Neo-Retro Gaming

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A comment on  my last Sunday post reminded me that there’s a lot about game design concepts that I take for granted. I took it for granted that Megaman 4 Minus Infinity was clearly a large-scale transformation of the original material. The response was “looks like Megaman to me,” which is both extremely right, but also extremely wrong. For reasons that will probably have to wait until I specifically address rom hacks.

For now, we’ll touch on a larger, more prominent field: Retro Gaming.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is no clear definition of “retro” gaming. In a general sense, it’s getting to the point where even Playstation 2 is considered retro. “Retro Gaming” as a concept is generally restricted to the 2D era, particularly what is considered the “golden age,” ranging from the NES up through 2D Playstation games. This is further divided into “soft” retro – the 16 bit up through the 32 bit – and “hard” retro – 8 bit and earlier

The simplest form or Retro Gaming is hooking up an old console and playing old games. For a fine arts comparison, this is looking at classical works – Greek and Roman sculpture, architecture, etc.

More prominent have been what would be called a sort of Neo-Retro gaming, which comes in various flavors.

The most obvious is the field of low-res gaming. These are modern games made in the visual/audio style of old games. They look like the retro games, but play like modern games. Meat Boy is a low-res game. The visuals are low-res pixel art, but the game play is fast-paced, fluid, and works on principles unique to more modern gaming. Fez is another example, making use of concepts which simply can not be done in actual old games. This would be the NeoClassical school of art – it looks like the Greek and Roman art, but the similarities are really on a superficial level. They are built with modern tools and techniques to perform modern tasks.

A style that is slightly harder to pin down is the field of Old-School gameplay. These are ostensibly modern games, with modern visuals and aesthetic, but their core game structure is like something out of the ’80s. In this case, it’s worth noting that the architecture is modern, but the rules are old. These are modern cars with manual transmissions, as opposed to a manual transmission built in the ’50s. Nostalgia and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Etrian Odyssey are examples of Old-School gameplay. They look modern, but they play like old games. In the fine art analogy, this is making use of Classical elements, like the circular arch, or the golden ratio. Admittedly, this is where the analogy starts creaking a bit.

Then we have Throwback gaming. This is when the system limitations of the retro era are applied – slowdown and/or vanishing objects when the screen gets too crowded, limited display palette (not to be confused with color palette), restricted control scheme, limited control responsiveness, etc. There is an appeal to these games, because hard and fast limitations can be a seed of creativity. For various reasons, it tends to be difficult to find a modern game that works as a throwback. On the other hand, they often appear as rom hacks, under the reasoning that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The fine art equivalent is someone using the tools available to the Greeks and Romans to make works int he style of the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, we have what I would call Post-Retro Gaming. This is very similar to the throwback, but uses modern game design concepts or philosophy. Retro Game Challenge is an excellent example of this school.  In RCG, we have a collection of classic-style games ostensibly played on a Famicom (NES): a Galaga clone with power ups and combos; the most badass pre-k educational game ever; a racing game with power slides; a shoot-em-up (SHMUP) that includes an integrated unlimited shield counterattack and multi-use power-ups; a Dragon Quest/Warrior II clone with recruitable monsters and weapons that use a slot-machine reel to determine accuracy, adding an element of timing; and a Ninja Gaiden clone with a rudimentary inventory/equipment system and resource management. Arguably, this is also the mark aimed for by Megaman 9 and Megaman 10, though some would argue that they gave up and simply made low-res games. Again, the metaphor breaks down. I guess using Greek and Roman tools to make post-modernist art?

The appeal of  retro gaming differs by the flavors.

Vanilla retro gaming is one part nostalgia and one part appreciation of the classic games. Some games stay with us because the nightmares will never go away, others stay with use because they were timeless.

Low-Res gaming is practical, as it allows for a small team, a low budget, and using what’s on hand. Additionally, there is an appeal to the low-res visual and audio style (among a select audience, at least).

