Wonder of foreigness and games

Wonder of foreigness and games

TL:DR: Observing unexpected patterns and behaviours creates best puzzles and genuine feeling of wonder – rare phenomena in our trope saturated culture.

I just finished reading The Arrival by Shaun Tan. An excellent surreal graphical novel about immigrating to a foreign culture, without a single written word. It conveyed the being present it genuinely different place, the boundaries set from not understanding the communication – language, visual traditions, patterns of how machines operate etc. This was contrasted and bound together with cultural experience of being human – eating, sleeping, working, playing, and how all this was happened without and regardless of the common language.

Wondrous parklands by Shaun Tan

Wondrous parklands by Shaun Tan

A Clock that reads in unknown way, a Ticket machine that has handle and a dial, but no instructions, peculiar musical instruments. foreign food that is prepared with odd objects and eaten with peculiar manners, alien pets and flowers, their life cycles and behaviours, odd machines of industry and agriculture, the ballgame without familiar rules, unusual means of transportation etc. The little things of daily life where the meaning is roughly known but without insight on the the culture, makes the application difficult, even dangerous.

Brought up the idea of usage of pepper mills in our cuisine and how would it appear to someone who doesn’t know of it – an oddly shaped cylinder rotated on the top of a veal but not on top of a ice cream? Why, is it because the other is hot and other is cold, shaped differently in different container, because of the taste or order of the servings? Why exactly is it done – does it add or remove something,  maybe the veal has poison that is neutered by the workings of the cylinder, what is the grounded stuff? Maybe it is just a form of habit, like a prayer mills, and only some foods are deserving of it? What social means are there – why it is the “waiter”(without knowing what a waiter is) that usually does it – and is there a risk of offending or breaking a cultural norm?

Foreign map and cityscape by Shaun Tan.
Foreign map and city scape by Shaun Tan.

 Other works that with similar effect of genuinely foreign culture have been the Little Nemo books where the dream world works with their own surreal logic, Works of Bilal with unusual dark worlds and geometric forms in works Möebius, Surreal Codex Seraphinianus with its odd plants and machines, and in gaming, Journey and the Dig. Of indies, atmosphere of ipad game Sword & Sworcery reaches for it in a subtle manner.

A Vechile in Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

A Vechile in Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

The Citroen Sequence by Moebius

The Citroen Sequence by Moebius

Coal mine storage cages for personal belonging during work shifts, (© Bradley Garrett)

Coal mine storage cages for personal belonging during work shifts, (© Bradley Garrett)

Cultural habits stay foreign as long as the exposure is new. Recent video underlined how much the Aliens (1986) have changed our culture. The first common exposure to pulse-rifles, space marines, motion sensor and other tropes of the genre. To someone who has never seen the original, it all seems so familiar trough other stories, while when it was new, it was visionary.  Unlike comics, I can’t pinpoint a single movie where the new that it represented hasn’t already become a cliche.

Now that we are on the golden age of indie gaming and game industry in general, it is saddening to see how little wonder there really is. Use of tropes is common – elves sleep in beds, white glow in weapon means ice or electric bonus, aliens might have foreign font and face, but they use weapons in same way as we do and the faces are readable. One could go long for how little there are truly alien species in fiction, but I rather leave it with this link in io9 which has gathered few successful examples of it.

In games on the other hand, scenic design and architecture often manages to go out there. but the cultural reading is common. There are beds, utensils, screens, vending machines, weapons, means of travel, maybe even on purpose, things seem to return to more readable form. Example being the water-dwelling Murlocks of WoW – why do they build huts, when something way more fishy dwellings could have been there, say, a shell-formed hole-like construction, and some strawpill+knife typed utensil for sucking in the edible parts of the meal. Being an unplayable enemy species, I love that there is portrayal of culture and habits which lifts them above them mere beasts, but there is so much more that it could’ve been.

Mountain landscape in Outland Expansion, (c) Peter Lee, Blizzard

Mountain landscape in World of Warcraft Outland Expansion, (c) Peter Lee, Blizzard

Argument against genuine alienation has been that they are not really stories about aliens, but stories of of us, human nature and conflict, in situations which the fictional setting allows. Thus common ground is elemental.

Often in fiction, oddity is portrayed as form of religion, and justifying the surreal behaviours because the inherent mysterious natures of religions. This is a easy and boring cope-out and of the the portrayed religions aren’t that foreign. Ritual sacrifices or totem poles might have been odd 60 years ago, but in our saturated culture, we are aware of the stories relating to them. Are there actually fictional religions that are truly odd but with solid internal logic? That logic in general is the part that is required for fictional world to be beliavable, rules and forms maybe different, but they behaved in a coherent manner. Figuring out the rules behind the patterns are the puzzles of wonder. Like a newborn child figuring out the rules of the environment and their role in it. This emotion and the puzzles offering it are the gems that I seek in games, and knowing we live in the golden age of indie game development – the treasures must be out there, somewhere hidden in app-store with poor marketing and less than 50k downloads. Among thousands of games without any significant creative insight and with similarly poor marketing, execution and success.

In a manner, I feel that this, genuine creativity and feeling of wonder that dares to take risk of portraying something unfamiliar is requirement for making a successful game of exploration. I realize that this is the reason I disliked Minecraft, while great, it was very familiar. In the end, it is a question of cultural saturation.

