. Do you think you might leave a large bone somewhere nearby?”
“I believe that could be arranged.” (2)

The simplicity of it really captures the pragmatic attitude of what I imagine a dog’s mind would be. The entire book is spot on in that fashion, though naturally Snuff is far more capable a dog than most, being a familiar (with all the magical augmentation that title connotes).

The “daily journal” style is an interesting choice for the topic, and I think it works quite well to force the reader into a non-omnipotent position, which saves significantly on the amount of explanation of things that is needed. Not everyone knows how everything works and why, and it’s silly that so many stories make that assumption for the sake of exposition and establishing the setting. This book, and others like it, prove that it isn’t necessary in order to have an engaging, involved story. (A trait I’m guilty of myself when writing.)

If I was trying to introduce someone to Zelazny as an author, I’d probably suggest Lord of Light first, but that said, A Night In the Lonesome October is a fun (and relatively fast, weighing in at 280 pages of an easy to read typeface) read that I would happily recommend for the pure enjoyment of it. While the nature of the story is inherently macabre, it is really not very horrific, and I wouldn’t even twinge at giving this to a child to read.

Zelazny, Roger. A Night In the Lonesome October. New York: Avon Books, 1993.

Annotation: Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny, like Ray Bradbury, is an author whose prose reads like poetry. His writing style is sparse, yet every word evokes an image of clarity. I wish I could write like him, and hope to come close someday. He’s written dozens of novels, singly and in collaboration, and every one of them is well respected by his former peers (he died in 1995). Every author has one book, however, that leaps above the rest, more well known and lauded than any other. For Zelazny, that book would be Lord of Light. For good reason: the novel is nothing short of amazing. I haven’t felt so involved in a story in years.

The very concept of the story is fairly unique. It takes place in the distant future, on a colony world that has no contact with Earth. The original colonists developed a technology to transfer the soul of a person into a new body, and have attained virtual immortality through this use of reincarnation. They have also developed their psychokinetic abilities, or Aspects and Attributes, through training, drugs, and other methods, allowing them to act functionally as Gods to their descendants, who have restarted civilization from scratch. In particular, these “gods” simulate early Hindu or Vedic mythology, in trait and name.

Even demons and spirits exist in the world, the original inhabitants of the planet who long ago abandoned their physical bodies to become immortal beings of pure energy. The whole setup for establishing a modern science fiction tale couched in Vedic myth is brilliantly done, with nary a hole in the logic to be seen.

The tale centers around a disillusioned First (an original colonist) named Sam, better known as Siddhartha. He takes issue with the restrictions on civilization placed by the other Gods, in particular feeling that they have been hindering the society’s advancement in order to maintain the balance of power on the side of the Gods. He strives to undermine these efforts, taking on the role of the Buddha in order to establish a counter (yet complementary) movement among the people. He also bargains with the demons whom had been locked away centuries before, freeing them to fight against the Gods.

Most of the story takes place in the past. The first chapter involves Yama, God of Death, bringing Sam back into the physical world, after spending 50 years dispersed as energy in the troposphere of the planet. Each chapter after that is really a prologue, detailing Sam’s previous effort to battle the Gods (which ended with his spirit scattered across the planet, which brings us full circle), until the last two chapters, which deal with the final battle.

The entire adventure is truly epic and brilliantly done, with marvelous scenes of action and tension. That is not why I am so enamored with the story, however. It comes down to people. Zelazny was able to make me genuinely care about the people behind their Godhood. There is no clear good versus evil, everyone has a bit of both. Their conflict is a matter of opinions leading towards the same ideal, and no matter what side they may be on now, they have all fought and bled and cried and loved together in the past. They may be powerful and immortal, but they are still human.

It’s a question always at the forefront of my interests, and many of my favorite books address it either directly or indirectly: what makes us human? Where does humanity lie, and how do we retain that as we change and evolve and step beyond ourselves? Lord of Light is a book that addresses it directly, I think.

I would recommend Lord of Light to anyone, barring perhaps those who have problems with religious reinterpretation. Or perhaps not bar them at all, since they could most benefit from a new perspective. I suppose the question becomes whether the goal in reading it is to educate and enlighten, or merely to entertain.

Zelazny, Roger. Lord of Light. New York: Eos, 2004.

Annotation: The White Dragon

In my continuing desire to figure out what motivated me to previously write fan fiction based on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (in the hopes of getting back into the swing of fiction writing again), I re-read The White Dragon for the first time in nearly a decade. While it didn’t quite re-ignite my desire to write about Pern again, I do begin to see what drew me to do so in the past.

Of the original trilogy, The White Dragon is my favorite. It follows Jaxom, the young Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold, who also managed to Impress a small, unique white dragon named Ruth (all other dragons are either gold, bronze, brown, blue, or green, with Ruth being the sole exception). Because it follows Jaxom so much more directly than the previous two books followed their characters, I find myself connecting a lot more with this novel than the others in the trilogy. I think it also helps that at the start of the novel Jaxom is very close to the age I was when I first read it.

The book opens around two years after the end of Dragonquest, with Ruth finally mature enough to fly with a rider. The rest of the book follows Jaxom’s adventures as he comes of age and learns to accept his dual nature as both a Lord Holder and a dragonrider. The overall arc of the trilogy also concludes with the last of the “Oldtimer” leaders, banished in the previous book, making a last ditch attempt to regain power and get revenge on F’lar. With the final removal of the Oldtimers, the Southern Continent (where the Oldtimers had been banished) becomes open to exploration, with the help of Jaxom. Due to the unique nature of Ruth, fire-lizards are fascinated by him, and share images from their racial collective memory with him, which leads Jaxom to discover the original settlement of when Man first came to Pern several thousand years before. The book ends with excavations beginning on the ancient settlement (buried by ash from a nearby volcano, which proved to be the cause of the initial evacuation).

I think this story of personal growth, in addition to having a truly complete and robust world after three books is what caused me to decide to write about Pern. The writing is good, but I wouldn’t call it phenomenal, and I have a suspicion that is a large part of why I decided to write about it: writing that well seemed attainable. The world was rich enough, and there was plenty of room for the adventures of another dragonrider. Having just finished The White Dragon again, I must admit I do have a small craving to write a dragonrider story.

So why did I stop? And what can I do to start again? I started by finding that same writing club that had kicked me out years ago, and rejoined. I wanted to see people writing dynamically for Pern again, see the piles of stories to read. Instead, I got a trickle. Perhaps a single two page story a day, and lackluster stories at that Meanwhile, I couldn’t post, needing to submit anything through a mentor. I found it all almost laughable, and sad. I left without posting.

My quantity of writing hasn’t increased since then, and yet I still feel better off than that ghost of a club. I don’t think I’ll be returning to Pern again, in my own writing. But at least I feel some closure about it. I’m ready to move on, finally.

As far as The White Dragon goes, I definitely enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a solid coming of age novel. It still works best as part of the trilogy, but it is sufficiently “different” from Dragonflight and Dragonquest, that I could say it almost stands on its own. It also feels good to finally get some closure on a topic that has rankled me for 8 years. That chain is finally unbound; now I just need to move forward.

McCaffrey, Anne. The White Dragon. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.