The joint is one of those few places open this late on a weekday evening. You hover over a plate of greasy food, biding your time for the anonymous meats to give up the ghost and finally die. A cup of coffee is at hand, from which you gently sip, the warm comfort of the dark beverage sluicing caffeine through your tumbling mind. You know the coffee only exacerbates your late night existence, and yet to not finish this cup would seem like a shameful waste of a good friend.

A couple at the bar nearby is telling a deep dark tale of tragedy, anger, and even a tinge of lust. Beyond the general emotion of their tale, you can't fathom a bit. Their domestic dispute is entirely a foreign language to you. Even when they speak in English they speak in riddles and your mind fails to latch on to any sort of contextualized meaning at all.

The joint's night manager isn't interested in your thoughts other than barest obsequiousness necessary for what he hopes will elicit a good tip. His hand is quick to the carafe whenever your coffee seems low. His weary half-smile manages to seem slyly conspiratorial whenever he does so.

Maybe you'll head for what purports to be home in this city after you finish this next cup of coffee...

May's Topic

The topic for May asks us to explore the themes of a piece of non-interactive art as fodder for a game.

Gianfranco Berardi of GBGames in his May Round Table post explores thoughts on a game based upon Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment. He ends with a challenge to discuss Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks. I've decided to tackle that challenge.

Nighthawks is one of those paintings that has managed to seep its way into the urban subconscious, particularly in American culture. It is one of those paintings that seemingly everyone knows and no one knows its name. Nighthawks was partially inspired by film noir and has a filmic quality to it, and in turn Nighthawks has inspired much following pop culture, particularly in being a key work that Ridley Scott used to explain his vision for Blade Runner.

The painting highlights a late night diner, brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs and casting deep shadows upon neighboring empty streets. The patrons in the diner seem mostly lost in their own internal worlds than at all interested in the other people mere feet from them. The painting is often described as a painting of the desolation and loneliness, even amongst other people, of the urban landscape.

As an urban resident, with many tales of my own that involve a stop at a late night diner, I see some simple comforts there as well. It is hard to make out much of the normal trappings of a diner, but there does seem to be a fairly prominent coffee/cappuccino machine in the background. I think there is comfort in coming in off the empty streets into a small dive of a diner and drowning your insomnia in cheap coffee and greasy food.

Given the crime film influence in the painting, it is possible to tease possible back stories from the painting. Perhaps there is secretly a clandestine meeting of symbols taking place late at night. Perhaps there is a small guilt of an earlier crime contributing to one or more of the character's insomnia. Perhaps it isn't guilt but anxiety.

Certainly the painting offers a lot of food for thought of emotions and states that have yet to be well captured in an urban sandbox game such as the GTA series. I think it is another example that speaks to my assertion that gaming could stand to gain from reusable urban settings.

Interestingly enough, I think that to truly deal with some of the emotions of the painting that it is time to talk about breaking some of gaming's "rules", or perhaps more precisely taboos.

This Game Isn't About You

Gaming has become extremely proficient at giving the protagonist, the player character, center stage and center of attention. NPCs all react to just about every thing the PC does. The PC always has particular goals available (and perhaps obnoxiously reminded from time to time of them). The PC knows everything about the landscape and eventually commands all of the potential of the world around him.

To some extent, this is what we want as both players and designers. GTA is eventually about running amok as a super-criminal and Saints Row would be less fun if it wasn't about mindlessly blowing things up in the name of game violence.

However, just as much of this feeling that world nauseatingly revolves around every action of the player character, comes from a lot of taboos that have accumulated over the years. These taboos come from an assortment of "market wisdom", designer idealism, and feature oneupmanship. Most of them have their place in gaming, and serve useful purposes most of the time, but to some extent some of these have taken a sort of religious fervor behind them, and it is easy to forget that all rules have exceptions.

I think the easiest historical example of the accumulation and inherent eccentricity of some of these taboos comes from the example of the maze: Mazes were components of adventure games from the start. The original Colossal Cave Adventure included the very template from which many original games gleaned how to do a maze. The Zork Trilogy can be seen as nearly one large maze partitioned into three games. For a time it was considered almost an unspoken requirement that all adventure games include a maze. Time passed and designers got tired of making interesting mazes and having a maze at all in an adventure game became synonymous as design elements in lazy or bad games. Eventually it became entirely anathema for a game to include one at all.

