Talking to Video Games

“EAT MY SHORTS” the Game Boy hissed at me, as if through a tin can telephone. It was the first time I heard a video game talk to me. Bart Simpson was not happy that he was stung by bees, and he verbally made me aware of his displeasure. Not long after Bart cried out in pain, I heard a severely compressed “GHOSTBUSTERS!” shout on my NES and a melodic “SAAAAYYY-GAAAAHHH” sing out from my Genesis. I liked hearing my video games talk. Partly because of the sheer novelty in the 80s and early 90s, but also because speech felt like it fostered a deeper connection.

sinistarThe words and phrases were often exclamations. Communicative in both function and feeling, but rarely conversational. Gauntlet alerting frantic players that the warrior is near death is wonderfully useful and Sinistar’s proclamation “BEWARE, I LIVE!”  can still invoke a sense of anxiety. Early video game speech was novel, though not necessarily without purpose. The “Sega chant” may have consumed an eighth of Sonic the Hedgehog’s cartridge for no real apparent reason other than to impress, but I find it hard to argue that Gauntlet and Sinistar would be the same games without their little bits of speech. It’s not conversational or relevant to plot development, but it’s absolutely vital to their designs in different ways.

In the mid to late 90s, I didn’t have the luxury of dividing my time and discretionary income across too many systems, so I threw my hat in with Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 providing me with the multiplayer games that were more important to me at that time. As such, I didn’t experience many of the cinematic games touting fully voiced dialog during that time period. I remember, though, playing Metal Gear Solid in 1998 for the first time and finding myself nothing less than engrossed. I loved every minute of the soap opera. I loved every line of dialog delivered by bobbling heads. I loved Metal Gear Solid, and I still do, if for nothing else than that feeling it first gave me.

Now, I suppose I feel fully voiced soap operas are the novelty. I usually find myself bored and reaching for my phone to check Twitter. Of course, this is contrary to popular thought and the current market. Soap operas are not a novelty. Cinematic games are less a subset than they are a driving force. Every AAA game talks now, and at great length, but I usually struggle to remember what anyone says. It’s not as interesting as Sinistar taunting me from afar or as useful as Gauntlet warning me of impending death. It’s just babbling. We let video games talk, and they haven’t shut up since.

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My time spent with underdog systems in the 90s did, however, expose me to experiences built on the inverse: games that invited me to them. Hey You, Pikachu! on the Nintendo 64 and Seaman on the Dreamcast both came bundled with microphones and recognized specific words and phrases. Sometimes, anyway. The technology was nascent and I’m not convinced it worked a good chunk of the time, but the idea that you could wish Pikachu a good morning was there. It’s a good idea. A valuable idea.

Sega’s Binary Domain included an optional voice recognition component in 2012. I’ve read widespread reports that the feature didn’t work very well for many people, and I had some difficulty myself, but it seemed to work for the most part in my experience. I could verbally tell my teammates to wait, to provide cover fire and I could even engage in very basic and very short yes-or-no conversations. In one instance, I accidentally fired at a teammate who quickly chastised me. Reflexively, I said “sorry” into my microphone. The teammate forgave me. I was stunned. This wasn’t exactly an emergent situation; after all, the AI was designed to recognize the word “sorry,” but I didn’t actually intend on apologizing. It just happened. And the game reacted.

fable3Video games don’t often give us much room for interaction. Death is usually how we communicate with the world. Games like Ico and Fable III incorporated a handholding mechanic (one to great acclaim, the other to some derision), and it’s still an aspect I point to when I talk about letting players interact with their world in ways other than killing. Fable III was still built on a foundation of murdering bad guys, but holding hands with my wife or child served as a welcome foil.

As much as I would like to see more of that sort of thing, it’s still an abstract representation of a real physical act. Pressing a button or pinning a shoulder trigger to hold hands isn’t quite the same as talking to a game to hold a conversation. The latter is not abstract at all. Talking is something most people do naturally, and given games can talk back, it only makes sense that verbal communication with a game could serve to further draw the player in. If only used as an ancillary component like handholding in Fable III, communicating with games can be extraordinarily valuable.

There are hurdles, of course. Voice recognition technology is still far off from feeling natural, and games can only recognize so many words or phrases and offer only so many reactions. This is not different than how a game interprets button presses, but button presses are not analogous to real life. We understand the limitations. We expect more from speech because of how it relates to the real world, and video games just aren’t up to snuff yet. Technology in general is not up to snuff. Siri on the iPhone not only doesn’t understand me from time to time, she will correctly display the words I said on the screen but “autocorrect” my speech and decide I actually meant something else. Still, when Siri accurately sets a timer I requested, I have to stop myself from thanking her. That’s the power of verbal communication done well.

