Best Halloween Costume Ever

Credit for spotting this goes to one of my friends on Facebook. I can’t remember who but you’re welcome to identify yourself.

1105980_pumpkin_treeI grew up in a college town, and one Halloween our doorbell rang and we opened the door expecting to see trickortreater—but what was in front of our open door—was another door! Like, a full-on wooden door, that had a sign that said “Please knock.” So we did, and the door swung open to reveal a bunch of college dudes dressed as really old grandmothers, curlers in their hair, etc, who proceeded to coo over our “costumes” and tell us we were “such cute trick or treaters!” One even pinched my cheek. Then THEY gave US candy, closed their door, picked it up and walked to the next house.

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Game Designer Hopefuls, Read This

Game Design Competition at SWSW 2010

Game designer wannabes, this is your opportunity, but you’ve only got a few more hours.

The Screenburn at SXSW Game Design Competition deadline is today.  This is a two-phase game design contest in which you file an entry first, and then a followup presentation if you’re picked as a semi-finalist. Nice of the contest designers to construct the elimination process to avoid torturing the entire group of wannabe videogame brainstormers. All semi-finalists get a free 2010 SXSW Interactive badge — not a bad deal.

Effectively, this game design contest will proctor you through the process of creating a game concept document and pitch. The eight finalists will pitch their game concepts to a panel of professional game designers at South by Southwest.

There are two categories – casual game design and full game design. Last year, the two winners walked away with Xbox 360 Elites and other goodies, along with a fair bit of press and new-found cred. Wish I could enter!

If you’re interested, check out the design contest entry page. Even if you don’t think you can toss a quick entry form and game idea together in the next few hours, bookmark it and come back next winter.

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A Game Hero Should Be Voiceless: Part Two

The Rude Game Hero

The voiceless game hero? He’s an ass.

Well, inadvertently. Have you ever noticed how a voiceless game hero fails to respond to mid-mission communications?

I recently finished Resistance on the PS3, and the game’s avatar, Nathan Hale, is a classic, cliche game hero with little to say and a lot to do. When he gets mid-mission updates, there’re always some stilted moments when the game writer has to wriggle around Hale’s inability to talk. “Hale, are you there? Anyhow, as I was saying….”

Needless to say, this isn’t a major objection to the voiceless game hero, but it is another missed opportunity for emotional connection in a medium (I shudder to say “art form”) that already sorely lacks connection.

Part of the problem is that in-game cinematics – the voiceless game hero’s lone venue to speak – have traditionally been expensive, pre-rendered cutscenes. They are almost always non-interactive, constrictive experiences that players hate to sit through. As games move to in-game cinematics rendered through the game’s own graphics engine, the costs can drop (although not always).

The Situational Chatterbox Game Hero

The Metal Gear series is an interesting special case to the silent game hero syndrome. Snake is quiet during the games, but truly epic quantities of backstory and narration take place in cutscenes and non-interactive radio communications. When Snake has some work to do, he’s as silent as night, but get him chatting to some cute support operative about cardboard boxes, crouched in a supply room in an enemy base, and the conversation goes about a thousand times as long as you’d ever expect. (Yes, cardboard boxes.)

Metal Gear games definitely tread that uneasy line between movie and game. The effect is well-documented: people either hate it or love it.

The Power of the Voice

It is a shame that the prototypical game hero has nothing to say. He can’t trace much of a character arc, and we don’t find out why he’s willing to risk it all over and over again. He’s just a shell of a person, really.

In that respect, movies once again have cultural primacy over games. We often don’t get to know the game hero, and that’d be a huge failure for a movie. Would you enjoy movies if 90% of them featured nearly mute protagonists? Can games be considered an art form if game developers can’t draw a decent portrait of a protagonist?

Again, game designers are dramatically losing the battle to rival the emotional punch wielded routinely by screenwriters. Your typical half-hour episode of “30 Rock” packs more resonance and character than the entire 20-hour slog through Gears of War or Resistance.

