I am aware that I am not the only person who feels uncomfortable with the use of the term “serious game” to refer to games that are designed or employed with purposes in addition to entertainment. To clarify, I believe that this term brings with it two problems:
1) The use of the adjective “serious” is inadequate. “Serious” implies thoughtfulness, carefulness. If this is the distinguishing feature of “serious games,” then other games lack them. Huizinga, however, already argued that seriousness can be found in play. Further, it depends on context, not necessarily on design of the game. Additionally, the use of the term “serious” may imply a value judgment relative to games used as entertainment.
2) The use of the generic term “serious games” to refer to games applied to education, health, art, activism and others implies that all of those are related and similar. This is misleading, as considerations about each of these applications might be completely distinct.
For those reasons, it is more accurate to refer to games applied to education, games applied to health, games as art and so on.
I have recently played “Gone Home” after reading so many positive reviews and recommendations. Lately I have been particularly interested in innovation regarding narrativity in digital games and the comments indicated that the game accomplished something good in this regard. It has been praised by engaging players in the exploration of a mundane location and by presenting the narrative by way of cues in the environment.
“Gone Home” is set in 1995, around the time game designers were experimenting with newly available multimedia capabilities in personal computers. “Myst” was possibly the most successful and well-known game to follow that path by then, presenting the possibilities of integrating narrative immersion with the sensory immersion in media-rich virtual environments as discussed by Murray in “Hamlet on the Holodeck.” From the interview of the Fullbright Company with Leigh Alexander, it is clear this choice of date was coincidental but it does makes one wonder what innovation does this game bring, relative to those games.
The general mechanics are those of exploring the environment in search for cues to the narrative. Some of those cues reward the player with pre-recorded sequences that further the plot, while others are evidences of parallel plots or add details to the main plot. In this sense, “Gone Home” feels like a technological update of essentially the same proposal from “Myst.” Furthermore, it seems that the developers at the Fullbright Company had the need to leave everything clear and resolved for the player, as there are copious amounts of written text — letters, notes, newspaper clippings — that explain and justify nearly everything. Maybe this is a leftover from the developers’ history in AAA games, which have this tendency. Compared to recent games that employ these mechanics, such as Gravity Bone, the results are annoying.
That is not to say that “Gone Home” is a badly executed game. It is an effort to develop a very specific game, which capitalises the skills of its developers as a way to demonstrate that their new studio is ready and able to create quality products. It very aptly draws on the trend of experimental games revolving around personal and emotive narratives; so much, indeed, that it seems to be mistaken by many as such a personal experience. If it resonates with players’ memories and life themes, it does so thanks to the craftsmanship of experienced storytellers. This is not meant to be a defense of realism over fiction but a reminder that “Gone Home” is, above all, fiction and as such, it gives its authors a lot of freedom.
Therefore, what disappointed me in “Gone Home” was the fact that such freedom was not really exploited, despite the developers’ expertise; that they have kept to tested and well-known approaches to storytelling in games, rather than moving forward. It certainly provides a more detailed environment than previous games, and such technological updates will keep coming, so maybe one day we will have “Gone Home” in a holodeck. However, in terms of combining games and narrative, of exploring agency and immersion, there is nothing new to write about.
Today I finished playing the 29 levels of “Tesla: the Weatherman.” This game was produced and self-published in 2011 by Thoughtquake Studios, comprised of the duo of Thomas Davidson and Constantine Frost. I decided to write about it due to its unusual qualities, considering the amount of “puzzle-platformers” and physics-based games that have been released lately.
It is often the case that “physics-based game” means a rigid-body physics engine has been employed and the gameplay will revolve around physically-simulated collisions and maybe some constraints between objects. Some games add fluids, often simulated as a mesh of particles, to the mix. Tesla: the Weatherman does not stop there. The player character can generate an electrical charge at a nearby point. If the charge finds a path to the skies, lightning comes down. It can travel through wires to another destination — the only way to get this lightning to hit underground. Later on the player gains the power to make it rain, and cause it to freeze or evaporate by manipulating the weather. Pieces of ice can be used as tools to climb to higher platforms or keep pressure plates activated, provided you keep the world temperature down.
I believe that it is also worth to note that the player is never given a direct offensive ability in the game. Lightning can damage enemies but getting it to work underground is tricky. Later, the player can call a concentrated beam of sunlight, wich can be upgraded to damage enemies, but again it will only work outside and it can set fire to other objects too. Both abilities can also damage the player. Levitation, which is possibly the most useful ability in the game, can be used to lift enemies but it does not damage them at all.
