Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Work is Fun: A Minecraft Observer's Review

“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” – Mary Poppins

It used to baffle me as a child. It seemed almost every weekend my parents wanted nothing more than to stay home and work around the house. My dad would mow the lawn. My mom would toil away on her hands and knees, grasping for weeds in one of her five or six gardens as a heap of roots and other organic detritus collected by her side. I, of course, thought that this was the most boring thing on earth. Who were these people? Why stay home when we could … when we could … we could go to the mall?

If you were to go to my parents' house today and observe the humble magnificence of their property, you might be able to understand — better than I was able to — why my parents preferred their weekend work. I think it's even nicer now than when I lived there. They've got a greenhouse. A pond. There are still a bunch of gardens and places to sit around during the nice summer weather.

But it's funny. If there's one thing that has remained true about my parents' two-and-a-half-acre spread of land, it's that it has never been static. Slowly but surely, it's always changing. Not only are the state of the plants and trees in constant flux (my parents' never-ending campaign against the creeping blackberry vines used to suffer crippling setbacks almost every year) but even the manmade features are impermanent. Once ambitious gardens fall to ruin while new ones thrive. Wooden birdhouses disappear, replaced later on by homemade bells. My dad's first attempt at a pond was for years just a gaping hole in the ground before getting filled back in. These were the types of gradual and sudden changes I didn't notice and appreciate quite as much until I went off to college and started coming home only every few months. My parents' work is never finished. The prominent features change over time as their resources and focus shift between various projects.

I guess I've noticed a sort of parallel phenomenon watching my wife play Minecraft Xbox 360 Edition. It's great. Every day last week I would come home from work and get to hear about all of the mini emergent adventures my wife had experienced that day. Her intrepid mining expeditions. Her taming of a huge pack of dogs and getting lost for hours in the wilderness. Better yet, I got to see the latest iteration of her ever-expanding “home.” I got to watch over time as her survival cabin at the top of a hill became more of a faux-house concealing her much larger bunker underground. Pretty soon her bunker had expanded to encompass most of the hill. Then one day I came home to find that the hill had basically become like one big cobblestone castle. And it all happened one block at a time, without an instruction manual.

I recently watched an interview snippet with Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series and many other highly regarded computer games. He spoke in pretty plain language about the distinction between fun and work when designing games. If something in his games begins to feel too much like work, they have the computer do that for you. Imagine the tedium if, as opposed to simply commanding your Civilization workers to improve tiles, you had to somehow do that work yourself. Imagine if your peons in Warcraft required that you click continuously on each tree you were making them harvest. It would detract from getting to focus on the bigger picture, the satisfaction of the macro-management.

How interesting then to consider a game like Minecraft, in which almost the entire playing experience consists of simulated labor, and not the kind in which you simply command and watch your minions but rather one that has you play as your own lone minion in a world all your own (which encompasses both master and minion, I suppose). It's essentially a do-it-yourself game. It involves cutting down trees, shoveling dirt, hunting for food, tilling soil, building tools, and moving thousands of blocks from one place to another. I jumped into the game for a little bit the other day and helped my wife completely level half of a mountain. Talk about landscaping. We picked and picked and picked while the sun was up and retired to bed at nightfall. In human time it probably took about forty minutes or so.

What the playing experience doesn't include is the physical strain — the soreness of muscles, the shortness of breath. There's no cleanup involved, no tracking mud into your home at the end of the day. Still, I would wager money to guess that if Minecraft did not make the player “work” for those resources, so to speak, it wouldn't have the millions of players that it does. Minecraft is much more than a game of infinite legos. It really is about the work, or the idea of work.

Because the human species craves work! Rather, they crave the accomplishment that emerges as a result of the work. People enjoy Minecraft for very much the same reason they enjoy sweets. It's biological. A delicious fatty food contains so many calories in such a condensed form that it's almost impossible to pass up. It eliminates the need to forage, the need to hunt. What an incredible opportunity! This is why raccoons pick through the neighborhood Dumpster. It's why the squirrels load up on free food from my parents' backyard bird feeder. The intense desire for accomplishment through work is just as inherent to the human species as is the need for physical sustenance. But whenever an opportunity arises that appears to satisfy what we need, or which appears to eliminate the barriers separating us from those things that we need, that opportunity is very difficult to resist. Minecraft eliminates the unpleasantries of work while retaining its core essence, which is precisely what makes it such a near perfect substitute.

