Level Criticism


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Paint is limited by physics of light and mass, and buildings are limited by the physics of materials and load… similarly games are limited by “digital physics”, the computational power of today’s computers and a developer’s ability to feasibly express ideas in a digital mode. I argue that effective games criticism must take technical constraints into consideration, and those same constraints influence the social norms, values, and diversity of developer communities. I also want to model a type of inquiry for other developers to consider — this idea of “reflective practice”, to critically deconstruct why we craft games the way we do, and the assumptions embedded within our craft… basically, I’m just going to play some first person levels, and talk about how these levels work / how they are constructed / the technical considerations that went into designing them.

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Level Criticism

  1. 1. // NO SHOW TALK, "LEVEL CRITICISM" by Robert Yang 1) REVIEW So last time I was here, I was talking about first person game mods. I divided these mods into three eras, based on what I see as three historical phases to the industry-to-modder relationship. 1) The first mods relied heavily on design hacks and graphics hacks, because in most cases, they didn't have engine code access. The "mod" wasn't really in popular gamer consciousness yet, there was no SDK access, there was little mod distribution infrastructure. Doom was probably the most modded game of this era; modded by fans, modded by cereal companies... and Doom mods were called "WADS." This was the age of the WAD. 2) The second era of mods saw a lot more industry support. The industry liked it because it was like free DLC, extending the life of their products. They would specially package their tools and game code into SDKs for people to specially develop mods. The "moddiest" mod here was the Total Conversion, a mod that replaced all the core game rules and assets with its own, as if it weren't a mod. Here, "mod" was used in a pejorative sense -- it is common for commentators to look at retail games that use the Source Engine and insult these retail games by saying they look like "Source mods" -- as if they are not "real games." This, for me, was where the political dimension of modding really took off. Mods were told they were inferior to not-mods, inferior to retail games. 3) There are still plenty of "silver age" mods, but now they are generally vastly outnumbered by "post-mods". Post-Mods are not obsessed with replacing every single aspect of a game, like a total conversion (TC) mod. These are mods that love being mods, and usually they just change one thing about a game, and that one modification changes everything.
  2. 2. [yakuza5 mod] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZURNR3uuHGA Yakuza 5 seems like an okay game. But when you replace the main character model with a Japanese woman character model, the game becomes something much more political: a game about street harassment and revenge fantasy as you beat the shit out of every creepy guy who's ever leered at you. This is especially poignant in a culture where groping and harassment on public transit was such a problem that they instituted women-only subway cars -- choosing to mod Yakuza 5, with its emphasis on physical contact, was not random. It was very important and intentional, and it is important that you recognize this as a MOD: that no AAA company would ever make a game about this, even though the functionality was totally there. Last year, I also argued that many of these post-mods exist as "conceptual art" -- because if you played them, they would be boring, but as videos and imagining the act of playing them, they are fascinating. That's where Let's Plays come in: Let's Play culture is what enables these post-mods to thrive. [sonic cock mod] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsM2ZbQtulM This newer Sonic game looks okay. But what happens when you replace Sonic with a cock? Suddenly this game is about a disembodied penis that collects cock-rings as it rampages through Hyper-Tuscany, bursting through walls at high velocity and dodging laser beams. It defamiliarizes Sonic and makes you realize that Sonic is actually pretty weird. Having a penis do all these things makes just as much sense as a blue hedgehog doing these things. I would probably play that Sonic Penis mod once, and then delete it. I definitely wouldn't buy Sonic just to play it. But because it's in the form of a Let's Play, I don't have to do all that work to imagine the experience of it. [GTA] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeSdSrCKp-8 // song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cwkej79U3ek Some post-mods make sense ONLY as video. Like, this Grand Theft Auto IV mod that change some cars into indestructable grand pianos... but it took ANOTHER YouTube user to mod in the music from Vanessa Carlton's 90s pop love song, "A Thousand Miles." This is a mod of a mod! This Let's Play edit is right next to the Vanessa Carlton video, and exist in the same cultural space -- and it also benefited from being on YouTube to be remixed.
