Friday, 27 June 2008

More proof of the versatility of 'Obilivion'

The main point of this post is to link to Christopher Livingston's highly entertaining travel-blogue which is based around creating a character and role playing him as an NPC in the world. The travel-blogue is called 'Living Oblivion' and he uses a bunch of mods to starts his character Nondrik in the port town of Anvil (somewhat reminiscent of Morrowind) and roleplaying as an NPC, Livingston refuses to run to destinations or to use the quick travel feature, resulting in what must be a very leisurely pace at times.

An extract from 'Day 19 & 20' of the Travel-blogue:

I’ll be honest — walking everywhere and never fast-traveling isn’t… easy. The click of my mouse could instantly transport me to any city in the game. Sprinting would decimate my lengthy travel time. There are long stretches, like today, where I’m not attacked, there are few ingredients to pick, and not much of anything interesting to look at, and I think, man, why the hell am I playing like this?

But at moments like this it somehow feels worth it. In other playings of this game I’ve spent days, weeks even, in Imperial City. I know it inside and out. I barely even look at the city, I just zip there, run to the merchants, unload my junk, and dematerialize to my next location. But playing as Nondrick has restored a good deal of majesty and mystery on Imperial City, and catching a glimpse of it through the trees, seeing it grow closer and larger each time, is a bit of a thrill.

Oh, also, for a little bit of contextualisation, Chris Livingston is the guy who wrote, posed and print-screened 'Concerned: The Half-Life and Death of Gordon Frohman' which is a must read for anyone interested in the Half-Life universe.

Also, just wanted to give a heads-up for a post I'm working on "What Videogames have can learn from Digital Musicians" which is hopefully going to explain how I went from a Digital Musics major to a videogame theoretician (if I can even really call myself that...). I've got some interesting ideas, so I hope people will come back for that next week. Until then!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A post for Xenia: Simulation and an apologetic explanation of Super Columbine Massacre RPG

This post is going to try and do a couple of things. Firstly, it’s a (very) short summary of the first half of Gonzalo Frasca’s essay “Simulation vs. Narrative”. Secondly, after explaining the ideas contained in Frasca’s paper, I hope to convince my good friend Xenia (the wife of one of my best friends, and a genuine friend of mine in her own right) that the videogame Super Columbine Massacre RPG is not the result of a sick and perverted mind, but instead a serious and thoughtful attempt to come to grips with the whole, messy, horrible situation. Thirdly, I’m going to try and apply a couple of Frasca’s ideas to the videogame Oblivion and suggest an explanation for why another of my good friends, Michael Abbot over at The Brainy Gamer, didn’t enjoy Oblivion as much as he should have (or maybe if I’m being more honest, could have. In the interest of Full Disclosure: I really like Oblivion in all it’s half-baked glory.)

Frasca opens his paper saying that “So far, the traditional –and most popular– research approach from both the industry and the academy has been to consider video games as extensions of drama and narrative.[1]” Frasca also states that:

Representation is such a powerful and ubiquitous form that it has become transparent to our civilization. …This is especially true with a particular form of structuring representation: narrative[2]

He argues that by its ubiquity it has become almost transparent to us and that we actually have a very hard time accepting “that there is an alternative to representation and narrative: simulation.[3]” Frasca provides some very excellent examples of where simulation is present outside of computation: in children’s play, when a toy plane becomes a plane (even a story is created about the plane, the game is still simulating a plane) as well as in Governmental legislation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly makes something a simulation? Frasca says that

to simulate is to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains to somebody some of the behaviors of the original system.[4]

Returning to our examples of a child at play – the toy plane is modelling the behaviour of a real plane – while it may not actually fly, when the child is whooshing it though the air, to him or her it may as well be. The ‘to somebody’ part of Frasca’s definition in this case is obviously the child – someone not engaged in the simulation (which incidentally may be running only in his or her head, but might also equally be shared by a playmate) the toy remains only that - a toy. To contrast this idea and demonstrate its difference from narrative – Frasca says that

A film about a plane landing is a narrative: an observer could interpret it in different ways (i.e. “it’s a normal landing” or “it’s an emergency landing”) but she cannot manipulate it and influence on how the plane will land since film sequences are fixed and unalterable. On the other hand, the flight simulator allows the player to perform actions that will modify the behavior of the system in a way that is similar to the behavior of the actual plane.[5]

The previous example of the government legislator is somewhat different again, and it shows that the notion of authorship of simulation is quite different to authorships of narrative. A government legislator when writing a new series of laws or by-laws is not explicitly authoring the story of the single working mother who may now be safe from exploitation by her boss as a result of the new law, and yet that story may indeed arise from it. Instead, the law maker is authoring rules as part of the society’s system and the stories (or narratives) that arise from the rules remain a largely unknown consequent.

