Gears of Womb: Matriarchy, Surrogacy, and Rebirth in Gears 4

Given the series’ notoriously high levels of testosterone, Gears of War 4 is surprisingly focused on matriarchy. Its female characters have always been on equal footing with their male counterparts, but in this installment they are more central to the narrative. Humanity is rebuilding, relying on maternity during a time of renewal and rebirth.

The game makes clear from the outset that this is the basis for the story. We are introduced to JD and Kait as they examine a chrysalis, foreshadowing the Locust’s rebirth via transformed humans. They are on a mission to break into the heart of a human settlement, which they do so by cutting through its maternity wing.

Out With a Bang: More subtly, the first major action you perform in the game is to penetrate an unimpregnable bunker with a grenade. And if I can’t convince you that the tailed bolo grenades resemble spermatozoa, then the rest of this entry may be hard to swallow.

At the core of each human settlement is the Fabricator, an exciting new gameplay mechanism which fits neatly into the overarching theme as it draws comparisons between industry and reproduction. It is basically a black box from which the essential elements of society emerge, consuming raw materials and giving birth to the future. The only thing the Fabricator cannot make is a person. >> CONTINUE >>

Liberty & Death: Positive and Negative Freedom Via Virtual Violence


Whether or not video games are an inherently violent medium, it is not their defining trait. The thing which distinguishes interactive media is that it responds to user input. Of course, I don’t mean for this to be some great insight – this is a very basic definition. And as it is necessarily true that a game responds to the player, simply satisfying this requirement is unsatisfactory.  I contend that we should strive for more, that the most important medium-specific trait of games is that they allow players to act according to their own desires and designs.

Not every genre offers the same degree of freedom, and certain gameplay scenarios place greater or lesser emphasis on the two dimensions of liberty. In essence, positive liberty is the ability to do something and negative liberty is freedom from constraints. Some measure of both is required for a person or player to experience agency.

While it is not necessarily true that you must give up one in exchange for the other, a level is typically structured such that as positive liberty increases, negative liberty decreases. To some extent, this tradeoff is perfectly acceptable and indeed necessary for the game to remain fun – the more power a player is given, the greater the obstacle they should overcome. If you give a player a tank, increasing his positive liberty, you will want to decrease his negative liberty by imposing a greater level of external constraints in the form of more numerous and powerful enemies.

And this approach is appropriate – the goal of a level designer should not be to maximize every dimension of player liberty at all points during the game. Without enemies to overcome, an increased capacity to blow them up is irrelevant. However, these gameplay sequences typically feature further limitations to negative liberty by confining player movement. High-impact, bombastic moments – theoretically periods of greatest interest for the player – tend to unfold along narrow, predetermined paths. >> CONTINUE >>

Control Analogs and Immersive Impact in Assassin’s Creed


For you to feel truly immersed in a game, to have the visceral sense of being in a virtual world and being embodied in an avatar, there has to be a close association between the actions of your character and the input which produces those actions. The wide variety of actions you can perform in an open world game like Assassin’s Creed means that there is a number of different control schemes. The ways in which each of these schemes enable you to execute actions depend on different methods. Combine that with the fact that all of these disparate tasks must be completed using the same input hardware, and not all of these schemes are equally consistent with your actions on screen.

Wampa Stompa: Walking in place is constant reminder that you are not actually moving, but it worked well for the lumbering Rancor in Kinect Star Wars.

Generally speaking, game control schemes do not provide true motion analogs, wherein the player and their avatar are performing the same action (and while there are some successful attempts to create these experiences with new technology, motion controls often work against immersion and precision rather than in favor of it).

To create a more widely applicable definition of a motion analog, let us say that it is any method where you have a similar sense of continuity with the control mechanism as you would with the action you are executing in real life. The closest examples would be actions that are performed using some form of mechanical or electronic interface. Steering a vehicle, for example, especially in flight, is a strong motion analog. >> CONTINUE >>

A Perfect Circle: Nonlinear FPS Levels

A Perfect Circle: Nonlinear Levels in First-Person ShootersI regularly revisit the 1999 Computer Gaming World article “The Next Big Thing: 5 Games That Will Change Gaming,” which heralded the promise of beautiful, open environments in Bungie’s Halo. When my brother got an Xbox two years later, I watched him play through the first level of what appeared to be your typical shooter, mowing down waves of aliens in narrow corridors. When he shortly thereafter crash landed on an ancient ringworld characterized by rolling hills and monolithic alien architecture, and commandeered the series’ now iconic light reconnaissance vehicle to engage enemies on a wide open battlefield, I saw the promise of those early previews fulfilled.

3D Viewport: Even in the fundamentally claustrophobic first level, the developers were able to include little details which made the levels feel like part of a larger world. As they approached the tenth anniversary of its release, Dave Dunn recalled a notable example. “I remember when we were doing the Pillar of Autumn Paul Russell taking just that little bit of extra care to put the window there and then wrap that exterior of the ship around just enough so that you believe you are on a ship. And we did that, I think we tried to do that with all the environments. We tried to make you feel like there’s more here than you can actually go to.”

The sprawling  environments for which the series is known carried over from the earliest phases of its development and its origin as a real-time strategy game, which began to morph into an action game in a continuous open world. But as much as the development of Halo was “a series of happy accidents” that led down a twisting path to its fateful release, it was also a product of a conscious, concerted effort to do something different than those that had come before. “Another thing that we were trying to react to at that time,” explains environment artist Dave Dunn, “was a lot of the first-person shooters were still corridor, corridor… and your suspension of disbelief is sort of challenged that those are real spaces.”