Old-School gaming generally argues that we’ve gone soft. Doing poorly used to have consequences, and you had to earn progress.

Throwbacks seek to capture the magic of the old games while presenting new settings. All the familiar rules and visuals of vanilla retro, but with new layouts. They want to recapture the magic of the Turbo Tunnel, but sadly, that infamous level is written into their muscle memory.

Post-Retro is an attempt to have it all. You have the Low-Res aesthetic, Old-School rules (perhaps softened a little), and the verisimilitude of a throwback, all with the lessons learned of modern game design. Post-Retro comes from a fantasy world in which the old systems never really retired. Games made for a bygone era, they are a lament for what could have been.

There is good to come from each of the Neo-Retro styles. They each have something unique to add. They are specialized tools, designed to highlight certain aspects of the Art of Games.


Story Structure

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Because I’ve already spoken on narrative structures, the title probably deserves clarification. For my purposes, narrative structure is the shape of the story – how it’s told. Story structure, by comparison, is the form of the story – what makes it a story. A story needs to be built around a narrative structure; any story can be analysed according to any story structure.

There are a potentially unlimited number of story structures, but the two most well-known structures are the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Three Act Structure.”  As had been previously stated, these are structures that can be applied to any story.  Therefore, a story structure is only valuable as an analytical tool. “A man goes to the fridge to get a beer” is a complete story. You can break down the actions, from him deciding he wants a beer all the way through him returning to the couch, into the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. I state this because many people think a story structure is a guideline to building a good story. Following a story structure, especially slavishly following a story structure, only guarantees that you have crafted a story. It is natural to tell stories, and one can instinctually tell whether a story exists. Story structures are good for analysis and interpretation – nothing more, nothing less.

As has been previously established in my musings on art, interpretation is key to experiencing art. Similarly, analysis is integral to forming a coherent interpretation. Therefore, story structures are quite useful – in their proper place.

The Hero’s Journey has been addressed by many people far more eloquent than I (banana), and I’m not sure I’m really qualified to add to the conversation, but the worst I can do is make a total ass of myself and be wrong on all counts. So on we go!

As you likely already know (especially if you read the links), the Hero’s Journey (AKA the Monomyth) was popularized by Joseph Campbell, breaking the story down into 17 distinct parts.  Dan Harmon cut it down to 8, because he’s twice as good as Joseph Campbell.

Many people get frustrated with the Hero’s Journey because, as already noted, it has a tendency to be used as scaffolding to build, rather than a tool to analyze. For the sake of absurdity, let us apply the 17 steps of the Monomyth to the guy getting a beer:

1. Call to Adventure – The guy is thirsty.

2. Refusal of the Call – If the guy wants a beer, he’ll have to get off the couch. The couch is comfortable. Besides, his show is on.

3. Supernatural Aid – A commercial comes on.

4. Crossing the First Threshold – The man gets up.

5. Belly of the Whale – The man steps away from the couch – it will now take effort to return.

6. The Road of Trials – The man’s kid left his toys all over the floor, the kitchen tiles are cold, and the beer’s hidden behind a watermelon.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess – The man grabs a beer.

8. Woman as Temptress – The beer needs a bottle opener. It might be easier to grab a swig of milk from the carton instead.

9. Atonement with the Father – Rifling through the drawer, the man seeks out the bottle opener.

10. Apotheosis – The bottle opener has been found, and the beer is liberated.

11. The Ultimate Boon – Still in the kitchen, the man tastes the sweet nectar, the fruits of his achievement.

12. Refusal of the Return – It’s not that bad standing in the kitchen. Besides, he has his beer.

13. The Magic Flight – Seeing as it’s 11 AM, it might be best to not be caught.

14. Rescue from Without – The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” shouts his wife.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The man returns to the couch, more aware of his kid’s toys.

