Ada

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Today is Lady Ada Lovelace's birthday. She is one person I respect hugely and I'm surprised that she wasn't remembered today as much as I expected her to be. In fact, I don't think anyone in my university remembered despite the fact that we have a building called 'Ada Byron King'!

Anyway, here's a paper that I wrote a while ago on Lady Lovelace and multimedia (I think I've even tried to imagine her as a gamer).

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Play as Excavation of Meanings

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A casual glance on the Edge Magazine's website brought this to my attention:

Ian Bogost presented to the audience of the GDC Microtalks session that players play games can be crafted with meanings that players can interpret through play.

Using Ezra Pound’s 1913 poem In a Station of the Metro as his keystone (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.”) Bogost explained, “The poem doesn't tell a story of any kind. Instead, it presents two sets of clear yet unrelated images. The poem creates equivalence, but performs no synthesis. It is up to the reader to reconcile them.”

This technique - leaving it to the reader to “answer” the questions the poem raises themselves, is something that Will Wright had most embraced of current game designers, said Bogost, quoting Wright’s claims that while “there are a lot of limitations with what we can do with character simulation” abstraction can allow designers to “offload” the missing simulations into the player’s head. (read the full article)

That Ian Bogost has taken the message to such a prominent level is impressive and heartening. It is important to consider the narrative aspect of games and to recognise that this affects the way in which we reach the very heart of narrative itself. This multiplicity of meaning creation and the fact that much of it stays with the reader is not a new element as the example from Pound's poem illustrates. The Edge article goes on to say how the narrative creation by the reader is not an abdication of authorial responsibility but that authorship itself is redefined here. There is very strong authorship but the authorship is that of creating situations with behaviours where meaning is constructed by free play with the things that the author leaves behind. Bogost uses the emphatic metaphor of excavating a ruin to describe this. Ruins (and this reminds me of Borges's 'The Circular Ruins') are loaded with unexplored meaning and can become rich spots of history when these meanings are interpreted. In themselves, ruins are spots of immense potentialities where the excavation can yield myriad different meanings (I am thinking of Shelley's Ozymandias). It is great that these ideas are finally percolating through the boundaries of academia into wider expanse of videogame culture.

Ian's talk embodies something that I have been trying to emulate, albeit not as successfully. Today was a case in point. I went to GameStation today and used my student card to get a discount. The shop assistant was probably not convinced about my being a student (and rightly so :-) ) so she asked me what I studied. 'Videogames' - pat came the reply. Then she asked me (as I'm often asked) whether I made them. After this of course things didn't so well. I said that I researching the stories in videogames and analysing videogames as texts. She looked lost and handing me the receipt, she said, 'Yes, I understand ... it's very difficult to explain what you are doing.' Well, I had my answer.

This has happened to me time and again but this time, I've vowed not to let it happen again. As a game researcher and a long-time gamer, some things are so evident to me that I forget that there are millions of people who do not know the basics about videogames or think that these games are instruments of evil or whose experience of videogames is restricted to Wii tennis. Surely, if we need these people to appreciate the merits of researching games, we need to simplify concepts and use lucid metaphors with whom they can identify. Pretty much like Ian does in his talk.

After all Souvik, it's unfair to assume that people are as bothered about temporality in game narratives as you are ... even if they work in GameStation.

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Modern Warfare 2: Review.

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Unimpressed. It was good to be 'Soap' MacTavish again but then again, I guess that was the problem - I didn't find any novelty in the game. The plot was pretty stale and I'm tired of having to be an American Ranger / Marine or British SAS. At least, in the older CoDs one got to play as the Russians as well - Enemy at the Gates style. Are there no other armies in the modern world that are worth fighting in? I'll go for a Foreign Legion game! If I want to court controversy, I'll go for a Hurt Locker videogame or a Battle of Algiers videogame. Now that would have all the tension of a violent FPS but with a complex plot and multiple viewpoints. Not the viewpoints of the good anglo-saxon world versus the bad everything else. CoD 6 could well be renamed 'Blame it on the Russians' - typical Hollywood Cold War plot that's been done to death a hundred times over. Seriously, the invasion of Washington D.C. by the Russians was the ultimate tacky element. Sadly, it also reflects the paranoia of a superpower. Anyway, perhaps the tackiness was the result of an intentional subtext by the designers: I noted that I spent the same time and effort in defending and dying for a) a Burger King outlet, b) a sample American residential area and c) the White House (Whiskey Hotel!) , of course. So the equation seemed liked a+b+c = America and embody the American dream that you stand for. At the end of American campaign, my companions (or is it me?) say that we'll bring Moscow to ruin: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, disturbingly. Of course, the whole fracas is the result of a misunderstanding created by two rogue characters in the USA and Russia. All the familiar formulae for a successful Hollywood movie are punched together here but the game very predictably leaves off the 'making sense of it all' to the next part. I really wish Activision invested more in the actual story but then that's me and I'm sure loads of people enjoyed being part of the US and British forces and changing the world through an on-sofa shootfest. Actually, the game reminds me of Die Hard: thoroughly enjoyable for what it is but something that has become the too common and bulk-standard entertainment which could be exchanged for something that explores the issues in greater depth.

