Bit.Trip Running

Beware of low hanging buzzsaws.
Beware of low hanging buzzsaws.

The first Bit.Trip Runner game is an abomination. It is almost excellent, for the first ten levels. It has you learning to leap, kick and duck to avoid obstacles, running at speed through a pink-and-purple tinted robotic landscape. The blocky, retro graphics are chunkily beautiful, but the sound is what makes the game. Each gold you get, each jump you make, each obstacle you navigate or ignore contributes a tone to the ambient music: each element is perfectly placed to fit with a broader rhythm. Play means mastering a complex pattern, pushing the right buttons at the right time to navigate increasingly complicated landscapes: the process of mastering those patterns, and the moments when they work well, are both gloriously satisfying.

But at the eleventh level it goes wrong. Odyssey is too long. It isn’t that it’s too challenging – but that it requires more concentration and a much longer stretch without error than any other level in the game up to that point. The joy of Runner is about mastering the patterns in each level, fine tuning to the point where you can not only play the piece note-perfect, but add your own elements on top: a trill here, a crescendo there, an extra jump to get the last gold for a perfect run. Odyssey does not give you chance to master the later patterns, because they are two minutes’ hard concentration away from where you start out. It is too long. It’s been an insurmountable barrier to my playing further: I can see the elegance, the joy in the early levels, but that one defeats me. It’s not worth the effort it takes to surpass.

On your side

Bit.Trip presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, henceforth referred to as BTp.R2FLoRA, expands on the first game and fixes the faults that make Odyssey such an iron bar on the train tracks. I picked it up in the Steam sale expecting to find it a flawed but interesting play – as I do most of the other Bit.Trip games – but instead I find myself turning to it frequently in spare moments, being sucked in to play dozens of levels, hours at a time.

As with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, music is both the purpose and the punishment for the Runner games. Failure – falling to your death, or crashing into an obstacle – makes the music stop playing. In the first game, these failures reset you right back to the start of the level, collapsing the musical landscape back to a very simple, straightforward beat. But the second offers checkpoints – in its own version of Odyssey, multiple checkpoints. As the difficulty ramps up in later levels they’re not generous, and every checkpoint is skippable if you want a harder challenge. But their presence is crucial – they turn an experience of severe frustration into one where you are certain if you just try it again, one more time, you’re sure you can do it right this time. Unlike Runner, BTp.R2FLoRA is on your side.

Dazzling leaps

This time all three difficulty levels are worth playing, because all three have gold to collect. You can play on Quite Easy to pick up collectibles and learn the level structure, then switch through Just Right to Rather Hard for a proper, teeth-grinding challenge. All three play differently – Easy is a thrilling, speedy rush of music, rarely interrupted, while Hard can be determinedly repetitive, a slow push to get a little further each time. After a Hard level, playing on a lower difficulty feels like drinking a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day: refreshing, dazzling, thrilling.

Even within levels the pacing is elegant. Tricky series of jumps and slides that must be timed to perfection and embellished for a perfect score are followed by dazzling leaps in which gold is handed to you by virtue of your trajectory. Moments where you lean forward, snapping buttons in perfect time and deep concentration, are tempered by these sudden, exuberant periods where you have nothing to do but luxuriate in your achievement. You leap joyfully across the screen, which glitters and gleams and rewards you with visual extravagance as you relax for all of about three seconds. These moments are water breaks, waypoints in your race. They are a substantial part of the game’s excellence.

And again, as with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the beat always acts to ground your actions, the way a metronome does when you are playing music. It’s tyrannical too, the way a metronome is when you don’t yet know the notes, or when you can’t move your fingers fast enough over the piano keys to sound the tune correctly. The music acts both to make your experience more difficult and easier; sometimes both by turns, as you learn to master each track. Missing a note, missing one of the optional obsctales or choosing a less complex route, or avoiding a power-up that gives you both a score multiplier and a tonal shift to the background music: these aren’t punishments, but they are moments you could improve, if you played better. You could jump faster. You could hit the Bit.Trip equivalent of all the meedly-meedly notes. But if you don’t, that’s OK. The music still plays.

