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January 2008
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March 2008


Next week is GDC, and the fortnight after that I'll be back in the UK, so no new content here on Only a Game until Tuesday 11th March at the earliest. As soon as I get back, we'll be starting work on the number crunching phase for the DGD2 player model, so I expect to have some interesting discoveries to report over the months to come. In the meantime, there's a vast backlog of curiosities here for you to read (including the recently concluded "Ethics Campaign"), and I will respond to pretty much all comments in due course, so don't mistake my absence for disinterest in what you have to say!

I'll see some of you next week at GDC, some of you in the weeks to follow, but whether I'm going to see you or not I wish you a delightful end to your winter and the hope of a magnificent spring!

Chris has left the virtual building.

New Poll: Spring Census!

Simply tick all the boxes for the elements of Only a Game that you enjoy, and leave blank anything you ignore. Feel free to leave more detailed comments here if you like!

Note that I will be trying out some new departments in the Spring, including Science Fiction & Fantasy and Card games. Anything else you want to see? Leave a note here! Thanks in advance for your comments!

Rushgames (Fight or Flight)

Ilinx2 Rushgames are those play experiences in which the player must maintain concentration and control against a background of stressful events. There are many different kinds of rushgame, depending upon the source of stress being applied – including high speed, vertigo, situational pressure, instinctive terror, or wanton mischief. The characteristic emotional states induced by rushgames are excitement and its close relatives fear and surprise, and the reward emotion of relief.

Whereas the competitive play of wargames is often assumed to be what videogames (and games in general) are about, rushgames may actually be more popular – both Tetris and certain Mario platform games sold more copies than any wargame ever made. However, there are some soft borders to consider, as many wargames could also be considered rushgames, in so much as they share similar emotions. (The boundary condition for wargames has been stated as competition or violence, however, and rushgames need not contain either). It is worth noting in this regard that a key wargame emotion – fiero (triumph over adversity) – may naturally occur in a rushgame, although its companion anger (which can intensify fiero) is not necessarily associated. 

Rushgames correspond to Roger Caillois’ ilinx (vertigo) pattern of play, which we have discussed previously, and also to Nicole Lazzaro’s Serious Fun pattern of emotional response, while wargames correspond to Caillois’ agon and Lazzaro’s Hard Fun. All rushgames tend towards tactical in the terms previously defined, in that the most prevalent forms are necessarily real-time, but in fact a turn-based rushgame (i.e. a strategic rushgame) is perfectly possible (certain cRPGs, such as Final Fantasy X2, produce this kind of experience by increasing pressure on the player within a turn-based format).

We will look at the many different types of rushgame in due course, but first we will consider the relationship between wargames and rushgames from a biological standpoint.


Fight or Flight

The fight-or-flight response is a basic biological stress mechanism found in most vertebrates and many other animals, first described by Walter Cannon in 1915. The response was later linked to the hormone and neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenalin), which raises the heart rate and triggers a host of other biological responses that prime an animal to take action when facing a stressful situation. The two responses – fight or flight – are chosen by the animal in question based on their instincts and individual personality. 

Note that the stress response relating to adrenalin provides the emotional feeling of both excitement and fear. Psychologically, these feel like different states, but biologically, the physiological response is in essence the same (being driven internally by the same chemical). The difference between excitement and fear is subtle, and many psychologists have remarked on their similarity (for instance, Nina Bull’s 1951 study of hypnotically induced fear, and Smith & Ellsworth’s examination of emotional responses in the 1980s). Indeed, the key distinction is the individual’s expectations: when negative outcomes are expected, fear occurs (we might term it anxiety, but it’s the same emotion), but when positive outcomes are expected or no conscious expectation exists, excitement occurs.

The two parts of the fight-or-flight response correspond to wargames and rushgames respectively. The desire to fight is motivated by anger overcoming fear – this is the emotional pattern of wargames which, after all, are about competition and violence – fighting. Conversely, the desire to flee (flight) is motivated by fear overcoming curiosity (an emotion we will look at later) and occurs in the absence of anger. This is the exact emotional pattern associated with rushgames – excitement (which is a form of fear) in the absence of anger. 