16. Master of Two Worlds – The man is back at the couch, beer in hand, and the commercials are just ending.

17. Freedom to Live – Life is good.

While, in theory, my slavish adherence to the Monomyth has made a rather compelling version of “Guy goes to the fridge to get a beer,” it’s still about a guy getting a beer. Also, were all those steps really necessary? Do we care that the guy was comfortable on the couch watching his show? Did we need the ordeal of procuring the bottle opener? Arguably, the story was made worse by insistence on hitting every beat. Especially when equal time is given to each step.

In fairness, using the Hero’s Journey as a tool for analysis is itself fraught with peril. Taken to the extreme, the Hero’s Journey means that Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory(Warning: Link to TVTropes). This should not discourage the use of a valuable tool – it should be an admonition toward moderation. Any interpretation can be applied to any work of art – what matters is whether the interpretation fits. The Hero’s Journey is excellent at decoding allegory, as well as developing analogies. But it is only a tool. It is one way to connect the dots, but not the only way, and not the best way. The Hero’s Journey will connect every set of dots into a dog, but not every set of dots should be a dog.

The Three Act Structure is a more general approach, as are any X Act Structures. Arguably, the Monomyth is a 17 Act structure. Because it’s more general, it has more flexibility, but that also means it has a greater potential for abuse. When crafting from an act structure, the inclination is to separate everything into equal parts – the story suffers because the important stuff is crammed into a tight space, while boring and unimportant elements are stretched. Because three acts means three equal parts. While this may be mitigated by a theoretical perfect number of acts properly defined, it simply serves to reemphasise the point previously made – story structure is a tool for analysis, not for construction.

Consuming Content

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I am in the habit of consuming a prodigious amount of content.

Before expanding on this idea, let’s begin with a definition or two. By “consume content,” I mean “to actively engage a sensory input with one’s intellect.” Put simply, this is the distinction between hearing and listening. Content is sensory information, but organized in such a manner that it is itself a unit (in a logical sense), generally with a discrete and recognizable “source.”  A source can be a TV screen, a conversation, or anything else which can be tied to the production of content. Content can be engaged on several levels, from a general overview to a precise analysis. Someone can hear a song (not consuming content), can listen to the song (consuming content), or can analyze the melodies, harmonies, chord progression, and/or individual instruments (consuming content on a deeper level).

Everyone is capable of consuming content from multiple sources simultaneously, but the wider the net is cast, the shallower one’s consumption ability becomes. Therefore, at a certain point, one is no longer effective at consuming any content, leading to the neglect of one or more sources. Aside from this hard limit, there is also a comfort limit.  It is assumed that most people are comfortable engaging one or two sources at a given time. As a general rule, it is considered polite to engage 1 or 2 sources when people are involved. This is by practicality, because, as stated, the more sources engaged, the less depth available to any given source. No one appreciates a shallow engagement. Such encounters lead to one being considered “aloof” or “disconnected.”

By personal estimation, I have found myself capable of meaningful engagement with as many as 4 or 5 sources, but tend to find my comfort level is engaging 2-3 sources. This may appear to be signs of a data addiction, but that would come from a misinterpretation of the phrases “consuming content” and “engaging sources.” The phrases are roughly synonymous, with consuming content being the general term, while engaging a source refers to a specific action, rather than the general activity. While driving, engaging a single source would be paying attention to the road. Engaging two sources would be watching the road and listening to the song on the radio, or holding a conversation with a passenger. Engaging three sources would be watching the road, talking to the passenger, and listening to the radio playing at a low enough level that it doesn’t compete with or overpower the conversation. I am confining this discussion to mental engagement; the physical engagement of interacting with devices provides an unnecessary level of complexity for this discussion.

