Hannah Sullivan, The Work of Revision

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I’ve been reading Hannah Sullivan’s The Work of Revision, and really enjoying it. Here are a couple of excerpts from her chapter on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, centering on Ezra Pound’s editorial input on the poem.

She makes a good case that Eliot’s style of revision indicated a profoundly different aesthetic than the excisive revisions that Pound (apparently vigorously) put forward. It’s a bit of a counter-narrative to the story of a team-up; rather Pound’s revisions antagonized Eliot’s original vision, creating a poem somewhat apart from both of them, but perhaps more in Pound’s camp. 

Dwarf Fortress Interviews

Dwarf Fortress screen

Before the week is out I wanted to post to the NYT interview with the Adams brothers, who design and build the incredible labor of love that is Dwarf Fortress.

I had the opportunity to interview Tarn Adams (audio and transcript available), who programs the game, for the game preservation project I worked on in school (all interviews are here at the Center for American History). Tarn is a standout guy, who is awfully generous with his time considering the colossal task ahead of he and his brother. He gave a great interview that illuminated important parts of their game-making, which is in kind with the idiosyncratic and singular quality of Dwarf Fortress.

Check out the NYT interview — Tarn has thoughtful and provoking comments on playing games these days.

And, if you haven’t tried Dwarf Fortress, give it a go sometime. I played it for a year on and off – one day I’d like to make a return to it. It’s not as hard as all that, really – although you should have the wiki open as you play.

Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom [re-post]

A re-post from the Preserving Games blog, January 24, 2010.

Hutchison, A. (2008). Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom. Game Studies, 8(1). Retrieved from http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/hutch


This 2008 Games Studies article examines the effect technology (or the “techno-historic” context of a game work) has on game aesthetics. The author defines the “game aesthetics” as “the combination of the audio-visual rendering aspects and gameplay and narrative/fictional aspects of a game experience.” It is important to note that audio-visual aspects are included in this definition along with the narrative/fictional components. This is because the author later argues that advancing audio-visual technology will play an important role in advancing the narrative aspect of games.

The article begins with a comparison of two iconic computer games of the mid 1990s: Myst and Doom. Specifically the design response in each game to the technological limitations of PCs at the time is examined. Very briefly, we see that Myst takes the “slow and high road” to rendering and first-person immersion, while Doom adopts the “fast and low road.” As the author explains, each response was prompted by the limitations of rendering that a personal computer could perform at the time. For its part, Myst’s design chooses to simply skip actual present-time 3D rendering and use only pre-rendered, impeccably crafted (at the time) images to move the player through the world. Minor exceptions exist when Quicktime video is cleverly overlaid onto these images to animate a butterfly, bug, moving wheel, etc. This overall effect very much informs the game’s aesthetic, as anyone who played the original can recall. Myst is a quiet, still, contemplative and mysterious world. Continuous and looping sound is crucial to the identity of the world and the player’s immersion. Nearly every visual element is important and serves a purpose. The designers could not afford to draw scenes extraneous to the gameplay. The player’s observation of the scenes available is key, and the player can generally be assured that all elements in the Myst world warrant some kind of attention. Hardware limitations of the time, such as the slow read time of most CD-ROM drives, serve to reinforce this slow, methodical gameplay and visual aesthetic.

Doom by contrast uses realtime rendering at the expense of visual nuance and detail. Doom achieves immersion through visceral and immediate responsiveness, and its aesthetic is one of quick action and relentlessly urgency. The low resolution of the art and characters is compensated by the quick passing of those textures and objects, and by the near-constant survival crisis at hand. Redundancy of visual elements and spaces is not an issue: the player can face down hordes of identical opponents in similar spaces (sometimes the exact same space) and not mind at all because the dynamism of the gameplay is engaging enough to allow such repetition. Pac-Man had the same strength.

From this comparison the author goes on to speculate how techno-historic limitations inform aesthetics in general, and whether the increasing capacity of personal computers to render audio-visual components in extreme and realtime detail will inform the narrative/fictional aspects of games as well. One only needs a passing familiarity with games to know that this aspect of games has been widely disparaged in the media and in some academic writing. Some quotes the author uses to characterize the degenerative trend of popular media and the game industry’s complicity in the coming intellectual apocalypse:

Perhaps lending strength to this phenomenon is a current popular culture stylistic trend which emphasises “spectacle” over narrative and gameplay. Peter Lunenfeld has identified this broad movement in popular culture generally:

Our culture has evacuated narrative from large swaths of mass media. Pornography, video games, and the dominant effects-driven, high concept Hollywood spectaculars are all essentially narrative-free: a succession of money shots, twitch reflex action, and visceral thrills strung together in time without ever being unified by classic story structure (Lunenfeld, 2000, p.141).

