Free Rice is a game that was created for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). The core mechanic is to answer questions by choosing from a list of four words which one most accurately defines a given term. This in itself is an indicator a social impact game as it prioritizes knowledge instead of the “antagonistic, and antisocial themes” that are embodied by many modern games. (Flanagan & Nissenbaum) However there are a few other additional social and political messages that are part of it. One which the game is fairly straightforward about is that for every question answered correctly 20 grains of rice are donated to the WFP. This acts as the game score tracker, as a bowl of rice and counter are present at the bottom of the screen to remind players of how much rice they have caused to be donated. This visual indicator effectively gives players a reminder of the positive impact their playing is having, as well as reminds them there are people out there who are struggling to have enough to eat. This reminder could potentially open up the door for players to find other ways to help those who are hungry, such as donating to or volunteering at a local food bank.
Similar to the potential consequences of players being conscious of food scarcity, Free Rice has another social message that is not overtly obvious. While there is always only one correct answer, some of the incorrect choices have the potential to seem correct depending on the player’s background. For example, one of the questions has “horror” as the word that needs defining. The options players have to choose from for this question are attorney, small horse, motor, and dread. While it seems obvious that dread is the correct answer, it is possible the others could be viewed as horrors as well. To someone living in a society that relies heavily on animal labor, a small horse could be a horror. An individual who has lived their life in an isolated tribe could view a motor as a horror due to it being a threat to their pre-industrial way of life and culture. In the case of myself, I’m biased towards feeling that attorneys are horrors due to coming from a family of lawyers and being in a relationship with one (both of whom are fans of the “lawyers = bad” trope often found in American comedy).
This more nuanced aspect helps make players more aware of how “surrounding societies and cultures” promote certain values and how that impacts views of what words means. (ibid.) This combined with the other positive impactful features of the game’s mechanics makes Free Rice an enjoyable and thoughtful game.
Free Rice is available for PC and Mobile on its website.
Flanagan, Mary & Helen Nissenbaum. “A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes” CHI 2007 Proceedings • Politics & Activism. San Jose, 2007. PDF.
As technology has become more a part of our everyday lives, people have become accustomed to it accurately simulating our humanness. At the dawn of the video game era visuals that were not anatomically accurate where to be expected. In the early 1980s if a sprite in an arcade game became visually distorted it would not have been that off-putting due to its already pixelated nature. However, if at that time there was a sprite that depicted highly accurately a human visage this would have been uncanny to users. That was in a pre-digital world, but as Ferreira and Ribas argue we are now living in a post-digital world. This post-digital world is one where we are surrounded by technologies that can accurately depict real world images. Because of this, when glitches occur that distort this intended realism they are especially off-putting.
This is the case with the invisible face glitch from Assassin’s Creed Unity. A fairly famous glitch that was present when the game first released, this glitch causes characters’ faces to be invisible except for their eyeballs, gums, and teeth. Players found this glitch to be unsettling and horrifying, though I believe for more nuanced reasons than its pure grisly image. By removing the digital features that covered the eyes and mouths, players are faced with features that they clearly identify as human parts. Like humans, Unity’s characters are made up of separate parts that combine to make a whole being. The invisible face glitch highlights these parts, which in turn remind players of their own body parts, which could technically be dissected if so desired. As players face the levitating eyeballs and gums of Arno, they are reminded of their own mortality by the image’s uncanny reflection of themselves. While this could have acted as an opportunity for reflection on human experience, it was not welcomed by many Unity players due to them not going into the game expecting an existential experience.
Compared to the visual and technical complexity of modern video games, digital interactive fiction can at first glance seem simple and mundane. Their core gameplay is easy and intuitive to learn: read a passage, select an option to continue, rinse and repeat until you reach an ending to the tale. Anyone who has ever read a choose your own adventure book, or arguably even had a conversation, can do it. Whether in spite of or due to this simplicity, interactive fiction has blossomed to include a large body of unique works.
