Geoffrey Long
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Introducing Waker!
I've been working with the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab for a while now, primarily as its Communications Director but also occasionally as a researcher. This summer I had my first chance to write a game with this group, and now said game – Waker by Poof Games – is up and available to play for free on the GAMBIT website! As the game's developers described it on the game's page:
Waker is a puzzle/platform game set in the world of a child's broken dream. As the Waker, the player uses both mind and reflexes to solve puzzles, creating platforms to form a safe path through the dream worlds. Forming the paths, however, is the trick - it is up to the player to figure out how to create each path, and to manipulate the Waker and the world to travel safely through each level. With dynamic obstacles and three difficulty modes, the game offers continuing challenges even for experienced players, while allowing beginners an easier path to the end.

Waker was developed in tandem with Woosh, its abstract variant. Waker offers the same gameplay as Woosh, but also includes a rich narrative and a story that is reflected in its art and cutscenes.

I am thoroughly honored to have been involved with this project for multiple reasons. First, Waker gave me a chance to work with my friends Sara Verrilli, Kevin Driscoll, Scot Osterweil and Lan Le, as well as befriend a bunch of other folks from Singapore, MIT and RISD. Second, the game is absolutely beautiful, thanks to the hard work of Brandon Cebenka, Rini Ong Zhi Qian and Steven Setiawan. I loved the aesthetic of Waker, from the graceful, fluid animation of the cat-monkey creature to the textures to the gentle glow scattered throughout the game. I loved the dreamlike sensibility of the world, and the basics of the storyline that Brendan and the others had sketched out before I was brought onboard was completely up my alley.


I was invited to join the project when it was decided – at the last minute! – that the story needed to be fleshed out some more, so I rewrote the story in an evening, met with Brendan and the others the next morning, did some super-fast re-rewrites and then jumped into the recording booth to do all the voiceover work myself as well. Mercifully I managed to nail the John Hurt-esque narrator's voice that had popped into my head while writing the thing, so I was thoroughly happy with how well that turned out.

I'm also thoroughly grateful for the opportunity to write a GAMBIT game (complete with the apparently all-too-true-to-the-industry "Can we have this tomorrow?" experience) and for the not-very-true-at-all-to-the-industry experience of being able to perform the role I'd written. If you're half as much of a fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman or Mike Mignola's Hellboy as I am, I recommend that you go and give Waker a shot. (Hey, it's free and it runs in a browser window – what's stopping you? Go! Play it now!)


Please let me know what you think of the game! You can also see what people are saying about the game already at Free Games News and XSp, and follow new reviews for Waker and the rest of the GAMBIT games as they appear at the In the Press section of the GAMBIT site.

Heh. I still get a grin on my face just thinking about that whole experience. I've got a new GAMBIT project in the works for this fall, so I'll keep you posted!

Update (9/1/09): Flytrap Games just published a really funny writeup of the game titled Agile Spirit Cat Required for Mental Roadworks. These guys really got what I was going for:

Dreaming is more hazardous than most people suspect. Every time you sleep, a path forms behind your dreaming self to guide you back to the waking world.

On occasion, however, that path breaks, leaving the dreamer to stand forever stark naked in front of the sixth form girls while Billy Connolly plays the banjo. Or whatever private delusions are appropriate to your particular mental setup.

Fortunately, a ruptured dream path can be repaired by a Waker - a sort of Druidic cat entity which puts us in mind of the mog from Coraline. As one such Waker, players of Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's latest puzzle-platformer must collect "wisps" to restore a lost soul to consciousness.

I am, as they say, well and thoroughly chuffed. (I wish we'd thought of that Billy Connolly nightmare. That would make a thoroughly horrific bonus level.)

Update (9/2/09): Waker is getting even more press! Lewis Denby of Resolution magazine in England makes the following observations:

This odd little pairing is more than a bit interesting to talk about. Woosh and Waker are puzzle/platform games developed by Poof Games for Gambit, which is a collaboration between MIT and the Singapore government. Woosh and Waker are part of an experimental, educational project, to see how players respond to different presentations within videogames.