Leaving mechanics aside for a moment, Tesla: the Weatherman is also different in its narrative. Using a bit of history and lots of artistic license, the developers have created a plot involving Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Thomas Edison filled with light humor and some nonsense. The bad voice acting performed by the developers themselves actually feels great: the game does not take itself too seriously. The style of the artwork used in the game is simple, but consistent. There is room for improvement but that is a consequence of working with such a small team. Talking about that, there are a few technical glitches in the game too, notably the interaction of Tesla with some platforms while jumping. However, there are no game-breaking bugs or other markings of poor development.
In the end, all of these game elements, combined with the design of the levels, create an environment where the player has a reasonable amount of freedom. It plays more to the player’s creativity and problem-solving skills than to hand-eye coordination and patience to reach a solution through trial and error like many “puzzle-platformers.” In my opinion, Tesla: the Weatherman is a good example of what Derek Yu discusses in “Making it in Indie Games: Starter Guide”: independent development is about freedom of expression, creativity and sticking to a vision. It is not about repeating formulas, whether in design, programming or artwork.
It is possible to submit academic works in four tracks: computing, art & design, culture and industry. The paper’s abstract must be registered until June 24th, then authors have until July 1st to submit the full manuscript. Notification of accepted papers will be sent by August 19th. Additionally, it is possible to participate with tutorials and in the independent games festival.
Global Game Jam 2013 is over and now that I have rested a little, it is time to comment about it. First of all, I want to thank everyone who believed in this initiative, despite the short time in which we realized it: all the participants who registered without being sure of what they would find, Universidade de São Paulo, mainly through the Campus Administration (Prefeitura do Campus), PCS-Poli, CEPEUSP, CCE, CINUSP and USP Agency for Innovation, as well as Studica and Editora Brasport, which gently contributed with great prizes for the jammers.
In this first year of GGJ at USP, we had the creation of five very distinct games, two of which included the “Bigger Picture” diversifier, related to Games for Change. All of our 20 jammers attended to the event and most of them stayed on the site for the whole 48 hours. We had a few troubles with network access and power but we managed to overcome them. At the end of the jam, it was just great to see everyone happy, if exhausted.
A game jam is an opportunity for learning as it requires reaching a goal in a very short time. It is a test for the capabilities of teamwork, communication, planning and technical skills of the jammers. From the organization standpoint, we also learned a lot and I would like to stress three points:
1) Although we were successful in our organization, the short time we had made the whole process very stressful for everyone involved. I believe that six to eight months would have allowed a more controlled organization, and it would be helpful in finding sponsors for our site. It would also have allowed us to advertise our site to more people.
2) On the other hand, it is also vital to schedule some hours every day in the week before the jam, even if everything seems ready. This time is necessary to confirm the availability of everyone and everything, to attend to meetings and conference calls with other organizers, to set up equipment for the jam etc.
3) Use an external site to manage jammer registration. Global Game Jam is open to this option and after our experience this year, I believe it is better to do this. We had some people who were confused, thinking that they were registered at our jam site because they had selected it on the GGJ site. Besides, we needed information about the jammers that was not available on the standard GGJ registration, so we had to contact each jammer for those.
And that is it. I hope to take part in the organization for the GGJ 2014 USP site and make it even better!
General organization – Ricardo Nakamura, Gilson Schwartz, Francisco Tupy.
In-site organization – Alexandre Tomoyose, Cristina Albuquerque, Daniel Calife, Ezequiel S. Garrido Pordeus, João L. Bernardes Jr., Pedro Schwartz.
We have finished preparations to have a GGJ site at Universidade de São Paulo! I have been wanting to do this for two years now, and this time the stars were right! For this first experience, we will have 20 slots for attendants, with 24h access to the site and dormitories.
After making a couple of prototypes, I have started actual development of this month’s game for the OneGameAMonth challenge. It’s a turn-based gold farm simulator called “Realm’s of Golden Saga.” Here are a couple of screenshots.
I’m developing the game in Game Maker: Studio Professional, along with some tools like bfxr, Musagi and Audacity for audio and Grafx2 for some of the graphics. For now the general structure of the game is in place but I still have to add most of the rules… and test them.
Ludum Dare is over and it was a blast! The effort of creating a complete game in 48 hours or less is demanding but also rewarding. If anyone is interested, my game is available here. In total there were 1328 submissions (including the jam and the competition) with lots of creative and interesting entries that are worth a look.
Another interesting initiative that is taking shape right now is the One Game a Month challenge. The proposal is simple: create one game per month during the year 2013. As the official site says, “Starting a game is easy. Finishing a game is hard.” That’s the motivation for the challenge and it’s not restricted to digital games.
A valid question is “why make games, and in such constrained time frames?” In my opinion, game jams and competitions are external motivators. Students and enthusiasts get a chance to gain experience with game development. Professionals get an excuse to make new experiments. In either case, it’s a focused experience with a well-defined duration, so even if there is nothing gained, the losses are controlled. There’s also the interaction and feedback from the community. Maybe, with proper supervision, game jams can even be used with project-based learning strategies as a teaching tool.