This Is a Game: A (very) Brief History of Larp Part 1

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Epic Empires via virginsuicide photography Flickr

 

"Larp can change the world."

So claimed Heikki Holmås, Norway's newly-appointed Minister for International Development back in March,  and I couldn't help but take notice. Three months previous, I was out researching an article on the Collapsonomics movement when the conversation turned to the new direction in which larp players from the Nordic nations were taking the form.

Larp — which you may have encountered already as LARP, acronym of "live action roleplaying", now noun'd down into lower case by regular use — has been around long enough for its public image to settle into an established stereotype, namely nerds dressing up as knights and orcs and hitting each other with rubber swords at the weekend. Like all clichés, it's rooted in truth: a lot of larp is exactly like that — and as such, I'd argue, no more worthy of mockery than paintballing, its over-macho cousin.

But there was, I heard, another type of larp: a larp whose potential as a tool for political and social change inspired Holmås to evangelise about it; a larp that could not only give players an insight into the lived experience of, for instance, homelessness, refugeeism or gender disparity, but which might also suggest changes to the way society deals with people in those situations; a larp that could 'game out' better ways of responding to a Haiti-scale natural disaster, or help the two sides of an interminable religiopolitical stalemate to walk a few yards in the shoes of their opponents.

I scribbled some notes, went home and started digging.

A brief history of larp

Larp's roots run deeper than Dungeons & Dragons.

In her book Leaving Mundania, Lizzie Stark traces the development of larp from its origins, the nascent form of what Bruce Sterling likes to call the military-entertainment complex: immersive historical pageants thrown by medieval royalty, often at immense expense; prototypical wargames for training the officers of the European enlightenment; contemporary historical re-enactment groups, some simply restaging the great battles of the past, or — in the case of the Society for Creative Anachronism — doing what they call 'living history', where old skills and ways of life are revived as part performance, part play, all wrapped up in authentic period costumes.

Wargaming systems of a more realist (or at least mimetic) type were a popular pastime for well-to-do Victorian folk, but it took a man named Dave Wesley form Minneapolis-St. Paul, frustrated with the way that the wargames he played in would break down into arguments over the implementation of the rules, to investigate the theory of games with an aim to developing non-zero-sum scenarios. The first run of Braunstein, a Napoleonic battle rendered with miniature soldiers on a tabletop landscape, ended in intrigue and chaos, with Wesley feeling he'd failed. "His players disagreed, and begged him to run another session," says Stark, so he did.

Braunstein attracted others, including one Dave Arneson, who'd go on to combine his wargaming jones with his Lord Of The Rings obsession to build a new set of rules, developed in collaboration with a thirty-something insurance underwriter named Gary Gygax; the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the ur-RPG, hit shelves in 1974.

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RECOMMENDED READING: The Curse of Cow Clicker

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The January issue of Wired includes a long read on Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker:

Bogost threw together a bare-bones Facebook game in three days. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow“—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.

And that was pretty much it. That’s not a nutshell description of the game; that’s literally all there was to it. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. “I didn’t set out to make it fun,” Bogost says. “Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do.”

Bogost launched Cow Clicker during the NYU event in July 2010. Within weeks, it had achieved cult status among indie-game fans and social-game critics. Every “I’m clicking a cow” newsfeed update served as a badge of ironic protest. Players gleefully clicked cows to send a message to their FarmVille-loving friends or to identify themselves as members of the anti-Zynga underground. The game began attracting press on sites like TechCrunch and Slashdot.

And then something surprising happened ...

