Firetruck Infinite is a panicked traffic management game with an endless fleet of firetrucks for putting out fires.
We've been working on this game for about 8 months and this blog represents the first of the weeky builds to get posted publicly. There will be updates on a weekly basis, typically Sunday nights.
The game so far features a city being plagued by an arsonist turning to a new dispatcher(you), and a fleet of inifite firetrucks to save them. Gameplay consists of tapping on locations on the map to dispatch a new firetruck to that location. Fires will spread through the city as the level progresses and it is up to you to manage your fleet well and avoid traffic jams. You can select individual trucks to give them a new location.
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Compelling narrative in video games is still a relatively new concept if you think about it. I look back to my gateway to the medium, which like for many young gamers, was Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s hard to say exactly what the original intended narrative of that game was, if one even existed. The first bits of dialogue (and more or less the only dialogue before the game’s closing moments) don’t occur until you’ve completed World 1-3, and even then it consists of a mushroom capped person telling you your princess is in another castle. If you had no preconceived knowledge of the Mario Universe before that moment in the game, this would actually be your first clue that your goal is to rescue anyone at all, and it still doesn’t explain who the chump with the shroom hat is. I guess the 8-bit era was the genesis of things like gameplay and level design, and though plots did occasionally lend themselves as devices by which we enjoyed games, they were stifled by the capabilities of the systems on which we played them. It’s safe to say we’ve come a very long way, and as I recently had the opportunity to play through Naughty Dog’s foray into the zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us, that became as present as day.
Story is integral to The Last of Us. In fact, after playing it I would be inclined to argue that this game’s original concept was as a vehicle for the tale it told. Naughty Dog, as a studio, has actually started garnering a reputation for their cinematic approach to game design. While that might not be as present in their earlier works, like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, the Uncharted series was noticeability characteristic of filmlike qualities. Those games were a giant-sized step into changing the way stories were told through games, but after playing The Last of Us, it’s clear that Uncharted was simply the studio developing its chops.
The Last of Us is a deeply moving, devastatingly tragic story. It centers around a man named Joel, and his personal experience as a fungal infection begins spreading through the country (and probably the world), turning people into mindless zombies. The longer a person is infected, the more extreme their fungal mutation becomes. It’s quite a mess, but the game is more focused on Joel and the people he meets. It turns out, as you might imagine, that Joel is to play a pivotal role in the larger scale.
The game opens with a bit of cinematics. I know what you’re thinking, cutscenes are nothing new, and they sometimes do more to take the player out of the game than to pull them further into it. While there is a fair amount of cutscenes in The Last of Us, they’re normally very short, and most of the game’s cinematic elements occur during play. The player not only has to realize their environment is being changed, but they have to react to it. It makes me wonder if, because of their interactive nature, video games are a more effective medium for storytelling. It’s easy to question whether or not Michael was right to kill Fredo in the Godfather, you aren’t Michael so you can judge him impartially, but in video games you become your character. When Joel was faced with decisions, even though I personally didn’t have a say over his choice, I was more invested in them. The Last of Us did a remarkable job of making me understand why Joel did the things he did, and agree with them even when there was a question of morality involved. You understand what is important to Joel as a character, and because you’ve been experiencing everything with him, these things are important to you as well.
The opening cutscene is also a very important plot element, that without going into specifics and spoilers, carries weight through our entire understanding of Joel’s character. The events of this opening segment, which coincide with the initial outbreak of the infection, completely define him later in life.
Once you’re placed inside the world, and the infestation is in full swing, you find out that Joel has adapted to the new world, and is working as a smuggler. You end up being paired with a young girl named Ellie, and your task is to smuggle her across the post-apocalyptic landscape (there’s something very, very important about her.) As you can imagine, Joel takes on this task quite begrudgingly, but the further the two travel together, the more their relationship develops. They become a team, and they become two people who care about each other. This doesn’t happen overnight, however. The game’s narrative provides you with experiences that shape the relationship’s development in a very believable way. It’s hard not to feel the same emotions as Joel throughout the process. It’s one of the most solidly built relationships in game history.
That isn’t the only element that The Last of Us does extremely well. The game shows the progression of time in a very simple, but very effective way. Rather than being separated into numeric chapters, levels, or simply giving you the date, the game separates its sections by season. Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. After the initial outbreak, where the game actually jumps years ahead, there is very little time elapsed between these sections. Just enough to get the characters to their next stage.
The Last of Us also approaches its story in a way that very few, if any, video games have done. it effectively causes us to question right and wrong, and whether or not those concepts are even relevant anymore. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape. The weight of the decisions Joel has to make carry remarkably heavy consequences. You are presented with the distinct possibility that humanity’s future rests on whether or not you are successful. That being said, you have some morally questionable roadblocks, and as Joel mulls them over, it’s nearly impossible to be sure of what’s right. It isn’t cut and dry, it’s a very blurred line. Sometimes in order to do something good, you also have to do something completely horrible.
