Monday, June 29, 2009

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Digital Remakes

Remakes are a part of the market, for better or for worse. But aside from remakes that take "retro classics" and update them for current hardware and production values, we're also used to a second kind of remake - the kind that takes a "traditional" game based in the real world, and turns it into a digital game: one with the interface, features, and conventions of other digital games. We usually don't think of them this way, but after all, isn't Madden a sort of "remake" of American football? (More accurately, I'd say Madden is a remake of the game surrounding the NFL - but I'll save that for another post). Just as younger audiences will see Transformers 2, The Taking of Pelham 123, Land of the Lost, GI Joe, and Star Trek this summer without knowing they're "remakes" in one way or another, I'm sure there's more than a handful of kids out there playing Solitaire on their Windows computer without ever having played it with a real deck of cards. They might play a "re-made" version of Texas Hold'em, which lets you play online, with fake money, and a customized avatar. I'm sure you can think of at least one game you've played digitally that has a real world counterpart.

This week I played Battle Chess on the NES for the first time since a vaguely remembered day from my childhood. I'm tempted to say that this game has not aged well, but the truth is that it was never very good to begin with. Battle Chess is based on a basic idea - Chess could be more fun if, like in the famous scene from Star Wars, the pieces killed each other after you finished your moves. Each attacker-defender combination has a "fight" animation that lets you watch your Pawns get jabbed by other Pawns, and watch as your Rook transforms into a golem and squashes your opponent's Knight. The animation's are okay, although obviously a gimmick. With this change alone, the age-old game of chess might have been slightly improved; at the very least, the novelty of the death scenes might have made for a few rounds of entertainment.

Notice, I said "might." It's shocking how boring Battle Chess can be. Each piece walks across the board in the slowest way possible. If you move your Knight, and any pieces are in its way, it will pause while they walk out of its path. The game's title screen offers no options and dumps the player directly into round 1 of a game of Chess - players with an instruction manual, of course, will discover that the Select button allows them to select AI and multiplayer options.

Still, you'd think that one of the first games in the world to be computerized would be easy to make enjoyable in digital form. It makes one wonder why we bother playing computerized versions of games we can already play in real life - Chess, capture-the-flag, baseball, fetch with a pet dog - but this question has many answers. I'm sure many players who enjoy baseball video games might find a game of "real" baseball too inaccessible or difficult to enjoy. Continuing with that example, "real" baseball requires a field, more than a handful of players (eighteen if you're a stickler), and specialized equipment. Video game baseball can be played alone or with complete strangers that are in their own living rooms, and it can be played using the same equipment as video game Chess and video game capture-the-flag.

Please take not that I'm not arguing "video game baseball is better than baseball." A statement like that might turn my family against me, and even so much as comparing the two experiences would be a vast oversimplification of the nature of each game. Every example I offered above has a counter-example - to a group of kids growing up on the same block, a bat, ball, and backyard are much cheaper and "more accessible" than a console, TV, and Internet connection. My father had my whole childhood to teach me to play baseball (and bless him, he tried), but it would probably take me the rest of my life to explain an Xbox 360 controller to him.

To me, it seems the lesson learned is that some games are "re-made" as digital games and end up being very different experiences, baseball included. Some games, such as Chess, are made into digital games, and yet the experience is nearly the same. And any "remake" is bound to be compared to the original if it doesn't manage to break new ground on its own, whether the game being re-made is Chess, baseball, or Super Mario Bros. I'm suggesting that that's why we tend not to think of Solitaire for Windows, with its "the boss is coming, minimize the window!" button and all, as a remake.

I just hope that future civilizations don't plug in a dust-covered copy of Battle Chess and wonder, "What part of this was fun?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thought for Food

Games that tell stories borrow a lot from movies (and other forms of storytelling that precede them). Many people have even criticized the games industry's inability to escape the traditions, conventions, and vocabulary of the movie industry, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about the stuff that movie directors have that game designers still haven't stolen from them, but should. I'm talking, of course, about food.

