Monday, 29 September 2008

A retrospective of 'ZZT', part Deux

In this post I am having a long-form discussing about a particular videogame with a childhood friend of mine and fellow blogger, Bibliosimius. In this 2 parter we discuss our mutual affection for the game ZZT and it's profound impact on our underdeveloped teenage minds. Part Un, in which we discuss the influence of the aesthetic of ZZT and more, can be found here.

B'simius adds his $.o2:

That's given me another thought. We learn visual art, creative writing, mathematics, "citizenship", all compulsorily in school. What about programming? One could argue that it'd make a good addition to the basic curriculum to give kids a general introduction to the very basic basics of how it all works. Using computer programs is increasingly becoming a part of schooling these days, but what about understanding how they're made? Not so much.


Wow, that's such a brilliant idea! I think that kids would also really be into it - I know I would have been. But then again, I was a massive nerd, so... I'm sure there'd need to be classes tailored to skill levels much like the maths and sciences.

You're right that knowing how to use them is about 100 times more important than knowing stuff like how a Hard Disk Drive works (hey, I was under the mistaken impression that there was no magnetism involved until just recently, and I'm OK), so maybe school computer classes should be teaching fundamentals of programming. It also makes sense, because students are currently being taught stuff like how to use specific software packages like Microsoft office and Photoshop, etc, which all go out of date within a year or so. The ideas behind being able to understand programming are so much longer lasting though.


Absolutely. It comes down to whether we want kids to grow up as good little mechanoids in the social machine or to be informed individuals who actually know how stuff works, and not just how to work it. We want new generations to avoid hardware problems which could be resolved with the dual typicals "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" and "Are you sure it's plugged in?" Understanding basic programming principles could alleviate similarly ridiculous problems with software.

I haven't thought about it from this perspective before, but understanding the basic ZZT-OOP programming paramaters and commands has probably helped me understand a fairly diverse range of electronic applications. I'd be interested in any kind of study into whether understanding the basics makes the complexities more intuitive. I'd more than tentatively guess that it does.


Mmm, good points. I don't think it's just an age thing either. My nana in her 80's got her first ever mobile phone recently, although I guess that is more an extension of an existing older technology, but my other grandmother is getting a laptop too, so she can get on the internet.

So, to segue into a neat conclusion - what's the single best thing about ZZT? The Aesthetic? Teaching Programming? Creative Potential? Or even the community of programmers and storytellers that grew up around it?


I'd say that the single best thing about ZZT is all the good times it gave us - it was fun; fun to learn how to use it, fun to collaborate, fun to work individually, fun to share... but that's a matter of opinion. There's a lot in ZZT for a lot of different types.

Single best feature in your opinion?


For me probably the creative outlet aspect. I really need to have something like that and ZZT was the first ever thing where I could just be creative without being constrained by lack of skill or talent or equipment or something =P

It's not like there weren't constraints on ZZT (in fact there were lots) but it was the first real "medium" or toolset I ever managed to come to grips with enough to get to the stage of being able to make something that was meaningful to me.

And on that note, thanks for taking a stroll down memory lane with me, B'simius! Feel free to blog about the experience and how librarians can use Facebook threaded conversations, etc on your own blog. And dear readers, may I also encourage you to check out Bibliosimus sometime in the future too.


That's all for my two part discussion with B'simius, however if people find this format at all interesting (and I quite like it myself) then look out for more posts in a similar vein. If you're looking for Part Un, in which we discuss the influence of the aesthetic of ZZT and more, it can be found here.

Random ZZT Linkdump:

ZZT In retrovision article at Gay Gamer
Official Wikipedia article on ZZT

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A retrospective of 'ZZT', part Un

In this post I am having a long-form discussing about a particular videogame with a childhood friend of mine and fellow blogger, Bibliosimius. In this 2 parter we discuss our mutual affection for the game ZZT and it's profound impact on our underdeveloped teenage minds.

Ben fires his opening volley:

So in this blog post I'm discussing with my long time friend B'simius a game that is part of both of our shared gaming heritage, and has probably had the single biggest impact on my tastes when it comes to games. I am of course talking about the 1991 classic videogame ZZT!

ZZT was a game by Tim Sweeny, later founder of Epic games, who went on to make both the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament series. What is probably most notable about the game is that it's not quite your ordinary PC game - in large part ZZT was just a level editor for making your own games. B'simius, would you also agree that a large part of the attraction to ZZT was the fact that it was really just a cleverly disguised game creation tool?

B'Simius replies:

As far as I'm concerned, the editor was ZZT's primary point of appeal. I probably spent more time programming Objects and drawing giant sandwiches using nothing but ASCII than I did playing the games, even though some of them were pretty amazing feats, especially given the limitations inherent to the program.

In retrospect my many attempts at crafting masterpieces of ZZT-OOP were generally fairly shoddy, but I couldn't get enough of trying, and trying, and trying again because of that ever-present sense that I made this, this is mine; a sense that's generally out of reach to the common gamer. A bit of a melodramatic assessment, I must admit, but there is truly a warm, snuggly spot in my heart reserved for this game.


You're totally right about the feeling you get of owning your creations. I remember I once spent a good six hours scripting an EPICintro cut scene to a game that I never made more than a single screen for. It was fantastic!

Do you get the same sensation of ownership from Spore? I know you have been playing that game like a bit of an addict, does it reflect a similar attraction? I've been formulating this weird theory recently that ZZT (and the semi-sequel Megazeux) have been more of an influence on my gaming tastes than anything since.

I mean, how else do I explain why my favourite game ever is the batshit insane Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist? I can only guess that the surreal games of ZZT (I'm looking at you Bernard the Bard & That Game With B-Fly Ptarmigan in it. For readers unfamiliar with this particular ZZT game, B-Fly was a Ptarmigan God who spewed up the universe).


Spore has a similar feel, although it pales in comparison to the scope and scale of ZZT. You can only go so far with creating Spores; eventually you have to set them loose in the universe, which is where the majority of the game really takes place. In ZZT, though, it's not just the majority but the entirety of the game that's forged in the editor's fires.

A thought's occurred to me. ZZT may have influenced your taste in games as far as the surreal and loopy content goes, but do you think your early exposure to ZZT has influenced the way you think about games as games - that is, the structure, outlay, design, etc. of games?


ha ha! I was actually hoping this topic would come up, because, yes, I think ZZT has totally influenced the way I think about and appreciate games. And not just games too - I think the 'ZZTOOPS' system of scripting burrowed deep into my impressionable mind as a child and is influencing the way I make music.

When we started working with a music program called Max/MSP in Digital Musics back in 2nd year Uni, I was one of those insane few people who actually got it. Although I wasn't super great at making cool stuff with it, I understood the underlying principle of the visual patcher environment as a programming language and that gave me a huge advantage over just about everyone else in the class.

When it comes to games, I think I also have that same rule based approach, hence my attraction towards the work of Ian Bogost & Gonzalo Frasca who both talk about games qua simulations or computations. It's all rules and instructions baby!

And thus concludes part I of our ZZT retrospective.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Videogames will save the world!

And I don't mean that in a 'figurative sense' or as a playfully ironic commentary on the the over-abundance of superhero tropes and 'hero complex' tales. I mean it instead that I think videogames are teaching our kids and young adults to think through, what is to many older persons, potentially opaque and incomprehensible systems.

Let me explain.

I was watching the fantastic Michael Moore style documentary The Corporation. You've probably seen the promo's for it - it's the one where the film makers compare the corporation as a legal "person" to a psychopath. It makes sense, after all it has no conscience and it's main driving motivation is the bottom line.

One of the big things that I got out of the documentary was that whenever people saw through what was a patently exploitative system (as was the case in the Bolivian water riots and a number of other examples) people got up and did something about it.

Videogames, according to Ian Bogost, can speak to players through what he terms Procedural Rhetoric, and as games get more complicated and convoluted, gamers are only getting more and more used to the idea of procedures and systems. Gonzalo Frasca in his essay for The Videogame Theory Reader (which I have summarised elsewhere) likens simulation to the act of creating government legislation and I think he's quite right when he says that
"Video games imply an enormous paradigm shift for our culture because they represent the first complex simulational media for the masses".

Videogames can and are giving players the experiences necessary and the cognitive tools to be able to start to come to grips with large systems and procedures. In the film The Corporation, a company appearing 'socially responsible' becomes a market driven reaction to consumers being turned off by irresponsible plunderers of the environment. This is a product of the market, which in itself is a system. When more people are taught (by videogames) the ability to think through processes in general, it is my hope more people will start to take positive action and make themselves heard about a number of these inherently bad systems that have cropped up in society.

That's enough of my ranting. Go watch The Corporation on YouTube or DVD and get excited about the prospect of a gamer revolution! Viva La Gamer!

Monday, 15 September 2008

The 'Affect' Discussion

What affect does a videogame have on a player? A watcher? What about on wider society? These questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered, with critics lambasting games for being so-called 'murder simulators', much to the horror of gaming advocates, while the same advocates say that videogames are an emerging art form. The problem with this position is that Art does affect - and should affect. Are videogame advocates trying to have their cake and eat it too?

