Grinnell, Revisited

August 23, 2006

Once again, I am in Grinnell. The heat is incredibly oppressive to those of us accustomed to air conditioning, slowly eating at our souls. In actuality, I quite enjoyed the first few days here. I arrived early to help ITS set up the network and help the new students become acquainted with Grinnell’s computers systems. This, as you can consider, I greatly enjoyed. When else would I have to fix a five-year old computer that uses the Japanese edition of Windows XP Home? Never!

Unfortunately, now all students are coming back. It was wonderful to see my friends (though most have been here since before I arrived), but still. Something about returning to classes, eating ramen, and falling back in to a monotonous schedule just doesn’t appeal right now. I so greatly enjoyed my work with Linux, Windows GUI programming, A+ certification, and website redesign; it feels like that will all go away as soon as I begin this semester.

There are some shining lights, however. I should be able to take two computer science courses along with a million TC shifts. In fact, of this whole week, I’m most looking forward to tommarrow’s scheduling meeting. The helpdesk, mathlan, av center, etc. all excite me, though I’m not sure why. I’ll post my schedule afterwards.

Sigh. Grinnell, it’s…  well I’m back, Grinnell. Brace yourself.

For those unfamiliar with these terms, they serve as two large camps among game theorists. Narrativists believe that games arise from stories, that the narrative is actually the keystone of game design. Their opponents have criticized this belief, noting that in its extreme form, Narrativists would create a story for each game of Pong or Poker. The largest alternative, Ludology, believes gameplay is at the heart of any game; narrative always comes second, if at all. Some Ludologists go so far as to claim that the “story” of a game serves only as artificial motivation for changing the gameplay (i.e. levels). I believe the true game experience rests somewhere in between.

Narrativism is easy to combat, considering the recent surge in the casual game industry. Very few of these titles have a specific “plot” to explain why the player must match tiles, click colorful shapes, or what have you. No card game has a back-story, nor does any interesting story form during the play of such games. It may be argued, of course, that every series of actions could be considered a “story.” Here, I must point out, we enter the world of semantics rather than useful thought. Personally, I believe a story consists of much more than a “series of events,” but there exist those who see watching paint dry as a plot.

Even if we consider every game to have an associated narrative, whether it be the back-story, or simply the actions the player took to complete the game, narrativists run into another brick wall in believing this story to be the center of the game design. We cannot consider the player’s actions to be the story associated with the game design, because this becomes the definition of Ludology. We also cannot consider the narrative envisioned by the game designers and writers to be the essence of the title because this would produce a “choose your own adventure” movie/game. These are games in the traditional sense, but they obviously do not account for the wide variety of games that really terrible one.

On the other hand, Ludology cannot account for the repetitive nature of today’s industry. If gameplay served as the only reason we played titles, we’d quickly become bored with every genre available. The most obvious example comes in the first-person shooter. Sure, terrain, weapons, and physics produce minor differences in gameplay, but the essence of most FPSs remains the same. Shoot things that move; don’t get shot. The genre has grown significantly in complexity, but if we consider any games from about the same time period, we will see they have an almost identical gameplay. Look at Perfect Dark and Goldeneye, Wolf3d and Corridor 7, Quake and Unreal. What distinguishes these games from each other is their storylines, their settings. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark were made by the same company using basically the same engine, yet the characters created in each left unique, lasting impressions.

If we investigate what people enjoy from other media, we will see that although some really enjoy getting the same experience (i.e. romance novels), most prefer a combination of a generic style (i.e. thriller) with a specific, original plot (i.e. Bourne Identity). Games are no different in this respect. Try to think of the greatest games of the past five years. How many include detailed plots? Half Life, Halo, Pokemon, Zelda, and Starcraft all rely heavily on their plots, whether they be integrated into gameplay or cutscenes between levels.

Gameplay is at the heart of almost every title, and certainly of games that expect to sell, and we must not forget this. Plenty of games offer a very intricate plot and level design, but have terrible gameplay (I’m looking at you, Turok). At the same time, for a title to be a real hit, it must spark the emotions and interests of its players, requiring a very well define plot.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, gamers don’t play stories. Good games consist of interesting gameplay that is supported (however heavily) by engaging plotlines. Every media reaches its potential only when it distinguishes itself from the others. Audio told listeners the story; video showed them. Interactive media must allow the user to experience the story. This is only possible with well designed gameplay no matter how interesting the plot.

