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.

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.

Linear

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.

Branching

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.

Multipath

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.

Forking

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.

Network

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.

Inflammatory Content

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The focus of this topic is going to focus on the cross section of art called “media.”  This encompasses books, radio, plays, movies, television shows, video games, sculpture, etc.

By inflammatory content, I refer to certain elements that tend to evoke a strong visceral response – violence, sexuality, foul language, religion, philosophy.  Specifically, whether and when it’s appropriate to include inflammatory content.

If you’ve read my past two posts, you can likely see the direction this is headed.

This is very much a case when you apply the principles of judging art in a concrete sense.  You identify the interpretation/function that most closely identifies with the art, and apply the nobility of the function.

Warren Spector recently made news with his claim that the video games industry is “fetishizing violence.” It’s no secret that video games have a history of violence, and that there have been some particularly violent and graphic games in recent history. The question becomes “to what end?” Is the purpose of the game to revel in the violence and gore? Is the purpose of the violence to carry the narrative? Is the violence simply there to “spice up” the narrative? Mr. Spector seems to imply that we are at best “spicing it up” and at worst revelling in violence in games. In competitive first-person shooters, this is particularly prominent, rewarding the player for headshots and kill streaks.
In all honesty, there is likely an element of all three in many recent games. God of War and Mortal Kombat are particularly severe examples of revelling in violence – the point seems to be to go as over-the-top as possible. On the other hand, we have the Call of Duty Series, or the Mass Effect series. In these games, the violence is primarily to carry the plot – the violence isn’t the raison d’etre, but it is a very real element.  Even in these games, however, there’s a push to use the violence as a stylistic flourish, to emphasise the “cool” factor.

But that’s all from the design side.  I would argue, in fact, that it is the design side that fetishizes violence.  I like to imagine that gamers played God of War because the gameplay was enjoyable.  I realize that many people played Mortal Kombat for the over-the-top violence, but I also note that it’s relatively unpopular among fighting games – it’s sold more on the name and controversy.  A game may get lots of attention for its inflammatory content, but few people seek out games for that reason, and the sales numbers tend to carry it out.  Violence won’t sink video games for the same reason that storytelling won’t elevate them – the core demographic remains focused on gameplay.

So the extreme violence in games doesn’t really add much to a game’s value, and actually devalues the game as it fetishizes violence.  But violence doesn’t necessarily hurt a game.  Half Life is quite violent, but the violence is in the surface of a greater narrative, executed in a manner that enhances the overall story.

Movies work the same way.  Guns and explosions-fests are recognized as cinematic junk food – a low value entertainment, though some argue that it’s actively detrimental to agency and self-actualization – Maslow’s highest hierarchy.  The catch, however, is that much of experience, especially the act of consumption, can eb argued as detrimental to this highest hierarchy.   While this argument seems to make sense, it is absurd.  Maslow’s hierarchy is illustrated as a pyramid for that very reason – you cannot adequately fulfill the higher needs without a base of the lower needs.  While one shouldn’t become absorbed in consumption, it is equally detrimental to neglect your basic needs in the pursuit of self-actualization.  So a little junk food can be okay.  In fact, as it can serve the lower needs, it is in it’s lesser sense a good.

And, of course, this carries over into foul language, sexual content, and all those other sorts of content.  Is it in the service of the greater experience, or is the experience in the service of the content?  In pornography, the entire product is directed toward sexual gratification.  In quite a large section of media, however, sexual content is directed toward a higher purpose – generally progression of the narrative.

And we then return to that third possibility – inserting inflammatory content to “spice it up.”  Generally, this is gratuitous violence, or a gratuitous sex scene, or gratuitous foul language.  In other words, it is unnecessary, and likely detrimental.  Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate “gratuitous” from “contributory,” and there is often a difference of opinion on the matter.  However, the distinction between gratuitous and contributory is the key element in judging the value of such inflammatory insertions.  It is relatively obvious, by comparison, to determine if the inflammatory is in the service of the art, or if the art is in the service of the inflammatory.

The Value of Art

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Taken by itself, my previous post seems to imply that art, and all experience, essentially, is nothing but a subjective matter.  Essentially, it seems to promote a solipsistic understanding of reality, or at least  an unsatisfying Kantian of phenomenological understanding.  Therefore, I’m going to address another important element of art – the intrinsic value.  Without intrinsic value, everything is entirely subjective.  Michael Bay’s movies (generally) cause an enjoyable experience, so they are good.  Applying hedonic calculus, we potentially reach absurdities such as Transformers 2 being objectively better than Casablanca, because more people have had an enjoyable experience from the former.  Similarly, the Big Mac is a greater artistic achievement than the Mona Lisa.

As formerly established, I am using art and author in an extremely broad sense.  “Art” is “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, any (crafted) object.  The author is the person(s) that do the crafting.