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Architectural Uncanny Valley

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screengrab from Kane and Lynch 2 via Steam Postcards

Steam Postcards is a tumblr documenting the melancholy landscapes of video games. The role of architecture is important in gameplay. A level designer is considering the way that a surface responds to weather conditions, the depiction of shadows and textures, and other factors that contribute to a realistic looking structure. Sometimes a game will pose its own uncanny valley hypothesis, when something about the gravity in the virtual world does not match up with human experience. But as still images these buildings look like "postcards" from the future. The uncanniness is the dream world depicted, not any failure in representation.

screengrab fromLost Plant 2, Red Orchestra 2, Mirror's Edge, and Brink via Steam Postcards

 

 

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In need of a Heroine: Angela Washko's "Heroines with Baggage (How Final Fantasy Shaped My Unrealistic Demands for Love and Tragedy)"

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Heroines with Baggage (How Final Fantasy Shaped My Unrealistic Demands for Love and Tragedy)

 


 

Heroines with Baggage is a video essay using footage taken directly from the famous early 90s role-playing SNES video game Final Fantasy III. The video deconstructs the game, creating a non-linear narrative that follows the trajectories of two of the three playable female characters in the fourteen-character game. Washko describes that she was interested in the female characters that she used to play as a child not because of their sparsity in the game, which can be explained by the fact that reportedly, far fewer females than males played these games in the early 90s, but rather, due to the way these characters were presented.

Washko's video reveals a game where the characters show a certain teenage sentimentality with no real emotional depth, where a princess sings "Oh my hero / So far away now. / Will I ever see your smile?" And another female character gasps at the sight of a male character, "You…saved me?" According to Washko, the female characters constantly mention their desire to experience love, unlike the male characters who do not mention the concept of love at all, resulting in the fact that even though these characters are playable, meaning, have strengths and plot focus, they remain projections of archetypal powerful-yet-victimized women. 

Featuring the game's fantastic original soundtrack and the old-school video game aesthetics, the video cuts out the battle and search scenes, usually the game's focal point, in order to look at the game's background story and draw attention to the way it portrays femininity and the model this had served to women like Washko herself, who played the game as young girls. Not that the result was their ultimate subjection to heroes who would save them ...

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Kowloon Walled City Lives On in Videogames

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1989 German documentary on Kowloon Walled City (English subtitles, Part 1 of 4)

In Kill Screen, Michelle Young writes about Kowloon Walled City as an inspiration for game level designers. The fortress-like Hong Kong settlement once contained 35,000 residents within its 6.5-acre enclosed space. A labyrinth of alleyways, staircases, and 250 sq ft apartments; much of it poorly lit makeshift spaces with unstable construction; it was also largely a lawless enclave with thriving drug trade, mafia, and other black market activities. It was demolished in 1993:

Often, aspects of Kowloon’s architecture and environment are used to impart a sense of repression, confusion, or loss. In videogames, the mafia and undercurrent of illicit activity provided ideal storylines amidst dank and mysterious backdrops. The cramped businesses in the inner alleys, and the jumbled exteriors of Kowloon, gave videogame designers a rich visual vocabulary.

The characteristic that most set Kowloon Walled City apart from other slums was its high-rise, skyscraper form. Videogame design has capitalized on the city’s verticality. In the opening sequence of Shenmue II, we are transported between the normalized architecture of Hong Kong to Kowloon and enter the city as if falling upside-down from the sky into the depths of the Walled City. The distance between Hong Kong proper and Kowloon is greatly exaggerated with hills and wide plains separating the two, likely an attempt to emphasize Kowloon’s “Otherness.”

 

Kowloon was an anomaly in modern urban construction not only for its organic formation, but also for its reversal of standard building aspects: interior versus exterior, street versus roofs. Its ad-hoc construction engendered a maze of narrow alleys and staircases. Think of single apartment units being stacked over time like Jenga pieces—except that the façades don’t have to be match or be in-line with ...

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Mining Dwarf Fortress

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Image from Dwarf Fortress's intro animation.

As we enter the last weeks of summer, take some time off and check out Tarn and Zach Adams’ Dwarf Fortress, an indie game that has earned a cult following and recently garnered some mainstream profiling including an appearance in MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibition.

