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January 7, 2008

Koster and the glorious revolution of Game Design (pt 1)

I have to offer up an apology to the others in the class - I have, more or less, spent the last two days down-and-out with some kind of malady. I don't know what the cause is, but I can only see out of my left eye, presently, as my right eye is completely swollen shut. It has been getting progressively worse over the last two days or so and if it hasn't gotten better by morning, I'll be making a stop of the ER. Whatever this is doesn't appear to be a virus or anything of the like, but by God it hurts. I've spent a lot of time with hot compresses on my head and trying to sleep.

I've been trying to get caught up on the blogging, but all the bright lights and needing my eyes has been a little bit of a problem. Hopefully through tonight and tomorrow I will be caught up on all the blogging. I even took a few days off work. Sorry, folks.

Onto the topic at hand, Raph Koster.

I was, at best, hesitant to delve into the text. I was unsure what to expect, and had a great fear that this was going to be a somewhat radical text, much like the texts of Derrida and other various literary critics. Thankfully, there was no discussion of "The Yellow Wallpaper" in Koster's book. However, there was a lot more psychoanalytics than I expected.

While I appreciate the light and easy tone of the written text, and the illustrations certainly helped keep the mood easygoing (as well as humorous). I think the second chapter (of the first five) was the chapter that stuck with me the most. I don't want to make a claim that I have some advanced degree in psychology and neuroscience, but I have at least found an interest in how the brain works, especially in the everyday world.

The discussion Koster makes on pattern recognition and noise cancellation I found terribly fascinating. The Illustrations of the face were also phenomenal examples of what I liken to the linguistic comparison of the ladder of abstraction. This concept can be best explained thusly:

On the absolute lowest level, a cow is nothing but one specific arrangement of molecules and genetics for one precise moment in the universe, only to be different the next moment. As you move upward on the abstraction ladder you approach the perceptive level, whereby someone could say "y'know, big black and white things that we get milk from? Steaks?" We can associate then that this description, on the perceptive level, is a cow. As we move further and further up the ladder, we begin to abstract the "cow" concept into far-reaching ideas, such as livestock->salable merchandise->Currency->Profit.

This whole concept of abstraction, I found, applies to Koster's text, specifically into pattern recognition. He included the illustrations of the human face and described how the human brain associates similar shapes and forms, as well as chunks the image and knowledge together to form something we know.

Koster identified the various differences in how we define games. I particularly liked Sid Meier's definition of "a series of meaningful choices," as I find that to be an apt description of what games are, and how that relates to the human brain. Games, or so I feel, are "interactive media arts." This is usually the label and form I give to videogames. Outside of it giving it somewhat of an intellectual air about it and some level of sophistication, it is also what I feel is representative of games - I will defend, until I'm deep, deep in the cold, cold ground - that games are an expression of art, just the same as poetry and fiction. Granted, most games are collaborative and team driven, but they are still works of art, bourne from the minds of the creators, molded and shaped to fit the ideas of the people behind it, as well as something to tell a story or to make the player think, evaluate, teach and learn. As with almost every example of art, it is what the user takes and makes from the art that makes it important. Sure, The Legend of Zelda was fun, but it wasn't this monument to life-changing decisions. 20+ years later, however, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess presents numerous moral dilemmas and instances of deep philosophical meaning. At it's absolute core, though, the game remains the same - there is a mathematic and real explanation for why X happens in lieu of Y. Pressing button A, while moving stick D up, causes X to happen. No matter the moral quandary of the player or character, the same functions and patterns exist.

Koster even described that "we've learned that if you show someone a movie with a lot of jugglers in it and tell them in advance to count the jugglers, they will probably miss the large pink gorilla in the background, even though it's a somewhat noticeable object. The brain is good at cutting out the irrelevant.

The same can be said for games, too. A perfect example is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Oblivion is, easily, one of the most gorgeous games I have played. It doesn't quite have the gritty realism of something like Gears of War, but it does have the must lush, vibrant, and photorealistic environments. Going along with Koster, though, it is very easy to just run through the world without ever noticing some of the details, or overlooking the bigger picture.

For example, as you walk through the outside world, immediately surrounding the capital city, you are simply swallowed up in a world of flowing grass, swaying trees, running deer and trickling water. Of course, we can overlook the details because we are wowwed by the immensity of this environment. We overlook the crab climbing out of the water and attacking us because the shimmering sun on the surface is too beautiful. Likewise, we easily overlook the beautiful scenery and nuances of this design - with each tree having unique wind physics changing how the leaves flutter - because we are focused on looking at our compass to ensure we are going in the correct direction and we aren't being attacked by Ogres and bands of marauders.

Posted by KevinMcGinnis at January 7, 2008 8:32 PM


Regarding the visuals of Oblivion... we play fantasy because we want a reality that's better than ours, so I would expect a bit of idealized scenery and exaggerated sunsets. But you're right... when I had to design and properly texture a railing for a level I was doing in a Half-Life 2 mod experiment, I paid attention to carpentry for the first time in a very long time (not really since I used to have a part-time job building sets for the theater department as an undergrad).

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 7, 2008 10:43 PM

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