Metagame

it’s your son

a game about memory. the story is set on your day off of work and you decide to go visit your mom. as you progress through the day, more and more seemingly strange things happen. your understanding of the oddities changes as you progress through the game and also by how you decide to play the game. every action you make impacts your understanding of the story. trying to cope with a parent’s mortality is difficult for any person, but seeing your future through the mental decay of a parent is torture. your perspective as a person with early onset dementia is reflected through the translation of symptoms into gameplay mechanics such as inventory management and choice of text-style. enjoy the experience.

Reflective Post

Both Gale and I found Gordon Calleja’s article, “Digital Games and Escapism” and explored the effectiveness of games to be forms of escapism. In her article “Animal Crossing and Mobile Gaming as Anti-Escapist“, Gale discusses how mobile gaming, particularly in the form of stamina based freemium games (Clash of Clans, Animal Crossing: Pocket CampSimpson’s Tapped Out, etc.), blurs the line between the real world and the virtual world. Gale brings up a good point in that mobile gaming is in a sort of grey area since you are not necessarily leaving the real world, you are “simply less invested in both [your] real and virtual surroundings”. It is true that mobile gaming allows players to neglect the real world without really ever leaving it. Because mobile gaming has you playing games on your phone, a device used to manage your real world obligations, you still have grounding in the real world. Gale’s second point is particularly interesting in that these freemium games keep the player coming back with their time based mission mechanics. Because you can only play these games for short intervals and then have to wait for stamina to fill back up or for missions to become available, there is constant transitioning from real to virtual worlds that ultimately creates a blurred experience for the player. These games become somewhat like real world chores that you have to continue to pay attention to, which hinders the positive escapism. I have two questions for Gale:

What do you think about mobile gaming that isn’t based around a time mechanic? My game, Pixel Dungeon, does not have a time mechanic and can be played whenever, no wifi connection needed.

What do you think of portable gaming such as the Nintendo 3DS or Playstation Vita? Could you find a way to argue against their forms of escapism?


I have discussed the extreme violence and mature content in Postal in my game logs. In my first log of the game, I argued that mature games should be allowed to be sold, but the sale of said games should be monitored to make sure they are not sold to at risk people. In Hunter’s log “Doubt the Obvious“, he discusses a proposed law that former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger issued (it was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court). My game’s sequel, Postal 2, was actually used as evidence in the trial in order to support California’s case. Even though these laws were deemed unconstitutional, I still hold my argument for the monitoring of violent video games. I agree that if these video games are played maturely, there is no harm in the sale of said games. After playing CoD: WW2, Hunter reached a similar conclusion:

“To examine an entire genre of video games and state that these games cause an increase in violent behavior is not only reaching, but fails to take into account other factors, like poverty, social status, and mental health.”

Both Hunter and I agree that violent video games must be handled maturely or else the gamer at hand may face negative consequences. In his article however, he explores another reason why violent video games should be allowed, and that is their relation to contemporary politics or social norms. Hunter explains that because we are far removed from the time of the Nazi rule in Germany, that it would be a stretch to say that Cod: WW2 would cause a gamer to commit violent acts against the Neo-Nazi groups in contemporary America. I do not necessarily agree with this claim however because it fails to reach the heart of the issue. Violence in any form and towards any person may influence an at risk gamer to commit a violent act. I would like to ask Hunter to take a look at Doom and its connection to the Columbine shootings. The game features no human antagonists, yet the Columbine attackers committed acts upon humans. I would like to see Hunter revisit his article and perhaps reposition this argument he has made.


In my Close Play project, I examined the moral questioning that occurs in Postal. In his article “Moral Sensitivity and The Witcher 3“, William discussed similar moral questioning in his playthrough of The Witcher 3. Both William and I reached the same conclusion that games will often test the gamer’s morals in virtual situations that have grounding in real world applications. In William’s case, The Witcher 3 tasks the player of reporting a crime of arson. It is up to the player to decide whether or not to turn in the criminal. He notes that this question of morality occurs early in the game, “…setting the stage for the rest of the game and communicating to the player ‘Your choices will have a great impact on how this story plays out’”. Postal acts similarly with its early introduction of moral questioning that impacts the way the player plays the game. William also brings up a good example with GTA: San Andreas in that sometimes moral sensitivity is discarded for quick and fun destruction and violence which would otherwise be out of question. I would never want to harm an innocent bystander, but sometimes it is fun to experience what it would be like to do so. William argues that many times in the gaming industry, moral sensitivity is neglected in favor for exciting gameplay that can allow us to experience situations we would normally never be in. What I found to be most interesting in this article is about how the game, “…wants you to get into the mind of the character Geralt and make the character your own by making him act as you would”. So I ask William, do gamers see in game characters as extensions of themselves or as separate entities that are simply used to fulfill tasks in order to reach a goal? To further question, do you play The Witcher 3 with your mindset or with Geralt’s mindset?