Developed over the past decade, Dwarf Fortress promotes depth and complexity of game-mechanics over graphics. As an example of this, amidst its ASCII aesthetics, the game includes its own world generator, economics system, three-dimensional world exploration, fluid dynamics, complex names and languages, and character profiles that allow emotional responses to the world you build around them (i.e. the dwarves can appreciate art, but can also hold a grudge.) The game's complexity generates an equal proportion of difficulty that has subsequently produced a community of dedicated followers who share their stories online, donate to Bay 12 Games (Tarn and Zach’s company), and even suggest improvements on the game’s forums. Foremost, playing Dwarf Fortress requires patience - followed by an appreciation for intricate details hidden in primitive graphics. At one glance it's a scrambled mess; at another, it holds a profound resemblance to our own lives.

In-game image of Dwarf Fortress's ASCII aesthetics

Excerpt from the New York Times' profile on the game and its makers:

This bare-bones aesthetic allows Tarn to focus resources not on graphics but on mechanics, which he values much more. Many simulation games offer players a bag of building blocks, but few dangle a bag as deep, or blocks as small and intricately interlocking, as Dwarf Fortress. Beneath the game’s rudimentary facade is a dizzying array of moving parts, algorithms that model everything from dwarves’ personalities (some are depressive; many appreciate art) to the climate and economic patterns ...

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KILL SCREEN's "Arcade" at MoMA

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Two couples team up to play B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now) in the main lobby

Kill Screen curated a sold out Arcade two weeks ago at MoMA's July PopRally. The museum was packed with art and game enthusiast actively trying their skills with an array of eleven games spread across the first three floors and the garden. I'm a closeted game addict so the event culled no shortage of interest from me. I started out the night playing Starry Heavens, a large turn-based installation of networked dots predicated on a feudalist hierarchy, with a group of friends and the game's creators, Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi. The giant heilium-filled weather balloons floating above the game's stage added a Calvino-esque ambience and a minaturizing sense of scale. B.U.T.T.O.N., a game built specifically on unfair tactics located inside the Museum's lobby, quickly shifted the slow pace of Starry Heavens into a frenzy of subversive button smashing, shouting, and friend pushing.

Overall the games offered a broad set of aesthetics and interactivity ranging from the cooperative, full-body, and homebrewed Kinect-meets-iPad PXL PUSHR (created by Matt Boch and Ryan Challinor) to the binary palette and hauntingly captivating experience of LIMBO - with a special note to QWOP, which garnered a long line and much moral support for participants. I caught up with Jamin over email to find out more about his logic in curating the event:

JH: What was your thought proces behind choosing that particular group of games?

JW: We chose games that reflected the breadth of developments in games over the last five years or so. As you know, the Arcade was tied to Talk To Me and the communication between objects and ourselves.  So we wanted to find games that did the same thing -- that spoke different languages. LIMBO, for example, was chosen for its aesthetics and the monochromatic dream world that Playdead had created. Bit.Trip Beat was chosen for its pastiche and how it blends an old convention (Pong) with something new (sound). B.U.T.T.O.N. was chosen for its physicality and Canabalt was chosen for its austerity. We wanted a wide range of new experiences for attendees to explore.

One overall principle was to chose games that were easy to learn and interesting to watch. There were 1,000 tickets sold for the event so the environment needed to be one where we could cycle people quickly through games while not boring those on the periphery. There are other games that are wonderful but don't lend themselves to that type of setting.

Tentacle was projected to fill an entire wall as players downloaded the app and interacted using their smarthpones

JH: How did you choose the locations for each game? Was based it simply on available space or linked somehow to art that was in the locations before?

 

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Yoshi's Fauvist Island

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In Kill Screen, Kyle Chakra finds the plumb line from Fauvism and Yoshi’s Island:

Fauvist pictures burn into your retinas. Derain’s The Turning Road at L'Estaque (1906) is a dusky mix of reds and oranges, but the shadows of the trees set into the road cast deep-blue shadows, tinged with green. It’s the light of an intense sunrise or sunset.

