Sunday, 8 December 2013

On Mortal Kombat 4

Mortal Kombat as a series is often framed through a tone of lament within enthusiast fighting game communities. The narrative of Mortal Kombat in those spaces is mostly that of loss, a tragic state of decline after UMK3 that ends though the release of Mortal Kombat 9, where the series goes "back to its roots" in a glorious redemption. The PS2-era Mortal Kombat games, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, as well as the Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe spin-off on the 360, act as the Dark Horses of the series--metaphorical scars  from a depressive period from which MK9 signals its departure. This means that within discussions about Mortal Kombat, the PS2-era titles receive little attention.

Fighting games, much more than games in other genres, are mostly evaluated by their ability to be played competitively. There's a focus on design, but a very cold part of design that aims for "balance" and focuses on the optimization process, rather than the ideas and feelings design communicates and the experience it molds. So there isn't much attention put to what fighting games do artistically. And with these current expectations we seem to have for fighting games, it isn't too surprising that the PS2-era games were generally seen as sub-par [1]. But when we look at the Mortal Kombat games from a different perspective, we see that they do have considerable value and are in fact quite interesting as games and as fighting games. Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon represent their own focused, mostly homogeneous sub-series in the same way that MK3, UKM3 and MK: Trilogy do, or MK1 and MK2. We can split up the Mortal Kombat games into these kinds "packs" of smaller sub-series, each with their own visual style, tone and interpretation of the universe.

Mortal Kombat 4 represents the state of transition between the SNES MK games and the PS2-era titles. Yet it fits in neither camp; the game imposes systems that reflect both eras and presents a visual style similar to neither. MK4 also reveals the series' identity crisis during the late 90s, a certain confusion and stumbling that was seen from several sequels trying to refocalize SNES inspirations through the 3D aesthetic. And yet, Mortal Kombat 4 was the first game in the series to feel like it had real creative direction. It has a strong character, and its various elements are densely layered and focused to communicate a heavy tone, that's only occasionally betrayed by its occasional narrative stumbles. This is is pretty typical for an artistic work, but new for Mortal Kombat, which for the first four titles were mostly flat gore-fests with a very messy 90s arcade style [2]. Mortal Kombat 4 showed an attempt to communicate something beyond the shock and gore that was characteristic of the series, and it paved the way for a group of PS2 games that took themselves just a little more seriously.


Most of the accepted conventions and tropes of fighting games come from their long and deep historical relationship with the arcade environment. Console based fighting games don't necessarily need timers, or continue screens or ladder style progression structures, but they're elements that have become characteristic of the genre, and fighting game enthusiasts are mostly used to them.  Remember that the "death of arcades" is more prevalent in the US and Canada than it is in places like Japan, parts of Europe and South-East Asian countries. So Mortal Kombat, Injustice and other games developed at the Netherealm studios in Chicago, have always had an easier time disconnecting from the arcade convention than games like Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Tekken.

The most prevalent arcade convention is the communication of the spectacle. Most fighting games are focalized through the frame of the event spectator. Many stages are settings where crowds watch and cheer, sometimes in large stadiums and settings that imply the fight as an organized spectated event, a prizefight or a tournament match. Most settings are also either outdoors, during the daytime, or set regions of the world that are known to have dense populations.

One of the most significant things about Mortal Kombat 4 is how it de-prioritizes the spectacle event, as it doesn't communicate spectacle but solitude. No one is watching you in Mortal Kombat 4. There are no signs of other people. Most of its settings are strictly indoors and badly-lit, empty and low on objects that move or make noise. The small exceptions would be "Ice Pit," which is featured outside in the daytime but closed off by large walls that block its horizon point, and "Snake", which seems to feature people, but they're presented as shadows of tortured figures who are burning alive in a green fire while chained to walls, so I don't know if that counts. The point is that these stages imply themselves as places that people just don't go to, and figures of dead bodies and active torture communicate these places as actively hostile to people and to life in general. And this is completely antithetical to how fighting games normally use setting! They do this because they want to inject a life into the setting and an overall energy to the tone of the game. Even Darkstalkers 3 has a life to its stages, but Mortal Kombat 4 is isolation to a point I haven't seen passed in fighting games.

Stages like Well and Lair are interesting. The first 'image' you see in Well is the 'front' side: a giant decorative burning furnace, and behind the camera lies a large pitch black hallway that doesn't show where it leads. Lair takes place in an underground tomb layered with stone walls. There are four wide openings, and the space is partially lighted with two torches at opposite ends. The openings reveal four deeper openings with corner torches, which is identical to the structure of the room you fight in, implying the larger space as labyrinthian, endless and isolated. Elder is similar to Lair in structure but carries a different sense of material. The room appears to be made out of stone but is also decorative, and the stone appears finely cut. But instead of openings, its four rectangular walls show huge blue faces with glowing white eyes and that make the same two silent expressions: large eyes with a gaping open mouth, and a scrunched face of anger--they cycle between these. So we see how Mortal Kombat 4 communicates a solitude but also a surreality, a cold material aesthetic, a dry sense of isolation and a moody, dead spaciality in its setting. And it's constructions are varied and clever in their subtlety.


Mortal Kombat 4 still carries a furious energy. Its responses feel immediate in that inputs will always trigger a low-frame animation; a quick jab or a run motion that doesn't appear moved *into*, but keyed in right after a standing frame (Now this isn't true, but it's fast enough to make you think it is). Movement feels quick, and attacks appear as a jumpy staccato--they cut into each other so quickly, much more than similar frame systems like Street Fighter/Guilty Gear.