Rushgames, therefore, are about stress without anger – games of adrenalin, which need not involve competition or violence. Stress creates excitement (modified fear) and when the stressful situation passes, the player experiences an endorphin rush of one of two kinds: in the case of simple survival through the stressful episode, relief (the physiological signs of which are exhalation and muscle relaxation), and in the case of a sense of achievement or victory, fiero (the physiological signs of which are hands suddenly held high, and a possible intense vocal exclamation, such as “Yes!”).

It is possible that the same endorphin chemicals are behind these emotions, and that fiero is simply the same emotional reward as relief but in a different context – possibly when anger is part of the mix (anger being tied to norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter similar to epinephrine i.e. adrenalin). However, I caution against overvaluing reductionistic perspectives in understanding psychology: the underlying mechanisms are important for medical and pharmaceutical research, but are largely irrelevant when considering human behaviour itself. 

Additionally, the nature of the play of these games - which generally involves attempts to maintain control under difficult conditions, can also lead to surprise - a brief emotional response, probably also related to fear. For instance, in a rushgame which creates tension by the use of a long combo chain, if the player breaks the combo by making an unexpected mistake they will display the open mouth, wide-eyed expression which corresponds to surprise, and similarly a survival horror game may plan shocking events to evoke surprise. Interestingly, surprise can often be followed by relief - especially if the shock doesn't turn out to be as serious as first assessed - which means surprise can also be a route to the emotional reward of relief. Since surprise and fear seem to be quite similar (apart from duration), this reinforces the idea that games of this kind are  ultimately about fear, usually experienced as excitement, and the related reward of relief.

Now we understand the biological mechanism behind rushgames, we are ready to look at different kinds of rushgame.


Speed Rushgames 

One common way to put the player into a stressful situation is to place them at the limits of their ability to maintain control, which is a technique employed in high speed racers such as the Burnout and F-Zero franchises, and indeed in racing games in general. The same kind of play can be found in snow boarding games and crime-based racing games, which challenge the player to make their escape from the police (such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise).

Usually, these games are also designed with competition in mind – thus skewing the play more towards wargames. This may in fact result in a narrowing of audience – it is perfectly possible to design a game mode for a speed rushgame in which no competition is required.


Vertigo Rushgames 

Another way to evoke the patterns of emotions associated with rushgames is to use vertigo (something Caillois was acutely aware of). A prime example of games that attempt to invoke excitement in this manner are the Mario franchise platform games, almost all of which evoke excitement by dizzying the player with the consequences should they miss their next jump, coupled with the additional pressures of compensating for momentum. The high scroll speed of the Sonic games are perhaps even more obviously vertiginous in nature, and combine elements of speed rushgames with vertigo.

Note, however, that platform games need not necessarily be rushgames – the Mario games are inherently more stressful than many of the 3D platform games that occurred during their heyday in the 1990s, for instance. This is because many of these kinds of game are using the platform game structure, but are really offering players opportunities for exploration and other more relaxed forms of entertainment (we shall look at this later this year).


Pressure Rushgames 

Puzzle games which fall into the rushgame pattern increase player stress by reducing the player’s capacity to respond to game situations as a result of increasing pressure to act, or decreasing freedom to act. The most successful game of this kind is Tetris itself, which is a quintessential pressure rushgame, placing stress on the player to deal with problems that occur before the play field fills up.

The same kind of play can be found in “plate spinning” games, such as Diner Dash and its antecedent, the 1983 Bally Midway arcade game Tapper. In these games, situations requiring player response occur with increasing frequency, thus creating the stress situation. Clearing each barroom challenge in Tapper gives the player the reward of relief – they survived the crisis situation.

Vertically scrolling shooters in the "bullet maze" style may also fit within this category, if they do not warrant a category of their own.


Chain Rushgames 

Closely related to pressure rushgames, another means of putting the player in a stressful situation is to have the player’s overall performance index linked to their capacity to accurately complete actions in succession – commonly achieved via the use of an exponential combo multiplier that dramatically inflates the score the player achieves as a result of many successive successes. In a combo-focussed game, one mistake breaks the chain – it is this undesirable outcome which provides the excitement and fear, since to reach the highest scores absolutely requires few if any breaks in the combo chain.

Examples of this style are endemic and hugely popular. The recently released Link’s Crossbow Training is the latest of a long tradition of shooting galleries based on this form, and the classic NiGHTS: Into Dreams became a chain rushgame after the player mastered the basics. Most successful of all the games in this kind, however, are rhythm action games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. These function initially as pressure rushgames in general, and then (once the player becomes fully cognisant of the scoring mechanism) as chain rushgames.


