Category: Study

Articles that relate to or build off my academic study. This is both things I wrote about my university life and things written about the things I learned there since.

Innovelty

Recently, I was listening to the Ding and Dent podcast which decided to take a momentary sidetrack into the idea of innovation as its importance to games, and it got me angry enough to sit there and froth at my computer for a little bit and write a very angry, very foolish draft.

Fortunately ‘recently’ means mid August because I try to write ahead on this blog these days, and that meant I had time to cool down and relax on the stance and come back to it to talk about my problem with the position.

So here’s the thing with innovation. For something to be innovative, it needs to be, in contrast to other examples in its type, different in a new way to overcome a challenge. The problem with describing things as innovative is that it inherently positions the speaker as an authority on what is a meaningful contrast.

The thing most people mean when they say innovative is novelty. They mean this does something in a way I hadn’t considered. Why does this give me a bee in my bonnet, though?

Because games are so broad, so wide, happening across so many languages and so many markets right now, the idea that any given thing is innovative means that the games that the speaker understands must be the ‘normal’ that exists. That a reviewer – usually of big box board games from four or five publishers – has a lens that encompasses all the games that are worth considering and therefore, what is new to them in that space is innovative.

This is an important thing to consider!

I prefer instead to talk about novelty – which is to say, this is news to me – because it avoids unintentionally positioning the speaker as an authority, and it helps push back against the idea that the small core of games being examined by reviewers are the general landscape of games.

Rules Glue!

This started out as at first, a treatment of the evolution of the rules of Psionics in dungeons and dragons from its inception through to its incarnation in 4th edition, with an eye towards showing how you can respond to mechanical restructures, but it quickly became clear to me that that was both too huge an undertaking and also one I wasn’t all that qualified for. See, I can tell you about 3.5 and 3.0 D&D psionics, and I can tell you about 4ed Psionics, because I was there, I played with them, and I enjoyed and loved them at the time.

I can talk about how 2ed psionics were broken (sort of) because the mechanics of 2ed were broken (sort of). Thing is, that will be always the dissection of an outsider, someone who misses rules as written or worse, misses rules as experienced. Nobody is under any illusion that tabletop games aren’t done with some sort of rules fiddling around.

Thing is, as broken as some things are in a roleplaying game, you don’t actually test large groups of characters against one another. You test small parties against those same small parties, and against the challenges presented to them. It’s easy for me, a player, to recognise shortcomings between two spells, but fixing the weak spells might not be as high a priority as making sure the overall structure of a game is okay. D&D is a rare example in that we have a lot – a lot – of it to work from and that huge volume means we can hold up a lot of examples to be tested against one another.

What happens to make this stuff work though is, at the table, a person communicates the rules to another person. Then, people trust one another to make their rules work out reasonably okay. And that’s why it’s important to make your rules human interpretable. If you have rules that a human can feel comfortable explaining to another human, even if they explain them a bit wrong, things can still work because a human is involved.

Still gunna do a bit on 4e Psionics, mind you.

The Laziness of A Ghost

Over on Patreon, friend of the blog and Viking Accountant Doc Destructo wrote a recent article on Asshole DNA, a series that seeks to study the way a game can leave you with a certain insight into the person who made it who’s a dickhead. He, naturally, started with Watch_Dogs.

Now I’ve spoken in the past about the Ghost of the Author, which is really just an extension of Barthes’ original idea, the Death of the Author. The notion is that there is no singular, pure entity that is the author, and therefore, the person who may think of themselves as the creator is gone and it falls to us to try and interpret who and what they do. In videogames, I argue, it’s not even possible to call that creature the author – they are the ghost of an author, a creature that came about because so much of the creative process of videogame development is

Now I want to highlight something in Doc’s piece:

This phrase he uses, this is lazy gamedev. And then he goes on to qualify how it’s not you know, laziness, but this is defintiely laziness. In this case I kind of want to chime in and note that there is a laziness here, just not the laziness of lack of energy or work. Rather, it is the laziness that reflects a lack of thoroughness.

The thing with laziness in videogames is that it’s sort of impossible to be actually lazy when you’re in this industry. Everyone is working long hours for lots of work and even the person whose work is vanishing down a hole isn’t actually being lazy – they’re just having their effort wasted by other, mistakenly made management practices.