Fighting games have a particular aesthetic of frames[3], as in, the frames of moves are structured to be predictable and measurable, which means that the moves themselves will also be predictable and measurable when presented on the screen. So in a way, I can "see" the frames in a fighting game; I get an intuitive sense of the temporality of the moves I use. Their consistency is what makes them competitive.  When I play Street Fighter, I can get a estimable sense of how long every move will last, which allows me to make decisions. I'm weighting my semantic knowledge of frames, damage sets, and combos with my intuitive sense of frames and my situation within the space.

Mortal Kombat disregards the aesthetic of frames common in fighting games for something more informal and free-form, thereby losing its competitive nature. Through a formalist lens that prizes "good design" above other forms of expression, Mortal Kombat 4 would be seen as simplistic and unsatisfying in its disregard for balance, but it gains a key expressive element. Everything in Mortal Kombat 4 is so fast, and there's so little variation in its frames across movesets and characters. I find this incapacity for nuance in its play to be intriguing, because it communicates a blind aggressiveness and a drone-like approach to hyperviolence.

This is supported by MK4's score, which separates itself from the other games in the series through its heavy use of drums and percussion, and its haunting voice chords. Mortal Kombat 4 is unique in that it cuts out the focus on the cheesy 90s electric guitar riffs and focuses on a more effective and better designed sense of mood and atmosphere.

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant, an affect theorist describes her interpretation of word impasse: "a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward," or, in more detail, "a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance". Mortal Kombat 4 is a construction similar to the impasse. The game presents these stages that are solitary, closed in spaces that block any meaningful view of the outer setting. In this way, the stages erase all context of the setting, and instead hyperfocus into themselves, concentrating every aesthetic element into the space, giving it an intensity. These are impasse-like in the way that they block off the outer world to place pure focus on a specific situational scene. The second characteristic is in the stages themselves, where the processes of hyperaggressivity (the fighting) are so constant and simplistic that they imply a sort of blind rage, similar to Berlant's "hypervigilance". To top it all off, structurally the games are fighting games, which mean technically they do situations where you can't move forward. A lot of games do that, but Mortal Kombat 4 seems to purposely structure itself towards the point.

In Conclusion!...

Mortal Kombat 4 is one of the most interesting fighting games I've ever played. It's the most interesting Mortal Komabt game I've ever played, it's the most tonally consistent, powerful and affecting game in the series.

When I discuss Mortal Kombat 4, people tend to bring up the dumb cutscene with Jax and Jerek. MK4 does have its missteps, most of which involve its tie-ins to the larger franchise. It still has some of its vague sexism in terms of the clothing of Tanya and its racist depictions of Kai, the "African warrior," with his white face paint, albeit these things aren't emphasized to cringe-worthy heights. The endings, which represent game's attempts to make an explicit story are also pretty awful. The exception is the starting cutscene where Raiden introduces the narrative context, which I found to be an effective introduction *because* of its lack of plot detail that the endings fail to replicate.

To be honest, I feel like the weirdest thing about Mortal Kombat 4 is that it's a Mortal Kombat game at all. I played MK4 when I was much under 10 years old, and liked the characters, especially Sub-Zero because he represented a strong masculine figure but also implied a smart and morally righteous nature that I aspired to. But playing them now, they feel so out of place. These settings and contexts are so aesthetically complex, but these characters feel so cartoonish and simplistic. The way that Jax lifts his arms like he's in a stadium instead of a torture room, or the bizzare Johnny Cage ending where he makes an appearance to a crowd of his fans who start to boo and throw objects at him without reason. There's a disconnect between the people in MK4 and the things that happen around them. They seem tragically unaware.

These are the little contrasts that make Mortal Kombat 4 so interesting and important. The contrast between its aggressivity and its subtle creepiness, between the representation of its characters and the reality of their context. It's a good game, and deserves more recognition within fighting games. I highly recommend it.



1: There's a significant split between the historical view of Mortal Kombat of enthusiasts and average gamers. Among mainstream critics, Deadly Alliance was seen as a triumphant revival, while the previous Mortal Kombat 4 was the trump. No doubt that console "generations" and the prioritizing of competitive elements had something to do with that.

2: I sort of generalize the SNES era Mortal Kombat games. UKM3 and MK3 are flat goofiness, but you do see some interesting moody elements in Mortal Komat II.

3: When I say "aesthetic of frames," I just mean that there is an aesthetic to how games present frames, or movement along frames. If we had a sheet that told us the frame count of every animation in a game, and compared them to each other, what conclusions can we make about the overall structure of its frames? More importantly, what does it feel like to maneuver a space with this kind of frame structure. What kind of experience does it create and what does that experience communicate? We can understand this by dissecting the aesthetics of "movement" and "motion," within games.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The problem with guns

For the past couple of decades, the gun has been a central element in AAA system design, almost on the level of jumping as an input option, or post-2006  cover systems, and  it's overuse and lazy misuse over the years has seemed create a rupture of negative views towards the gun and its advantageous place in mainstream game design. Over the past year, I've noticed a large shift of thinking within critical games communities when it comes to the gun. This shift isn't just the developing of a passive fatigue, but an active disdain towards the gun as a symbolic object. We're not simply bored with guns in games; rather the videogame gun now represents different things to us, new things that we don't like, things we no longer want. As the culture strives for legitimacy among its artistic peers, and desperately longs for more meaningful and valuable experiences, the gun becomes a symbol of everything that is holding us back. We're so dissatisfied with the gun, that the mere omission of one in a game will incite praise in itself, as we've seen with games like Gone Home, Proteus, Dear Esther, etc. etc. So we seem to be reaching a certain point, a real critical shift, influenced by the increasing divergence of mainstream and non-mainstream games cultures, one I would hope would lead to a sort of "post-gun" thinking.

