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Sunset

This is a critique, not a review. My review is: ‘if you care about artgames, you should buy and play this game’.

20160507203016_1The moment I finished playing Sunset, I went on to replay Façade, one of several games in 2005 to put artistic motivation firmly back into play for videogames, after languishing for decades out of anyone's concern. Façade was a landmark artgame: it reinvented the commercially dead adventure game genre as a means of delivering theatre, taking the one room, small cast format of an off-Broadway play and making it into a game. Sunset, released by Tale of Tales in 2015, revisits (probably inadvertently) the idea of taking cues from theatre while simultaneously developing something entirely original and unexpected. In so doing, it shows the remarkable distance artgames have travelled in just ten years.

Sunset is the most luxurious artgame to be released without a publisher, a testament to the capacity for crowdfunding to open up previously impossible development pathways and facilitate utterly original projects. This plush element could easily go unnoticed, but anyone who has worked in game development could not help but notice the clean, elegant interface. The control panel for the elevator that leads to the games’ apartment serves as a control panel, and from here an options screen that would be the envy of any indie game can be reached. To exit the game, you click a red button, and the panel slides across the screen; to confirm, you press red again, completely defending against accidental exit by moving the button between actions. Having played almost all of Tale of Tales previous games, this attention to small interface details immediately reveals the larger budget at work here.

Yet the interface is also feels like a site of tension... here, for the first time Michael and Auriea (the beating heart of Tale of Tales) accept the interface practices of gun games, two-handed, move and aim. True, an alternative is offered – but buried in the beautifully designed options such that anyone who might need it would likely lack the game literacy to find it. Thus, as with Dear Esther, we find ourselves in a first person shooter without guns – the derogatorily named ‘walking simulator’ insult-turned-banner-of-pride that serves as a perverse testament to the games industry’s utter dependence upon firearms and violence for producing commercial entertainment.

There are guns in Sunset, but you never see them. Indeed, this is a game that spectacularly eschews conventional spectacle. Throughout the games’ slowly-unfolding story, a civil war against a 1970s South American dictatorship is witnessed both from a distance – the sound of gunfire in the streets, an explosion at a neighbouring building – and from the intimate inside, since the player serves as maid to a key politician-turned-rebel. It is an ambitious, highly theatrical staging, and admirable when it works, which it does more often than not. As Emily Short comments of the narrative, however, it struggles with both its thematic focus and some occasionally muddy moments of exposition.

Yet to treat Sunset purely as a narrative game is to rob it of its greatest achievement, and perhaps also to misunderstand one of the layers of meaning wrapped up in its name. For while it is metaphorically concerned with the sunset on the Anchurian dictatorship, it is also at the same time quite literally concerned with sunsets, and every moment of the game occurs against one. In so doing, it takes one of the most tangential artefacts of commercial game design and makes it the star of the show; for it is not the protagonist, Angela Barnes, who can claim that title, but the most literal star in the game: the sun.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in 1998, I have been revelling in virtual sunsets. The day-night cycle was ostensibly added for gameplay purposes, perhaps because most game designers (‘planners’ in Japan) have a slender appreciation of the power of visual aesthetics. Yet I can think of nothing more spectacular in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas than its sunsets, particularly because each region had its own colour scheme and painted the most glorious tableaux at the end of each day, burned into my memory far more deeply than its casual violence or lacklustre pastiche of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.

Time CollageIn Sunset, as the title makes clear, the sunset is the empress of its tiny world. Yet rather than gaze at the landscape, as I did in GTA or Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, Tale of Tales’ game populates its apartment setting with artworks – paintings, sculptures, tapestries. While lacking the palpable tangibility of real gallery works (you have never seen a Van Gogh painting if you have only seen a print, for the furrowed grooves of his brushwork is everything), the works the team of artists has produced for Sunset are perfectly suited for their milieu. They show up every subtle shift in tint and shade as the sun crosses the imagined sky, and as a player the option to turn on a lamp and further illumine each piece is an act of agency with astonishing aesthetic force. I spent several of my in-game days staring at a single work as it gave up its palette to me in silent joy.