Does that sound like an exaggeration? Well, let’s try some trivia questions:

1) Why is Marcus Fenix in prison at the start of Gears of War?

2) Who gives the orders to Fenix and Delta Squad?

3) What’s Kenneth the Page’s hometown?

4) Who gives the orders at 30 Rock?

Yeah, I had to wikipedia all those Gears of War answers too.

Will Adventure Games Rival Adventure Movies?

It’s really the adventure video game genre that does the best at connecting players with a rewarding narrative journey. Games like The Longest Journey and Grim Fandango are well-known for their humor, characters, and plotlines.

On the other hand, the adventure genre has long been a niche gaming genre that left some of our twitchier game-playing brethren cold. Technology may yet come to the rescue, though. Newer action/adventure titles like God of War and Uncharted 2 are proving that an epic storyline can be paired successfully with addictive, responsive gameplay.

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A Game Hero Should Be Voiceless: T or F?

Game Case Study: The Voiceless Hero

The typical game hero is mute. Have you noticed?

Especially in first-person shooters, your typical game hero is a stoic son of a mesh. He has an inhuman pain tolerance, miraculous healing powers, and can tote as much military hardware as a Sherman tank. But he can’t communicate. He’ll say a few words in the cutscenes, but he’s useless otherwise.

If you’ve served in the military, you know that the average soldier is a lot happier talking about combat than getting shot at. With good reason.

If you were big on symbolism you could delve into this for all sorts of pointless conversation about the status of the modern soldier, the devolution of the archetypal hero, the social skills of today’s kids, etc. etc.

And can you imagine what a Leno or Larry King interview with Master Chief or Samus would be like?

But seriously, what does this mean to gamers and the game experience?

The Game Hero Immersion Theory

game-heroThe game hero vocalization quandry was bandied about a lot by the other game designers and me on two games in particular, the PS2 launch title Army Men: Green Rogue (blink and you missed it) and the PC space-sim Freelancer (top ten). Some game designers liked the strong silent hero because he was more intimidating that way. But the winning reason in both cases was that a talking game hero breaks the fourth wall and disturbs the illusion of verite.

(Insert jibe here about game developers who believe that “realism” is a quality to be preserved when your hero is melting animated plastic soldiers.)

The “broken illusion” argument is persuasive, although I don’t buy it. I hate to play Hollywood and dogmatically rely on previous games to support all my theories*, but I do have to point to Duke Nukem 3D, once a true rival to DOOM and a lighthearted triumph that featured a bombastic muscle-bound hero who’d spout endless and funny catchphrases like Arnold on steroids. I mean, more steroids.

Duke’s taunts and jokes were a big part of the game’s charm. He was a game hero whose verbosity added to the character and fun.

The Game Hero Clarity Issue

On Freelancer, the key question was twofold: how would the player know that the game hero was talking, and what would it add to gameplay?

During gameplay, the player was either conducting transactions baseside or flying/fighting in space. I was hoping our game hero, Trent, could talk while at the controls to break the monotony of long-haul travel and help us deal with some narrative deficits. (We had some sizeable plot holes that had to be stitched together.)

I said that Trent’s face could appear during “comms” just like the faces of other characters did when they spoke during flight. Additionally, our game hero could have sonically different comms that sounded like they were cleaner, louder, and even physically closer.

Trent was another hero who never got his gameplay voice. It’s not a huge regret for me – ask any Freelancer team member, and they’ll willingly admit that we’re all just thankful that we finished that game and got the sales we did – but I do wonder why game developers continue to pass on opportunities to enrich gameplay with the voice of the most important character in their games.

Ok, enough for one day. In my next post: The Rude Game Hero and The Situational Chatterbox Game Hero.

* One hit game does not prove a theory; it only carves a creative rut for imitators to wallow into in search of the almighty “oops I bought the wrong game for Junior!” dollar.

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