Learning to Play, 2 & 3

Since my Learning to Play column at GameCareerGuide got going, two more installments have been published under it.

#2: Dinner Tables, “considers the design of a game project…and uses Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and more as inspiration.”, can be found here.

Most recently, #3: The Mixing Board goes between two large scale game projects from my time at CIA, comparing the team-dynamics between them to illustrate the up’s and down’s of collaboration. Read all about it!

I’m still mulling over what the fourth issue will discuss. Going back through the archives of my experiences in art school, which only ended a year ago, gets tougher with time. Your mind gets foggier, and aggressively dusting off the hardest lessons learned isn’t the most enjoyable thing to do for an entire article. I’ll get around to it as the spring moves on, unless Cleveland keeps the rain away for longer than a day.

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Why I Put Up With S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky

If you know me personally, you’re probably somewhat aware of the latest hurdle I’ve had to overcome in gaming. To my own surprise, it didn’t fall under the creative end of the medium. Instead, it was S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (S:CS), the single most demanding game experience I’ve ever had. The one I came closest to giving up on over a dozen times.

At a point, the game peaked to an emotional train-wreck for me. Half-way across the Zone (what the affected area of the Chernobyl disaster, the theatre of S:CS, is referred to as in-game) and I was stripped of my arsenal. Notorious game-breaking bugs began to surface, enemy AI grew too accurate, and friendly AI fell too inaccurate. With few means for controlling my own fate, I learned to travel one save at a time for every step taken, tip-toeing around eggshells I couldn’t even see.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I was victorious: I beat Clear Sky. I was slightly baffled at coming upon such certainty in a game underscored by ambiguity. All that certainty was then swiftly washed away by the most concentrated dose of ambiguity S:CS had to offer with its ending. “Am I actually done?”, I thought. Was that it for me and Clear Sky? Are my adventures (nightmares) in the Zone stories worth telling, as opposed to crafting them?

Yes, to all of the above. So what was there to put up with, and why did I put up with it for so long?

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Learning to Play 1: Playing By Ear

Over the past several months, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work with Christian Nutt (Features Director at both Gamasutra and GameCareerGuide) over the course of the year to begin writing a featured column at GameCareerGuide: Learning to Play.

Learning to Play focuses around the psyche of becoming a game designer, and each installment will feature one main topic under this umbrella. Due to length, audience, and venue, I won’t re-post the entire article here, but I am more than happy to redirect you towards it – just follow this link.

“In the first installment of new GCG column Learning to Play, Cleveland Institute of Art student Andrew Kuhar ruminates on the disappearance of regular gameplay time from his schedule.”

Onwards

"Railroad" Team Fortress 2 Lithograph by Valve Software

My career as a student of game design at the Cleveland Institute of Art officially ended today as I packed up the last of my posters, and backed up the last of my project files.

I’ll wait to elaborate on what I’ve learned from this year, but in short it has been a fast track to maturity and dedication as an artist. The amount of distinction I’ve learned to make amongst creative minds on the creative process we share has been enriching and informative in ways I could never have predicted. However, starting this blog nearly a year and a half ago was my reaction to comprehending how much I learned in one semester about level design. Since then, I’ve had a lot of encouragement and recognition nearby from many peers and local denizens of CIA, and it felt right to mark the occasion of closing that chapter of my life here too.

I haven’t maintained Digitalchemy as well as I’d have liked since this past school year took off, but writing and comprehension takes a lot of time away from things I’d otherwise be making – especially when it’s for thesis work. Before I make my way through those lessons I want to reflect on here, I’m taking some time to get away from them and return with a  more focused intent on how to frame it all for any readers out there.

LostWinds

tokulostwinds“A lot of subtle but very important gameplay appeal comes from the fact that the player controls two characters, and the dynamic between them. Toku is a young boy who is relatively vulnerable and whom you basically just move left or right with the nunchuck, and he stays vulnerable throughout the game…The other player character, Enril the Wind Spirit, is controlled by the Wii-mote and does get much more powerful as the game progresses. There is a nice symbiosis to their relationship because Enril has almost god-like powers in many ways, yet lacks the physical presence in the world that Toku provides. So the two work very well and naturally together as the player wields the power of the wind to protect, guide and do battle on behalf of Toku.” – David Braben, Frontier Developments

Braben frames the dualities that LostWinds plays off of quite clearly, as the above interview with Gamasutra this week would suggest. “The key ideas came when one of our game designers Steven Burgess was watching the trees and leaves from the window on a windy day. He remembers thinking about how many ways the wind shapes and manipulates different things within the world, and if only there was some way to become the wind in a game.” LostWinds empowers the player in a number of ways, such as staying true to its inspiration of environment manipulation, without hogging any room for the quieter moments to be heard.

  • LostWinds, mechanically speaking, controls very fluidly. Thematically, it dances a fine line of affordances and constraints, and does so rather intuitively. The limitations of your wind gusts and  the patience the player has to have with Toku (mostly in the earlier half of the game) sets up a very subtle anticipation to keep playing and seeing how this duo works in unison. Initial tasks of successfully platforming and opening up new pathways are enough to be satisfying for the effort put in not only in their visual grace, but in establishing a meaningful relationship between the two characters while underscoring their weaknesses in an inviting and constructive manner.