The favored technique to create this burn was to set two complementary colors against each other. The classic combination is red-orange on blue (clearly apparent in The Turning Road referenced above), but any opposites on the color wheel—pink and green, yellow and purple—all pack the same punch. Derain’s same technique is clear in Yoshi’s Island: check out Level 1-1 and see the yellow hillsides dotted with cool-blue rock outcroppings, jutting out into a pale-blue sky and clouds tinged subtly with orange and pink. The trees of 6-1 are bright orange-red, but their shadows, silhouetted in the sunset, are deep blue. In 3-2, yellow leaves stick out against a dusky purple background. The palette is strikingly similar to that of The Turning Road.

It’s not just the game’s colors that recall Fauvism. Yoshi’s Island’s aesthetic is painterly, displaying individual brushstrokes. Neither the paintings nor the game display a need for gloss or perfection; they’re messy, embracing a loose sense of serendipity, colored collisions. Shigeru Miyamoto, the iconic Nintendo designer who has noted the influence from Impressionism on his games, pushed Yoshi’s Island to look hand-drawn, emphasizing the scratchy crayon strokes that make up the game’s backgrounds and the rough outlines around its sprites.

Gamers don’t need to just take my word for it that Yoshi’s Island was influenced by Fauvism and its contemporaries. Just ...

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Old School Color Cycling with HTML5

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Joe Huckaby writes about his HTML5 rendered color cycling, the 8-bit visual effect used typically to animate water or fire:

Unfortunately, more often than not this looked terrible, because the artist simply drew the scene once, picked some colors to be animated and set them to cycle. While this technically qualified as "color cycling", it looked more like a bad acid trip. For an example, just look at the water in this game.

However, there was one graphic artist who took the technique to a whole new level, and produced absolutely breathtaking color cycling scenes. Mark J. Ferrari, who also illustrated all the original backgrounds for LucasArts Loom, and some for The Secret of Monkey Island, invented his own unique ways of using color cycling for envrironmental effects that you really have to see to believe. These include rain, snow, ocean waves, moving fog, clouds, smoke, waterfalls, streams, lakes, and more. And all these effects are achieved without any layers or alpha channels -- just one single flat image with one 256 color palette.

Unfortunately the art of color cycling died out in the late 90s, giving way to newer technologies like 3D rendering and full 32-bit "true color" games. However, 2D pixel graphics of old are making a comeback in recent years, with mobile devices and web games. I thought now would be the time to reintroduce color cycling, using open web technologies like the HTML5 Canvas element. This demo is an implementation of a full 8-bit color cycling engine, rendered into an HTML5 Canvas in real-time. I am using 35 of Mark's original 640x480 pixel masterpieces which you can explore, and I added some ambient environmental soundtracks to match. Please enjoy, and the source code is free for you to use in your own projects

via Tim Maly

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Jane Pinckard on Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez and Children of Eden

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Children of Eden
Jane Pinckard writes about Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 game Rez:

There have been other game designs since that have stimulated those emotionally-charged pleasure centers-–Rock Band comes to mind-–but Rez remains unique in its ambition to create synesthesia as a playable experience. It was the first mainstream art game (and it wasn't that mainstream, as it turned out.) The creators of the game moved on to other things, the studio was merged with other corporate units, and that was that...the game was by no means a hit when it was released. It was recognized by a small circle of aficionados as something quirky, beautiful, and different. In the years since, Rez has captured more mindshare; partly because more people accept the idea of art games, partly because maybe it just took that long for people to discover it and play it. By 2008 there was enough of a movement to convince Microsoft to release Rez HD as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360. It got rave reviews from game critics, but, seriously, it was the exact same game, redone graphically to look pretty in HD. It was the same game, so you didn't get to relive that moment of intense anticipation and discovery of playing it for the first time.

Rez

Pinckard says Children of Eden, released this month for Kinect, was the game she "waited a decade" to play:

I played it for the first time at a friend's house, after a day of barbecue in the sun, accompanied by several excellent glasses of wine. He insisted I put on the headphones. I lifted my right hand to begin. And then I was suddenly falling upward through a liquid field of stars. I don't really know how else to describe it. It was exhilarating, because for the first time in a very long time I felt again that excitement of experiencing something utterly new and strange and beautiful. I started dancing subtly to the beat as I played without even really realizing it.

Children of Eden

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