I am a big fan of games toying with how we interact and how we experience attachment. Games, in general, are still not very good at experimenting with these things. You will be tasked with indiscriminately mowing down waves of bad guys for 20 minutes only to be rewarded with five minutes of incongruent dialog designed to engineer unearned emotion. You will be killing again in no time. I don’t believe we have universally bad writers in the industry, nor do I feel we have reached the limits of what video games can say to us. But we’re doing something wrong. Video games have veered too far off course from the interesting, valuable speech of Gauntlet and Sinistar into mealy-mouthed, lengthy exposition for no real apparent reason other than to impress. It’s minutes, hours, of the “Sega chant” over and over again.

Let’s scale it back and let’s open the lines of communication.

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Lost Constellation: Warm Storytelling

Winter is the season to which I most strongly tie positive game memories. I grew up with a wood burning stove, snowy Decembers, and new games on Christmas. Plenty of time was spent indoors playing new treasures while the snow piled up outside. Lost Constellation offers no such respite from the frigid night. A lone house stands in the woods, but the little blue fox that lives there chastises me for letting in the cold. I borrow his wood burning stove, and then I’m on my way.

Lost Constellation is a compact game. There’s little game play to speak of, mostly just building snowmen and bringing the appropriate item to the right spot, but there’s just enough agency to compliment the dreamlike and ephemeral story. I don’t often enjoy games that strongly hinge on their stories, and even in games that don’t, I ignore the story anyway. It’s usually boring and badly written, and it gets in my way.

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I found myself completely engrossed in Lost Constellation though. None of the characters in the woods on the Longest Night speak like information kiosks. Their dialog is written for the character, and not you, the player. It’s a distinction that, while it shouldn’t, feels very out of place in games still and in an experience like Lost Constellation left me feeling a bit like I didn’t “get it,” but I think I prefer that than saving the world with wooden characters again.

Even the woods played into the linearity of storytelling, usually presenting the next relevant person or place as I walked to the right. If I had double-backed to the left, I would have been at the entrance to the woods again no matter what I had just passed. The little blue fox warned me the woods would confuse me. He was right. I was confused. I am used to linear storytelling clashing with the very nature of interactivity allowing me to rebel against that forward momentum, but Lost Constellation’s woods played with continuity to great effect. Interactivity only allowed for forward momentum. Anything else was forfeiting the story all together.

Little by little, I question my immobile negative outlook on storytelling in games. On occasion I find a story worth playing and I have to reassess how I feel. It’s hard to parse what it is I look for in an interactive story when I come by one I truly enjoy and appreciate so rarely. Maybe many roads lead there, but what Lost Constellation accomplishes with so little is exactly what I want to see more of. It’s a warm wood burning stove in an otherwise wintry wood.

I Was Never Cool

Nestled in my bottom dresser drawer were five Game Boy games: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers and Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash (perhaps putting an end to notion that sequelitis is a modern phenomenon). I was eight and it was 1992, and it would still be another six months before I could play any of the games in my dresser. While I saved up for a new Game Boy, I kept the boxes pristine and read every manual religiously. I lived vicariously through the tiny screenshots and control diagrams.

Despite sitting amongst more recognizable titles, it’s really Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash that has stuck with me through the years.

FullSizeRenderToday, it’s the economy of design that I appreciate. A handful of folks at Electronic Arts in the early 90s put together a tight, simply crafted skateboarding game. No frills, and I admire that. The arcade scoring and racing are perfectly complimented by the terrific music and uncomplicated graphics, and nearly a quarter decade later, it still holds up! A gimmick or two might have helped Tour de Thrash stand out in 1991, but it is its simplicity that makes it such a great little gem in 2015. It’s a perfect game of both restraint and exploitation. Tour de Thrash maximizes the hardware it is on without overstepping its bounds with superfluous nonsense.

I didn’t quite catch on to any of this as a kid though. No eight year old knows what “economy of design” even means, much less uses it in a sentence. I was attracted to Tour de Thrash because it felt countercultural. I wore acid washed Bugle Boy jeans my mom laid out for me and went to bed at 8 PM every night, even on the weekends. To a kid like that? Tour de Thrash, a game that invited you to skate until “ya shred yer feet off” was flat out scandalous. When a great uncle furrowed his brow and glanced at my mother when I told him I got a game called “Skate or Die” for Christmas, I knew I was in uncharted territory. I felt cool just knowing what “Santa Cruz Skateboards” was, even if the term “stale fish” soared completely over my head.

Of course, the game, fun as it may be, is completely tame. The dialog is a little colorful, but mostly just silly 90s California skateboarding gibberish. That’s about it. There’s really nothing countercultural to Tour de Thrash at all. There’s an irony in that a skateboarding video game made me feel cool when I was nine and now writing about it at 31 has probably made me feel a little less so.

Ah whatever. I was never cool.