Jam of the Week – March 22nd

After taking a week off to attend an academic conference, the Jam of the Week is back! This week’s jam is Rose and Ghost from the Secret of Mana soundtrack. Since Square Enix just announced a rerelease of the Mana games for the Nintendo Switch, I thought it would be a nice time to feature some of the gorgeous music from my favorite game of all time: Secret of Mana. This soft, haunting tune plays as you enter the town of Pandora and discover its citizens are all under its spell. A perfect pairing of game narrative and game audio. Enjoy.

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Jam of the Week – March 8th

Animal Crossing’s music is so good, there is a Chrome extension that plays the appropriate music for the specific time zone you are in. Animal Crossing’s music is so good, they designed the 3DS to be able to play the music even with the unit shut. Animal Crossing’s music is so good, its the  jam of the week.  1 AM from New Leaf is an excellent example of how simple, clear music can lead to a haunting, melancholy melody. It’s beautiful.

Jam of the Week – March 1st

This week’s jam comes from the 2007 indie game Aquaria. It is quiet, melodic, and atmospheric. It creates the feel of some of the best David Wise Donkey Kong Country music for water levels. In fact, water levels have the best video game music second only to winter/snow levels. Its haunting and beautiful and driving and perfect. Give it a listen.

The Literacy of Zelda: A Link to the Past/Present/Future

As The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s release date approaches, I’ve been spending time playing through all the LOZ games I never had a chance to play or finish.  This list was a lot longer than I thought it would be. I knew I’d missed out on several of the handheld games (Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Phantom Hourglass, Minish Cap, and Spirit Tracks) but I didn’t realize there were that many. I had played Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, as well as fiddled with the original and fell in love with its bizarre sequel Link’s Adventure for the NES. I also begrudgingly worked my way through Skyward Sword when it was about the only decent game to play on the Wi. So, I started with A Link to the Past via a ROM and went from there. I just managed to finish Twilight Princess’s HD remake for the Wii U, and decided to head back to the beginning of the series.

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I quickly grabbed a ROM from the internet (for scientific purposes) and started playing the original Legend of Zelda. It was hard.

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Constant game over screens. I blamed the clunky controls which don’t let you move at diagonals.

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I blamed the arcade-style difficulty which existed in early console games for no good reason.

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I even blamed myself. “Perhaps,” I thought,  “I have grown soft in my old age. Perhaps I’ve been coddled by too many freely given out power ups and participation trophies.”

 

But then,

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The familiar music started playing, the puzzles came at me hot and heavy, and I was soon the owner of 1/8th of the Triforce.

And then,

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Holy hell, this game is hard.

So, maybe I learned some and maybe I still had a lot more to learn in order to succeed in this game world. I still partially blame the clunky controls and the unnecessary, tediously hard difficulty, but now I see my struggles with this game as primarily coming from my own inability to adapt to what scholar James Paul Gee would call the internal design grammars of the Legend of Zelda.

Gee is a New Literacy scholar who wrote a very famous book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It is excellent and is largely responsible for the growth of academic studies into videogames as well as the press for more digital games in the elementary and high school classroom (the “gamification of education”). Gee identifies videogames as the sites of great learning and motivated learners.

Gee argues that a hallmark of intelligence and the potential to transfer that intelligence to other areas (what he would call “semiotic domains”) is being aware of the forms, patterns, mores, and expectations of a particular cultural medium–whether that is basketball, video games, or physics. This collection of practices and expectations about a particular area of content or group of people is called an internal design grammar. You’ll recognize this kind of thing in video games when you instantly know that if you aren’t able to open a door, you need to go find a key.

 

If no such key existed or if I was able to rip the lock off the door instead of opening it with a key this would violate the internal design grammar of videogames. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean it is bad or shouldn’t be allowed. Sometimes defying convention or expectations can be used to better the overall experience (such as in a tricky puzzle that requires players to stop moving for a set amount of time, which flies in the face of the go-go-go mentality videogames induce for movement motivation).

Gee and others who have come after him have talked a lot about the need for a games literacy to be researched in order to better understand how people learn about games in order to foster people learning through games.

Part of the reason this is so hard is because games are incredibly diverse more so than any other medium. Point-and-click games, puzzle games, LARPing, board games, first-person shooters, MMOs, baseball, basketball, and every other type of game.

I’m interested in how we can develop, understand, and research an overall understanding of not just videogames, not just board games, not just sports and other physical games. How do we understand a literacy that encompasses all forms of play?A true, ludic literacy.

I think one way of going about this is to highlight the visual nature of all play. In fact, I would like to make the argument that play is equally visualized and embodied. Understanding both aspects of play will lead to a fuller understanding of the ways we drawn meaning out of play experiences, develop new experiences, and conceive of the value of such experiences.

