ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Ian Bogost’s videogame microecology

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“…casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.” Ian Bogost, How To Do Things With Videogames, p.96.

Media ecology looks at the wide range of available media — books, television, advertising, computers, etc. – to determine how each medium functions, and how they interact with one another. This approach is deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed media as the extensions of specific senses (the book extends the eye, the wheel extends the foot, and so on) and also argued that new media create new environments. According to McLuhan, and those influenced by him, the media ecological approach is essential to understanding these new environments.

In How Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost references McLuhan’s approach, but argues that media microecology should be used instead to study videogames. Each medium has a variety of things that it does, ranging from the profound to the purely quotidian. To fully understand each medium and to avoid sweeping generalizations, we need to move from the “macro” level to the “micro” level (he uses the entomologist’s study of insects as an example), to look at the full range of uses a medium has, documenting, describing, and discussing its uses so that we can concentrate on its specific functions. This is the media microecological framework he proposes for analyzing videogames: understanding everything videogames do rather than settling on particular value judgements on the rightness or wrongness of playing videogames.

There are a number of different things videogames can be used for. Videogames can be sites of intense competition, with a focus on achieving high scores and longer play times, which is true of arcade games like Galaga (1981), Tempest (1981), and Space Harrier (1985). Games are also capable of providing expressive and emotionally engaging experiences, like in Dear Esther (2012), Journey (2012), and Gone Home (2013), which focus on exploration and story-telling instead of awarding points or tracking level progress.

One use for videogames that Bogost identifies is “Throwaways.” According to Bogost we often link the idea of “throwaway” games to “casual” games but he challenges this in the following three ways:

  • Although “casual” games like Bejeweled or Tetris, do not feature the more complicated controls of “hardcore” games, they can still be played for the purposes of mastery and personal achievement and often have long-term play investment.
  • The various meanings of “casual” such as indifferent, spontaneous and fleeting all contain an important element of how actual “casual” or “throwaway” games should be conceived. A game made specifically for the “Klik of the Month” club on glorioustrainwrecks.com could be an example of a “throwaway” game as these take minutes to play and are often played once and then completely forgotten.
  • Throwaways games should be short, significant play experiences (no more than a few minutes) that someone can quickly experience and move on from without long term investment. Bogost uses “newsgames” like the Zidane Head-Butt (tied to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final) and his own game, The Arcade Wire: Airport Security, about arbitrary airport security rules (in response to the TSA’s banning of liquids in carry-on bags) as examples.

I agree with Bogost that we need to change our understanding of what casual games actually are, from “easy to learn, and hard to master” to games that focus on shorter experiences. Although such games may be fleeting and often played only once, I think they have the potential to resonate with people.

A couple of “throwaway” games that I enjoyed recently were Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan by Stephen Murphy aka “thecatamites” a bizarre and hilarious parody of History Television style ancient civilization “travelogues” that can be played in only a few minutes. The other one is Ohmygod Are You Alright? by anna anthropy, a game that is short, personal response to a car crash she experienced last year. These games focus on a particular experience rather than long-term play investment and mastery.

I’ll leave this question for you: if you designed a short, “throwaway” game what experience would you want it to give to the people who play it?

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Five perspectives on The Beginner’s Guide

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A lot has already been written about The Beginner’s Guide, the new game by Davey Wreden, writer and co-creator of 2013’s The Stanley Parable. Most critiques have tried unpacking what the game is actually about, with a couple of very persuasive write-ups by Laura Hudson and Carolyn Petit, arguing The Beginner’s Guide is a game that resists being written about at all. Like any multi-faceted work, there can be no single “definitive” interpretation (and the game can construed, as we will see later, as a critique of definitive interpretations) that will be satisfactory. Instead, I’ll offer a few different perspectives on The Beginner’s Guide, and what it might be (or might not be) about. I’m still processing much of the experience and I feel this will only be a merely adequate survey of what it was like for me to play it. 