I understand that story is not important to everyone, and even the best plots are irrelevant if the gameplay isn’t smooth, fun, and well thought out. Lucky for those types, though the plot is engrossing, well written, and thought provoking, The Last of Us is simply a fun game to play. The plot and cutscenes don’t distract from the play at all. It makes use of game mechanics like weapon upgrades, environment searches, and incredibly satisfying combat. Even if the story had been watered down a considerable amount, I would still call the Last of Us a game worth playing. It’s the mix of playability and worthwhile storytelling that make this game exceptional.
This game has to be played. The ending was perhaps its strongest moment. I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t played the game, but as the credits began to roll I set my controller down, and sat silently reflecting. It stays with you.
Simply put, The Last of Us is a new level of storytelling in interactive media. It will change the way developers approach game writing, and it will change the way gamers consider plot elements within games. If that argument doesn’t convince you, Sony has just announced that they will be making a film based on The Last of Us, so there must be some substance in there, right?
If you’re reading this and you haven’t played it, stop. Go play Journey. Really. Journey is one of the most important games made in the last several years. People far and wide have sung its praises and I’m here to offer yet another verse, this time on the theme of narrative.
Dwarfing whatever competition is thrown its way, Journey is a triumph sporting nigh-unparalleled elegance, artistry and narrative power. For all of the cultural tendency to tout the value of branching story-lines, personal choice, and open worlds, Journey is a singularly compelling encounter with a straight-forward, not-quite-on-the-rails narrative. The task set before me? To demonstrate the superlative efficacy of Journey as a compelling narrative experience within four discrete arenas:
Explication and Evaluation: unpacking what unique elements of the narrative contribute to my assertion of the superiority of Journey
Deep Story Enthusiasts: demonstrating to such a theoretical class of persons the alluring depths of the narrative
Accessible Story Enthusiasts: demonstrating to the not-quite-opposite class of persons the elegant simplicity of the narrative experience
Emotional Impact: discussing the single-crystalline emotional significance of this videogame experience and telling you why it matters.
To pun on the nature use of “compelling” -- there’s no alternative: Journey is a single track experience with no narrative decision making. Like many video games, the path through Journey is essentially a singular railroad, solving one gentle puzzle and then the next. Making the narrative, well, by definition compelling… But such a superficial, pun-driven approach fails to capture the fleeting essence of how “compelling” is different than “compulsion.” There’s no gun set against your head to play Journey, why travel down the first hill? What is the taste the pulls your deeper into thatgamecompany’s profound experience?
Before we can access the heart of their narrative design, it is first important to discuss Journey’s narrative form. Often when speaking of “narrative” we imply the verbal transmission of a sort of story (note that when I say “verbal” I mean the employ of syntax, vocabulary and word-objects; ASL is still “verbal” in this sense). Unlike many modern video game experiences, Journey is an entirely non-verbal experience. To belabor the point a bit, narrative is intrinsically pre-verbal: Douglas Harper describes the origin of the word “narrative” as literally "to make acquainted with," ultimately from *gno- “to know”. From its root, “narrative” carries the weight of revelatory process, and fundamentally some of the most profound ways to transmit acquaintance are non-verbal. Your friend is not at all familiar with oranges, and despite all your attempts at describing that citrus fruit (“I mean, it’s an spheroidal fruit with pigmentation between yellow and red… that tastes sweeter than a lemon…”) nothing makes your friend more acquainted, more knowledgeable about oranges than simply placing one in their hands. This kind of non-verbal acquaintance is an intrinsic part of human experience and integral part of our lives. Journey takes this interactive, non-verbal learning and elevates it to artform by simply not including verbal elements in the experience.
Looking at an on-rails narrative, as players, we’re generally used to being pushed or pulled along at the pace the game wishes to take us. The taste, the richness that draws you into Journey comes precisely from a relaxing of these compulsions -- while there are objectives present in the game, they wait patiently for you to fulfill them. To assuage the potential for the sort of plodding the descends on many puzzle games, Journey intersperses moments of wild, sliding abandon and soaring, succulent flight. For every tense, nigh-tedious moment of trudging through the seemingly-infinite world of pace-slowing sand, there a comparable moment of weightless release. The soft-objective structure means that in order for players to make any progress at all, enticements are placed and clever, beautiful and intuitive camera work is used to call attention to items of interest and sometimes obfuscate items of significance. These latter secret items are but one of the draws for repeating the game, others will be discussed later. Though you never have to go anywhere: the music, the beauty, the camera work, the textures -- every element of the game conspires to draw you deeper and deeper into the stunning world of Journey. With neither carrot nor stick -- tantalized by the very possibility, the very essence of the world -- you find yourself on a journey, for the sake of the journey itself. The compelling nature of Journey comes precisely from its lack of compulsion.
Journey’s depth is, as many depths are, not readily apparent. It’s a little like stepping into a shallow pool only to realize just how far in over your head you are. Journey is a game that, even having played several times, there remain elements that continue to elude me. For example, there’s a rather pervasive set piece, that until my fourth playthrough had remained innocuous, and suddenly I realized what it was -- that I was standing in history, that everything was connected. I wonder if, even now, I fully understand all of the pieces.