Launching each game doesn't immediately throw up too many similarities. But dive into the game proper and you'll realise they're both exactly the same in terms of the mechanics and level design. The difference? One presents an anthropomorphic character and introduces a story. The other sees you guiding a bouncy ball around the same platforms, only with a backdrop consisting purely of abstract art. There's no plot to be found.

It is, of course, very interesting to consider which side of the fence you fall on. Do you prefer the abstract visual beauty of Woosh, or the more evocative, story-driven presentation of Waker? Do you prefer guiding a living character, or a blissfully unaware rolling ball? But what's particularly brilliant for the player is that both are excellent, seriously clever games. Try them both out, and have a think about the difference in your approach to each one.

Meanwhile, Bart at gives the game a one-line notice, but a user calling itself Lichen Fairy says this in the comments: "The ending is beautiful. The game-play can be a bit frustrating at times but I love the story." Thanks!

The game has even been picked up in Italy, where a post from describes the game as follows:

Benvenuti nel mondo dei sogni... Waker, sviluppato dai ragazzi di Poof Games, vi proietterà in un mondo onirico, nelle sembianze di un waker, una sorta di guardiano del dolce dormire simile a un gatto. Il vostro scopo sarà quello di ristabile il continuum del sogno di una bambina, permettendole così di risvegliarsi da un sonno ininterrotto. Dovrete intraprendere un viaggio lungo tre mondi, ciascuno dei quali è formato da molteplici sottolivelli che garantiscono un'esperienza non certo da mordi e fuggi.

Or, if Google translate is to be believed:

Welcome to the world of dreams ... Waker, developed by the young people Poof Games, we will project into a dream world, in the form of a waker, a kind of guardian of sweet sleep like a cat. Your goal will be to restore the continuum of the dream of a child, enabled it to awaken from a sleep uninterrupted. You will need to undertake a journey across three worlds, each of which consists of multiple sub-levels, offering an experience not by hit and run.

This is awesome – and they're still coming!

Update (9/2/09, again): Perhaps the biggest and best review of Waker just went live – check out Daniel Archer's glowing profile at JayIsGames!

Waker is a project born from GAMBIT, Singapore-MIT's game design lab, and the multidisciplinary input shows. The art and animation invoke the phantasmal in such a way that it's not hard to believe that this idea could have been hauled from the same place dreams come from. Little touches breathe life into the Waker and the world, like the blinking of one eye at a time should you let the creature sit still for a few moments. The music is softly whimsical, the same way a child's dream should be.

While the writing sets up the game quite marvelously, what with the Wakers and the Dreamtime and associated fantasies, the story starts to fade as the game progresses, being delivered to the player in short injections between one world and the next. It's a tad disappointing to have the developers weave all this vibrant lore about what happens when the lights go out, only to have it squeezed into the cracks. It would have been nicer to see the story dovetail with the gameplay more smoothly, but there's still a lot more creativity at work here than your average puzzle game.

...While the game might be short for those who attack it head-on, it's certainly a trip worth taking, and the dazzling visuals coupled with the imaginative tale of the Wakers marks this game as one of the most innovative puzzlers to date. Now don't let me keep you, for there's already a child lost in the slumber, hoping for someone, anyone to show them the way home.

Well? The Waker is waiting.

You can't see it, but I'm throwing devil horns in the air. It's true that the story only appears in little bits between the worlds, but given the time constraints and the massive workload on Poof's shoulders (they made not just one game in eight short weeks, but two! Two, people! Two!) I can safely say that Poof kicked ass. Way to go, guys!


Lords of Shadow, Before and After.

One of the big pieces of news coming out of E3 this week is the announcement of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, scheduled to drop sometime next year and looking positively amazing. Here's the kicker, though: while Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is new, Lords of Shadow is not – Mercurysteam, the developer doing the heavy lifting for Konami this time around, actually announced Lords of Shadow at E3 2008. At that time, it looked like a bland Castlevania knockoff. Here, check out the trailer:

Not to be too harsh about it, but this trailer is a study in boring – the entire first half-to-two-thirds is a slow pan around the character. Ooh, a Gothic-looking dude who resembles a Belmont. We get it. One tiny flash of action at the end, a slowly-assembling logo, and that's it? Uh, okay. The whip coming out of the crucifix is a nice touch, but aside from that... Meh.

