Yesterday, Rayman creator, creative visionary, and underappreciated fashion icon Michel Ancel confirmed Beyond Good and Evil 2 is in development. You read that correctly. The sequel to the 2003 cult classic Beyond Good and Evil, rumored and whispered about since 2008, is at long last in the works at Ubisoft Montpellier.
Elderstatespersons of the gaming world joyously await the return of Jade and Pey’j. Never played Beyond Good and Evil? Ancel and his crew have got you covered. The first game will soon be free via Ubi30.
An ECGC article three weeks after the conference? I had better have a good reason for it, and I do.
ECGC was last month, ancient news. Who even remembers it? An internet-eon has come and gone. PAXEast has happened. Everybody is talking about the lead up to E3. If you are going to report on yesterday’s news, you had better have a good reason to do so. I believe I have one. My notes on ECGC have helped me to put the cancellation / inevitable failure of my book’s Kickstarter campaign into a more useful context than, simply, “The people do not want another analog book about digital media.”
Two-panel discussions stand out to me as pertinent to the theme of this article.
In a panel called What Not To Do As a Game Writer, Richard Rouse III (State of Decay and the upcoming game The Church in the Darkness) hosted Carrie Patel (Pillars of Eternity), Antony Johnston (Dead Space), Annie Reid (Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3), and Dan Jolley (Prototype 2, Dying Light, Transformers: War For Cybertron and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron). Patel talked about another writer’s rewrites that changed a flawed character, whom she had created to be flawed but likable, to a very bad guy. Johnston emphasized the importance of clear instructions and documentation when communicating over Skype and email. Jolley told a tale of woe in which he was not paid for his work on a game due to a contractual loophole. Reid gave examples of how passivity and foolish pride can be a game writer’s downfall. Stay humble but be heard; take the long-view.
In a panel on Writing for Franchises, Carrie Patel, Eddy Webb (Futurama: Game of Drones, an addictive and consistently hilarious Match 4 mobile game), Jessica Sliwinski (Lead Narrative Designer at Disruptor Beam, makers of Game of Thrones Ascent), and Jonathon Myers (Game of Thrones Ascent, Ear-Play which makes immersive gaming experiences that are entirely sound-based). Patel and Webb shared anecdotes from their careers. Sliwinski sang the unexpected virtues of high-quality fan-fiction for aspiring game designers. What better way to prove you can write for an established franchise than to have a portfolio of evidence showing you can do just that? Myers emphasized the importance of having deadlines defined in writing, going on to say that if “silence equals consent” on an issue, then “spell it out” in the original correspondence. That is to say, if you ask a question in an email to the intellectual property holders and you receive no response, be sure whatever action you will take on the issue is in writing beforehand. After all, the IP holders have the final say. Define your terms and stick to them.
There were other standouts, including Warren Spector’s keynote on choice and decision-making in game design; a panel discussion about Tom Clancy’s The Division and its team’s writing process (lots of Skype calls and patient collaboration), featuring Annie Reid and Richard Dansky among others; Jonathon Myers’ entertaining Futurama Lives! talk; and from the tutorial sessions, Jana Sloan van Geest’s masterful presentation on story structure and dialogue writing, and Eddy Webb’s witty presentation on narrative. To the delight of everyone in attendance, Webb declared, “If it makes sense to have a battle while riding a giant turtle through a forest that’s on fire, by all means do that!” You do what makes sense for your game, your story.
Rewind to ECGC Day 2 (April 20). Richard James Cook, creator of the Devolver Digital Films documentary Pixel Poetry, gives a presentation on his own experiences as an indie dev. With disarming honesty, Cook cataloges his failures to make a name for himself in the games industry, his DIY adaptability (the camera he used to record his first doc was a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone), and celebrates his recent Devolver Digital Films successes. Here, Cook riffs on Beckett’s old theme which only gets truer with age. Try again, fail again, fail better.