These experiences go far beyond what an art museum has an opportunity to provide, and create an entirely new kind of play, what might be called a gallery game. In steadfast opposition to Michael and Auriea’s insistence that their later project, Cathedral in the Clouds is “not a game”, I shall view it as a sequel to Sunset. In so doing, I also hint at an important way that Sunset’s flawed narrative is essential to its function as a gallery game, since it creates the conditions for the ebb and flow of the artworks within the sculpted gallery-space it provides. This, as with Animal Crossing’s every-changing daily content, provided my most powerful reason to return day after day, and may also have dulled my enthusiasm in the latter half of my time playing, as the pieces gradually became boxed up and hidden. I played for just under ten hours in total. It took me seventeen months. Throughout, my experience was always changing, never compulsive, always compelling. Sunset has just what it needs to do what it does best.

Which brings me back to 2005. Although my respect for Façade will never dim, replaying it reminded me of its core problem: it’s frightfully overengineered. Its creators, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, called it an ‘AI game’, reflecting their pride in the artificial intelligence dramaturge they had created. I remember the GDC lecture on the design, and it was readily apparent at the time that this was not something anyone else could possibly have any reason to emulate. What’s more, the majority of the player experiences Façade produces could have been generated by a far simpler ‘classical’ narrative design. The genius of Façade was its taking influence from theatre, rather than film or other videogames, and this alone is more than enough to mark it out as a significant turning point for artgames, even if most of my plays of it feel remarkably similar.

Yet 2005 was not a banner year for artistically-motivated games just because of Façade, and among the other remarkable games that debuted that year was Tale of Tales’ first release, The Endless Forest. This unique ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’, which went on to inspire thatgamecompany’s Journey, created an entirely new concept, what might be called encounter games, that allowed players to meet and act out a role with no possibility of harm or competition. It was an idea they followed up with 2012’s Bientôt L’été, with their usual mixed degrees of success.

Sunset, once again, does not succeed on all counts, yet aims so much further beyond anything else I’ve seen attempted in the theatrical artgame genre that it is staggering that it came a mere decade after Façade. That alone would mark it as a phenomenal achievement. That it also contains an entirely original conception of a gallery artgame arguably renders it Tale of Tales magnum opus, and certainly places it far beyond the rather narrow achievements of most artistically-motivated games. Michael and Auriea’s work is not likely to be enjoyed by everyone, and most gamers will find nothing much to their taste in Sunset’s meanderings. Regardless, I find their gallery game to surpass several bricks-and-mortar galleries I’ve visited. I'm not sure I have a higher honour to bestow.


Games Industry Roundup

You’ll hear all sorts of crazy things coming out of the games industry at the moment, largely because the ‘social games’ bubble has burst, and so everyone’s talking VR, because that bubble is still being blown. No-one, in my view, has a clue about the shape of the market in 2 years time, let alone 10 years. But that doesn’t stop speculation. Here’s the best and worst of what’s out there, along with some annotations.

  • A must-read for indie developers is Dan Cook’s Autumn of Indie Game Markets over at Lost Garden. A brilliant and cogent summary of what has happened, and what we can expect to happen next. Don’t let the length put you off from reading this essential piece.
  • Dan quotes Will Wright’s remark that 2005-2008 was a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of videogames. But seriously, the videogame Cambrian explosion ran from 1980-1987. The key years were 1984-5. The last pivotal game was Dungeon Master in ’87, which helped turn D&D into the FPS.
  • Not many articles on VR capture my concerns about this market ‘opportunity’, but over on gamesindustry.biz Rob Fahey hits his mark once again in VR: There will be blood. (Thanks to Nicholas Lovell for bringing my attention to this one.)
  • As Dan pointed out, VR is an opportunity because investors are interested in it. That doesn’t make it a viable long-term market. I remember when episodic content was what investors wanted. Only one company (Telltale) made it work – and it certainly helped that all their staff were ex-LucasArts employees. Investors know nothing about games. But they do have money to burn…
  • Speaking of money to burn, check out this interview with Andrew Wilson, the current CEO of the once market-leading Electronic Arts, also the company that gave Will Wright his big break with, ahem, Raid on Bungling Bay (1984)*. Call me uncharitable if you must, but Wilson comes off as a steely eyed nutjob to me. Fortunately, I doubt his job has anything to do with productively influencing EA’s low-innovation, ultra-conservative business model.