The value of the art can be measured on the basis of the function of the art.  The function is – essentially – an interpretation of the art.  The function is generally understood to be the interpretation based on the author’s intent, but this is not necessarily the case.  Art can be directed toward any function, just as it can be interpreted in any manner.  As an interpretation, some functions fit better than others.  This is usually stated as “X is a [value] Y.”  A pillow is a terrible hammer.  Breakfast is an excellent way to start the day.  A coat is a serviceable blanket.   These judgments measure the validity of the interpretation.  For art as it is more generally understood – books, films, painting, sculpture – the function is often more complex, or simply directed to a higher end than basic utility.  They are often understood in terms of catharsis, paths to self-knowledge, or analogies providing context, among many other functions.  This leads us to the second prong of determining the value of art – the nobility of the function.

“Nobility” is a loaded term, but one I feel appropriate for the discussion.  In this case, I associate “nobility” with something I believe to be uncontroversial – Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Essentially, the higher up the hierarchy, the more noble the function.  This nobility functions as a sort of “multiplier” of value.  Something that is nourishing is inherently good, but not as good as something that elevates the soul.  Something that is harmful to the body is not nearly as bad as something that harms the soul.

Applying this nobility, we have a meal set before us.  If the meal is nutritious, it is good, particularly in that one functionality.  If the meal is a still life, it is bad as a source of nutrition, but is of a higher value than the simple meal, as it engages the audience at a higher level.  Following Maslow’s hierarchy, we should not reject the lesser art, as we need nutrition to survive, and we cannot appreciate the more noble needs while the baser remain unmet.

This leads us to where the judgment gets particularly nuanced – art that affects the different hierarchies in variance between the positive and the negative.  If you skip dinner and stay up late to read a book, the experience of the art is bad for you on the baser level, but, for the sake of the argument, it is assumed that the experience of reading the book fulfills more noble needs, creating a net good.  It is acceptable, at the least, to occasionally forego the baser needs for a more noble occupation, though continued neglect of any need is itself bad.

Another example, let us consider the MMO – the Massively Multiplayer Online game.  These games generally encourage factionalism.  On the positive side, you have a kinship with your faction, fostering friendship, even a sense of family, as well as building esteem in your respect for self and others.  But factions also encourage division, and a loss of respect for others.  The value then becomes a question of the function.  If a player plays a MMO to “pwn n00bs,” it is much more likely that, though he likely builds he own self-esteem, it comes at a loss of respect for others.  If, on the other hand, one plays for the sense of camaraderie and competition, he will build up on many levels of needs, with few needs being neglected or harmed (except, of course, those pesky bottom rung needs).

But this then turns from objectivity back to subjectivity, or at least, it appears so.  We then return to the nature of “interpretation.”  You cannot judge art without interpretation, as art cannot be experienced without interpretation.  Michaelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and thousands of other works of great art can be interpreted in a base, prurient sexual manner.  According to art critics, anything vaguely rectangular, triangular, or circular is sexual in character.  A meal can be appreciated for flavor or appearance as easily as nutrition.

So we must judge art in light of a certain function, and make that function clear in our judgment.  Furthermore, it is best to judge art by its most common function (the cultural reception), or perhaps its most fitting functions.  A butane lighter is (generally) a terrible painting tool, but people assume that a terrible butane lighter is one that fails at the most fitting functions of a butane lighter – creating sparks and producing flame.  The nature of this judgment is probably best recognized among film.  Schindler’s List is a terrible feel-good movie, but it is recognized that the function of the movie is catharsis, not feel-good, so people consider it a good movie, not a bad one.

So, in conclusion, the value of art lies in comparing the function (interpretation) to the object, to determine applicability.  Then, after determining the proper function, is should then be judged on its nobility.  A filling meal is good, but not great.  A sublime feast that changes how you look at the world is great.  Junk food may be on balance bad, but entertainment designed to fulfill base desires at the expense of your faith in humanity is terrible.

On Art

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May as well start with an overly pretentious title.  Being overly pretentious can be fun.

I expect to talk a lot about art, seeing as I consume so much of it, so it’s probably best to start with a basic philosophy of how I see art.  For the sake of this discussion, I will use an extremely broad definition of “art.”  Put simply, I am defining “art” as “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, really, any object.  For the sake of simplicity, we will call the crafter(s) the author.

When we talk about art, we talk about one of two things – the actual thing; or the experience of engaging the thing.  Frankly, there’s little to say about the thing – it is what it is.  Much more valuable is understanding the experience of engaging.

Engaging art is, in essence, the lion’s share of our lives, vying against engaging nature and engaging people.  We can break the engaging into two sets of components – the fixed and the malleable.  The fixed elements of the experience are the author’s intent, the interpretation, and the crafted product – the thing.  The malleable elements are reception by the culture and reception by the  individual.