A shift to post-gun thinking would represent more than just everyone not liking guns anymore.  It would imply an expansion of the critical imagination, where we can critically think about games not just beyond guns, but beyond the *systems* that the use of guns create. The problem with guns is they immediately mold a system into a collection of simplistic antagonisms. When you pick up a gun in a game, you create a split between the representational object holding the gun, and the objects that become targets. It turns the system into "me vs. them" mentality, calcifying it into a hyperfocus of the very dry and mechanized process of target practice. Visual work, sound work, narrative devices; everything becomes secondary to target practice.

Targetry is a black hole in that it sucks up an enormous amount of energy and concentration that would normally be used for more valuable areas of the interpretative experience, like, engaging with a game's aesthetics or contemplating its narrative elements. Yet instead getting the chance participate in these things, which would undoubtedly help create the experience we seem to all be looking for, we're forced to spend hours lining up crosshairs to heads, and only get to engage with the game's more meaningful elements in limited ways. Through the dullness of targetry, the experience becomes mechanized to the point of numbness. The process of shooting object after object becomes drone like.

Is it any wonder so many games are about cynical, hyperviolent white males when their very systems are dry and antagonistic? It seems that no matter how much we inject into our budgets, the sad hours of crunch we impose and the quality of writers we hire, 010s AAA narratives continue to fall victim to the oppressive systems of targetry. And it's a system that it seems we've become largely reliant on. Our critical imagination feels to be dying in the face of dry, empty antagonism.

It's important that when talking about AAA games, games with enormous budgets developed by large groups of 50+ people that can guarantee huge audiences on release, we approach them not only as works of art but also as products. The work of art is an object designed for expression by the artist, but the product is an object created to fulfill monetary value by performing a specific set of functions. The product is supposed to "work," to our strict expectations of how it should work, and when it doesn't 'work' it loses its monetary value and therefore all of its value. I bought my Android tablet a few weeks ago and it can barely load an app without freezing and crashing, so the thing is sort of worthless and I'm considering asking for a refund. AAA games are mostly products because they're restricted by culture with strict expectations on how games should look and what they should do and an anxious management class trying to follow certainties in a market of inflated budgets, confining it into a set list of functions it's expected to perform to justify the absurdly high cost of purchasing it, as well as the absurdly high cost of making it.

With that in mind, it wouldn't be too hard to see the appeal of empty targetry in large games. Large games, being products, are designed through a rigorous min/maxing, an optimization and mechanization of the play experience to guarantee its monetary value can be justified. Systems of Targetry meet the demand of large games: targetry is easy to understand; it doesn't require too much emotional energy; hitting targets is satisfying but only for a short time, which guarantees, at least theoretically, that you'll be doing it repeatedly for longer to keep the responses coming as consistently as possible. Like Candy!

But like candy, targetry is quickly forgotten, and experiences that are rooted in targetry carry little emotional depth. As a result, Big Budget games that are rooted in targetry end up perpetuating simplistic perspectives on complicated issues, perspectives that can even be harmful: the uncritical use of torture scenes, apolitical racism, shallow critiques of American culture and bottomless cynicism. These things occur because empty systems of targetry suck from narratives and aesthetics the space and time required to create emotional and conceptual depth.

What I find so interesting that the disdain for the gun is medium specific; we yawn and groan at the use of a gun in a new trailer during a conference, but the use of guns (and violence in general) in film and literature have created moments we consider 'classics'. The tragic shooting scene in taxi driver, the gut-wrenching drive-by in Boys n The Hood, the flamethrower sequence in Aliens (and it's moody counterpart in Alien), or final shootout in Scarface. There's something about the way guns are used in film that games seem to be incapable of pulling off.

This leads to my second point about the problem with guns, and videogame violence in general: they're void of drama. There's no drama to shooting a man in a videogame, nor is there any emotional weight to the majority of violence that games present. It's rarely interesting to look at, and it's rarely interesting or meaningful to do in narrative context. When we associate 'guns' with tedium of targetry, we mechanize the play process and remove its emotional weight.

So how can we make guns interesting? Should they be interesting?

I talk to friends in my social circles who strongly believe we should be moving away completely from violence in games. I do enjoy violence in media, and I think that games can provide the same drama and intrigue to violence as other forms. The thing about games is they provide one of the most realistic interpretations of guns. Guns *aren't* dramatic; guns are *not* emotionally complex, they *are* mechanized and they do create a drone process. It just doesn't make for interesting works of art, is all.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

On Aaron Steed's Ending

Among the various perspectives that already exist, I want to try and position a game primarily a system of inputs and responses. I'm going to try to avoid using the word "player;" I think the term implies a manipulation, awareness, and a sphere of expectations I don't think are necessary in the experience of play. I want to communicate these ideas in the most flexible, expansive sense.

Within most games there are entities that create inputs; they say something to the game, they send it messages, and the game in turn responds. The response may provoke another input, possibly from you, and this spawns a cycle, a cycle of inputs and responses, flowing and entwining between and through each other. The cycle lasts for 5 minutes or it lasts for 10 hours, and we usually participate in the cycle by providing inputs and observing responses, which then influence our future inputs. The experience of participating in this cycle, providing input and observing response is we can see the act of playing a game. This is what play means to me, at least.

What does it mean to provide input? I think there's an endless possibility of inputs you can make into a game, as there are an infinite number of responses. The ways that a game can respond to input depend on the ways we're are capable of expressing ourselves, our feelings and opinions, our thoughts and the messages we want to communicate to others (or ourselves). A response can be a sound or the moving of an image or a vibration on a joystick. Or a response can be no response. Or a response and an input can be read as the same! If we read a game as a cycle of inputs and responses, then I think we can find games in places where we haven't looked before. 

