Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Hi, Mom!

August 23, 2008

I never imagined this would happen, but I guess it’s old news that everything is on YouTube these days. You kids with your digital video!

B-Movie Boardgames

May 28, 2008

In the late 70s and early 80s, American boardgame design was going through a bit of a renaissance. Commercial wargames — attempts to recreate historical military operations on the tabletop — had been in existence since the early 1950s, and in the intervening years the field attracted more and more talent, expanding the boundaries of design and content. What had started as a hobby with a very limited scope — the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars — began to bend and break and blossom with possibility. Simulated conflict was still the mainstay, but at the height of their productivity (circa 1980), great publishers like Avalon Hill, Simulation Publications, Inc., and Game Designers’ Workshop were turning out games about aliens invading from Andromeda, giant monsters destroying cities in Michigan, pirates a-plundering in the Caribbean, and innumerable other non-traditional subjects. Among my favorite games from this era was GDW’s Asteroid, a game in which one player played the part of an evil mad scientist, while the other player controlled a motley crew of heroes determined to foil his dastardly plans. Said plans consisted of piloting a rogue asteroid, in the depths of which the scientist had carved out his secret base, on to a collision course with Earth. The heroes had to land on the asteroid, invade the base, defeat the killer robots patrolling the subterranean corridors, and initiate a self-destruct mechanism that would save the day. Asteroid is a perfect example of how game designers of this era began to cherry pick ideas from B-movies and pulp novels.

In 1961, a man named Robert Yaquinto started a commercial printing business out of his garage in Dallas, Texas. Over the next 17 years he got heavily involved in wargaming, and by 1979 had seen the hobby grow enough to decide it was time to try his hand at the publishing end. He hired two experienced designers, J. Stephen Peek and the prolific S. Craig Taylor, to create a catalog of games from scratch.

Starting a game publishing venture from within a successful printing company put Yaquinto and his designers in the perfect position to innovate and ensure high production values. The result of this interrelationship was a roster of forty-six games, published between 1979 and 1984. Although many of these were formatted and sold like traditional wargames, the Yaquinto brand is most strongly identified with its Album Games, a series of twenty-two titles aimed at expanding the hobby’s audience through greater accessibility, more diverse subject matter, and appealing package design.

An Album Game was 12″ x 12″, about the same size as an LP (“long-playing” album, for the kids). When opened, the inner surface served as the board(s) and the counters (cardboard playing pieces) were stored in what would have been the record sleeve.

M

The cover and interior mapboard for Swashbuckler (1980), which simulated shipboard battles and tavern brawls, complete with throwing flagons of ale, swinging from chandeliers, and yanking the rug out from under the opposition.

The breadth of subject matter covered by the Album Games was remarkable, and a good illustration of the flood of new ideas that was changing the face of the boardgaming subculture at the time. Here’s a sample of titles from Yaquinto’s catalog:

MM

MM

MM

The Roaring 20s pits mobsters against the police commissioner and each other, as they manage speakeasies, rob banks, and put out hits on one another; Adventurer is a science fiction version of Swashbuckler, with small-scale scuffles taking place aboard starships or in planetside cantinas; Apache has the white man bringing civilization to the American West via the railroad, while the indigenous tribes raid and pillage in return. More details of any of these games can be found by clicking on the above thumbnails.

The BoardGameGeek rating system puts most of the Album Games at around 5 on a 10-point scale. I haven’t played one since 1986, but that feels about right, even for the time. The thing that made these games exciting to play wasn’t their rules — it was their themes, and the production values that reinforced those themes. Avalon Hill, SPI, and West End Games were all putting out products at least as diverse, and more playable, but Yaquinto knew how to put together an appealing package.

What the explosion in game themes demonstrated to me then was that boardgames could be about anything. They didn’t have to be dry re-enactments of historical battles simulated in detail, or boring exercises in die rolling like Monopoly. With some imagination and clever abstraction, a game designer could allow players to enter the worlds of Sinbad the Sailor, Sherlock Holmes, or Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The equivalent experience in comics for me was discovering Read Yourself Raw while I was in art school.

I still believe that boardgames can be about anything, in the same way that a comic book can be about anything; it’s just another medium through which to process some part of the world, or one’s imagination. I have notebooks full of ideas, from an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice to a globe-trotting pulp adventure, and one day I hope to see some of them through to fruition. In the mean time, I keep an eye out for games that push the boundaries of theme in new and interesting ways.

The Power of Suggestion [2]

May 22, 2008

Addendum to my previous post about graphics and imagination, perhaps only funny to those among us who are familiar with “roguelike” games. Peruse other installments of Time Stone’s Strafe Left here. The strip appears regularly in PC Gamer UK, and if you don’t get many of the jokes, don’t feel bad — it just means you’ve had better things to do than immerse yourself in video game culture.