Author’s Intent

When crafting something, the author (this can be an individual or a group) has some sort of reason for making the thing.  There is no such thing as an unmotivated action, especially an action like crafting, which implies some degree of focused intention.  The author does not always know his motivation, yet it exists nonetheless, and the motivation for crafting the art will never change.  there may be different motivations in the course of crafting, but the author’s intent, as a facet which informs the experience, is the whole of all these motivations.

Author’s intent generally includes the intended purpose of the art.  The purpose can be “no purpose” or “to inspire” or even “to aid in manual labor.”  Especially for more involved art, the author’s intent includes the author’s interpretation or the intended meaning of the art.

The author’s intent is the least integral to the experience of engaging the art, even though it is often given significant weight.  As a general rule, the only actual value of the author’s intent is to inform interpretation.  If a man builds a house, and it is the worst house you’ve ever seen, you are likely to judge the man incompetent, because it is assumed that the author of the house intends for the house to be good.  However, if the author intended the house to be bad, and you are aware that this was the intent of the author, you will look at the negative features of the house with the understanding that these features were intentional.  Knowing this, even if you don’t care for the idea of constructing bad houses, the same negative features that used to mark the man as incompetent now indicate the depth of his knowledge of house construction.

Interpretation

It is natural to assume that interpretation is a malleable feature of experiencing art.  After all, the interpretation is often formed concurrently with the experience.  However, an interpretation, like the author’s intent, is formed, then remains.  New interpretations can be crafted, but the original interpretation remains.  This is important, because interpretations can be adopted as well as crafted.  You can apply a known interpretation to a work of art as you experience it, and such an interpretation will affect your experience.  To add to complexity, you are then experiencing the interpretation as well, but life simply isn’t complete without some infinite recursion.

The Crafted Product – The Thing

This is, as noted, what is often called art.  In fairness, it is the only constant throughout all experiences.  The author’s intent is rarely known, and likely never fully understood, and interpretations are interchangeable, but the object is the object.  This can be a sentence, a statue, a story, a book, a video game, a hammer, or anything else that was crafted.  As noted, it can even be an interpretation of an art.  Because it is the one common element, it is fair to consider it the focal point of the art experience.  Therefore, it is the one subject to judgement.  The author’s intent can be judged, but the author’s intent generally has no bearing on the merits of the object.  A divine inspiration can result in a crude stick figure.  A selfish malicious act of brutality can result in beauty that moves men to tears.  An interpretation can be judged, but that is because the interpretation itself is art.  You may attempt to judge the malleable aspects, but you may as well be judging the experience itself.  It is good and proper to judge the experience for your personal benefit, but a bad day does not make the art bad, and a good day does not make the art good.

Therefore, we judge the thing.  But there is only so far you can go in this respect – the thing is only a part of the experience, and the experience is that which truly matters.

Cultural Reception

Put simply, the cultural reception is the dominant interpretation of the art by a given culture.  For every cultural interpretation connected to the art, there is an influence on the experience of the individual.  When someone watches Citizen Kane, he is likely to do so with the knowledge that it is “the greatest movie ever made.”  This cultural reception will color his viewing.  He is not watching Citizen Kane from a blank slate, but through the lens of a wider interpretation.  To a practiced individual, the cultural reception can be screened out like any interpretation, but cultural reception, as well as knowledge of any other interpretation, will also influence the final element – personal reception.

Personal Reception

When a person experiences a work of art, he does so in light of his current mental state, his experiences, his memories, his values, and everything that makes him who he is.  At the same time, his experiencing the art changes him, as all experiences do.  It is impossible to truly have the same experience twice, as the first experience is an element present in the second experience, but absent from the first.  There can be extremely similar experiences of art, but never the same.  As this is the person’s very selfhood, this is the most pivotal element in experiencing art.  Arguably, all of the elements other than the object itself can be condensed into the personal reception, as the other elements exert themselves on the self either prior to or during the experience.

A piece of art can be truly terrible from an objective sense and yet resonate with an individual.  The person may even acknowledge the terribleness, but cannot deny the truly positive experience.  This is most obviously perceived through the concept of nostalgia.  Finding out that art experienced in childhood is terrible does not negate the good memories of the experience from childhood.  If the memories and experience are strong enough, a new experience can still be enjoyable – even though the objective elements of the art are abhorrent, they stimulate the good memories of the good experience, and the final experience is itself enjoyable.

 

As stated in the opening, this can apply to pretty much anything.  Using a hammer is an experience of art – looking at a hammer is experiencing art.  A teenager cuddling a ratty old blankie is experiencing art, pleased not necessarily by the quality of the fabric, but the memories of the previous experiences.  The end result – you can do much to understand art, and you can judge the objective quality of art, but there is no such thing as a right or wrong experience of art.