*Actually, I really enjoyed this game, even though it was just about bombing blocky battleships with a blocky helicopter.


Save The Endless Forest

Endless Forest Skull DeerAlong with Façade and Shadow of the Colossus, Tale of Tales’ ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ The Endless Forest was one of the key games that made 2005 such a banner year for artgames. It went on to inspire Jenova Chen’s team in the design of Journey, and remains one of the most innovative designs ever offered in games.

Now Michael and Auriea want to bring back their “whimsical online magical deer fantasy” – and they need our help to do it! Please consider donating to the IndieGoGo fund for The Endless Forest: Second Decade. The original game was a milestone in the artistic history of games, as well as one of the most fascinating and engaging aesthetic experiences ever to be offered on a computer.

There are just a few days left to contribute. Please help the forest live again!


No Man's Sky Roundup

Not Really NoctisYou might have noticed a little game came out recently called No Man’s Sky. If you didn’t, you must be trawling a different part of the internet from me because I have been invaded, cajoled, frustrated, and panhandled by No Man’s Sky ads so much at this point that I’m pretty committed to not buying it. Mind you, I had already swayed against since it’s not at all what I wanted – which is just a slightly more polished Noctis. For those of you looking to read something about No Man’s Sky, however, here’s the roundup:

  • Don’t know what the game is? Start with Gareth Damian Martin’s rather reasonable review, which is let down by never mentioning Noctis.
  • Heard about its technical problems? Well the developers say that “Less than one percent” of players have reported issues. They mean ‘have raised a support ticket’. Most players report issues by bitching into Twitter.
  • Lewie Procter, on the other hand, complains about the “lack of multiplayer”, which was at least (he says) implied, if not outright promised.
  • Brendan Caldwell skips straight to ballistic and wades in with accusations of “broken promises”.
  • Brendan Keogh offers a counter-Brendan, trying to drum up sanity from the internet.
  • …and the same kind of “seriously you guys?” with a lot more amusing swearing can be found in Rob’s rambling retort.
  • Lastly, if (like me) you just wish No Man’s Sky was actually a buffed-up Noctis, there’s Dylan Roberts’ piece, Before No Man’s Sky there was Noctis, which might explain why that was what I personally wanted.

Is the opening image from No Man’s Sky or Noctis? Actually, neither, it’s Frig’s mock ups of Noctis V, the sequel that doesn’t exist, as posted to Anynowhere. If you’re making a Noctis-style game, please do let me know, because No Man’s Sky just isn’t Noctis enough for my tastes.


Pokémon GO Round-up

Before you ask, I’m not playing Pokémon GO, nor do I plan too. I’m a father, a writer, and a business owner – I don’t have time to play an MMO. But it’s interesting to me, since this is another example of a game where the fictional content is far and away the critical factor in its success. My old MUD crowd played Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, and had a lot of fun with it – but anyone who has ever enjoyed any aspect of Pokémon is playing GO, and that’s not just the power of branding – it’s the power of fictional worlds.