The Power of Suggestion [1]

May 7, 2008

One of the great tools at the disposal of the cartoonist is the ability to imply much by showing little. A few marks under characters’ feet suggest pavement; throw a jagged black shape in the background of a panel, and voilà — cityscape. The thing I like about suggesting something over showing it in detail is that it invites the reader to complete the picture. The same effect occurs across all media, really, with comics toward the cooler end of the McLuhan thermometer and movies toward the hotter end. All visual information demands a basic degree of interactivity, but some asks for more than others, and in the continuum that runs from a person’s actual physical experience (where all senses are engaged in maximum detail by the real world) to the open invitation of a blank page (where nothing is provided), the imagination is stimulated more by suggestion and less by exacting description.

Generally speaking, as a work of art “heats up” and provides more sensory stimuli, at least two things begin to diminish: 1) the inventiveness of the medium’s practitioners, who have fewer constraints to work within; and 2) the degree of imaginative interaction the work invites from its audience. For instance, as sound and color were introduced into film, certain previously necessary devices (broad physical acting, intertitles) became obsolete, and viewers no longer needed to imagine what Gloria Swanson‘s voice sounded like.

With every step “forward” in any area of human endeavor, something is gained, and with rare exception there is a concomitant loss. I feel this keenly in video game design, as the cutting edge of graphics slices into the future, opening up new and ever hotter arteries of experience for the player, but leaving imagination dead in its wake. Consider an informal visual chronology of computer game graphics:

Left to right, top to bottom: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Rogue (1980), Lords of Midnight (1984), Master of Magic (1993), Age of Wonders 2 (2002), Battle for Middle-Earth (2004).

The earliest text adventures used words alone to suggest the game world, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in all of the details. Later, the ideogrammatic use of ASCII characters made possible things like the dungeon floorplans of Rogue to be clearly delineated, but that “*” that represented a pile of gold was still something to conjure with. With each step in the progression from limited-palette, low-resolution graphics to high-res 3D models and particle effects — with each step toward a more photorealistic rendering of the game environment — the player has to do that much less creative work, that much less imaginative interaction.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad progression. The trade-off is that we get games that are more immediately, actively immersive, as opposed to ones in which we have to work to immerse ourselves. Something is lost, but something else is certainly gained. Even as better and better graphics technology is erasing the need for an active imagination in playing video games, increasingly sophisticated game design has made possible a range of consequential (as opposed to imaginative) interactivity that is unparalleled in any other medium. Plus, I’d hazard that most people who play video games don’t want to use their imaginations — they just want a fun ride¹. The more bells and whistles the better.

Each of us probably have our own sweet spot between abstraction and representation, a point where our imagination is fired up by the power of suggestion, but would be extinguished by too much more information. In video games, that sweet spot for me is best exemplified by Steve Barcia‘s classic Master of Magic, specifically on the tactical combat screen:

The average “figure” or unit graphic in MoM is 12 pixels high by 7 pixels wide, and the potential of that tiny canvas (+256 possible colors) is maximized to artfully evoke specific details of each of the 86 unit types available in the game². In the above screenshot, the lizardman shamans carry staves and wear some sort of broad golden collar, but the player can still read a lot into those combinations of a few colored squares. When I play MoM, my imagination fills in the details and I find myself picturing the collars as having a sort of Aztec design.

By comparison, the units in Battle for Middle Earth leave little to the mind’s eye:

Nothing about these units is suggested — everything is described. Beyond rounding off the occasional sharp-edged polygon, the player’s imagination just has to sit back and relax.

In comics, my sweet spot is probably best exemplified by the work of Hergé or Chester Brown:

The level of detail that both of these artists bring to their work is just right for me. They draw characters and environments with enough specificity to create a believable, grounded world, but leave enough open for a sense of mobility and life to be triggered by the reader’s participation. Generally speaking, too little visual information in a comic makes me believe less in the world of that story. And too much (something I struggle against in my own work) can rob a comic of whatever vitality it might otherwise possess.

Bringing this questionable ramble back to film, last year it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will be turning the adventures of Tintin into at least three new motion pictures. In the cinematic equivalent of the graphic progression noted above, these films will be created using motion-capture and state-of-the-art CGI.

Jackson said WETA will stay true to Remi’s original designs in bringing the cast of Tintin to life, but that the characters won’t look cartoonish.

“Instead,” Jackson said, “we’re making them look photorealistic; the fibers of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people — but real Herge people!”

I will of course reserve judgment until we see the final results, but I couldn’t help but shudder when I read this bit of news. Although some Tintinologists might delight in the prospect, When I can count the threads in Captain Haddock’s sweater, some small part of me will die.

NOTES

¹ There are, of course, innumerable scattered subcultural pockets wherein “antiquated” forms of electronic gaming continue to thrive and grow, encompassing everything from interactive fiction to roguelikes to abandonware.

² Incidentally, the art director of Master of Magic, and several other Simtex games, was Jeff Dee, who will be familiar to any fan of tabletop RPGs from the late 70s and early 80s.

The Tramp

May 4, 2008

The impression left on me (and hundreds of thousands of my geeky peers) by Dungeons & Dragons was indelible. Ironically — given all of the Satanist paranoia at the time — D&D was my salvation from the soulless suburban wasteland where I spent my teen years; it not only inspired my friends and me to heights of imaginative collaboration, it empowered me to be a creative person. Without Gygax & Arneson’s strange vision, and the love of games and improvisational storytelling that it instilled, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the cartoonist I am today (for whatever that’s worth).