(This post contains major spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide so I recommend playing it first before you read this)

The Beginner’s Guide is a game about game design

The simplest way of looking at the Beginner’s Guide is to say that it’s a metagame about game design. In the same way The Stanley Parable parodied and burlesqued narrative choice in games, The Beginner’s Guide explores in a much more personal and profound way that actual process of game design. The Beginner’s Guide begins with Davey Wreden — this time taking the role of narrator — introducing himself and explaining that we’re about to play a collection of games by “Coda” a reclusive friend of his that he first met in 2009. From 2008 and 2011, Coda made a series of small, idiosyncratic games, and then stopped. Wreden acts as your guide through Coda’s body of work, providing commentary on what Coda’s intentions may or may not have been in each game.

The games themselves are imperfect worlds that seem to show a creator learning the language of game design. Each game takes on a different direction or is built around a certain theme. In several of them, the same door puzzle and lamppost appear, signalling Wreden tells us, the close of a level or a game project. There’s a whole series of levels built around a prison theme. Eventually, the games seem to be about Coda’s frustration with game creation, and the toll it may be taking on him. Some of the games are unfinished or have strange design decisions (such as being slowed down on a tall staircase or having to wait in a prison cell for an hour) and Wreden gives the you the option to skip through them or reveal what might be hidden in what otherwise appears on the surface to be a small, broken level. In playing The Beginner’s Guide, we possibly bear witness to the work and stress that comes with game design.

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The Beginner’s Guide is game about game criticism

Looking at The Beginner’s Guide as simply being about game design is not enough, especially since Wreden may not actually be a reliable narrator. Wreden provides the player with a seemingly “authoritative” take on each level, telling the player what it’s about and how he or she should see it. As mentioned earlier, Wreden gives the player the ability to skip over Coda’s design decisions. But is this actually appropriate? Wreden seems to be giving a “definitive” take on each of Coda’s levels. Eventually we find out that this might not be the case. Near the end of the game, we find out Wreden modified and showed Coda’s levels without his permission. This, Wreden suspects, is why Coda broke off contact, and is also the reason he stopped making games. This revelation is disturbing but it’s important to put everything in context within the game’s world.

Coda is clearly narrative conceit and not an actual person. Although Wreden says that he’s put together The Beginner’s Guide in order to get his friend to creating again, there’s no way that Wreden could, in actuality, compile and sell work that belongs to someone else. Coda is likely an amalgamation of game designers Wreden knew, and even Wreden himself.

This makes The Beginner’s Guide an interesting critique of the act of criticism: in-game Wreden projects himself onto someone else’s work, offering interpretations that don’t actually gel with what was intended yet it is always presented as the “right” way of looking at Coda’s games. Maybe the House level isn’t actually about clearing out one’s feelings after a difficult period in one’s life is just his attempt at a house simulator? Maybe Coda was parodying self-destructive creators rather than feeling bad about his own creations? Maybe Coda wasn’t actually lonely when he made the Notes level but was actually a sly interpreter of the Internet’s atomized individuality? We never hear Coda’s voice or receive his perspective, and we feel uncomfortable with in-game Wreden’s possessiveness over his friend’s work.

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The Beginner’s Guide is a game about people who play games

Sometimes, game players and fans can demand too much. Game design is a process of constant frustration with a few moments given here and there where one feels like they’re creating something special. It’s easy to forget how much people put on the line for a medium that is often seen as only being “for fun.” Obviously, fun and recreation are goals for a lot of games! But I think it’s important to remember the diversity that come with games, and we should be cognizant of the sacrifices many designers make to realize a particular vision.

There’s an uncomfortable part near the end of The Beginner’s Guide where you’re confronted by members of the “Press” asking probing questions about games and creativity. This is all part of an extensive confrontation with “The Machine” representing the creative energy and drive one that Coda (though this might be Wreden) feels like he’s lost. Wreden’s relationship with the Coda character also seems like a fan relationship throughout the game, one that becomes toxic, and ends with Coda feeling that Wreden has betrayed him.

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There’s also a definite thread of anxiety over audience reception that runs throughout the game as we see Coda (at least we think) worrying about whether or not he has the creative energy to continue making games, and then eventually confronting Wreden for taking his work, and making it serve his own ends.