Fast-forward a year to 2009 and suddenly it's a beautiful example of what happens when you take a decent idea and throw all kinds of talent at it. Now it's an official Castlevania game instead of a knock-off, Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear) has been brought in to produce (!) and somewhere along the line the game picked up a whole host of top-notch voice talent, including Robert Carlyle (Stargate: Universe, 24) (!) and Patrick Stewart (oh c'mon now) (!!!). The trailer alone is jaw-dropping:

Is it too early to preorder this thing?


On Literature and Comparative Media Studies.

(Note: I should preface this bit of writing with a warning: what follows is a first attempt to set down some things I've been struggling to articulate for the past couple of years. As such, it may be slightly less than ideally coherent, but hopefully out of it some clarity will emerge.)

What is literature?

It's remarkable how explosive three words can be. "I love you" and "this is war" win out in the big picture, to be sure, but among academic circles (particularly in the humanities) "what is literature" can be almost as provocative. When you start mucking about with anything so heated, it's a good idea to start out with definition, or in this case, seven:

  1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
  2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
  3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
  4. the profession of a writer or author.
  5. literary work or production.
  6. any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills: literature describing company products.
  7. Archaic. polite learning; literary culture; appreciation of letters and books.

Note that the first four definitions all use variants of the word 'writing', definition six specifies printed materials, and definition seven explicitly uses the word books. (I find definition five to be absurdly insufficient: defining "literature" as "literary work or production" is like attempting to define "milk" as "milky work or production".)

And yet, and yet – imagine the outrageous clamor that would ensue if a professor were to suggest that Shakespeare should be banned from the study of literature, despite the fact that Shakespeare's works were not written to be read, but performed. In other words, Shakespeare's creations were primarily performative, not textual.

Such an argument might go as follows:

Shakespeare shouldn't be taught in literature classes, as his work was performative, not textual.

But clearly the strength of Shakespeare's work is to be found in the poetry of his words. "To be or not to be", "I will break my staff and drown my book" – these phrases have lasted for centuries due to the artfulness of their construction.

Have they? Reinterpretations of Shakespeare's works have been around almost as long as the originals; such a reimagining as West Side Story is still recognizable as Romeo and Juliet, even though it deploys none of the same language.

Perhaps this is due to a second strength of Shakespeare, which is also considered a component of literary studies: the structures of storytelling, such as character creation and plot development. It stands to reason that if Shakespeare's work were primarily performative, what should reach down through the ages are not the words and the structures but the actions, such as the dances Bob Fosse created for West Side Story, or the music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. While both of these are considered exemplary, they do not fall under the definition of literary.

But why don't they? Music and dance moves can be recorded as written marks such as musical notes or dance charts – why is literature constrained to works of the alphabet? If the definition is, as suggested earlier, "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features", and music and dance moves can both be written down, then clearly music and dance should be included in literary studies just the same as poetry, novels, history, biography or essays.

But they're not narrative.

Nowhere in the above definitions does the word 'narrative' appear.

Perhaps it should?

Poetry is studied as literature, and it's frequently not narrative. Besides, even if the word 'narrative' was included in such a definition, music, dance, film, comics and video games, robots, mobile devices or holographic television all can be used to tell stories.

But that's not their primary purpose.

It could be argued that telling stories is not the primary purpose of language, either.

Yet still, when we use the word 'literature' it remains associated with text in our mind, with language.

Of the elements I listed, only dance feels like it doesn't use language, and even then it's possible to imagine a dance performance that incorporates text or language through music, spoken words, projected text or a libretto.

Perhaps the answer is to be found elsewhere, then. In his Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton suggests that the study of English literature only came about as a way to inject formative philosophies and ideals into the minds of each new generation. Mythologies, legends, folklore, and religions serve as the literature of a culture insofar as they transmit traditions. This partly justifies the creation of a canon that is to be studied, as opposed to arguing that any text is worthy of study.

While that may be true, it fails to explain why works such as Casablanca exist in both the cultural memory and the tradition of film studies, if not literature: it's incredibly difficult to assign a particular moral value to Casablanca, but it does stand as an important work because of how it exemplifies a particular structure of creation. In the same way that The Searchers is worth experiencing as an example of the Western, or All Quiet on the Western Front stands as an exemplar of the war story.