To return to the point about the difficulty in acknowledging the difference of simulation from narrative, Frasca says that

To an external observer, the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly the same. This is what many supporters of the narrative paradigm fail to understand: their semiotic sequences might be identical, but simulation cannot be understood just through its output.[6]

That is, a flight simulator cannot be judged and evaluated as a simulation by simply watching it run – the experience of controlling the simulation is entirely different from the one of watching it – and this is an extremely important point as it has implications for videogame representations.

To turn my attention to the second point, many people when told of the existence of a Super Columbine Massacre RPG game are shocked, disgusted or even outraged, and I think largely because, as a society, we have little to no experience with having to deal with shocking images and situations unless it is presented as a narrative. The disconnect between a persons actions and a persons beliefs, cognitive dissonance even, is perhaps not possible outside of simulations like videogames. When reading a book about the holocaust, one does not feel complicit in the actions of the Nazi’s at Auschwitz, even when recounted in a novel from a personal perspective.

So let me ask you this: A person would be less likely to respond like the one mentioned above if it was instead a thoughtful, reasoned novel that attempted to examine and explain the tragedy of the columbine high school massacre, correct? Well, perhaps someone would, and that would be a valid reaction, potentially based in a general unease with trying to identify with the two killers – Eric and Dylan. But the objection would likely not be to the fact that there was a book about it, but rather the content of the book. So why then, does just the idea of a videogame about the events of Tuesday, April 20th 1999 provoke such consternation?

The answer is far from as simple as I am proposing, as numerous other legitimate, real factors come into play, however I am of the inclination that it is because many people do not have the requisite experience with simulation, and indeed with engaging seriously with simulational media, that is required to accept and understand the reasoning behind creating something like Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Frasca says that indeed ‘Video games imply an enormous paradigm shift for our culture because they represent the first complex simulational media for the masses’[7]. I guess what I would like every reader to understand is that, far from being designed for the glorification of the shooters themselves, the game is part of what can be described as the ‘the search for rationale’ in much the same way as any book or film about the subject, however instead of employing a narrative to make his point, the creator Danny Ledone decided to use a simulation – and that leaves people without the experience in disconnecting their actions in a simulation from their beliefs, quite understandably uneasy.

Sadly, I personally feel that, while an excellent effort and a great start, Super Columbine Massacre RPG does not succeed in its efforts but not through any fault of the medium. Without getting into an in depth critique of the game, it suffers from much of the same failings as many big budget videogames, such as Oblivion, which I have written about on the blog previously. Let me explain by saying that, if we take Frasca’s view, and that games are indeed simulations, then the vast majority of the source systems videogames are modelling (and I cannot stress this point enough) are narratives! Super Columbine Massacre RPG deploys Role Playing Game tropes and contentions but fails to escape the trap of trying to model a linear, progressive narrative story.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is similarly an RPG and I believe falls into exactly the same trap. My good friend from the other side of the planet, Michael Abbott, failed to find Oblivion enjoyable for a number of reasons, among which the fact that he ‘just got bored’ and stopped enjoying the game. I propose that, similar to Super Columbine, Oblivion tried to render, intentionally or not, a narrative as their source simulation; however, I also believe that they had a conflicting desire to simulate a world (a distinctly non narrative thing)– a fact that is evident in much of the free-form structure of the game. If the developers of Oblivion had of concentrated on modelling a consistent world and, dare I suggest, left out entirely the narrative elements like the main storyline instead focussing on emergent possibilities – perhaps by finetuning the ‘Radiant AI’ system which gave each non-player character such things as motivations, desires and habits and then made them go about their business to satisfy these conditions – then I genuinely think the game would have been both extremely different and more attractive to some certain players. Now, I’m not 100% confident of this evaluation, but based on comments made by Michael and others, such as that ‘the NPC’s were very boring’ (a valid assessment – they were very generic) then perhaps by dropping the (I suggest crippling) overarching need to model a narrative, Oblivion would have been significantly better – there would still have been significant challenges to overcome to realise this ideal, but overall I think the point still stands.