And more specifically dealing with games:

“It is a paradox that, despite the lavish and quite expensive graphics of these productions, the player’s creative options are still as primitive as they were in 1976” (Aarseth, 1997, p.103).

Most interesting is the observation that richer media capabilities does not necessarily translate to glossier, superficial renderings. Richer media can mean a more meaningful experience for the player. Nuance and subtlety can be introduced, more information-rich media can mean more powerfully conveyed characters and a more fully realized narrative.

On top of this, one can expand the definition of “story” and “narrative” as id developer Tom Willits argues in this Gamasutra report:

“If you wrote about your feelings, about your excitement, the excitement you felt when new areas were uncovered [in Doom] — if you wrote it well, it would be a great story,” Willits says. “People call it a ‘bad story,’ because the paper story is only one part of the game narrative — and people focus on the paper story too much when they talk about the story of a game.”

Information, he maintains, is learned through experiences, and the experience of playing a game is what forms a narrative, by its nature. Delivering a story through the game experience is the “cornerstone” of id Software’s game design, and the key when developing new technology.

Whatever your opinion on what constitutes story and narrative in media, the author of this piece has made a compelling argument that advancing technical capabilities could directly inform the narrative/fictional aspect of a game’s aesthetics, and certainly has done so in the past.

There’s A Symposium Going On

The place to be is UTA 1.208 (the large classroom) in the UTA building of the UT Austin campus, at 1616 Guadalupe, on Friday, October 8.

The presentations are open to all, so come have a seat if you can! There will be questions too. The agenda:

Disciplines Converge: Representing Videogames for Preservation and Cultural Access

1:00 PM Bonnie Nardi (University of California at Irvine)
The Many Lives of a Mod
The concept of “mod” (software modification) is deceptively simple. Starting with a thought in a player’s mind on how to improve a video game, the activity of modding ramifies to problems of power, law, culture, inequality, and technological evolution. Even an expansive concept such as participatory culture does not capture the lives of a mod which enter wider arenas of activity at corporate and national levels. As we write game history (the project of ethnography) and preserve digital artifacts (the project of preservationists) is there a way to move the two projects more closely together to provide future generations more theorized representations of video games?

2:00 PM Henry Lowood (Stanford University)
Video Capture: Machinima, Documentation, and the History of Virtual Worlds
The three primary methods for making machinima during its brief history—code, capture, and compositing—match up neatly with three ideas about how to document the history of virtual worlds. These linkages between machinima and documentation are provocative for thinking about what we can do to save and preserve the history of virtual worlds in their early days. As it turns out, they also suggest how we might begin to think about machinima as a documentary medium.

3:00 PM Jerome McDonough (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Final Report of the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project
This presentation will provide a summary of the findings from the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, a collaborative investigation into the preservation of video games and interactive literature by the Rochester Institute of Technology, Stanford University Libraries, the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland.  This research was conducted as one of the Preserving Creative America projects sponsored by the Library of Congress’ NDIIPP program.  The summary will touch on issues of intellectual description and access of games, collection development, legal issues surrounding game preservation, the results of our evaluations of preservation strategies, and a discussion of possible further research agendas within this arena.

4:00 PM Megan Winget (University of Texas at Austin)
We Need A New Model: The Game Development Process and Traditional Archives
This presentation will relate findings from our IMLS project focused on the video game creation process. Data includes eleven qualitative interviews conducted with individuals involved in the game development, spanning a number of different roles and institution types. The most pressing findings relate to the nature of documentation in the video game industry: project interviews indicate that game development produces significant documentation as traditionally conceived by collecting institutions. This documentation ranges from game design documents to email correspondence and business reports. However, traditional documentation does not adequately, or even, at times, truthfully represent the project or the game creation process.

In order to accurately represent the development process, collecting institutions also need to seek out and procure versions of games and game assets. The term version here refers to formally produced editions of the game (the Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 2, and Nintendo DS versions of the same game, for example), as well as versions that are natural byproducts of the design process, such as alpha and beta builds, vertical slices, or multiple iterations of game assets. In addition to addressing the specifics of the game design process, this presentation will make the case for developing new archive models that accurately represent the real work of game creation.

Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? [re-post]

A re-post from the Preserving Games blog, October 22, 2009.