Sae-Won’s article “Inside: The Problem of Player-Character Deaths” reveals how games make death a routine and how this is problematic for the game’s narrative. This trivialization of death desensitizes the player to their in game character’s death, thus making a less meaningful narrative. I agree with what Sae-Won is saying here, and have experienced this in my game, Pixel Dungeon. My game is more or less trial and error to find the best way to progress through each dungeon but I have realized now that dying is not as impactful as it is in other game’s I have played (dying in Bloodborne still boils my blood, no pun intended haha). I have began to equate dying to more gameplay which has made me not appreciate the gameplay what I have experienced pre-death. Sae-Won brings up a good point however, “But if you make the game too easy so that the player does not experience an ‘unemotional’ or trivialized death, would the game be any fun?” I agree with this statement. The fun in a game is the challenge and the achievement, if the difficulty is too low, the game seems like you are just going through the motions. On the other hand, are difficult games causing players to accept death and thus become normalized to the feeling of loss? Where is the middle ground? This article has made me question balance in games and what it means to lose.


Ethan’s article “Can you hear me now?” is a deeper look at The Last of Us‘s use of audio. In this game’s case, audio is an integral part of gameplay and it is necessary to use audio in order to aide your progression through the game. In the past, I have played a few of the Metal Gear Solid games and their gameplay is also based on stealth. Stealth games like The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid require close attention to audio in order to not be spotted by the enemy. I think more games should implement gameplay that focuses on audio instead of having it as a supplement to the experience. Ethan shortly explains the role of music in The Last of Us and it is here where I am most intrigued. Ethan notes the use of huge symphonic music to create dramatic gameplay as you fight against a horde of zombies. Music in gameplay is equally as important to the gameplay as the story. Music aides in setting the atmosphere and telling the player how to feel. Take a look at games such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Minecraft. In THPS, the rockin’ soundtrack gets you pumped up for extreme sports action while in Minecraft, the ambient electronica settles you down for a more relaxed gameplay experience. In my case, Earthbound‘s groovy and electronic pieces complement the quirky nature of the game perfectly. I cannot imagine how the gameplay experience would change if Earthbound had an orchestral soundtrack a kin to God of War. I would ask Ethan to try and turn the music volume down all the way in the settings if possible and see how that impacts his gameplay experience.

Pixel Dungeon: Modding

In my previous post, I discussed how Pixel Dungeon created the grounds for mobile modding. I believe that modding can strengthen a game’s community as well as encourage developer-gamer relations that ultimately benefit all parties. Because the modding of Pixel Dungeon is so accessible, I argue that it is a perfect entry point for beginning modders. In his article “When the Game Is Not Enough: Motivations and Practices Among Computer Game Modding Culture”, Olli Sotamaa further investigates the modding culture in Bohemia Interactive’s Operation Flashpoint and ARMA series. I want to draw connections between my game and Bohemia Interactive’s games in order to vouch for the credibility of Pixel Dungeon‘s modding scene.

Earthbound: Is Escapism Necessarily Bad?

As a role playing game (RPG), Earthbound caters to players who want to escape the real world and travel inside a virtual world. This virtual world allows players to fulfill extraordinary tasks, in this case travel the world using your newfound psychic powers to stop an evil alien overlord. Games in general are inherently forms of escapism or a means to leave reality in favor for imaginative fantasy. In his article “Digital Games and Escapism”, Gordon Calleja wants to understand why games are inherently seen as negative forms of escapism and wants to reevaluate the relationship between the real and virtual world.

I would like to focus on one of Calleja’s arguments called binary illusion, which states that video games have a negative connotation with the word escapism because of a contrasting binary character (being the virtual world versus the real world).  He notes that it is all too often that society characterizes video games “as trivial activities of pure waste disassociated from a more worthy ‘reality'” (Calleja). The binary illusion aides in that negative view of videogames. Calleja elaborates that this strict division stems from the fact that digital media in its infancy was compared to the western frontier. “This binary division places virtual environments (of which digital games are a subset) on the other side of a boundary whose crossing implies escapism” (Calleja). In order to rid digital escapism of its negative connotations, he proposes that we instead call these digital environments “synthetic worlds” because it better represents “the designed nature of virtual worlds” (Calleja). I agree with this statement because behind every game environment is man made code that dictates the rules and physics of said game world. Even though these worlds reside in a digital realm, they are grounded in reality by the programmers that designed them. Calleja then continues that even this proposed solution has flaws because “binary oppositions… create either/or relationships that ignore the richer middle ground” (Calleja). Though synthetic and real worlds can have shared characteristics, there is a lack of a stable middle ground where a player can reside. He references Edward Castronova’s book “Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality”, which aides in Calleja’s discussion of the middle ground. Castronova discusses that even though the two worlds can coexist and work together, the underlying issue is the continuous migration between said worlds and that there is a cost to moving from one world to the other. Castronova proposes that if we made the cost of moving from one world to another zero, it would be possible to exist in two worlds simultaneously. I agree with Calleja’s and Castronova’s ideas here. Because there is a clear distinction between the virtual and real world, there is is one, no real middle ground to exercise in, and two, to move from one world to the other requires an effort of the conscious to assimilate into the new world. To elaborate in terms of video games, if you could participate in the real world and the virtual world at the same time while maintaining a mental foot in each continuously, video games may be viewed differently, maybe in a more positive light. They could be seen as a way to experience an altered reality that caters to an individual’s imagination; allowing them to open up mental doors. Calleja finds the problem with the fact that crossing into the virtual world means leaving the real world completely, and that is why they are viewed as an escape from a world you don’t want to be in. Wanting to experience another world does not mean you dislike the one you currently live in, it just means you want to experience new environments that are otherwise impossible.