Dance button

I still haven’t played Hotline Miami. This is an admission of failure on my part, because I know I will love it, once I get past the violence. It’s about understanding a complex landscape and the patterns within it, moving very quickly and improvising based on what you know, learning the levels and mastering them. It’s a game of mastery, and those games are like catnip to me. But the violence is a barrier. I get home from a hard day and I want to relax in a way that doesn’t mean beating someone’s head off a pixelated floor. I don’t want to shoot dogs or see my avatar’s guts spilled, even with hypnotic pulsing music and vibrant psychadelic graphics and a story that’s meant to say something interesting about the violence. I want joy.

BTp.R2FLoRA lets you dance.

Not enough games have a dance button. You aren’t told about it until a fair few levels have passed beneath your constantly running feet, but there it is: you can dance. Dancing can happen at any time, on a flat surface; the animation lasts a fixed length of time, and can’t be interrupted to slide or jump, so it has to be timed well to avoid dancing to your death. Each of the characters you find – there are seven in total, with five found by completing optional levels – has several different dance animations. They are joyous.

They aren’t only joy. Fully completing the game’s extra achievements requires dancing an astounding amount, dancing for an hour when each dance is a second or so. It means dancing as much as you possibly can, treating dancing as a necessary embellishment. It adds a further layer of difficulty to the game: suddenly, Easy mode is no longer a lean-back gentle play with few button presses, but a trickily-timed endurance mode full of single-button improvisation. Hard mode becomes essentially impossible. You learn to read the road, using the beat to guide you: that spiky mushroom dude is coming up there, if I dance here and jump now I can clear it and get the gold to the right of it without dying.

Digital mandala

It is never so carefully thought through as that, of course. Like every excellent game in which speed and mastery are at the core of play, you play better in a slightly distracted reverie. Super Hexagon is one of the games at the pinnacle of this genre: despite having only two buttons, left and right, it is a rich and engaging challenge to learn the game’s patterns well enough to anticipate them, to almost be already moving by the time it becomes clear which direction you should move in. Time slows as you play, relying on what you’ve learned to guide you – relying on instincts faster than conscious thought. On harder levels, thought itself is too slow to guide you. By the time you’ve actualised what’s happening in your head, you should have already reacted. Distracting yourself is key to the top levels of play; using it like a sort of digital mandala, I play best when I am furious, or extremely stressed.

BTp.R2FLoRA never quite reaches those heights of instinctive reflexes, but it begins to come close. It proves this to you beautifully at the very end, which I won’t spoil here. There is a boss fight at the end of each world, in which you must run, dodge, jump and kick against a moving enemy that works against you. The final boss is a glorious reversal of everything you’ve spent the rest of the game learning, and playing it is proof positive that you have learned far more than you’ve realised over the preceding levels. It is gleefully self-assured, a moment that could feel like a betrayal if it weren’t for the game’s excellent mechanics, elegant implementation and perfectly judged difficulty curve. Instead, it has you feeling as though you have discovered a whole new skill that the game’s been hiding from you all along. It has you jumping for joy.

Video games are stupid. Throw story at them.

Taylor Clark has a storming piece up on Kotaku today. He’s right: most popular video games are dumb. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t assume that’s the only thing games can do.

To accept childish dreck without protest-or worse, to defend the dreck’s obvious dreckiness just because the other parts of a game are cool-is to allow the form to languish forever.

Yes. Preach it. Preach it also to readers who love Dan Brown’s fiction in spite of the writing, and everyone who overlooks the hour-long goodbye scenes at the end of the Lord of the Rings films.

Most popular things are dumb, not just video games

Video games are not unique in being collaborative creations in which many elements are brought together to form a whole; nor are they alone in being often poorly integrated, with areas of brilliance marred by areas of dreck (or indeed whole areas of dreck occasionally elevated by moments of brilliance). All media have these problems.

