Monday, February 6, 2012

Game Night, Thursday, February 9: Landscape and Videogames

LUIGI's game nights are social events designed to provide an opportunity for undergraduates, grad students, and faculty to come together, play, and discuss games.  Game nights consist of hands-on demonstrations of games, accompanied sometimes with formal presentations, and always with discussion.  They provide outlets for scholars in the U Chicago community to present ideas concerning the socio-cultural, aesthetic, political, and technological dimensions of games, opportunities for designers and players to get together and discuss the medium, and spaces for both seasoned gamers and the uninitiated to come together and play games both beloved and overlooked.

The theme of this week's game night is "Landscape and Videogames."  Notes on games to be played, and general themes that will organize the night, follow below.

The open expanse & the guided tour: 
Staging in Red Dead Redemption and Resistance 3

In many game genres, the handling of space design by developers comes down to finely-tuned issues of game mechanics.  Especially in the age of the online FPS--in which knowledge of any map design imbalance will spread just as quickly as knowledge of any other type of exploit, quickly breaking the game as informed players attempt to eke out the slightest competitive advantage--developers' consideration of space often boils down to a hard look at the placement of spawn points, choke points, and pickups.  Extensive playtesting, as well as more specialized tools such as heatmaps, are essential here.

Games with more specific narrative ambitions require additional considerations when it comes to the designing of spaces.  Certain games, for instance, are required to engender a very specific sense of place in order to claim their generic inheritance.  Although it would be technically accurate to describe Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar North/Rockstar San Diego, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, 2010) simply as an open-world sandbox action-adventure game, any full description of the game would require noting that it is also a late-period Western, set in 1911 along a fictional stretch of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  Likewise, one could serviceably describe Resistance 3 (Insomniac, PlayStation 3, 2011) as a first-person shooter, but it would do the game a disservice to not also mention that it is a post-apocalyptic alternate-history road trip, set in a 1950s U.S. devastated by an alien invasion and terraforming project rather than enjoying postwar prosperity.  In games such as these, so dependent upon landscape design not only to set mood, but more fundamentally to establish genre, the dividing line between the successes of art direction and those of map design is harder to pinpoint than in a game such as, say, Counter-Strike (Valve, PC, 2000).

At this LUIGI game night, we'll be playing sections of each of these games, specifically looking at the strategies each uses to guide the player's attention to events and objects salient to gameplay, plot development, or both.  Red Dead Redemption sells itself on the strength of its open world; in many ways the primary joys of the game consist of little more than the desert, the sky, and a horse.  How does the player's relationship to this landscape change once they are in the middle of the more directed action of specific missions?  How does Rockstar handle the shift between landscape-as-sensual-pleasure and landscape-as-level-design?  And how do the strengths and weaknesses of Rockstar's approach to these elements compare to the more linear approach taken by Insomniac in Resistance 3, which restricts players' access to several of the game's landscapes via on-rail sequences?  What is gained and what is lost in each of these two approaches to introducing the player to a place, and to the actions that occur within it?

Urban spaces as sites of investigation: 
L.A. Noire and Shenue

Following a focus on the desert and rural Americana in Red Dead Redemption and Resistance 3, we'll next be looking at the depiction of urban space in games, specifically in L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, 2011) and Shenmue (Sega AM2, Dreamcast, 1999).  These games share multiple surface similarities:  Both are set in simulated depictions of actual cities (Los Angeles in L.A. Noire, Yokosuka in Shenmue).  Both are primarily structured around detective work (Cole Phelps investigating multiple crimes as he climbs the ranks as a detective in L.A. Noire, vs. Ryo Hazuki engaging in amateur detective work to discover more about his father's murderer in Shenmue).  Both feature long sections without combat, in which each game's unabashed adventure game roots show through--players are required spend long hours engaging in conversation, examining items, and following leads recorded by the player's avatar in a notebook.

However, it is perhaps the differences between these two games' use of urban space in their respective investigations that are the most illuminating.  In one, the city exists primarily as a commute, as a delaying tactic spacing out closed, narratively-salient encounters with select individuals (with the additional possibility of an occasional chase scene).  In the other, the city is fully inhabited, though an excess of interactive possibility tends to sap the momentum of both the gameplay and the narrative.  What can these games tell us about the proper balance between robust simulation and engaging gameplay?  What sorts of antagonisms exist between these two possibilities, and how might they be used productively rather than disjointedly?  And sort of image of the city and its inhabitants does each game promote?

"Landscape and Videogames" Game Night
Thursday, February 9th
Cobb 145 - 7pm-9pm

Suggestions for topics and/or games to be covered in future game nights can be made on this thread of LUIGI's forums (login required).


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