Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Super Mario Galaxy

No man’s game

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No Man's Sky

I first heard about the video game No Man’s Sky in an article by Raffia Khatchadourian that appeared last year in The New Yorker. This was probably a warning sign in itself. The New Yorker may be the best magazine in the world, but its coverage of gaming has often been disappointing, in part because it assigns novelty stories to gifted writers—like Nicholson Baker—with minimal knowledge of the subject, and because it’s difficult to thread the needle between being both informative to fans and comprehensible to readers with no firsthand experience of the creations of Shigeru Miyamoto. Years ago, I speculated half-seriously in Salon that there was a New Yorker feature curse, much like the more famous one that haunts the cover of Sports Illustrated. It seemed to me that a lot of artists who received coverage in the magazine, especially on the movie side, went on to spectacularly implode soon thereafter, often for the very project that had been glowingly described in the article itself. (John Carter is the first example that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.) At the time, I suggested that this might be due to regression toward the mean: whenever a filmmaker attracts the attention of a magazine that only runs a handful of Hollywood profiles every year, it’s usually because of an outsized success in the recent past, which is generally followed by what seems like a failure in comparison. But now I think that this is only half the reason. In order to appear in a timely fashion, a feature article has to be written and edited long in advance of a work’s completion, and there’s no way to predict the quality of the result. A reporter might be able to watch the dailies or look at some demo footage, but that’s pretty much it. And if it’s ambitious enough to merit this kind of extended treatment, it’s no surprise that it frequently fails to live up to expectations. It’s just hard to spot a masterpiece before the fact.

No Man’s Sky is beginning to look like a perfect example of this phenomenon, and it’s likely to supplant even John Carter, at least in my own head, as the definitive case study. Khatchadourian’s article, which, by the way, is engaging and intelligent, opens with these lines:

The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them. They are scheduled to finish at the end of this year; at that time, they will invite millions of people to explore their creation, as a video game, packaged under the title No Man’s Sky.

Khatchadourian goes on how to describe how the game, the brainchild of developer Sean Murray, is meant to evoke a feeling of limitless discovery. It uses procedural generation—in which elements are created on the fly by algorithms, rather than manually by a human being—to populate its universe with quintillions of planets. “Because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance,” Khatchadourian continues. “As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.”

No Man's Sky

As many of you have probably heard, this isn’t exactly how it turned out. No Man’s Sky was released earlier this month to enormous early sales, followed immediately by a furious backlash as players realized that it wasn’t the game that they had been promised. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I haven’t played it myself, and the game also has its defenders—although even the positive reviews tend to be carefully qualified.) There are vast numbers of planets, but they don’t orbit stars: they just sort of hang there in space. The characteristics of a planet, like its climate or natural resources, don’t depend on where it is in relation to anything else, or on any kind of physical logic. Nothing much changes as you get closer to the center. Your freedom to fly your spaceship is severely limited. A multiplayer experience isn’t just rare, but it doesn’t even seem possible, based on the design of the game itself. It was billed as a fantasy of exploring the unknown, but every planet has already been colonized by an alien race with the same generic architectural style. Worst of all, the procedural generation that lies at the heart of No Man’s Sky results, by most accounts, in a boring, repetitive playing experience: all of the planets are technically different, but they mostly follow the same basic patterns and templates, with the knobs twiddled here and there to achieve minor variations. The result might be a decent game on its own merits, but as a damning thread on Reddit makes clear, it doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to the experience that players were sold. When you look at the promises that the developers made, compared to the version of the game that was actually released, it isn’t hard to conclude, as many players have, that they were lying through their teeth. But it seems more likely that at some point during the development process, Murray realized that he was unable to deliver on the grand conceptions that he had outlined to the media. Features were cut or scaled back, ambitions were lowered, and the game was reduced to something more manageable. It’s easier to sketch out an expansive vision than to execute it in detail, and they just couldn’t give players a full universe in a box. As the Dean once said on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!”

Inevitably, the reaction to No Man’s Sky has also turned into a referendum on procedural generation itself. If you really want eighteen quintillion planets, you can’t make any of them particularly interesting, because extreme values for any of the relevant parameters could render the results broken or unplayable. Because the variations have to occur within a narrow range, they suffer from a certain sameness. It is possible to create levels that break all the rules, but it requires a human eye, an ability to tinker and revise, and endless user testing, which isn’t available when all your planets are being generated, as Khatchadourian puts it, “out of only fourteen hundred lines of code.” (To be fair, Khatchadourian also notes: “Games based on procedural generation often suffer from unrelenting sameness…or from visual turmoil.” But he adds that Murray hopes to find “a middle ground” that, in retrospect, was probably impossible.) A game like Super Mario Galaxy, which has never received a writeup in New Yorker, has only a hundred levels or so, but each one has been lovingly conceived and burnished by a real person, taking infinite pains and thinking hard about how to delight the player, which is a far more impressive accomplishment. And there were reasons to be skeptical. When I first read the article, my eye was caught, for obvious reasons, by this passage:

The game is an homage to the science fiction that Murray loved when he was growing up—Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein—and to the illustrations that often accompanied the stories. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, sci-fi book covers often bore little relation to the stories within; sometimes they were commissioned independently, and in bulk, and for an imaginative teen-ager it was a special pleasure to imbue the imagery with its own history and drama.

The italics are mine. No Man’s Sky claims to have been inspired by classic science fiction, but it’s really about the artwork, and the confusion between the two is the real problem. Khatchadourian’s profile contains one unforgivable sentence: No Man’s Sky’s references may be dime-store fiction, but the game reimagines the work with a sense of nostalgia and a knowing style that is often more sophisticated than the original.” If anything, this statement seems even more ridiculous now than it did at the time. Genuine sophistication, as Heinlein and the others knew, isn’t just about creating a sense of wonder, but about using it to tell a real story. And Murray might have been better off if he had thought less about what was on the cover and more about what was inside.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2016 at 9:04 am

M is for Mario

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

When I was six years old, I saw the Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time at the house of a friend, and I still remember thinking to myself: “If I only had one of those, I’d never be bored again.” As the ensuing decades have demonstrated, that isn’t exactly true. But it isn’t entirely false, either. Video games, ranging from massive console epics to snackable apps on your phone, have done more than any invention since television and before Reddit to fill in whatever free time we have remaining. During the handful of years I held a desk job, I often wondered what the generations before email and the web did to procrastinate at the office—crossword puzzles, I hear—and I still found it hard to imagine. My daughter will probably have similar trouble envisioning a life in which there isn’t content available to occupy every spare moment of her day, and she’s already at a point where she seems to treat it as a utility, like the lights in our house. Like a lot of parents, I spend an inordinate amount of time watching videos with her, including the vaguely creepy kiddie cartoons on YouTube that she somehow finds on her own. A few days ago, I was listening idly as she stared, hypnotized, at an animated song about the alphabet, and my attention was caught by a line near the end: “X is for Xbox.” But of course it is. (It’s a more practical word than xylophone, anyway, which I’m convinced has benefited inordinately from an alphabetic accident, like the zebra.)

The game that was playing on that primordial Nintendo gray box was, of course, Super Mario Bros. Mario’s development has been so inseparable from that of video games as an art form that it’s easy to take him for granted, and to overlook how much of the grammar of modern gaming emerged from a series of specific, unpredictable choices. In one of my earlier posts on the subject, I wrote:

Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole.

Which is still true. But as we celebrate Mario’s thirtieth anniversary, it’s worth remembering that there’s no guarantee that such impersonal corporate forces—I’m looking at you, Marvel—will lead to a memorable result, if it weren’t for the work of the idiosyncratic, driven, meticulous artists who put such games together, starting at the level of the circuit board.

Super Mario Galaxy

In a fascinating video recently posted by Eurogamer, Nintendo game designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka walk us through the decisions that informed the design of Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. Miyamoto explains that the opening screens were meant to educate players about the game while also providing a satisfying experience in itself, and each element is there for a reason. The first enemy Mario encounters, for instance, is a Goomba, and his appearance naturally prompts the player to jump up to squash or avoid it. (Initially, it was going to be a Koopa Troopa, but the sequence of stomping it and then kicking the shell seemed too complicated. The Goomba was specifically conceived as an easy introduction to the basic points of gameplay.) A lone question block then appears, enticing the player to press the jump button again to be rewarded with a coin, and it’s followed immediately thereafter by a block containing the first mushroom. Every detail was laid in with care. To encourage the player to learn how to run and jump, for instance, a wide but nonfatal pit appears, followed by a fatal one, allowing the player to refine his or her technique before it becomes a question of survival. Once all the rules have been established, the game can start to spring a few surprises. It all seems intuitive, but it’s the product of considered choice and development. And it’s especially revealing to learn that this first level was one of the last to be made, after the designers had acquired a sense of the game’s potential and challenges.

The video is so dense with insights that it really deserves to be watched in its entirety, and there isn’t space for me here to discuss all the points it raises. (Miyamoto notes, for instance, that the game starts off with little Mario, so that players would be satisfied and excited when they became Super Mario, which is the eight-bit equivalent of a character arc. And I like one of his observations on game mechanics: for the physics of a jump to seem plausible, Mario has to pause briefly after landing, but this would break the momentum—so they have Mario slide just a little to respect the physics while maintaining a sense of forward motion.) And it’s worth emphasizing that all these refinements were the result both of initial inspiration and endless testing with the users who would be playing for real: Miyamoto describes giving the game to people without any context and being a little chagrined by moves and decisions that he didn’t anticipate. This close attention to the user experience is one that modern games, for all their technological advances, haven’t always been able to match: a lengthy tutorial phase isn’t nearly as engaging as a game that has been designed from the ground up to acclimate the players as they explore. My gaming years are behind me for now, although I still think back on Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel with a weird mixture of nostalgia and longing. But I’m looking forward to the day when my daughter picks up a controller for herself.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2015 at 10:12 am

In the country of the mind

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Super Mario Galaxy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional country would you most like to visit?”

On the list of books that have profoundly influenced my life, one of the more surprising is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. I no longer own a copy—although I’ve been meaning to get one for my daughter’s bookshelf for a long time—but when I first discovered it at twelve or thirteen, it quietly guided me toward a number of books and authors that have deeply shaped the way I think. It’s a big, handsome volume, almost absurdly rich and dense with content, that provides witty but essentially serious entries for upwards of a thousand different locations that were first described in fiction. All of the usual suspects are here: Oz, Narnia, Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, and of course the countless cities and countries that fill Tolkien’s pages. I have a feeling that for many young readers, their first exposure to this work led to a lifetime’s love of fantasy fiction, and in my case, the impact went even deeper. Two of the entries that intrigued me the most were those for the Library of Babel and the Abbey of The Name of the Rose, and as soon as I was inspired to check out Borges and Eco for myself, much of my life’s intellectual path was decided. And I have Manguel and Guadalupi to thank for this.

When we think of the process that has been come to be known as worldbuilding, we generally regard it as a preparatory stage for a work of narrative fiction, whether the author’s approach is that of a gardener or an architect. Recently, though, worldbuilding has become something of a pastime in its own right, with hobbyists lovingly creating maps, history, and languages for entire planets, like solitary versions of Borges’s mysterious Orbis Tertius, with no particular aim beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. On some level, this approach has an honorable history: Tolkien wrote his novels to provide a setting for his invented languages, not the other way around, and even if most readers are only tangentially aware of this, the origins of these stories go a long way toward explaining why the geography of Middle-Earth—and, by extension, the characters who populate it—is so persuasive. The Internet has also provided a way for these works to reach a wider audience for the first time. In the past, a diligently rendered gazetteer of an imaginary country might have come off as the work of a misguided teenager or an outsider artist, but now, it’s easier than ever to find others who can appreciate such efforts. (I sometimes feel that Henry Darger, whose work anticipates many of the more obsessive aspects of contemporary fan culture, was born a century too soon.)

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other great factor contributing to the surge in independent worldbuilding—along with the prevalence of scholarship and secondary works, like The Atlas of Middle-Earth, that put all of this background material in one place—has been the rise of video games as an art form. Games have been creating convincing worlds ever since the appearance of the first text adventures, but the real turning point may have been Miyamoto’s Hyrule, the first world on a console detailed and beautiful enough to inspire its own miniature atlas. Gaming is the purest way we have of traveling through an imaginary territory: in a novel or movie, we’re still following the story from one episode to the next, with only a few hints of the landscape at the edges of the frame, while a shrewdly designed game can seem open to endless exploration. Really, though, like the worlds that a novelist creates, this openness is a carefully sustained illusion, and the best games have developed ingenious ways of hiding their boundaries. There are times, in fact, when a game can seem richer with possibilities than life itself: a game rewards curiosity, risk, and investigation, while in our own daily routines, we tend to stick to the same familiar routes, to the point where we might as well be on rails. (It’s only on vacation that we start to regard the world with the same hunger that a video game evokes.)

That’s why, when I think of a fictional country I’d like to explore, I find myself unexpectedly turning to the Mushroom Kingdom, especially the version we find in the Super Mario Galaxy series. It’s true that when we visit it, it seems like a rather dangerous place, but I’d like to believe that we’re only seeing it during periods of unusual crisis. Otherwise, it seems like the kind of country where a nap under a tree would be followed by a swim, a treasure hunt, or a stroll through the clouds. It’s a testament to the genius and ambition of Miyamoto and his collaborators that a game that began as a simple side-scroller has evolved into a country charged with beauty and nostalgia, although none of this would matter much if the games themselves weren’t so enticing. And this may be the ultimate lesson of worldbuilding. The countries we imagine for ourselves are reflections of our wishes and desires for the real world, not so much in the level of detail they contain as in the sense of some higher purpose and harmony: in an imaginary land, we have the feeling that everything is there for a reason, and that the map leads to a genuine goal, however freely it allows us to wander. Real life, alas, doesn’t offer such guarantees—although if we saw it as an beautiful country that we’ve been privileged to explore, we might take more pleasure in the journey.

The Way of Mario

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Super Mario Galaxy

First, a confession: I’m not a gamer. Like most members of my generation, I spent countless hours on the original Nintendo console, and I’ve already expounded at length on my mastery of Tetris. Later, however, my knowledge of new platforms and games diminished, and it’s only recently, with the help of the invaluable Virtual Console on the Wii, that I’ve begin to fill in the gaps in my gaming education. One of these days, I’m finally going to tackle Ocarina of Time, but for now, I’ve been working through most of the landmarks in the Mario series. Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole. And any consideration of video games as art really needs to begin with this humble little plumber.

In some ways, the fact that I’m little more than a gaming dilettante allows me to look more objectively at the question of whether such games can be regarded as an art form. Generally, discussions of the artistic value of gaming have centered on elaborate open world titles like Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption that require enormous patience to fully explore. For an outsider, the prospect of investing hundreds of hours on a game can seem daunting, for much the same reason that many of us hesitate before committing to the full run of a novelistic television series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which really needs to be experienced from beginning to end. For the members of any obsessive fanbase, the object of their adoration always seems, by definition, like a form of art that demands attention and respect, to the point where it isn’t worth debating. But just as there are television shows that can delight and surprise a casual viewer without feeling like homework, it’s worth singling out those games that reveal their pleasures at once, while also rewarding an extended period of engagement.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

This is all by way of preface to saying that the two games in the Super Mario Galaxy series have provided me with more sustained joy than just about any work of art I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’ve also given me new insights into storytelling, which might seem strange for a pair of games that consist of little more than a string of fascinating puzzles built around the rescue of a thinly defined princess. I’ve spoken before about the fractal nature of a show like Mad Men, which can be appreciated on the level of an entire series, a single season, or an individual episode. Galaxy has some of the same granular quality: with few exceptions, any stage of any level is a delight to play, and they add up to a universe of dazzling richness and invention. As a review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Edge puts it: “It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.” “Generous” would be the word I’d use: these games change radically at every turn, but also work as unified wholes, thanks to their gorgeous art direction, character design, and music, as well as a relentless focus on the player’s experience. For all their complexity, we’re never lost for long, and the challenges are scaled and introduced with a grace that can only be achieved through endless testing and refinement.

And if this isn’t art, I don’t know what is. At this point, it seems clear that video games are what animation was eighty years ago: the great collaborative art form of a new century, overseen by a handful of geniuses, that innovates in ways that will inevitably trickle down to other media. That said, the hoary predictions that video games would lead to a revolution in interactive storytelling strike me as misguided: a great novel or movie doesn’t gain much from viewer participation, and any attempt to push them in that direction usually ends up feeling gimmicky or worse. But just as the great Disney movies shaped the look, technical effects, and narrative choices of countless other arts—you can see their influence on everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Powell and Pressburger—it would be equally careless of contemporary artists to ignore the contributions of a major creative industry that occupies the bleeding edge of coordinated, large-scale storytelling. Their impact is bound to be indirect and unpredictable, and so transformed in the process that their influence is hard to see. But at their best, they’ve raised the bar for all of us.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Legend of Miyamoto

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For reasons known only to itself, The New Yorker has evidently decided that the best way to write about video games is to assign these stories to writers who emphatically have no gaming experience. This approach, which wouldn’t be tolerated for any other art form, high or low, has already resulted in this notorious article by Nicholson Baker—one of my favorite living writers, but clearly unequipped to say anything interesting about Red Dead Redemption. And now we have Nick Paumgarten’s disappointing profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, which is a huge missed opportunity, in more ways than one.

Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises and the greatest video game designer of all time, has often been compared to Walt Disney, an accolade he shares with his fellow genius Hayao Miyazaki. (Miyamoto and Miyazaki also share a deep nostalgia for the forests and villages of rural Japan, an abiding affection that shows up throughout their work.) Miyamoto is an artist, a storyteller, an engineer, and a visionary, and he’s exactly the sort of creative force that the readers of The New Yorker ought to know more about. The fact that Paumgarten scored only a brief interview with Miyamoto, which he pads out to feature length with pages of unenlightening digressions, is only the most disappointing thing about the profile. A single glimpse of one of Miyamoto’s sketches for Zelda would be more interesting than anything on display here.

Still, there are a few moments worth mentioning. Here’s Miyamoto on calibrating the difficulty of a game, and how important it is to incorporate quiet moments alongside every challenge:

A lot of the so-called action games are not made that way…All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?…[In Miyamoto’s own games] you are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that can be a joy.

This is especially good advice for writers in genres, such as suspense, that place a premium on intensity. A few strategically timed breaks in the action, which give the reader a moment of breathing room, can make the rest of the novel read much more quickly. The key, as Miyamoto knows, is putting yourself in the position of a person approaching a work of art for the first time:

I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I’m the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.

Similarly, once a writer has internalized the plot of a novel, it can be hard to see it with fresh eyes. One solution is to set the book aside for a month and read it again once the memory of the story has faded. Another approach, which I’ve done a few times, is to read a sequence of chapters in reverse, or at random, which often reveals problems or repetitions that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Finally, here’s Paumgarten on one of my favorite topics, the importance of constraints as a creative tool:

Mario, [Miyamoto’s] most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality. [Italics mine.]

This is a nice, crucial point. And it applies to more than video games. The limitations that made Mario so distinctive are the same ones that led to the look of Mickey Mouse, among so many other stars of early animation. One problem with the recent availability of beautifully rendered computer graphics is that character design is becoming a lost art. Even the best recent Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks films have suffered from this: they can render every hair on a character’s head, but can’t make the character itself a memorable one. (Kung Fu Panda may be the last computer-animated movie with really distinctive character designs.)

So are video games art? Paumgarten glances at the subject only briefly, but with all due respect to Roger Ebert, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best video games are indeed art. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for something like Super Mario Galaxy, which is one of the few recent works, in any medium, that has filled me with something like my childhood envy for those who get to spend their lives telling stories. (The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek is another.) Miyamoto’s great skill, as the article reminds us, is to bring us back to the best moments of our childhood. And while not all art needs to aspire to this, the world definitely needs art that does.

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