Lara Croft Blog

Just came across a Lara Croft blog. The random next blog feature in blogger is to be thanked. The blog is called 'Adventures of Lara Croft' and is a sort of after-action report on Tomb Raider games. The author is quite passionate about Lara and posts videos of his games and Lara Croft's adventures in mods. He tells stories, offers advice on gameplay and tests out mods.

Another entry for my walkthroughs and AAR database.

A sample story cited by Ashley (the putative author of the blog) begins thus:

In the snowy mountains of Alaska Lara has to make a forced landing with her helicopter because of engine trouble. Now she does not know how to get home on time for Christmas...

The rest is to be found here. There's so much of meta stuff that game researchers like myself miss. Videogames are still a very young area and they are growing very fast in different directions. The AAR and walkthrough are examples of areas that are in urgent need of research and exploration.


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Boing Boing Reports on a Post-Apocalytpic Lego City

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Nice one from Cory Doctorow in Boing Boing:

"Flickr user DeGobbi's 'Crawler Town' is an insanely detailed and most magnificent rolling cyberpunk city executed in Lego: "Crawler town roams the barren wastes of a post steam-punk world after cataclysmic climate change do to excessive coal use. Several such cities exist but Crawler town is the most popular due to the Aero 500 hydrogen fuel cell Air races that are held. Many people travel the wastes to Crawler town for vacation and to enjoy rare luxuries like Pizza, fresh vegetables and Beer. Travelling the wastes in search of minerals and aquifers ( vital for survival) the mobility of the city keeps it away from the vicious sand storms of the wastes."

Click here to read more and see Crawler Town. If you get some photos be sure to send them to Ludus ex. I wonder whether Crawler Town has miniaturised the difference engines and whether there is some kind of Teilhardian noosphere that its denizens can plug into (I've just talked about the noosphere commenting on a post, today). Just found the actual Flickr photos here. Apparently the town runs on solar and wind power so the difference engines would have to be 'fired' in a different way. The aero500 races look cool and the crawlers on which the town moves are the envy of many. A Flickr commentator wants to integrate them into a project of his.

Crawler Town kinda reminds me of Rivet City. Wonder why ...

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Nottingham's suddenly become more of a happening place for me as far as videogames are concerned. In an earlier post, I mentioned GameCityNights that's being organised by the inimitable Iain Simons (he of the 100 Videogames and GameCity fame). Besides this, Nottingham Trent University has offered me a role in designing a postgrad course on games as part of the Champions of Academic Enterprise programme. The name's a tad too grand for me but it's great that I have some role in game research at NTU. Anyway, I prefer calling it CoAE (Kwa!) - sounds nicer.

I've got some great team members: Russell Murray (he wrote the 'Poirot' screenplays) and Simon Schofield (artist, coder and PKD fan: Simon's got a multimedia installation called 'Kipple Pond' in Sheffield Museum - go see it!). I'm probably still not allowed to say what exactly we have planned but this course is going to aim at exploring unconventional uses of videogames.

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Qwerty futures.

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I've always played videogames using the qwerty keyboard. Well, almost always because when I was around six, someone took me to a videogame arcade and put me on a racing game machine that had a steering wheel. I've won many races since but it was always with frantic taps on the arrow keys of my pc. Yes, the consoles have never appealed to me and I will only use the joystick for the occasional flight sim. To make matters worse, I'm pathetic at the Wii because, somehow I don't like the games in there (maybe Wii Cricket would make me happier). Come December, we'll have Project Natal and will be playing games with gestures in air. I'm not sure how I'll be able to adapt to this entirely new way of playing. I'm also thinking if I'll need to. The reason for this is a conversation I had yesterday evening about how we communicate online and in general through computers Jim Morrow from Theory, Culture & Society was discussing whether it is at all possible to displace the qwerty keyboard with some other medium such as touch, thought etc to communicate between ourselves. Obviously, videogames are seeing many changes and will see more. However, the games that I like (strategy games for example) still don't play very well in consoles (Empire: Total War doesn't have a console version) and almost all console games can be played equally well in the pc. I know there are many who will disagree and they have a right to since I am a console newbie comparatively. Anyway, that's my perception. I like games that tell stories and while the days of adventure games and text-based games are history now, the keyboard is still holds sway in in-game multiplayer speak and is a pretty versatile delivery device for communication with the pc. Of course, there is always the voice and now, the gesture and together they will prove a powerful combination that can revolutionise how people play videogames. The keyboard, however, is hardly on its way out. In online MMOs and systems like Second Life , the mode of communication is generally the keyboard and SL even has the typing animation as representative of communication. The other thing I was thinking of was the way the freelook functionality (with the mouse) has revolutionised possibilities in gaming - how will it translate into the Natal screen? What will it do to the sense of involvement to feel the illusion of reality snap with the realisation that on turning your face sideways the game world disappears (in the free-look mechanism, the eyes are supposedly within the screen but from the videos I've seen, the Natal experience seems to have the eye outside - but I may be wrong).