Oh Grinnell Part 2

August 7, 2006

This is the second part of a post I began last week dealing with the best and worst of Grinnell life. Without further adieu, let us complete the article.

The largest reason I chose Grinnell dealt with the school’s remarkably small class size. I love small classes; I love knowing the professor knows my face and name; I love to know that, if I wanted, I could learn the name of everyone in my class. Yet, it seems that, though class sizes may grow ridiculously small, the professors don’t change their teaching styles. Last semester, I had one class with 4 students, one with 6, and others ranging from mid teens to low twenties. Sadly, my 4-person course largely consisted of lectures along with most of the other classes; the six-student class involved relatively no interaction (less than most lecture courses, actually). Japanese served as the only course with significant amount of interaction… and I audited that.

The institution often touts itself as offering a very wide variety of courses, majors, and concentrations. Grinnell is quite correct, offering majors varying from Anthropology to Biological Chemistry and concentrations including Environmental Studies and Linguistics. The ever expanding list of studies cannot match the relatively static size of the student body, resulting in a smaller saturation of students per major. This, in turn, implies increasing amounts of specialization; to put it more simply, the kid in your 200 math will be in every math that follows until graduation. For proof, consider that I have three classes with the same person next semester. For further proof, consider that I also have three classes with a different person. Worse yet, we three share at least two classes.

A college experience is composed of much more than academics, mind you; most would consider the life-long friendships that are created in these institutions. I’ve made several good friends at Grinnell, whether they be through class, work, or residence. It hurts very much to discuss, but when I consider very hard these relations, I find that they are not the “life-long” associations between diverse individuals touted in every brochure. Rather, they are select, unwelcoming cliques, which rose as a direct result of Grinnell’s size. There simply are not enough students with similar (or, in most cases related interests) to form groups large enough to break the “clique barrier.” I enjoy being with my friends, I truly do, but at the same time, I wish I’d meet new people rather than complete a small circle.

Though I’ve ranted on multiple topics, complaining about basically every aspect of Grinnell life, I know these are not my largest qualm with the institution. No, this title is held by the understaffed, uninterested, and out-of-date Computer Science program. This isn’t to say the professors aren’t knowledgeable; Mr. Stone’s understanding of Linux-based systems deserves at least “First-rate” status, while Mr. Walker’s unparalleled Scheme comprehension is quite remarkable. The program’s truest faults lie in its structure. The group of four professors simply cannot offer the amount of course diversity required in the CS discipline. For proof, I cite the amount of CS electives offered to majors (5) and a comparison with Macalester College (similar size student body) which allows almost 150% of Grinnell’s course offerings. Further, the program’s distance from practical applications is simply astounding. We spend hours working on the Linux machines, but are taught next to nothing about the operating system. Moreover, Windows has yet to be covered and Mac programming is just a joke to the professors. CS201 seemed more like as a catch-all for the other courses, covering completely random topics such as make files and theoretical language design (an offshoot of symbolic logic). To top it off, I greatly miss programming large-scale projects. I miss making games, applications software, or pretty much anything larger than a hundred lines. How, again, does this prepare us for any real-world applications? Does Google offer work studies for kids who write programs that reverse the letter order of a string? Does Microsoft ask students to use Java to model gambling? Do Linux distro’s consist of reversing a less than sign in the kernel’s code? No.

With that, I believe my rant has come to a close. I hope Grinnell changes its ways, I really do, but I don’t expect anyone there to reconsider. Their goal, to educate students “for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life,” simply does not appear in day-to-day life, evident in almost every point listed in these past two entries. I hope my friends realize what they are in for, but more than anything, I hope to get out of this school.

Oh Grinnell… Part 1

August 3, 2006

My feelings towards Grinnell have become quite polarized. Sketching out the traditional pros and cons sheet, I find the same listing under both headings. In other words, a large number of Grinnell’s selling points also serve as its largest detractors, with only a few exceptions.