Food fulfills one of our basic needs as living organisms. The way we acquire, prepare, and eat our food is usually deeply ingrained in our personal and cultural identities. We eat food for a myriad of reasons: nutrition, celebration, religious practice, and so on. We grab some munchies when we sit down to watch a movie or play a video game. And we see the characters in film and television do the same.

The point is, we (almost) never see game characters eat food. Sure, Mario may chase mushrooms, but it's not because of the peculiar tastes of Mushroom Kingdom cuisine. Game characters, generally, only do "amazing" things - they leap tall buildings, fly spaceships, dual-wield plasma rifles - but they never take the time to sleep, eat, etc. When they do, it's always for utilitarian reasons, and so the joy of finding a mushroom stems from its usefulness as a power-up, and doesn't resonate on an emotional level.

Storytellers in other media have long realized the strength of food as a symbol and as a plot device. In Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the viewer is treated to a disturbing scene (pictured above) in which the Steward of Gondor demonstrates his penchant for at least of a few of the seven deadly sins while scarfing down a private feast in the presence of his timid but loyal servant. In contrast, in the early minutes of Disney's Aladdin, the titular character sings a three-minute piece of musical plot exposition explaining that he "steals only what [he] can't afford." It is not until just after this scene, however, when most viewers really connect with the character; Aladdin is about to celebrate by eating his half of the loot - a loaf of bread, his meal for the day - when he encounters two young children more in need than he is. He gives them the bread and the gratitude they show is something anyone watching can relate with.

As a storytelling device, food can show us that a person is greedy and hedonistic, impoverished and hungry, or good-natured and generous. What a character eats and how they eat it can be a window into their personality and personal history, and make them seem that much more human. So why is it that more game characters don't do us a favor and take a lunch break?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Speaking My Language

I just finished the first chapter of The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar, written by Mark C. Baker and published by Basic Books. The book follows Baker's dissection of the human notion of "language" and asserts that all world languages are composed of the same theoretical building blocks. This idea doesn't originate from Baker but it's certainly relatively new in the study of linguistics, and he's done an excellent job (as far as an Introduction and one chapter can demonstrate) so far disseminating his ideas in an entertaining and readable way.

I'm not a linguistics person, but I guess I'm used to dealing with "the abstract" in computer science. Still, I was worried this book might be too over my head for me to get through. I'm not yet claiming its material is entirely within my mental grasp, but the obscure trivia and fun facts peppered throughout the text keep it relevant and entertaining. Did you know the Navajo people have more than ten verbs for "to carry," depending on the type of object the person is carrying?

Fun facts, aside, however, my main reason for reading this book is in preparation for the research I'll be doing in the Fall semester in Natural Language Processing; if you're not familiar with the term, you must not be a computer science nerd. NLP is a fascinating topic that deals with the problem of getting a computer to understand, interpret, and "speak" a human language such as English. If you've ever laughed at a free online translator or been frustrated by a search engine's inability to understand what exactly you're looking for, then you are an unknowing proponent of NLP research.

I'm partly interested in NLP due to its natural implications for games. Fa├žade, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's "one-act interactive drama," is an excellent piece of non-linear storytelling that makes use of this technology. Peter Molyneux's recently-unveiled tech demo for "Milo," a virtual boy who interacts with the player via Microsoft's Project Natal, looks to combine NLP with other technologies for a "life-like" experience. Even much simpler games could lend themselves to this technology - a game like 5th Cell's upcoming Scribblenauts, combined with a C-3PO-like understanding of human language, could open up a lot of exciting possibilities.

Time to reign it in, though. After all, I'm only up to Chapter 2: In Which the Ambitions and Dreams of a Young Game Designer are Crushed by the Harsh Truths of Reality.

Can you think of any other experiences in your own life that would be aided by this technology? Feedback and discussion are welcome and encouraged in the comments.