Survival Rushgames 

Another approach to the emotions associated with rushgames is to go beyond excitement and attempt to engender fear directly – often by use of traditionally “scary” monsters (zombies, alien creatures, spiders, snakes etc.). The survival horror game, of which the Resident Evil franchise is the most commercially successful, represents a special kind of rushgame in which terror is encoded into the narrative setting of the virtual world.

These games usually also add a logistical element, namely the conservation of ammunition and healing items. Indeed, this element is crucial to the general feel of the survival rushgame – decreasing resources increases the stress upon the player, making the surprises the game triggers to cause the player jump with fright all the more effective. A great number of tricks from the narrative language of film can be gainfully employed in this style of rushgame, which is the only kind in which fear is expressly more important than excitement.


Mischief Rushgames 

A final approach to engendering excitement and relief corresponds to another aspect of Caillois’ ilinx play pattern – something discussed previously as destructive ilinx. Games which draw on this approach tap into the normally repressed desire to cause destruction and chaos – the pleasure one gets from stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.

The most famous of these mischief rushgames is the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which invites the player to take part in all manner of illegal acts they would never consider doing in real life, but within the magic circle of play, where normal social rules are suspended, the freedom to misbehave is irresistible. (Of course, GTA games also function as speed rushgames, and in many other play patterns as well - this is part of the secret of its success). 

Other examples include the crash mode of games such as Burnout 2 that allow the player to cause gigantic pile ups which are graded in terms of the destruction caused.



Rushgames are a genre of videogames that place the player under stress in order to create excitement, without expressly needing to use competition or violence. There are several key forms currently being commercially exploited:

  • Speed rushgames: use the difficulty of maintaining control at high velocities as the source of stress.
  • Vertigo rushgames: use the risk of falling as a source of stress.
  • Pressure rushgames: increase the number of critical situations the player has to deal with as a source of stress.
  • Chain rushgames: use the risk of breaking an exponential score combo as a source of stress.
  • Survival rushgames: use fearful monsters and restriction of the means of defence as a source of stress.
  • Mischief rushgames: draw upon our natural tendency to repress destructive and chaotic impulses as a source of stress.

These forms of games excite the player by presenting stressful situations that the player is challenged to survive, through which the player earns the emotional reward of relief, and in some cases fiero (triumph over adversity). Surprise is also associated with this kind of game - both in terms of intentional shocks and the momentary panic when a mistake costs the player dearly (as in a broken combo in a chain rushgame, a crash in a speed rushgame, or a fall in a vertigo rushgame).

This form is actually even more commercially successful than wargames – both Tetris and Mario have outsold the most popular wargames by orders of magnitude – which begs the question: if rushgames are more popular than wargames, why does the games industry spend so much more of its resources making games of violence?

Please share your experiences of rushgames in the comments.

About the New Genre Taxonomy Project

When I posted about what was at the time dubbed "wargames" (Caillois' agon, Lazzaro's Hard Fun) the other week, I noted that this was part of a new mini-project to create an entirely new genre taxonomy for videogames. The purpose of the exercise is to warm up for the analysis of the data in the new DGD2 survey, which will commence in the Spring. In many respects, this is reviewing some of the key elements of the theory of play developed, and still being refined, by my company International Hobo.

One thing I wanted to make clear about the new taxonomy is that I don't know how this project will turn out. Today, I'm posting the second piece - "rushgames" - which covers Caillois' ilinx, which corresponds to Lazzaro's Serious Fun. However, I truly do not know how we will convert games of chance (Caillois' alea) into elements of a videogame taxonomy, nor am I anywhere close to cataloguing all of the ways world-immersion (Caillois' mimicry) can be used in videogames - nor is it clear whether or not we will have to create additional high level categories beyond Caillois' basic four to encompass all the major patterns of play at use in videogames. I will need the help of the players here at Only a Game to complete the project over the next few months. I'm considering holding a symposium on the use of chance in videogames in the Spring to explore that oft-overlooked topic, and will probably also need assistance in cataloguing the variety of ways mimicry can be used to support play.