Some works of interactive fiction don’t stray too far from the medium’s core gameplay, adding interest through narrative and writing style. Two examples of this are Miss No-Name and Queenlash, two award winning titles from the 2021 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction. At first Miss No-Name comes across as a fun innocent story about a popular kid in school trying to learn more about a loner in their class. Players can approach this objective a few ways, most of which are hinted at being more or less effective by situational context. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that what seems like the “right” way to approach getting to know this shy classmate is not always the most effective. This adds to the mystery of who Miss No-Name is. Not only is her identity unclear, but her preferences are abnormal. The length of Miss No-Name also works in its favor, as players can go through all the options and endings in a relatively short period of time. This provides a satisfying conclusion to the piece’s mysteries, which increases player satisfaction.
While it does not have the benefit of brevity that Miss No-Name does, Queenlash is a highly effective piece of interactive fiction in its own way. Instead of the narrative being its main draw, the writing style of Queenlash is where it shines. With long poetic passages, Queenlash is more of an immersive experience. Readers are surrounded by long walls of text using words that seem archaic and foreign, appropriately for a narrative set 2000 years ago. The story is one many people are familiar with, the rise and fall of Cleopatra VII. Unlike Miss No-Name, where the hyperlinks take players is not always clear cut, though there are still clues. For example, in a conversation where several people are being discussed the words that serve as hyperlinks have some connection to one of the subjects. This conveys to the player that these links will take them to a passage from that subject’s point of view, or go into more depth on their past or motives. It is a more effective way of getting to know the characters that feels more natural due to the hyperlinks being part of the conversation. This makes the story feel more personal than if choices were simply reactionary.a
Authors of interactive fiction have done an impressive job of embellishing and adding to the core gameplay of their medium, further inspiring other authors to evolve their own works. The pieces examined in this post are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative ways interactive fiction authors embellish their work. Pieces like Depression Quest combine their written components with impactful visual effects and sounds, while others like Some Space incorporate complex puzzles and code. For anyone who considers interactive fiction to be a lackluster part of the digital landscape, I hope this post will make you reconsider that stance and give interactive fiction a try.
Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? What is Banksy’s newest work satirizing? At times it seems the vaguer a piece of art’s meaning, the more it is valued. Perhaps this is why many consider What Remains of Edith Finch to be a prime example of video games as art. It is not only beautiful, but also opaque.
At the start of the game the narrative seems straightforward enough: after the passing of her mother, Edith Finch returns to her childhood home to learn about her family. Upon arriving at the family property, a somber and mysterious mood is swiftly established by lack of other living beings and the imposing presence of the Finch house. Before the player even enters the house, questions arise about their surroundings. Why are there missing person posters clogging the creek? What is with the decrepit dragon structure in the front yard? Were the appropriate building permits obtained to add the precariously placed additions to the house? Things get even stranger when the player gains entry to the house’s interior. Why are local restaurants afraid to deliver to the Finches? Why are there references to Norse culture? What’s in the basement? What’s with the sealed off rooms? Is the strangeness surrounding this family supernatural, or something more “real”?
Not all of these questions are answered during the game, and the ones that are addressed are not answered completely. We learn that the Finch family is seemingly cursed, with only one member of each generation surviving to adulthood. The rooms belonging to deceased family members were sealed away by Edith’s mother in the hope that by hiding their untimely demise the curse can be forgotten, and therefore broken. Unfortunately, this tactic does not seem to work as Edith is apparently the last member of her family left alive.
While this information satisfies most of the broader questions posed, it fails to address some of the more intriguing aspects of the game. For example, it remains unclear if the family really is cursed or if the youthful deaths of many of its members is due to a placebo effect from belief in the curse. For some of the family it is not even clear how they passed away. An example of this is the death of Molly, who recounts in her journal turning into various animals before becoming a monster who eats herself. Given the eerie mood of the game at first I was under the impression that Molly’s experience was to be taken literally, but after doing some research I found that the general belief is Molly was hallucinating after eating poisonous berries. Yet after learning this I still feel there is more to Molly’s visions. What she experienced felt so real, and I’m skeptical that a young child would so cheerful write about eating a human even if she wasn’t in a normal state of mind. This dissonance in interpretation is what I believe truly makes What Remains of Edith Finch a work of art. By intentionally leaving so much of its narrative, events, lore, history, and outcome open to interpretation, players can’t help but continue to think about the game even after their time playing it is over.