Fast-forward to the end of ECGC Day 3 (April 21). I chat with Heather Albano, game dev and writer at Choice Of Games. Her latest game is A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, a Choose Your Own Adventure style text-based game about steam-powered mech warfare. Choices matter.
Fast-forward again to May 4. Enhance the image. My Kickstarter campaign teeters at 11 percent funded with less than two weeks to go. It is clear to me that the campaign is taking up too much of my time. The outlook is grim. I hit the kill switch to cancel it. If you want to get anywhere in this industry, you can’t look back for long. Keep moving. E3 is right around the corner. I can’t wait.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously identified Jessica Sliwinski as an employee of Telltale.
Special thanks to the incomparable Rellik Nissassa, my ECGC spirit guide.<
There is no way to fit everything else ECGC-related in one post, hence Part One.
Most technology-focused conferences amount to disguised marketing ploys, concocted by product-pushing corporations. Conferences tend to perpetuate ideologies consistent with transhumanism (a dangerous New Age memetically transmitted infection common to billionaires who want to live forever) and technofascism — this is to say, ultra positive portrayals of technology, techs nouveaux as humanity’s Redeemer. People are valued in as much as they express monetarily their devotion to the latest tech toy.
Since 2006, Walter Rotenberry has sought to change the trend from presenters peddling wares to presenters providing useful trade-specific information to gamers, programmers, and designers. Let Day 2 and Day 3 of ECGC 2016 stand as irrefutable evidence of the success of Rotenberry’s efforts. In presentation after presentation, ECGC’s speakers and panelists offered priceless career advice and hard-won industry wisdom. Unlike other conventions and conferences, ECGC is truly about people, not products.
Two speakers communicated ECGC’s message particularly well in their talks: Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina in a talk on the right ways to bring Virtual Reality into classrooms and Chelsea Curran Adams, QA Lead of Epic Games, in a talk on teamwork and quality.
On Day 2, Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina lectured on present-day educators’ Rift/VIVE/VR mania (in particular, fully immersive VR mania), showing it to be just another iteration in a historical pattern of education industry hype. Dr. Elliott summarized educators’ obsession with new technology as a pervasive belief that the tech industry is always one innovation away from radically changing the way we study and experience the world. Once new tech, now old news; as it has been since 1870, evermore shall it be – unless we get real about the limitations and the qualified promise of the latest tech craze.
Using a timeline of classroom tech breakthroughs (everything from the pencil to the projector) and the hype surrounding them at what we would now call launch, Dr. Elliott reinforced the need for teachers and students to understand the technology they use. Information on the new tech must be made freely available to teachers. If a VR tech company or software developer promises a VR-powered revolution in education and can’t offer the how and why specifics, then educators should assume the pitch to be industry hype, hot air, and little else. To use one of Dr. Elliott’s examples, porting a documentary from video to non-interactive 3D video is a waste of designers’, programmers’, educators’, and students’ time. Better just to play the video.
In order for an interactive lesson in fully immersive VR to be a worthwhile use of resources, Dr. Elliot argued, its quality must be assessed in terms of its purposeful utilization of all the unique aspects of VR. If the new VR technology is to be useful for educators, if new technology is to facilitate unique learning experiences, the technology must be what Dr. Elliott calls the “context” for the lesson, not just the medium which communicates it. Educators should be able to answer questions like; Does the lesson take purposeful advantage of simulated tactile stimuli, stereoscopic rendering, 3D sound, full 360-degree camera tracking, gestural inputs, etc.? The more specifically a teacher can answer these questions, the likelier the lesson is to be a worthwhile use of resources.
On Day 3, I attended a talk on teamwork and quality by Chelsea Curran Adams, Quality Assurance Lead of Epic Games. As in an earlier talk, Adams utilized constructivist techniques to emphasize the human element in the Quality Assurance process. She incorporated input from attendees, assured attendees that the presentation would “tie in everything you guys said here today,” and delivered on the promise. This implicit tactic made all the more compelling her argument that design is a collective activity.