But video gaming is such a small field at present. Our examples of brilliance and of dreck come from a depressingly limited pool of options, especially when we examine big-budget titles. Truly stand-out works in any field are rare. Most media plays to the majority. In video gaming, it is the mindless that has proven to sell well – so mindless most games remain.

Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies not just to things being bad, but also to things being dumb, crude, silly. It’s not just video games; it’s also everything else. There shouldn’t be any shame for gamers in saying: yes, a lot of games are dumb. A lot of everything is dumb. A lot of dumb things are fun.

But Clark’s right that by saying video games can only be dumb, we’re doing the medium a great disservice. In the 18th century there was a widely held perception that novels could only be dumb, until classics began to emerge and a canon formed. Video gaming has been around for a much shorter time and has much farther to go before it reaches maturity – technology is still not stable, barriers to entry are still falling rapidly, the business model is still all over the place, and all those things impact the kinds of games that are produced and the processes by which they’re made. But video games can, and should, aspire to greatness, both mechanically and narratively – and ideally, both at once.

Narrative and gameplay should be the same thing

Matthew Burns, who’s worked on several big-budget games, says he doubts that such a thing is possible given the current climate. There’s a rather circular argument here. The kicker quote:

it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly

Most current video games are inherently silly, therefore it’s impossible to put anything on top of the silliness to produce something that’s less silly. Well – yes. There’s an assumption here about the place of writing, story and characterisation in games – that it’s not an inherent part of the context of games, but rather something added on top. But if you start from the premise that your game is about hyperviolent destruction of mythical monsters, you’ve made a lot of decisions about the story and the characterisation already. Even the best writers won’t be capable of making a game deep, believable, complex or realistic if the gameplay is fighting against that narrative at every turn. See also: GTA4.

Gameplay and narrative shouldn’t simply inform each other. They should be inextricable from each other. Games that aspire to being well written can’t just plaster story on top of mechanic like wallpaper. It has to be mixed into the mortar, built into the foundations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gunning for embedded or emergent story, froth or experiential narrative or whatever – you can’t slap it on top of gameplay like an afterthought, because gameplay mediates the entire experience.

If you’re playing a different story than the one you’re being told, then the game can’t attain that coveted, if ill-defined, goal of comprehensive intelligence. It’ll always be fractured; no matter how carefully the cracks are hidden, it won’t ring true.

Journalism, advancement and level design

Spinning off a tweet by @jayrosen_nyu, I’ve been thinking about levels in gaming and what journalists could learn from them.

For the record, I don’t think that levels in the sense of levelling up are a particularly useful way of classifying news readers or users or players or whatever paradigm we choose to use today.

For many video gamers level grinding removes the fun from a game and turns it into work. In tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons unequal leveling within a group can cause such huge balance problems that small disparities between characters can prove insurmountable. And in both, leveling is an illusion – while the character’s powers and abilities increase and improve, so do the challenges they have to overcome. Much of the time leveling is simply a numerical way of forcing characters to go and explore before they can advance the plot.

Essentially, I’m not sure what useful lessons we can learn from leveling per se, apart from the lesson that it’s hard work and tends to encourage grinding as a form of competition – not meaningful engagement with content.

That’s not to say that every leveling system is evil, you understand. It’s just that these days there is a wide range of advancement systems to pick from – points-based cash-in or free-form systems, for instance, or activity-based systems, or good old achievements – and if we’re going to talk about user advancement systems we should talk about all of them and work out which ones are relevant for what we’re trying to do here.

But level design is a different matter.

Level design is about balancing technology and art. It’s about pulling together huge swathes of pretty content (pictures, video, audio, in this analogy) and making a coherent, structured narrative which makes it clear which way players are meant to go while giving them room to explore if they want to – and doing that within the confines of the tecnology available. That’s not a bad model for news online.