Yet those do display "ideas of permanent and universal interest", as they both deal with the human experience. Even John Wayne's bastard of character in The Searchers can be instructive to audiences as to the dangers of the damaged.

But these are all films – should they be considered literature?

Perhaps, but a huge portion of their value is also to be found in how they demonstrate what can be done in a particular media form. Casablanca, The Searchers and All Quiet on the Western Front are all memorable for their performances and cinematography as much as they are for their dialogue, their characters or their narrative structures.

Which suggests that they should perhaps be studied in both Drama and Literature departments?

Oh, definitely.

But isn't this too narrow, too exclusive? Shouldn't even Literature students be made aware of the import of the performances and cinematography, if only to draw their attention to how important both factors might be?

Perhaps. But this suggests a need to examine what each media form brings to the table, so that anyone opting to write for a given form knows not only how to create great dialogue, characters and narrative structures, but also how to play to the strengths of a given form.

A comparative literature for media, then?


But isn't that just media studies?

It seems to me that just studying what each media form does well, or just studying the effects of media forms, might fall under the rubric of media studies. The notion of comparative media studies might also incorporate this, but under the understanding that the study of multiple media is to be pressed into the service of examining how stories are told, traditions are conveyed, and culture is created in the same fashion as our traditional notion of literature in each of the myriad forms of media being created, consumed and explored in the 21st century is simply an updating of the definition of studying literature.

So this reading of Comparative Media Studies might simply be considered modern Literature?


That's the conversation happening in my brain lately, which knits together my interests in English Literature, Film, Drama, Art, Literary Theory, Comparative Media Studies and the Media Lab's upcoming Center for Future Storytelling. It also describes the lay of my mental landscape concerning my Ph.D. plans, my plans for future books and how I might someday structure interdisciplinary courses taught inside of a Literature department (or whatever exists in 2015 or whenever I actually become The Good Doctor Long). Thoughts?


SG0801: The kickoff!

A little context: I turned 31 on Saturday, at which point I promptly fled to country for Singapore. America is a country for the young, I decided. I will therefore leave it to its starlets and its High School Musicals.

No, actually I'm in Singapore to help shill for GAMBIT at SIGGRAPH Asia 2008, where I'll be hanging out at the GAMBIT booth and telling people about the wonderous amounts of fun and hijinks that are to be had in our summer program. I'm also here to just get a sense of the place, which should be a huge help for my job in general. It was decidedly weird to go from celebrating 31 with Laura and my parents in Boston to jump on a plane and fly literally halfway around the world, but I have friends here that I'm hoping to meet up with ASAP so they can show me around.

One thing I've decided to try out, though, is using the video function of my Canon Elph SD890IS to videoblog this excursion. So far I'm finding out it has a sort of crappy microphone, but that's not that surprising. The video above was grabbed while waiting for the plane from Boston to London to take off, and I'll upload some more travel videos momentarily. Tomorrow: tourism!

Wish me luck!


@C3: Metafun for Metaplayers.
Bruce Sterling at AGDC

Over at the C3 blog, I've just posted a quick write-up (with photos!) of Bruce Sterling's excellent keynote lecture at the 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference. You can find the entry under the title Metafun for Metaplayers.


My new career in voice acting.

Someday, when I have an entry in the IMDB, it will include something like:

Oozerts (2008) (VG) (voice: English version) .... Scoop McGoop

Yes, it's true. I have made my voice acting debut as an irascible Irish monster with a jetpack. And it was awesome.

David Hayter, I'm coming for you.


Fit? Not mii.

For some reason, I have never been the sort to preorder games. No, let me start that again – for one of a number of possible reasons, I have never been the sort to preorder games. I blame my parents, and especially my Mom, for instilling in me two very fundamental psychology quirks. First is a deep-seated love of a good bargain, which Mom always blames on the Scottish blood coursing through the Alexander veins. Preordering a game galls me in some way, largely because it involves putting down money and walking away with no guarantee that when the games come in, I'll actually get one. Although you'd think that Gamestop would be required to honor all reservations on release day, you'd be wrong. Oho, would you be wrong. Asshats. It's the same reason that airlines overbooking flights gets me right in the breadbasket – although I understand the economics of air travel are tenuous at best, and I understand that overbooking flights permits the possibility of refunded tickets if one's plans suddenly change, the idea that I bought a ticket for this plane, at this time, and showing up and not having a seat after all pisses me off about as badly as if I went to the grocery store, bought a big box of cereal and then, when I went to pour myself a bowl the next morning, found that the box was empty. What!?