If the ghost of an author is the collected information, behaviour and effort of the entire crew making it, this person can view the allocation of resources as effort. That is to say, while there is no actual laziness from any individual in the organisation, it can be said that having the opportunity to spend resources on a particular field of the game’s development and choosing not to, especially if those resources are being spent in a way that leaves large, unpleasant gaps in the work’s sense of reality.

Nobody on this dev team was lazy. But the author, this ghost of an author, chose to not allocate energy and effort to making sure this world’s gangs and its image of race and racism in Chicago were meaningfully well-thought out. They were done as simply as possible, using shorthand, using a general, broad method that didn’t involve spending more resources on second drafts or rewrites or double-checking narratives or implications or sensitivity testing.

No developer, writer, individual worker, creating this vast project was lazy. But the author of this work was lazy.

Samurai Pizza Cats’ Missed Joke

Hold up, time to complain about something deeply inconsequential.

Back in 1990, back when rebadging/retheming already-made anime with extremely minimal alterations to on-screen animation, Saban – yes them – picked up a Tatsunoko series and revamped it quickly and with minimal actual relation to the original material, resulting in a product that, uh… I guess the nice way to phrase it is it’d be a very different work.

Now I’m not going to talk about the remix culture of it, the thematic transformation, the characterisation of the adults doing the remake, the meta-awareness of its jokes, the winky way it handles the audience, the trans narrative inherent in an odd character decision, the plot arc about the extra rangers, or even the fact that the opening spells Samurai wrong, and nobody seemed to notice,  but rather, this is about something I only just noticed recently.

This is Speedy Cerviche. Without getting too deep into it, he’s sort of the central character of the Samurai Pizza Cats. This is a series where characters commonly have punny names – Polly Ester, Jerry Atric, Seymour Cheese, for example. The thing is, for the longest time, I was convinced Speedy’s name, while pronounced ‘seh-vi-chey’ was spelled Service. I thought that was the joke. You know, his name put emphasis on the wrong syllables.

Well, turns out that no, his name is a reference to ceviche, which is a totally fine thing to reference but it’s somehow both more wide a reference and also not the really clever joke I always thought it was about ‘Speedy Service’ from a pizza delivery boy.

Remakes: Reboots, Remasters and Recreations

In the age of the easy remix, the re-use, the recycling of media concepts and design spaces and cultural concepts. It’s a space where we have a lot of different terms being used for different kinds of media. For my own purposes, I feel I need to define the meaningful differences between Remakes, Reboots, Remasters and, with new and fresh examples, Recreations.

The Remake is a global term, here. It’s just used so vaguely that it’s hard to really pin down what a ‘remake’ is. Was Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood a remake of Full Metal Alchemist? Sort of. Basically, in this case, I’m going to use remake as a way to refer to any new work that’s a new form of an existing work that’s designed to not require previous experience with the work. Each of these other terms refers to a specific type of remake.

A Reboot serves as a way to restart the work, a new point for someone who had no experience to start experiencing the work. A reboot wants to build something out of similar space, wants to use the iconography, it definitely wants to evoke the original, but a reboot is notable for showing you what the rebooter thinks matters to the original.

Here’s an example of four different reboots in one series: Each one was meant to accommodate major changes in the environment the franchise wanted to exist in.

Reboots are really at their best when there’s not a lot of there there, or when you’re making a work move from one form to another. While you might not consider an adaptation a reboot, they both use the same tools. It’s about taking away as much of what doesn’t work in your new form.

A Remaster is more like a translation: Conceptually, you are trying to make the thing again, that functionally works the same way, but with the new tools for presentation. It’s better audio quality, it’s more sound channels, it’s higher resolution images. In the case of some material forms, like film, a remaster can be just taking the production-quality materials and using them to create a new consumer-level version.

The recent trend towards remastering Lucasarts properties – or perhaps just a few classic examples like the Monkey Island games has had different variations on this. In the case of Full Throttle, pictured, the overall spirit is very much preserved, probably because they could work from a lot of similar sources.

One possibly controversial example of this usage of a Remaster is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, a shot-for-shot recreation of the original Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1960. While this Remaster didn’t involve any of the original footage in creation, it nonetheless sought to be a version of the original in as high a quality as possible, with almost no deviation from the original.

