Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2

One of my favorite games of all time is the original Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. And now the sequel has come out and it has proved to be very valuable in exposing what was so well done in the original (and by original I mean the evolved version, not the original original). And what it has revealed has dramatically changed my views on video games.

To begin with here are the superficial differences between the two versions. There are more features, modes and better graphics in the new version. There are some new enemies and everything has been polished just a little bit more. Some of the rules about points have been changed and the way that multipliers are built up is different.

The major difference between the two games is what they become as a whole. The new game has 6 different modes which each focus on different aspects of the underlying game. Speed, dodging, shooting, grouping, and memorization are some focuses in these different modes. Since none of them are the main game, the whole thing starts to feel like a very good training tool.

And this is where my old video theory of video games starts to fall apart. I had said that video games were fundamentally about teaching the player things, such as a new skill. Yet this game, which has become simply a training game is not as enjoyable as the old game. It provides some amusement, but it is not as fulfilling.

I still feel that the teaching, learning and training aspects are still fundamental to the gaming experience, but they can't be the central focus. I see the teaching in video games now as more of the main meat of the art. In painting it is the viewing experience which hold everything together. In books it is the process of imagining. In music is might be letting the beat get into your body. In film it is about getting attached to the stories and the characters.

I see the learning process as integral to video games. Without it there is no interesting interaction and the whole thing just can't proceed. But what I realize now is that there needs to be something beyond that. The learning needs to be there simply to hold the experience together.

In the original Geometry Wars I feel it is the battle and the feeling this main battle produces which causes the experience to be so overwhelmingly powerful. In this game is was you versus an uncountable number of enemies. The game could only end when you ran out of lives. What was exceedingly important was how the game was balanced with new lives. It was designed in such a way that no matter how bad you were playing, it was always worthwhile to never give up and continue with all the focus you could muster. Even if you were down to your last life it was still important to keep trying as you could comeback. There was always a chance of getting a high score. In the new game, after a few minutes into any game you can usually judge if it is worthwhile to continue playing or whether it would be better to simply restart.

This original design caused the game to give me a real sense that it was trying to relate to some of the realities of life. I felt it was based upon the principal of never giving up no matter how bad the outlook. And being a game that always finished with your death, it felt like it had accepted the fact you were going to die, yet it was still important to do the best with whatever chance you get. These games that seem to answer questions about how we should be leading our lives are very powerful to me, even if the designers didn't realize what they had created.

And so in my mind games can't be about teaching, they need to be about something the designers believe, whatever that may be. It probably will be a theme that is being drawn from real life, or else it won't ring true for anyone. The teaching and training aspects are simply the vehicles in which the more important messages and themes ride.

Still Geometry Wars 2 is fun, especially the multiplayer.



Mory said...

Are you sure it's the themes and messages you're reading into these games which make them fun? Or is it the intensity of the experience, the challenge of overcoming adversity? Regardless of what you say, you still expect this action game to be a teaching tool. You've just changed your opinion of what it's trying to teach, from gameplay to real-world messages. But teaching (of any sort) is not and has never been the point of action games. The point of an action game is to get your adrenaline going. If it's exciting, it's good. If it's not exciting, it's bad. Where does learning fit in here? Well, having a learning curve too steep means it goes beyond excitement into frustration. And a learning curve too incremental means it never gets exciting. An action game where you always know you can win doesn't stay fun for long.

And where does learning messages fit in? Well, I think we can safely say that you are going to read messages into everything, regardless of what it is. It's you entertaining yourself, and has little to do with the gamists' efforts.

Kyler said...

I don't understand how video games can exist without the teaching and learning processes. Without learning how to play a video game the experience doesn't exist. It would be similar to trying to have a blind person appreciate a great painting. Without sight painting doesn't really exist. Without learning videogames don't exist.

What I was trying to explain is that when a videogame stops at the teaching process, and that is the whole experience, the game can't be great.

I have changed my opinion from earlier posts about where I place learning in games. I don't understand what you feel us the underlying basis for the medium of video games.

Mory said...

"Without learning videogames don't exist."? What the heck! Let's keep going with action games for the moment. Imagine an action game which assumes right from the start that you know how to play action games. Right from the first minute of gameplay, you're already being challenged to outfight and outwit challenging opponents. Some levels are a constant struggle to survive, wherein you're not learning anything but rather applying skills you've hopefully learned long ago. And when (or rather if) you overcome those challenges, you feel pride and accomplishment for having made it so far, though not at all certain that you can recreate the feat. You rest in more calm areas, before being forced back into the fight. Can you not imagine that such a game, devoid of any learning whatsoever, could not still be an amazing experience? Are you so closed in your interpretation of videogames, that anything outside your tiny little definition simply does "not exist"?! That's absolutely ridiculous.

