The pointless, dusty debate about whether games can be considered art tends to rage more among people peering inside the game community from its fringes and anyone up for an argument for argument’s sake than a gamer anywhere in the casual-to-hardcore spectrum. Regardless of where you fall in there, though, what’s indisputable is that like art—or anything else—games affect players and elicit a variety of reactions, from doing a goofy victory dance in your underwear after finally beating a nearly impossible level to chucking your controller at the wall for being unable to do so. This morning, floppy-haired Swedish developer Cactus (a.k.a. Jonatan Soderstorm) flipped the perspective on players’ reactions to games by instead dissecting how developers can have more fun by fucking with players in their games.
I won’t delve much into the actual talk Soderstorm gave since John will in his post, but aside from a handful of bullet points spread across a PowerPoint presentation that just as easily could’ve spawned from a message-board thread, there was little explanation of why designers “want to be mean to players in designing games.” Soderstorm’s tone implied that developers, like gamers, are sick of games being “too easy,” but concluding that deviating from the norm draws in more gamers is a bit like declaring the sky is blue: painfully obvious. While it was frustrating to sit through clips from Lost Highway without any meaningful parallel to videogames, a nice takeaway from the lecture is this laundry list of demented games he presented.
Soderstorm credited game artist Mark Essen (a.k.a. Messhof) as being his “idol,” so it wasn’t surprising how many of Messhof’s games factored into the discussion. Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, Flywrench, and Thrill Of Combat were all namechecked, and the aptly titled platformer Punishment was demonstrated via a video play-through. Punishment employs nearly all of the methods Cactus mentioned for abusing players: Annoy them with blinking and rotating graphics, defy them with nonsensical logic, and boast an almost-impossible difficulty. It looked like fun, actually. Kayin O’Reilly’s I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game, a bizarre and insanely challenging game perhaps only beatable by watching play-throughs on YouTube, was also mentioned.
Of course, Cactus has been greatly influenced by all these games and showcased two of his own weird titles. Two screens from the cheery-looking Psychosomnium showed how you actually have to kill your character to progress, and Mondo Medicals illustrated how to ignore common sense by making a door appear in a never-ending loop of corridors just by simply turning around. How Bill Pullman factors into all of this, and whether he represents gamers everywhere, who knows.
Cactus’ talk in the morning about pulling the rug out from under gamers’ feet at every opportunity stood in stark contrast to my afternoon: A summit on metagame design, or how to constantly coddle players with reward systems like trophies. Presumably, the mention of “trophies” in the lecture’s title meant achievement points and consoles were going to be, if not the focus, then at least acknowledged in some fashion. Nope. While it’s interesting to look at the systems wrapped around games to engage players and impart a sense of accomplishment by meeting arbitrary benchmarks, Shuffle Brain CEO and main speaker Mary Jo Kim focused almost exclusively on Facebook games like Farmville and how sites like eBay and Stack Overflow are game-like. It was beyond dull. Kim was cordial and eloquent, but it was hard to shake the feeling that if anyone in the room nodded off, we would all be punished with a pop quiz.
Kim’s company is geared towards designing games for social networks, so without a counterpoint or anyone else on the mic to balance out her focus on Facebook, it felt completely one-sided. Anyone obsessed with RPGs or getting an unbeatable high score could pound the pulpit and expound on the virtues of achievement points/trophies, but a little more insight into deciding why some point systems make more sense for some titles than others could have been a lot more illuminating than Kim’s assertion that newbie gamers get discouraged by leaderboards and mission requirements lend focus and structure to play sessions. “No duh” was the mantra for today, and had I known that first thing in the morning, I could’ve made a game out of seeing how many times I could say it in a single breath, and then try to beat my record.