In the first level after you crash land on Halo, almost all of the encounters take place in large, nonlinear spaces, some of which have more than one entrance. In the “Reunion Tour” chapter, you are tasked with rescuing your fellow soldiers and crew members. Following a tunnel that cuts through the cliff faces, you eventually arrive at a beautiful, wide open vista than beckons to your instinct for exploration. As you climb a hill in the Warthog, the terrain unfolds in every direction, leaving it up to the player as to where to take the fight. Signal flares and other signposts help you spot areas of interest, but the space is not intended to confine you to a particular path. And the first of these things you might notice, a crashed escape pod, has an equal chance of pointing you in one of several directions. That the three destinations might be reached in any order makes for a much more natural, immersive experience. >> CONTINUE >>

Fencing on Film: Style and Structure


While actual combat is typically nasty, brutish and short, reel combat rarely assumes the form of the ‘one cut, one kill’ method privileged by the Samurai, except when the hero is required to dispatch ranks of nameless pawns. Cinematic swordfights are usually much longer, but brevity is sometimes used to emphasize the tremendous agility or strength of a particular character.  The legendary fighter Achilles is introduced as exactly this type of dominant battlefield presence in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2005), when he defeats his much larger opponent, in a fair fight, with a single aggressive attack.  Generally speaking, films depict either similarly practiced competitors or an overmatched protagonist struggling to survive against a much more capable foe, both of which are scenarios that lend themselves to the procession of long, drawn out battles.

In Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles and Eric Bana’s Hector are portrayed as well matched combatants, both said to be the most capable warriors of their homelands, but the choreography reveals a great sense of difference in the way each embodies aspects of martial culture.  In many respects, the way in which a character fights may be as important as the way in which he speaks.  A distinct attack can go so far as any line of dialogue when it comes to creating a sense of who they are and how they fit into the narrative world.  As these moves coalesce to form a fighting style that is not merely cohesive or contemporary to the diegesis, but which illustrate vice and virtue or other personal attributes, choreography can contribute as much to the development of a character as any other aspect of a production.

While their actions are almost always swift and their objectives usually simple, carefully crafted choreography may feature all of the complexity of well written dialogue.  As the Sean Bean’s Odysseus contends, both the sword and the spoken word are tools upon which a man may rely to achieve his objectives.  “You have your sword, I have my tricks,” he explains.  “We play with the toys the gods give us.”  Furthermore, neither are merely a means to an end, but crafts of which mastery reflects a great deal else about an individual who practices them.  In Troy, Achilles exhibits tremendous skill in combat, described in the script simply as ‘godlike,’ which is illustrative not only of his supernatural ability, but of his confidence, pride, and desire to be remembered as the greatest warrior the world has ever seen. >> CONTINUE >>

Tauntauns to Tyrannosaurus: Evolution of Effects Animation


On account of the technology involved, and the toil and time required, animators are almost always working well within the outer limits of their theoretical ceiling. But if visual effects are supposed to be a seamless superimposition, then its animators ought to be at the boundary between an impossibly accurate portrayal and the constraints of whatever method they employ. “Ultimately no matter what tool you’re using,” explains Phil Tippett, “whether it’s stop-motion, go-motion, computer graphics – you’re learning how to work with the limitations of the tools that you have.  You have a mental image in your mind of what the thing should be moving like, and you’re constantly moving – no it shouldn’t be like this, it should be like that, it should be like this – and just try to keep all this stuff moving towards what, you know, see in your mind’s eye.”  While such a painstaking process always revolves around minor frame to frame developments, this incremental way of working is frequently furthered by major leaps in science and technology.

In the digital age, in which effects-driven studio tentpoles dominate multiplexes twelve months of the year, it has become popular for fans and critics alike to bemoan the omnipresence of computer graphics.  While the public at large flock to these films in ever-greater numbers, some claim that advancing technology increasingly detracts from the cinema experience.  As their familiarity with computer animation breeds contempt, they wax nostalgic for the days of practical effects.  While Ray Harryhausen would not count himself among these detractors, he notes “I still get letters from dyed-in-the-wool fans saying they prefer the old hands on technique” (Cotta Vaz, 33).  These fans acknowledge its undeniable charm, but neglect the similarity between the use of stop-motion and the implementation of computer graphics, which is that the techniques themselves have often determined the form of a film, and that the effects therein are its reason for being. >> CONTINUE >>

Preface: Insight Incomplete

insight_incompleteIt is, of course, much easier to think something than to write it.  The speed and fullness of thoughts makes it much easier to consider ideas as they are – nonlinear and without form.  They are whole.  Whatever a thought lacks, it is unified.  In a word, elemental.  It cannot be pulled apart.  And yet, we must break these thoughts down if we are to record them.  But thoughts exist as inextricable amalgamations of vast and varied sensations along with all prior meditation.  Thoughts are many things at once.  On account of their complexity, there is no way to relay these thoughts, so we settle for representing them.  They must take another form, so we use words as standins, understudies that act in place of our thoughts.

It is no small task to represent something so fluid and fleeting.  To give structure and shape to something that is eternal and amorphous.  To break down down the molecules of something so unified with a method is that is sequential and segmented.  As sentences are a representation rather than a replication of an idea or state of mind, it is often a challenge to reveal our thoughts without distorting meaning.  They flood the brain in an instant, but we cannot comprehend them all at once, so language encapsulates our thoughts, making them easier to swallow and digest.  Eventually, words become substitutes, taking the place of our thoughts, albeit a corrupted version.  In this lies the great challenge of language, as each word is representative of something slightly different to every person, and is always understood from a necessarily unique perspective. >> CONTINUE >>