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!


The Liberation of Games Will Not Be Streamed on Twitch

Not TwitchedGames are about choices! Games are about challenge! Games are about avatars! So many banners line the battlefield of games, so many visions of “what games are”. Yet no-one who attempts to boil down games into a simple formula preserves everything that everyone loves about games, and that means games are always far beyond what you think they are.

Conventional thinking about games has crystallised into certain dogmas, sometimes stated, sometimes merely implied, that attempt to control the phenomena of games through the simple means of declaring what they are or are not. We should be suspicious of this, but not (as the academics say) because it is ‘essentialist’ but because we should never confuse our aesthetic values for anything fundamentally necessary – even though, as Kant observed centuries ago, we all desperately want to do this, whether for ‘art’ or for ‘games’.

Whatever you single out as essential to games will necessarily reflect your aesthetic values for play. That is no bad thing – appreciating any of the aesthetic experiences of life is a practice we ought to treasure, because it illuminates a certain joy we take in living, and that is always a precious thing. The problem is, we think our aesthetics can be applied to others. Kant noted that when we find a great artwork, we feel that our judgement should apply to everyone – and thus are often scornful of those who don’t accord with our own judgement. The same is true about games, where our aesthetic judgements are sometimes shored up by all sorts of strange methods, including invoking psychology as a weird source of authority (as if psychologists could somehow show what was really art or really a game...).

Three of my own bugbears about this phenomena will help illustrate my point, starting with the famous Sid Meier misquote that “a game...” (or, as he appears to actually have said, “a good game”) “...is a series of interesting choices.” Who doesn't love an interesting choice, you might ask? Aren’t the best examples of games built around providing meaningful choices? It’s true that evocative choices are one of the ways that games satisfy players, but we ought to be careful about confusing a way games engage players for the way games engage players.

Games are about choices in about the same way that action movies are about weaponry. Yes, firearms are a staple of the genre, but films like Deepwater Horizon or, long before that, The Towering Inferno are still blistering action movies (quite literally in these cases!) without a shot ever being fired. Similarly, games supporting meaningful choices can be great experiences, and can offer many rewarding moments. Yet zero player games like ProgressQuest are still fun, despite offering no choices whatsoever. Along similar lines, many Japanese RPGs craft the play experience so tightly that almost no meaningful choices are offered, yet the genre is still wildly popular, and not just in Japan (indeed, the design of BioWare games have increasingly cross-pollinated the Western and Japanese RPG lineages).

Then there is our relationship to our avatars. Katherine Isbister, whose work I greatly admire, claims we have a deeper bond with our game characters than with characters from other media that are ‘not interactive’, owing to what psychologists have called para-social relationships. Already, a massive assumption has been made here that clouds the water. For my five year old son, the Marvel comics I read to him provide the same interactive capacities as the videogames we play, at least in terms of what happens afterwards, when he is playing games about them. This is not just true for a child’s imagination, though: for many cosplayers, the same expanded scope of interaction applies. (If this feels odd because it looks at play ‘outside the game’, recall that while we are watching a movie our bond to the characters on screen can be immensely strong; the idea of a stronger bond with a videogame avatar is already founded upon thinking outside the game, at the draw of returning to playing.) The games we play with media never quite stay inside the lines we draw for them, and para-social connections are generated by nearly every medium.

Besides, do we really bond with game avatars (or at least, the digital dolls representing them) more than the protagonists of books, films and television shows? Harry Potter or Darth Vader are more beloved than any game character, so it would seem this is not the case. Our attachments to the dolls we play with in videogames feel more intense while the game has us in its grip, but the relationship tails off dramatically afterwards (not to mention that a TV ‘boxed set’ can hold us in its grip just as effectively as a videogame). Note that we never play a game the second time in the same way; we don’t recreate our previous avatars ever, no matter how much we loved them. Conversely, other media characters are eternal – and gain tangibly from it in terms of their appeal. It’s not a coincidence that cosplayers favour Japanese RPG characters, which are closer in form to the older forms of media. The shared point of reference among the wider community makes a huge difference in such matters.