Calleja ends his investigation into the binary illusion explaining that “the utility of… virtual environments lies in emphasizing their creative potential for actualizing a theoretically infinite range of possible experiences” (Calleja). I agree with this statement whole heartedly because the use of virtual worlds, and video games in general, allows us to experience situations that are otherwise impossible. The real world is constrained by the laws of nature and the virtual world could open the doors to new and original ideas. Even though video games may be seen as leaving the real world behind, I like to look at it as bringing the real world forward with us. Though many think VR (virtual reality) devices like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the way to bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds, I believe AR (augmented reality) devices like the Microsoft Hololens will cause a more positive impact on the negative connotation of video games as forms of escapism. AR creates the middle ground that Calleja believes we need and allows us to minimize the cost of transitioning from world to world as Castronova describes. Though primitive in terms of today’s video game market, Earthbound is a form of escapism that helps bridge the real and virtual worlds together because of its realistic setting and ability to create nostalgia in its use of youthful experiences as described in my earlier posts.

Microsoft Hololens bridges the gap between real and virtual worlds and creates a middle ground for users to exercise in.

 

Sources:

Calleja, Gordon. “Digital Games and Escapism.” Games and Culture, vol. 5, no. 4, 2010, pp. 335–353., doi:10.1177/1555412009360412.

Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the virtual world: How online fun is changing reality (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Postal Redux: Another Perspective

While Postal Redux is played in the third person perspective, I never have felt that the game lacks a sense of immersion. Some may argue that the sequel, Postal 2, is much more immersive because it is played in the first person perspective. In general, many gamers would argue that first person perspective games are more immersive than third person perspective games because you can play from “inside” the in game character. In his article “Why Can I See My Avatar? Embodied Visual Engagement in the Third-Person Video Game”, Daniel Black states that it is not the so much the perspective that creates immersion but how effectively the game can bridge the gap from physical reality to digital fantasy.

Black examines James Newman’s “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame” in order to make a case for his claim. Newman is arguing against the immersiveness of third person perspectives and how it creates a division between the player and the in game character. Newman states that “the primary-player–character relationship is one of vehicular embodiment” (Newman). Black argues back that this vehicular metaphor acts as Cartesian dualism, “with the player taking the role of disembodied cogito using the game character to act upon the digital res extensa of the game world” (Black). To explain, Black is saying that players use in game characters in order to perform tasks that they would otherwise not perform, kind of like a puppet. He continues saying that if this were truly the case, games would not be as engaging as they are made out to be. I agree with this statement because I believe in game characters are more than just a tool to be used, they are a digital representation of one’s identity and behaviors. They encapsulate a secondary form of consciousness like no other medium can because they allow the player to perform whatever task said player wants to act upon.

A typical coin operated arcade racer, in this case Cruisin’ USA, will have a pseudo car for you to drive.

Continuing on the vehicular metaphor, Newman describes a typical CoinOp racing game and how it is possible to be sitting in a physical representation of the in game car you are driving, yet view yourself driving from a third perspective (he suggests from a helicopter). He states that these type of games create “multiple and apparently contradictory presentations of the self”(Newman). Arguing against this claim, Black turns to how we view Hollywood car chase scenes:

“While we do not control the car in the Hollywood film, we identify with the driver, and perhaps flinch at a near collision as if we were physically located inside the car, even as we watch the chase largely from a viewpoint outside the car.” (Black)

The Fast and the Furious (2001) is a perfect example of a typical Hollywood car chase scene. Note the variety of perspectives that the director uses.