When you use something like a TV, for example, you provide inputs to the TV and the TV responds by changing the channel or the volume, influencing the nature of your next input into the TV. This would mean that within this perspective, the TV acts as a game. It would also mean that Hervé Tullet Un Livre is a game! A book that encourages you to touch colorful shapes on a page and watch fun things happen to them on the next page. Un Livre responds to you, it creates an experience that cycles between your input--your reading and touching of parts of the page--and the book's response by proving new images based on your touch. "Un Livre" is as much a game as any platformer or action beat-em-up.

Some games play well with input/response but others fight it and stretch it out. Jack King Spooner's Mammoth is a game that consists of long stretches of video, separated by very short keyboard prompts and visual cues. In that case, where is the input? Where is the response? There is seemingly none; both input and response become abstracted, stretched and muddled, but I don't think they're non-existent. Because I think response is what creates the relationship between the game and those who interact with the game. To respond (or to not respond) is to create a relationship. To respond is to show a sign of life! To say "yes, I am here. I'm listening." Games can make us feel less alone, or they can make us feel more alone, through the nature of their responses.

Another example can be found in Lydia Neon's "Creative Conflict Jam," where Cameron Kunzelman game made with Tara Ogaick called Resolving Conflict by Acquiescing to the OverwhelmingViolence of Time. I like Cameron Kunzelman games because they carry a rich humor to their detached cynicism. I never laugh at loud, but they give me a fun smirk on my face when I play them.  Resolving Conflict shows a woman, and prompts you to use the 'up' key to "forward time', cutting to a black transition screen that says "TIME" and back to the woman who appears sicker and sicker until she is shown dead, and eventually degrades into a skeleton. Each time you press the up key the game responds by forwarding time, a linear sequence of events, but when she reaches skeleton state, the game stops forwarding time--it stops responding. The 'deadness' of this woman, her sudden ending is communicated through the death of the system itself, a system that has 'died' in its own sense, since the game is no longer responding in the way it once did. (1)

On Grids

Aaron Steed's Ending was the first game that provoked me to think about what it means for a game to respond. Ending is a game that responds, immediately, aggressively, consistently. Ending's nature regarding the way it responds is what gives it a sense of immediacy, and a forcefulness, that in my opinion is what makes the game so strong.

Ending's nature of response mostly comes from the way Ending communicates movement, which is through grids. If I want to understand Ending's movement, I need to go through what the grid is. What does it mean for a game to be grid based? We can understand the grid a little better by first looking to Lana Polansky on cartography:

"Cartography is an illustrated representation of ideology. It’s way of visualizing and codifying territory, sure—but it’s also a way of claiming it. [...] Maps, borders and place names change over time as societies move and borders are restructured and cultures reshape. Maps are ultimately an expression of a need for a culture to impose itself on the territory, as much as they express a need to understand it and plot it out."

It's important, when looking at 2D games, to think of the 2D space as an abstract space, a 'free' space that, initially, defies all structure, form, and rationality. If you use a 2D graphics/window library like LOVE2D, or Pygame, and do nothing but initialize a window, the first thing you'll see is a black screen, a sign of the infinite void that currently exists in your program. To create systems around movement is to structure the abstract space, to rationalize it to our cultural modes of thinking. Polansky's point to ideology within cartography can be extended to any ideological structuring of a 'space'.

So the grid is a mode of structuring the abstract space. Movement then, revolves around this structuring of such abstract space. With games like Ending, the space is broken down into *steps* of fixed distances. 20 pixels to the left. 80 pixels upwards on the screen. The way that Ending communicates these 'steps' is the way that Ending communicates movement, and ultimately the way that Ending creates immediacy.

When you move a piece in a game like Chess on your Windows PC, you'll see that they have very slow steps. Chess is a game of hesitance and contemplation, a game of prevention through prediction. To present steps as these slow, procedural processes, communicates chess as this type of game. The slowness of these steps also brings a power to its movements. To lift your piece and stomp it to its new place is to claim your stance with authority and bravado.

Ending lies on the opposite. Its steps are quick, blindingly fast. They're immediate. As a result, the game doesn't feel contemplative or authoritative, rather it feels reactionary. This doesn't seem right, because in Ending I don't need to make decisions against dynamic time. I can wait, and think about my situation as long as I want before I make a move. But this is where we come across Ending's peak dissonance: its presentation suggests reaction, immediacy, and hesitation, but it structures space around fixed movements and the freezing of time. Ending feels like a tense arcade shooter, but plays like traditional chess.

I like to place the tense arcade shooter under the umbrella of "twitch games. When I say "twitch," I refer to games like Leon Arnott's The Blob Family, Sophie Houlden's Shift*Switch or Molinari's Sounddodger. Games whose win/lose conditions are based on contact, where play consists of using movement to avoid it, sometimes focalized through an arcade context (points, time limits, leaderboards). I see Ending as a twitch game more than turn-based strategy. It's a twitch-game that's been slowed down, and cut-up into pieces. Ending is a game that still revolves around 'contact', after all; to win or lose in Ending depends on whether you can avoid contact, similar to the twitch (2).

Drone Response

Ending's nature of response is immediate, and it gives the game a tense, exciting flow to it. But its response is also consistent, bringing a feeling of overwhelm.

You're not alone in Ending. There are large groups of various 'antagonists', entities whose purpose is to prevent a win-condition, who are also operating in the same space as you. It's not uncommon to see at least twenty other 'bots' in the same level. Ending feels crowded.

This is important, because when you make input in Ending, everything responds with the same immediacy as your avatar. With every input you make, the environment will shift in a split moment. It's drone-like, and hard to deal with. You feel surrounded, overwhelmed, and slightly nervous. Ending is consistent in the sense that every input of movement will trigger the same kind of response: 20 or so bots will immediately shift towards you, adapting their position around yours.