It's important to note that all the genre and sub-genre names being suggested are place holders - I will probably re-issue the genre posts at a later date with new names, and I thus welcome discussion about the names chosen. I very much doubt I will stick with "wargames" for competitive/violent games, because this term already has another reading, and chose it at the time solely to fit in with the "War Week" near the end of the "Ethics Campaign". All genre titles are subject to change and consequently your opinions on the names are especially welcome.

For instance, for the two types of game which relate to the fight or flight response, we could make
this more explicit and talk about fight-games and flight-games. Or we could emphasise the element of control in what has been dubbed "rushgames" and use terms like control-games or skill-games for these kinds of games, and note the element of aggression in what's dubbed "wargames" and talk about attack-games.

Feel free to share your thoughts on the names being used both now and throughout the genre taxonomy mini-project. I look forward to reading your thoughts!


Normal posting has been disrupted this week by a trip to Cincinnati and the desperate rush to tie everything up before I head off to San Francisco for GDC. I do have a games post drafted that I intend to put up, but it needs some editing and I'm short of time. Bear with me - I'll get something posted before the end of the week I should think.

Back in the Green Room

The "Ethics Campaign" ended yesterday. This piece invites you to help bookend it.

And so, the epic "Ethics Campaign" that began in May last year is finally concluded, almost a year later. It transpired to be more work than I originally imagined (Ethics is a huge topic), and less fun than the "Metaphysics Campaign", but still well worth the pursuit.

I began knowing little or nothing about my own ethics, except that my ethical stance had formed around the teachings of Jesus (but not, I should stress, conventional Christian doctrine). Now, having dug into the corners and kicked the tyres, I have learned that I am a great believer in the Kantian project of Communal Autonomy and Mutual Respect, and that I find Consequentialism abhorrent when it is employed by governments and organisations (but I can still respect individuals who choose this ethical system). Most of all, I have identified what is perhaps my core value: Freedom of Belief.

I'd like to thank all the players who have contributed to the "Ethics Campaign", especially: Peter Crowther, zenBen, translucy, Theo, Caller #6, Neil, Jack Monahan, Bezman, Patrick, Suyi, Trevel, TT,  Michael Mouse, Yehuda Berlinger, Foster Nichols, Wonders for Oyarsa, Michael Pereira, Olivier Rouleau and latecomer Sankofa, and also occasional voices such as Rob, Paddy, VagabondX, Corvus, Ophelia, John Peacock, Tom Camfield, Marc, Darius K., Duoae, Duncan, Mad, Matthew Cromer, Troy Gilbert, Ethan C, RodeoClown, Chris F., Malky, Arto, DJ i/o, Sammas and James. To all these players and more besides, I offer my especial thanks, and hope you have found it an entertaining journey. I'd also like to thank the artists whose beautiful work I used to adorn the key pieces, and especially Shoshanna Bauer and Maureen Shaughnessy. And to those silent spectators who read but don't play in the open, now would be a great time to step out of the shadows and say a few words.

In fact, now we're back in the Green Room, it's a perfect time for Q&A, quick comments or anything else of the kind. If you enjoyed the "Ethics Campaign", I would love to hear from you, and I'd especially like to hear about any favourite post anyone has from the campaign.  For me, the original Relative Ethics post, and the Kant's Yardstick post became indispensable,  but Ethics of Metaphysics is still probably my personal highlight - if you have a favourite piece from the campaign, do let me know! (The key posts are indexed in the sidebar under "Philosophy: Ethics" and "Discussion of Ethical Issues", and all the material can be found under "Categories: Ethics").

I'll begin a new "Campaign" in 2009 - it probably won't be the "Narrative Campaign" that would complete this original trinity, and in all honestly I have no idea what the next one will be about - I'm just delighted to have survived this one!

One final thing: as ever on this blog, you are free to post comments on older material and bring it back into play. Just because the "Ethics Campaign" is over it doesn't mean we can't go on talking about ethics if that's what you want! As long as you have things to say, I'll be happy to listen and respond. It may be my blog, but it would be nothing without your involvement.

Thank you for playing!


Freedom of Belief

205535056_27bac0841a_o_2 Freedom of belief is the foundation upon which all our other freedoms rest, and to deny it is to oppose liberty itself.