These car chase scenes often have multiple perspectives of the singular main driver- a first person perspective of the driver, a perspective of the passenger, an outside of the car third person perspective, and sometimes even a perspective from another driver. And while the film creates multiple perspectives and angles that we view ourselves in, we often can still maintain singularity with the main driver in order to create consistency inside our heads. Black states that if we are able to create consistency with films, we should be able to create consistency in videogames, which have much less switching of perspectives. I agree with this statement because even if there is a visual “division” between me and the in game character,  be it the perspective or even the screen itself, I can still feel like I am inside the game. I am creating a mental connection to the character in order to create consistency for myself. Perspectives do not have to be one to one with the in game character, but they at least need to allow me to be able to create a simulated singularity.

Black finds problems Newman’s argument against the immersiveness of multiple perspectives/representations of the self in order to strengthen his own argument for the immersiveness of third person perspectives. Even if a game is in a third person view, it can still be immersive and can allow players to feel like they are truly inside the game. Postal is a perfect example of this claim, as its third person view does not hinder its immersiveness or its ability to envelope the player’s identity into a digital character.

Even though Postal is in the third person perspective, it is still quite immersive and engaging.

Sources:

Newman James (2002). The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame. Game Studies, 2.

Black, Daniel. “Why Can I See My Avatar? Embodied Visual Engagement in the Third-Person Video Game.” Games and Culture, 13 June 2015, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1555412015589175#articleCitationDownloadContainer.

 

Pixel Dungeon: Mobile Modding

We recently discussed the importance of modding in gaming culture as a means of expression or critique. I am a proponent of modding since it allows fanbases to come together and support the game through means of content creation. This creates a stronger bond between the gamer and the developer. Pixel Dungeon is a perfect example of how modding can be used to positively impact a game and bring together a community of players from around the world. What is interesting about Pixel Dungeon mods are that they come in the form of mobile releases, something I have not seen before.

The base game, Pixel Dungeon, is the version I am playing for my game log. It was developed by Watabou. The game is free to download and is open source. The developers must have been open to the idea of community mods or else they would not have released the code to the public. Many mods of Pixel Dungeon have been released; each of them either tweaking or adding gameplay mechanics and features. Out of the eleven known mods, I chose two to look at more in depth to see what they had changed from the original.

Soft Pixel Dungeon

The opening screen as you load the game. The goal of the mod was to make the gameplay easier.

The first mod I took a look at was Soft Pixel Dungeon. In my previous post, I talked about how the game was quite difficult. This mod aims to solve that problem by tweaking a few mechanics. The first changed mechanic I noticed was that enemies took less hits to kill. This helped ease the gameplay because now I took less damage and spent less time grinding to try and level up.  Another changed mechanic was the search distance. When looking for secret doors, I would have to go block by block and hit the search button many times before actually finding the secret door. With the improved mechanic, the search distance is increased three times so that I could search more blocks more efficiently. This again decreases the difficulty and thus increases the accessibility of the game. I spent much less time trying to find my way out of a floor. The last changed mechanic I noticed was the increase in health potions and the decrease in harmful potions. All of my playthroughs of this mod had me finding health potions within the first two floors, unlike the base game where health potions were sparse. I also noticed how I accidentally set myself on fire or poisoned myself way less frequently. This changed mechanic helped me the most because it allowed me to focus more on the action than where I needed to find my next health source. All of these mechanics helped decrease the difficulty of the gameplay and in turn, increased the accessibility of the game. I talked in my previous post about how  Pixel Dungeon was a good game for casual players to get into in order to become acquainted with more difficult games. By increasing the accessibility, this mod helps increase the amount of casual players that could potentially become more serious gamers.

I got to floor 4 much easier than last time, even managed to upgrade my weapon!

Your Pixel Dungeon

A sample of the map editor.

The second mod I took a look at was the most intriguing out of the two. Your Pixel Dungeon aims to put the creativity into the player’s hands. With this mod, you can create your dungeon and edit what items you find, what enemies you encounter, or how many bosses you have to fight. You have complete control on how your dungeon is mapped out and how easy or difficult it can be.

Hello Mr. Imp!

I created a map called “tongue” and then proceeded to spawn a lot of armor and weapons. I then made a room with an imp. I was quite random with my decisions; no real thought went into the creation of my dungeon. I was so excited with the amount of control I had over how my dungeon ran. I could see myself spending hours crafting my perfect dungeon. You can upload/download maps to your phone and play other people’s creations in order to experience unique takes on the Pixel Dungeon formula. This feature allows creativity to flow from player to player as they run through dungeons from around the world. I believe this mod brings the community together in order to make the game more personal and “handcrafted”. I argue that by creating a map editor mod, you are also increasing the accessibility for new players because you are allowing them to make a version of the game they want to play. Your Pixel Dungeon also features a much needed tutorial mode.

The tutorial feature of this game helps new players become more familiar.