  3. 3. But at the same time, I think most people are going to watch this video, and have ZERO DESIRE to play it. Because we watched it and now we get it and it was great and now we're done. Let's Play videos are great because they are NORMALIZING video games -- you no longer have to make video games into your life and self-identify as a "gamer" and spend a lot of money -- now anyone can enjoy what video games can offer. 2) LET'S PLAY I'm kind of fascinated by Let's Play culture because I feel like it's modern theater. Even really crappy or boring games can be made entertaining and compelling if the player / performer can bring something out from it and show us a new side of it. But then that makes me question, was it really a bad game, or did I just need someone to tune me to the right frequency to appreciate it? The most popular Let's Plays, I think, are about spontaneity. A Let's Play that's pre-recorded feels kind of clinical and analytical, far removed from what's happening. Sometimes that's good, but suddenly you can't trust what you're seeing and you become too aware of how it was constructed. It's important that the play is authentic, or at least that it seems authentic. I also like how it's grounded very deeply in player experience. There's no theoretical imaginary idea of a player -- you don't think to yourself, oh, does this fit into the 4 types of players? -you realize that kind of formalism and thinking about players is shutting yourself off from this whole world of expression. http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=GrQzAVOwd34&list=PLaYewMW3GIxsZ6gNfWpUI9L0nKjNifuRv Like, look at these Skate3 glitch videos. These are A MILLION TIMES more interesting than the actual experience of playing Skate3. These players did what EA and Tony Hawk could not: they made Skate3 interesting.
  4. 4. As designers, it's hard to watch sometimes because when you're designing this thing, you have an idea of a player in your head, and then -- with horror -- you see how everything goes wrong. We need to get away from this platonic ideal of what a player is and what a player does, and really try to think about what players experience. 3) HEIDEGGER There's a philosopher named Martin Heidegger who talked a lot about this, about experience and thinking about experience. He talks about a hammer, and asks, what is a hammer? What does a hammer mean? You might say a hammer has a wood handle, and a metal head made of tempered steel, and it is 3 lbs, etc. Heidegger argued that isn't really a hammer. That's looking at a hammer, trying to understand a hammer outside of the hammer's terms. Heidegger said -- if you want to understand a hammer, then pick up a hammer and actually use it. What is a hammer? It's the weight in your hand, the way it feels, the way you move with it and extend yourself into it. Thinking about all the things you actually know about this hammer -- if I dropped it on my foot, it would hurt. If I drop it on the ground, I know what sound it will make. If I throw this hammer into the audience!... I know how the metal will feel. I know what it feels like if I step on it, if I sit on it, if I hold it from the other way around... The argument is that a carpenter understands the hammer better than a chemist or a physicist or a historian. And the carpenters who are best at using hammers -- they don't even have to think about it. They don't do that awful thing that I do, where I do all these small little practice taps -- no, if you're a master carpenter, you're probably thinking about the rest of the structure or what you'll eat for lunch. If you stop and think about it, and try to be conscious of the action, you just end up hurting yourself.
  5. 5. 4) LET'S PLAY AS RESEARCH I think one promising way to find that out is to look really closely at the basic low-level actions that players do That's why I'm really interested in Let's Plays. You can think of them as documentation, as field research, as to how people actually play games and experience games and what do they do. While there's totally an element of artifice and performance, there's also a sense of immediacy and genuine stream of consciousness because that's conveniently what Let's Play communities socially reward. Also, I think Let's Play artists are pretty good at homing in on what makes games interesting. So the goal with my Let's Play is to try to think about what I'm thinking about. Try to tell the difference between how games get made, and how games get played... the difference between the mental image of the player in my head, and an actual player who actually plays games. Anna has a good example of this -- like in a JRPG, when you talk to an NPC and they repeat the same thing over and over, you don't read that as, "oh my god everyone in this town is stuck in a time loop with no memory or personality" -you read that as the game telling you to move on. I would argue that most experienced JRPG players would read it like that. But if you read some foolish design craft theory about NPC dialog, they might say some bullshit about making real characters, immersion, blah blah blah. NO ONE CARES! EVERYONE KNOWS THIS NPC IS JUST A TALKING SIGN OR VENDING MACHINE! IT'S OKAY! Is Binfinite's Elizabeth NPC a deep character you care about, or a talking dog who vomits currency in the heat of battle? I think if you're honest to yourself, the answer is obvious.