Adams examined the perks and drawbacks of two design methodologies, waterfall and agile. Waterfall is sequential, linear, with the entire team moving together through each design phase. At the expense of adaptability, waterfall keeps the team on the same page, so to speak, working together today on the physics engine, tomorrow on the control schemes, the next day on the level design, and so on. You can see how, if you suddenly need to back-track to a previous development phase, your team will have to do a lot of things over. Although waterfall is “demonized in the industry,” as Adams put it, indie dev teams often find it useful. When waterfall works well, it is more cost-effective than the alternative.
Agile development is the design methodology by which AAA games are made, almost without exception. With hundreds of people working on one game, it would not be feasible to have everybody – programmers, writers, marketers, graphic artists, motion capture artists, actors, testers, et cetera – moving rigidly from one design phase to the next. Rather than linear in progression, the agile methodology is cyclical, with QA assessments built into each phase of development. With agile, a large studio can have multiple teams in different phases of the design process at the same time. Agile’s drawbacks are its price tag for the company and, in the event of poor communication and incomplete documentation, its potential to engender chaos for the dev team.
True to ECGC’s focus on people, Adams suggested that devs use message boards to start a dialogue with the people who will be playing their game. It’s the players who will be most likely to speak up when they find a bug, encounter an established character behaving in an unexpected way, et cetera. In the games industry, Adams concluded, communication among people on all sides of a project is key to successful QA. At no point did her informative talk stray from useful methodological analysis into product placement.
Day One of the East Coast Game Conference has lived up to its wholesome, entertainment-focused Community Day designation, a half-day of light-hearted non-technical presentations and exhibits from indies.
Here are a few highlights:
As a fan of Saturday Morning RPG and Breach & Clear, I enjoyed geeking out with the guys at the Mighty Rabbit Studios booth. That alone would have been worth the price of admission. If you have never played a Mighty Rabbit game, stop reading and correct this matter at once.
I played a PS4-exclusive Free-To-Play MOBA from Kiz Studios called Trans-Galactic Tournament. The work of a small dev team with an interest in making MOBAs faster and more action-oriented, Trans-Galactic Tournament sports slick visuals, that good old-fashioned isometric perspective, and lots of character abilities. I do not have the MOBA experience to say how Trans-Galactic Tournament compares to something like DOTA 2, so I will compare it to something I know very well: Dark Souls. Like Dark Souls, Trans-Galactic Tournament makes it near impossible to spam attacks. The shoulder-button focused control scheme, locked animations, and strict cool down times ensure that the strategic battle never deteriorates into mindless button-mashing. Unlike Dark Souls, Trans-Galactic Tournament was light, accessible, and a little on the easy side, but I expect that the minimal challenge is quickly remedied with the addition of human teammates and opponents.
The guys at Invisible Collective showed me their sleeper hit Battlesloths, a four-player single-screen local multiplayer combat game. Billed as “a lightning -fast competitive multiplayer shooter,” Battlesloths is the first game from Invisible Collective. Sloths move slowly. Battlesloths move with a quickness and fight over pizza! Animated in a quirky pixel art style, Battlesloths is the first game every new indie studio hopes to make: simple, distinctive, fun, and memorable. Who doesn’t love a heartwarming Humble success story? Gamemoir’s readers should expect more info on this promising indie dev team in a future article.
I attended the “What is Quality?” talk presented by Chelsea Curran Adams of Epic Games. Singing the praises of collaboration and communication, Adams elicited examples of quality from attendees (see photo). I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the design process, such as the need for a dev team to have “road map,” the causal link from priority to quality, and the importance of message boards in the process of writing software documentation and finding bugs. Adams’ talk used techniques introduced by the constructivists, the original promoters of crowd-sourcing and its virtues.