Fucked by the start

As Ending responds consistently, its tension scales. This is a unique thing to see in a videogame! For example, tension in Street Fighter mostly relies on inconsistent response. When you and your opponent's health is low, the tension arises around the system's variability. You cycle through your possible inputs to match your prediction of the opponent’s response. To 'read' in Street Fighter, is to accurately predict and anticipate a response, and plan your input accordingly to bring yourself closer to achieving a win-condition. Ending's tension is different, because you know very well what's going to happen: the bots will move closer, they will move where you move, they'll close in with every input you make. The knowledge of a consistent response gives Ending a subtle dread, a feeling of impending Doom. Consequently, every win-condition achieved in Ending feels like you've dodged the smallest bullet.



Well, Ending has no plot. This is okay! Games don't need plots. What games *do* need, is context, framing, focalization.

I started thinking about focalization, and have been trying (with some fail) to implement the idea into my writings when I read this blog post by Robert Yang. With some stumbling, he attempts to give the word "focalization" some grounding for further widespread use:

"It means something like "point of view" or "perspective", but maybe it's less rigid than those two, and implies less embodiment and more dynamicism?... perhaps it's not really about inhabiting or role-playing characters or people exactly, it's about consciousness and the ways in which the reader or player's attention gets focused.

I think that games make systems meaningful by focalizing them through aesthetic and thematic ideas. We usually see system focalized through sounds and visuals, but we also see systems focalized through text, material, and controller vibrations. To focalize a system is to give a system a tone and a voice, and a feeling that binds to the play experience. A system that's focalized cohesively can create an "immersive" experience. A system focalized incohesively can create a weird, jarring play experience, that's ultimately still interesting and valuable in its own way.

I want to explore Ending's aesthetic focalization in the form of closing notes, and then close this off. Given the heap of words I just dropped onto you, it may not be surprising to realize how much of Ending's aesthetic characteristics correspond to its systems.

1 - Ending, at times, feels slightly aggressive, mostly because of the way its camera moves with the avatar. To move feels like being violently pushed forward, piloting a mech vehicle that thrusts your body with every push of the controls.

2 - Ending is played on a grayscale checkerboard. Bots are white with gray and black shadings, and carry different shapes to indicate their nature. When you achieve your win-condition, the screen stretches and dissolves in a particular direction.

3 - Ending responds to every movement input with a whishing sound that feels more electrical than physical.

4 - When you win a match in Ending, the game emits a horrifying track of sounds. A barrage of electrical thumps that feel like a reverb being turned up. It's disturbing, and like Ending's systems, we see a drone-like nature matched with intensity. It sounds like a computer trying to scream.

5 - Ending is incredibly desaturated, so the bright red 'X' marks you can toggle on the board really bleed onto the screen and it's slightly jarring. The red was likely for visibility but layered on the checkerboard ground, it creates a compelling contrast.

I guess I have to say that on top everything else, Ending is just really enjoyable to play. It's intense, resonant, and it provoked me to think about the structure of games in ways I haven't before.

I felt things! And I learned a thing. That's all I really ask from a game.

SCORE: [8\34\*****}]


1: Of course there can be arguments that Resolving Conflict never really stops responding, that its turn to a static state becomes its final response and therefore its final communication, that being the total ending of this woman. But that's okay. This isn't meant to stay rigid, but I hope what I'm trying to say here is coming across.

2: What makes Ending dissimilar to the twitch is that it's rules around contact are slightly different. You can lose on contact, but you can also destroy a bot if you make contact first. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

On: Mario Empalado

All you have to do go to the freeindiegames page of Mario Empalado and you'll see what the general idea of this game is. Many people seem to feel that it's crass, juvenille and sort of gross. I understand that. I even understand if that makes you not want to play it, or it totally turns you off from the game. But I actually like Mario Empalado. I like it a lot.

 I think people are making a mistake about what the game actually is. Paiva calls it a "hate letter to the games industry," but I don't think he's being totally honest. Paiva is a good designer. He's made a lot of games. He's taught them to 11 year olds at workshops. I think he's smarter than what Mario Empalado would suggest of him at the surface, and I think it's important to trust what he's trying to do.

I don't think that Mario Empalado is the HotlineMiami/FarCry3 self-reflection shooter that it probably initially implies for a lot of people. The reason why the FarCry3 'reflection' game fails, is because it's inherently disingenuous at its core. It wants you to feel bad for shooting others, yet shooting is designed to be enjoyable. It's mechanics tell you that FarCry3 is a game to have fun with, but it's narrative (not even full-heartedly) tells you that it's bad, in ways that are superficial and meaningless: through absurd cutscenes and weak dialogues of "what have I become" in between hours of shooting down coloured people. Games like FarCry3 are in conflict with themselves, and become incapable of properly saying what they want to.

(I encourage you to read Brendan Keogh on the subject)

This isn't what Mario Empalado is. Mario Empalado isn't disingenuous, and it's nature is not a veneer.  Everything you do in Mario Empalado is exactly what the game is trying to suggest to you it is. The shots themselves, for example, aren't satisfying or enjoyable. They feel dead, and hollow. There's no feeling of feedback or response to them; they just have this low-quality soundclip, which makes your shots feel cheap and useless, like garbage. Everything about Mario Empalado feels gross and repulsive. But it doesn't just tell you that. It actually curves it's entire aesthetic and mechanics towards instilling the feeling of disgust.

Think about how Mario Empalado looks. Think about how its aesthetic is literally composed of colored neon-like outlines on pure black. It feels so ugly and uncomfortable, like an dirty city alleyway at midnight. 