The graphics and sequences are good but not better than Modern Warfare 1 I thought (but I played both on Direct x 9, Geforce 8800 GTX and XP Prof 2). MF 1 excels and far surpasses the second game in its sequences and its plot. The Al-Assad plot (although a tad tacky but quite enjoyable , almost like 24, which also has an eponymous character), the spine-chilling Pripyat sequence (especially where a whole battalion walks past while you hide in the grass), the sniper sequence where you try to kill Zakhaev and of course, those unforgettable moments on the gunship where you blow up pixellated enemies still haunt me. I can recollect nothing as impressive as the above in the second game. Except ...

Except the one bit I was not supposed to play for moral reasons. Yes, I was the US infiltrator in the terrorist squad that gunned down all the people in Moscow Airport (now renamed). It was really disturbing, very disturbing. I tried killing one of my terrorist comrades in rage but then the game would kill me off and not let me progress. So it made me a bystander to the carnage but I felt I needed the lesson. This would certainly have made a valuable addition to my trauma paper (co-written with Jenna Pitchford) had I experienced this sequence when I was trying to address the criticism. Play this sequence if you have any doubts about the moral trauma that videogames give rise to /point to. You're not shooting zombies or aliens any more and turning an automatic on people, baggage and glass (somewhat scarily reminds me of the Bombay massacre in 2008) - yes, that makes a difference. To me it does.

The other thing I liked about the game was that whatever you do, your player-character is killed off by the game-plot in a few sequences (opposed to the one in MF 1). For me, this does quite a few things: it highlights the complex phenomenon of death in games and by subverting success shocks the player in his or her state of involvement.


I have quite roundly chastised the designers but I am not so sure now that I remember how the game's credits are designed. These are by far the most innovative credits I've seen in a game for a long time. I was reviewing the game not the credits so the comments above stand; however, in this case, one is left feeling that if one ignores the credits, one misses the point. The credits show the Activision studio where the designers (their virtual selves) walk around the lobby and various parts of their office amongst seemingly alive models of the game-characters who are constantly acting out bits of their in-game roles while standing in areas with a placard about their role in front of them like in a museum or art gallery. The whole place is some kind of videogame Hollywood. Or even a gallery of movie art (there is a section called the Call of Duty museum in the game). Activision is certainly showing the game as an artifice and the plot for what it is - a consumer-friendly tale that the public is assumed to love. I thought when I played the game, that it was way too stereotyped and at times, couldn't help wishing there was some reason behind this. For the first time, I think, I watched the full credits: the designers made their point; they messed up your involvement yet again, made it a meta-experience and left you with a critique of the entertainment industry. That's how I like to read it ... I haven't asked any of the designers.


As a game, I definitely rate the first game higher but that's not to say I didn't enjoy this one at all. I definitely wouldn't put it in my list of ten best gameplay experiences. However, reading the game like I do, from cover to cover, I think I'll take back the 'unimpressed' that I started this post with.

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Recently, commenting on my post 'Qwerty futures' Blogger Andrew said...

It is a problem with any control interface, the granularity, the fact you're working on a 2d plane.

Precision is a major thing to have fun. Or rather, it prevents frustration. No one likes bad control schemes (or poor controllers) - they mean whatever the player does, they fail, lose, or simply take more time the necessary to do things!

Just see the reason why there are no real precise things with the Wii, and you'll see why certain things are pretty impossible with gestures. Even humans are terrible at guessing without stringently precise gestures (Signal flags, deaf sign language, drivers hand signals...) what someone is indicating. It's kind of going backwards using gestures of any kind!

1 March 2010 12:38


I like this and I think it should be a post in its own right. The limitations of signs (especially in the day and age of the 'floating signifier' and the problematised signified) is something that people never highlight when they open vistas of promise with new gesture-based gaming technologies. As Andrew says, the keyboard provides a degree of granularity that is not yet matched by gesture-based technologies. Strangely enough, it is the latter that people consider to be more liberating ... well, all I can say is 'not yet'. If you wish to talk to Andrew here's his site. This last paragraph, however, is not something I have discussed with him so our views may differ.

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Heavy Rain and What I'm Missing

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I first came across Heavy Rain in a Games TM review and I loved the concept of the origami killer. With such plot concepts coming into games, the number of people questioning the role of narratives in videogames cannot be too high. I can't play Heavy Rain because I don't have a PS3 and they won't release for the PC. More's the pity.

Was a bit surprised when David Cage commented that Heavy Rain was best experienced when played once (or something to that effect). Given that the game is reported to have reasonably good branching narratives and twists, I am not sure about how true the comment is even though it comes from the guy who conceptualised the game. As I've always argued there is no The Videogame but rather videogames and the variety and range of the medium needs to be kept in mind always --- so if Cage is after a linear concept for a videogame or is moving towards interactive fiction (or in his case, cinema - because I believe he described his earlier work Fahrenheit as such), I have no problems. Nevertheless, like books are generally considered to have pages (I speak of the codex here), games have an inherent level of branching in them that makes every other attempt different - albeit to a different extent. I've never said that this doesn't happen in other media but that it's quite obvious in games. So if I had Heavy Rain, presuming I could afford a PS3, I would play it many times and I'm sure enjoyed it differently each time. If ... then .., if ... then ...


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