The second reason is an even deeper-seated love of the chase, which I blame both of my parents for. When I was a kid we'd spend hours scouring through antique shops or flea markets or car shows looking for the parts Dad needed for an old car he was fixing up, or for a piece of furniture that Mom needed to finish redecorating a room, and so on. With kid-me, that hunting pattern manifested itself in action figures; with adult-me, it manifests itself primarily in books, games, clothes, and, well, action figures. Unfortunately, the big difference between my collecting patterns and my parents' is that my parents' hunts usually wound up being worth more money than they sank into it, and mine usually lead to little more than a bigger U-Haul truck being required the next time I move. Still, the thrill of the chase is definitely there.

I should note that now that my folks are both retired, Dad tends to do most of his hunting on eBay and Mom gravitates towards garage sales. You wouldn't believe the roomfuls of knickknacks and tchotchkes that she's collected from hundreds of garage sales over the last couple of years, but I suspect that the real reason why she does it, and partly the reason why my Dad still frequents car shows, is the social aspect of things. This morning I was reminded that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

I've been trying halfheartedly to track down a copy of Wii Fit ever since it was released. Being naturally heavyset is strike one, having settled into a happy domestic arrangement with Laura is strike two, and living a primarily sedentary existence working on computers both at home and at the office is strike three – I'm out, baby, especially my waistline, which is way, way out. Laura and I hit the mall to pick up some shorts for our upcoming Greece trip and damn, that was not a lot of fun. Ordinarily I enjoy clothes shopping, but seeing myself in those mirrors in my current rotund state was not pretty. While plenty of storytellers and academics are comfortably, um, well-rounded, I definitely need to start attempting to resemble Michael Chabon more than Warren Ellis. Hence the interest in Wii Fit.

Last weekend, I got snaked out of the very last copy at my local Best Buy, so this weekend I decided to wake up early and get in when the store opened. This was made notably easier by it being hotter than blazes in Boston last night, the humid, heavy kind of hot that turns a nice, pleasant night's sleep into eight sweaty, muggy hours of flopping about on the bed like an asphyxiating carp, and by our black cat Albus' deciding that 7:15 AM was a great time to start throwing up in the kitchen. Lately he's been yarfing on the floor a couple of times a week, which I blame on our recent acquisition of ferns for the sunroom (and his acquisition of a taste for devouring them), but a few months ago Albus had a nasty session when he was throwing up blood, so you can't blame me for being paranoid every time I hear him start making that bizarre oilcan-pumping noise that cats apparently make when they're about to toss their cookies. Up I got, and up I stayed, and a good thing I did, too – when I went to take my morning 'jog' around the Internet, I discovered that this morning's Best Buy flyer included not only promises of Wii Fit in stock at opening today, but also Wiis themselves. I tossed on some clothes and headed into the store a little early; the store opened at 10, so I arrived about 9:40, and was dismayed to find two things: that a line was already formed, and that it was already hotter than Satan's ass on a particularly fiery day.

Mercifully the line was only about 12 people or so; while the article I'd read said that they were only guaranteed to have about 10 copies per store in stock, I decided to stick around anyway. Less than a minute after I joined the line, my parents' genes kicked in and I struck up a conversation with the nice Asian couple ahead of me in line. We chatted amiably in somewhat simplified English for a couple of minutes, and then came the next wave of people. Immediately behind me came another nice couple, 2-year old in arms, and the father was wearing an Ohio State t-shirt. "Go Bucks," I said to him, and we were off to the races.