If Mario Empalado is dishonest, it's dishonesty probably comes from the surface assumption that it's attempting to act as some kind of industry criticism. I think its "fuck the games industry" surface exists to manifest the militant nerd-gamer mentality, but I don't even think it's the point. What brings Mario Empalado full circle, is its ending, the point where you're disconnected. The game drowns your head in mucky water, and then pulls you up, to show the contrast between the political intensity of the embedded metagame, and the dry, mundane reality that acts as its frame narrative. The transition in turn, communicates that what you just spend your time on was pointless. "What you did was meaningless," says Mario Empalado. "You're just some asshole on a computer. Look around you. What are you doing with yourself?" Asks Mario Empalado as you stare at the clock showing midnight, the leaky roof you still haven't fixed, the door closed to your room, revealing your own sad isolation. 

Again, this is not the same as the ironic self-reflection shooter. Mario Empalado is not commenting on the morality of my complicity in its systems. The game is well aware that what I'm doing is awful. The game does know that, yes, I know that what I am doing is terrible in a real world context. I do not need to be told this over and over again, as I, like you, am not an idiot. Instead, Mario Empalado removes us from the metagame, to show the destructive disconnection that exists in games, the kind that would allow for such extreme violence to exist unquestioned in the first place. 

Let's look a little outward for a bit. Do you remember Russ Pitt's Polygon review of Sim City, where he praised the game for its addictiveness? He discussed how the game caused in to miss a meeting:

"As for how satisfying the experience is as a whole, take this example: I missed a meeting. And it was my meeting. During the course of one play session, I literally became so absorbed in the experience that I lost all track of time and played through an entire afternoon, oblivious to the fact that a meeting I had scheduled approached and then passed. When I returned to my work station many, many hours later, I greeted my overflowing email inbox and the raft of polite (but concerned) inquiries as to my whereabouts with a serene, self-possessed calm. As if, whatever troubles the world might throw at me would be of little concern next to the travails I had experienced in West Pittssex."

Upon reading this for the first time, I found it incredibly disturbing. Why would someone view a game causing them to miss their meeting as a positive? A game that would, apparently, have no respect my time, no respect for my autonomy and my self as a human being, who has priorities and goals and passions, but rather views me as a hollow piece of meat, a means of perpetual consumption who purely exists to put time into itself, like a fordist factory worker puts in labour. Is that not disturbing? Is that not terrifying?

Perhaps, but it's also revealing of what I think is the full circle of Mario Empalado. A culture that doesn't respect itself. A culture that doesn't like itself, and searches not for meaning or purpose, but total disconnection, in order to satisfy its subconscious self-loathing

In that way, I find that Mario Empalado is better than the reflection-bro shooter. It's probably the most effective game that directly comments on the nature of violent play I've played.


Also, as an end note, this is a good chance to play more of Paiva's games. He's a very good designer. Carrocracia was just put up today on freeindiegames. Check it out!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

On Antichamber's Nature Music

I want to talk about Antichamber's nature soundscapes, which play in various forms and styles that correspond to certain places in its universe. I think Antichamber's nature music is important; I'd almost argue that the Antichamber's nature soundscapes make Antichamber. They're a crucial part of its narrative framing. Let me explain!

During the first few moments of the game (essentially before you get the staff), Antichamber sort of acts as horror. It plays with your senses, predicting your movements and manipulating your actions though distorting your sense of space and time, and there's nothing you can really do about it. You start to feel helpless, incapable of escaping this abstract, invisible force that seems to be omnipresent. If we isolate the projection that receives my input from the existence of myself as a player, we can say Antichamber is a true depiction of one's madness as a living hell, where one is moving and acting without purpose or context in an endless fervor and confusion. It's creepy and disturbing. 

The nature music plays an important part in this. We can modify the structuralist method a little(1) so we can fit it into games, and find a key contrast between its music and the nature of my input. See, playing through Antichamber's early moments is an exercise in helplessness, confusion, and distortion, which can all imply stress and franticness; but it's nature music implies the opposite: calmness, patience, and thoughtfulness. But that doesn't mean it's ludonarratively dissonant! Antichamber isn't contradicting diagetic elements with mimetic ones, but rather mimetic elements with aesthetic framing (the music). So what we get instead, is something that feels very disingenuous. The nature sounds tell me to be calm while I run around the same circular path for the 15th time. It's contradictory and confusing, another way that the environment fucks with me. All this adds to the idea of Antichamber as horror.

But then, of course, you get a staff, and everything changes. It's amazing how much a little more control can turn things around. Now, Antichamber's nature music plays a much simpler role. Because I have the staff, I feel much less helpless. I'm now more of an actor onto the world, which means that the nature music no longer feels like a contradiction, but rather a simple device used to frame the nature of my actions in its intended fashion. Now, Antichamber truly feels like a calming and tranquil experience. 

But regardless of the little control I have, the nature of this environment hasn't really changed. It still has the tendency to manipulate and confuse, yet the game's mood has totally flipped over because of the nature soundscapes. This is why the nature music is so important. It takes an Avant-Garde nightmare and turns it into a lax puzzler, thereby setting a very large part of the game's mood. 

Something else that I find remarkable, is the disconnection between what the nature soundscapes suggest of the environment, and what it actually is. Antichamber is composed of white doors and hallways, rectangular rooms and maps, but the nature music, obviously, depicts forests and jungles. Yet the game relatively brings across the same feeling! This is another kind of disconnection, and seems to strike right in the face of those who believe that deep immersion and engagement relies on consistent aesthetic portrayals that properly correspond to a sense of reality. Antichamber shows us that all that's necessary is a proper assortment of ideas, moods, and rules to create an meaningful experience.