The Beginner’s Guide is a game about personal games

In the last few years, we’ve seen an increased focus on “personal games.” Due to a combination of accessible game-making tools, better digital distribution, and push for more personal expression for marginalized voices, there are now games that speak more to people’s experiences or offer something more emotionally generous and insightful to the player. Much of Coda’s games appear (at least on the surface) to be deeply meaningful to him or her and could fall under the personal games banner.

However, The Beginner’s Guide points to some of the problems that can come with assuming a personal game necessarily gives access to an individual’s personality. At one point, Wreden expresses joy at the prospect of learning about someone through the games they make. Unfortunately, artistic expression isn’t a 1:1 relationship and there’s no way that you can know everything about a creator just by experiencing their work. Wreden makes the point in The Beginner’s Guide that trying to know someone totally through their games is a fruitless and potentially dangerous entreprise. What can start as simple adoration can in turn become possessiveness, and that’s what we witness in the game’s final act.

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The Beginner’s Guide is a game about a game maker trying to find himself

Four years ago, not many people knew who Davey Wreden was. Then he made the Half-Life 2 mod, The Stanley Parable which eventually became the wildly successful commercial game, The Stanley Parable. Wreden’s first game has been lauded for its intriguing game design. Clearly, there’s some self-consciousness on Wreden’s part about how to follow up The Stanley Parable when there’s so much attention and scrutiny on him.

Though The Beginner’s Guide warns us about the problems inherent in trying to read the creator in the work, I think there’s a mild autobiographical thread within it. The dates of Coda’s creative activity are interesting. He made idiosyncratic games until June 2011 and then stopped. Wreden released his mod version of The Stanley Parable in 2011. Furthermore, Coda made all of his games in Valve’s Source Engine, the same engine that Wreden has used for The Stanley Parable, and now The Beginner’s Guide.

Wreden comments in a deep way on the Source Engine’s capabilities and what they add to Coda’s games, something he would know having worked with it so extensively himself. There are even some ways in which Coda’s use of narrative and interesting first person game experiments mirror Wreden’s own (especially in a series of prison levels). Wreden talks about the sense of validation he felt showing off Coda’s levels, and how that made him feel good, but then Coda disappears. In way, some aspect of The Beginner’s Guide could be Wreden looking at his early experiments with game-making and wondering if he has the same vitality.

In this blog post Wreden put up on The Galactic Café website a few months after The Stanley Parable’s release, he talks about the stress of being put in the public spotlight after previously being an obscure creator, and how the critical and financial success of his game left him feeling a little depressed. He writes:

“The point of the comic [author’s note: this is included in the post itself] was purely just to clarify that financial and critical success does not simply make your insecurities go away. If you were insecure about other peoples’ opinions of you and addicted to praise in order to feel good about yourself, the dirty truth is that there is no amount of praise you can receive that will make that insecurity goes away. What fire dies when you feed it?”

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There is definitely a confessional aspect to The Beginner’s Guide and in-game Davey Wreden is probably referencing feelings real Wreden had at the time. In a way, the game directly addresses the insecurities that come with creative work: the need for validation and praise, the terror of facing criticism and backlash, and the worry that you’ll never be able to produce anything worthwhile again. In one sense, The Beginner’s Guide could be about Wreden trying to find himself again.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure if this write-up has truly clarified anything for me or has left me more confused about how I feel about The Beginner’s Guide. I’m not even sure if I should be writing about it in the first place. In this act of reflection I feel like I’m subtly contributing to what the game was critiquing in the first place. Or perhaps it wasn’t critiquing it. Or perhaps The Beginner’s Guide is simply meant to reflect and reveal a player’s own insecurities. Or perhaps it’s about helping you build up your strength when you’ve thought you’ve lost all of it. I don’t know anymore. All I know is that I like The Beginner’s Guide; I like the world it created for me, and that I simply want to experience it again before I spoil it with too much analysis.