The tutorial mode runs the player through all the different items you could acquire within the game. You learn what each item does and how each item affects your gameplay. This feature (absent from other versions) is so helpful for new players because they can now understand the game without having to put in hours of grinding through dungeons. When I first began playing Pixel Dungeon, I was so lost because I did not know what everything did in the game. With the tutorial, I was able to get a better grip on the ins and outs of the Pixel Dungeon formula. This will help my future gameplay immensely. This feature also increases the accessibility of this game because it eases players into the game and allows them to begin a playthrough with at least some knowledge on how the game works. Much easier than being thrown into a game and having to learn by doing. Your Pixel Dungeon aims to not only help players understand the Pixel Dungeon formula, but also craft that formula to their eye. This mod serves to open the door to players who are interested in modding as a means of expression, but do not think they are ready for actual code manipulation.

Soft Pixel Dungeon and Your Pixel Dungeon are perfect examples on how mods can increase the accessibility of a game and increase the potential audience of the game. Mods can bring a community together in order to help bring the gaming experience to more people. The fact that these mods are available for free and on mobile devices allows a mass audience to experience gaming and modding in a new way. Mobile modding allows more people to craft games in the way they want to game and then share that experience to the rest of the world. I argue that mobile modding will make the gaming community more progressive because a larger audience can now critique the culture and then share those critiques on a larger scale.

 

Postigo, Hector. “Modification.” In Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon, edited by Raiford Guins and Henry Lowood, 325–34. MIT Press, 2016.

Postal: Not As Immersive As You Would Think

In my last post, I discussed how violent videogames like Postal were the societal scape goat for the rising number of mass shootings in the nineties and early two thousands. I argued that because Postal was a simulation game, it could possibly be “training” psychologically at risk players how to commit mass murder. I discussed how the line between reality and game world was blurred in Postal and how perhaps the game could seem a bit too realistic; perhaps even a bit too immersive. After our class discussions about immersion, I have changed my mind. I now argue that Postal is not as immersive as one may think and that blaming the game for causing psychological harm is a result of not understanding how gamers game.

In his article, The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games,  Madigan outlines two categories of immersion, “those that create a rich mental model of the game environment and those that create consistency between the things in that environment.” (Madigan) Within those categories are individual aspects of immersion. I want to focus on where Postal falls short in terms of immersion. I found two problems in terms of creating a rich mental model; completeness of sensory information and a strong and interesting narrative (or rather the incompleteness of sensory information and the lack of a strong and interesting narrative).

Incompleteness of Sensory Information


While playing Postal, you will realize that something is wrong with the civilians and the cops you are tasked to shoot; they seem oblivious to the actual situation. Civilians are just standing around waiting for you to shoot them and they only decide to run away when you begin to charge or shoot at them them. They do not fight back or really care that you are committing mass murder; they run around like chickens with their heads cut off (slowly at that!) The cops (the actual challenge in the game) do not act like real cops. Yes they shoot at you and sometimes charge you, but for the most part, they wait around for you to make the first move and do not effectively try and take out the threat. There is a lack of A.I. in the programming that makes the civilians and cops seem unrealistic.

Lack of a Strong Narrative

Diary entries appear between levels and offer no backstory or driving narrative.

Postal is not known for its deep and engaging narrative. You are simply thrown into the world and tasked to take out hostiles. Interestingly, Postal includes short diary entries between levels to supplement the lack of backstory. These diary entries offer a look inside Postal Dude’s mind. We can see that he does not have have psychological stability and that his thoughts are quite twisted, but there is no evidence of exposition, or plot for that matter. You could argue that this style of storytelling is similar to another game we played for class, Dear Esther, but in that case, the diary entries provided backstory and exposition to accompany the gameplay. Postal‘s lack of a strong, progressive narrative makes it hard for players to create a narrative thread between the different levels, thus making it hard to become fully immersed.

Besides creating a rich mental model, for a game to be immersive, Madigan says that a game should be consistent. I found two problems in terms of creating consistency; a lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world and an unbroken presentation of the game world (or rather a lack of congruous visual cues and a broken presentation of the game world).

Lack of Congruous Visual Cues

Use of a HUD and exit sign remind the player that this is really only a game.

Postal features a rather large HUD that displays important details to the gameplay such as health, number of hostiles to kill, and your inventory. Unfortunately, the use of a HUD is a blaring reminder that Postal is only a game. This makes immersion difficult for the player since they are taken out of the game world and sat behind a barrier (the computer screen). In addition to the HUD, when you finish a level, there is bouncing exit sign that points you in the direction you need to go in to progress. This also takes away from the total immersion of the game. These non diegetic aspects of the game hinder the possibility for full immersion. Madigan also cites in game achievements as a hinderance to immersion. Playing Postal requires Steam in order to be played digitally. Steam features an achievement popup in the bottom right corner of your screen whenever you get a specific achievement. While a neat feature, it takes away form the immersion of the game because it again reminds the player that Postal is just a game.