Like memory, content consumption can be divided into short-term and long-term, as consumption is directed directly toward short-term memory and long-term memory. Depending on the nature of the car conversation, consumption may be short-term(chatting about the weather) or long-term(talking about  your mutual future). Listening to a song on the radio can similarly be short-term(enjoying the song) or long-term(analysing the song). Watching the road can be short-term(watching for traffic, signals) or long-term(memorising a new route). As can be inferred from the examples, long-term consumption tends to require a deeper level of engagement.

Much of my life is directed toward consuming content. I am by nature analytical, so I often find myself consuming even trivial content, as my mind is extremely active. Without trying, I find myself deconstructing every book, movie, game, song, or other form of content as I experience them. To go back to my essays on art, consumption of content is actively applying and criticising interpretations, often at a rapid pace as new information presents itself. When I engage a source, then, it tends toward the deeper levels. As a benefit, I tend to have a modest understanding of my experiences, but I tend to be accused of overthinking things.

On top of the method of consumption, there is the sheer scale of my consumption. I place consumption of content in its proper role, but I have watched hundreds of movies and TV shows, and have a massive list of movies and shows to watch. I have played hundreds of video games, with hundreds more readily accessible at my fingertips. I have likely read over a thousand books, and have shelves full of books I haven’t read, as well as a list of books I do not own but intend to read. One of my primary roles at my full-time job is to consume content, interpret it, and reproduce it in a more digestible form for the sake oft hose that report to me,a s well as for those to whom I report. Additionally, I likely read several thousands of words each day, as I keep myself informed about the news and other points of interest.

With all this consumption, there remains the question: to what end? Why do I consider it worth my time to consume content at such a sustained level? It is understood that engaging film will bolster your cinematic vocabulary. What is often missed is that the cinematic vocabulary is meant to be applicable to life in an analogical sense – we watch movies in part for entertainment, but also because we wish to see the reflection of truth in our own world. Explosions may be fun, but we return to the value of art. I consume this content, rapidly applying interpretations to the content, so that I might find an interpretation that helps in my edification. Each point of data helps to develop a catalog of reference points and interrelations, both for my own personal use, but also for the sake of others – by sharing what I have learned and the connections and interpretations I have drawn, I can direct them to build off my success, to reach even greater heights. Similarly, I turn to those that have come before me in consuming content, so I may in turn benefit from their curation. We have a massive network of information at our fingertips, but, more importantly, we also have useful guideposts set along the way. A herculean task is impossible for one man. The wisdom of the crowds can come to resemble a swarm at times. But, with the help of good guides, an ordinary man can see far by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Sovereignty of the Internet

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There is a lot happening around the world in relation to the internet. In a sense, everyone is trying to figure it out, to understand it, or to simply live with it. It is very possible, as history writes itself, that the Digital Revolution will be as pivotal as the Industrial Revolution.

Recently, there have been many calls for an “Internet Bill of Rights,” and even a push for a Declaration of Internet Freedom. This illustrates a striking point: There is a large faction of people who see the Internet as a Sovereign entity, independent of any country or nation. Currently, this is an ideal, as the practical truth is that the infrastructure of the internet is controlled in various parts by several countries. The people for a sovereign internet argue that this is not merely an ideal, but a necessity – if the internet is not open and free, it will not work properly. The internet transcends borders, so it is either subject to its own laws, or subject to all laws of all countries.

People have expressed particular distress at actions of the United states in relation to the Internet. The Department of State advocates a free internet to fight oppression, but sees no problem with suppressing websites which may be illegal under US law, or encourage acts against US law. The US seeks extradition of  individuals who violate US law while not on US soil, because it was on the internet. Politicians call the internet a lawless “Wild West” that needs law imposed upon it for its own good.

Aside from the fact that the Wild West analogy is an example of “You fail history forever,” all these actions are in fact consistent, provided you accept their core assumption: the US believes the internet to be a US colony. There is no inconsistency with supporting freedom, democracy, and opposition to tyranny, yet enforcing your laws on your own colony. There is nothing unusual about demanding extradition of an individual who committed a crime in your colony. If you see lawlessness in your colony, it is only natural to desire to impose order.