Over the course of human history, a plethora of aesthetically pleasing visuals have been produced, and now more than ever people have access to works of art. Whether it is by a Renaissance master or an Indie game studio, most people can claim that they have experienced “art”. Despite this, if you were to ask a random individual on the street or in a chat room to name the title of their favorite artwork it might take them a minute or a quick Google search. We are surrounded by beautiful yet forgettable images. This is true of video games as well as more traditional art forms. Most games available today would fall somewhere in the range of looking “good”, but the ones that will be looked back on as pinnacles of art history are the ones that make us think. This is why What Remains of Edith Finch is art. It leaves things open to interpretation to force the player to think, and thereby staying in their mind long after the game has ended. Like other great works of art before it, What Remains of Edith Finch leaves a lasting impression on the audience.
Welcome to the first of a series of posts where I briefly analyze the archetypes and design choices of video game characters. In this installment we will examine some of the characters from Papers, Please.
Protagonist: The Inspector
Archetype: Anti-hero and Everyman
While there are several factions the player can have the Inspector side side with, at the end of the day he will be acting in his own self-interest. The Inspector is a simple bureaucrat whose just trying to make a living and not get on the wrong side of the government. He’s not actively trying to do good, he’s just following orders. Even though his actions can have larger implications, the Inspector is still just a regular human, lacking any special powers and unprepared for what’s to come.
We do not see many images of the Inspector, but in the ones we do he comes across as a bland ordinary citizen. There is nothing remarkable about him and his only power is to approve or deny entry for people crossing the border. He is a blank slate visually, only being shown as a hulking shadow sitting down at their desk and once as a highly pixelated grey image. This allows the different choices the player makes on his behalf while playing the game more believable, as there is not much visual pre-establishment of what he would do if not being controlled by the player.
Antagonists: M. Vonel and Dimitri
Archetypes: Superior and Opposing
Both M. Vonel and Dimitri fall into the superior and opposing antagonist archetypes. Although they do not belong to the same government agency, M. Vonel and Dimitri rank higher then the Inspector in the internal government pecking order. It is also the job of each of them, albeit by different means, to monitor the Inspector. This can lead to them acting as opposition to the Inspector if the player’s goals do not align with theirs.
The colors used for M. Vonel are blue and black. This creates the interesting effect of being scared (black), while also feeling an uneasy calm (blue). His presence becomes further intimidating by not being able to see his eyes, as they are blocked by glasses. His attire and mustache also remind the player of a Nazi, adding to his terrifying yet authoritatively serene demeanor as a special investigator for the Ministry of Information.
Unlike M. Vonel, Dimitri initially has a warmer, more inviting style. However, soon after the player first interacts with Dimitri it is clear that he is not there to be your friend. The true meaning of what his red attire is meant to convey becomes clear: not warmth, but anger and danger. As the protagonists’ supervisor, Dimitri has the power to reduce his salary or terminate his employment.
Although most of the characters encountered in Papers, Please are randomly generated, the ones that are consciously designed display choices that are intended to reflect their role and influence the mood of the player.
There is so much I liked about Trikaya I frankly don’t know where to begin. I suppose an overview of the game’s story would be as good a place as any to start.
Upon entering a mysterious temple, the player spies a McGuffin containing four jewels. As soon as the player approaches this item, the jewels fly out of it and hide themselves within the temple. Then starts the meat and potatoes of the game: finding the jewels and using their powers to navigate through the temple. That’s all well and good standard video game stuff, but it’s not why I enjoyed Trikaya. Where this game really shines is its South Asian-influence.
The temple itself is a beautiful fantasy re-imagining of Indian architecture. The towers that loom around the maze-like temple bring to mind Moghul forts, and the vibrant colors of the wall murals are reminiscent of North Indian paintings.
