Tuesday, December 28, 2010

GOTY Reason #3: Shifting Perspective

Good mysteries and good horror stories have at least one feature in common: they keep the audience off-balance.

Psycho is the easy example. When the main character can be killed off halfway through the film, the audience is being sent a clear signal - all bets are off. What you thought this film was about? Guess what: Not what it's really about. Or whom it's really about.

This act of shifting narrative focus, when done well, is remarkably effective in engaging the audience. It takes the viewer out of his comfort zone. It forces him to reevaluate his assumptions - about characters, plot events, themes, sometimes even genre. It makes him think critically about the messages he's being sent and asks him to consider how he's being conditioned to respond.

Deadly Premonition is heavily invested in making the player ask questions about what he's experiencing. These obviously start with the player's avatar, York. Namely, why is he so weird? How come he's so oddly nonchalant about these horrible, supernatural goings-on? And who the hell is "Zach," anyways? (At least, who does York think Zach is?) And the biggest question: what does it mean that I, the player, "am" Zach?

York encounters ethereal versions of the Ingram twins in the Red Room.

As I mentioned previously, the fact that York is an unreliable narrator calls into doubt whether any of what we're experiencing is real. Like David Lynch films, the game trades heavily in the symbolic. The combat sequences, which generally take place in the supernatural "Other World," may or may not be figments of York's imagination. Add to that the surreal Red Room and White Room sequences that precede each new chapter, and it's clear the game is demanding a different kind of approach than players are typically used to.

Alan Wake suffers, I think, from too closely approximating a conventional third-person action game; its most successful sequences, to me, were the weirder ones, like the bit near the end with the objects made out of words from Alan's typewriter. Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, only makes at best a half-assed attempt to approximate a conventional action or horror game; viewed as such, it is an abject failure, deserving of the bad reviews. But I don't think it's really interested in doing that. Instead, I think it's appropriating certain action game conventions (and intentionally subverting others) to unsettle the player so that his emotional and intellectual responses are continually off-balance. [And again, and I hope you can see this is not me being an "apologist" but merely acknowledging the obvious, it royally cocks up a lot of those conventions - which have become conventions not necessarily because they're "safe," but because they work.]

Speaking of unsettling: Deadly Premonition takes obvious cues from Twin Peaks, but I would argue the more resonant connection to Lynch is his 1997 film Lost Highway.

It's nearly impossible to describe what Lost Highway is "about," but, like other Lynch films Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, it is a highly figurative and fragmented narrative in which a central character is quite literally a split personality. In each of these films, there occurs a point (or several points) at which the protagonist suddenly "becomes" a totally different person - played by the same actor - in a totally different situation. If there is a narrative logic to this splitting, it is fluid at best; the viewer is compelled to consider the film on a symbolic level, as logic either breaks down or is abandoned entirely.

But what makes Lost Highway, in particular, relevant to Deadly Premonition is the way the splitting of its main character can be read as a psychological defense mechanism. Film critic John Kenneth Muir's brilliant analysis of the film as Lynch's depiction of a "psychogenic fugue, a state of disassociation with oneself," could almost be applied to the game with equal precision. As in other Lynch films, certain events, characters, and details in Deadly Premonition that seem to make no sense at first acquire symbolic and sometimes narrative weight later on.

And, as in Lost Highway, internal conflict is rendered externally, in the physical world. In Lost Highway, the "Mystery Man," played with demented aplomb by Robert Blake, is a manifestation of the main character's growing mental instability. In Deadly Premonition, there are similar physical manifestations of abstract concepts and conflicts, represented by objects, people, and in some cases the environment.

Happy nightmares! Love, future accused murderer Robert Blake.

The fun part of Deadly Premonition, to me, was continually guessing not necessarily what was going to happen, but what the things that were happening represented.

Unlike the Iron Mans or Raiders of the Lost Arks of the gaming world - the Mass Effect 2s and Red Dead Redemptions, the well-produced, beautifully drawn, meticulously play-tested, deservingly-lauded blockbusters - Deadly Premonition is not as interested in telling you a story or having you experience it or having you create it as it is in getting you to think about what it all means. It wants you to shift perspective, to reassess what you thought you were playing and who you thought you were playing as. (In fact, the game literally forces you to shift perspective in a few key segments, though I can't discuss them without getting into spoilers.) Your sense of "agency," that big gaming buzzword, is toyed with throughout, and outright subverted on several occasions.