The issue at hand, however, is that the “people of the internet” see the internet much like the original American colonies – nominally, they show allegiance to their colonial masters, but they have been in the practical habit of self-governance. The colonies police themselves, enforce their own laws, and in all practical aspects remain a separate entity. This came to a head when the ruling powers began imposing their will on the colonies in the form of taxation and laws, such as the infamous Intolerable Acts. This is all American History 101, placed into a different context. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Americans who consider themselves in part denizens of the internet are calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” or an “Internet declaration of independence.” Look at the list of grievances in the original Declaration of Independence. One more inflammatory than myself could argue that each and every grievance listed has a counterpart in this conflict between the US and the internet.

In Jefferson’s original draft, the Declaration included this phrase: “We might have been a free & a great people together; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. be it so, since they will have it: the road to glory & happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!” He laments the irreconcilable differences, that the rift need not have been created.

Reconciliation is possible. Let us return to the ever popular example of “the Wild West.” Lawlessness in the Wild West came from the strong imposing their will on the weak, and law was enforced by the strong who stood up for the weak. The weak learned to adapt to the harsh new environment and became strong, and established their own laws and order. Once they had become a coherent whole, capable of some degree of self-government, they petitioned to enter the Union. There was no instance of the Federal government coming into town, shooting up the lawbreakers, and imposing their own laws on the people. That approach is absurd, because it is patently un-American. The laws come up from the people, and the ideals of the people are enshrined as laws. They are not handed down from an authority on high, to be imposed upon the people.

The ideals and principles of the people of the internet are not the same as those of any regional authority. They can’t be so, and they shouldn’t be so. Laws are relegated to the people on the local level because the realities of the environment are different. Water rights are much more nuanced in the Western United States, because there is much less water – it would be absurd to enforce some sort of national law of water rights, because the realities of the different regions mean that many, if not most – or even all – regions are poorly served by this national rule. The realities of the digital world are dramatically different from the realities of the physical world – it would be absurd to apply the rules of one upon the realities of the other.

There are principles, and there should be rules. But they should be grounded in reality, and they should come from the people. Americans hold very dear to their hearts that they should not be subject to the whims of a foreign and alien ruler on distant shores, who can’t be bothered to learn about the realities of their life. Is it so much of a surprise that the people of the internet, often steeped in the same ideals of the US, demand the same respect?

The Creative Drive

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Everyone has a desire to create.

On the basest level, this manifests in the subconscious – daydreaming, imagining, even actual sleeping dreams.  Some are more inclined to this act of creation than others, but it is present in all people. Creation, especially on the mental level, need not be a spectacular event – if creation extends even to the imagination, than the imagination of the different flavors as one decides what to eat, or anticipates what he has already decided, is a form of creation.

Most people, perhaps all, are not satisfied with the mere imagination. People want to take their creations and make them real. The artist and the writer want to transfer their thoughts to a fixed medium; the architect wants to form structures; the chef and craftsman want to create things of beauty and utility from raw materials. Most people, however, do not have an overlap between their drive to create and their profession. They create as a hobby – either because their talents are not marketable or because they do not wish to create for a living.

Professional and amateur are held in tension, and often considered to be opposites. As the words imply, the professional performs the art as a job, while the amateur performs the art for love of the art. Linguistic bias implies that drive is not a factor in professionalism, only talent. Amateur quality is considered poor quality, often making rookie mistakes, while professional quality is considered solid and consistent quality, at a bare minimum. Needless to say, amateurs can be perfectly capable or professional quality work, while many professionals are guilty of doing amateur quality work.

Drive is in fact the most pivotal factor in the art of creation. There is no correlation between the decision to work professionally and the levels of drive and talent, though a minimum level of both drive and talent  is assumed for the individual that makes such a decision.