Then there’s the psychological concept of flow, which many people have suggested is central to games, and allegedly keeps us engaged through a tight balance between the level of challenge and our own abilities. Yet this phenomena (while an authentic part of animal psychology) has little to do with the appeal of tabletop RPGs, exploration games, walking sims, nor most boardgames. To understand flow is to appreciate the ways a certain kind of game elicits our intense involvement, but it would be utterly futile to make this a skeleton key for game design. If we consider survival-horror games as just one clear example, it should be clear that remaining within the ‘flow channel’, where our skills match the challenges, is a terrible description of the enjoyment on offer. Most players of these games are avoiding challenge to conserve limited resources, and anxiety in these cases is not a sign that the game has ceased to be fun but the very root of our enjoyment.

Flow was the psychological secret of the arcade, the essence of the intense involvement of the coin op that was initially predicated upon forcing the player to fail against rising levels of challenge. That made a great deal of sense in the commercial situation of that time, where games had to be designed to facilitate coin drops, and so shorter, more intense play experiences were the order of business (at least until the first ‘microtransaction’ games like Gauntlet, which threw away the concept of one coin, one game). But the arcade is only part of the story of videogames, and we should never forget that the medium descends from both coin ops and tabletop role-playing games – and only one of these lineages is about flow. The other is about immersive presence, that capacity to enter another world that is also in no way the hallmark of games, let alone videogames, which did not even originate it!

Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!

The liberation of games means no one can chisel the agenda for play in stone. Everyone’s aesthetic values have meaning, even those we hate, and there’s nothing to gain from denying this diversity, this wild landscape of play. I revel in this chaos because it is the only honest way to love games: no-one is mistaken in laying out their boundary conditions for what games are, but everyone who thinks they can defend games from a border they have drawn is deeply confused about what they are doing.

This is the ultimate truth about games: nobody owns them, not gamers, nor social justice warriors, nor governments, nor corporations – no-one. Games and art are bigger that any fragment of culture, greater than any definition, and beyond even our species. The liberation of games means accepting everyone’s unique view of games, whether or not we agree with it. This is not easy. But it’s the only way to allow games to truly be everything they can be.

With apologies to the incomparable Gil Scott-Heron.


Game Inventories

Game Inventories was a serial in five parts that ran here at ihobo.com from August 31st to September 28th 2016. Within it, pairs of games are examined, and the lineage connections between them are considered, especially in connection with inventory practices. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. Game Inventories (1): Minecraft and Dungeon Master
  2. Game Inventories (2): The Bard's Tale and Dungeons & Dragons
  3. Game Inventories (3): Diablo and Daggerfall
  4. Game Inventories (4): Resident Evil 4 and X-Com
  5. Game Inventories (5): EverQuest and MUDs

Special thanks to Erlend Grefsrud, Griddle Octopus, Doug Hill, Jacobo Luengo, Sketchwhale, Oscar Strik, VR Sam, Worthless Bums, and José Zagal for contributing to brief discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial. Additionally, and this always the case when I talk of the history of games, I am indebted to my friend and colleague Richard Boon. 

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


Game Inventories (5): EverQuest and MUDs

EverQuest 2 2004One final element of Minecraft’s inventory practices remains unaccounted for: the bar at the bottom that allows rapid access to the contents of the inventory. This is clearly an inventory practice that makes no sense at the tabletop, yet it will hardly be a surprise at this point to demonstrate that it too descends from a lineage that traces its departure point to Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, the pivotal game is Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest (1999), which is the first of the ‘graphical MUDs’ – what would become known as a Massively Multiplayer Role-playing Game or MMORPG. Pictured at the top here is an inventory window from EverQuest II (2004), which shows another conventional grid inventory, with the bottom three rows marked with keyboard shortcuts: this is what EverQuest termed a hotbar, and which comes to be known as a quickbar (styled in Minecraft’s case as a quick-bar).

EverQuest Hotbar 1999Tracing the practices of MMOs, or indeed any game that is run as a service, requires significantly greater effort than investigating games that were released as products. Game-as-services means constant changes and updates, and this makes archaeology difficult to adequately perform. Nonetheless, the picture here shows a very early (perhaps the first) form of the hotbar in the original EverQuest. The player is able to customise its contents by placing different actions (at this point primarily described in words e.g. “Melee Attack”) onto the bar, where it can be quickly clicked with the mouse, or activated with a hotkey. The name ‘hotbar’ is clearly a reference to the concept of a ‘hotkey’, which has its origin in the graphical interfaces of computer operating systems.