Here, in case you missed them, are the best articles so far about Pokémon GO:

  • Firstly, do not miss Raph Koster’s piece, AR is an MMO. The title may not grab you, but this is Raph on top form, reiterating a point he and I have both made (and that he made first…) which is that the important thing about both MMOs and AAA console games is that they are worlds – and Niantic need to wise up fast to the consequences of a player community this large sharing one world.
  • At the border of paranoia is Omari Akil’s Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. Thanks to my old school chum, Simon Cox, for drawing my attention to this one.
  • Omari’s fears are grounded in the horrific reality of race relations in the US, of course, so it’s perhaps worth reminding everyone that there are more prosaic risks entailed in playing a game on your phone while you walk around a city… Consider the 15-year old girl in Pennsylvania who got hit by a car while allegedly playing the game.
  • As for Nintendo, the total value of their stock (their market capitalisation) has gained $11 billion (!) since the game was released…
  • …but as Steve Schaefer at Forbes correctly points out, there’s no way the game can deliver income commensurate to that increase in stock value, so Nintendo ought to prepare themselves for the other side of that particular mountain.

Buying a Kingdom

King BuyoutThere has been much chatter in the corners of the internet comparing Disney’s $4.05 billion purchase of Lucasfilm to Activision-Blizzard’s $5.9 billion deal for Candy Crush’s King Digital Entertainment. A lot of this has been surprise or disappointment that the viral game company is worth more than the Star Wars franchise. This gets right which intellectual properties motivated the acquisitions. It gets wrong the way that market value operates.

In the case of a loaf of bread, an automobile, a vintage comic, or a Magic: The Gathering card, the market value of the thing in question is determined by the trade practices which give that value its meaning. That meaning is not subjective, because if I buy a mint condition Black Lotus for $27,000 I can be confident of selling it for the same or greater, all things being equal. Neither is it objective, in the way this term is usually used, because we cannot use a tricorder to measure that value (although we could use the internet...). The prices within these kinds of trade practices shows relative stability – except when events upend the apple cart e.g. when Wizards of the Coast (acquired by Hasbro in 1999 for $325 million) reprint an old card, savaging its value.

But billion dollar corporate acquisitions are not the same kind of trade practices as buying everyday objects and collectibles. That’s because the ‘object’ in question (legal ownership of a large company and its intellectual property) only gets purchased once. There is no way this can be stabilised by the practices of buyers and sellers, because each deal is a one-of-a-kind affair. The apparent 50% ‘extra value’ for King is not an objective measure of the companies worth, much less is it the creative worth of the Star Wars megatext, which is something that simply cannot be priced (although its commercial exploitation can be). Rather, each price represents what the specific buying corporation is willing to pay for the specific acquisition company.

King was valued at $7.6 billion just eighteen months ago: from the point of view of Activision-Blizzard, the largest games corporation on the planet, they were getting a sweet deal, not to mention plugging all sorts of gaps in their portfolio e.g. in viral games, female player communities etc. Admittedly, they’ve got there by purchasing a leaky ship. But the situation is not a million miles away from Microsoft purchasing Minecraft. They didn’t buy the most successful digital LEGO system to make a profit. They had money sat in the bank doing nothing, and absorbing Minecraft into their portfolio was a better investment than leaving it there.

You can’t judge the economics of the corporate giants as if their marketplace was like the ones we participate in, just on a grander scale. Corporate finance isn’t just escalated local market economics – it’s an utterly different game. If you really want to compare acquisitions, take the logarithm of the values in question. Lucasfilm was acquired at 9.6, King at 9.7. That tells you that they were both companies with fairly similar economic scales. Wizards of the Coast was 8.5. On the scales that corporations operate, the only way to process the vast amount of money entailed is to move far from thinking like a human.

With thanks to Amsel von Spreckelsen (@metalblackbird on Twitter) for the thoughts that stimulated this post.


Forty Hours

Blue ClockNot that long ago, the majority of videogames were made on the assumption that they would be played for forty hours. Now, games are being made to be played for longer and longer. What does this mean for those who make and play digital games?

After the decline of the arcade and the rise of the consoles with polygonal 3D rendering like Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn in the mid-1990s, the dominant modes of play in the context of videogames were based around boxed products that were designed either to be played for 8-12 hours total, or to be played for 40 hours total. This forty hour play window became so orthodox that my partner in crime at International Hobo in the early 2000s, Richard Boon, felt the need to argue against it in the trade press in a piece entitled The Forty Hour Millstone. Of course, the norm didn’t change, and developers continued to aim for forty hours of content, perhaps fearing negative reviews if they fell short of the mark. For players outside of full time employment, forty hours could easily be racked up in one week, and with the production of games ramping up to greater numbers of titles at this time, the arrangement of the market for games meant that the gamers who played as a hobby could play something different every week if they wanted to. Many did just this.