And finally, the most challenging to do well: The Recreation. A recreation, for the sake of this conversation is something above and beyond what a Remaster or a Reboot can do. Recreations are reboots, but, they aren’t just about starting the continuity of the series over; recreations can be about the new continuity and about replicating the story beats or narrative components of the original.

The thing I need this term for, however, is Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Voltron: Legendary Defender isn’t just an attempt to tell the story of the original Voltron series, any of them. It’s not an attempt to update the same plot beats and introduce us to that story. Galaxy Defenders is a recreation of a feeling of the way the original series worked out. It’s a series that takes the same basic idea and ideology of the original story and tries to tell a new story with the same pieces.

The issue I have is that if you simply call it a remake that can miss the basic premise of what the series does. Voltron: Legendary Defender is a series that wants to be the Voltron series you remember and know isn’t there if you ever went back to look for it. It’s tight, dense, and it uses a the set of storytelling tools, animation tools, and trope frameworks we’ve developed in the twenty-five years since Voltron was new. There is, simply put, a lot of stuff in Voltron: Legendary Defender that wasn’t at all in the original Voltron.

Maybe this is all a bit unnecessary. Maybe I just want to tell you how cool Voltron is. Maybe I should just dedicate some time to that. Well, listen, you.

Booth’s Unstructure

Here’s a term that game developers should know about from academic spaces:

Unstructure

Unstructure is an idea from Paul Booth’s Game Play: Paratextuality in Contemporary Board Games. In this book Booth needs some way to describe the concept space that games create that is both concordant with human-manageable rules, and yet not immediately procedurally compatible with human interpreters.

Big mouthful there, so let’s try rephrasing it. Unstructure is the way a game uses systems that a person can manage to create scenarios that people can’t immediately predict. Some games don’t really have unstructure – Blackjack, for example, or Bridge, or Backgammon, for example. Games that do, however, are those games that are usually trying to represent a world with many people acting in it, some of whom aren’t really ‘in’ the game at all – the movement of traders, or the behaviour of monsters, or the whims of traders and people. Even a game like Monopoly has unstructure, where it uses chance and community chest cards to represent the goings-on in the players’ lives that have nothing to do with their surveying and buying property.

Unstructure is a thing for games that are trying to create a metaphor or a hypothetical space. The example of Unstructure that Booth uses in the book is Arkham Horror, a game that spreads systems broadly across a board, across different subsystems – people you deal with, events that happen, monsters that act – and in so doing creates a scenario that is both generated by things you can look at, read, and explain to toher players, and understand, that is still complicated enough that you can’t necessarily solve it.

A game Booth doesn’t cite in the book but which serves this really well is Betrayal at the House on the Hill, where the systems of the game are extremely well suited to hide from you just what haunt will happen, how it will happen, and who is going to be the traitor. This works really well in that game because it keeps you from being able to predict who will be the traitor, putting a spicy edge on the cooperative exploration part of the game.

The reason I think you want to know about – and have access to – unstructure is a concept is because it lets you know what you need, how much of it you need, and ways to build with it or build away from it. What Unstructure gives you is a way to describe just how much stuff you need going on in your game that players have no control over, and whether or not those players can manage to keep straight what’s going on. Some games may make it too easy to deduce the behaviour of the game, meaning the unstructure collapses and becomes something predictable or procedural. Some games may make it too hard to perceive random events as being about this world space, and make the game feel fundamentally random (hi, Monopoly).

Unstructure’s just another tool to describe ways you want the game to work, and it’s worth having.

Do Daddies Dream Problematic Dreams?

I’ve written about Problematic in the past, with the simple premise that there are no non-problematic faves, and the baked-in nature of the colonialist world we live in is fundamentally damaged. Recent events (a hot take shot from the hip) put the term in stark relief and so, since you’re all so very interested in telling me what I should think about it, clearly you’ll be interested to hear me expound. Right? Right? You’re not just looking to complain at a stranger?