Dark Age of Camelot Quick Bar 2001 Dark Age of Camelot Quick Bar 2001It appears to be EverQuest’s early competitor Dark Age of Camelot (2001) which coins the term quickbar, and as with all games of this style, the design varies radically throughout its life. The images above depict one of the last versions of the iconography used (top), and the original green and gold iconography (bottom). The functionality, however, remains parallel to the equivalent practices of EverQuest.

Computer RPGs were already moving towards this kind of customisable inventory practice as the available hardware resources increased and games took advantage of this to add more functionality. The action bar at the bottom of the screen in Baldur’s Gate (1998) is a proto-quickbar, even though inventory items are a small part of the space allocated for it. Similarly, Diablo II (2000) offers a quickbar-like system that is presented as being part of the world of the game by linking its functionality to belt items. Each belt provides the capacity to access potions, with different belts having varying capacities. However, by Diablo III, this experiment had merged with the main lineage of quickbar practices, which blossomed in the MMORPGs. To appreciate why, we should examine the two decades before the first MMORPGs, and the lineages of the original multiplayer fictional worlds: MUDs.

 

MUD1 and its Descendants (1978)

When I met Richard Bartle in Dundee this year for the first international joint conference of DiGRA and FDG, where he was giving a keynote, I asked him about the influences that fed into MUD1, the 1978 game that took a simple database, hooked it up with a parser, and connected it to the outside world with BT’s packet switch stream (a precursor to the internet). Bartle was keen to play down the influence of the text adventures, admitting that the parser idea had come from them, but suggesting if it hadn’t been from games like Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) or Zork (1977/1980) it would have come from elsewhere. I’ve already suggested we should set aside such counter-factual reasoning: a history is a narrative that connects the events that occurred, and we should not be too distracted by mere possibilities when constructing one.

Similarly, while Bartle and his co-designer Roy Trubshaw, had played Dungeons & Dragons, which clearly serves as an influence in the trajectory of the MUDs, Bartle was keen to note single-player games of his own devising which were similar in form to early tabletops that had influenced him in making MUD1. This isn’t entirely surprising, since while it was D&D that spread the practices widely by being published, there were numerous proto-RPGs in circulation in the time preceding it. The collision of tabletop player practices with the world practices of novels created unique conditions for the creation of new player practices focussed on narrative play, out of which springs the explosion of inventiveness for which D&D is a key locus of influence.

The early MUDs, however, were much more exercises in world building and community play than adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons. It is the LP MUDs (1989) and especially the DIKU MUDs (1990), originating in Sweden and Denmark respectively, that saw in the MUDs the opportunity to (yet again) adapt D&D for computer form, repeating what had happened back in 1974 on the PLATO educational network. From its first publication through to the early 1990s, wherever there was an opportunity to adapt the various player practices of D&D into a computerised form, it was taken.

The inventory systems of all these games remains resolutely in the style of the early text adventures, and thus in the form of D&D: a list of words. A text command ‘inventory’, often available as just ‘i’, would list all the items that the player was carrying in a simple linear list. Each item was specified in the design of the game, either as a unique object (in most adventure games) or as a class to be instanced (in computer RPGs and MUDs). As long as these games were represented in text, there was no possibility of it being otherwise.

Where, then, is the connection to the highly customisable quickbar? Players of MUDs often found that there were actions (or clusters of actions) that they needed to perform frequently, and swiftly hit upon a solution via running additional software in parallel to the MUD supporting macros. A macro was simply a script of text actions coupled to a key press to trigger it, typically (but not exclusively) the function keys (F1-F12), which were ideally suited for such purposes. Later client software for MUDs began to build these macro systems in automatically, because the player practices had become dependent upon the macro concept for smooth play. Note also that it was the players who added this element to the MUDs, with no involvement from the game developers.