The core of Trikaya’s gameplay is puzzles. To complete the game the player must secure three of the four jewels. These jewels align with the elements Wind, Earth, and Fire. Each of these jewels allows the player to cast spells that impact some of the objects in the temple. At first it was somewhat confusing keeping track of which spells did what, as some objects can have more then one spell cast on them, but the spell effect it in different ways. I eventually embraced this as part of the game’s challenge. There is no time limit placed upon the player, so the challenge comes from figuring out what interacts with what, and which objects should be used in what way in order to advance. Due to most elements of the environment being some shade of orange or brown, there is also a degree of “hidden object” style gameplay involved. Carefully looking around the temple, I felt a sense of accomplishment whenever I noticed an interactable object. Hints are also given to the player in the form of the aforementioned murals. I simply love this as a way to guide the player. Note only is it simple yet effective, but it also adds to the worldbuilding. When examining these visual aids, I could sense the ancientness of this temple and the mystery of what happened to the people who came before me.
Even though the route the player takes through the game is a pre-determined linear one, the turning passageways and various elevations traversed gives the feeling of being lost, but in a good way. Think of the feeling you get wandering through a nature trail or roaming an abandoned beach. The warm orange walls that surround the player create an inviting yet mysterious mood. There are just a handful of objects that can be interacted with, allowing the player to not constantly be on the lookout for something to control. Yet instead of this making the game feel like it’s lacking elements, it creates a casual, almost walking simulator-esque mood.
South Asian influences continue to be lacking in video games, so I hope other game designers take note of Trikaya. Until the triple-A games industry realizes that there is more to life then medieval western RPGs and military inspired FPSs, I will continue to enjoy Trikaya’s delicious content of magic, puzzles, architecture, and elephants.
Author’s Note: This review was part of a playtesting assignment. Therefore, the writing style is slightly different and the word count noticeably more then what I normally post on here. Despite these discrepancies, I hope you enjoy this piece!
I played the remake of Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 5. This my first time playing a Dark Souls type game.
The opening cinematic was very well done and got me pumped to start engaging with the world. The story it laid out was intriguing, but not too complex that I felt lost. I liked how they listed some of the legendary heroes who had attempted the quest before me. It made me wonder if I would interact with them in the game.
Once the cinematic was over I began to create my character. I was very impressed with the degree of cosmetic customization (multiple hairstyles, color slider, races, eyes, body part sliders, voices, etc.), as most of the time the character’s face is covered by a helmet. While I had fun creating my character, I also kind of felt like I was wasting time with customizing (I spent about 10 minutes creating my character). Some of my excitement to explore the game dampened slightly while I was focusing on the minute details of my character. Though it seems like a step back, I think there should have been a little less character cosmetic customization.
While the cosmetic part of character creation felt overdone, I thought the classes where well executed. There was a variety of magic, melee, and rogue type builds. The starting gear each class was equipped with seemed unique and beautiful. I honestly had a hard time choosing one, as all of them seemed like they would be fun to play. I could imagine myself replaying using different classes. This made me feel satisfied with purchasing the game, since by replaying I would get good mileage out of it.
I ended up choosing Temple Knight as my class, since it seemed like the tried and true sword-and-shield type, but with a paladin twist. Once in the game world I ran into a problem with the class I had chosen. The starting gear for a Temple Knight is a halberd, shield, and heavy armor. The halberd was one of the things that drew me to the Temple Knight, as it looked cool and I thought it would be fun to attack enemies with. However, in the tight corridors of the introductory level, the halberd was clumsy and hard to aim. I frequently found myself swinging towards enemies only to have my weapon get caught on the ceiling or wall. Another issue I ran into was with the shield. When I first entered the game, my shield was equipped along with the halberd. However, when I entered a new area the shield disappeared. I tried multiple things to try and fix this, but the shield would not appear. Since I’d only been playing for 15 minutes (about 10 of which was trying to figure out the shield situation), I decided to start a new game as a different class (this time only spending 5 minutes on character creation). I went with a regular Knight this time, and my gear was pretty much the same except that instead of a halberd I had a sword. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the shield from disappearing when I entered a new area. Thankfully I was able to figure out how to reequip the shield (you must put it in a specific one of the two arm slots). I do not know if this shield issue is a bug or a poor design choice, but either way it made the game less immersive and enjoyable to play.
The fight mechanics for both the Knight and Temple Knight were smooth and well executed. I particularly enjoyed being able to hit multiple enemies at once with my weapon, as this made me feel more powerful and in control.