Types of play which create, distribute, and respond to high frequencies of images lead to more novel and nuanced forms of play. Understanding the visual situation of any particular piece of play through the capacity of the system to create new states of play is essential to understanding how, what, and why of play.

My struggle with The Legend of Zelda comes from my inability to predict which visuals the game will create in response to my actions.

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As the power of play becomes further entwined in the fields of health, education, and art, it will become more and more necessary to understand how a game’s images and potential to create, distribute, and respond to images underlies our ability to succeed in a game.

Jam of the Week – February 22nd

 

This week’s jam comes from Undertale. While the whole soundtrack is gorgeous, the eponymous track “Undertale” does a great job of acting as a metonym for the game. It is a touch melancholy and drifting before building into a hopeful, more uptempo beat that ends up feeling like a hot shower after a dusty day. Just perfect.

In the Shade of the (Skill) Tree

This post doesn’t exactly fit into the category of You, I, and the UI, but I’m throwing it in their anyway. I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem Heroes on my iPhone, and while I think the overall UI quality for the game is above average, I think the “Skills” and progression interfaces stand out.

 

I think its good to analyze the UI here both to see examples of UI design in actual practice in a series (Fire Emblem) and genre (tactical, turn-based RPGs) which tend to be menu heavy and to see how UI design can influence how a player experiences the game.

 

If you’re not familiar with Fire Emblem Heroes, here is  a quick rundown: FEH is a free-to-play mobile game in the Fire Emblem franchise. It is Nintendo’s second-ever game released on mobile, following the initially-iPhone exclusive Super Mario Run.

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In the game, players use orbs to summon heroes from across every game in the Fire Emblem franchise–from the original NES to the latest Nintendo 3DS release–in order to participate in turn-based battles. Each character is classified as red, green, blue, or colorless. In a sort-of rock-paper-scissors way red characters will be strong against green, green strong against blue, blue against red, and colorless is a kind of wild card throw in the mix. Moving on a 6×4 sized grid, the player controls four characters in short battles on diverse terrain.

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In terms of information present, there is a lot to see and analyze when the player opens this menu.  It’ll be useful to move through the interface the way I think the average player will. While the screen is visually busy, it does provide an interesting focus by putting a small picture, often one of dynamic action, of the character in the top left corner. That is where the designers intend the player to “enter the picture”. If the player is familiar enough with what the various characters look like, then the quick visual representation will properly orient them to the character, especially when the number of potential characters numbers in the hundreds. This works better than just giving the characters name, though that info is also included near the entry point.

From the picture of the character, the next more important information needed to give the player is how many “SP” they have, which is the games currency for learning and  upgrading skills. This information is located down and to the right from the entry point. It is set off by itself, the only set of numbers in that portion of the screen. From there, the player’s eyes track back across the screen, over a different visual representation of the character, to an icon for each individual skill.

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Personally, I love the icons. I think they do a good job of spacing information within a confined space. Each icon has information in order to interpret or remind the player of the skill, but also is readable and differentiable from far away.

The player reads across the line from the skill icon for the name of the skill, and then at the end of the line is the amount of SP needed to unlock or upgrade the skill. The numbers for SP are all in the same light yellow to offset them from the white text. In addition to the color, the SP are also grouped by their position on the right edge of the screen, sort of like a ledger or spreadsheet column.

This pattern of icon, name, SP is repeated three times with the player’s eye dashing down and to the left after each line, the same way one reads a book. Similarly, the UI forces the player to “exit” the screen through the bottom right where the “Confirm” button rests with a green (go!) background.

In the end, the player’s movement is analogous to the practice of reading a alphabetic text in the western tradition. It looks something like this:

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The menus throughout the game are excellently done. They all make tremendous use of the limited real estate of a mobile screen but never ended up feeling crowded or overbearing. The skills screen does a particularly great job of presenting the player with the needed information AND at the same time, it encourages them to “Confirm” and spend their points. The UI is not interested in the slow, often largely detached from the actual gameplay, presentaiton of most skill trees with branching paths as seen in many RPGs and MMOs.

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Instead of making the player focus on min/maxing their stats through skill trees, each replete with balancing decisions and minuscule differences to consider, Fire Emblem Heroes’ menus are designed to help you play the game instead of playing with the menu.

And isn’t that what good UI is supposed to do?

Jam of the Week – Feb 15th

Shaking things up a bit here. Instead of double posting the Jam and the VGSA on Sundays, I am going to start spacing things out a bit by posting the Jam of the Week on Wednesdays.

This week’s jam comes from the Dustforce soundtrack. While the entire soundtrack is great (and features amazing titles for each song), Cider Time might be my fav. It has a consistent, driving beat that is perfectly complemented by an up-tempo techno vibe. This makes the song sound both modern and retro at the same time. It’s the perfect song to play to, or write to, or read to, or do anything really.