(1) Structuralist criticism finds parallels, contrasts  and patterns within text to find meaning. This is me clumsily trying to apply it to games. I hope it worked a little. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

On Pippin Barr's "Art Game"

So Pippin Barr released "Art Game" today, a game you should probably play since it's actually really fun.

I like "Art Game" because it exists in a sphere where the idea of games as art is very charged and heavy and sort of tired out in a lot of areas. If you read this blog, chances are you tend to engage in the indie sphere where the idea that video games are an art form is pretty much a given, where everyone just assumes it as true, but it's still debated in many mainstream publications. Yet,"Art Game" feels like an inhibitor, a sort of reduction of the intensity around the idea of art, into something that feels ordinary and typical.

Art Game is so simple. You make art. A curator looks at your art, she likes it or doesn't and eventually puts it in a show, where observers share their opinion on what they think. Some of them don't really like it. Others think it's okay. You look around and see other paintings and eventually leave and go about your life. The point is that Art Game doesn't really try to throw these intense, strong opinions on what it thinks about art, or games, or criticism or mediums and such, rather it simply presents a situation where I make some art and show it to a bunch of people. None of these elements are exaggerated, or glorified, or demeaned or opposed, at least not explicitly or implicit enough to be clearly visible. They seem to just exist as they are, under the game's gray-scale palate and its non-existent soundtrack.

I don't think the game wants to say that art is *boring*,  and I especially don't think that it's not saying anything at all. Rather it seems to demystify any sort of romanticism regarding art, without plunging us into brutal realism. Creating and presenting art, sort of just exists a thing. There's a neutrality to how the game is depicted, and  by doing this, it actually ends up saying quite a bit about art. That the idea of art isn't too much of a huge deal; it's a thing that people make, that some people like or don't like, that we all just sort of enjoy and talk about it and then go on with our lives.

I kind of like that.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Old Post: How CLOP is Both a Sadist And an Optimist

Before the eventual deletion of my old blog, Fengxi, I'm taking my least terrible posts and giving them a home here. I'm also editing them a bit so they're not as awful to read. Take a Gander...


CLOP is the antithesis of a power fantasy. Every aspect of its design is in place to remind you of your insignificance. Unicorns in art and literature are portrayed as creatures of beauty, who symbolize grace and majesty, but Clop is anything but. Instead, your sprite is ugly and of low quality. Your movement is crass and graceless as you stumble and fall incessantly. And you spend the game chasing the false prospect of a virgin, a goal that hardly feels important or significant.

The naming of the horse as "Clop" is the equivalent to calling a dog "mutt," or a human "meatbag." It's derogatory; it strips the horse of any personality or individualism, portraying a talking unicorn as simplistic and insignificant. Your projection should be wondrous and grand, a symbol of purity and elegance; instead you're clumsy, foolish, and mediocre. You're a walking contradiction. By confusing and messing with your identity, the game facilitates your mocking. The projection of a strong, confident hero is now taken away.

Add this to how the game fetishizes our failures. It's obstacles are embarrassingly simplistic: a rock, a small ditch, a piece of stairs, suddenly followed by a large cliff. It's teasing the player, and mocking our failures with relentless humour. When playing the game, I decided to exclusively use both front hooves, and after a few moments, the game disables the horses back legs. The tag "Lame Horse Mode" flashes above, as it slowly limps across the ground. It was then I realized that CLOP is a sadistic game. Our identities are crushed and our abilities are handicapped. And our struggles and failures are not only mocked, they’re celebrated. It feeds on them; they’re the game’s central aspect.

Yet at the same time, CLOP is an optimistic game. With all its failure and struggle, the game never ceases to be enjoyable. It’s portrayal of the unicorn is quite funny, and there’s humour to be found in its mean-spirited satire. Despite its nature, it’s still likable and brought me positive sentiments as a player.

Perhaps that’s the point of CLOP. To show that there’s real, sincere enjoyment to be had in incessant failure, and clumsiness, and foolishness. It tells us, as oh-so-majestic unicorns, not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, are none of the things we do ridiculous, to some extent? Have our failures never been amusing, or enjoyable?

These are the kinds of questions CLOP is asking us. They're insightful, important questions, ones that you could miss if you dismiss CLOP as some kind of joke. But it's very ironic how CLOP gets its ideas across. In order to get the message you may be taking yourself too seriously, you have to take the game more seriously than you normally would.

If anything, it’s illustrative why CLOP is so deranged. It’s a mess of contradictions that are somehow cohesive. CLOP simultaneously presents us an idea and it’s contradicting counterpart. It’s both a plea for humility and an argument of the benefits of serious analysis. It’s a destruction of one’s identity for the purpose of creating its own. And it’s both a sadist and an optimist. Polar, much?

- Published August 21, 2012

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Cactus Block, Momentum, and Our Tools

I recently played chuchino's Cactus Block 2013, and there are things that warrant discussing.

We tend to think of mechanics as systems that should "work." We use that word, "work" a lot, like games are systems that exist exclusively for our use. I get it because a mechanical system shouldn't make it difficult for me to engage with content intellectually. If I can't walk in a game when it expects me to walk, I can't play the game, and therefore can't properly engage with it. Same thing with a broken DVD, or a book with ripped pages.

But just because its justified doesn't mean the expectation doesn't exist! I feel it's possible that  because of the mindset of "working" mechanics, we stop thinking about the systems or tools that constantly produce consistent results for our use. It's the simple idea of not thinking about where your tap water comes from, or where your food is made.

If the block making thingy in Cactus Block 2013 always made blocks, then it just becomes a static object that we stop thinking about. It becomes nothing but a means to block making, a square outline on our screen. But with the simple addition of the cactus, the box's antithesis, the game opens up this weird middle-space between us, and the block/cactuses that are made. That cursor outline is its own thing, an entity that we're now forced to have dialogue with.