So teaching is not necessary for a great game. It serves to get new players into the game, and to prevent existing players from getting frustrated. And as such, it is an important tool. But it's just one tool, out of many which can be used to achieve greatness.

You say that teaching in itself is not enough to make a great game. You're wrong there too. There is such a thing as a great educational game. A game which exists entirely to teach you information. Of course, it would most likely be sold as a "tool" and not a "game", just because it'd find an audience more easily that way. (Assuming this is for adults, I mean.) But it's an irrelevant distinction. Learning new things can in itself be fun and rewarding, and you don't need any messages or characters or worlds or plotlines or anything else to make it great. You just need to teach well, and always reward progress.

I hope you don't think I am contradicting myself. There is no contradiction between saying that action games don't need to teach, and saying that educational games don't need to do anything but teach. You ask me for a clear-cut definition of what a videogame is about, but by asking the question you have already missed the point of videogames. A videogame can be anything. It can be about anything. You can take almost any element of game design, and find a type of game where that one element is the most important thing in the world. If you think there are borders to what games can do, it is because you have constructed them for yourself. You see one element which is important for some games, and think it must be important for all games. It is my belief that most of the creative problems in the game industry stem from such mistakes. What is true for action games is not true for educational games, or strategy games, or adventure games, or role-playing games. And even within the limits of action games themselves, or even within the borders of a small subset of action games, you can find games which go against everything you think they need to do and be about, and still achieve greatness.

There is no "underlying basis for the medium of video games". A game is whatever its creator wants it to be.

Kyler said...

I think by broadening the definition of video games to the extend that you have you are simply creating another layer of language around something that has already been categorized.

What I am speaking about is "art". I know we probably disagree on what "art" is. I have had the discussion many times in different classes with different people and generally the only thing that makes sense is that art is whatever you want it to be. There is no one defining thing that is art. It is an all encompassing word for me and I don't need to put the term game or gamism around it.

What I am trying to figure out is what is a video game. Video games are very easily placed into my definition of art, but I still have difficulty understanding how they fit into the world in relation to all of the other forms of art. I think I am on the right track in thinking that video games have an important basis in that learning is fundamental to what they are.

Let me try to think about other things that could be fundamental to what video games are.

They could be fundamentally virtual images. I don't think so, I can imagine many games made solely with text or audio.

They are fundamentally interactive experiences? I don't really know what this means. The player does something, the computer does something back. Is that all it is, is that what a video game is? Does it matter what the computer does back? Should the results be repeatable? Or completely random. If the interaction is repeatable than I start to return to ideas about learning, understanding the system. The player is trying to understand the system.

Just to counter a few of your points. Your example of an action game is flawed. There is always going to be continuous learning and improvement in such a game. People get better at things they do, that is why games get harder. No "great" game would ever have a continuous difficulty. That means that even the action game you have described incorporates a type of learning.

I would just like to clarify that when I say teaching, I also equate that to improvement. Simply practicing something to get better is a form of learning, teaching is not really required, unless you think about in in terms of the teacher telling you to practice.

And about me putting up "borders" and wanting a definition of what video games are, I think that is exactly what the video game industry needs. No one seems to have any idea of what a video game is. The industry needs to go through a "modernist" period. It needs to cut away everything from video games to figure out what there essence is and then work back up from that. I actually thought you Smilie video game was exactly that. It was modernist. It was the bare minimum yet still held up as a video game.

What was the essential quality of Smilie that made it a video game in your opinion?

Mory said...

When you read learning into my very clear explanation of a game without learning, it is a sign that you see learning in absolutely everything. You'd probably see a movie as a learning experience where you're learning about the characters, an online argument as a learning experience where you're learning to argue, and the act of cooking as learning to cook better. If you want to make "learning" such a broad concept that it includes everything, even things you already know how to do, then I will not argue. Yes, absolutely everything in life is about learning. Fine. Now explain to me how it's any more critical in videogames specifically than in any other activity in life, and maybe you'll be on to something.

Here's a riddle I love: Why are Poker, Breakout, and Dungeons & Dragons all "games", but not ballroom dancing?

The rules are arbitrary. Smilie is a game because I said it is and you can't contradict me. It's not on all the time, so you can't call it a widget. It doesn't activate at any special time, which means you can't call it an interactive screensaver. It's too interactive to be a cartoon, it's too inflexible for you to call it a toy. So you don't know what it's called, and that lets me put the word "game" at the beginning and you accept. I didn't have to. I could have said "A dynamic character" or some other such nonsense, and you'd never consider it a game. But then I could only make one. If I say "I make games!", then I have free rein to do whatever I want, art or entertainment, without anyone telling me "You can't do that!". A game is whatever I want it to be, as long as I can get away with calling it a game. If I were to lose that term, I'd be stuck with the old-fashioned way of doing things, where I'm locked into very rigid borders which I may not pass.