Midway through Adams’ talk, I could not help but ponder how even the presentation itself had been gamified. How fitting for a games convention, that the game space expands beyond the screens to encompass the entire convention center! Can’t you see the HUD with its map of the floor plan, booths identified by coordinates, highlighted interactive objects, a count of business cards collected and meaningful exchanges experienced, networking side-quests completed and Easter Eggs discovered? I can. That’s why I turned my tablet into a DIY billboard advertising my blog, Gamemoir, and my Kickstarter campaign.
That’s right, my dear readers. I am crowdfunding a book about video games based on the ideas McKenzie Wark explained in his excellent book Gamer Theory (2007). Think of my book as a critical driver update, a much needed OS upgrade, a new video card. I will leave most of the hardware and firmware of the theory as they are and expand the theory’s scope to include contemporary games, trends, and ideas. After all, a lot has changed since 2007. Gamer Theory needs an update. Will you help me make it happen?
All in all, Day One did what it was supposed to do: It provided a venue for gamers, indies, and industry mainstays to meet, mingle, and geek out about video games. That said, I can’t help but feel like a sort of geek Prometheus. I get the sense that the most potent digital fire remains a well-kept secret — for now.
Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games).
For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it will be closing its San Francisco office. The Santa Cruz studio will continue to operate. As a tribute, let’s look at one of Choice Provisions under-appreciated gems: the neo-retro masterpiece Woah Dave!, developed by MiniVisions. Released in 2014, updated in 2015 as Woah Dave! Deluxe, Woah Dave! is everything I love about indie gaming. (This article refers to the Classic mode, unless otherwise noted.)
Woah Dave! in its original form is a single-screen action game reminiscent of post-Atari, pre-NES arcade games. You’re Dave. Dave is a yellow square with blue pants and big eyes. The PC version of the game features an option for a second player to take control of a second Dave. Each Dave has one hit point and no pennies. Eggs and explosive skulls fall from the sky. Eggs hatch aliens, skulls explode. Dave’s only method of self-preservation (and/or little green spacemen-murder) is to pick up either an egg or a skull and throw it.
Items and enemies drop pennies. As Dave, your job is to get rich and you will die trying. An intact skull can smash an egg on contact. An egg cannot smash another egg. Throwing either a skull or an egg will slay a hatched enemy. Exploding skulls destroy eggs and Daves but not other intact skulls. The lava at the bottom of the screen enrages aliens Super Crate Box-style and destroys anything else. Occasionally, a Whoa box appears, which, when thrown, wipes the board clean and leaves the pennies for Dave to pocket. If you require more “game” than this, then you might prefer the Deluxe mode which disguises the same gameplay with new characters, enemies, hazards, vehicles, and portals.
The genius of Woah Dave! is in the timing of its First In First Out spawn patterns, indicated by blinking visual cues, and the subtle polish of its controls and physics. If you hold the jump button, Dave kicks his legs and descends more slowly. Eggs and skulls have mass. They don’t bounce around like turtle shells in the Mario Bros. series. These details are essential to the game’s success. What could be a run-of-the-mill action-platforming game becomes something akin to a real-time resource management sim with twitch gameplay and action-platforming elements.
“Put this egg over here, put that skull over there, collect these coins, wait to collect those…”
In his Destructoid review of Woah Dave!, Johnathan Holmes points out the hallucinatory aspects of Dave’s adventure, how when Dave dies the world around him loses its absurd and menacing qualities. The lava falls away, buildings appear in the background, the aliens go back to their day jobs. I share his view and would add to it the following: While the juxtapositions of Woah Dave!’s imagery may be nonsensical (eggs and skulls falling like rain, arbitrary lava traps and disappearing platforms), the images themselves belong to archetypal symbolism. Eggs represent life, fertility, beginning. Pennies, which are ultimately of no consequence to the way the action plays out), represent futile earthly pursuits of status, wealth, fame. The blinking patterns represent the irreversible passing of time. Aliens are the menacing Unknown. Lava is lava. And you already know what the skulls mean, don’t you?