Just like I don't want every movie I see to be a David Lynch film - my head would asplode! - I don't want every game I play to be Deadly Premonition. But I do want to be challenged to think differently about stories and about games, and that's one of the big reasons Deadly Premonition is my pick for Game of the Year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

GOTY Reason #2: Emotional Investment

It's hard for me to describe this scene without indulging in spoilers, but I want to tell you about my favorite moment in Deadly Premonition.

York has come to Greenvale to investigate the murder of Anna Graham, whose mutilated body was found suspended from a tree, clearly with some kind of sick ritualistic intent. As you might guess, Anna will not be the only victim in this story. Other characters York meets will be slain in similarly grotesque ways by the mysterious Raincoat Killer as well.

And now for the hopefully light spoiler: Toward the end of Chapter 2, there's a tense cutscene in which York saves another would-be victim from a grisly demise with some last-second heroics. Moments later, however, a terrifying accident - or is it, since the victim appears to be almost religiously rapturous about her rapidly impending death? - smashes the rescued individual to bits. It's a sudden and jarring twist, one that I'm sure some players might find darkly funny (or, worse, actually funny). By the time I'd gotten to that point, though, I was just horrified. After another seeming failure, the case was finally turning around. And then...this.

So we come to my favorite moment. York has just pushed budding love interest Emily, the sheriff's deputy, out of the way, saving her life as the victim is crushed under tons of stone. The camera pans from an image of the victim's arm sticking out from the rubble over to Emily's face. And Emily is in shock. Wordless, petrified, near-convulsive shock.

With York, in happier times.

Emily backs away, stumbling, mouth agape. In her expression the player can read any number of terrible realizations, as the young deputy comes to grips with - literally - the viscera of yet another mortifying crime she was unable to prevent.

And all I could think during this unnerving sequence was: Holy shit - shock. I've never seen a game so convincingly portray shock before.

Deadly Premonition is utterly committed to the player's emotional investment in the story and characters. So much so, in fact, that it makes the player role-play as York's alter ego Zach. And unlike most every other computer RPG, this one really does directly assume the player is inhabiting a role in the fiction. Hate to keep harping on this, but again, the "Zach" conceit is remarkably effective in encouraging the player to claim an emotional stake in the story. When a character talks to York, s/he is talking to Zach, too - to you. And after he's done talking to someone, York will ask Zach what he thought, engaging him/you in sometimes lengthy conversations reflecting on what they've just seen and experienced together. In this way the game demands that the player reflect on and emotionally engage with the story and characters in a way other games don't.

Finally, and this is something I'll discuss further in a future post, there are the Red Room and White Room sequences - dream-like intermissions between story chapters where the player explores weird symbolic spaces in York's mind. These scenes, which take obvious cues from David Lynch, build the player's investment in the characters by repurposing them in bizarre, surreal ways. You come out of these sequences saying, one, WTF, and two, why is York seeing [that person/those people] in that way? What could this represent? Are these the "premonitions" of the title, or something more abstract?

Like any piece of fiction, a colorful and interesting set of characters goes a long way toward engaging the audience. Greenvale is populated with an eclectic mix of inhabitants. Some of the more immediately recognizable, besides York and Emily, include amiable rockabilly convenience store owner Keith; his weirdly ethereal twin sons Isaach and Isaiah; traveling tree salesman Forrest Kaysen; kindly, deaf old hotel owner Polly; brusque, adversarial sheriff George; gas-masked, wheelchair-bound, weird-sandwich-loving millionaire Harry and his attendant Michael, who speaks only in rhyme; and SWERY's homage to Twin Peaks' Log Lady, "Roaming" Sigourney the Pot Lady (she carries an actual pot, not the drug).

Like York, the ancillary characters are instantly memorable. And unlike in Alan Wake, that other supernatural horror thriller of 2010, they're not merely props: when one of them turns out to be the next victim, we're genuinely sad, both for the victim and the characters who have to deal with the aftermath. (By contrast, what was Alan's wife's name again? Amy? Sarah? Gertrude? All I remember was the annoying sidekick Barry and the crazy lady with the paint and a bunch of demonic farm equipment.)

Throughout the main story York will gain plenty of revealing insights about his co-investigators, Emily and George, as they share intimate details of their backgrounds. These conversations were some of my favorite moments in the game, as York (and by extension, I, as Zach) begins to understand and empathize with the vulnerabilities of these people. Vulnerability is something most games portray inexpertly, if at all, and yet it's exactly this quality that audiences crave in their characters in order to relate to them.