The way the tutorial was executed I thought was well done. Using notes with short messages written on them was effective and helped me visualize what areas the information would be useful in (messages were placed near related areas/enemies). Another reason I think this is a good system is it allows more seasoned players to skip messages with information they already know. It also does not break immersion or take the player away from the game world. One downside to these messages is there is no distinction between different types of information (e.g. fighting instructions, how to move, trap alerts). This could be fixed by having different types of messages be different colors.
When I tried to fight the tutorial boss I died and was sent to the Nexus. While a gorgeous environment and a unique approach to player death (compared to reloading the last save), I found the place to be kind of confusing at first. It took me several minutes to figure out how to get out of it and return to the game. This sojourn to the serene cathedral-like Nexus interrupted the pumped up, adrenaline-filled mood created by fighting the boss. I don’t understand why the game does this mood shift. Personally, when I’ve just finished trying to defeat a boss I don’t want to take a break, I want to try again immediately.
Another less than perfect aspect had to do with saving. It was not obvious when the game saves. Given the difficulty and how often I was dying, being unsure when saving occurred was kind of frustrating. I’m not sure if a saving icon appears, but if it does then I did not see it. Adding a visible saving icon would help, that way players know when the game is saving. There could also be something in the tutorial that mentions how saving works. Eventually I figured out one of the times the game saves is when the player goes through a mist shrouded door or moves to a new location via bonfire. I feel like it saves at other points, because I recall loading a game and not being near a bonfire or shrouded door. However, I might not have noticed a shrouded door was there in the first place.
The environment and level design are very well executed. They invoke a mood of an area that is in decline and decaying. While there are some areas where visibility is limited due to a darkened environment, they are not used so much that it becomes an annoyance. Having areas of the world be well lit does not take away from the depressing tone. I felt like the portions of the level with more light were more effective of setting the mood than the darker areas, since you can see and appreciate the detail put into the world.
Demon’s Souls is not an easy game. In the hour I was playing I did not make it past the introductory level. However, I still had a fun time playing. Overall, Demon’s Souls is brutal yet enjoyable.
Saving can be an important mechanic in exploration heavy video games. The main purpose of exploration video games is self-explanatory – to explore the game world. This is often spurred on by interesting landmarks, quests, non-player characters (NPCs), or lore. That said, not all exploration games handle saving the same way. Some systems of saving are better suited for exploration gameplay then others. An example of a saving system not well suited for exploration games can be seen in Outward, a role playing game with a heavy emphasis on exploration.
Saves occur in Outward when a player enters a new area, such as a city, building, or overworld. There is no option for the player to save their game progress in the middle of exploring, battler, or other in game activity. While this is not necessarily a bad system, I found it influenced how I played the game, and not in a good way. In my first playthrough of Outward shortly after I exited the tutorial stage I approached two mundane looking NPCs on the main road, who promptly attacked me and took me to their hideout. After several failed attempts I finally escaped the hideout, only to fall victim to a trap set on a promising looking bridge. Having learned my lesson from these misadventures, when I next set out to explore the world I was much more cautious. I did everything I could to avoid anything that moved, appeared to be infrastructure, or looked more interesting than a static piece of set dressing. Even if a creature looked easy I stayed clear of it, I had learned my lesson the first time. I acknowledge that this seems overly cautious of me, and in games where I have more control over when I can save I am much more daring. However, considering the amount of time I spent getting from one area to another in Outward I did not want to risk dying and having to retrack through everything again. This cautiousness made playing the game much less interesting and noticeably less fun then games where I had the security of quick saving. It felt like there was less I could do without risking wasting a half hour of exploration.
There are good games that feature both exploration and a save system similar to Outward. That said, some of these other games, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (released in 1998), have such a save system due to the limited technology of their time. Outward (released in 2019) does not have that excuse. With quicksave options being a common (and I would argue beneficial) feature of many modern games, I remain baffled why Outward would choose to use the save system it did. It does not encourage the player to explore and hinders their confidence when interacting with enemies. I’m sure some will say that I was being a wuss and should have just taken the risk, and maybe they are right (everyone is entitled to their opinion). But with only so many hours in a day, I do not want the time I’ve invested in a game to be wasted by an ill-fated encounter with a knock-off chocobo.
