Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

iPhone Development

One of the things I have been able to do during my hiatus from the blogosphere is dipping my toes in the iPool, or the world of iPhone development to the rest of you. A couple of months back I released my first game the not too snappy, but incredibly accurately titled Ben’s somewhat spiffy-looking but ultimately craptastic rock-paper-scissors game(tm). Not exactly the kind of title to set the world on fire* but a suitably sized project to start my, no doubt, prosperous career as a games developer. Winking

I’m already working on no less than two other projects and believe a lot of this blog will be occupied with posts pertaining to this. Not to worry though I will try to attack the matter from a design point of view rather than a technical standpoint. As a taster for the things to come, here’s the game-trailer I made for my first game:

You can read more about it here or even buy it here!

*Why would anyone want to set the world on fire?! Surely that would be arson?!


Games as art revisited

Artistic integrity

As long time readers might remember I’ve blogged about ’Games as art’ once before. In the mind of the general public I think there are very few who immediately recognizes games as a «proper» art-form, although I certainly believe it should be.

One of the «problems» is of course the gaming industry itself. Game-production has become more and more expensive over the years and the financiers are obviously eager to make money from their investments. This has often led to games being overly «commercial» in their subject-matter, something that in this context often means appealing to the young-male demographics, often with hyper-violence and scantly clad women with gravity defying anatomy. The other extreme have been the brightly coloured fluffy-bunny-flower world of «family» games that make Disneyland seem like a post-acopalyptic nightmare.

Look to Japan

Most games probably belong somewhere in-between these extremes and games like Hideki Kamiya's Okami and Kenji Kaido's Shadow of the Colossus should definitely be considered works of art.

Hideki Kamiya’s Okami

Kenji Kaido’s «Shadow of the Colossus»

Toshio Iwai's Electroplankton downright challenges our perception of what a game is. While only mentioning japanese games and designers might seem a bit harsh to my fellow «westerners» I believe the Japanese public simply take the form more seriously than we do here. I find it hard to believe that an american or european publisher could have financed something like Electroplankton.

Toshio Iwai’s Elektroplankton

While the japanese industry is certainly as prone to milk a commercial success as anyone else, it also seems willing to challenge the format and give artists a chance to try out fresh ideas.

The devil is in the details

But I don’t believe the western- games-industry is the only party that deserves blame. I also believe parts of the gaming-community should do some soul-searching, the recent «Diablo-controversy» serves as a perfect example. Diablo and Diablo II were two popular Mac/PC-games developed by Blizzard* (best known for World of Warcraft).

Diablo III - announcement video (trailer)

The two Diablo-games have a huge following and the recent announcement of the upcoming «Diablo III» was cause for celebration among the majority of gamers. Blizzard have a reputation for quality and a lot of people had long given up hope that there would ever be another game in the series. Soon Blizzard demonstrated some early in-game-videos and published the first screen-shots from the game, this is when things started to get silly.

Shit hit the fans

Over night a large group of the fans made their statement known: The game looked «wrong». The argument seemed to be that the graphical style was too close to the «Warcraft»-series and not gloomy enough for this particular group of fans.

Diablo III - in game video

Now, I think critiquing games on their artistic merit is something that should be encouraged, after all this is an important source of debate and deeper understanding of other art-forms. Some of these fans were not satisfied merely letting their feelings be known they actually started petitioning to make Blizzard change the look of the game. To me this is completely ridiculous. Obviously the design-group had already discussed several different options and made the brave decision to move the look of the game in another direction than the previous installments. Now, you might disagree with this decision - fine. You might critique it - equally fine. But to actively try to change it? This shows a complete and utter disrespect towards the artists responsible.

Now it could be argued that this kind of controversy is something that actually demonstrates that games are evolving as a true art-form. After all controversy has always been a part of other art-forms. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring comes to mind as it caused on outrage on the night of its premiere. I can’t however recall anyone actually demanding the artists to change their artistic direction. If artists always conformed to the status quo how would things ever progress?

After all, if the people who love games can’t respect the artists integrity, how can we ever expect the rest of the world to do so...