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The uses of nostalgia

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Recently, I wrote about ‘90s revivalism in video games. It was found to result from the confluence of nostalgia and the poor curation of games history (and the vested interest the games industry has in not preserving it). However, what I didn’t explore was the positive uses of nostalgia, especially when its seamlessly woven within narrative and gameplay. Games are most effective at conveying a story when narrative either when incorporated within the mechanics of play, or when communicated through the game’s play environment. When gameplay and story are fused together in this way, even nostalgic reflection becomes vital and artistic rather than merely reflexive or referential. I’ll be looking at two games — Her Story and Gone Home — whose grounding in ‘90s technology and culture is powerful and necessary for the player’s experience of the story.

(Warning: spoilers for Her Story and Gone Home below)

Her Story

Sam Barlow’s video archive mystery Her Story made quite the impression when it came out in June. It was lauded for its intriguing approach to interactive fiction, and opinions differed as to whether its updating of Gothic tropes for the age of video was effective or problematic. In the end, Her Story gives the player a unique experience of narrative, and that’s largely due to the game effectively exploits its ’90s retro-aesthetics.

The game’s story is told through a series of interviews conducted with a woman named Hannah over a two month period in 1994. Her husband Simon has disappeared, and of course, not all is at it appears to be. The gameplay itself is novel — the only interaction you have is with a police archive that looks as if it’s housed on a Windows 95/98 computer—and you must type in keywords to watch videos. The big challenge is that each keyword limits you to watching only five videos, and as of result of searching for keywords, it means everything you watch is out of sequence.

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The disordered nature of Her Story adds rather than detracts to the overall experience of the game. The old user interface is necessary historically — the disappearance took place in 1994 — and aesthetically, since the simulation of old technology enhances the player’s experience of the mystery. Although there have been the inevitable comparisons of Her Story to FMV games of the past, the use of video is incredibly important, and solves a number of story issues or questions that arise. Why can’t we hear the police officer’s questions or see his parts in the interview? Those videos were damaged in a flood in 1997, and so those parts are gone forever. Why are the videos so scattered? They were starting to archive them in 1999, and then forgot about the project during the Y2K panic. Furthermore, you’re initially limited to only five videos per keyword, a result of only having guest access to this archaic computer system.

For the game’s designer, Sam Barlow, using video was necessary for telling the story. It removed the challenges that would have been presented by having to render everything in 3D and use motion capture — a system he found costly and clumsy when it came to telling a story. (Look no further than L.A. Noire to see how overreliance on motion capture and 3D can hinder rather than help a detective narrative). The decision to set it in the ‘90s is grounded in practical design and story considerations that makes Her Story a memorable experience.

Gone Home

2013’s Gone Home is a fantastic first-person exploration game that draws on environmental storytelling and interactivity that forces the player — who is Kaitlin, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family—to piece together why her parents, and younger sister Sam, are completely absent when coming home after a long trip to Europe. The story is set in 1995 and includes specific cultural references to the X-Files, early video game consoles, zine culture, riot grrl, and Pulp Fiction. The game begins like a haunted house narrative but then evolves into a poignant family drama revolving around your sister’s coming of age as a gay teen.

Once again, the ‘90s setting is used to anchor the game’s story. 1995 was chosen as the year because this places it before widespread use of the World Wide Web. This was important for the game’s designers because this made Gone Home take place before digital communications technology became a dominant force in people’s lives. The game’s story is mostly communicated by interacting with discrete physical objects and diary entries, something that would not be as effective if you could access everything in a few emails. As a result, there’s a wide berth to include other important cultural moments — Nintendo, Bratmobile, and cool zines fighting the patriarchy among them. Gone Home does a deft job of communicating how different the world was even just two decades ago to craft an emotionally engaging story.

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One final thought…

In the right hands, the past can become a powerful way to convey a story. Gameplay and story are occasionally in an uneasy alliance with one another, with one too often diminishing or interfering with the other. Both Her Story and Gone Home offer powerful narratives whose past settings add rather than subtract from the experience. They give use new perspectives on ourselves, and perhaps, the times we lived in.