I'm definitely on the affirmitive side of the 'Art'/'Not-Art' divide - I think games are (if not in nature, certainly in content) quite like Films, Books, Television and other media. And I don't think that Grand Theft Auto is a 'murder simulator', but what affect is it really having on the players?

A good friend of mine, a second year psychology student who writes the blog Lexje's Insights, brought up the issue of videogame affect, particularly in regard to frustration and anger generated by games.

A game could be relaxing as it is a recreation etc... But also (especially as i have witnessed a lot of Halo Tantrums) people can get really stressed and angry about what they are playing. One relaxed the other stressed out; the same thing could have 2 different effects on people. Someone probably needs to create some kind of gaming perception scale.

I thought this idea of a 'perception scale' was interesting enough to warrant sharing with my readers. So, putting it out there - what do you think? Should games be ranked according to frustration generated in the player? Can games even be labelled in this way? Should perhaps we be categorising the players (ourselves) somewhere between 'easily frustrated' and 'cool calm and collected, instead?

I'll be the first to admit that a lot of what we get out of media like games and film is a reflection of what's already inside of us - like holding up a mirror to aspects of ourselves - but I also believe there's undoubtedly a part played by the media itself.

Extra Credit: Watch this video of a kid getting upset while playing Halo (Note: This video skirts the cruel/funny line at certain points, but it also illustrates a point about how affecting videogames can be.)

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The peaks and perils of First Person Camera

Corvus Elrod and I have been going back and forth over twitter this week about camera's and camera choice in games, and he's written up a series of posts about 3rd person camera (yesterday) as well as 1st person view. And its gotten me thinking about first person perspective games a lot (mostly because they are the kind of game I tend to gravitate towards) and in particular why I think Assassins Creed was actually better for being rendered in third person and conversely why I think Mirrors Edge, while commendable for trying a whole slew of new ideas and daring to be different just generally, is possibly doomed to have some serious problems.

The essential point is the difference in camera angle - where Assassins Creed generally uses a 3rd person over the head view to depict Altair scrambling up the side of buildings, Mirrors Edge uses First Person perspective. So what's great about the first person perspective? Primarily, with a First Person Perspective you get a strong and direct connection with 'you' as the player inside the game. You're are looking out your own characters eyes, after all, and in my opinion this view (with certain caveats) seems natural and instantly relatable; it's closer to the 'normal' way that we view the world from our bodies. Additionally, it allows for very precise actions, most commonly used for aiming weapons such as guns, bows and other projectiles.

Unfortunately there are equally a number of negative aspects with the first person perspective game and which for the sake of brevity I will not attempt to list. However, one aspect I want to foreground in this discussion is highlighted once we start aiming for rather more complex control relationships with our player avatar and ourselves.

Basically I see the issue as one of embodiment in the game-space. As I hinted at in Corvus' original post I don't think that anyone has yet made a first person perspective game where the 'camera' - your embodied view of the world - is anywhere near as flexible as our real world bodily configuration.

We have a pair of eyes that move independently of our heads, and on top of that our heads can also move independently of our torso. The whole history to date of the First Person Perspective game (to the best of my knowledge) has been limited to an avatar that moves his or her eyes, head and torso as one. And this is actually fine... for certain things. It's fine particularly for (surprise, surprise) shooting games as when you aim down the sights of a real-world weapon, you don't move your head or even your eyes far from the target.

Additionally the first person perspective can only give the player so much information about their surroundings. For starters, our display screens for videogames are woefully too small to represent the whole field of vision of the average person, and as such, first person representations of games are going to lose information that the player would have in an identical real-world situation.

Take for example, your feet. Do you have to look down at your feet to know where they are? Of course not. So when Halo makes the player aim down at their feet we just know that some information about the environment is being lost. And you know, this is also fine. As Corvus says, many videogame protagonists are supposedly wearing bulky, vision impairing helmets after all. Except that when playing a game we also lose two (well three if you count taste) other senses that could be delivering information as well! We don't get to feel the world - the cool brush of a breeze on our skin or the crunch of gravel under our feet - or smell the scents in a space. So all this information which we would in reality be receiving about our surroundings, whether consciously or not, is further lost.