I feel like when a system is consistent and reliable, we can produce strings of interactions to the point where we aren't thinking anymore. There's a momentum that players can develop, to the point where we can stop really paying attention. I can't develop that in Cactus Block 2013. I'm too busy accommodating  for an imperfect system.

I mean, what does all that momentum breaking allow? In a game like Street Fighter, if I get into a certain zone, I stop paying attention to everything else. Because of that, I never really get to see the small intricacies around, like how the music changes when health is low, or subtle quirks in the stages. I didn't notice these things for a long time! So perhaps momentum, in a sense, is myopic. It focuses my attention to a few specific ideas, to the point where I ignore everything else. Yet because of a very simple design choice, Cactus Block kind of becomes the opposite.

If this is true, maybe a game like Cactus Block would allow elements that would feel subtle in other games to be more pronounced? Intricacies in environments and aesthetic that could forward a narrative. The problem with a lot of games is that they carry these intricacies, but I'm too busy moving around, shooting, developing a momentum to pay attention to them. Hence, a narrative is never built.

It's possible that, for narrative to happen outside a player's actions, you have to reject their momentum. You have to get them to actually pay attention. I really like the way Cactus Block rejects my momentum by creating inconsistencies in its systems, and I think there's opportunity there to make something really interesting.

Mirror's Edge Screenshots

I'm taking screenshots of Mirror's Edge. The game is so gorgeous. It captures the beauty of urban spaces so well, even after five years. I'm playing it now, so I'll be updating this post with more screenshots.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Quickie: A Dissonance of Chells

When I commented on a photo Chell from Portal 1, a friend, Kim Moss expressed disdain at her appearance change in Portal 2. She felt, at least from what I took out, that they ""prettied" her up." There seemed to be something weird about her appearance in the second game. I hadn't noticed it before, but now looking at both photos, I think I can pinpoint some of the weirdness.

Portal 1
Portal 2

Chell in Portal 1 is dirty and uncleanly; there's a sense of disorientation in her that gives credulity to Portal's narrative. She really looks like someone who is moving through perpetual white rooms, falling hundreds of feet at a time, only held in place by cold, steel mechanisms bolted to her bare leg. A loud, omnipresent voice fills the room, telling her where to go, what to do, with a subtle, frightening subtext of consciousness. She's also alone, to her own thoughts, for a very long time.

In comparison, Chell in Portal 2 looks like she's going to the gym. She looks clean, younger and healthy. Her lips are glossy and opaque, as opposed to dry and unkempt like before, where you can even see some dead skin. Her hair is in this neat tie thing, that falls to the sides of her face in this way that feels constructed, like she thought of that, like she had the time and energy to carefully construct her appearance, which she absolutely does not in Portal 2's setting.

It's sort of a good example of a very subtle, casual kind of male gaze. I hesitate to call it problematic, as she does look like a normal human being, but it's definitely dissonant with its narrative. And I feel like it perpetuates an idea that women, even in the most straining, horrible circumstances, can and probably should be able to keep up that level of appearance. So I guess it is pretty problematic. :/

I'll leave you to your thoughts.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fengxi Box's Notable of 2012

I was supposed to make a 2012 list a long time ago but I just don't have the time and I'm not really into explaining them here. Honestly I'm going to write about some of these in the near future anyway.

These are my favorites of 2012 in no particular order. I don't really believe in ordered lists; I'm not here to pit games against each other, just group the ones that resonated with me the most. They're all so fantastic in their own way.


Liz Ryerson, Andi Mcclure

Thirty Flights of Loving
Brendon Chung/Blendo Games, Chris Remo

Jonas Kyratzes


Against The Wall (Alpha)
Michael P. Consoli

Slave of God
Stephen Lavelle

Bennett Foddy


Play them!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Character Complexity Through Choice Funneling

Note: Genderless representation of child but I use 'she' for ease

I was playing mom is home, a twine game that portrays a young child who tries to tell the mother about a knee injury. Mom is home is a very good game, but I want to discuss something quite simple but incredibly important that it does.

It gives you a list things to say to your mother, the last one being the all-in truth ripper:

  • "i had more important stuff to do"
  • "i've been working on my essay for school"
  • "why don't you do it yourself"
  • "i dislocated my knee":

I love these options because they display the range of emotions the kid is feeling. Should she lash out? Maybe she should take it safe and just lie to her, surely she's done it before. Use the school method! Parents love school. No, no, that wouldn't work. This simple list of four choices represents a tense, anxious inner dialogue. Immediately, this character becomes nuanced, conflicted and complex. (Psst, that's how people are)

But then, no matter what choice you make, you get this:

that's what you consider saying

you wriggle your hands and go fold the laundry

Do you see what this does? It portrays a whirlwind of ideas and worries and decisions, and when she finally has the bravery to go for something, she decides to suck it and do the laundry. It funnels your mess of choices into shyness and non-action, and thereby portraying her shyness and non-action. It's choice funneling.

Like, "mom is home" is such a basic, solid building block towards proper character development in game form. It's a simple construct of presentation => negation. Show a list of ideas to get into how conflicted this character is. THEN, funnel choices into one result, to show how this character restrains herself, in spite of the mess of emotions that's going on around. It says so much about a person, about how they are, what they're feeling, and how they perceive their situation.

Look, we can make it more complicated. Here's a shitty diagram I made that visualizes choice funneling in mom is home:

Now, this might be a cool way to imagine twine games. We can also apply this crap to a bunch of other things. This is also a convenient way to think about the feelings involved during a decision making process, since, you know, we're always making decisions and all that.

Play with these thoughts as you will