Do you remember the ’90s? Gaming certainly does!

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An image from Roberta Williams’ Mystery House for the Apple II

2015 has been a peak year for ‘90s revivalism. In addition to newly announced seasons for Twin Peaks, the X-Files, and — for some reason — Full House, we’ve also been given a Rolling Stone retrospective on Space Jam’s promotional website (now celebrated as a masterpiece of early Internet design), a restoration project for old Geocities nethubs, and even an oral history of Theodore Rex. However, this pales in comparison to the ‘90s moment gaming is having right now.

There has been a deluge of throwback content since 2012 — begun largely by a series of crowdfunding successes on Kickstarter that saw projects launched to bring back creators or game genres that flourished in the ‘90s. Although Tim Schaefer’s Double Fine Adventure (a.ka. Broken Age) —arguably the catalyst for gaming’s Kickstarter success — wasn’t specifically for a ‘90s callback project, Schaefer is most fondly remembered for his time at LucasArts,working on or helming such classic adventure games as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango (which got a remastered edition earlier this year).

This led Brian Fargo to launch a successful Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2 and a sequel to Planescape: Torment, and then Obsidian Entertainment mounted a successful campaign for ‘90s cRPG revival game, Pillars of Eternity. Other creators like Ron Gilbert (also from LucasArts), Julian Gollop (original X-Com creator), Chris Roberts (Wing Commander), Robyn and Rand Miller (Myst, Riven), and more controversially Richard Garriott (Ultima) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Fable), all had successful campaigns to either bring them back into the fold of game creation or bring back beloved game styles.

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Kind of what Kickstarter is like these days. From Lucasarts’ “The Secret of Monkey Island.”

Game genres that had a significant flourishing in the ‘90s like cRPGs, adventure games, and 3D platformers (just see A Hat in Time and Yuka-Laylee — both, of course, with soundtracks by Grant Kirkhope) have made a significant comeback with a glut of titles in the last three years. Even FMV games have made a comeback. Yes, FMV video games — once ridiculed for their expense, poorly compressed video, hammy acting, and comically large number of CD-Roms needed to play — have been the inspiration behind Sam Barlow’s critically acclaimed video archive mystery Her Story, and the more tongue-in-cheek, Contradiction — Spot The Liar!: The All-Video Murder Mystery Adventure.

Then we begin get into the rereleases and remasters, most notably Homeworld, and the aforementioned Grim Fandango, and soon we’ll be seeing The Day of the Tentacle again. Heck, even Final Fantasy VII is getting an HD remake. There was also this absurd commercial for a callback ‘90s first-person shooter.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but demonstrates that game creators and consumers are fixated on the ‘90s. I even lamented the loss of Carmen Sandiego in a time with so much classic game revivalism. Manos: Hands of Fate—one of the worst movies of all time—has recently become the subject of tongue-in-cheek platforming game that’s a deliberate call to the awful tie-in movie games made for the NES and SNES. So, why the sudden onrush of nostalgia?

The first — and most obvious point — is that people who came of age during “the last great decade” (not my wording), are now old enough to be cultural producers themselves, or at least consumers, who want to experience again what they grew up with. Essentially, people have the creative power or the cash or both, to revive genres long thought dead. There is a huge nostalgic push, and this has led to results both good and bad. If you’re a fan of computer role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate, this revivalism has been good for you: Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are great games in their own right. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games—then not so much.

A second reason is history. Game companies and gamers alike are apathetic toward preserving game history. As a result, previously explored tropes, genres, and ideas are redone and repackaged—sometimes without awareness of whether or not it has been done before. A good example is Sword Coast Legends, another tactical role-playing game, set in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It advertises a “DM Mode” that will let one player be the Dungeon Master and curate the role-playing experience for their friends online, and is being touted as something that’s never been done before. The only problem is that it was done before—and quite successfully—by BioWare’s 2002 D & D role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights. This might not be so surprising since Sword Coast Legends is being made by ex-Bioware developers, but I have yet to come across a single article talking about how Legends riffs on NWN’s original, innovative feature set.

