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Thinking in Systems

Books, Video Games

Book cover of Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

There is a certain class of books (Understanding Comics, The Design of Everyday Things) that aren’t ostensibly about video games, but have still found their way into the informal game design canon. Having recently read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows, I believe it also deserves a spot on that list. The book covers a wide range of tools and methods for systems thinking, but I’d like to focus on one technique in particular and how it could apply to game design.

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Challenges for Game Designers

Books, Video Games

Challenges for Game Designers

For the last few months I’ve enjoyed following along with Liz England’s Game Design Book Club. Though I’ve only been participating intermittently, it’s been really valuable as motivation to read books that are often cited and highly praised in game development circles. It has also pushed me to explore certain topics that I may not have chosen on my own.

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The Golden Compass

Books, Movies

There have been very few mainstream film releases this year that I’ve had any interest in. I think that the last movie I actually saw in the theatres was the brilliant Hot Fuzz. There is, however, one film coming out before the end of the year that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for quite some time now.

The Golden CompassIn my last year of high school, I read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was instantly fascinated by Lyra’s world; its strange combination of steampunk, science, magic and religion was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Her parallel universe had its own language derived in part from archaic words: Oil became Naphtha, Greenlanders became Skraelings and electricity became anbaric power. I have read the series many times since then, and Pullman’s imagination never ceases to astound me.

When I first heard about the film adaption of The Golden Compass, which is arriving in theatres this weekend, I was cautiously optimistic. The thought of Jordan College being filled with Hollywood actors tempered my excitement. If the movie version of my favorite book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes an adaptation ends up being nothing like the vision of the story that you had built up in your head.

That being said, after watching the first five minutes of the film courtesy of the Internet, it seems like they did a great job with the visuals. The little girl playing Lyra seemed appropriately spunky as well. However, the rapid-fire explanation of Dust, Daemons, and Panserbjørne was extremely disappointing. The best part of The Golden Compass was being gradually introduced to the strange things in Lyra’s world, and listing them off right from the start spoils the mystery. It’s also evident from the trailer that the religious tone of the books has been severely diluted. Instead of the bad guys being the alternate universe Catholic Church, they’ve created a quasi-fascist organization to pit against Lyra and her friends. I question how they’re going to deal with intercision and puberty without the religious slant.

I’m sad to say that even if the movie is junk, they’ll be taking my money anyways. Even if they do ruin it, at least I’ll always have the books!

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The Screwfly Solution

Books, Video Games

The Screwfly SolutionIn keeping with my love of excellent short stories, particularly dystopian science fiction, I highly recommend Raccoona Sheldon’s Nebula Award-winning The Screwfly Solution. The title is a reference to the sterile insect technique used to eliminate the Screwfly worm in the USA, Mexico and parts of Centreal America. The story is a shocking one, dealing with themes of sexuality, violence and femicide, and is told in a great disjointed style through a combination of several narratives, letters and newspaper articles.

Read the story first (seriously, do it!), then consider the following: wouldn’t it be great to see a video game set in the middle of an end-of-the-world scenario (not after one)? One where you start out in the near future, in a big city living a normal life. You start to hear dangerous rumours, maybe a deadly manmade pandemic, a militant religious organization, or some other Margaret Atwood storyline. From there you could have branching paths: do you petition the government? create a militia? go into hiding out in the country? Perhaps there could even be an element of randomness, where sometimes the rumours really are just rumours and you end up a paranoid conspiracy theorist!

This idea would definitely need some polishing and refinement (and I may have drawn liberal amounts of inspiration from Indigo Prophecy), but properly executed I think it could be really interesting. Leave a comment if you have any ideas on how this game could be implemented (or just call me crazy! That works too).

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Short Stories

Books
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream - Harlan Ellison

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem writing essays with an assigned word length. I like to say as much as I can with as few words as possible, because to me good writing is concise and to the point. When I’m required to artificially lengthen my work, the result is always weak and diluted.

I think that this paradigm can be applied to all media. For instance, the film Strange Days had some interesting ideas, but as a two hour long feature film they were lost in a sea of pointless action and terrible drawn-out dialogue. Done right, it could have made a great 20 minute short film. Consider the last 80 hour RPG you played: could it have been an even better 50 hour RPG by removing a tedious dungeon crawl or two?

It’s perhaps my inclination towards succinctness that makes me a fan of short stories. A novel based on an idea will usually explore every facet of this idea and all of its implications. While this works well for some concepts, there are certainly others that are perhaps too experimental and strange. These quirky ideas would likely fall apart or become lost in a novel, but they can easily become the central theme of a short story.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite short stories below. Where applicable, I’ve linked to sites I’ve found that host them; otherwise, a little Googling will usually do the trick.

  • Eight O’Clock in the Morning – Ray Nelson
    An alien race controls humanity through subliminal messages in television, advertisements and billboards.
  • A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbudy
    Published in 1952, it was one of the first short stories to deal with what would later be called The Butterfly Effect; the idea that one small change in the past could completely rewrite the present.
  • The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
    One of the most chilling short stories I’ve ever read, it deals with the evils that are permitted in the name of tradition and crowd mentality.
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
    An insane omnipotent computer tortures the last five humans on Earth.
  • We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick
    The story that inspired the film Total Recall, it deals with the implications of memory replacement.
  • Little Lost Robot – Isaac Asimov
    This is my favorite short story from I, Robot. Dr. Susan Calvin must use logic to expose the one robot among an identical hundred that has had its programming altered and is now a threat to humans.
  • Harrison Bergeron – Kurt Vonnegut
    To finally achieve societal equality, the government forcefully handicaps those whose beauty, intelligence or athletic abilities give them an “unfair advantage” over everyone else.
  • How To Talk To Girls At Parties – Neil Gaiman [link]
    This story is a nominee for the 2007 Hugo Award. An awkward young man is dragged along to a party, but all is not as it seems.

I’m always on the lookout for more great short stories, so please comment with your favorites.

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