Category Archives: Writing

Mind games

by dominicjan
by dominicjan

I spent  – no, wait, invested – a chunk of yesterday morning hooking up my laptop to my TV so I could play FTL on the big screen. I am increasingly sad about how my gaming life is ergonomically identical to my working life, where by ‘ergonomically’ I mean ‘ergonomically catastrophic’. Getting to adjust the angle of my neck up 8 degrees feels like stepping out of cave.

I’m not, at this point, going to tell you about how good FTL is. It’s terrifically good. You know that. The thing about having it on a big screen, though, is that it immediately becomes a two-player game. Whoever else is in the room is suddenly your second-in-command. Someone whose eyes can be where yours aren’t, who can help you stave off panic and stay strategic. There are no ABCs of FTL, but there is an ABP: always be pausing. It’s just that in the heat of battle – four rooms on fire, medbay out of power, auto-doors burnt out, two Mantis teleporting into your sensor room, enemy cruiser going cloaked, engines ion disabled, O2 at 34% – it’s easy to forget in your frozen, fascinated horror that pausing is a thing you can do, unless you have someone yelling ‘PAUSE!’ at you.

It’s taken the crown away from Borderlands 2 as my favourite co-op experience of the year. I like co-op games where the other player gets a beer, not a second controller, but can still be utterly pivotal to the outcome of a game. FTL, whose pause function lets it tick-tock between everything happening at once, and an eerily huge possibility space, is remarkably well geared for collaborative play.

Unpaused, you’re equals, sharing duties of observing, monitoring, gauging. How effectively is the enemy ship evading? Will we ever land enough Ion blasts to get the shields down low enough to make the Halberd effective? If we can suppress his drone control will it drop the rate of incoming damage enough that our shields can recharge fast enough to absorb, even if we send our shield-room crew member to run sensor repairs?

Paused, you’re equals: now it’s time to discuss what you learned. Is momentum moving in our favour? Is it time to cut and run? What’s the Hail Mary we’re not seeing? What if we forgot the Ions and respecced for a double Halberd attack? Sure, we’d need to shut off oxygen, but just maybe….

It’s an experience that delivers every ounce of the satisfying, social interaction that we love in real world games. Face-to-face negotiation. Trust building. In-joke coining. Mistakes and miracles. I’ve never been very persuaded of the vision of single-player videogames as the antisocial, weirdo-loner opposite of wholesome, well-adjusted multi-player games. I’ve always loved singleplayer games and I’ve always loved the social structures they sit within. The spectators, the pad-passers, the morning-after-note-comparers.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t just play FTL yesterday morning. I played it while I ate lunch. I played it while we watched a perfectly good episode of Parks and Recreation. I played it in bed, half awake and half aware. I’m playing it right now. Not on a laptop. In my head.

FTL is a magnificently compact bit of game design. Compelling, unpredictable drama and rich strategic possibility unfold from a single static screen. A drawing of a spaceship and some numbers. Every now and again a little person blob toddles from one room to the next and a red line appears to represent some laser damage. It’s not a paucity of visual design – it’s a masterclass in UI and atmospherics – it’s restraint.

Those visuals, so simple, start to live behind your eyelids. I could draw The Adjudicator right now, from memory. Hang on. Man that was harder than I thought.

My effort.


For reference.
But the possibility remains.  I can close my eyes and posit FTL. The human brain is bad at random, but FTL is a game where emergent outcomes are just unpredictable enough that you end up in interesting places even if your brain started out in old familiar patterns. Close your eyes, hear the noise as you come out of jump and…it’s slavers! What to do? Easy. Fight. Always fight. OK. Let’s see they have 2 shield. Let’s say one drone. Missiles and beam. OK. And we’re off. Should be an easy win. Power down Medbay. Power up Leto. Wait, still short on power. Dammit, forgot one Zoltan still in Sensors. Oh god missile hit oxygen on fire. What to do. Reroute helmsman? Halberd alone isn’t getting past their shields. Fire spreading. Zoltan back in Weapons. Leto charging. Open doors? Yeah, open doors. Evade is 27%. Should leave helmsman where he is. Oxygen gone. First Leto misses. De-target Halberd. Just wasting it. Our shields gone. 3 hull damage. Run? But these guys should be *easy* and I should land one new crew. Fire in doors. Oh shit fire in doors. Weapons room hit – orange. Leto offline again.

And you know what? Now you’re screaming ‘PAUSE!’ at me, which means that not only am I playing a videogame in my head, I’m playing a singleplayer videogame in my head, and now you’re playing asynchronous co-op with me *in my head* and I don’t even know who you are. How do you like them next-gen apples, PS4?

Basically, it’s a fat joke.

A few people have asked me about the thinking behind my new Gamasutra columns, “Five minutes with…”. While I’ve been explaining it, I’ve been aware of a voice in the back of my head, saying something scathing but too indistinct for me to catch. I realised the other day it was a memory of this legendary diss, delivered by the Reverend Sydney Smith on hearing that a friend had set his cap to a widow twice his age and four times his size:

Marry her? Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her: he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but trigamy: the neighborhood or the magistrates should interfere. There is enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish. One man marry her!–it is monstrous. You might people a colony with her, or give an assembly with her, or perhaps take your morning’s walk round her,–always provided there were frequent resting-places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half-way, and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her. In short, you might do anything with her but marry her.

And this, I’ve realised, is how I’ve come to feel about reviewing games. Review a game? You mean a part of it, surely. No-one could review a game all herself. There is just so much going on there, so many thousands of interesting design choices to talk about, so many experiences to share. I’m simply not equal to the task of reviewing a whole game anymore, nor willing to keep deleting the dozens of interesting little points in order to make way for the big, sweeping statements. So instead I’m taking little walks around them, with frequent resting places. Five minutes at a time. The second of the columns was about Minecraft – I’m hoping to reply to some of the very astute comments it generated here later. Next month I suspect I might be finding even five minutes of play too daunting, and talk about some particularly juicy menu screens. I think Rev’d Smith would approve.

Give me five

Last night, I found out that knot it a nautical mile per hour, which I sort of knew, and that a nautical mile is equivalent to one minute of an arc of longitude along a meridian, which I really didn’t.  But between them that means – snarf – that a knot is measurement of minutes per hour. Ho!

To apologise for that, and to make sense of my current obsession with minutes, do please take custody of my first ever Gamasutra column, Five Minutes with Deadline. It’s the start of a series of investigations into what five minutes of play reveal about a larger game – a chance to step back from all encompassing reviews and do some hardcore design drilling into interesting games. It’s a massive treat to get to write professionally for a properly nerdy audience, after a long spell of translating games for a wider BBC/Wired readership, and I’m looking forward to being myopically, self-indulgently fascinated by five-minute segments of all sorts of things in the coming months.

Very happy to take suggestions, too – which five minutes of which games have most fascinated you?


In other Edinburgh news, I’m now public on Twitter. I’m doing that thing of keeping @mugla closed for my meatspace friends, and kicking off @ranarama for anyone else who has an interest in subscribing to my shortform over-excitement about iPhone Dodonpachi. I’ll be doing a bit of pruning on @mugla in the meantime, so that I can use it as a place to vent my more intimate spleens.

Why @ranarama? For shame. Obviously mostly because every decent permutation of margaret and anything-beginning-with-r have long since gone, but also because I owe Ranarama a lot and it’s easy to type and burned into the brain of a whole generation of 16 bit fans. Here’s my One More Go on it, for anyone who isn’t a veteran.

Me and my big mouth

Back from Edinburgh, from a very happy time learning about whales and player ethnography and customisable music. I gave a talk based on the last talk I gave at Edinburgh, in which I managed to say:

If you don’t know how you’re aiming to change your players’ lives, you’re not necessarily a bad game designer, but you might be a bad person.

I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since. Not because it’s not true, but because all too often I’m a massive hypocrit, and don’t have a clear answer to that question myself. Working on SuperMe made me particularly aware of it, since that entire project was about trying to encode more positive ways of thinking into the core mechanics of the games that would sit within it. And, having learned a lot more about happiness from the research Somethin’ Else and Coney undertook for SuperMe, I also now have better tools at my disposal to figure out how to design for happiness, and how to recognise good happiness design in other games.

I’ll do a proper write-up shortly, but for now, here are the slides. Bonus points for anyone who can find me a credit for the awesome photo.

Something old, something blue

669521227429563635uh3I had a stimulating conversation today with someone from Dentsu, which reminded of the oddest commission I’ve ever received: a request from a Polish newspaper for a piece on games as dating tools. I’ve dug it out, and – it being marginally less awful than I remembered – I thought I’d give it an airing. But do please put yourself in the mindset of a Polish newspaper-reader from 2008 before you start. The world’s done a lot of turning since then:


If you’ve read your share of romance novels, it’s likely you’ll have encountered this scene: the heroine watches enraptured as the man of her dreams, the man she’s never even spoken to, takes to the stage. He settles in his chair and draws his ‘cello to him, his arms tensed and poised as he prepares to play. As a flood of music sweeps out from the stage, she stares greedily at his fingers, agile and strong, as they move against the strings. She feels herself respond to the gentleness with which he cradles the instrument, with the passionate force with which he makes it give up its music. We may find it clichéd, but we don’t find it ridiculous that someone could long to be on the receiving end of the skilled, passionate focus that a great musician shows to their instrument. Hundreds of films and thousands of books have shown us images of women in high-necked dresses swooning at the sight of a virtuoso pianist, bent over his keyboard with furious abandon.
But what if instead of a piano keyboard it was a computer keyboard? And what if, instead of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, he was playing Halo 3? Suddenly the romance vanishes, replaced by ridicule. Who could swoon over an anti-social geek, wasting his life pretending to be a space marine? It may surprise you to discover that across the world, a forest of hands just went up. Gamers are the new virtuosos, and both men and women are falling for their charms.

This isn’t as strange as it may at first sound. The last few years have seen an explosion of online games, most notably World of WarCraft, a virtual world which now has a population three times the size of Paris. These worlds offer a fresh face for the now-familiar process of online dating. The key advantages of online dating – that you can both massively widen your potential pool of partners, while easily filtering out undesirables – holds just as true for games, as does the liberating anonymity that online interaction can bring.

In practice, what this means is that people can fall in love from the inside out. Although there are many scare stories based on people who’ve been wildly misled as to the age, appearance and even gender of their online sweetheart, for many the experience is exactly the opposite. Online games provide an environment where attraction is formed based not on the shallow factors we rely on when sizing someone up in a pub, but on deeper revelations about their personalities, interests and attitudes.

It’s in this respect that games come into their own. All you get from a chat-room or forum is a couple of paragraphs of prose, carefully calculated to show their author in a good light. Games put you under pressure, manufacture crises, and dump you in awkward social and financial situations, all of which can be uniquely revealing. Where else but in games could you find out on a first date if someone’s a good leader, if they deal well with beggars, if they can be patient with children, if they are greedy when they think no-one else is looking? These are deep elements of a person’s character, and games expose them ruthlessly. Never forget: these are worlds where you can right-click on someone you’ve just met and inspect their underwear. This combination of social intimacy and situational pressure produces a romantic crucible just as powerful as the famous Stockholm syndrome. “Much of the relationship formation in online games happens because these environments force players to work together and bond over crises,” says Nick Yee, an academic who has researched hundreds of online gaming romances as part of his Daedalus Project.

But if that all sounds a bit mercenary, than that’s to underestimate the immense romantic potential of games. Playing together takes you right back to all the delicious excitement of a school-days crush. Most games give you the opportunity to send other players private, real-time messages, so while a group of you gather together for a formal discussion about the next big battle or pirate raid, the two of you can keep up a constant stream of invisible flirtation, confident in the knowledge that these love letters will never be intercepted by the teacher and shared with the class. Or, if you’d rather be outrageous than subtle, then most games give you an arsenal of wolf-whistles, sexy dance moves and flamboyantly blown kisses to direct to the object of your affection.

These are fantasy worlds where the kind of gifts you’ve always dreamed of giving to – and getting from – your lover, are merely a weekend’s play away. Megan, a 32 year old from Minnesota, still wears a rare Mooncloth circlet given to her as a courting gift by the partner she met in World of WarCraft. ‘It’s too low level for me now,’ she confesses, ‘but I never want to take it off. Every time I look and see where it says ‘Made by Kurall’ it still makes me tingle.’ Or, if even virtual capitalism is a turn-off for you, then how about saving the life of your beloved – or sacrificing your own – for the ultimate dramatic gesture? And, for those whose romance truly blossoms, most virtual worlds accommodate in-game weddings, which give you the chance to gather together friends from all around the world in the most spectacular location to witness you making your vows, all without the thousand dollar price tags, and the worries about pre-nups. ‘So far I’ve made a tuxedo and shirt,’ says Christophe, a 21-year old Parisian who also met his girl-friend online and is planning to surprise her with an in-game wedding. ‘I just have to sort out the ring, and then I’m going to surprise her on the beach at sunset.’

23m23uuOne of the great, ironic virtues of the gaming world is that it levels the playing field. People who may be self-conscious of their appearance in real-life can glory in being a ten-foot cow, or a miniature gnome with pink hair. Those who never got a chance to score a goal or win a race can lead victorious armies and proudly wear the insignia to prove it. Traditional dating is like traditional exams – it favours the people whose natural abilities are well suited to a peculiar and artificial process. Gaming gives you an arena where you can demonstrate the strengths that would all too often get overlooked in a usual romantic setting. It lets you show yourself in a far more flattering light than the question, ‘Do you come here often?’ gives you a chance to.

But what if online gaming isn’t your bag, any more than online dating is? What if, despite all the reassurances, you need to meet someone face to face – flesh to flesh – before you can tell whether or not you’re interested in them? Games can still come to your rescue. Watching someone play can be just as revealing whether you’re on the other end of an internet connection or the other end of the sofa. And the great thing about offline games is that there’s a much wider range of titles available, which means a much wider range of insights to be gleaned about your prospective partner. Communal online games tend to fall broadly into the adventuring bracket – kings and queens, monsters and dragons, trading empires and space pirates – which can be a great help in judging the intelligence, patience and team-work of a prospective partner, but may leave you with some crucial gaps.

Home console games often rely on quicker reactions and reward ingenuity and skill. Watching someone play can often given you pointers about their more intimate abilities. So even if war games bore you stupid, it can well be worth sitting through an evening of play, as long as your attention is on your intended, not on the screen. How much finesse do they exhibit? How much imagination? How quick are their fingers? Do they rely on the same tactic over and over again? If it doesn’t work, do they alter their approach, or keep using the same technique in the hope brute force or luck will win the day? Do they follow the instructions the game offers them, or are they determined to please themselves? Do they save the game every five seconds so they never have to worry about losing progress, or are they eager to take risks? Watch and learn, and at the end of the evening, see if you feel surer than you did of how good a lover they would be.

Does the theory work in practice? Certainly many thousands of players have tales to tell of relationships that have started in games, and then moved into the real world. It’s common for romances to bloom over a period of years, and for couples to move thousands of miles to start their lives together. Does this ‘inside-out’ approach of getting to know someone mean that these romances prove more durable than those started in more traditional ways? “We just don’t have good numbers on the success or durability of relationships in different spheres of life to really answer that question.” laments Yee, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the bonds people make in-game are strong and deep. As Megan says, ‘Some of my friends were worried when I went to meet him for the first time, but after two years of adventuring together, I’d learned I could trust him with my life.’ So whether you meet online and then move off, or meet in a bar and venture in-game for an unusual first date, the game of love has never been so easy to play.

[I’ve lost the credits for the cartoons, I’m ashamed to say, so please let me know if you know what they should be, and I’ll add them.]

The gratitude of wolves

Wired March 2010Over the course of last summer, I sent out hundreds of mails to people who I knew, or suspected, or hoped, were Werewolf players, asking for help researching a big, fat Wired feature on the history of the game, and its status among the geeky.

I was expecting a bit of a response, since Werewolf players are often pretty enthusiastic about their game, but I wasn’t expecting to trigger an avalanche. So many people wrote me detailed, fascinating replies – full of history and psychological introspection and swearing and glee – that I genuinely lost count. The stack of print-outs on my desk would have crushed the spirit of anyone who doesn’t actively despise trees. I tried to thank everyone, but I bet I missed a few. Either way, let me thank you again.

Publishing grinds a little slower than blogging (although not much slower than this blog), so the article is now finally outed in this month’s mag. You can read it over at the Wired site or buy a copy and find out a little about Hela cells and Kodak and winning at darts as well. So many quotes ended up getting cut, from so many interesting and generous interviews – apologies if any of them are yours. And do let me know what I’ve missed or got wrong.