There’s a quote from this article that’s worth teasing out:

A level designer is not just an architecture monkey or a guy who throws “cool stuff” into the pot of development. Above and beyond everything else they need the ability to judge what is fun, what gameplay elements work and what do not. He needs to judge what content works in any context while making sure his work is cohesive with the rest of the game.

If you accept that the “game” is what we’re calling the “story” (or, more precisely, the “topic”) at the moment, then level design theories about pacing, controlled freedom, risk and reward start to become relevant to engaging the reader/user/player in what we’re trying to get across.

What do you think? Am I in a theoretical hole with no practical applications, or is there an analogy here that online and multimedia journalists could find useful?

It’s Alive! Fostering emergent stories in Zombie

For those who don’t know, on Saturday I and a team of others ran the seventh Zombie LARP game. We’re hoping the next major event will be a big leap up in size, in ambition and in attendance. But before that happens I want to note down a few of our important principles – and important problems we need to solve.

What on earth is Zombie?

First, though, an explanation. Zombie is a live-action simulation game where people take it in turns to try to survive in an industrial complex overrun by the living dead. We run several scenarios over the course of the game, with a different group of people “surviving” in each one. When players aren’t trying to get out alive, they’re pretending to be zombies so that someone else can have a turn.

The game is a sort-of bastard child of traditional live-action roleplay (LARP) systems, fast-paced video games like Left for Dead, and the kinds of cowboys and Indians/summer water pistol games you played when you were a kid. The combat resolution system is based on Nerf guns (players shoot zombies) and a low-contact mechanic (zombies touch players on upper arms to represent biting, mauling etc.)

If you’ve read this and you still have no idea what we do, please leave a comment to tell me. I’m trying to improve my ability to explain the game to people who have never played a LARP or a video game before, so the experience would be useful.

How are we telling stories in Zombie?

Video games almost always have plot. Sometimes that plot is stretched over 50 or more insanely complex hours; sometimes it’s over in minutes so you can get on with killing things. Sometimes the storytelling is so deeply entrenched in the game that it’s inseperable from it; sometimes it’s abstracted from it so that the gameplay and the overarcing story are essentially separate entities. And sometimes the plot is about football.

Almost all LARPs are plot oriented. Some big games have top-down storytelling systems where world-changing events are affected by the big players in the game, while others have grass-roots player-oriented plot systems that allow even the most minor player characters to affect the universe.

In Zombie, plot takes a back seat to gameplay. Players might have twenty minutes at most to survive, and most of them won’t. That time seems a lot longer than it really is thanks to the game pacing and the adrenalin (much like the experience of riding a rollercoaster) but long-term character development is not an option, and neither is sticking around to watch the game world evolve. Zombie does have a wider plot system and the players can and do affect what happens, but when you’re running screaming down a corridor pursued by the undead trying to eat you, it’s impossible to take that in.

As refs and storytellers, we do several things to try and work with the game elements to make the game story rewarding. Most of these were worked out through trial and error and getting it badly wrong before we worked out how to get it right.

  1. Broad brushstrokes.We talk in bold black-and-white hyperbole. Every run is all-or-nothing, do-or-die. Players are given missions that affect the fate of the wider game world, so their actions carry weight and the game retains a sense of urgency.
  2. Metaplot and wider world. Zombie has an overarching plot framework that makes it possible to slot game events into place. There are several organisations in the game’s world – a shady scientific corporation, an armed resistance unit – and the real-time games take place within a framework created by the actions of those organisations.
  3. Sandboxing. Runs in Zombie are set up to be sandboxes where the players can take many different routes to the goal. We have set pieces for players to encounter – a room full of injured survivors, or a super-powerful zombie intent on taking them down – but those are never static events that play out in a pre-defined way. They are elements of the game world that add authenticity to the run without scripting players’ actions or requiring them to act in accordance with anything.
  4. Emergent stories.This is a common concept in video game design but in my experience is used much less outside specialist gaming environments. It refers to narratives that are uncovered or revealed during gameplay, and which require input from players to understand and piece together. For Zombie, I commonly use the term to describe stories about moments in the game that are unpredictable and unpredicted, that form unique and structured narratives, and that are the result of player interaction with their environment.