In summing up, let me return, once again to Frasca who points to suggestions by proponents of Interactive Narrative that “Aristotelian closure” is the source of ‘the user’s pleasure’[8]. He says that ‘The biggest fallacy of “interactive narrative” is that it pretends to give freedom to the player while maintaining narrative coherence’[9]. Frasca says that instead

the gratification for [participants in simulation] is not the one of the professional actor but rather the one of the child who plays make-believe. The child is constantly adapting fantasy to different changes, without the grown-ups obsession with closure.[10]

As an interesting comparison, think of the difference between something like Hamlet and your typical game of Theatresports – the former is a narrative, and any attempts to incorporate interactivity would probably compromise its narrative coherence, whereas the latter, if constrained by a script, loses all of the charm and attractiveness derived from its spontaneity. The difference between simulation and narrative is a wide and often mis-understood (even at times mischaracterised) chasm, but one which remains largely uncharted. Let’s start today – I’m game, are you?

[1] Frasca, ‘Simulation vs. Narrative: Introduction to Ludology’ in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, Eds., The Video Game Theory Reader, p.221, also available as a PDF at:

[2] Ibid., p.222-223

[3] Ibid., p.223

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.224

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.229

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Markov Chain Madness

I must warn you - The following text is generated by a Markov chain. Inspired by Mr Quixoric Engineer on Twitter I decided to have a little play around with some Markov generated text, using my paper on virtual reality and the FPS as the input text. Needless to say, the results were stunning. Better than anything I could have written

In the virtual from raw ingredients often bringing conventions and game means stepping into a phrase, everything about the largest city and this peculiarity of the map’ and those far away hills I made my own experience. Finally, I believe there is a large body of wanderlust through a mountain ranges – with his main argument down into a picture of wanderlust through the player, relating a taxonomy of a children’s game Oblivion is Alchemy, which they may employ an unreal image to the massive draw distance – with ancient ruins and reaction. At a reading for engaging with possibility.

I really like the bit where it says "Oblivion is Alchemy". Of COURSE! Why didn't I think of that? It makes so much sense now. So there you have it. Play with Markov chain generative text here. After my initial experiments, the markov generator came up with this last piece of inspired literature, which makes a kind of scary sense.

In this research paper aimed at discussing some of the group ‘Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’ spoke to the author of the issues raised in the Baudrillardian sense, that the developers chose to employ an invisible barrier as their means of keeping the game that I wish to explore the world, I began to enacting the role playing game into a world in which to move about and interact with the same topics in greater depth. One addition to the FPS solely owns the ‘first person perspective’ videogames have not been an independently delineated genre – rather existing simply as a popular first person viewpoint gameplay conventions and tropes set in place by a desire to explore the world, I experience a heightened level of ‘simulation fever’ because, as just mentioned, I have been problems for the player. For example, not having the time to fill in the case in most, if not all games, and is clearly room for telling stories in other places however there was one small barrier between me and those far away hills of promise, and it was later released as a focus on state-of-the-art graphics with other role playing game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I then made a small assertion that virtual comes from the surface, stay in touch with reality” . Ryan says

…the meaning of virtual ice climbing I was rather excited. I had, after all, spent the last several minutes on the DVD to store the extra environment or not having enough space on the other the virtual as fake and the other side.

When I finally did reach a section of the game as encouraging the practice of stopping to smell the flowers.

A different aspect of the many ‘skills’ that a play can employ within

Think I could get away with Markov chaining my whole Literature Review? Feel free to link me some of your excellent finds in the comments.

Monday, 9 June 2008

An extract from my recent paper on VR and the 'first person perspective' videogame

I've been thinking about (and doing a bit of select reading of) the concept of 'New Games Journalism', which Kieron Gillen outlined in his 'New Games Journalism Manifesto'. The point that I thought was most important, was this:

New Games Journalism... argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there...

This makes us Travel Journalists to Imaginary places. Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist outside of the gamer’s head...
The thing with travel journalism or reportage is that it’s interesting even if you have absolutely no inclination of going there.

The idea of dealing with the game and talking about it subjectively, as embodied, is extremely powerful, to my mind. And with this though, I wanted to share with my handful of readers, an extract from my own research discussion paper which will undoubtedly be somewhat adapted into a section of my thesis. I'll hopefully put the paper up in full in a few weeks, but until then, here's a little bit of my own attempt at injecting the aesthetic of 'New Games Journalism' into a bit of academic writing.