  6. 6. Let's talk more about what actually happens when you play games instead of talking about the chemical composition of games? So when I talk about game development and what goes into making these games, part of it is about demystifying what is happening and how these things work. But part of it is also about making these things strange again, about alienating ourselves from games in a novel way, so we can realize what is actually happening. But first, a disclaimer, on how I approach intent: 5) TECHNICAL INTENT I once audited "videogames as literature" course where we talked about Portal 1. This was an undergrad introduction to literature, so a lot of it was just about introducing this idea of "death of the author" and intentional fallacy and getting students to think of Portal 1 as a legitimate text to analyze AT ALL. The teacher talked about how in Portal 1, the dark unportalable walls feel insidious and malicious and imposing. And I raised my hand because I'm a brat, and I was like, "no, that's not why the unportalable walls are black. they're black because the concrete is white, and concrete wouldn't read as concrete if it were black. Also, specular highlights and bumpmaps will show up better on these darker textures, which will let them read more as metal, which is a different affordance than concrete. So it is easier to light the concrete, which is good, because that's what the player will need to notice more. If you make things darker, you get to push back things into the background and the player can safely ignore them. It's a way of visually imposing hierarchy on the space so the player can solve puzzles.
  7. 7. Also, this game would otherwise look pretty much like Half-Life 1 without the reflective metal, so they want to emphasize the shininess of the walls so that you can justify how you bought a new graphics card to support this graphics-hardware-industrial complex that the game industry tacitly profits from." Like, I have a huge problem reading video games straightforwardly as texts because video games ARE SUCH FUCKING BULLSHIT. If you try to read Assassin's Creed earnestly and naively -- oh, you're the genetic ancestor of a long lineage of assassins, so you have to go back to the past, and this is commentary on history and original sin blah blah -- and think this contrived-as-fuck lazily developed sci-fi frame narrative is anything other than a giant gaping big massive fucking COP-OUT because they wanted to make a game about the middle east and assassins without actually making it about the middle east and assassins -- like, the assassins couldn't just be assassins, instead it's a fucking alien conspiracy, oh my fucking god... aka, the same "apolitical" song and dance this fucking industry has pretended to put on for years -- if you try to read all this earnestly on its face as an actual text of literary merit then YOU ARE A FOOL because you are taking this bullshit seriously in the same way that 7 year old boys will eat-up the GI Joe universe and the Ubisoft CEOs are laughing at you. All the story and lore and "world design" in Mass Effect is designed for the sole purpose of justifying laser swords and space magic. IT IS ALL BULLSHIT. Why are you wasting your time on this? UGH. But anyway. Back to the "Portal 1 as literature" class. The teacher chose my outburst as a fine teaching moment to teach the intentional fallacy and how I'm being a fascist if I argue that this LITERARY PRODUCT was built expressly to part fools from their money, everyone is entitled to argue for their own reading based on the textual evidence, blah blah blah.
  8. 8. I am not saying bullshit should not exist. I love bullshit. Bullshit is extremely entertaining. But let's not pretend bullshit isn't bullshit. C'mon. Like, what's Half-Life 1 about? Is it important that it takes place in 1995? Or 2002? Or 2009? No. Half-Life 1 is about shooting monsters and solving puzzles so you can get to the next level. I LOVE HALF-LIFE 1 SO MUCH I AM WRITING A BOOK ON IT. But does that mean Half-Life is a deep narrative work? No. Does that mean I'm going to see an animation stutter and interpret that as evidence that the entire base is populated by holographic robots? NO. That would be foolish. We recognize that a BUG IS NOT INTENTIONAL. Like, when you fall out of the world in a video game, it's pretty clear that that is not an existentialist commentary or a statement about mortality and gravity. No, it was a QA intern who didn't find that bug, or a level designer who was lazy about clipping, or an engine programmer who was lazy about collision detection. How can you call out intent when a game malfunctions, but then ignore intent when you want to argue that Final Fantasy isn't one of the most boring things in the world? The author isn't dead. The author is often racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic or makes up bullshit sci-fi narratives to sell you a laser gun game -and ignoring this SYSTEM OF GAME DEVELOPMENT WHEN INTERPRETING A TEXT seems unwise to me. Ignoring the MEANS OF PRODUCTION and IDEOLOGY BEHIND PRODUCTION seems unwise to me. 6) TECHNICAL INTENT [explain Black Mesa Inbound in context, in popular critical circles]