No, the keyboard isn't going - not even if we replace the clicks by hand gestures. Unless we devise a way off talking to others through the computer and of talking to computers by some other means ... maybe thought. Anyway, I'd better get ready for work --- mind-controlled devices are too blue skies for a Friday morning. I've got the weekend for the daydreams. I'll plug myself into a game (Existenz-style) and enjoy thought-control.

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The Avatar Experience

I'm struggling to keep up with things. I watched Avatar about three weeks ago and I would settle for no less than the much-feted 3-D version. Since then, I've been meaning to write about it. I found the film riddled with cliches to the extreme. War on terror, battle for resources, environmental issues and colonisation - all the boxes were ticked. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it - specially the fun way in which Hollywood constructs everything that's not Western as quaintly primitive (blue skin, long ears and the capacity to link with ancestors through your ears) but bizarrely pristine and mystical. However, that's not what I'm going to talk about.

It's the title that intrigues me.
Avatar: not many know that it's a Sankrit word meaning reincarnation, especially the famous ten incarnations of Vishnu. In recent cyber terms, 'avatar' has taken on a slightly different meaning - thanks to Neal Stephenson's novels. It is an 'incarnation' literally but excluding the sense of temporal recurrence that accompanies the Hindu use of the word. The movie uses 'avatar' just so - as the cyber embodiment of a character. As a game researcher (and long time gamer), I am quite familiar with this meaning as well. In my DiGRA paper I've argued that the understanding of avatar in game terms remains incomplete if we do not consider its temporal aspect as well. I won't shout about that now ...

What I do want to talk about is the film's use of the concept from the gaming scenario. On the
CNet News site, David Terdiman quotes virtual worlds expert Bruce Damer as saying, "If you combine the Wii or (Microsoft's Project Natal) with augmented reality glasses or...just (hold) up your smart phone, you will 'see' into the virtual world that is cast all around you," Quite possibly.
If Natal delivers what it promises that will be amazing, there is no doubt about that. Whatever be the level of engagement with the 'virtual' world, the awareness of the player is not totally immersed in the experience of the videogame. Instead, there is what Gonzalo Frasca calls 'outmersion' (the awareness that you are not immersed or completely in the game world) and meta-outmersion (the awareness that are aware of being outmersed).

The film, Avatar, does not, contrary to many, simplify the process of identification of the avatar-body and the human operator. In a way, there is a similarity as well as a difference between this film and the slightly earlier release, The Surrogates. The humans in the latter seem more absorbed in their surrogate existence. The whole world lives and plays out in their surrogate existence or using their avatars, barring a small enclave which refuses to use surrogates. Jake, the protagonist in Avatar, however, is always aware of his other existence because the avatar he uses / inhabits is also aware that he is on a fact-finding mission. Further, in his avatar he is actually dealing with real creatures. In Surrogates, the protagonist (Bruce Willis) gets to encounter real humans as well, although other characters don't experience this as much. In Surrogates, people use their avatars to do things in their real day-to-day world whereas in Avatar , the use of avatars is restricted to a unexplored alien world. The externality of the avatar depends on this to an extent. In both cases, the real world interferes and clashes with the avatar. In the movies, real-world characters attack the avatars as well as their real world selves - sometimes simultaneously in the two different zones of real and avatar activity. An example of this in Avatar is when the US Marines move in to destroy Pandora and have to fight one of their own, Jake, in his avatar-self. Almost at the end of the movie, the chief antagonist tries to kill Jake's real and virtual selves simultaneously thus demarcating the differences while showing how they function together. There are scenes in both movies where it does seem that the involvement of the real and the avatar self are seamless but both the movies, albeit to a different degree, question the seamlessness that they point towards in their own way. The involvement with the avatar is not one of straightforward immersion and 'flow'; rather, it incorporates an experience of outmersion and meta-outmersion. The endings of the movies, of course, move towards extremes: Surrogates ends with the rejection of avatars and Avatar ends with the total passage of Jake into his avatar self. Taken together, both movies complicate our understanding of the 'avatar' as understood in current videogame parlance: the fact that two movies linked with a somewhat similar entity end in such diametrically opposite endings makes it difficult to deem any of the endings as a plausible way of understanding the avatar-experience. Instead, this reiterates the point that the experience of involvement in a virtual world through a mediated self is complex and varied. Immersion in the sense of submergence in a virtual reality does not explain this situation and it is great that a much contested idea in videogames (however involving and realistic) is being discussed by older media such as cinema with due attention being paid to its complexity.

In sum, I'm quite happy that both the films throw open more questions about the mediality of the avatar. As for the temporal aspect, I believe that although it is intrinsic to the understanding of the avatar, we will see it emerging in discussions and representations by the media in due course.