Consider, Grinnell is a perfect example of “pure” liberal arts. I love this; I love learning about history, theory, communications, mythology, and basically every other subject that falls under this label. I’ll adamantly oppose anyone who questions the value of such an education, but such an education does not train. True, you may become a sociologist, English teacher, or historian, but even in these situations, the training isn’t formal by any means. We are given knowledge, but rarely the ability to put such knowledge in to practice.

Yes, we can form “clubs” to gather and do whatever you want. You can join work organizations such as the newspaper, ITS, or catering to gain work experience. Unfortunately, each of these organizations operates in a little bubble, separate from the rest of the world. Most clubs fail miserably because their founders can’t find enough support among the student body, who largely attend meeting to eat free food. The student jobs are simply a joke (though this isn’t a Grinnell-specific attribute) as none require significant training or, in several cases, time commitment. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love ITS. Working as a tech head is the highlight at Grinnell, but watching other ITS students sleep on the job and fail at basic applications saddens me. They’ve actually lied to users to get out of solving problems.

Mine you, several of these problems stem from Grinnell’s attempt to be larger than it really is. During any given year, less than 1,500 students attend the university with a hundred or so off on leave. Assuming the school will somehow expand exponentially (though nothing in our history would suggest this), Grinnell has created dozens of completely useless services to model their significantly larger counterparts. We have a “Technology Discovery Center” which, as far as I am aware, has never been used. We have a small kindergarten to be observed by the few dozen education seniors. Of course the town of Grinnell has similar institutions, as do nearby cities, but let’s not use those. Grinnell has a very lovely gymnasium, pool, track, etc. to cater to our excuse for sport teams. I understand our “peer” institutions are doing the same. I understand why we would want to “keep up” with similar institutions to attract more students, but does that mean we should shoot ourselves in the foot if they do?

This argument was the largest (actually the only) made in favor of increasing Grinnell’s tuition. We must increase our price to represent the “true value” of a Grinnell education. We must attract students to our institution by equating our tuition with that of our peers. …Right? No, you stupid, stupid idiots. Upping the price-tag does not attract the same type of students originally promoted at our college. Upping the price-tag manages to bring more rich students. Notice how I didn’t say more intelligent students, more compassionate students, or more productive members of society. Further, though I’m sure the administration would argue this for hours, Grinnell is not equivalent to its “peers.” We are in the middle of nowhere. I don’t mean Fort Wayne, Montgomery, or Juno; I mean absolutely nowhere. Spin this all you want, you can’t take away the fact that this sucks. Grinnell is not any one of its peers. We don’t have the interships of Macalester, the cozy Olde England feel of Carelton, or even the business majors of Davidson. We aren’t necessarily better; we are simply different. Our goals, students, and methods are different. Accept it and accept that prospective students would much rather see a large financial aid packet than attend the first (or second) college to be wind powered.

Give me a day or two to catch my breath; brace for part 2!

Falling Boy

August 1, 2006

Heather and I began working on a small game titled Falling Boy. Considering the main character spends the entire game falling (if this weren’t true, there’d be a false advertising suit), player mechanics are very simple. We have a small man falling at a remarkably slow rate who just happens to be able to control his horizontal movement. The only goal the player has is to make it to the bottom of the level without smashing into a wall along the way.

Heather’s role on the project largely involves artwork, testing, and some design. So far she’s made the main character’s animations and has worked on a background or two. It’s interesting to work with someone else on a game title; I’ve only done something similar a few times before. Unlike most of my previous work, I’m trying hard to share a lot of the design decisions.

Others have helped before to acquire assets, such as vocal talent (Jimmy Jones in Maze of the Mastermind), art (Dan’s Game) , and programming (Acadapult) but to work with someone on game mechanics is a new experience. Also, since Heather’s never worked on a title before, she’s not familiar with my limitations, often asking for features which I completely ruled out very early in the design. Utilizing her perspective, that of a “casual gamer,” I’ve significantly altered sections of game play (such as hiding over 7/8 of the map at any given time).

I’ve been updating the alpha of Falling Boy almost daily, uploading these files to the CC&C website. Tell me what you think! Falling Boy