* Designers not mentioned due to the sheer number, refer to the linked Wikipedia articles for details.


Games - is there a greater point?


"Super Mario Galaxy!" The jolly voice of the grand-old-man of game-characters always brings a smile to my face. The game with the same name has proven to be one of the best gaming-experiences I've ever had. Now, Mario has always been about gaming with a capital G. The latest iteration is an incredible collection of creative playfullness when it comes to game-mechanics and I'm thrilled with how the developers at Nintendo have managed to constantly surprise me with new ways to play the game without ever breaking the internal logics. As a "game for the fun of it" this is about as good as it gets.

But can games be more than pure entertainment? And should they be more? Now, in some respects they already are. Improved eye to hand coordination is a well known positive effect and a recent study from the University of Toronto indicates improved spatial skills from gaming as well. But this is not what I'm looking for. I'm awaiting the moment where games can truly be considered great art. Now "art" is a fairly elusive subject, I know. The "certified-art" stamp on it's own isn't necessarily worth a lot. Obviously games already have a lot of artistic elements about them, but I'm still awaiting that one clearly defined moment where a game changes our understanding of society.

Most(?) people have probably had experiences with art that have changed their outlook on life and/or society. Perhaps a book, a film, a painting or any of the other clearly defined artforms. Even more impressively a handfull of artworks can actually be said to have transformed society itself. But a game? I've had my share of "wow this is great"-experiences but none that could be said to have changed my outlook on the world. How often do games put you in a truly moral dilema? I believe part of the problem comes from the nature of games. You play to win. People don't care why they have to kill the aliens as long as the action provides the necessary rush. I am not requesting optional paths for the player to choose in mechanical fashion. No, it could be as simple as changing the perceived reality a bit during the span of a game. What if you start out as a butch alien-killer only to find out that the aliens you have been killing are friendly creatures with families. This might seem cruel but if games never provokes us to think like this they'll for always be the funny, but shallow, cousin of the art-family.

Hopefully I'll be able to experience the La Guernica of gaming in my lifetime...

* Yes I know there are female gamers as well, it's just the way I write...


"A Theory of Fun"


Don't judge a book by its cover...

As some of you know games are one of my many interests. Now, I really don't play that much anymore (it's true honey!) but I still enjoy playing every now and then. My interest in games as a media far exceeds the time I spend actually playing them though. I was therefore quick to order Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" when I came across it at Amazon.

Mr. Koster is a game designer and has worked on both Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online. His credentials, as well as the title of the book, hinted towards an interesting read. Luckily the hints were right as the book is well paced and a offered a pleasant journey. The author's emotional anecdotes from his family made it easy to connect with the text.

Unfortunately the book is somewhat let down by the presentation. Mr. Koster have decided to illustrate the book himself and while drawings are functional they border on helpless from an aestethic point-of-view. Furthermore the whole layout of the book feels more like an advanced hobby-project than something a publisher should let slip out the door. You might argue that it's content, not presentation, that matters but the content looses a lot of credibility when presented like this. The credibility is further harmed when the author far too quickly brushes over research and studies that's supposed to support his ideas. As Mr. Koster seems reluctant to give away much detail about these studies the sceptic in me is awaken. The result is that even a layman like myself is not entirely convinced despite the obvious intellect displayed through the text. It's a sad irony that a man that insists that his own craft has the potential become "art" has not bothered to hire a decent illustrator. Fortunately this does not make this is a bad book by any means. Despite my reservations, Mr. Koster's sense of humor even manages to transcend the poorly executed visuals occasionally.


...or by its illustrations.

So, should you buy it? Well, I would not recommend it to everyone. It is at it's best a fascinating journey into one man's ideas about games as a medium and where it is/should be going. The book contains a lot of food for thought and I already feel a blog-post about some of these thoughts trying to break free. I am personally pleased to have it in my collection. So, not a must-buy then. But, if you have a more than fleeting interest in games and the night-stand is currently a book short you could do a lot worse than getting a copy of "A Theory of Fun"...