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Sword Coast Legends Dungeon Master feature looks great but Neverwinter Nights did it first.

The historical aspect of the shift toward nostalgic revival becomes more apparent when consider how often the genres that people love are misremembered. As mentioned before, adventure games have not fared well, mostly repeating the clumsy navigation and frustrating puzzle design that was prevalent in ‘90s adventure games. Contemporary adventure game designers miss the point, Richard Corbett argues in a piece for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, of what made adventure games great in the first place. He writes:

“The vast majority of adventures that we get aren’t even trying for that level of innovation or novelty value, and sure as hell don’t have the relative budgets to pull it off. Instead, they’re content to be the next Touche, the next Bud Tucker, the next Innocent Until Caught – following along in the wake of Lucasarts and Sierra and a couple of other big names like pilotfish. If we follow them, we’ll get to where we need to be. Right? Never mind that nobody gave a shit about those games back in the 90s. Hold the line! Keep the faith! It’ll all work out eventually, right?”

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Probably not the adventure game you were looking for. From Lucasarts’ “Sam and Max Hit The Road.”

This is the dangerous trap one can fall into with gamer nostalgia — the simple replication of what a genre offered rather than capturing its essence and moving them forward. This is unsurprising in a world when even a game designer like Roberta Williams are forgotten until—as CRPG Book project editor Felipe Pepe pointed out on his blog — it was announced there would be a reboot of the King’s Quest series. Then there were retrospectives written on the series and Williams’ importance, and she was even given an industry award (!) as something old is remade into a vital consumer product.

Amazingly, it gets even worse. Not only is the games industry apathetic to its own history; it’s actively hostile. The Electronic Software Association is trying to prevent the Electronic Frontier Foundation from preserving online multiplayer games long since abandoned by their developers, and in fact, the ESA considers all forms of game preservation “hacking” and therefore illegal — nevermind that it’s largely game pirates and hackers who have been actively preserving and curating games history.

At the heart of ‘90s revivalism then is the fight over whether games should be considered art, or merely just another consumer product. As art, games have a history and a vitality that needs to be preserved, cherished, and expanded upon—a series of interesting pathways meant to inspire rather than to be merely imitated. But considered solely as a consumer good, it must be forgotten, ignored, or actively blocked, otherwise it can’t be resold to the next generation, or even worse, someone will be inspired and create a new game and become successful outside the mainstream games industry. So remember that as you awe over someone creating a ‘90s style gaming rig or chuckle at the latest ‘90s commercial parody that there’s a fight for both the past — and future — of gaming.

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Late ’90s gaming rig created by Redditor SuperBabyHix. (Source)

Someday Soundtracks: A few selections from Jeremy Soule

Someday Soundtracks is a semi-regular feature where I post a great track (or whole score) from one of my favourite games.

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If you’ve played a role-playing game over the last 20 years, chances are you’ve heard one Jeremy Soule‘s soundtracks. He’s an ubiquitous composer with over 80 video game soundtrack credits to his name. Being such a prolific composer, there’s no middle ground on Soule’s compositions: you either love them or despise them. A friend of mine recently described Soule’s music as sounding like “warmed over Tolkien.” However, I think Soule can be a beautiful composer, especially when it comes to setting a specific mood. Here are three tracks that show he’s made a lasting contribution to video game music.

Icewind Dale – Kuldahar Theme

This is from Black Isle’s 2000 role-playing game Icewind Dale. It’s quite incredible when you first experience Kuldahar, especially with this soundtrack playing it as you enter it. Most of the game up to the point takes place in snowy villages like Easthaven (which also boasts a great track from  Soule) and cold, isolated mountaintops. Kuldahar is a lush jungle city. This track perfectly sums up its beauty — and the unexpectedness of stumbling on a tropical paradise in the middle of a desolate and brutal winter landscape.