Some say that mazes simply ran their course and that there are no new ideas for mazes. Others say that players don't like mazes. But yet, simple 2D mazes continue to show up in activity packs and pen and paper sets. I find it curious that the taboo seems to have affected even the "casual games" industry. Where are all the maze casual games? There certainly seems to be an interesting disconnect in that mazes are the one pen and paper "traditional" game that does not seem to be widely represented amongst casual games...

The point here is not that I think that a game that should inspire the emotions of Nighthawks needs a maze, more that the taboos I'm about to mention seem to have, in their own ways, similar historic contexts. It is a useful allegory, I think. You can think of a desolate, lonely existence in a large city in terms of mazes of city streets and emotional complexes; neither of which care about you specifically.

To particular point: a challenging maze requires a certain amount of "found readability". Most game taboos and rules that have accumulated over the years are about forcing inherent readability as close to the surface and to the player as possible. Rather than asking a player to learn to navigate the structure of a maze, to find readability in the subtle differences between nodes, to make for themselves the map necessary to navigation, gaming has become somewhat single-minded about making sure that every player has access to the maps they need up front.

There are quite a few tools of readability that have, for some good reasons, become popular and nearly "mandatory": clear objectives screens, GPS, markers and goal-orienting paths. Certainly these devices limit player frustration, but they are all player-centric tools that shelter players from desolation and loneliness. It is a fascinating trade off between frustrating players and allowing players to explore truly alien environs.

Current wisdom is that players should never feel frustrations, that games should be as easy to grok as possible. In many ways it is a good trend. But frustration is an important emotion, and should not be overlooked as a powerful tool for storytelling. Certainly there are other things that can be done to compensate some: certainly we can do better with in-game street signs?

Imagine an urban sandbox without a map or a compass. Imagine quite a few NPCs and few that seem to even acknowledge your existence. Imagine not knowing your goals explicitly and trying to navigate a web of alliances and counter-alliances that seems to have existed before you started playing and doesn't exist for you to personally control by the end of the game.

Sure, a lot of player's are going to immediately come away with "less fun". You aren't going to hit an lowest common denominator demographic, and you probably can't do it as a huge budget affair [1], but certainly the audience for such a game is something larger than zero. Particularly if you can assuage your audience that the drama you are trying to create is worth the frustration they might feel trying to navigate it.

A Difference of Night and Day

We use the phrase "a difference of night and day" meaning a large difference, and yet the differences in video game terms are mostly cosmetic. Of course, balancing real-time-like time flow is a complicated matter: Players balk when businesses in game seem to follow actual schedules. Yet on the other hand no one seems to have figured out how to best represent those hours we humans actually spend asleep, or those hours we must spend between gaming sessions. [2]

Player characters seem to already exist as insomniac hawks, looking for something to entertain time at all hours of the virtual day. I think that to do the painting's emotion is simply a matter of trying to better contrast day and night. Give the players an option to sleep and let them be eaten by the anxieties of missing crucial clues if they don't spend some of the less active night whiling away a few hours as an insomniac in an all night diner.

I'd Build it if I Could

To be honest, I don't think that a game that yields some of these emotions is that far from being made. Given access to GTA or Saints Row it is possible to chuck out much of the gameplay, reaction AI and UI and write an urban drama about an insomniac alone in a crowd of people, whose major time to think about the world about him is the hours he might spend in a dive diner.

The stories are there for the writing, but the stages do not yet exist. Worse, perhaps, is that for now the producers don't exist either that are interested in paying for dramas that alienate potential audience members or that challenge the audience in ways that are taboo. Is it not perhaps a terribly irony of an industry about creating challenges that there is such a thing today of "too challenging"?

[1]Of course, you probably can't do such a thing and build an entire urban city in the process, as with a GTA or Saints Row. Again, there is a huge argument here for useful, reusable environments.
[2]A post idea I've been toying is on this particular subject.

For other wondrous visions of art made interactive: