Sunday, December 14, 2008

Reflections on a Gaming Semester

I'm a Video Game Production major at NYU. I'm sure that confuses some people, since NYU just announced they will have video game majors starting NEXT year. At my school in Gallatin we get to create our own concentrations, and mine is in Video Game Production. I guess that means I'm slightly ahead of the curve? What's nice though is that NYU is starting a masters program in gaming in Fall 2010, which is the semester right after I graduate. If I pull the right strings I might have a way into that, unless, of course, I find an good-paying job out of undergrad. Eh, whatevs.

Being that I'm a junior, my academic career is flying full throttle. I took four classes this semester. Digital New Media, Game Production, Culture as Communication and Hackers: Culture and Politics. All four of these classes blended together extremely well, and I felt that each discussion in these classes were extensions of a previous conversation I had in different class but with a different spin on it.

The first example of this happening was when I talked about Jorge Luis Borges and the Garden of Forking Paths. I had to read that short story for both my Digital New Media class and my Game Production class. In game production we looked specifically at the labyrinth the main character walks through in order to find the person he needed to kill. We took that winding labyrinth idea and made our own 3D models of of a labyrinth. Hence the Lego Labyrinth post I made earlier.

In Digital New Media, we took Borges' story and analyzed it terms of hypertext. By killing a prominent person who was also the name of a city, Borges showed a hidden meaning embedded with his the actions of his character. The idea of hypertext also blended into other topics in Digital New Media, the obvious one being how we use hyperlinks to continue a line of thought or a narrative.

I thought it was neat that my classes complimented each other in little bits early in the semester. By the end of the semester though, everything I was doing was becoming part of one big wheel, and content was getting recycled with different lenses in different classes. I remember watching McLuhan's Wake in Digital New Media while reading McLuhan's Understanding Media in my Culture as Communication class. McLuhan's Wake was a film produced by Marshall McLuhan's son that took McLuhan's ideas of the "medium is the message" and "hot and cold media," along with many others and used them in a film format.

For those who don't know, McLuhan is one of the pioneers of new media studies. I recently wrote a paper on how McLuhan would probably look at the interpersonal relationships between people while they play video games. You can read that paper through this link.

I also read Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture and I took one his ideas--Trans-Media Storytelling--and decided to do a final project for my Digital New Media class with Jenkins in mind. The concept behind Trans-Media Storytelling is that current media have the ability to take one storyline and extend it over different mediums. For example, The Matrix is a three part movie series. However, the story is also extended in the Animatrix anime series and in the Matrix Online game.

For my take on his theory I made a Little Big Planet level that focused more on a narrative, while still having quite a bit of gameplay. I recorded the level with voice acting and made it into a video on YouTube. The video is also posted on this site, right before this post. The Little Big Planet level is just one step in a trans-media storytelling format. By making a video, I move the game into another medium, and since I made the level copyable, someone could take my design, improve upon it, or even continue the story.

The Little Big Planet level isn't the only project I was working on this semester as well. For my Game Production class, I had to create a game using programs such as Autodesk Maya and Virtools, which both focus on making 3D environments. After much deliberation and tons of time spent learning the software, I was able to create (fairly) working demo and a level design document that lays out the goals of the game, the inspiration and a timeline of various models. I have a screenshot of what the game looks like below (called Clockwork), and you may notice that the level design was inspired by the Lego Labyrinth.

I do plan on finishing the game, at least just the first level. I plan on having it out before the end of December and it will posted on this site first. Shawn was awesome enough to record some music for the game, and he linked to you it in his most recent, and first, post on this blog.

The story for Clockwork is pretty straight forward. You're a worker inside of a gigantic clock constantly being watched over by what looks to be drones. Your character decides that he can't take it anymore and decides to leave his post working on the gears. In order to escape from the clock, you need to solve a series of puzzles to unlock the path to the exit. And being that you're in a place filled with gears, many of the walls and floors turn, which add to the puzzle frenzy.

This whole story is explained without words, mostly because gamers playing a puzzle-action game probably don't want to read story. Instead, the above passage is explained just through animation. A video game narrative doesn't need words to be effective, at least, in my opinion. Why is this the case? Sherry Turkle, a writer I mentioned in a previous post gives her view on the subject. Turkle suggests that gamers care less about narrative in games because the interactivity of a game already allows them to create their own story, even if they are trapped in a highly rule-based world.Even though Turkle made those observations in the 1980's, some of her perceptions still hold true today.

I actually learned a lot about video game history this semester, though that knowledge surprisingly came from my Hackers: Culture and Politics course. I didn't know that the makers of the Atari 2600 were a bunch of hackers, and I also found out where the 2600 came from. I wrote a whole history about the 2600 on Will and Beyond, so check it out if you want to find out more.

I think the most important thing I learned this semester relating to video game production is that in order to create something successful, you have to look at it from an interdisciplinary point of view. Gameplay isn't the most important thing, as I always have said in the past. The look and feel of a game, the story, the music, the entire development team; they all need to work together.

Games aren't all about the content either. McLuhan taught me to look at the interactions outside of the content and Jenkins showed me that video games aren't a closed medium; they seep into almost all of the other media that we have. And while games should be focused on making gamers happy, games are so integrated into our culture that they affect the growth of business, music, film, and ourselves. To ignore the appeal of games to any person would be taking a very narrow mindset.

Next semester will be interesting as well. I'm taking a class on game art, another in advanced photoshop, a class about evil characters in stories, a class on reading and theorizing film and my internship with Illclan, an animation company that produces Machinima.


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