Why must liberty rest on freedom of belief? This case is already well established, although it is usually couched in terms of freedom of thought (which is functionally equivalent since all thoughts rest upon beliefs). For example, the US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo stated in 1937 that “Freedom of thought... is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” Consider, for instance, what freedom of expression means if one does not have the freedom to think and believe without restriction. This foundational freedom is protected by the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”), which almost all democratic nations have ratified, and many others besides . This clause does not grant individuals the freedom to act in any way they choose – indeed, it places the boundary of the law clearly at action, and not at thought or belief.

A simple thought experiment will demonstrate why we all need freedom of belief: consider attitudes towards the idea of God. Theists will not tolerate any attempt to force them to deny God, as their relationship with God is central to their lives, while atheists will not tolerate any attempt to force them to accept or worship God, and agnostics and non-participants in this metaphysical issue do not appreciate attempts to compel them into either camp. Given this arrangement, it should be immediately apparent why freedom of belief is so essential: every individual must be free to make up their own mind about what they think and believe, or else one is not truly an individual.

In this regard, anti-theist sentiments expressed by atheists with the valid goal of seeking widespread acceptance and legitimacy for their own belief systems are counter productive: one cannot secure the freedom to hold belief systems that do not use the term “God” by attacking other people’s freedom to hold belief systems in which God is a valid and meaningful term. To do so is to engage in a weak form of the atrocious denial of freedom of belief that Christian churches several centuries ago shamefully conducted by forcing people to accept their doctrine or suffer the consequences. 

However, this problem is fairly trivial next to the widespread denial of freedom of belief in a political context, particularly common in the United States, which is happy to say that people have freedom and liberty, but then pillories dissenters when they express their views publicly (despite the constitution of that great nation enshrining the freedoms of both belief and speech). When US citizens are socially indoctrinated against speaking out, it is a grave abasement of the core values of that Republic and its Founders, and when the matter at hand concerns the deployment of armed forces into an unjust war, it also dishonours the brave men and women sworn to defend that nation with their lives. 

The worst abuses of freedom of belief arguably occur outside of democratic countries. In Iran, the state recognises only four religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and members of the Bahá'í faith in particularly have been viciously persecuted, subjected to arrests, beatings, confiscation of property and even executions. This is in defiance of the Qu'ran, which states “There is no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:257), and especially disappointing since Bahá'í teachings are strikingly similar to the Muslim tradition of Sufi. Furthermore, many non-democratic countries persecute those who campaign for democracy: although the situation in China has improved somewhat in recent years, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 left hundreds dead, underlining the extent to which the Communist party in China denied what people in the West consider basic freedoms.

Presuming that it is now clear why freedom of belief provides the foundation of all liberty, it is perhaps still necessary to show why this tenet must hold even in extreme cases. For example, almost no-one would advocate child abuse, so how can it be necessary to grant something as abhorrent as the freedom to believe that raping children is permissible? It is vital to remember that the freedom to believe and the freedom to act are entirely separate issues – we can revile someone who believes in conducting child rape, but we cannot stop them from holding this belief. We can enforce laws against child rape, but we cannot and must not consider a criminal someone who merely thinks about being a child rapist, no matter how offensive this might be to our own sensibilities. Consider times when in anger you have contemplated violence or murder, even though you would never follow through on such extreme acts. Should you be considered a criminal simply for imagining killing someone who enrages you? 

In George Orwell’s shrewdly observed dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, an oppressive government tries to control not only the speech and actions of the populace, but their very minds. Thoughts that elicit government disapproval are labeled thoughtcrime, and subject to severe punishment. If this seems fanciful, consider how some Muslim nations (in strict defiance of the teachings of the Qur’an) punish apostasy with death, or how denial of the Holocaust is punishable by a prison sentence in Austria. Consider also the chilling possibility of using brain imaging techniques (such as MRI or CT scans) as evidence in court. This latter idea was explored in a recent episode of David E. Kelly's legal drama Boston Legal, in which a man was charged with a hate crime on the basis that when shown images of black men his amygdala (the part of the brain which registers fear) was demonstrated to be active. This was a work of fiction, but it is a disturbing fact that lawyers are already attempting to use brain scans as court evidence in the United States.