The generation of consoles that followed saw the same general trend maintained, but also brought in many players who had not previously considered buying a console. Partly, this was because the increasingly film-like representations extended the appeal of videogames (in general terms), and partly it was because people wanted a DVD player and the PS2 gave them that with the bonus ability to play games. I found many ‘casual’ players in this era who had played just one videogame that they had bought with their first and only games console. As players who were not particularly ‘game literate’, their choice of game was largely down to the overt narrative content being advertised by the game box i.e. by assessing games in a similar way to films.

By the time the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii were hitting the shelves, the forty hour model was already being challenged in significant ways by the rising popularity of World of Warcraft. It is almost unnecessary to mention any other massively multiplayer game at this point, except perhaps to comment how EverQuest cleared the way for WoW, and how that descended directly from the DIKUMUDs that emerged from the original MUD1. (Or to put it another way: how the UK invented a novel form of play, Europe modified it, and the US swooped in to monetize it). Forty hours meant nothing to the players of World of Warcraft… they might just be getting to the point of engagement with the community by that point. World of Warcraft is a game that is played as a hobby all on its own – just like the MUDs it directly descends from.

However, this was not a new phenomena. Magic the Gathering had established this kind of hobbyist dedication a decade before WoW, and Dungeons & Dragons had been played in the same mode twenty years before that! Indeed, at the tabletop it had long been the case that there were games open to be played in a hobby mode – hence the naming of the more complex tabletop games ‘hobby games’ (although most, it should be noted, are played 2-6 hours at a time, without the hobby-like commitment to a single game instance or campaign). Even earlier than that, sports and music had offered the chance for play that would be a lifetime practice, not a passing experience. In comparison to these, no single game can compete in terms of the dedication of its players, although if the player practices are abstracted from the individual games, perhaps a case could be made.

Nowadays, the forty hour model seems in decline – but it has not primarily been replaced with shorter play experiences. On the contrary, every major commercial game now attempts to ‘capture’ its audience for at least 200 hours, with multiplayer modes being the core method of retention. The forty hour model was a consequence of selling games-as-products, as boxed content that would be played then thrown onto a pile of completed games (although it turns out that the minority of players finish games). The 200 hour model is a consequence of selling games-as-services, with monetization now an on-going process throughout the time the players are engaged with the title in question. Even this is not new: arcade games in the 1980s were very much committed to the idea of taking money constantly, albeit a very small amount of cash for a relatively short amount of play (a quarter for a quarter of an hour, say), and with the profits distributed around many small business owners (arcades) as well as corporations.

One consequence of these longer play windows for games is that it’s harder for large game studios to break even than ever before, even though more money than ever before is coming into the digital games industry. The flow of money had always been concentrated, but the gap between market leaders and the rest continues to widen. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. Dungeons & Dragons had made it difficult (but not impossible) for other tabletop role-playing game publishers to carve out a niche, just as Magic the Gathering had made it essentially impossible for anyone else to compete in the trading card game space (not withstanding Pokémon, which was made by the same company). World of Warcraft forced competitors to give their games away for free because they couldn’t compete directly with it’s critical mass of players and content. Now, every major game seeks the same kind of dominance over its space – Call of Duty is an illustrative franchise, since it now requires three large developers working on it in order to deliver content at the rate that would mean there is never a vulnerable opening for competitors to threaten its dominance.

The big money is no longer out to hold a player’s attention for forty hours, but to hold a player’s attention long enough to get the next game out, or to hold on to groups of players in the hope to pull in a few big spenders, or to hold the player’s attention throughout the year with events crafted to maintain appeal and bring back those who are slipping away into other games. Hobby players – those who commit to a game service over the long term – often play other games on the side, which is a tiny crumb of good news for indies making smaller games. Indeed, at the bottom of the market, there are perhaps greater opportunities for those who make games than ever before, but the lower market is competing for the scraps left over from the gorging behemoths above them, like crabs scuttling about for the tiny morsels that fall to the seabed after the giant sharks have fed.