Because the developers of EverQuest were MUD players, they appear to have been drawn to providing customisable interface elements like the hotbar, and thus accelerating the development of what would become called the quickbar: they were (on this reading) a graphical substitute for macros, a customisable element that could tailor to the individual player’s practices. MUDs required more actions in part because they brought together multiple players, which necessitated communication and performance irrelevant in a single player game. MMORPGs inherited this requirement, and developed the quickbar practices to deal with it.

Here, in this final element of Minecraft’s inventory design, is an example of why examining the history of games as player practices can reveal aspects that are invisible if they are examined solely as artefacts, since it is only through the actions of the players that the practices of games are sustained. The design of every game is conditioned by the conservation of player practices, which sustains those practices that are effective at satisfying the visceral or imaginative needs of players. Every example within this serial serves to elucidate this point, and to show how games are never isolated objects: they are always embedded in the manifold of player practices responsible for their creation, and which they then contribute to maintaining.

The player is the heart of the game, and game design conserves player practices because designers are also players. We can trace lineages not because successful games are the rare exception that borrow their practices from earlier games, but because games that borrow the majority of their practices from earlier games are best positioned to be successful – especially if they can manage to bring something new to the table in the process. Notch probably did not play tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, or The Bard’s Tale, or Dungeon Master, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, or EverQuest, but the inventory practices of Minecraft nonetheless inherits the successful variations that these games introduced upon a bedrock of established player practices.

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud, Griddle Octopus, Doug Hill, Jacobo Luengo, Sketchwhale, Oscar Strik, VR Sam, Worthless Bums, José Zagal and, always when I talk of the history of games, to my friend and colleague Richard Boon.


Game Inventories (4): Resident Evil 4 and X-Com

Resident Evil 4 2005The Attaché Case inventory in Resident Evil 4 (2005) feels like a logical next step from Diablo II’s grid inventory three years earlier. Both involve positioning multi-cell objects in a fixed size grid, with weapons varying in size. Resident Evil 4, however, takes the idea one step further, allowing the player to rotate the items, and providing a ‘swapping space’ to store items temporarily while the player fiddles with the layout. It’s an ingenious and absorbing design that most players loved, although a few complained about the way it broke them out of the world of the game (the aesthetic flaw I have called rupture).

Yet if we examine this game from the perspective of player practices then what we are dealing with is not a progression from Diablo II at all – for that particular game was never released in Japan, and is vanishingly unlikely to have been an influence upon the design of Resident Evil 4. Indeed, the player practices that condition the creation of this particular post-survival horror game are primarily those of the Resident Evil franchise itself, which represents an entirely parallel development of the grid inventory concept from largely different influences. I’ve warned previously about the danger of bringing in counter-factuals to examine the history of game design – but when it comes to this instance, we get an alternative history of a single design element because its actual history was different.

We do not, however, cast aside the influence of Dungeons & Dragons in this version of events, even though the game never had a serious following in Japan. Rather, it was once again Wizardry that took the design of the original tabletop RPG and brought its influence to Japan – firstly, as Henk Rogers’ Black Onyx (1984), which was Japan’s first computer RPG, and soon after as Dragon Quest (1986), and from there into the Japanese RPG lineage, a complete analysis of which would be a major project in itself. (Henk Rogers, incidentally, was a D&D player at the University of Hawaii, where he was studying business – and immediately saw how Wizardry’s adaptation of the tabletop RPG practices was a way to make money; he just had to bring it somewhere new…)

The original Resident Evil back in 1996 (Biohazard in Japan) has two key points of influence. From a technical standpoint, it is clearly inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), which in turn was inspired by the hugely influential tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu (1981), written by Sandy Peterson (who would go on to be a level designer for id Software, bringing Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into their games). From a player practice perspective, however, it does not seem that Capcom’s team was coming from Alone in the Dark at all, but rather from an obscure Japanese RPG entitled Sweet Home (1989), itself adapted from a Japanese horror movie with the same name. This is hardly a secret: Tokuro Fujiwara, who made Sweet Home, was one of the two key people responsible for directing Capcom’s first Resident Evil game, and it is relatively clear that Sweet Home provides the rough draft of Resident Evil’s inventory practices – including the idea of limiting space in the inventory, the use of save rooms to store items, and individual character items like the lockpick and lighter.

