Steam Sale Shopping List

During the middle of July, Valve Corporation held it’s semiannual sale on its Steam digital distribution platform. The Steam Sales are big events, with most games on sale and many at discounts of 50%, 75%, or more. Buoyed by a positive experience with a one-week unit on videogames toward the end of my summer course on comics and digital art, I used the Steam sale opportunity to purchase a few games that have been praised for their art.

With an eye to the visual experience rather than the narrative, a few games stood out (and I look forward to the opportunity to test them out): The Binding of Isaac, LIMBO, Lone Survivor, and PixelJunk Eden. The first three also possess strong narrative, manifested in completely different ways. LIMBO, for example, provides no outward hints to its theme other than its title. When the game starts, the screen transitions from black to a greyscale with a small boy, seen in silhouette save for his bright white eyes, acting as your avatar in a side-scrolling atmosphere. Very little audio, no narration or on-screen text, not even instructions on how to operate in the game space. As you progress through the continuous level you piece together hints of game mechanics as well as antagonists and an expanded diegesis. It’s breathtaking, enjoyable, and incredibly dark for its simplistic graphic style.

PixelJunk Eden is a completely different beast. It has a stronger sense of narrative, more interaction between the game and the player, and is clear on directions and objectives. I can’t imagine anyone would play it for the narrative, though; the point is the bold, interactive visuals and relaxing soundtrack.

It’s difficult to balance the visual and narrative aspects of videogames for the classroom. Many of the most popular game hone in on a compelling storyline or the hook of fun and/or addictive gameplay elements. The visual is seen as a complementary element, unless it’s a game like PixelJunk Eden in which the visual is the only element of note, with a thin veneer of a story laid over it. That’s more of a 20th and 21st century mindset for art, which fits. Coming from the perspective of a scholar of 18th and 19th century art, where a strict hierarchy of academic art placed history painting at the top, it’s an enjoyable challenge to seek out a middle ground. I think LIMBO and Lone Survivor do a good job. They’re not classical, in any sense. If I had to compare them to something it would be the Baroque, Romanticism, or maybe Neoclassic Gothic. Once I actually finish them, I’ll report back.

We Think About How We Play Games…What About How We Save Them?

This summer I’ll be teaching a seminar-level class for undergraduates on the art of comics at the University of Maryland for the third straight year (presuming enough students sign up, which is always a tenuous proposition). I already discussed the class in my previous post, so I won’t belabor that point. In addition to doing a lot of reading about video games, to fit that element into the class in conjunction with The Art of Video Games at SAAM, I’ve been doing a lot of playing of video games (tough life, I know).

The game I’ve spending the most time with at the moment is the first Assassin’s Creed (AC) game, which came out in late 2007. There are a few academic reasons for that game in particular. It was wildly popular in its own right and the third full installment is coming out later this year so it’s timely. I see a lot of potential for taking a study of Assassin’s Creed II, which takes place in Renaissance Italy and counts Leonardo da Vinci among its characters, to a pop culture conference like MAPACA, and possibly doing the same with Assassin’s Creed III, which will be set in revolutionary America…the same time period I’m working with on my dissertation. A long stretch, I know, but I figure it’s worth it to direct my entertainment in a potentially productive manner. The reason I’m starting with the first AC is simpler: when it comes to games I’m a completionist and a sucker for narrative, so I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the second and third games nearly as much without knowing the backstory from the first.

AC has a pretty clever narrative structure, which I wasn’t aware of until I started playing. Although the killing and whatnot takes place in the 12th century Middle East – Jerusalem, Acre, Damascus, Masyaf, and a generic “Kingdom” – but your primary player-character, Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, is actually an avatar of a 21st century ex-assassin, who’s strapped into a machine called an “animus” which allows him to access the genetic memories of his ancestors. All this happens at the behest of an evil corporation which turns out to be the front for the Templars, bent on achieving some sort of ends (I haven’t beaten the game yet and I’m not going to spoil it for myself just to write this post!). Long experiences of romping around Crusade-era cities is interspersed with expository dialogue in a modern office building.

Beyond the game itself, and the very impressive graphics for a 5 1/2 year old game, something that’s really interested me in this playthrough is the issue of player interaction with the game. I’m playing it on a PC, where the game was released in April 2008, over five months after its initial release on PS3 and Xbox, neither of which I own. The controls are clearly ported from the console versions without a lot of concessions to the differences between a controller and a mouse and keyboard. In general, as the actions get more complex, the sequence of button-pressing gets more obtuse.

What’s got me thinking the most, even more than the controls, is the save system. As a single-player, sandbox type of game, AC‘s gameplay is most similar to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas in terms of games I have recently played. In those games you can save any time you want, and make multiple saves, simply by pressing ESC and hitting a button. AC gives you no such freedom, which is fine. You can create multiple profiles, but within each profile you have no choice of when to save. There are nine missions, each of which entails going to an ancient city, receiving a mission from the local Assassin’s Bureau, climbing some buildings, getting some information, and then assassinating a target. Each time you take a significant action – climb a specific building, get a specific piece of information – the game automatically saves.

All that said, the issue I noticed wasn’t even with how the game saves, it was with where you are when you come back to the game. A few nights into playing the game, I was approaching a city for the first time when my game began to freeze. Zoning into the region itself was a checkpoint, so the game had automatically saved. After force-quitting the game, I logged back in to find my character standing in an unfamiliar building. Checking the map, I saw that I’d been teleported from the city gates to a location inside the city walls.

Obviously there was intention on the part of the designers – if a player wants to stop playing in the middle of a city, it makes sense for them to be in a safe space away from hostile guards and other NPCs when they log back in. However, the oversight to allow players to teleport to places they otherwise had yet to reach reach – getting into each city is supposed to be a tricky process – is a byproduct of a save system that takes agency away from the player to decide how and when to save.

The situation I found myself in was one that could only happen three times ever, at the first approach to each of three cities…not something that would happen frequent enough for designers to expend a lot of brainpower over. Nonetheless, it was a reminder that for all the focus on how players interact with games, the gateways provided by designers for stopping and starting games can have unintended impact on the player experience.