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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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Open Worlds- An Introduction

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Open Worlds- An Introduction

We play games in an ever growing world. I mean that literally, in the sense that there are more people playing video games now than ever before, but also in the sense that worlds we play games in are growing. Expanding to ever greater horizons. 

Sometimes, it's because they do incredible new things, shattering our perceptions of what games can be and how they can play. Those are the special games, the one's we'll remember in years, even decades. Often times though, games will go for a more obvious solution to the innovation problem- they get bigger.

Last year, Metal Gear Solid was announced as going open world, so were Mirror's Edge, The Witcher, even Zelda went open world with Link Between Worlds. Every new AAA game announced that isn't a first person shooter is probably either an open world game, or features some open world mechanics. Open worlds are pretty much where it's at these days. Yet, we don't often see a ton of innovation on that concept. Grand Theft Auto is the same core game that it's been since GTA III, Assasin's Creed's solution to improving its open world was to make it bigger and pull a Wind Waker by taking you to the seas. Our worlds are getting bigger, but not necessarily better in any tangible way. 

Meanwhile, games in the indie space don't tackle the open world nearly as much as their AAA counterparts. Is it a resource thing? Do they not want to follow the trends set forth by the mainstream industry? Retro City Rampage, an NES-styled take on Grand Theft Auto gameplay took years to make, and didn't really set the world on fire. Even Minecraft, which is technically open world, isn't really played for that aspect. The upcoming No Man's Sky looks absolutely fascinating, but, like Minecraft, it's open world is procedurally generated, making it a pretty different take on the norm. Is that the future of open worlds? Co-opting rogue-like tropes and appealing them to a wider audience?

In a nutshell, what is the future of open worlds? Are they the most stagnant genre in our medium of murder simulators? Or are they, like their name implies, open to changes that we can't even imagine yet? 

Let's get lost. 

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

Games can’t have sex in them. Sure, Mass Effect can insinuate sex and cut to black, and God of War can feature a topless lady or two, but when it comes to a realistic, mature depiction of sex, major publishers and the ESRB get skittish.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Full frontal, uncensored nudity will get you slapped with an AO rating. Adults only, 17 and up, the video game equivalent of movie’s NC17. It’s been described as the kiss of death for any game that gets it, since none of the console manufacturers let AO games on their machines, and many brick and mortar stores refuse to stock them as well. Games that get the dreaded AO are often resubmitted with edits and censors to bring them down to an R, just because they’d never sell otherwise. The only console games rated AO are Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was re-rated after the hot coffee scandal, and re-re-rated after a patch, and Thrill Kill, which was never released. Everything else is sleazy PC games like Riana Rouge, and Wet: The Sexy Empire.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

So PC is where sexy games thrive, not just in North America, but all over the world. While North Americans got Sierra’s Soft Porn Adventure in 1981, Japan was hot on our tail just a year later, with Koei’s Night Life, a PC-8801 game that birthed the eroge (EROtic + GamE) genre. Interestingly, Night Life wasn’t meant for single dudes; it was marketed towards couples, with a catalog of sex positions to try out and a schedule for tracking a woman’s period. It might seem weird that Koei was at the fore of the sex game industry, but other Japanese publishers jumped on that boat immediately. Square, Enix and Nihon Falcom all published early eroge in the 80s. In 1986, a company called Macadamia Soft released 177, a game named after the Japanese legal code for rape, wherein the layer character did some pretty horrible things. The controversy made it all the way to the Japanese diet, and cooled eroge publishing for a time, until developers banded together to put 18+ stickers on all their games, a practice that still exists in Japan to this day.

Not to be beat, American developer Mystique upped the ante, releasing the infamous Atari 2600 “porn games” Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and Beat ‘Em and ‘Eat Em in 1982. All three are renowned for being generally awful, amazingly offensive, and for being punchlines that come up whenever sex and games are mentioned in the same breath. Mystique vanished in 1983, another victim of the video game market crash, and was replaced by Playaround, who went on to release a handful of adult-themed games, though impressively, each of Playaround’s games had two modes, one intended for men, and the other for women. Of course, they were aimed towards straight men and women, but still, a fairly forward thinking move from a company who almost released a role-reversed version of Custer’s Revenge.

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

After that, Japan started delving deeper into new erotic genres. ASCII made Chaos Angels, an erotic RPG, in the 90s, Kaneko modified Qix, Taito’s tile-revealing puzzle game and put pictures of women in various states of undress under the tiles, making Gals Panic. Japanese developers were, and are, fantastic with names. Meanwhile, America was seeing tamer games like Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, which featured no nudity, but strong sexual themes. It was definitely made for adults, with lots of sexual references and dirty jokes, but it rarely gets any more mature than, say, Family Guy. Even so, retailers refused to stock Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra employees threatened to quit over the game, and Sierra received massive amounts of hate mail.