A central problem with the idea of punishing thoughts is that for beliefs to be considered a crime requires the law to specify which thoughts are to be disallowed. At this point, a government can dictate what it is or is not a permissible belief. An absurd extension of this state of affairs would be the government of a nation controlling political views by criminalising opposition – a situation that did occur under Communist rule in certain countries, not to mention similar episodes in the history of autocratic rule in general. The only absolutely safe way to prevent anything of the kind from taking place is to enforce the boundary of the law at action, and not thought or belief, which is already the case in the law of democratic nations.   

However, a problematic boundary results from the recognition that freedom of belief is the foundation of liberty: how to deal with other nations that do not afford freedom of belief. A commonly held view in the United States, for instance, is that it is acceptable to wage war in order to promulgate democracy. Such an attitude denies freedom of belief, since the autonomy implied must include the freedom to believe in other systems of government, including non-democratic government, and even including systems of government that deny freedom of belief. This seems like a paradox: freedom of belief requires that we allow people in other countries to deny freedom of belief?

To unfold this absurdity, one must understand the relationship between law and freedoms. Lawmaking is a process that occurs within a particular nation – it's people collectively agree to laws that bind themselves , including laws that grant essential rights such as freedom of belief. No country can pass a law to bind the inhabitants of another land without first invading and seizing control of the other nation, and the populace of an invaded country cannot be free in any tangible sense while a foreign power is in control. 

International law comes from treaties that are negotiated between nations acting as equals (as much as this is possible), not from individual legislatures forcing their influence further afield. Each state under democratic ideals represents the collective will of the people, and the boundary of that will is the nation itself. If people wish to influence other nations, the just means for doing so is negotiation and eventual treaties – war cannot be a mechanism for enforcing a nation’s values abroad if it is to remain just in any sense of the term. Thus, even nations which deny freedom of belief must be granted the freedom to do so, although other countries may still exert influence on the international stage to encourage movement towards greater liberty via mechanisms such as trade incentives, sanctions and conditional foreign aid. For democracy or some other condition of liberty to emerge in any given country, the impetus for transformation must come from the people of the nation in question, or it could not truly be freedom.

Part of the problem in respect to freedom of belief in the context of ethics is that people all too frequently attempt to intellectually evaluate other peoples’ moral values, instead of choosing to respect them. Consider, in the case of beliefs concerning God, how narrow-minded Christians dismiss atheists as inherently immoral because rather than respecting the moral values that atheists hold, they attempt to evaluate them in terms of their own metaphysics and conclude (erroneously) that atheism is implicitly immoral. Some atheists make exactly the same mistake in reverse: they evaluate religious metaphysics and ethics as insane, rather than respecting the values such people hold irrespective of how they are derived. In the context of relative ethics in which the modern world finds itself (not the abyss of moral relativism, but an acceptance of the diversity of ethical systems) it no longer matters how one derives one’s values, it only matters that one holds particular values. It is the duty of anyone who claims to value liberty and freedom to respect other peoples’ values as those peoples’ freely chosen ethical beliefs, irrespective of how they are derived.

Freedom of belief is not an easy standard to uphold, but it is a vital principle if we are to have any hope of achieving a lasting world peace. Arrogant realism – the contention that one’s own belief system is absolutely true and thus all others must be in error – denies freedom of belief, and thus stands in opposition to genuine liberty. Ironically, under the auspices of freedom of belief we must allow people to hold such views, just as we must permit racism and religious bigotry no matter how offensive we may find them. But anyone who holds in esteem the democratic value of liberty should extend freedom of belief to everyone else on the planet – the freedom to choose their metaphysical beliefs, their ethical beliefs, and their consequent political beliefs, even if those beliefs inherently deny the very freedom that is being extended! For to deny the free choice of beliefs is to suppress the liberty of the imagination, of heart and of mind, and to render everyone vulnerable to a tyranny of truth which by its very nature threatens to extinguish the grand diversity of perspectives that is humanity’s most precious creation. 

The opening image is Mark Rothko's Light Red Over Black, which I found here on a blog discussing famous art. I'm not sure if there is implied copyright infringement, but as ever, I will take the image down if asked.

Sound Judgement

Sound_effects_2 More than music, more than art, more than programming and far more than game design as its currently practiced, the audio design of a project can determine the quality of the experience of world-immersion (as opposed to the focus-immersion of Flow associated with highly engaging play) a modern videogame delivers. This world-immersion is an aspect of what Roger Caillois groups under mimicry, the acceptance of an “imaginary universe”. I expect every modern game player understands what this phrase can mean in the context of videogames.