  9. 9. Black Mesa Inbound is probably one of the most complicated pieces of level scripting in the entire game. Which is kind of strange -so much effort and time went into a section of the game where you don't really do anything. Just from a production point of view, I would guess that no indie developer would ever do something like this because it would seem so wasteful to dedicate so many resources to something barely interactive. On the AAA side of things, when they do make a tram ride level, there's a good chance they do it closer to the end of production because by then they can just reuse assets and pieces of levels (or discarded sections of other levels) and cobble all the stuff together into the tram ride, all for the same reasons -- you don't want to waste time making unique stuff for a gameplay sequence that doesn't even have to afford any gameplay. You're not blocking production on any other part of the game by ignoring this part. On the technical side, Inbound is a masterwork of hacks. There are so many technical constraints they've designed around, in a pretty brilliant way, and I'm going to argue that these workarounds drive a lot of Inbound's design. That is, the Half-Life engine design heavily guided the Half-Life experience design in fundamental ways. The reason Valve did what they did was sometimes because they COULD NOT DO IT ANOTHER WAY. Let's start with the base of Half-Life's game logic: it is made of a world and entities.The world is made of polygons. These are the walls, floors, and ceilings that remain static and never change throughout the game. But anything dynamic must be an ENTITY. An entity can be a headcrab (monster_headcrab) or a glass window (func_breakable) or a button (func_button). In Black Mesa Inbound, the tram is a func_tracktrain entity. The most present technical constraint in Inbound is this: there was
  10. 10. no entity parenting in retail Half-Life. That is, you could not glue one object to another object. Every part of an object had to be fused into one core entity, one model, one thing. That has MASSIVE IMPLICATIONS for, like, just the first SECOND of Inbound. There is no glass on the tram. Glass would have to be see-through, and thus rendered differently from the rest of the tram, so you would need a separate model. One possible hack they could've done: make a second tram, consisting just of windows, and give this second windows-only tram the same exact instructions as the first tram. This would work for maybe the first room or two, but after a while you would start seeing desynchornization and maybe the windows-only tram would end up flying forward and leaving you behind. Also, it would be a pain in the ass to keep synchronizing the two trams. Also, it might've been technically possible for a player to wedge themselves in between the windows and the tram body, and thus kill themselves. So, Valve made a judgment call and decided it wasn't worth it, and no one would really notice that there aren't any windows. They were right. There are no other NPCs on-board. Again, because there wasn't any true transfer of momentum or parenting. And here, the "second tram" hack would not be possible because character polygons are rendered differently from environment polygons. The monster_scientist is already a monster_scientist; it cannot be a func_tracktrain. This is also why the tram goes slowly. If you the tram goes quickly, you have the possibility of what we might call "tunneling" [EXPLAIN TUNNELING]. And here, the fear is that the player might fall through or get stuck in the train and/or die. So, the best way to avoid those issues (as the player jumps around and runs and crouches) is to move slowly, to give the engine plenty of time to update positions and collision. And perhaps most importantly, this is why you start on the tram already onboard.
  11. 11. The door on the tram would have to be a separate object, a func_door, in order to open or close. But we can't do that because we wouldn't be able to parent the closed func_door to the func_tracktrain. Anyway. The point is, it was just a lot easier, technically, to start the player on the train already. So they did. You don't start by standing in your dormitory and walking out to the tram and opening a door. However, that presented Valve with a huge problem: if the player cannot enter a tram, how will the player get out? The answer was ingenious: load a different level, with a dummy version of the tram. Now I'm going to talk about the structure of Inbound, and what went into building the environment. You need curves to break visibility + create visual interest? but curves are also really annoying to build + floating point errors >>> solution: hand-build a bunch of these in the editor? annoying / painstaking? >>> texturing the rails and trims along a curve is SUPER annoying >>> this was time-consuming work, not trivial >>> this is why a lot of HL levels are boxy and 90 degrees >>> terrain is VERY TIME CONSUMING TODO: did Worldcraft X have "Fit" texture and texture alignment tools?? >>> also, no in-editor model preview >>>>> TOOLS MATTER A LOT FOR WORKFLOW / FINAL PRODUCT!!!