Y. Aoyama and H. Izushi, “Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? Technological, cultural, and social foundations of the Japanese video game industry,” Research Policy 32, no. 3 (2003): 423–444.

This 2002 article (written 2001) looks at the success of the Japanese video game industry and attempts to illuminate the unique factors behind its success. Japan’s video game industry is especially remarkable given the dominance of “English language-based exportable cultural products” and the origin of the video game industry, which began in the US with Steve Russell’s programming of Space War for the PDP-10 and Nolan Bushnell’s subsequent creation of Atari to market and sell such arcade games.

Mega Man
Mega Man, hero of the early NES platformers. His design has characteristics of the manga style.

The authors give a history of the industry and observe Nintendo’s very early interest and involvement with electronic toy games. This began as early as the 1960s with the emerging popularity of shooting games with optical sensors. Nintendo was able to recruit technical expertise from consumer electronics and provided them with early successes like Game and Watch and Color TV Game (totally cool old ad at gamepressure). But Nintendo’s historic rise in the console market with both the Famicon and NES was due in no small part to its attention to quality software; the company made sure to foster in-studio works (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers) and hold alliances with outside game developers.

After the mid 90s Nintendo falters by retaining cartridges for their games rather than the CD-ROM; this among other factors allows Sony to rise in the market. The authors continue the brief history up to the approximate time of the article, but one main point can be drawn from the narrative: hardware and software are intricately linked and related; success frequently hinges on a deep synchronicity between the two engineering pursuits. The authors go on to elaborate this point, emphasizing Nintendo’s early collaboration with domestic electronic consumer goods firms.

The article describes three types of software publishers:

  • in-house publishers of platform developers (e.g. Nintendo)
  • comprehensive software publishers with in-house capability for most development (e.g. Square)
  • publishers that act as producer/coordinator and outsource most functions (e.g. Enix)
Continue reading “Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? [re-post]”

What Story? Reporting a MUD-Dev Thread from April – May 2000 [re-post]

This is a re-post from my original on the Preserving Games blog, January 23, 2009. I expect to re-post most of these from over time. Looking at this one, I’m struck by how the posters’ concerns are still being considered and played out. In particular, I’m interested in the incidental storytelling notion, in my experience best demonstrated by Dwarf Fortress. A good example of that emergent storytelling is nomad (tim)‘s great illustration of one particular battle.

From August 22, 1996 to the early October of 2004 the MUD-Dev mailing list housed a slew of earnest and lengthy discussions — technical, philosophical, design and otherwise — concerning the development and play of multi-user dungeons (MUDs).

MUDs were developed before graphics-capable computers, originating and remaining entirely text-based. Players type commands, role-play or just socialize through the keyboard. Gameplay ranges from hack and slash to interactive fiction to simple chat, with all sorts of degrees of role-play in between. MUDs are often discussed as the precursors of today’s MMORPGs, and therefore an early index of the concerns and goals of those MMORPGs by at least 10 years. But MUDs are by no means a dead genre. New MUDs, and players for them, are continually coming into play.

The MUD-Dev archive is available at Raph Koster’s site as a bundle of distinct HTMLs, or right here at the School of Information on a single (very) large page with the messages hyperlinked and separated.

I’ve taken a look at the threads “Procedural Storytelling” and “A footnote to Procedural Storytelling”, which had sprung off from an earlier discussion, “Self-Sufficient Worlds”. The topic, broadly, concerns the art of storytelling in MUDs and more typically, how to generate them automatically on a large scale by abstracting them. Instead of doing a play-by-play of the discussion, I thought a report of the salient ideas and contentions would be more digestible.

  • The first idea to be discussed is whether, in the design of MUDs and their story content, “interesting stories” can be computationally generated. It’s posited that interesting stories are not computable and no amount of computation will generate them, at least not consistently enough for actual use. The counter argument believes that it is simply a matter of computational scale.
  • The issue of computational power and its potential for procedural storytelling is complemented a argument: automation and generation is less a problem than a toolset that allows players to interact with a persistent and consequential environment. This idea is revisited a few times throughout the thread. Posters wonder how the history of a world could be more thoroughly fleshed out, if a model could be made to allow future events to reference or be contingent upon past events, and the consequences of a persistent world given the unpredictable nature and large number of player actions any MUD would contain. I think this is an interesting consideration; it well highlights how ahistorical gamers’ interactions are in even very complex worlds. Continue reading “What Story? Reporting a MUD-Dev Thread from April – May 2000 [re-post]”