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Newsmap search: Videogame, date:14.02.2010

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I think Newsmap is cool. Above is today's newsmap for videogames.

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My FaceBook tells me that it is GameCity Night on 25th Feb!

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GameCity organisers have brought yet another fresh idea to the Nottingham gaming scenario: GameCityNights. This is a monthly event comprising'a series of brilliant liveshows, bringing some much needed GameCity magic to the months that don't begin with 'O'.

This month's event is being hosted at Antenna (not sure where that is but check out this link). Hello Games, creators of the forthcoming IGF nominated thrill-fest ‘Joe Danger’, will be sharing secrets and I am going to go. Can't stay till 1:30 am though - have a 9 to 5 job to go to the next day.

Check out details on FaceBook.

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Playing with Empire

I've been playing Empire: Total War (read the review at GameSpot) since Christmas. Almost for an hour every day. No surprises therefore if I am getting bored of it now. I'm playing as Great Britain and am now master of almost all of mainland Europe and a considerable part of America. I've been putting off my invasion of India even though the year is very near 1757 (when the historical Battle of Plassey happened) but I'm not sure whether it is because I am reluctant to attack my country (in real life) or whether things haven't just been expedient enough. Britain, under me, is as strong a power on land as on the sea and I've been able to march my armies into most places so far making sea landings unnecessary. That is not to say that I neglect the naval side of things as I've got a powerful flotilla of all kinds of ships and various fleets sailing the different oceans. The navy, however, is mostly busy fighting other navies and raiding trade routes - hence, the deviation of historical fact. I've not attacked India and I'm already too bored to play any more.

Screenshot from Empire: Total War. Note how a large chunk of Europe is now part of the British Empire (the red colour on the map at the bottom-left). The open window shows the basics stats that are needed to keep the population of Dublin happy. Empire, here, is about a statistical balance and a rule-bound game. I am surprised that it is possible to think of it in these terms about real empires.

As I ponder what it would have been like if this version of alternative history were to have happened (after all talking about games and temporality is my hobbyhorse), it is hard to shake off what I know had happened in reality. Playing with Empire can be an intriguing experience for someone who comes from a country that was colonised for over 250 years. This is as much because of what the game does as because of what it misses. A few days ago, I was reading Plain Tales from the British Raj and watching an old TV serial called The Jewel in the Crown (for the uninitiated, this the name for India in the days of the Raj). These popular attempts to describe Empire are obviously depictions of the Raj as seen by coloniser - albeit sometimes in retrospect. Despite the best intentions of portraying the less visible aspects of Empire, these accounts miss the voice of the subaltern (if the subaltern can speak at all, that is). It is not surprising that games based on empire miss much of what it was all about.

Obviously, the people, both individuals and the collective social sectors, are discounted. The intricacies of commerce and of supplanting the extant system of government with a foreign one are not reflected or greatly simplified. However, I believe that even the perhaps all too simplistic presentation of the workings of Empire is nonetheless of vital importance to any reading of imperialism. Age of Empires (similar title to E.J. Hobsbawm's book) is one of the older examples of games based on Empire. There have been many similar games before it but it is one that I keep returning to since it was amongst the first computer games that I played. The demo version which had reached me through a friend ran with some hiccups on Pentium 1 pc and I was trying to build the Hittite empire in Kadesh with a god's-eye view of my part of the world. The reality of the game consisted of armies, some key buildings and resources such as stone, gold and food. With stone I could build walls to keep out enemies while food and gold gave me my army. In the first sections of the game, I needed these to keep others from destroying me while in the subsequent sections, the main purpose was to capture other people's resources and increase my line of sight over the map. What I could see also , therefore, became a source of my power in a somewhat Foucauldian sense. As the Age of Empires series matured, the armies and their capabilties grew and so did the historical grasp of the games. Soon Kadesh was replaced by William Wallace or the armies of Genghiz Khan. The importance of trade increased and the buildings grew more and more complex in their types and functions. There were civilians in the games but they served mostly to chop wood, farm and mine stone or gold. Governance was mostly a military preserve and although the clergy was an important unit, its purpose was to heal soldiers and convert enemy soldiers. Conversion was accompanied by audio sounding like incantations and happened almost like magic. Entertaining as the games were, they were like huge databases involving micromanagement. Adding bits of data and destroying others' access to the data was the strategy for winning the game. While these games highlighted the perspective of viewing empires as giant databases and large armies as the means of maintaining access to resources and land, the association of empire with the control over rock , food and stone made empire seem like a simple resource-management game. There was one clear omission: no allowance was made for dissent from those captured or converted. So in a sense, an empire once established would remain forever.