    And this is the important one. We try and make sure that after the chaos of the run, players have their own, personal stories to tell. We give them space beforehand to construct back story for themselves – encouraging team action – and we give them briefing time and attention afterwards to help them construct individual and group narratives about what happened. We try to give them tools and communities in which to tell those stories, we respond to them and retell them and incorporate them into the structure of the game.

Some stories filter out and fall. Others become local legends – the tale of the player who leapt six feet over a group of zombies only to later be mauled to death in a dead end, or the player who hid from the zombies successfully for twenty minutes before his mobile phone went off, alerting them to his presence (he died shouting “Now is not a good time!”). Last night one player managed to obliterate about 40 zombies with a heroic show of power – that story too will be permanently recorded in the mythology and mythos of the game. We give people awards for creating brilliant stories – often those awards are nothing but a shout out, a retelling of their story and a biscuit or a sticker, but they carry value and people strive to obtain them.

What’s so good about emergent stories?

Zombie is an activity that, at heart, is very difficult to share. It’s designed and conceived as a completely immersive experience while you’re playing, making it very hard to film video or take pictures. Backchannel chat, feedback and social sharing in real time are impossible. Very few images or films survive from our early events (though a couple of Youtube videos do get a steady stream of views and bring in occasional new interest three years later).

But even in the first game, our players found a way to share their experiences. They told stories to each other and to their friends, passing on their favourite experiences orally. Almost everything we’ve done with our storytelling framework since then has focussed on creating the brilliant moments that make those stories, and encouraging people to tell them.

In planning meetings we make lists of “moments of awesome” that will be memorable if they work right, things that will stick in the mind. We put single zombies in weird situations just in case a player stumbles across them. We make tableaux, design interesting characters for players to meet and memorable situations for them to meander into.

We try not to dictate the stories. More often than not they happen organically. We can’t make the player team split up and get lost; we can’t force someone to go to incredible lengths to avoid in-character death; we can’t ever guarantee that what we do will be the focus of player attention. More often than not our efforts simply go to create a better atmosphere for these experiences to occur. We make it easier, but it’s the players who make it work.

And we can’t dictate how the players ought to tell stories. We try to give them as many routes as possible online, both by creating our own community area and by using Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) to curate and collect and encourage. Stories like this are ephemeral, and while we want people to tell them and we want a long-lasting record, we know we can’t rely on ever having one.

Many non-gaming events rely on video and images for a record. Increasingly, conventions and similar (relatively passive) events are relying on backchannel chat and the wider analysis of that conversation to provide useful data and a lasting record of what occurred. For us, the record lies in memory and in oral channels that are hard to replicate online – because of the immersive nature of the experience along with various technical issues, it’s impossible to get an idea of “what it’s like to be at Zombie” from any one medium. But when our players tell their emergent stories, that has immense value for us. It’s the best marketing possible because it comes with a direct endorsement and genuine enthusiasm. It’s an elusive currency but it’s vital to our survival and it’s been integral to our growth.

There are four main areas of uncertainty for me that arise from our approach, with questions that I don’t yet know how to answer. They are:

  1. How do we continue to foster personal, individual experiences and therefore stories while scaling our game upwards? If there are 180 players instead of 60, how does that affect our model?
  2. How can we encourage people to create and share content online that resonates with their emergent stories without sacrificing our immersive in-game experience? We already have teams going in with cameramen to film them, but the footage is necessarily low-quality and shaky and never reflects the full experience. How can we depict the game in ways that encourage emotional response and act as anchors for emergent stories in the same way that text can?
  3. How can this model apply to other events? How does it fit with (un)conferences and industry events? Networking events? Rallies? Fetes and carnivals? Riots and demonstrations? Is this another way of looking at and describing oral history? Or does this work to foster, encourage, document and curate emergent stories have journalistic potential?

If you have any suggestions for answers, or any more questions, please share them in the comments.