We were joined by a guy about my age from Connecticut, who was really just in line for a Wii – the couple with the kid had bought their Wii at Costco just a few days ago and now the mother was keenly seeking out a copy of Wii Fit. I'm happy to report that all of us got what we came for – despite the line swelling up to probably over a hundred people (!) before the doors opened, the Best Buy people handled things with remarkable aplomb; instead of having us tear through the store like madmen, they funneled the entire line into the registers, and each of the four to six registers they had open had a stack of Wiis and Wii Fit behind the counter. A customer got the head of the line, was directed to a register, forked over their credit cards, were handed their merchandise, and were happily shooed out the door. A cart of the most popular Wii games and accessories was set up nearby so people could be handed whatever else they might want in an exponentially more expensive version of the candy bars and magazines impulse racks at the front of your local Target, and they had blue-shirted runners at the ready to scurry off and snag anything else you might want for your new system as well. They even graciously handled the one poor soul who had stood in the line with the rest of us not for a video game but just to buy an air conditioner – he brought his A/C unit up to the front and one of the guys there quickly ushered him to either an otherwise closed register or off to customer service, depending on what payment method he wanted to use. Given my previously on-the-fence impression of Best Buy, I was impressed.

I stopped off at the Target next door before heading home to pick up some drinks, and then rushed home with my prize in the trunk. The game sets up quickly enough and even includes its own batteries, which was a nice touch. I chose which avatar I wanted to represent myself, and then took a deep breath and went through the orientation progress, which includes weighing myself and getting a report on both my BMI and what it calls my 'Wii Fit age'.


To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised by one thing – although I definitely tipped the scales (yes, my fat ass was classified as 'obese') my Wii Fit age was actually better than I thought – although I'm now about 30.5, the game pegged me at 31. Which is to say that although I may be heavy, I'm definitely not alone for my age. I brightened at that, and then proceeded to spend half an hour doing aerobics and balancing exercises before deciding that the combination of hot weather (it's currently 88 with a predicted high of 94) and my total couch potatohood meant that I oughta take a break for a while. Sweating more than I'd like to admit, I trundled off to the office to write up this essay, but I did so with a smile – although it hurt to watch my Mii plump up like the Michelin Man after it took my readings, I'm also happy to see that the game somewhat restricts the feasibility of the goals it allows you to set. I myself am hoping to drop a sizable amount of weight and get back down to at least my undergrad weight by next year, which the game wouldn't allow me to set as my goal, but it would allow me to enter in something it deemed more reasonable. I expect it will allow me to revisit that goal in three months and move the target further down then, but knowing that the game wouldn't let me say "OMG I'M GOING TO DROP FIFTY POUNDS IN THREE MONTHS" made me feel like it had my back, somehow. The games it offers are fun and breezy, the jogging game offers some pretty scenery (although I desperately hope Nintendo will pony up some additional landscapes via downloadable content updates) and its tracking system seems like it will be encouraging to use. We'll see how it goes – I'll use it for about a week and then post another update with my progress.

One final note – I'm just waiting for someone to hack the Wii Balance Board to work with my computer. Some clever souls have already figured out how to use the Board to surf Google Earth, but I'd love to see it used as a simple web-connected scale. Given the massive numbers of weight loss journal-keeping applications out there, you'd think that being able to hook up a Wii Balance Board to a simple database would be child's play. Maybe I'll see if anyone around the lab has any ideas. For now, I'm going to go hammer on some projects for a couple of hours and then maybe take another long jog around the island. I can see how this game might be addictive. Wish me luck!


Marks on game narratives: oversimplified, overreaching, overworn.

In today's Game Set Watch, movie and screenwriter Justin Marks takes the game industry to task for calling the story in Grand Theft Auto IV "Oscar-worthy" and wonders if gameplay as narrative is the answer:

The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).

The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?

After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory -- a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?

I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, but then wincing at some old, overworn ideas as his essay continues. By the time the essay starts to near the end, Marks is returning to the same old obvious claims that many game writers wind up making:

We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.

Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.

The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.

This is all very, very old news. His assertions and observations are fair enough, except that like all generalizations, when extended out to encompass everything it falters and fails. The truth of the matter is that in some games, having the interactive bits lead to stories on rails works very well. His timing for this assertion is especially unfortunate given the relatively recent rumors that Metal Gear Solid 4 will have 90-minute cutscenes. I'd be willing to bet that the people who have stuck by Hideo Kojima so far are more than happy to sit back and watch as his "story on rails" unfolds – which illustrates my contention that the issue isn't with stories on rails, it's with bad stories on rails.