Broken Presentation of the Game World

Another diary entry.

As I described before, between each level is a loading screen that features a diary entry. Madigan argues that the mere existence of these loading screens prohibit immersion since for a few seconds, you literally stop playing the game. An opponent may argue that the diary entries maintain that immersion while loading the next area, but to that I say that because there is no gameplay happening and because I argued that the diary entries are not immersive in themselves, immersion is broken while loading the new levels.  For a game to be immersive, it should not force the player to leave the digital space they are playing in for any reason; loading screens act strictly against that principle.

Postal is clearly not as immersive as I once thought. It lacks many details that immersive games are founded upon. So then how could Postal be blamed for being too realistic and too provocative? I believe that opponents of violent games are misdirecting concern towards the actual game and not the gamers who play said game. As I mentioned in my last post, mature games should have a space in the industry. And instead of blaming the games for inciting real world violence, we need to look at who plays said games. Psychologically unstable people will be more affected by the mature content of violent video games such as Postal, so maybe there needs to be stricter guidelines on who can purchase these mature videogames. People who are mentally stable should be able to make the distinction between real world and game world, and to Postal‘s credit, it makes that line more distinct than I originally had thought (even if it was unintentional).

 

Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.”The Psychology of Video Games, July 28, 2010.

Youtube video was taken from user SweepersTonyAndNox in order to crop footage. It is a complete walkthrough of Postal, but gameplay will vary person to person.

Earthbound: A Peculiar Case For and Against Emulation

A few weeks ago in class, we discussed the pros and cons of emulation and how emulation can be thought of as preservation. I argued that a pro of emulation is that you are preserving games that otherwise would have been lost in time. On the other hand, I argued that by emulating games, you are only preserving gameplay, not the experience of playing said game. Earthbound, released in 1995 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), provides an argument for and against emulation that I want to investigate further.

I am currently playing Earthbound on an SNES emulator because it is the easiest way for me to play the game. I do not own the appropriate hardware or software in order to actually play the real game. I realize that I am not getting the full experience of playing the game but I cannot justify spending almost $200 (Price Charting) to play a game that was made over twenty years ago. That crazier fact here is that the majority of that price comes from the game, not the system! Why is Earthbound so expensive? Upon release, Earthbound was not received all too well. When advertising the game, Nintendo decided to mimic the unconventional sense of humor found throughout the gameplay.

Ads like this revolved around the stench of the game. Not a traditional way to advertise.

You have to keep in mind that this was during an era of gaming that warranted “ads with attitude”. Nintendo was in competition with Sega to win over teenagers with more mature games. Needless to say, the advertising was not very effective and the game only sold around 140,000 copies in the US (compare that to Super Mario World, which sold around 20.6 million) (www.gamecubicle.com). Though the game did not sell well, it was welcomed with a small cult following. Fast forward to today, collectors who are looking to complete their collection, or just have a fun game to play, are looking to spend about $150 to buy just the cartridge. Earthbound is not the only game in this situation. Games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64) and Little Samson (NES) are perfect examples of games that just did not sell well, but are sought after for their fun and exciting gameplay. Games like these provide perfect arguments for emulation. Emulation makes hard to find games more accessible to the general gaming community. Without emulation, I would have no way to experience the quirkiness and absurdity of Earthbound. But what am I missing by digitally emulating the game instead of playing the physical cartridge?

A complete in box version of the game. It included the cartridge as well as an important guidebook.

Ippolito asks “What will be lost when emulation is the only solution for reliving out-of-date software?” (Ippolito, 135) When Earthbound was originally marketed and sold, it ran you about $70 ($115 dollars in today’s money) but you also received an important guidebook that not only taught you how to play the game, but included a lot of unique artwork and secrets that you could only find in that guidebook during the time. They even included scratch and sniff stickers that were part of the advertising campaign. The book included lore and other information about the towns you would be visiting and was overall, a helpful companion as you played through your quest. The book also gave the player tips and tricks on how to progress in the game. You have to remember the internet was in its infancy at this time and if you got stuck in a game, you could not just Google your way out. In an RPG like Earthbound, the path towards progress is not always a clear one. You can see that by emulating the game, you are missing out on the experience that the game developers intended you to have while playing Earthbound.  Here in lies the problem with emulation, you are merely replicating the gameplay, not the gaming experience. Of course I could go and spend $200 for a system and game (cartridge only), but I would still be missing the guidebook and would be spending quite the penny on a twenty year old game I could play for free on my computer.  Interestingly enough, the developers of Earthbound put some interesting measures in play to combat piracy of the game.

An error message appears as you boot up an unofficial PAL version of the game.