Empire: Total War is different. As a turn-based game, it lets the player see the world as a flat navigable map on which it is possible to play on the 'macro' level in deciding troop and resource deployment, researching technology and having the computer 'autoresolve' battles. Conquered sections of the map get coloured by your nations colour. Under me (well the king is George III, the game says), almost the whole of Europe is a big red blur: England has her European empire at last! Unlike in Age of Empires, this game is turn-based and therefore, there is more of a sense of time --- and of history. Armies and navies can move only a certain distance during a turn, research takes a number of turns to complete and the mood of the populace can swing after a turn. There is resistance from the colonised peoples, armies run away without fighting to the end and diplomacy can tilt fortune in your favour. An elected parliament governs England and the fortunes of its empire but beyond the traits of the individual ministers influencing some set policy outlines, the government doesn't seem to matter. Most of the game concentrates on the army and the navy. Although, there is a 'philosophy' tab in the section where the empire researches its technology, most of the philosophical advancements are detrimental to the maintenance of empire and there is little incentive to research them: I am currently having my 'gentleman scientists' research the 'light infantry doctrine'. Very sound for an aspiring imperialist. Cities and towns are important for their special attributes and are places that form the hubs of trade and popular activity. Having certain buildings, some specific levels of taxes and popular satisfaction (these being interlinked) and of course, a garrison will keep conquered areas under control. If these are altered due to other circumstances (such as having to move an army away from its barracks in the city), disruptions may occur in the empire. Other nations also constantly threaten the balance.

There are obvious areas where the developers could improve the game: diplomacy, trade and economics still remain quite rudimentary. One significant omission would be any method creating alliances whereby allies could agree to share their spoils; another one, would be ways to implement realpolitik or divide et impera and the list goes on. However, instead of what the game doesn't do, let's focus on what it does.

It creates an environment for modelling empires. As letting other nations amass resources will be detrimental to the player (as he or she will soon be attacked), the game's logic justifies empire as a necessity. Empire forms the main element of the game's title but the next part is equally important. 'Total War' is the definitive way of maintaining Empire. The two entities seem almost interdependent. As a model, although deficient, the game seems to capture some of the salient features of the mechanics of Empire. Empire depends on control of cities and towns and these are maintained by stabilising some parameters in the games database. There is a certain amount of money required to maintain control over a region and the rest goes into the imperial coffers - sometimes to be spent on creating more soldiers or technology to support more expansion. When a region is first conquered, it seems more resistant to the conquerors - over time, this resistance seems to weaken in the game. As far as research of technologies goes, it seems totally harnessed to the empire's martial needs - other developments that come with a cost to imperial stability although of huge benefits otherwise will be rejected by the ordinary player. No doubt the game does not think of how technology designed to serve Empire could be used against it - but then again, neither did the imperialist officialdom. The game also encourages the building of imperial bases or hubs and a reasonable control of the sea. Basically, the game works on the logic of the need to expand to maintain power and obviously, the need for power as the way to survive. The whole game is set on the assumption that the abovementioned parameters need to be maintained constantly and that they can be maintained by a set of corresponding processes. Empire is a rule-based system that functions only when certain assumptions are made and certain factors taken for granted. Military might is often relied on as a standing solution for all problems and nations with strong standing armies (and empires) are given nation status. Anything not corresponding to the above is legitimate territory for being carved up by empires. Finally, the game also requires a forced assumption of sameness among all the conquered nations - although there is some diversity in traits, the conquered nations are treated as one common factor. For example, anyone opposing the imperialist rule becomes a rebel and usually (not always though) has weaker forces .

As we think of Empire as a game, it might be worth thinking about whether nineteenth century politicians were also making similar assumptions and playing their politics by similar kinds of rules that we see in the empire videogames. Whether it be Metternich and Castlereagh in Europe or Richard Wellesley in India, not to mention the chain of diplomats who followed in their wake, the concept of Empire has depended on the assumptions that ignored or discounted the colonised populations except as resources and certain time-tested methods of governance supposed to be effective in administering any part of the world that came under Empire: certain practices such as the annual tour of the districts that the British developed in India were applied in very disparate conditions in regions like the Malay Peninsula. The result, obviously, was not promising but that is another story. Another key characteristic, besides the imposition of a rule-bound framework, whhich prompt a comparison of Empire with games is the competition that always marked Empire. Taking the British Empire as a case in point, we might note that its rivalry with Russia in the Eurasian region came to be known as the 'Great Game' - again, no coincidence as it was a rule-bound race for regions.

However, games are not without their problems. The essential premise of a game is that it takes place outside/alongside reality (I won't bring in the magic circle debate here but I'm sure I can make the point without it). So in playing Empire like the 'Great Game', the assumptions and the rules constantly get subverted by the diversity and the randomness of the constituents of Empire. Even in Empire: Total War , the random element constantly subverts the rule-bound strategies. As the player struggles against the game in his attempt to maintain his empire, there is a constant feeling that Empire is not as stable as it is made out to be.


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