Any resemblance to Jim Rossignol's recent post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun from last week is purely coincidence. I started writing the paper only a few days before Jim wrote his and when he beat me to the punch, I was kinda miffed. But hey, it means I must be on the right track if someone as distinguished and insightful as Jim is talking about it.


Oblivion, belonging loosely to the category of open world or sandbox type games, allows the player great freedom for exploration. At almost any point the player can leave the main narrative path and explore the world to discover and engage with its inhabitants, or simply venture into the countryside for its own sake. The game world stretches for many miles, across many different environments and is populated to varying degrees with ancient ruins and secluded settlements. The ability to go ‘off the beaten track’ is inscribed within the games rules, and is clearly accommodated for, even expected. For example, one of the many ‘skills’ that a play can employ within the game is Alchemy, which involves the brewing of potions from raw ingredients often gathered from the wild. At its most abstracted level, the game can be seen as rewarding players for exploring and discovering these useful reagents through the ability to brew useful, even potentially life saving potions. Somewhat humorously, the possibility is open to reading the game as encouraging the practice of stopping to smell the flowers.

A different aspect of the game that I wish to relate and demonstrate the power of procedural rhetoric is best told through my own subjective experience and reaction. At a point roughly 20 to 30 hours into the game, I found myself at a location called Cloud Ruler Temple high up in the Jerall Mountains. To the south of the temple is visible the towering spire at the heart of Imperial City, the largest city and one of the central places within which much of the game takes place. Behind the temple and to the north is a series of large, beautifully rendered snow covered mountains. There is no road leading up it and no perceptible reason to climb them. With no inclination towards advancing the plot and instead being possessed by a desire to explore the world, I began to enacting the role of ‘the explorer’ as classified in Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of MUD[1] game players[2]. Bartle describes four types of MUD players and their differing rationales for engaging with the game – in the case of the explorer, Bartle says

Players try to find out as much as they can about the virtual world. Although initially this means mapping its topology (i.e. exploring the MUD's breadth), later it advances to experimentation with its physics (i.e. exploring the MUD's depth).[3]

Knowing that my character possessed an exceptional level of the acrobatics skill, which directly modifies the height of a player’s jump, I attempted to climb the mountain through a combination of running and leaping. Thwarted by near vertical surfaces of snow and ice, I made my way across the face of the mountain (in my mind pretending that by rock climbing I was managing to traverse the similarly near-vertical cliff faces) to approach from the north, a much gentler gradient. At many points along the way I would get stuck, just below the crest of the mountain with the knowledge that it was just out of reach teasing me, making me want to get up there all the more. I would perhaps assert that this feeling in me was somewhat akin to that experienced by many serious mountain climbers who characterise their motivation for climbing mountains as doing so ‘just because it’s there’. Similarly, I wanted to climb to the peak of the Jerall Mountains because they were there; however, I also wanted to see what was on the other side.

When I finally did reach a section of the mountainside that permitted the kind of virtual ice climbing I was undertaking, I was rather excited. I had, after all, spent the last several minutes on the face of a mountain and had gone so far as to have crossed several sections of the map. The inability to reach the top so far had only made me more determined. I eventually reached what I believe to be the highest point in the game and the view was all the better for feeling as though I had actually accomplished something. Over the other side of the mountain ranges – and plainly within view of the massive draw distance[4] – was another set of mountain ranges, not snow covered like the ones I was standing on, but wooded and rolling and filled with possibility. Looking north-north-west, the woods continued on down to what appeared to be a large body of water, possibly a lake or the ocean (the ocean was certainly in that direction and reachable in other places) however there was one small barrier between me and those far away hills of promise, and it was a literal barrier. Upon reaching certain points of the world designated by the level designers as the ‘edge of the map’ and hence playable area, players encounter an impassable, invisible barrier and are told via onscreen lettering ‘You cannot go that way, turn back.’ I propose that, in effect, by not allowing the player to visit all the places one can see Oblivion, due in part to its emphasis on beautifully realistic visuals, heightens any feelings of wanderlust already present in the player, whether intentionally or not. The fact that the game intentionally sets itself up as a consistent world, as previously mentioned, and encourages exploration, only to so cruelly curb said exploration, is rhetorically strange, if not wilfully perverse.