The tense-release structure that pervades the playable space is reflected in the presence of a series of cutscenes that divide each level. Mysterious mediations where a white-robed figure reveals to you both the past and what is to come in the styling of an animated mosaic. The story so-told is rather simplistic, if perhaps a bit moralizing. A story of a grandiose people and their magic fabric, eventual greed, ambition and fall. The depth, rather than emerging from the events of the narrative, emerges from the elegant portrayal of that narrative into the play areas, the aforementioned set-piece to name one. Journey is a play within a play, both topological and temporal. The cutscenes serve as guides into the elegance of the history upon which narrative of Journey is built, showing you more and more truths, sliding ideas into place.
A kind of hermeneutic unlocking is present throughout Journey, to this end there are hidden unlockable (achievable-related) mosaics throughout the play areas. Each of these reveals portions of the narrative tantalizingly absent from the mandatory cutscenes. Again, set-piece related, there’s a mosaic that transforms the opening play-area from a cute, quaint space into an overtly sad one. In the same move, it integrates this mysterious set-piece into the larger, beautiful overarching story.
In short, it’s a simple story (as I’ll say even more about below), but it’s beautifully told, with an aching sense of mystery and pervasive realization. To return to the very nature of narrative, in each playthrough one comes to know Journey and it’s world more and more, to get acquainted on a deeper, richer level with both the overt narrative, and the play-area functional narrative.
Journey’s story is one of the most accessible; it’s been told in thousands of different ways and iconically introduced into American pop-culture by Star Wars. thatgamecompany embraced the Campbellian monomyth as the framework of their story, it’s their retelling of the hero’s journey. From the call to adventure, to the belly of the whale, to the freedom to live. Rather than follow Campbell’s 17 phases, Journey even cleans up that narrative a bit -- reducing it to broad emotional strokes and a more straightforward flow. Meaning that for all of its depth, the narrative is light, fun. It doesn’t take really any effort to understand the story -- it’s all laid out before you.
And even if you’re somehow opposed to narrative, Journey will simply coax you along and sweep you into its beautiful play-experience, which, as it’s structured on the monomyth is immanently relatable and engaging. And its brevity and simplicity (and its emotionality as I’ll describe below) allow Journey to enter a space of ritual, of performing tasks again for the joy of performing them again, of playing for the sake of how it finds you feeling.
Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany have really done all the work of encapsulating their game in a single emotional experience: “small.” Part of the brilliance of Journey is its express desire to convey a particular emotion, its fundamental willingness to clean out clutter. Everything in Journey is tooled to the experience of “smallness.” And though thatgamecompany uses such a word, I would instead say the “sublime” in the Kantian sense: looking at a sunrise and feeling the intensity of the world, the mystery the magic, the fullness of what is beyond the sunrise. The feeling not just of beauty, but the distance of beauty, the power of nature and its indication of the numinous, the inexpressible. Journey is a game much like watching a sunset or standing in the rain, beauty is all around you. Through clever camera work, dynamic sound effects, and an elegant use of few mechanics Journey strums the sublime emotional chord for two straight hours.
In an off-handed remark during his session on paper-prototyping narrative at GDC ‘14, Jamie Antonissementioned that the real hero of a game is properly the player. With this impressionistic reduction of the monomyth, Journey collapses the role of the hero and their avatar. The player, though their avatar, is diving into this deeply experiential world, their experience elegant entwined with their avatar. There’s no emotional disparity -- your characters actions, reactions, all of these are sung out directly onto the player proper. It’s not your avatar’s journey, it’s yours.
If my memory serves me correctly, there are two docents here at Electrophage. From far across the America frontier, Nate, with his powers of ink and quil can be found writing away day and night on subjects no one fully knows. However much closer to home, right here in the heart of Chicago, Armstrong, with his powers of pen is always full of opinions that should be heard.
I found these gentleman, brought them together and challenged them to become something more. Why this challenge? Why such focus into subjects not yet written? Because all of the mages here at Electrophage like to practice each of our talents. From Code to Canvas, Art to Audio, and finally, now the written word. Our two in house Docents, keepers of words and way of writing, are now summoned to find a game that best defines the challenge that comes before them. They will play or replay this game and write about how that game answers the challenge. Then, they will play each other's game and blog about how it matches up to their original.
DOCENT BATTLE, FIGHT!
It's hard being an Archmage. There are so many things that take up my time each day; work-life, gym-life, family-life, and everything... else-life. When I finally have a moment to put on my robe and get to my work I find my self exhausted. But my role, my abilities are to motivate others and if I can't motivate myself to keep going, what am I to say to the mages? Each day I work a bit harder, I add an additional task, I push a little harder all in knowing this will pay out in the end. Yes it is crazy that I keep adding more onto my plate, but in time it gets easier and my daily life becomes more.. more normal. I push myself to keep going, I stand my ground to not fall, and when I do... I get back up and again and learn from my mistakes.
So to all of you out there who want more than the norm that life has given you, I say this. Stay diligent each day towards your efforts to being a success. When you get overwhelmed from the stress of each of your lives, you must persevere. Finally when something does bring you down you must be resilient and get back up.
If this were Westeros and I had a motto it would be:
The crest... well I am not sure yet, some creature or thing that makes sense with those words. Perhaps a Phoenix?