I for one love a great story on rails, as evidenced by the number of Final Fantasy games on my shelf, but I have little to no patience with bad stories on rails, which is why after playing Lost Odyssey for a couple of hours I flatly lost interest. The game had some interesting premises, to be sure, but it squandered them way too quickly. Lately I've been anxiously awaiting MGS4 even though I haven't played through the first three, opting instead to catch up through the excellent video retrospective series being offered up by GameTrailers. It's cheaper, sure, but more to the point it takes up much less time – although I never use Cliffs Notes for books and still largely resist using hintbooks for games, when presented with the option to get caught up on the Meta Gear story through these summaries instead of playing through 100-plus hours of gameplay, the decision was an unfortunate no-brainer. I don't know about you guys, but I don't have that kind of time.

I still think that the best way to handle interactive narrative in games is to treat it like a series of rubber bands strung between nails – the key plot points are fixed (what Marks refers to as 'checkpoints') but the manner by which you arrive at those points is flexible. This is the philosophy you often find deployed in games with lots of side quests or mini games – they improve the quality and the duration of the game, but they still remain optional. I'm not a big fan of sandbox games for many of the same reasons cited by Marks, but I remain skeptical that the Crawfordesque, Holodeck-esque model that he's wishing for will ever be a realistic scenario.

What I want is the opposite of Marks' prescription: I think game writers should write better stories and work with the game designers to develop better game mechanics to mesh with the narratives. Despite the frequent claim (that Marks himself makes near the end) that "the game industry is not the interactive little brother of cinema", I still kind myself marveling at how easily these types of claims map onto criticisms of film. People that claim that narratives in games should take a backseat to gameplay strike me as characters that claim that narratives in film should take a backseat to cinematography. It's a short-sighted, tunnel-vision type of claim – because X is what media form Y does uniquely and independently, then all instances of media form Y should focus almost exclusively on X. It's a bad model and a rotten philosophy: many films do okay with an iffy story and spectacular cinematography, and many films do okay with an amazing story and mediocre cinematography. It's the ones that do both brilliantly that truly prove themselves memorable.

I think that the proper first step is to determine what kind of experience you're trying to produce when everything is said and done. This will allow you to start deciding what type of narrative experience or gameplay experience is best for what you're trying to create, and then to develop an appropriately matching narrative or gameplay right along with it in an organic, intelligent fashion. Let the ratio of gameplay to narrative – and the ratio of interactivity to 'rails' – be determined not by your media type but by the type of experience you're trying to create. Just like with narrative and cinematography in films, an ideal blend of gameplay and narrative is the holy grail – but what that ideal blend happens to be depends wholly on what your desired end experience happens to be. There's room enough in an entire media type for a wide range of experiences and ratios. Just because you don't happen to like games with stories on rails doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist. I think that to assert, as Marks does, that we should "stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them", is way too one-sided and, frankly, way too simple-minded.

(Update: Kojima Productions has since issued a correction to the rumors, stating that there are no 90-minute cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. Still, I think my original argument stands – MGS is a solid (no pun intended) example of a linear story that unfolds through interactions with the player, and since it has enough fans to bring crashing to its knees when it goes on presale, well, then, I still say Marks' insistence on Western-style nonlinear narratives is overreaching at best.)


Still Alive.

Perhaps it's cheating to watch the closing credits to a game before I've beaten it myself, but when Uncle Warren links to it, I consider it fair game. The song is indeed quite cool, with traces of The Murmurs to it. Anybody out there remember The Murmurs? 90s girl rockers? "You Suck"? Anybody?


Ian Bogost on the Colbert Report.

Oh what the hey, if we're gonna blog, let's blog – especially since this is, at least sorta, work-related: game academic Ian Bogost was last night's guest on The Colbert Report. Not only that, but Bogost did a damn fine job of it too, presenting an intelligent, well-phrased description of the Serious Games movement while not making them sound too boring, which, as Colbert himself picked up on, is all too often the case. Nicely done, sir.