The skulls in Woah Dave! serve the same purpose as they serve in the memento mori tradition in medieval art. A memento mori is a fetish, nicknack, or emblem, oftentimes in the shape of a skull if not an actual skull, a commonplace reminder of one’s mortality. It says to onlookers, “Everything that lives will die.” Sisyphean in his resolve, Dave sees the terrible signs and forges ahead, anyway. Indie gaming needs more Daves, not fewer.
Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games). For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it…
The contemporary cybernetic resurrection of Metal Gear’s Raiden as a stealth-absconding robo-ninja warrior is the makeover nobody in the gaming world saw coming. In the heyday of the Playstation 2, when dinosaurs roamed the cellular networks and calls dropped like flies, Raiden’s debut in the stealth espionage game MGS2: Sons of Liberty polarized the global gaming community. Popular in Japan, derided in the West, he represented a radical departure from Solid Snake, the original protagonist not only of the previous entries in the Metal Gear series but also of the opening chapter of Sons of Liberty.
For some critics, the very sounds of his name (not “RAY-din,” but “WRY-din”) dredge up repressed memories of asking for the coolest tough-guy spy this side of MI6 and getting, instead, some doll-faced wannabe Dante (pictured above, left) with an inferiority complex and a bad case of motor-mouth. Readers who have not played Sons of Liberty, the embedded video is for you. This is Raiden, hunting the terrorist Solid Snake — but not The Solid Snake. Remember that these scenes are taken from a direct sequel to a game in which you play as Solid Snake, not Raiden, and Solid Snake is undeniably heroic (and not at all a terrorist). You can see how this nonsense might not go over so well.
Of all candidates to be turned into a time-bending cybernetic samurai for a contemporary AAA action game, Raiden might have been the darkest of the dark horses. In action movie terms, he was never a Murphy. How is he suddenly a top-of-the-line Robocop gone rogue? (Guns of the Patriots has the canonical explanation.)
Reversals and re-characterizations are not unprecedented in the Metal Gear universe. James Clinton Howell has identified patterns of role inversion and toying with players’ expectations throughout the franchise. His entire study comes highly recommended. This article would not have been possible without his in-depth original research.
In a previous post, I pointed out similarities between the emotionalism of current-gen Lara Croft and that of Raiden. If you’re old like me and you lived through the Sons of Liberty debacle, you’ve seen the ire directed at Raiden. His name alone could have marked his stars as an unwelcome heir to a sacred gaming tradition. Let’s remember that Midway’s Raiden got top billing on the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie. Metal Gear’s Raiden was starting out in Frank Sinatra, Jr. territory.
As it happened, Raiden’s disappointing quality grew out of more than ill-begotten nomenclature. Raiden was an embodiment of inexperience in the field. His wishy-washy personality, antithetical to Metal Gear’s legacy of cool masculinity, sealed his fate as a claim jumper. Ironically, perhaps, Raiden was intended to be an emotionally available sensitive-type to appeal to female gamers. Consider the following taken from an official design document obtained by Kotaku.
With Raiden (someone appealing to women), instead of Snake, as the main character, we will have a character in which women can more easily empathize. He is the antithesis of the older, hard-boiled image of Snake.
The document (here in full) gives the impression that a woman is not a person but a weakly encrypted algorithmic machine, one among many, all virtually the same in function if not in form.
Raiden’s perceived femininity and Western fanboys’ categorical rejection of his personality were, in hindsight, sparks of bigotry becoming embers becoming a social trashfire becoming Gamergate. In our Gamergater-infested social media, some brave and intelligent gamers have explored the gaming industry’s attitudes towards the feminine mystique and, in return, found their private inboxes inundated with direct and often explicitly laid-out threats of personal violence from dumb hateful self-proclaimed “men.”
Misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are different masks for the same stupid monster. The hatred of PS2-era Raiden shares a lineage with Gamergate-era hatred of DMC: Devil May Cry’s black-haired Dante.
Both old Raiden and new Dante are whiny pretty-boy replacements for established tough-as-nails male heroes of franchises poisoned by arbitrary sex-inequality and heteronormative phallocentrism. If Sons of Liberty were available on Steam, its page would likely be given the “female protagonist” tag at some point. Games with heroes perceived as effeminate have been given this label on occasion, not by any company or marketing firm but by some classless clown with a Steam user account and at least a mild distaste for traditionally (i.e. arbitrarily) feminine traits.
A simplistic notion of what women want leads, in turn, to a simplistic concept of womanhood. Stephen Keating over at Et Tu, Gamer? has shown how misogynistic and chauvinistic caricatures of femininity are the rule, not the exception, in the Metal Gear universe. It’s a franchise in which a woman can be an incompetent innocent to be protected, possessed, drooled over, patronized, et cetera; a scheming would-be helper who at the moment of truth is revealed to have been secretly malevolent all along; or just plain evil through-and-through.
In retrospect, early Raiden had no chance of winning the American gamer popular vote. Tough-guy Solid Snake goes in, single-handedly brings down a ship full of terrorists under cover of night. But it’s a trap! The heretofore unconquerable Snake goes missing, is presumed drowned. Fade to black. A soft-skinned wunderkind, who, like a bad drag queen with perfect hair, “skates on pretty,” comes out crying.
He’s tragically uncool. Consider the discussion of the cardboard box in the embedded video. Solid Snake can turn a cardboard box into a Future Solder’s cloaking device; Raiden can’t sneak past a pigeon without wrecking a perfectly good one-piece. Konami poked fun at Raiden’s decidedly mixed appeal in Snake Eater, Sons of Liberty’s direct sequel, by giving audiences the false impression that, despite the box art, this was yet another of Raiden’s misadventures — until the mask came off.
Raiden’s hotheadedness and refusal to listen to reason do not, in and of themselves, contradict the archetype of the American hero. Americans love closed-minded hotheads in movies and television shows. Why wouldn’t they love a closed-minded hothead in a video game with film-quality cinematography? Alas, the character of Raiden would have fit the archetype but for a conspicuous absence of rugged individualism, the primary ingredient in American heroism. He is needy. Neediness runs contrary to quintessentially American posturing and smells of pity, collaboration, collusion, Socialism.
Now, take a look at the breathtaking seven-minute trailer for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
Raiden’s transformation from a wretch to a savior is as dramatic as the absurd transformations promised by Pray the Gay Away fascistic re-education camps. He has been redeemed — a warrior, a “samurai.” The explicit designation of Raiden as a “samurai” here is telling. Consider the following excerpt originally taken from the work of Gary Leupp, quoted in this excellent article on homosexuality among samurai. The bracketed text is mine.
“Nanshoku [literally translated as ‘male colors,’ a phrase explicitly connected to homosexual longing among men],” according to the Nanshoku Yamaji No Tsuyu (Dew on the Mountain Path of Nanshoku, 1730), “is the flower of the military class.” The popular writer Ejima Kiseki (1667-1736) added, “Nanshoku is the pastime of the samurai. How could it be harmful to good government?”
The new cybernetic samuRaiden (slicing and dicing ladykiller extraordinaire) fits neatly in with the series’ longstanding traditions of flashy visuals, thrilling gameplay, haphazard storytelling, and problematic representations of the individual identities who comprise under-represented and routinely exploited social groups. By making Raiden conform to the same gender biases as Solid Snake, his one-time antithesis, MGR: Revengeance represents a new inversion of identities with the same old closed and broken value system. Per the embedded official trailer, Raiden was stripped of his dignity, “A Man forced to Kneel [and] Suffer,” but no more! Now, thanks to the magic of science, Raiden’s on top and his blade does the penetrating. Call it “progress.”