  • Toku’s adventure starts off as an elegant example of giving the player vital slices of information: sleeping under a tree in the title screen (and first frame of the game experience) while Enril the Wind Spirit (your cursor with the Wii Remote) can move around the screen to make menu choices. What this doesn’t reveal right away is the power of that moment- Enril trying to awaken Toku, and feedback the environmental backdrop provides the player with (trees/shrubs moving to quicker gestures). Having these two characters work with one another sets up a groundwork for understanding the sensibilities of the game under the radar.
  • Each controller (Wiimote + Nunchuck) takes the role of a character. Just as well, each controller successfully represents the relevance of its design. The Wii-Nunchuck is for all intents and purposes the center of the N64 controller gutted out: a joystick with a trigger behind it. This is what controls Toku, and to reiterate Braben’s description, “…is relatively vulnerable and whom you basically just move left or right…” At some point it almost feels like Toku’s limited potential accurately represents a timeworn game design, whether or not Frontier intended that perception. Enril being tied to the cursor gesture-based motions of the Wii Remote is what ultimately liberates the game by making use of the current console gaming model (soon to be reiterated by Microsoft and Sony), Wii’s interface/control scheme. LostWinds marries two completely different but proven approaches to game design and user interaction behind a very pleasant skin. Including such a vulnerable element as Toku into such a large chunk of the game is what makes this interesting to take away from.

  • The world of Mistralis is rich with feedback to the player’s impulses. Leaves tossed around and shaken off Cherry Blossoms, grasses and ferns tugged, citizens clothes being blown taught, and babies tossed up only to be caught by their mothers are a handful of the ways the player’s interactions are traced within the backdrop. It’s a simple nod to the essence the game seems to be founded upon, and it helps convey the power of Enril effectively. The idea that wind could manipulate a level/environment is only suggested in these recurring moments, but it helps establish a tempo within a game like LostWinds, whose pacing and aesthetic has a lot of breath to it.
  • Platformers are traditionally a genre not native to open-world elements. LostWinds’ world exists as one continuous panoramic that doesn’t break up into segments between episodic levels. This affords the player a chance to thoroughly explore the entire environment, and get a chance to loosely play and reiterate play with the wind element. After playing the game a few times since its release over a year ago, I’ve been hard pressed to not want to navigate through every crevice of Mistralis. How exhilarating and immediate reaching higher destinations with the ease of “wind” is has yet to catch me off guard.

The recently announced sequel to LostWinds, “Winter of the Melodias takes Toku & Enril through the colder climate and, according to David Braben, will be available on the Nintendo Wii’s Wiiware digital download service in the coming months.

The Losing Game

Digitalizar0008

These are some questions to help me brainstorm what it is I want to ask/answer about modern game design, and where it’s headed, during my BFA project:

  1. Is loss “fun”? Can failure and consequence be “fun”?
  2. What is permanence and its role in games/game design?
  3. How are audiences of gamers engaged in a game/s socially?
  4. What about a social atmosphere demands/encourages that they [player] return for more?
  5. Can positive reinforcement bring attention to an otherwise negative end?
  6. How has repetition aided game design? How has it hurt it?
  7. Progression: seeing progress is a powerful tool in making a game exist outside of itself.
  8. For a game to live beyond its very literal “magic circle” is a trait embedded in all and any of its potential untapped by the player.
  9. What are powerful examples of loss in games/game design? When have they been rewarding? When have they been self-defeating?

This is most likely a perpetual list, to be reiterated throughout the semester.

Forget About Your House of Cards

Tomorrow morning ushers in a blunt reality: my last year at college has officially started. There’s not much room for reminiscing nor idle hands, but there is the potential fortune of applying the aggressiveness of my summer work ethic to my studies and projects.

Let’s play.

I’ve been having numerous discussions via G-Mail chat with peer artist and friend Lawrence Michel on my thesis project ideation. He suggested I write about a conversation we had on game theory and some of my BFA proposal ideas from earlier this month. Larry is also a  featured guest on our group’s latest podcast, which is available here. Here’s the summary of our talk:

What designates our doors into play? Playpens? Courts? Arenas? Theater stages? Videogame Console Gamepads? Mouse & keyboard? Usernames and passwords?

There’s a certain phenomenon that occurs when ordinary objects transform into platforms – where strict rules and codes turn table decoration into a strewn mess of cards, dice, and tokens. What’s most perplexing is our willingness to recognize, accept, and engage with these events seamlessly from even the most practical activities we’d normally partake in. Reason turns into cognition as spoons try their best to impersonate trebuchets.

This sort of philosophy is one of the many rooted in game theory, referred to as “the magic circle” in the books Rules of Play and Homo Ludens, and is also at the crux of my BFA Thesis ideation. What is the magic circle exactly? It’s both physical and mental really – it’s the boundary between play and real life states of activity and mind. What is significant about crossing over and back through this peripheral wall of culture? At what moment is play acceptable, when does it start, when does it end? The magic circle helps frame these questions, and gives significance to identifying when something is a game, when is not, and sometimes when it’s rather hard to gauge. I’m not looking to reinvent to the wheel/circle for my project, but re-imagine it’s role in game design through live play-tests to start the bulk of my constructive research.

Here are some of the raw bullet points I’ve jotted down for this process, and the broader goals:

  1. If a game is arranged in a very visual way, but the rules to the traditional “game” accompany it, would people play or disrupt the “decoration”? If one has a house of cards, with rules on how to play poker, would people tear it down to do such? How does the line defining these “magic circles” of play become blurred and talk about people’s relationships with games as art & design?
  2. What can disrupt/breach that circle’s border?
  3. Taking advantage of familiarity and constants in games.
  4. Developing and design a game model where the circle is not something we enter, but more it envelopes us – it takes a hold of social atmosphere and expands…positively includes more individuals.
  5. Tangential to the above thought: a model that grows from a single player experience, towards a multi-player one…so the circle grows on its own in a way, like the game telephone for example. With each person whispered to, the circle of play expands, and becomes more complex with each person observing it. What is it like for that person in the room who is observing the game the entire time, but last to be included, and the pressure of an entire strand of communication and play is suddenly in their midst?

Some are more specific than others…and some ideas far more concrete ideations of a game model sorted out, but it’s only being enriched and revised by the things I’m discovering above.