Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Day 17: Great Red Herring Chase, Gray, Effing Hail

I’ve been doing a mix of indie and more mainstream games lately. Today (well, in bits and pieces over the last few days) I focused on IntuitionGames titles: Great Red Herring Chase, Gray, and Effing Hail. These games are definitely more experimental in nature. From what I can tell, only Effing Hail was a commercial release via Pogo.com.

What these games really made me think of is the philosophical debate my mother and I would get into when she was preparing one of her art exhibits. She would often include artist vision statements as part of the exhibition. My argument was always that the art should stand for itself: People should be able to infer artist intention from the art and no further exposition should be necessary. Her feeling was that the work and thought and emotion that went into the work was important enough to be discussed directly through exposition.

I’m not sure who was “right” in their way of thinking. Clearly, it’s easy for me as a critic to take points away from a piece of art (or a game) that requires exposition and explanation in order for the viewer (or player) to understand and appreciate the game. The question of interest is: How much work do we require of the viewer/player to get over approachability issues in order to appreciate the core meaning of what the art/game is about?

As concept/statement/art games, IntuitionGames are not instantly accessible. Some might argue that they aren’t really games, but rather simulations or expositions that incorporate game-like mechanics. If I wasn’t focused on playing and writing about a broad array of games that I could consume while on an extended road trip, I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance.

And, of course, it would be easy for me to break these games down solely through the lenses of approachability and usability.

Instead, I’m going to just say a few words about each game in terms of what I learned form each experience.

Great Red Herring Chase was a film-noire adventure where the core mechanic was typing (a la Typing of the Dead or Typing Maniac). In some ways the player was role playing as the writer of a car chase sequence in a novel. Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied because I expected tense, challenging game play: I needed to catch a car that was speeding away. However, the mechanic and feedback mechanisms in place were more consistent with a romance novel than a high speed/tense car chase. I’m wondering whether the game would have been more enjoyable had the content been about finding, pursuing, and courting a romantic interest instead of “following that car…”

Gray was a more “serious” game that tried to make a point about how difficult (verging on futile) it is to persuade members of an opposing mob to change their point of view. And then, once the mob is persuaded, it becomes a pain in the ass again to persuade them to another point of view if the change isn’t quite right. It’s a rather depressing view of mob mentality – and I half expected the game to give up (a la the computer in War Games) and say that it simply wasn’t winnable in the end.

Effing Hail was one of those games that seemed impossible at first. Core game mechanics were tough to figure out because it was hard to deduce how your actions were affecting the game state. Control of the wind was abstract and behavior of the hail was hard to predict. Like some of the best puzzle games it offered an apparently impossible goal that you knew (deep down) was solvable by attaining some sort of “eureka” breakthrough after struggling mightily through various unproductive paths.

However, unlike some of these other puzzle games, I wasn’t able to understand and predict core game play controls and feedback mechanisms which made it less enjoyable to experiment. Learning by experimentation (at least in my mind) involves allowing a player to control certain variables and systematically deduce other relationships by manipulating the remaining variables. If none of the variables can be perfectly understood and controlled, then experimentation becomes mere guesswork without useful and informative feedback. To me, this leads to frustration.

I look forward to seeing future games from these folks. To the extent that they are interested in producing games that have more pick up and play approachability, I’m curious to see how the developers address these issues.

The larger question, of course, is: Under what conditions are the goals of approachability and usability antithetical to the  user experience of a game? Or, when is it OK to say to players “you must figure out the artist’s intent before playing this game?”

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