[1] MUD stands for ‘Multi-User Dungeon’. These were generally text based online games, the precursors to modern ‘massively multiplayer online’ (MMO) games such as ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Everquest’. I am stretching his definition to include single player games that include large worlds much like MUD’s – such as Oblivion.

[2] Richard Bartle ‘Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs’ in Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, eds. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, (Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), pp.754-786

[3] Ibid.

[4] Draw Distance is the technical term for how far the game engine renders the environment into the distance. The fact that the draw distance is so long is a bi-product of the games previously mentioned appropriation of FPS tropes such as technology pushing graphics.

Monday, 2 June 2008

10 Free Indie Games to play while not working on your Thesis

So I've recently been invited to a facebook group started by a few people in my honours cohort called "If you write my Thesis for me I'll..." and we're encouraged to finish the thought. =D

So, in a similar veign, I've spent the morning compiling a list of 10 or so Indie games that are both 1) Free and 2) Awesome to aid in the noble task of procrastination. Presented in alphabetical order.


“The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041, a day so painful to some that it is referred to only as the "B-Ballnacht". Thousands upon thousands of the world's greatest ballers were massacred in a swath of violence and sports bigotry as the game was outlawed worldwide. The reason: the Chaos Dunk, a jam so powerful its mere existence threatens the balance of chaos and order. Among the few ballers and fans that survived the basketball genocide was Charles Barkley, the man capable of performing the "Verboten Jam"...”


“Chalk is all about drawing your way to all the glory! Draw lines across shapes to destroy them, turn back bullets at enemies and thwart huge boss enemies by bouncing stuff back in their faces!”


Cloud, also known as That Cloud Game or Cloud: The Game, is a third-person computer puzzle game, designed by Jenova Chen, based on weather and atmospheric aesthetics. The game features distinctive hand-drawn art, as well as non-violent, whimsical play inspired by… Katamari Damacy.[1]


Cortex Command is a 2D base-building game in the vein of Worms, only with robots piloted by disembodied brains and giant bunked filled with electronic death. (Also the astoundingly detailed pixel-art and physics makes Worms look a bit like it was made during a sneezing accident.) It does require a bit of patience, however, so take your time and experiment.[2]


Imagine if the 90’s B-movie ‘Tremors’ became a videogame. This is it (with less Kevin Bacon).


“The basic premise is that you are a little dinosaur escaping extinction! Run, run (and jump), as fast as you can to the end of each level before the “Wall of Doom” engulfs you.[3]


“One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone.[4]


“The game involves the player guiding a tiny, aquatic worm-like microorganism through various depths of the ocean to consume other organisms and to evolve their organism as the player advances… Within the first two weeks following its release, flOw attracted approximately 350,000 downloads.[5]


“Sweet Raptorchrist, it’s here... and it’s even more incredible than you imagined.[6]


“It’s half art experiment, half game and all punishment. It’s a sequence of aesthetically torturous and fairly difficult mini-games, peppered with clashing colours, unforgiving controls and angular, metallic noises aimed dead-centre at the brain’s pain-spots…That said, I haven’t in fact been beyond the opening GTA-esque bus-driving stage, in which the controls keep changing on me, cars spontaneously explode into rainbow-clouds of pain and collisions can randomly turn me around - and getting myself back on course is a horrific endeavour based mostly on chance. I actually hate it. I really, really hate it. But, at the same time, I also find it very funny.[7]


"Interactivity is one of the core features that differentiate games from passive media like film. In a game we play a role. Most of the time, the roles we play in games are roles of power. Space marine, world-class footballer or hero plumber. Isn't it about time we played the role of the weak, the misunderstood, even the evil? If videogames remain places where we only exercise juvenile power fantasies, I'm not sure there will be a meaningful future for the medium.[8]"

[1] Wikipedia contributors, "Cloud (video game)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 2, 2008).

[2] Jim Rossignol, ‘Cortex Command’, Rock Paper Shotgun,

[3] Derek Yu, ‘Dino Run’, The Independent Gaming Source,

[4] L.B. Jeffries, Execution – An Experiment in Game Consequences, Pop Matters,

[5] Wikipedia contributors, "FlOw," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 2, 2008).

[6] Derek Yu, ‘Off-Road Velociraptor Safari’, The Independent Gaming Source,

[7] Alec Meer, ‘Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist’, Rock Paper Shotgun,

[8] Ian Bogost, watercooler games, quoted on