The player practices of the survival horror genre are centred around the inventory, and the limitations therein that Sweet Home pioneered. Having rendered the inventory as a grid for the first game, director Shinji Mikami went on in Resident Evil 2 (1998) to make some weapons take up two spaces in the inventory, adding to the difficult decisions that had to be made. While reviewers complained about the limitations of the inventory, and the surreal quality of the Item Box that shares items between all save rooms, when Capcom eventually removed these in their final survival horror game, Resident Evil Zero (2002), the inventory system unravelled completely. Players were forced to choose a room to layout all of their belongings, which was even more surreal than the Item Boxes!

Alas, the decision to give up on the player practices of the survival horror game had already been made by the time Resident Evil Zero shipped: Mikami-san had been ordered to make an action game, which is where Resident Evil 4 came from. On the foundations of their own inventory practices, the ‘perfect’ grid inventory of Resident Evil 4 was born. But having traded survival horror for action, the stop-and-start inventory ultimately had to go to make room for multiplayer, and the perfection of the grid inventory in Japan was ultimately a dead end.

 

UFO: Enemy Unknown AKA X-Com (1994)

UFO 1994The connection between the inventory in UFO: Enemy Unknown and that of Diablo that it inspired is readily apparent: here, for the first time anywhere in the world, is a grid inventory where the equipment items take up variable cells of the grid, creating interesting decisions when equipping character. This game, known as X-Com: UFO Defense in the United States where it enjoyed tremendous commercial success, was to found a hugely successful strategy franchise, yet its influence is nowhere more apparent than its provision of the multi-cell grid inventory practices to Diablo.

Just as the case of Resident Evil 4 depended upon a contiguous set of player practices from one linear sequence of games, so the influence that led to Diablo’s grid inventory came from a contiguous sequence of games, in this case those of the British programmer and game designer Julian Gollop. From the age of 14, Gollop was playing Dungeons & Dragons and the strategy boardgames of Avalon Hill that had inspired it. Unlike everyone else considered in this serial, Gollop was strongly influenced by the design of strategic boardgames, and began creating games on 8-bit home computers that adapted the player practices of these games.

Rebelstar Raiders 1984Rebelstar Raiders (1984), pictured right, was one of Gollop’s first experiments with putting a strategy boardgame onto a computer, in this case the ZX Spectrum. With no AI at all, the game could only be played with two players, a limitation that was fixed with the sequels Rebelstar (1986) and Rebelstar II (1988). While the latter two games did allow for changes in weaponry, none of these titles featured an inventory system, which is not surprising since the strategy boardgame practices they had adapted never used an inventory concept either. This was the invention of D&D and the tabletop precursors that inspired it.

Laser Squad 1988It is with Laser Squad (1988), pictured left, that Gollop begins to combine D&D style differential characters – and thus inventories – with the player practices he had developed across his Rebelstar games, the last of which had been released earlier in the same year. As the screenshot makes clear, each member of the player’s squad has a name and an inventory of weaponry, shown with small icons. The more equipment a squad member carries, the more rapidly they run out of action points, and thus tire. The player practices of X-Com descend directly from Laser Squad – indeed, it was originally conceived as Laser Squad II, and both games combine an RPG-like differentiation of characters with the practices of a strategy wargame.

The step up to the full grid inventory with multi-cell weapons in X-Com feels like a substantial progression from Laser Squad, and six years separate the two games (although the last edition of Laser Squad, for PC, wasn’t released until 1992). It seems likely that in the intervening period, Gollop encountered Dungeon Master, and hence the grid inventory. However, the effect of multi-cell items on the grid inventory concept results in a substantial shift in the player practices, as Diablo made clear. I speculate that the influence here might have come from Steve Jackson’s classic tabletop autoduellist wargame Car Wars (1981), for which allocating weaponry to the limited spaces available in the chassis was a major element. Since Gollop worked upon the 8-bit videogame for Games Workshop’s 1983 dodgy knock off, Battlecars, it seems likely he was exposed to Car Wars player practices. But perhaps, like Resident Evil’s parallel lineage of grid inventories, Gollop just hit upon the idea on his own as he continued to develop his own unique lineage of strategic videogames.

Next week, the final part: EverQuest and MUDs