Neverwinter Nights – Heart of the Forest

I think this highlights Soule’s skill as an ambient composer. While his more bombastic soundtracks come across as mechanistic and cold, Soule understands how to create a subtle track that conveys a particular mood. Soule’s ambient tracks always demonstrate subtlety and restraint and never fail to stir an emotion in the player. “Heart of the Forest” appears in Chapter 2 of Neverwinter Nights‘ main campaign as you go deeper into Charwood, capturing the wood’s beauty and omnipresent menace.

First Light – Guild Wars

I’ve cheated with this one since it doesn’t actually appear in Guild Wars — it appears as a bonus on the special edition of Guild Wars’ first soundtrack. I think this is one of his best compositions, communicating the beauty of Tyria, Guild Wars’ fantasy world. I’m still surprised it was never included in Guild Wars or even its sequel, Guild Wars 2. You can imagine it playing in Ascalon (which it’s often paired with in fan videos) or Kryta. It’s stirring piece, and I challenge anyone not to be taken in by the world it evokes.

Rare replays and hard labours

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August 4 saw the release of Rare Replay for the Xbox One — a collection of 30 games from Rare, the storied British video game developer. While not a comprehensive collection — due to licensing issues there is no Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, or Goldeneye 007 — it does a fairly good job of covering the studio’s history from its origins as a developer of games for the 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer, to the games it made for the NES, SNES, and N64 while a second-party developer for Nintendo such as Battletoads, Killer Instinct Gold, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day; and into the Microsoft era with Perfect Dark Zero and Viva Pinata. For gamers who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, the mere mention of Rare is enough to send them into combined fits of nostalgia and reverence. The games that Rare developed for Nintendo’s early consoles are held in the highest esteem, and before they became part of Microsoft, the Rare name was synonymous with quality entertainment and excellent game design. However, what’s seldom discussed is the work culture that produced their best games.

What is little known — but not exactly a secret — is that the classic games Rare produced in the ’80s and the ’90s were the result of a punishing work ethic: a constant crunch mode that ground down the studio’s game developers as much as it ground out hit games. Typically, such facts are buried within articles that breathlessly tout the studio’s successes but downplay the significance of how Rare was run as a game studio. IGN’s 2008 retrospective “IGN Presents The History Of Rare” is a good example. Discussing Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded and managed Rare during its heyday, the article says:

“They were renowned for working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, only knocking off between the hours of 2:00-8:00 a.m. Their philosophy was that a part-time employee resulted in a part-time game. By contrast, they committed totally and required their team to do the same as well… the first true crunch mentality in the industry. Nobody was held to that philosophy more stringently than the Stampers themselves. In the three years they slaved to Ultimate [Rare’s predecessor], they only ever took two days off. Both were Christmas mornings.”

“Crunch” is game industry jargon describing the extra time and effort required to put out big budget games. Everyone is expected to crunch, especially when it comes to meeting big release deadlines. The result is 60 to 80 hour work weeks and eventual burnout. As the IGN article goes on to reveal, Rare began experiencing problems with high employee turnover in the late ’90s:

Publicly, Rare was on a roll. Behind the scenes, employee turnover bordered on disastrous.

In the few interviews they granted, Tim and Chris Stamper came across as quiet, unassuming Englishmen, but the pace they maintained and the demands they set could grate at closer range. Their longtime partners at Zippo Games, the Pickfords, left shortly after the Stampers bought them out in the 80’s and deep-sixed a favored wrestling game. By the N64 years, their tiny company had grown from the low teens to several hundred, but the Stampers kept their hands firmly in every project, and that management style didn’t sit well with everyone. The first public defection happened in 1997, when a group of employees marched out en masse to form Eighth Wonder, a studio dedicated to developing for Sony. Well into the three-year production cycle for a successor to GoldenEye 007, [Martin]Hollis and [David] Doak decided they’d had their fill as well, taking much of their production teams with them.”

Hollis and Doak were both responsible for the development of Goldeneye 007, one of Rare’s most praised and commercially successful titles for the N64. By the time Rare was bought by Microsoft for $377 million, their output began to dwindle, and their games were less successful, receiving less positive critical notices. When writers and critics look at the decline of Rare, the onus is often placed on Microsoft for supposed interference and mismanagement of their games for the Xbox 360.