On unofficial ROM’s of Earthbound, the game will actually display a warning message at the beginning of the game. Thankfully, the emulation software and ROM I downloaded got past the anti-piracy measures but I found some pictures here.  Along with a harmless error message, the game will actually spawn more enemies for you to fight. This was in an effort to make the game less enjoyable. But the real measure comes in a more permanent form. If you make it all the way to the end boss fight, the game will freeze, reboot, and delete all your data! Obviously, the developers anticipated pirating of their game so these measures were put into place to encourage players to purchase the real game. This is where emulation gets a bit tricky. Since you are technically not playing original software that you purchased, it is illegal to be playing said emulation. Emulation comes with a negative connotation because you are cheating the developers of the game out of their rightfully earned money. So what makes emulation excusable?

Earthbound provides ground for and against emulation. It is one of the few games to do so as well. Emulation has a time and place in the industry, for preservation of older hardware and software that cannot be easily accessed. It is important to keep these relics of gaming history as a way of preserving the culture surrounding these games; almost like a time capsule. But emulation should be used knowing that it is not replicating the experience of playing the game, merely the gameplay itself. Additionally, emulation should be used responsibly and not in an effort to scam developers out of money. In his chapter, Emulation, Ippolito discusses how Nintendo believes that emulation is “the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers” (Ippolito, 139). I believe my use of emulation is justified because I am a broke college student who does not have a few hundred dollars laying around to spend on “prehistoric” video games 🙂 I would argue however, that if you have the means to do so, to buy an official emulation of Earthbound on the WiiU’s Virtual Console eShop.

 

Ippolito, Jon. “Emulation.” In Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon, edited by Raiford Guins and Henry Lowood, 133–41. MIT Press, 2016.

Postal Redux: Shooters and Society

Videogames are often a means to leave the real world and give your mind a time to relax. And as technology became more and more advanced, some studios decided to make them more and more realistic. As games became more and more realistic, mature videogames began to raise eyebrows as the line between real world and videogame world began to disintegrate. I argue that mature, violent videogames can be allowed in society but in the wrong hands, they can lead to horrible outcomes. Like DoomPostal was society’s scapegoat for the gun violence seen in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Postal was released in 1997 and was heavily criticized for its over the top violence. It is important to note that this was released in the same era as Doom and Grand Theft Auto, and society was getting nervous about the mature video games being released. Players take control of “Postal Dude” and are challenged to proceed through levels killing the required amount of people with various weapons. There is no story (only still frames with what could be called poetry…), you are just thrown into the world with a gun and an objective: rack up maximum points with maximum carnage.

One of the many still frames that are used between levels. Note the graphic text.

On the surface, the game is simple run and gun game that focuses merely on the violence and bloodshed of victims just for the sake of being violent. But if you dig a little deeper, you need to have a detailed strategy in order to stay alive and maintain your best weapons (ammo is limited). This includes hiding when necessary, taking out hostiles in the correct order, and looking for ways to take out large groups at once. Like Doom, there is a method to the madness and a well crafted method equals a better score. So if Postal is encouraging a strategy for mass murder, could someone argue that it is teaching players how to commit mass murder?

One of the first levels encountered. The goal is to kill hostiles (typically police and the army) and leave the civilians alone.

Though Postal is not what we would consider realistic by today’s standards, it was most certainly cutting edge for the time. The line between realistic world and “just a game” was definitely blurred which caused some people to think that this game would harm the minds of the players and cause them to be more violent.  Their thinking was justified, how could this be considered just a game? It was very much a part of real life. Remember, “going postal” was a term familiar in the 90’s. It was actually created due in part to this event. And this is only one of the few tragedies that happened in the 90’s. The United States Postal Service even tried to sue Postal developers, Running With Scissors, for defamation. Society had an argument against games like this, they obviously had negative relationships with real world events. But at what point does the suppression of what games are released become an issue with Free Speech?

You should be allowed to publish any type of videogame no matter the content. But, I think that mature videogames need to be monitored more effectively. You shouldn’t have minors owning violent/explicit games. If their parents want to buy them the videogame, they should be informed about the content in the game and be okay with their child playing said game. If you are of age to buy mature games, you should ask yourself if you are ready to see the explicit content and if you think you will be harmed by it, you should not buy the game. Mature videogames get bad press because people do not play them maturely. I have often seen grown adults act childish over GTA: Online and misrepresent the gaming culture. To play mature games, you need to act maturely and be aware about what it is you are actually doing in the game. It is important to know when videogames are just games and when they are real. As games become more realistic and virtual reality allows players to step inside the game world, we have to take a minute and remind ourselves that it is just a game.

A large explosion in Postal, not uncommon.