Talent is composed of two elements – gift and experience. Gift is the inborn ability – any element of oneself which makes a given art easier can be considered gift.  Gift is unevenly distributed, and may affect an individual’s inclination toward a given art. Experience is available to everyone equally – some may gain it faster than others, and experience will manifest for different individuals in different areas – again, the experience is unique to the individual. Talent is then somewhere between the sum of gift and experience and the product of gift and experience – someone with no gift is, in theory, capable of matching someone incredibly gifted, given enough experience. A popular theory of experience is the concept of 10,000 hours – after 10,000 hours of an activity, someone can truly be considered “good” at that activity. While there is truth to the 10,000 hours theory, it perhaps overvalues experience while diminishing gift.  There is, in theory, a critical mass where the level of gift is inconsequential in the face of experience, but I am not certain that that critical mass is 10,000 hours. The point remains that gift does not separate individuals, it simply inclines them to take more easily to a given art. The best author is not necessarily the most gifted.

Which brings us to drive. This is the decision to do something – nothing more, nothing less. This decision is not a one-time action, however – it is a constant action, in the face of any adversity. Drive is shown when an individual stumbles, but does not quit, when an individual makes time for the art, rather than muttering about “finding time.”  Drive waxes and wanes, leading to the well-known concept of “writer’s block.” Similarly, those with more drive are more likely to commit to something long enough to see it through, and, by extension, more likely to reach the fabled 10,000 hours.

But, on a more philosophical level, what is drive?

Drive can be caused by intrinsic factors.  It can be a desire to prove something. It can be the recognition that this art is a means to a desirable end, be it survival, charitable, comfort, or any other end.

Drive can also have an intrinsic source. This is less understood, because it is less understandable. This drive can be the desire to prove something to oneself. Or it can be a recognition of the value of creation – much as art can elevate the one who experiences it, it can elevate the one who creates. And then there are those who simply feel they must create – there is a primal sense of something within them that must be made real. In this latter case, the author will not be able to explain why the art must be created, only that it must. This intrinsic drive is also considered a “gift,” though it is distinct from the earlier sense of gift.

There may be many reasons why one with drive has no inclination toward professionalism. It may be a matter of temperament – art serves no master. It may be a matter of principle – art is not something to be bought and sold; it demands to be experienced. It may be a matter of personal preference – I do this to relax; I couldn’t possibly relax if my livelihood depended on it. It may be a matter of self-deprecation – I’m not good enough to do this for a living. Or it may be one of an infinite variety of reasons. Samuel Clemens (i.e. Mark Twain) argued in Tom Sawyer that the very fact of an art being a profession diminishes drive.

There are in fact many elements which work against drive. People tend to have a poor estimation of their abilities, and claim incompetence – a very tall hurdle for those with little to no gift while they work to accumulate basic experience. People can temporarily subdue the drive through consumption – vicariously enjoying the creation of others. People can be discouraged by difficulty progressing. Of they can just be having a very bad day. There are easily as many excuses to not create as there are to create.

In the end, however, there remains the fact that people are inclined to create. The experience of creation, particularly seeing the finished creation, and the impact thereof, really cannot be compared to any other experience. The greater the art, the greater the internal sense of fulfillment, especially if the quality meets or exceeds the author’s personal standards.

Video Games as Toys


The lead designer of Portal says that she makes toys. This shocks many in the gaming community, especially in the “Games are Art” movement. It shouldn’t.

A toy is not a bad thing. Dictionaries tend to define toys as “for children.” The Wikipedia article takes a more balanced, less dismissive approach.  The key phrase as follows: ” Adults use toys and play to form and strengthen social bonds, teach, remember and reinforce lessons from their youth, discover their identity, exercise their minds and bodies, explore relationships, practice skills, and decorate their living spaces.”