Who Killed Rare?” an article by Simon Parkin speculates about Microsoft’s connection to the reduced quality of Rare’s output. In interviewing ex-Rare employees, including Martin Hollis, there’s a suggestion that Microsoft shifted Rare’s culture leading to worse games. However, there was clearly something wrong Rare’s previous work culture, especially if there were resignations and defections before Microsoft’s acquisition in 2002. To me this means that there is a correlation between the loss of some of Rare’s most talented developers, and the eventual decline in what Rare’s output. The management style of the Stampers seemed to encourage an insane work ethic that most likely caused many to quit in frustration. When Martin Hollis left Rare, his only public statement was that “both of us were asking for more than the other could give.”

Crunch  has never been unique to Rare and has become a widespread problem as video games have become a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Back in 2006, EA settled a lawsuit for $14.9 million with its programmers and engineers, who argued they were owed unpaid overtime. An infamous blog post by the spouse of Leander Hasty, the engineer who brought the lawsuit, circulated on the web, detailing the 9am to 10pm work days and dreadful working conditions. In 2008, former Epic Games president Mike Capps was heavily criticized when he said that 60 hour work weeks are expected of all Epic employees and that someone looking to work 40 hours a week would not fit in with the game studio’s work culture.

In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, game designer anna anthropy details her brief time at the Guildhall program at Southern Methodist University in Plano Texas, which is deliberately structured to get you used to working in crunch time. She writes:

“You’re at school from nine to five. You stay after and do your work with the teams they’ve assigned you to. Late at night you drag yourself home and do your actual homework. Maybe you get a few hours of sleep. The idea behind that school is that you’re always in what the Big Games Industry calls: ‘crunch time’: unpaid overtime.Your masters want the game done by Christmas, so you don’t leave the office until it’s done. This is why people in the industry aren’t healthy; this is why they burn out and quit games within a few years.”

It’s frightening that crunch time is an expectation rather than exception for meeting tight deadlines for big-budget games; that this is the price that programmers, designers, and artists are forced to pay for doing what they love. This quote from Tom Bissell’s review of The Last Of Us seems more relevant than ever:

“From the little I know about game development, I can all but guarantee that the amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers. To work on something — even a video game — for 12 to 15 hours a day for a year is not enjoyable or fulfilling. I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained. Before The Last of Us, the same could be said of the Tomb Raider reboot or BioShock Infinite or L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption or any number of other ambitious titles. What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery. “

I’m happy that Rare Replay exists, even just as an archival project that gives a players a window into the evolution of the studio’s design philosophy and their place in games history, but I think it’s also important to highlight the kind of labour that goes into making the games we love.

Someday Soundtracks: Fallout 1 and 2

Someday Soundtracks is a semi-regular feature where I post a great track (or whole score) from one of my favourite games.

fallout

Mark Morgan‘s ambient soundtracks for Fallout 1 and  Fallout 2 have always held a special fascination for me. His soundtracks, especially those he did for Fallout 1 and 2 don’t just communicate excitement or mood, but always communicate something to the player. Fallout maintains a consistent atmosphere of dread mainly because of Mark Morgan’s stellar work. I’ve never quite enjoyed Inon Zur‘s  ambient score for Fallout 3, preferring to keep on Galaxy News Radio. I was happy when Obsidian decided to use Morgan’s ambient work for Fallout: New Vegas and was surprised about how well his score works, even in a very different type of Fallout game.

While most people gravitate to The Ink Spot’s “Maybe” since that opens and closes Fallout 1 or even to Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss To Build A Dream On” for Fallout 2, the industrial synths, desert reeds, and military noise Morgan created for the original games greatly enhances the experience of the game. Sometimes while I’m working, I’ll boot up the game’s soundtracks and remember the last time I traveled through the post-nuclear haze of Fallout’s world. Morgan has gone on to do the soundtrack for Wasteland 2 and will also be providing the music for Torment: Tides Of Numenera. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.