Dating sims and erotic visual novels dominate Japanese PC games in a way we don’t see here. Sex is just a fact of games there, while in North America, even Leisure Suit Larry’s tame, 14A approach to sexuality was cause for uproar. Of course, eroge have their own set of issues, like the growing number of underage, or loli, characters being featured, which has been cracked down on by the Japanese Diet, but that seems like a fairly reasonable thing for the media to get up in arms about. Either way, both in the East and West, sex and games mostly meet on PC.

Once CD-ROM games picked up, and the multimedia craze of the late 90s got into swing, full motion video became a natural fit for western erotic games. Black Dragon’s Riana Rouge, one of the few AO-rated games, featured a Playboy Playmate in the starring role, with stunning, 1996-quality video encoding to make sure you couldn’t see very much of the uncensored material anyway.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

These days however, porn games in the west tend to fly under the radar They’re low budget productions that rarely find wide distribution or popularity. Bonetown, a 2008, download-only PC game from before being a download-only PC game was cool, is known almost exclusively as a punchline, just like Mystique’s games. But that’s pretty much where erotic games end in the West. Bioware continues to put romance options and sexless sex scenes in their games, and modders will never cease striping the clothes off of any character who happens to be in a PC game, and that’s about it. There’s also Second Life, which, pretty much caters to any kind of sexual desire or fetish you can think of. However, all of the sex and sexual associations we attribute to Second Life are exclusively fan contributions. People use Second Life as a way to live out certain sexual fantasies at times, and, as far as I can tell, it seems to be doing a much better job of it than any other game on the market, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended for that purpose.

Japan continues to have erotic games, mostly in the visual novel genre at this point though. Mirroring the trend of recent adult-themed interactive fiction games, those developers seem to have found that it’s easier to create the illusion of a sexual encounter with drawings rather than 3D models, and words rather than janky penis controls. Sex simulators are mostly the realm of games like the controversial RapeLay, which, for all of its truly disgusting aspects, also happens to be a pretty terrible game, and a worse sex simulation. But first and foremost, it is disgusting.

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Otherwise, the highest profile sex game in recent memory was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hot Coffee scene, a sex minigame left in the debug menu that was unlocked by a hacker fan. Of course, after being discovered, Rockstar ruched to correct the issue while being assaulted by a media frenzy about how games were corrupting the innocent children with weird, janky, polygonal sex. After that, it’s mostly indie developers, as well as authors who contribute to the growing pool of adult interactive fiction. As the industry matures, fewer people seem to want to throw their hats into the sexy ring.

People want sex, sure. Sex will always sell, but publishers don’t let it. When it comes to video games, it’s probably more accurate to say that the promise of sex sells, because real sex isn’t something the ESRB, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo want to let you get involved in. Meanwhile, indie developers are working in smaller confines, often in less popular genres, where it would be more difficult to accurately simulate sex in any realistic way. Plus, plenty of people don’t want to be seen as making porn, which is pretty reasonable.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

Of course, sexual themes still work their way into western games. As mentioned multiple times, Bioware insists that all their games have romantic options that culminate in sex scenes, indie developer Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus games include a sex scene or two among the many logs you read, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that didn’t make a dick joke somewhere in it. The promise of sex sells, and it will continue to, because if anyone ever promises more, Fox News will bear down on them like a sack of hammers, just like the did to Rockstar.

Is it a good thing? Well, even in Japan, where sex in games goes unchecked, we get games like RapeLay and 177. In the west, we get exploitative titles like Bonetown and Rianna Rouge. Sex is a great thing, but when it comes to industrializing it, it seems impossible to avoid the sleaze. So next time you see a sex scene in a game, appreciate all the risks it took to get it in there, and also pray that Oculus Rift VR sex games don’t take off anytime soon. You know, just to be safe.


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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

Wining and losing is sort of important to us as a society.

As kids, we’re trained to want to win by pretty much everything we do. Sports and playground games come to mind, but even school teaches us that education can be “failed” and comparing marks to your peers quickly teaches you that you can be better than other people. Whether that’s warranted or not is irrelevant, what matters is that we’re trained to see winning and losing in everyday interactions.

That social gamification can be scary at times. Take a look at self-proclaimed pick-up artists, who see interactions with women as an elaborate game that they try to enter with the the upper hand. Their core gameplay mechanic is trickery, their tools are cruel psychological tricks like negging and hypnosis, and their win condition is sex. It’s gross, but it’s not a logical leap when you’re viewing social interactions like a game. If you think you can win or lose talking to another human being, then you’ll probably end up trying to get the upper hand in whatever way possible.

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Essentially, the seduction community is applying the concept of gamification to meeting women. Gamification was a tech-industry buzzword a few years ago, it’s the idea of applying game-like trappings to something that isn’t really a game. Foursquare turned going to the store into a score-based game. You got points for going to work, so long as you made sure to check in every day. There are more sinister applications of gamification, even within the mostly innocuous Foursquare. In 2010 Starbucks gave unique badges and discounts to Foursquare users who checked in at more than one location or became the mayor of their local store. Essentially, they were  encouraging people to go to Starbucks more often (and likely buy things there) for the sake of getting more points.