That's really what a lot of video games do so well to begin with — reward the player with a sense of accomplishment. Usually, however, both the reward and the means of obtaining the reward are completely arbitrary. It could be doled out however the designer sees fit. Complete a level, advance to the next one. Defeat a boss, enjoy a cutscene. Solve a puzzle, gain a collectible star. Earn a set number of experience points and level up. Minecraft, by contrast, does not seem nearly as concerned with having to impose a set of goals and objectives upon the player (other than staying alive, perhaps). It says to the player, “This is your world. These are its rules. Do what thou wilt.”

My wife could just as easily venture off into the wilderness, perhaps go exploring the mysterious nether world for the first time. For now she still seems to find just as much enjoyment staying close to home, steadily improving the scenery within rendering distance of her glimmering tower, plucking away at her ever-changing list of pet projects. So much work to do!

It's pure indulgence, sure. Isn't any game? But there are things that Minecraft and other games allow us to experience that we would not otherwise, at least for the foreseeable future, get to experience. Take owning a house, for example. My parents might have had the benefit of purchasing property in the 1970s. They were able to actually build their own home. They have a real landscape on which to sculpt their improvements. It's a little different for my wife and I. At least, the barriers standing in the way of us doing the same thing are significantly greater, 30 years later. My wife's heart literally aches for owning a puppy (well, a very specific pure breed of puppy). We don't currently have the setup to make that particular dream a reality, but you should see how excited she is while playing Minecraft and coming home to her pack of blocky, domesticated wolves. I guess what I'm saying is simply in answer to an internal question bouncing around in my head: Why not enjoy a bit of harmless indulgence when it helps you cope?

(Final thoughts (which are not my final thoughts): There is a lot more to talk about with Minecraft than this piece gets into, especially considering the Xbox version is still rather primitive compared to the latest PC version. I've specifically used the word 'review' here, because my posts titled 'review' seem to get more hits than the ones that don't. I'd definitely like to talk more about my experiences with this game once I've had more of a chance to play it. This game is worth trying out at least once just for the experience of getting lost.)

Images were borrowed from mine

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Choose your own Super Amazing Wagon Adventure

We'd just made it beyond the Great Plains when, as a token and confession of his love, Flynn gave Poopface a flower. Soon after that Flynn got syphilis. Then, in his weakened state, Flynn died. I think he was devoured by a wolf. Anna died too, although—honestly—I don't at all remember what caused her demise. I'd been through so many different versions of this adventure already, it could have been any number of things. But our story didn't end there. Somehow, against the odds, Poopface survived a river raid of sorts and made it to the coast. And I finally completed the Super Amazing Wagon Adventure.

To say this game is a parody on The Oregon Trail would be both obvious and insufficient. Yes, the game has you shooting buffalo (lots of buffalo … sometimes flaming buffalo) and fording rivers (or, if you prefer, jumping them). It's utterly zany, completely hilarious. But Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is also just a really good, well thought-out game.

The game splits between two primary modes of action. There are the wagon driving portions that involve side-scrolling shooting and dodging. And then there are the segments during which one of your party members sets off on foot and the game becomes a dual-stick shooter. Your journey across the wagon trail is broken up into a bunch of semi-random episodes that last no more than about 30 seconds each.

I say semi-random, because the game actually has a really nice structure that gives the adventure some overall grounding and consistency. Each play through—depending on how long your party survives—will involve a trek through the Great Plains, a mountain pass, a couple of rivers, and more. The precise obstacles you encounter along each stage of the journey, however, will vary. A side quest for exploring a cave might trigger a battle with giant bats during one adventure and giant spiders during the next. Or you might not encounter a cave at all.

Devote a little bit of practice to the game and you might start to develop some strategies. Each animal carcass, if picked up, can potentially be traded for extra health and munitions at certain points in the game. But because some weapons, such as the ray gun, decimate a carcass completely, there might be times when you choose to avoid that particular power-up.

I first got a chance to see this game in action during the Seattle Indies Expo on July 29. And I had a brief chat with the game's developer, who goes by the name sparsevector. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is actually his first game, and the expo was his first chance to observe the experience of first-time players.There were a lot of interesting games on display, many of which were much shinier than this one, but I think Super Amazing Wagon Adventure was my my personal favorite from the show. It had a kind of instant, mass appeal, mostly attributable to its sense of humor.

It was only upon purchasing the game from the Xbox Live indie games channel that I got to appreciate the actual playing experience. I kept dying and retrying, intent on getting through the entire adventure at least once. Pretty soon it was like something out of The Twilight Zone. Here were these three hapless digital versions of myself, my wife, and some stranger named Poopface, caught in an endless procession of inevitable death and destruction. Each journey, while different, was uncannily familiar. I watched and played as all of these facsimile versions of my party met their gruesome end, unable to stop myself until the wagon adventure gods smiled upon that one Poopface who had given Flynn an STD.