But why should audio have such a prime position in this respect?

The experience of world-immersion is about suspension of disbelief, which can happen through many different ways. For instance, when you watch a theatrical play, the social context is an avenue to this willing suspension of disbelief, as is the case with a tabletop role-playing game. In a videogame (and for that matter, a movie or TV show), social context is usually not a factor, and thus it is the graphics and sound which carry the brunt of the task.

It is a sad fact of all media (excepting, perhaps, novels) that advances in technology raise the bar for mimicry, thus making it difficult for people who make their money from a creative medium as they must constantly adapt to the new conditions. Consider what effect blue screen technology had on the cinema in the 1970s, and later the effect CGI had in the 1990s and beyond. The same situation occurs in videogames: the quality of the graphics improve, making older techniques which once seemed impressively “real” seem clunky and blocky. Can anyone remember what it felt like when the original Sony PlayStation and its rival the Sega Saturn raised the bar into 3D? It was the games industry’s equivalent of the blue screen watershed.

But now, as I have mentioned before, improvement in graphics are actually quite marginal. The transition to modern shiny graphics (which is difficult to pin down, but certainly happened in the previous generation of consoles) was the last major advance – and as a result, the new machines are not as graphically impressive as they could be (however technically impressive they may be). It’s not that they aren’t of a very high standard visually – it’s that the bar hasn’t taken a quantum leap upwards this time. It’s just slight improvements.

That’s what opens the door for brilliant audio design to make such a difference. We arguably hit the pinnacle of audio design the moment we had digital sound – sound engineers having had a century to develop their craft – which means this discipline isn’t greatly affected by technological advances any more. Rather, it is the care and attention that a game’s audio designer takes which makes all the difference – considering everything in the world that might make a noise, and then providing those sounds in all the right places.

Consider how flat the island locales of Far Cry would be without the sounds of seagulls and the lapping of the wave against the floor, or how the sound of a TIE fighter engine in a Star Wars game brings both the smile of nostalgia and world-immersion. Not to belittle the neat interface improvements and decision to support co-operative play in Halo: Combat Evolved, but Martin O’Donnell's sound design on this title was perhaps the best aspect of the whole game, with the quality of the sound effects far outstripping (for instance) the weakness of its derivative storyline.

But surely, you might be tempted to say, game design is just as important as audio design in evoking an imaginary world? After all, isn’t what you can do in the world the centre of the play? Well perhaps it should be, but in our industry as it stands the role of the game designer is hamstrung by old fashioned attitudes concerning what the term “game design” (and, for that matter, “game”) means, exacerbated by  a slow-to-adapt corporate culture. In a hundred games where the central verb is “shoot”, what value is the game designer going to add, exactly? They generally end up just leading a few key mechanical decisions and generating mountains of paperwork, while the audio designer brings the virtual world alive with their creations. In a strategy game, in an RPG, for these and certain other genres, perhaps, game design still holds the cards – but when we just consider world immersion, the importance of the role is significantly reduced.

I’m proud to have worked with a number of great audio designers, including Paul Weir of Earcom who did the music and sound effects for both Discworld Noir and Ghost Master. Paul pursues the task of audio design with a diligent glee – I hope I get the chance to work with him again on something suitable in the future. On the right project, there’s a good energy between all the different teams working on a project – programming, art, audio and design – and it’s that creative energy which can make all the difference.

I have never underestimated the importance of audio design in videogames, and it is never more vital than in games that attempt to induce that escapist sense of world-immersion. The sound of dry leaves beneath your feet, the distant blowing of wind through the branches and the forlorn cry of a distant bird – these are the means that audio effects can employ to transport us body and soul into another world.

Got a blog? Join the February Round Table on Audio in Games!
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My Lost Adventure Games

Sp_babes6 It is a sad fact of the games industry that most of us end up working on many more game projects than ever see the light of day. I'm delighted to report that Spanish adventure game site Adventura CIA has an article about two such projects I worked on at Perfect Entertainment, where I also worked on the popular and successful Discworld adventures. The two lost projects were an original sci-fi comedy adventure called Space Babes, and an adventure game based on The Naked Gun license. Neither were ever completed, but you can read the story of these forgotten projects here.