Yet despite this, there are still spaces in the market where you can find players who buy multiple games of a similar kind. The computer role-playing game, which has always been the most popular genre in Japan, continues to attract players who complete one game before moving to the next, and the same appears to be true of horror games, and platformers (even though Nintendo is practically the only supplier of these for some insane reason!). More experiential games, including the derisively nicknamed ‘walking simulator’, similarly represent a space where shorter, more unique play experiences maintain a small but dedicated community of players. The same can be claimed of the point-and-click adventure, albeit solely in the context of Telltale Games, the reanimated corpse of LucasArts that can command million dollar budgets for projects no other developer could conceivably get greenlit.

The game-as-product approach where the forty hour model had dominated still survives, but only where it has proved difficult or impossible to tie players down for longer lengths of time. The market for videogames is ceasing to be one of packaged experience (like movies and novels) and becoming a fight for retention, as more and more games in the upper market shift their design towards training new hobby players in a ongoing economy. Look at Bungie’s shift from the boxed products of Halo to the endless service of Destiny. Forty hours is no longer the norm. Now, it’s a matter of keeping players for as long as you can, and getting as much money as possible out of them in the process. It’s an open question  whether players now are better or worse off than under the shadow of forty hours.

Do you have any thoughts on game length? Share your viewpoint in the comments!


Open Letter to Official Charts Company

This is a copy of the email I just sent to the Official Charts Company, whose contact details can be found here.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture OST Dear Chris and Lucy at the Official Charts Company,

It has come to my attention that Jessica Curry's classical score to the digital game "Everybody's Gone to the Rapture" has been removed from the UK Classical Artist Album Charts, after having previously been an excellent performer in this category. Right now, thousands of enraged videogame fans are boiling with fury on the internet about this, and the knee jerk reaction has been that she has been removed because her soundtrack appears in a digital game.

If this allegation were true, it would be a tremendous act of disrespect to both musicians as a whole, and to games as an artistic medium.

I am hopeful this is not the case, but I urgently request a clarification as to the reason for the declassification of this album from your charts. Examining your Eligibility Rules suggests that, since Jessica has clearly composed in a classical form (rules 3 and 6) and is capable of live performance (rule 5), it should qualify.

However, I am uncertain of the intended meaning of rule 9, which states "Original soundtracks and scores performed in a classical style, by either a single artist or various artists, will not be eligible for the Classical Artist Album Chart." Nonetheless, since "The Complete Harry Potter Film Music" appears at Number 29 in your chart, it would seem that there is no prima facie reason that Jessica's soundtrack should not qualify.

I would be grateful for a swift clarification on this matter.

I have worked for many years to secure the case for games qualifying as artworks, a situation that has now become unimpeachable in terms of the philosophical arguments. We still, however, face tremendous prejudice from the media establishment. I hope and trust that the Official Charts Company is not part of the ongoing bigotry against games as an artistic medium.

Your sincerely,

Dr. Chris Bateman

 

Their reply:

Hi Chris 
 
I am out of the office so apologies for the brevity of my response 
 
Both the Jessica Curry release and the Harry Potter album you refer to appeared in the Classical Artist Album Chart in error. As you rightly note, soundtracks are not eligible for this particular chart, and we treat movie and game soundtracks in the same way. 
 
The Classic FM Chart is compiled by ‎the Official Charts Company and includes Classical Artist Albums, Compilation Albums and Soundtracks. Everybody's Gone To Rapture OST appears in this chart at #7 I believe, so we completely agree that this is a classical body of work and included it as such
 
We produce the Official Soundtrack Chart each week and both of these albums are of course eligible for this chart also
 
‎Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions, or would like any further detail
 
Many thanks
Chris