I could have been bitter. I could have turned away in disdain. But it was a beautiful moment. Life had found a way. The sperm had fertilized the egg. Also, I got to unlock the game's “shuffle” mode.

Here's my final recommendation. Buy this game if you:

  • Like an old-school video game challenge.
  • Still enjoy doing Mad Libs.
  • Are looking for a new kind of party game to show off to your snarky friends.

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is currently available on Xbox and will soon be out on PC.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rapture is us

Rapture is leaking, and nobody seems to mind. Anyone who might have thought to point this out—and maybe do something about it—has already died by the time I arrive on the scene. And let me tell you, I'm seeing a lot of dead people.

Rapture was probably what you might call a boomtown. Talk about commercial enterprise, this place found a way to profiteer just about everything, even criminal justice! Did you accidentally get caught trespassing someplace you didn't belong? Just pay a quick one-time fee to shut down those frenzied flying death bots.

It seems on the one hand brilliant, and yet I can see just as easily how this automated economy will soon meet its end. Monetary transactions no longer flow between the hands of human beings, only into the dead-end deposit slots of these untended vending machines. After a while, as I venture further into new areas of the city, I find that even the money isn't sufficient to buy the supplies needed for survival. I'm literally scrounging through corpses and garbage cans looking for the raw components that will let me invent my own items. Random supplies could be anywhere, sitting on some high up ledge, hiding under a fallen slab of concrete. I feel like a skittish street rat.

I've discovered there's also a new economy, the economy of Adam. It's a cartel really. It ate up the old economy, the old way of living. In fact, it completely killed living and replaced it with something different, a kind of … sub-living.

This is my mental travelogue as I re-play my way through the first few hours of BioShock, and I must say, I'm really feeling it. Here is a shooter that doesn't feel like a regular shooter. It feels more like the old Resident Evil games (sort of mechanically clunky, but on purpose) only more immediate and immersive. As I travel, I have to make decisions about how best to approach my enemies—not only how to win an encounter when I come upon a splicer by surprise, but how to become more deliberate in how I move about, deliberate in how I kill. Before long, I find myself to be more hunter than prey. I'm becoming more dangerous than the crazies around me.

This is good stuff, right? Like, I wonder how this game experience might relate psychologically to a recovered (or not) drug addict. I really do! How do those first hours of playing BioShock feel to someone who might actually have experienced what it's like to go from upstanding citizen to a desperate and broken mess of a person, someone who pawned off all their crap when they descended beyond the means of legitimately obtaining cash and eventually had to resort to other less-than-savory methods of getting by. Burglary? Violence? Scavenging copper wire from abandoned buildings, perhaps? Go back and watch that animation of your player character popping a syringe needle into his vein. Feel that desperation!

But then, something strange happens. The game keeps on going … and going. I wouldn't say it becomes boring or unplayable, but that once foreign and engrossing experience becomes less engrossing and a lot more familiar. My simple, understandable motivation for getting the hell out of Rapture becomes a bit more convoluted. I notice how my once compelling need to scavenge for supplies becomes more of a compulsion. It's a mindless chore, wherein I search every available box and corpse, not to find things that I desperately need, but rather any item that I haven't arbitrarily maxed out.

A friend of mine told me he started playing the first couple of hours of BioShock and then soon lost interest. While I definitely don't have the same playing habits (I will compulsively finish almost any game I start), I can understand how that would happen. I told him he probably got the best of the BioShock experience in those first couple hours.

It's maybe the day after I start playing through the game when news of the violent massacre at a movie theater in Colorado sends shockwaves through the nation. It's terrifying. What's happening to our country, we ask? Then the national discussion immediately becomes another political debate on the issue of gun control. People argue about the need for more regulation. They say guns are deadly instruments that are too numerous and too easy to obtain. Other people argue that an infringement on the right to bear arms is an infringement on an individual's safety and personal liberty, the right to defend oneself from the violence of others.

All the while, America is leaking. Infrastructure is deteriorating. The purchasing power of the dollar is plummeting while the people become more and more accustomed to an increasingly impersonal economy. The streetlights of bankrupt cities are being systematically shut down. The surveillance system is expanding. So many unsettling things are happening around us and yet we're more likely to hear people talking about the personal scandals and exploits of Hollywood celebrities (is it that much different from the meaningless jabber of those wandering splicers, some insane woman complaining about a tenderloin steak or a psychopathic religious nut babbling about “Jesus loves me” before he tosses you a live grenade?). Before long we'll hear about another episode of shocking violence somewhere else, and it's kind of like being reminded that we built our city at the bottom of the sea. Ours is a fragile and exposed society, an at-once impossible, constantly bleeding utopia. And I'd like to think that if we knew how to fix it, we would.

Images were borrowed from