Outward. Nine Dot Studio, 2019. PC version. Video Game.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo, 1998. Wii version. Video Game.
There is a saying: “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I feel an adjusted version of this proverb could accurately describe my time playing Papers Please: “one person’s nightmare job is the same person’s dream.” You see, I am an ex-bureaucrat. For a year and half I worked as a paper pushing, permit checking, document stamping permit intake specialist for a county level Planning and Development Department. Yes it was just as boring as it sounds, and yes I am quite glad to be out of there. However, I cannot deny there is something I still find viscerally satisficing about a perfectly stacked, stamped, stapled, and checked pile of paper. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Papers Please, a game that can best be summed up as a Cold War Communist Bureaucracy simulator. Considering the popularity of Papers Please, I assume I’m not alone in feeling this way, but why?
It’s highly unlikely that all the 34,000 plus people who have given a positive review of Papers Please are recovering paper pushers. As I thought about it, I realized that the less than desirable aspects of my job which I previously described are not exclusive to permit specialists. So I assumed that at least some of the other players also have or had a real life job that somewhat parallels their role in the game. However, the question still remained as to why these people found the game enjoyable. After pondering it, the best answer I could come up with is simply Papers Please is a game, and games are something we willingly do with the intent of having fun. When we enter a game’s “magic circle” we know that we are abiding by it’s rules because the end result is fun. (Fullerton) This is in contrast with most jobs, which in a way involve entering a different type of “circle” (e.g. there are rules, accepted behaviors, and tasks that need to be completed). At a job things are done willingly but not primarily with the intention of having fun. It would seem that the main difference between Papers Please and a real life job would be that we go into one with the goal of having fun and we go into the other without trying to have fun.
As weird as it sounds, the ability of Paper’s Please to turn an unpleasant aspect of life into an enjoyable game is a skill I would like to emulate. So often in real life we get annoyed or stressed out by tasks that are tedious. By showing players that the same constraints they are put under at work can produce an enjoyable experience may help make those real life situations less stressful. At least for this player, should I ever find myself working a less then pleasant job in the future, I’ll try to channel some of the same intention for fun I had going into Papers Please.
Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.
This past week I finally got around to playing the most recent game to blow up in the popular consciousness, Among Us. After playing it for a couple hours with some friends, I could easily understand why it has become so popular. There are many things that make Among Us enjoyable, from the social aspect of players debating who the killer is, to the satisfying minigames the crew must do to perform their tasks. However, what I want to focus on in this post is a feature of Among Us I am less then thrilled with: its map.
To clarify, I have no gripe with the layouts of the three Among Us maps. I found them to be delightfully diverse in terms of layout, tasks, and theme. My beef with the maps is related to what could described as their “glitchy-ness”. For example, when a player is going down a hallway it easy is for them to overlap with the wall border. This can sometimes make it seem like the player is coming out of nowhere or acting in a strange way, leading to misinterpretation from other players. The goal of Among Us is to identify who on the ship is the Imposter, which is commonly done by claiming the person believed to be said Imposter is acting suspicious. To test this, I jumped on a random server and purposely maneuvered in a way where my character glitched with the wall. I was not the Imposter, but several other players claimed I was due to how the glitching occurring between my character and the wall (their reasoning was it looked similar to when the Imposter “vents”, a technique that allows them to teleport around the ship).
Some may argue that situations such as this are not a bad thing. Misinterpretation, false signs, and dubious claims are some of the bread and butter of Among Us, so what’s the harm? While I understand this line of thinking, I don’t feel it makes sense to justify such an obvious glitch by saying it’s a necessary part of gameplay. Granted, sometimes glitches in games can be fun and it’s ok for a community to (more or less embrace) them. In my opinion, where things start getting sticky is when glitches start to mingle too closely with the essential aspects of a game. Consider what would happen if the Among Us team released a patch that adjusted the walls so players could not clip over them. It would remove the dynamic I previously described of falsely interpreting (intentionally or unintentionally) an innocent players movements, taking away gameplay. Glitches can be fine to have in a game, but developers need to be careful they do not become too intertwined with the game’s important intentional aspects.