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. 

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