When you state it like that, it sounds dignified, and a downright serious intellectual activity. Because that’s exactly what it is. All men have toys, whether they’re Lego, dolls, action figures, board games, pencil and paper RPGs, electronic devices, power tools, automobiles, gardens, or whatever else.  The experience of art is in the interpretation, and it is natural and human to interpret something as a toy if that is how you use it.

There is no shame in enjoying toys.  There is no shame in publicly embracing toys. People claim that there’s something wrong with the adult who plays Dungeons & Dragons or Super Mario Bros. or hundreds of other diversions, yet no one is called a “man-child” for playing Words With Friends or Angry Birds – at worst it is considered unprofessional.

More importantly, video games, generally speaking, should be toys.  Portal was called a toy by the designer, and it is a very appropriate appellation. People enjoyed the story and jokes, but it was the toy element that truly resonated.  Even now, people toy with the idea of “What if you had a portal gun in [situation]?” This also indicates the tepid reception of Portal II in many circles. In Portal II, you got some new toys, but people felt too limited by their main toy. The narrative and writing was as strong as ever, perhaps stronger than the original, but, being less of a toy, people loved it just a little bit less.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered a milestone for the “Games are Art” crowd, as it’s achieved a solid, if delayed, reception.  Pretty much universally, the game is hailed as an example of video games being art. While I certainly concede the atmosphere and world building and all those other artistic elements, my most memorable experiences had little to do with the overarching themes or nuances.  What I remember most from the game are the epic set pieces that were the Colossus fights – puzzles combined with more traditional platformer challenges, all on such a large scale.  The one that particularly stands out is the fight against the flying colossus over the lake. To taunt the beast, grab hold, and take it down in flight as it struggles to shake you off – there really hasn’t been a similar experience in any game I’ve played.  But this experience has little to nothing to do with the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus.  Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent game because it is artistically relevant, but it is also an excellent toy. If it weren’t a good toy, it would likely have been forgotten, or at best a footnote.

Of course, video games don’t need to be toys, and they can still be good and memorable if they aren’t toys. Shadow of the Colossus needed to be a toy, because the theme was focused on the subversion of the toy. The danger, however, lies in the fact that a game that is not a toy can begin to feel like work. One of the big buzzwords right now is “gamification.” Gamification is applying the “toy” functionality/interpretation to something that is not normally considered a toy. If gamification is applying “toy” to “non-toy,” then an attempt to make a video game that is art without being toy is essentially an application of de-gamification. The key value of gamification is to provide an incentive to engage.  To what end should we attempt de-gamification? Is it a push for legitimacy? If so, it is no more meritorious than an attempt to impress the “cool kids.” As any uncool kid knows, attempts to impress the cool kids often fail miserably, and alienate the people most willing to accept you as you are.  If the “Games are Art” people can’t even learn the lessons of a Saturday Morning cartoon, how do they expect to have anything to say, much less anyone to listen to them?

There may be a reason for a non-toy video game.  Arguably, there are already several worthwhile non-toy games.  In each case, however, they likely answer the question “to what end?”  The natural function of the game is “toy.” If you remove that interpretation, you should have something compelling to put in its place.

Narrative Structures

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Time for a change in pace.  Narrative Structure, in the sense used in this post, refers to the flow and progression of the story.  Arguably, the narrative structures mentioned here are more prominent in interactive media, but they can just as easily appear in books or movies.


This is the simplest and most straightforward structure.  You start at the beginning and continue forward until you reach the end.  Strictly speaking, Linear structure tends to be the superstructure of any narrative, but there are rare cases where there is no sense of Linearity.


This is a slight variation from Linear.  In a Branching narrative, there are side paths, but they return to the core narrative while retaining the status quo.  A filler arc in a television show is a Branch.  A scene in a movie that provides no contribution to the plot is a Branch.  In dungeons in RPGs, Branches manifest as “go the wrong way for more treasure.”  Branches aren’t always bad; they aren’t always detrimental to the narrative.  For example, a Branch can provide characterization of other insights into the narrative or interpretation, without actually pushing the plot forward.  Arguably, Citizen Kane‘s narrative is a reporter trying to figure out what “Rosebud” means.  90% of the movie, then, is Branches.