I was reading recently the Game Set Watch Column 'Diamond in the Rough - A body in the dark' about the healing system in the most recent Alone in the Dark. The article rightly discusses some of the innovative features of the game and how it encourages embodiment in the game-space, however when I came to this passage I had to stop, suppressing the urge to guffaw.
The effect of all of this is to ground you in the body of your protagonist. You must constantly check yourself for new cuts or bruises, sometimes eliciting a tired shrug from Edward when a visual check reveals no new blemishes.

Okay, am I the only person to think that having to visually check your body for cuts and bruises is actually dis-engaging you from your body? Since when have you ever had to stop and look yourself over only to realise that actually "Oh, I'm bleeding from the stomach".

Yes, granted there have been some times when I have experienced an adrenaline rush that has suppressed the pain of small injuries, and I have heard of people 'shrugging off' larger injuries as well, but if you've got the time to 'look yourself over' you've got the time to take a breather and start feeling the pain!

So, all this gets me to the point of saying, for all the benefits the FPS brings with it's embodied perspective, it comes with a bunch of detractors. And that's why I think Assassins Creed went the right way with 3rd person parkour action. I believe that the use of the third person perspective can partially make up for what we lose in the form of experienced, embodied information about the world.

Just one last quick quote - this time from Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 talking about their own implementation of specific areas and even types of injury, Hocking responded saying

...a contextual animation [plays] based on the type of injury you received and the location of the injury. If you fell from a cliff, you might have a dislocated ankle that needs to be relocated. If you were shot in the leg, you might need to prise the bullet out with a knife, if you were hit by a grenade blast you might need to pull shrapnel our of your elbow… the idea is to hit the player with a visceral ‘punch’ right at the moment that the intensity is highest and his adrenalin is pumping. The combined effect is to create powerful psychosomatic bonds between the player, the avatar and consequently the world itself.

I think Hocking's got the right idea - whether it's first, third or some odd combination of the two (think Oblivion style interchanging) the aim has to be to convey enough information to the player and about the player so as to aid a sense of embodiment, which only aids in the never-ending quest for 'immersion'. If that's the goal (and the actually result) then I don't really mind which one they choose. Maybe I could even learn to love Mirrors Edge (God knows I really want to!).

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

What speaks to me the most

In Mitch Krpata's Taxonomy of Gamers I'm dead-set a Tourist. Indeed before Mr. Krpata's series there was Richard A. Bartles 'HEARTS, CLUBS, DIAMONDS, SPADES: PLAYERS WHO SUIT MUDS' which I think extends to offline games remarkably well also,and in which I am similarly an 'Explorer' type player. The point that I want to make is that when I'm being a tourist, I prefer to do so from a First Person Perspective.

Corvus Elrod posted a few weeks back a small, almost throw-away, theory that personality type might have an influence on what perspective videogame players prefer to play in, whether First or Third. He asked for a quick poll in the comments and it seemed to me to be a little bit inconclusive, but I think that he's probably actually onto something.

The issue seems to me to be 'what flavour do you like your story'? All story driven videogames in recent memory that have captivated me have (primarily) told the meat of their story through story and plot that I experience in the game from the first person perspective. I'm experiencing it as the character. Now, I don't want to pretend that this could become some kind of hard and fast rule - after all I have also previously passionately enjoyed third person games like The Baldur's Gate series, and even many FPS games like Halo use 3rd person cut-scenes for certain sections of exposition.

Still, if you know me and have been paying attention to my thesis updates, etc, you'll know my shtick is all about what things are unique about videogames, and that we should be trying our best to capitalise on them. It's just what gets me excited about the medium - the idea of the new and things that have genuinely not been tried.

So I'm now wondering why more games haven't gone the route of the Half-Life's and the Call of Duty's. Both games tell their story exclusively (with very few exceptions) through first person experiences. Obviously I don't want to advocate that all videogames should ever do is tell a story in First Person Perspective, but it does seem like the industry hasn't really pushed the envelope very far past the previously mentioned examples. When can I expect the FPS equivalent of, Apocalypse Now (I'm talking about in terms of mood, atmosphere and focus on the psychological experience rather than the setting - Vietnam has been almost been done to death as much as WWII)? Casablanca? Doctor Zhivago?

The obvious point is that FPS games like those great films would be impossible, granted. After all, there's really very little shooting in them - but that's actually OK with me. I'm a tourist after all - I've climbed the highest peaks in Oblivion before just to see it, not because it had any intrinsic reward. I don't think I'm alone in this, there is definitely space in the videogame market for more tourist appealing games.

So, on that note, I've been talking to Corvus about the issue of perspective and personality type and he's suggested we set up a more comprehensive poll and aim for a bigger survey of people - if anything comes of it, I'll let you know.