 

Pixel Dungeon: A Gateway Game

A casual game to me means two things- easy to pick up and play and just as easy to put down. A casual game should be able to be played by any person, no matter the level of gaming experience. It should also be easy to quit at any time, without penalty to the player. I chose a mobile game that I classify as “intermediate” casual. Pixel Dungeon is a dungeon crawler, fantasy, role playing game that challenges that player to manage their inventory, time, and make conscious decisions on how to tackle each floor of the dungeon. I am interested on how this game can help novice gamers become more experienced in playing games more seriously; one may call this game a gateway game.

There are four characters to choose from (one must be unlocked), each with their own playing style and specialties. For example, the warrior begins the game with much more strength and can identify strength potions while the rogue can survive longer without food and identify found rings to equip. After choosing a player, you begin on Floor 1 of the dungeon with a scroll of text reading:

“The Dungeon lies right beneath the City, its upper levels actually constitute the City’s sewer system. Being nominally a part of the City, these levels are not that dangerous. No one will call it a safe place, but at least you won’t need to deal with evil magic here.”

There is no more backstory or narrative directly told (as far as I know, I haven’t gotten past Floor 5). The game utilizes pre-existing narrative associations and some embedded narrative information, in other words, immersing the player in the world not through dialogue, but through previous connotations and graphical design. The goal of the game is to make it to the bottom floor of the dungeon. Since I have not made it so far into the game, I went to the Wiki page and learned that there are five stages, each with five floors. At the end of each stage you battle a boss. Defeat each boss and you win the game.

To the novice gamer, one who has never or rarely played games, this game may seem daunting at first. You explore each floor killing monsters to gain experience to level up and become stronger. You can also pick up loot and coins but you must manage space in your inventory since it is finite. When I first started playing, I carelessly went to Floor 2 without being strong enough. I lasted no more than a minute until a gnoll scout wiped me out. The game will punish you for not progressing at a correct pace. This reminds me of Final Fantasy games. You have to often “grind” or purposefully encounter weaker enemies to level up slowly. This game teaches you to not over estimate your strength and to take your time. The challenge lies in also not spending too long in the dungeon as to go hungry and eventually reach starvation, where you lose Health Points every few steps. The game actually encourages grinding since enemies will also sometimes drop loot that will help you in various ways whether that be health, armor, weapons, potions/scrolls/seeds with magical abilities (good or bad), and coins to buy items in the shop. This game also teaches you the basics of inventory management; you only have 23 spaces in your inventory so make sure you throw away items that you don’t need. An interesting mechanic that the game uses is that some of the potions and scrolls you get cannot be deciphered, so it is a shot in the dark if you want to use them. Sometimes you get a weapon boost, sometimes you get poisoned; it is really just the flip of a coin. More risky players may have more reward but also more failure. I have opened up scrolls that have set me on fire a few too many times. Pixel Dungeon also encourages exploration through the search mechanic. There are often hidden doors and pathways that lead to treasure rooms that contain coins and rare items. You cannot normally see these doors, but if you go up to a wall and hit the search button, there may be a chance that you find a hidden room.

A basic treasure room.

Even though there are many elements to Pixel Dungeon, it only takes one or two playthroughs to pick up the main idea of the game. It is easy to understand once you realize that all you must do is be a smart decision maker. One aspect that draws me back to the game is the fact that each playthrough is random. No two floors are alike and the loot you find will always be different. This encourages new players to keep coming back in order to get to one more floor, even if their last playthrough was bad. Another interesting aspect is that players have to find what strategy works for their character. With the warrior, you have to focus on close combat as opposed to the mage where long range combat is preferred. Each playthrough is an experiment to see what weapons and armor boost your specialties and help your weaknesses. For example, getting better armor helped my warrior since I was prone to close range combat and would receive more hits from enemies. Once the game is learned, it is a matter of trial and error until a winning strategy and item set is acquired. But let’s say you only have a few minutes to spare and you want to play a quick session, no problem. The game allows players to exit the game at any time and save their progress with no penalty. I can play the game when I have some time between class and then resume once I get back to my room. This allows any player, no matter the time constraint, to try their hand at a new dungeon and a new playthrough, thus encouraging more play time. Pixel Dungeon slowly introduces more complex mechanics and more challenge the farther you get into the dungeons. This keeps players coming back for more and also helps new players become more familiar with strategy in games. Pixel Dungeon could be compared to gambling in a way since it entices you to keep coming back to see if you can get a little bit farther each time (or closer and closer to the jackpot). I believe that playing casual games is important for new gamers to understand the intricacies of complex games, like a stepping stone in a way. Imagine having to try and understand Calculus without understanding Algebra! Pixel Dungeon uses easy to learn mechanics alongside pick up and play gaming that encourages new players to sink more time into the game and eventually become a real gamer.

Seeing all your acquired loot encourages you to try again and get even more.