Of course, gamification can be used for good too. The popular exercise app Fitocracy gives points and achievements for better workouts and reaching fitness milestones. The interesting thing is though, whether used for good or evil, gamification remains popular. More and more non-game apps on iOS and Android devices are incorporating scoring systems and achievements- things we’ve commonly associated with games. People enjoy being rewarded for what would otherwise be mundane tasks. People like having their progress tracked, they like competing against other people in those mundane tasks.

So why does this matter to video games?

Well, in a way, gamification couldn’t really exist without video games laying the groundwork. Points may come from sports, but the idea of racking up points on your own and checking a leaderboard to see if you’ve bested anyone is a distinctly arcade-like experience. It makes more sense for the average person too. They aren’t actively competing against a particular person, like in football or hockey, they’re passively competing against anyone using the same service as they are, like the high score screen in Pac-Man.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Video games provided the first opportunity for a single player to feel like they’d defeated someone else without that person being there, or even existing. Arcade games had high score boards, and home games had you beating the computer. Even when there wasn’t a player two for you to beat, the computer would always make a worthy opponent, even if it was playing a very different game. Outside of fighting, racing and sports games, where you and your opponent are on the same general playing field, the computer’s job isn’t to compete against you, it’s to get in your way. Your job as the player was to best it. Because we always want to win, even when there’s no real person to beat.

So people like to win. More specifically, they prefer not to win just because they didn’t lose. They want to win because someone else lost. People are competitive by nature in that way, and gamified apps and services prey on that desire to beat someone else. Not that that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s unlikely that anyone’s feelings are being hurt when they lose their position as Mayor of Dairy Queen in Foursquare, and certainly no one is being physically harmed. And in the case of apps like Fitocracy, there’s nothing wrong at all with urging people to be more healthy, and if it takes handing out points and level ups, then so be it.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

But most people don’t win. Ever. They do keep playing though, simply to see the numbers go up and the rewards flow in. The promise of winning is important as a far off goal, but even though social multiplayer is baked in to most gamified apps, people are mostly content with seeing their progress tracked and advanced. Fitocracy isn’t about being healthier than anyone else, it’s about gaining points towards level ups, and going on quests, terms that come from role playing games. It’s a vicious cycle, sure. You do the activity and gain points, then you do it more to gain more points, because getting points feels good. Getting rewarded feels good. You haven’t necessarily won, but you’ve definitely progressed in some way.

If you bring that urge to feel rewarded back into video games, you can shed some light on why winning and losing is usually tied to the defining them. Winning and losing is our most basic way of tracking progress. It’s hard to quantify if you’ve gotten better at something without a goal post, especially abstract things like intelligence, fitness or problem solving. More often than not, that goal post is another human being, maybe because they’re trying to prove the same thing you are, maybe because you get to kill two birds with one stone. You get to feel like you’ve progressed, you get to feel like you’ve defeated someone, two things that have always felt good.  

But video games, and by extension gamified apps, let you track your progress without another person involved. Once again, the computer acts as the person you beat. Except, it isn’t actively competing against you, it’s merely reflecting the old you tracking your progress over that. Foursquare tracks how often you’ve visited somewhere and rewards you when you do it more than before. Fitocracy tracks how much you’ve exercised and how much better you’ve gotten since you started using it. Neither of these have end goals, merely rewards for progression.

So what if we took away the concept of winning? Just keep setting new goals every time the last one was reached, always rewarding the player and promising another reward down the road. There isn’t too much difference between that and what gamified apps do. Do we even need winning or losing anymore? Is the skinner box rewarding you for small steps without and end in sight enough?

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

Games are often defined as needing win or loss states. Of course, what victory or defeat means varies from game to game, but the idea that there’s a player initiated “end” is a key aspect of games, from board games to sports. But more and more, we see games without a traditional ending. Open world and massively multiplayer online games tend not to have an end goal so much as they have various goals you’re always working towards, and more often than not, those goal posts get stretched further back after a while. Winning is promised, but it’s an afterthought. But the games never stop tracking your progress. Your levels, what collectibles you’ve found, how much of the map you've explored, what you’ve crafted, how long you’ve played, dozens and dozens of numbers going up that the computer tells you make you better than you were before.

Whether you consider that a win or not is up to you as a player. You can decide if hitting the level cap and doing every raid in World of Warcraft is winning. The game tracks the progress, you set the goal. Small, personal victories seem to matter more than one grand triumph over an opponent. Judging by how gamification is slowly taking over day-to-day life, people like being tracked and rewarded, that’s game enough for them. Winning might just be the delicious cherry on top.

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