This is spurred in part by recent reading about Dream Daddy. Because that’s a thing I started caring about despite having literally no interest, whatsoever, in wanting to play it, for any reason, at all, gosh dangit. With that in mind there’s going to be a minor spoiler to a thing I don’t care about but let’s take it under the fold anyway. It also involves the genders.
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Games And Language: What The H*ck Is Paratext

Paratext, the term, comes from the work of Gérard Genette, a literary theorist from France. He’s contemporary to Roland Barthes, the person who coined the now-widespread term ‘death of the author.’ Genette is the indie band of mainstream literary theory, the one you namedrop to indicate you didn’t just get your academic study from channers screaming about the death of the author in threads about the sanctity of subtitles or something. The book of his you’ll want to namedrop here is Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.

To define Paratext, first we need to define text. Text is basically, the stuff of the work. If the work is a story book, for example, the text is literally just the story from beginning to end plus all the illustrations involved. If it’s a comic book, it’s every panel, how they’re arranged, what is in them, what they say. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s again, the words that make up that set of instructions, all the illustrations explaining it. The text of a painting is, basically, just the painting itself, the image and how it expresses itself in the world. Text is, broadly speaking, easiest to nail down when you’re talking about books: The text is the stuff the author (or authors) made to tell you.

What about videogames,” you ask, well, that’s where things get muddier and where I think I disagree with some speakers on similar theories like Dan Olsen. But let’s save that for later.

When Genette coined the idea of paratext, he focused on books. Books, boy does Genette love books. Paratext, to him, was the threshold between the text and the not-text. Your lunch isn’t part of the text, very clearly, so that gap is easy to see – but the gap between the cover of the book and the text inside it, that’s not so obvious. The title of a book? Its table of contents? Publishers’ notes? The year it was published, as information? The weight of the book, the feel of it, the type of paper? These, Genette said, were its paratext, and they were the “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: A privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.

Which sounds fancy, but we’ve had some years to work on it. Paratext, once the idea was established, became pretty important to how we recognise the ways in which people experience media. Genette, for example, with his loving focus on books, didn’t do a lot of good for the unsighted people in the world who have a much more limited experience of the paratext of books, but definitely have a stronger attenuation to audiobooks. So we worked on ‘paratext.’ The working definition I use is:

Paratext is media created as a requirement to experience a text

So, if we’re talking about an audiobook, the voice actor and the speaker quality and the freedom of movement it gives you while you listen is itself, part of the paratext of that book. If we’re talking about a painting, a surrounding gallery environment is part of its paratext – you need those things to experience that painting though if the painting’s location or form changed, so to could that environment.

And now we’re on to videogames.

I forward the idea that play is paratext. That is, the text of a game is the stuff that’s ‘stuck down,’ in the game, without a ludonarrative element; it’s the artwork, the models, the spaces designed, the construction and cinematography of cutscenes, the choices in editing and when and where the audience is given and loses control. That is text, but in order to experience any of that, you have to play it. You, a hypothetical you, a player, has to engage with the work and create a play experience in order to ‘see’ that text.

But then, that asks, doesn’t that make the play experience ‘not-text’? Well, sort of but also not really. It’s a threshold. Just as how the original structure of a game may work on the basic assumption you’re not going to stand still and wait for the timer to run out, there are assumptions of things that make the text a reasonable experience. You bring yourself to the table and you play, and you interpret, and in so doing, you create part of the game that’s there for the play experience.

This is part of why it’s so hard to analyse videogames in particular in terms of broad textual analysis, because a lot of people have it in their heads that there’s one singular model of how the game ‘should’ play, or two or three forking forms of it, without embracing the idea that part of the game is the player experiencing it. That competence and skill change the way a game feels, that pre-baked literacy or an absence of it changes what a game says. The ludic ballet of a speedrunner glitching around whole problems while perfectly evading random generated elements is as much the game as is the stilting steps of the first-time gamer learning how to aim and walk at the same time. What’s more, the idea of this paratextual element means we can look at things in terms of the general ways in which players tend to be pushed – we can view the play paratext in aggregate of experiences (the way lots of people create the paratext) or we can view each paratext as an individual interpretation that has potential to be interesting for consideration.

If we recognise play as paratext, we recognise ourselves as part of the creation of it. And that, that right there, is one of the most powerful things about games: Games let us create some of the text for ourselves.

By the way, Genette is still alive and I really, really hope he’s not reading this because he’s an old bloke and I doubt he gives two toots about videogames.