Another variation of linear.  Multipath is like branching, but the branch rejoins the story at a different point than the departure, allowing two routes through the narrative.  This is easier to see in video games, where one path takes you over the mountain, while another takes you through the mountain.  At the end, you’ve arrived at the same point, but you took different routes to get there.  Super Mario Bros. is on the surface Linear, but secret pipes, beanstalks, and warp zones reveal the hidden Multipath aspects.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)(AKA The Lost Levels)  added reverse warp zones, making the narrative recursive, but still a Linear Multipath.


Unlike Branching and Multipath, a Forking structure never returns to the source.  Most Choose Your Own Adventure books used a Forking structure, with the occasional instance of Multipath.  The movie Clue was presented in theatres in a forking structure, with three different endings, randomly chosen.  The DVD version presents a choice at the beginning, between the theatrical random ending and the VHS all three endings.  Therefore, the DVD version actually has two Forks – one at the beginning, and one at the end of the former path.


A Network is, in its purest sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Linear structure.  In a Networked narrative, there are several Nodes, or points of interest, and paths between the Nodes, connecting many – but not necessarily all – to each other.  There are few examples of a pure Network narrative, but, in fairness, there are few pure Linear narratives as well.  Memento is probably an effective example of a Network used in a non-interactive medium – there are several points of interest throughout the presentation, but they are not presented in a Linear manner.

Gated Network

A Gated Network is essentially a Network with a mild Linear superstructure.  There is something necessary to progress the plot forward, but there is no narrative compulsion to achieve that goal at any specific point.  The Legend of Zelda is a simple Gated Network – you have freedom of movement among nodes, but need some items to bypass obstacles (soft gates), and need to complete narrative goals to reach the final dungeon (hard gate).

Putting it Together

Any specific example is likely to use many of these structures in a nested format.  The Megaman series is a gated network with a hard gate (defeat all the robot masters) leading to a linear second half.  In the earlier games, the Network is a Linear Network, as each node can only be visited (completed) once.  Each node within the Network (as well as the post-Network levels) is itself a Linear narrative, generally with Branches and the occasional Multipath.  Later games even experiemented with Forks in the sub-nodes.  Mass Effect 2 presents Linear interpersonal narratives with Forks.  Each conversation is a combination of Linear Multipath and Linear Fork, as well.  This is all encapsulated in a Gated Network which is seeded with a few linear nodes.  And event hat comes off as an oversimplification.

Flags and Variables

Flags and Variables are not inherent to narrative structure, and largely only present in video games from a technical standpoint, but they are necessary in understanding and dissecting a narrative structure.  Branches, Forks, and Multipaths are occasionally presented as a direct choice, but they are often the result of flags and variables set by previous choices.  Flags are a binary value – it is true or it is false.  When an event triggers a flag, the flag is set to “true” or “false” or, in some circumstances, is toggled (i.e. switched from true to false or vice-versa).  Flags occasionally appeared in Choose Your Own Adventure books that included Branches or Multipath – “If you have the MacGuffin, turn to page 20.  If you do not have the MacGuffin, turn to page 127.”  Variables work in roughly the same way as Flags (i.e. as logic gates), but are incremental.  When an event triggers a variable, a number is added to or subtracted from the stored variable.  In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they would be presented as “If you have five or more vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 63.  If you have fewer than four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 16.  If you have four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 140.”  Returning to the Mass Effect 2 example, certain conversation options require a minimum variable (generally Paragon or Renegade value).  After the loyalty arc for any potential romantic partners, the “Interested in Romance” flag for that individual is set to “true,” and remains true until the wrong thing is said.  When the “Interested in Romance” flag is false, the characters have much less to say, though they may have new dialog due to the “loyalty” flag being true.

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