If your game has a elements of exploration, wonder and mystery, you should seek to create something genuinely foreign, unseen, and create foreign culture with habits and patterns, instead of reskinning known tropes our our own behaviour in odd colours.

Post notes:

  • What is the interesting amount of familiarity? Can it be too foreign to be interesting?
  • What is the scientific research relevant for the topic. Alienation and cultural conflicts are certainly aspects of immigration. How about in fiction – what are the means to convey foreigness?
  • This explain the fame of awarded comics by Matti Hagelberg, (which I personally have aversion for, just because of the art style). It is a view to a odd world with coherent internal logic, that the fans truly appreciate.
  • What indie games reach for this? How would one find them?
  • Assigment 1: Design alien post-service. How in a truly foreign world, one would go about sending a present to friend living far. A juicy topic that conveys trough many aspects of culture.
  • Assigment 2: Comment and describe a baffling foreign experience, real or fictional you’ve experienced.
  • Any sci-fi / fantasy books or comics that do aliens and cultures well without being tropes yet?
Yksityiskohta, Matti Hagelberg

Yksityiskohta, Matti Hagelberg

Drawing by Mathew Borrett

Drawing by Mathew Borrett

 

Thoughts about lecture by Matt Costello regarding writing in games industry

The games now Games Now! lecture series in Aalto University was launched today by Matt Costello who has worked for example with Doom3, Rage, 7th Quest and Pirates of Caribbean. He spoke for 1½ hour about aspects of creativity and inspiration, his experiences in the industry and  answering questions. As whole, he was very entertaining and took time and effort to engage the audience for a memorable experience. Being a showman, performing tricks and showing ming-blowing videos. In good and bad It reminded me of some speeches by marketing directors and leaders of the game industry seen in Nordic Design Symposium and Free Your Play seminars: insightful in high-level but shallow on easy-to-apply anecdotes from practical level. Superfluous, While video of asteroid colliding to earth make for a good entertainment and wows the audience, be it ceos or financial backers and it was plausible to show, I felt the lecture was at its weakest then. Instead of victories, I would’ve valued more of stories of mistakes made and lessons learned. I seem to appreciate higher content-to-entertainment value of the lectures.

The most valuable lesson was the underlined the multitude of channels for creativity within the industry – for example. the Launch of Rage contained a comic, a novel and a casual game which completed the storytelling and world on a levels that could not have been achieved with the AAA-title alone. Another good one was made memorable with play-acting, was the applying of different casual puzzles to different settings (say, how to do the wolf-goat-cabbage-man-boat-river puzzle in alien or mafia setting? On mission design, as generally a bad observed pattern was the mmorpg-common “do A, B & C, return and the story continues” instead of continuing the story during the missions.

As guide words to inspire creativity: Plöay, Wodner, Experiment, Risk, Passion, Market, Where and what are the conflicts? How things in this world are run? Who you want to be? Location, Corporations ,Team, Problems, Media, Creatures, People, Society. Who are the villains and heroes? Something normal can be fun when made a game, and reserve, something fun in real world might not work as a game.

I have to raise a glass for him for making me remember and explain a childhood fantasy world. (Which was inspired by original Elite, imagining building awesome spaceships with which to travel and trade in distant planets, observe them undetected and engage in fierce laser battles of technology and wit).

Question that was left on my tongue was about the multiplatform marketing which happened alongside Rage. Before actual launch, there was novel, comic and a casual game released that all expanded upon the world and the characters. While sounding engaging and I know that Dead Space and Hawken have used similar approaches, I wonder about its efficiency. While making a comic or novella might not dent too much out of a AAA-budget, I wonder if same works for mobile games. Maybe the guys behind Tunnelground might have something to say about it? What makes this kind of marketing and hype campaign successful and what possible pitfalls there are?

Next lecture will be of new user interfaces. I feel I’m rather aware of existing and upcoming technologies, and instead of shallow look towards them I would wish to see experiences and speculations about their best practices. Say Kinect being already rather mature system – and Leap Motion having a good run for few months – what are the best UI-patterns that have emerged? Or those who have played with Oculus Rift for a while, what are the experiments that have been tried and failed for surprising reasons (like in Minecraft, it comes tiresome to neck to tie the movement of up-and down to head position), and on contrast – what works really well in specific cases?

Links from lecture: mattcostello.dom , Asteroid apocalypse without musicDouble HappyEventide  Greatest Puzzles book

Thoughts after lecture:

  • Get a traditional game book – you can always find material from them. This was recommended in Free your play as well, not this particular one, but similar. –
  • Write a own book, seems like a good merit for career. I have the idea ready, just need to get working on it.
  • Next time, have business cards ready and updated blog, maybe a prototype of a game to show and talk about during mingling afterwards. Btw, was nice to meet you Atte with great surname!
  • Coordinating and planning that kind of multiplatform community building sounds fun.
  • How about that 3D-modelling a updated version of Cobra MK3
  • Unity stores seems like a good place to sell 3D-models and build passive income.
  • That eventide transmedia project aims to do AR and location based. Good IP for that. Better check it out later how they’ve innovated compared to other AR/location based games, that ghost-character-system might work really well. And why there is no data of it online – name change ahead or way too immature stage to not even have a homepage yet?
  • Matt offered to give insights and answer questions – so first, ask how the coffee cup magic-trick was done and then the actual one. Smart move from him to build networks, I wonder if this is from some stage-performance book.

 

 

 

 

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