Perhaps the most indelible aspect of all those books and modules was the art. Every image in the AD&D publications that I owned in the 1980s — especially the Monster Manual — is etched into my brain. In a fit of nostalgia after Gygax’s recent passing, having not looked at the TSR library since I left home for college in 1987, I bought all the old rule books off of Ebay so I could run some of my students through the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Leafing through these tomes was like looking through an old yearbook filled with the scrawlings of a madman: page after page of familiar faces surrounded by Gygax’s strangely antique prose and table after possibility-laden table. Those familiar faces, though — the Owl Bear, the Mind Flayer, the Catoblepas — are the things that have never left my head. Whether it’s one of the amateurish, Peechee-worthy dragon portraits of David C. Sutherland III, or the definitive renditions of Cthulhu creatures by Erol Otus, the summary of Armor Class, Hit Dice, and No. Appearing might as well read, “Have a great summer vacation! K.I.T.!” I love all of these old drawings, without exception, and didn’t realize how much I had missed them.

I love them all, but some more than others, and the best ones are all by the same guy. David A. Trampier, who signed his drawings either “DAT” or “Tramp,” was far and away the most talented of all of the artists who ever worked for TSR. His pen-and-ink drawings were fully-formed and beautifully precise, as if the imaginary creatures and scenes they depicted had a long visual history, when in fact they were being realized on paper for the first time by his hand. Sure, there had been folk renditions of the Rakshasa, the Ki-Rin, and the Minotaur, but in Trampier’s hands they took on an archetypal solidity, and he made real such fits of Gary Gygax’s imagination as the Ankheg, Black Pudding, Intellect Devourer, and Thought Eater. Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater? Gary, do we really need two monsters that dine on psychic energy? Well, if the Tramp is drawing them I’m not going to complain, especially if one is a quadrupedal glowing brain and the other is “a sickly gray, skeletal-bodied, enormous headed platypus to those who are able to observe it.” Thank you, David Trampier, for being able to observe it.

Left to right: Basilisk, Wererats, Medusa, Fire Giant (click for larger image).

Trampier dropped out of the gaming scene in 1988, an event marked by the abrupt halt of “Wormy,” the beloved comic he drew for Dragon magazine. Payments sent to his last known residence were returned unopened, and further investigation revealed that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Some presumed him dead, but the great game designer and cartoonist Tom Wham, Trampier’s brother-in-law, believed him to be alive and well and living somewhere in Illinois.

The above photo is from a February 15, 2002 article in the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern illinois State University. Even without the confirmation of Gygax and Wham, who say that the man pictured is in fact the Tramp, you can tell it’s him: he looks just like one of his drawings. After the article ran, people began tracking him down, but he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone. For whatever reason, he left the gaming world behind and now wants nothing to do with it, which somehow makes me respect him even more.

You probably don’t remember me, but I was the guy who pored over your drawings between classes in the quad, lying on the grass behind my best friend Eric’s house during summer vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep because my imagination was running wild with the possibility of imaginary worlds. Thanks for the memories, Tramp.

Browser of the Living Dead

April 30, 2008

Zombies in popular culture will not die. Like victims of the contagion of undeath, the zombie meme has been spreading and muitiplying since the first mass-media seed was planted, in 1968. Only in the past ten years has it begun to achieve the critical mass necessary to its inevitable triumph. Zombie movies, video games, and books like the great oral history World War Z are eating our brains at a greater rate than ever before.

Although there has been no shortage of attempts, my idea of the perfect zombie video game — one that captures what I consider the essential elements of the genre* — has yet to be made. Last year the boardgame world was blessed/damned with the publication of Last Night on Earth, which pretty much nailed it (or shot it in the head, if you prefer), but from where I sit behind my barricade, a truly satisfying digital interpretation remains unmade. There are a lot of fun, well-made zombie video games lining the shelves of looted Gamestops in abandoned shopping malls across the country, but none of them has dragged me to my doom in quite the way I really want to go (though I have high hopes for Left4Dead).

That being said, if you’re a fan of the genre, there are a few cool browser-based zombie games and widgets out there. Kevan Davis’ Zombie Infection Simulation is a neat little bit of code that makes the undead holocaust seem almost cute; he’s also responsible for Urban Dead, a graphically primitive MMO wherein you can be human or zombie trying to survive/cannibalize in the fictional town of Malton. While Mr. Davis’ work may be as tasty as gray matter, the tender, delicious cerebellum of browzombie games to date is The Last Stand 2, an oxymoron of a sequel to The Last Stand. One of the great improvements in the sequel is that the survivors must gather supplies to move from town to town in their quest for salvation, adding a little bit of a meta-game.

*Among my must-have bullet points are randomized locales, the gradual gathering of a motley crew of survivors, and game mechanics that reinforce the group’s social dynamics.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.