[A brief aside: while I loved the "recruit your team" conceit of Mass Effect 2 - a phenomenal effort and the clear AAA GOTY pick for me - the vulnerabilities of characters like Jack, Thane, and Miranda rang a little more hollow for me. It's possible this is just because of the sci-fi trappings, but I think it's more likely that while the dialogue is undeniably polished and the production value is flawless, it's all a bit too Hollywood for my taste. One issue could be ME2's dialogue interface: When you can instantly (and, in my case, often inadvertently) replay the exact same lines of dialogue over and over, the emotional impact is necessarily deadened as immersion is broken. I'm not saying those characters' stories aren't rich and engaging; the emotional catharsis at the end of loyalty missions was the real reward for me, not the characters' newly-acquired loyalty. I just think it's more meaningful when there's no "game reward" (e.g. a boosted "loyalty stat") necessarily tied to characterization.]


As difficult as Deadly Premonition's side quest structure can be to parse - some only activate at particular points in the story progression, at certain times of day, and/or are dependent on the weather(!) - taking the time to meet Greenvale's characters and explore their lives can be immensely rewarding. As with any small town, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although some of these tasks may be simple fetch-quest affairs, the player understands that as with a good deal of the "action" sequences in the game, they're means to an end. And that end is often not a tangible reward like a new gun or improved stats, but instead a more intimate view into the strange and fascinating lives of Greenvale's inhabitants.

Characterization as a reward for gameplay may seem an odd inversion of the norm. Usually we "endure" cutscenes, which function simply as context-building mechanisms to build investment in the action sequences that follow. But, like so many aspects of Deadly Premonition, it is precisely because of this subversion that I find the game refreshing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

GOTY Reason #1: Memorable Protagonist

Commander Shepard and John Marston might star in two of the most (rightly) acclaimed games of this year. But both are positively boring compared to FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan.

Call him York. Everyone does.

Clearly based on Twin Peaks' eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper, York is the hero of Deadly Premonition, the investigator sent to the small northwestern town of Greenvale to solve a brutal murder case.

He's also one of the weirdest and most endearing protagonists I've ever encountered.

SWERY goes out of his way to distinguish his main character in the way a screenwriter might: by giving him instantly memorable quirks. Unlike the gruffly amiable (and inexplicably compliant) Marston or the impassive cipher Shepard, York has any number of recognizable traits and tics that imbue him with a multilayered personality:
  • Signature movements. As in the pic above, he flicks his cigarette lighter open with a confident swagger. He taps his collarbone when he's considering a problem.
And his most distinctive motion: he brings his hand up to his face, as if pressing a phone close to his ear, when he talks to Zach (more on that in a moment). Great actors understand that distinctive motions are often just as effective as words, if not more so, at revealing character. What does Shepard do? Cross his/her arms? Dance poorly?
  • Identifiable interests. Turns out York is a film buff - not surprising, since SWERY studied film in college and his co-writer, Kenji Goda, is in fact a filmmaker. His encyclopedic knowledge of movies, revealed mostly during driving sequences, ranges from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to the John Hughes oeuvre. And as York discusses films, the player gets a sense of how his analytical mind works, his attention to detail, context, history. By contrast, I don't know what Commander Shepard is into. Fish?
  • An odd mix of the mundane and bizarre. Like many of us, York loves his coffee - but he also reads prophecies in the swirling of the milk. Over dinner with his new friends in the local police force, he casually describes horrific crimes (a man who uses victims' remains as kitchen utensils, a serial rapist with over 800 victims) while enjoying a steak and a beer, oblivious to his companions' shocked reactions. At one point early on, he seems more interested in the taste of a homemade biscuit than the details of the murder case he's investigating. York's odd way of processing information and making seemingly random connections - in a socially awkward way, of course - is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. His speech patterns are also similarly strange, with resonant ruminations on the case, the town, and life interspersed with incomprehensible and colorful figurative language ("I'm in shock, like a weasel in an electric chair!"). Like Holmes, York's worldview is a combination of the esoteric and the mundane, and like Holmes, he's endearing because of this.
  • A history. I can't get into too much detail here without verging into spoiler territory. But unlike other game protagonists, York's backstory - which is parceled out in tantalizing bits throughout the game - is rich, and, crucially, ambiguous. In one scene, York reveals he used to be a punk rocker in his youth, a lifestyle tellingly incongruous with his current professional, if eccentric, demeanor. It seems an offhand detail that, like so many of the offhand details in the game, simply feels like a whimsical way to flesh out the game world. Yet when you learn exactly what befell York in his childhood, the revelation that he embraced a punk lifestyle as an adolescent is incredibly fitting. (And while we're on the topic, I should mention that almost none of the offhand details in the game are truly "offhand"; most relate back to the story in distinct and interesting ways.) York's dedication to ritual - his morning coffee, his repetitive movements, even his signature greeting "Call me York. Everyone does" - not only makes him relatable, but also provokes questions. Mainly, how did he get this way? Who is he, really? I'm hard-pressed to name a game protagonist I've felt as invested in figuring out.
And then, of course, there's York's most definable characteristic:

  • Split personality. Early in the game you discover that York has an "imaginary friend" he calls Zach, a personality with whom he regularly converses - out loud and in front of others, no less. It becomes clear very quickly that you, as the player, are Zach; there is a sort of bending of the fourth wall as you realize that York is issuing you direct commands ("Just stop the car if there's something you want us to check out, Zach."). I can't stress how unique and interesting I found this conceit. It instantly renders York an unreliable narrator - when's the last time you played a game with one of those? - and gives you the nagging suspicion that some or all of this story may simply be a figment of York's imagination. Since Deadly Premonition is very much interested in playing with what's real and what isn't - and is heavily invested in bringing you into its strange world - employing the "Zach" conceit is a brilliantly tidy way of immersing the player. For a generation of games that prides itself on "immersion," only a few succeed in meaningful ways. The makers of Deadly Premonition understood that while games rich in environmental/incidental storytelling (e.g., BioShock, Red Dead Redemption) can go a long way toward inviting the player to inhabit the game world in an emotionally gripping way, only a protagonist as multifaceted as York.
***
I'll be taking a short break from the series for a couple of days for the holiday, but will do my best to have my next entry up in short order. Meantime, happy holidays!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

7 Reasons Deadly Premonition is GOTY: Introduction

Belieeedat, York.

And believe me: Deadly Premonition is my Game of the Year. Easily. And with all apologies to Danny Weissenberger, who made this call back in July, I'm going to add my voice to his excellent series of articles on the topic. I'll also do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum.

For anyone who hasn't read Danny's articles, here's the brief overview. Deadly Premonition is a third-person detective story by Japanese designer Hidetaka "SWERY 65" Suehiro, released in the US back in February. Sold at the budget price of $19.99, it was both panned and lauded by reviewers. It's gained cult status not only due to the polarizing responses it's provoked, but also because of its unrelentingly strange and oddly charming Twin Peaks-esque story and characters.

For a much better introduction to the game than I can give here, check out this video of Infinite Lag pal Matthew Weise's MIT presentation from a few months back.

Before I get into the 7 Reasons Why DP is my GOTY - which I'll cover in a series of posts, all of which will be linked right here on this page - let's look at the big reasons it shouldn't be.

1. Combat is poorly implemented and thoroughly unnecessary.
2. Driving can be interminable, especially with the anachronistic Resident Evil-style controls.
3. The map, which rotates depending on the direction you are facing and has no zoom levels, is useless.
4. The graphics and animations are sub-PS2 quality, and the sound mix in inconsistent at best, with many instances of cheesy soundtrack music popping up during tonally inappropriate times.
5. The side quests are largely impenetrable affairs, and the game is filled with seemingly tangential objectives and items.

In the series of posts that follow, I'm going to lay out 7 reasons I think these flaws - which are significant, no doubt - are completely worth overlooking. EDIT: All posts are now linked below.

Without further ado:

7 Reasons Deadly Premonition is Game of the Year
1. It features the most memorable and multifaceted protagonist in recent memory.
2. It is fully committed to the player's emotional connection to the characters and reaction to plot events.
3. It plays with the sense of player "agency," shifting perspectives in meaningful ways.
4. It is, like LOST, a patently absurd supernatural story that is nonetheless expertly told.
5. It contains, as SWERY has said, many "lovely useless elements."
6. It is remarkably ambitious in ways big-budget AAA titles can never be.
7. It embraces ambiguity and weirdness, respecting the player's ability and desire to discuss the story and atmosphere without needing a "right answer."

And once you've finished the game, check out this great conversation I had with indie developer Bredon "Switchbreak" Clay, who provides some excellent counterpoints in his own analysis.

Look for a post on each factor over the next few weeks. Until then, do yourself a holiday favor and go pick up a copy, will you?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Murder Simulators


The lights come up on a macabre scene straight out of a Poe story. Decaying castle walls surround the gallows where the blindfolded prisoner, hands bound behind his back, waits for the trapdoor beneath him to open and the noose around his neck to snap taut. To his right a priest in white robes rhythmically bends forward and backward, miming a crude simulacrum of the Last Rites. The executioner, face obscured by a black hood, stands impassive on the prisoner's left, awaiting the signal to throw the lever. The atmosphere is suffused with grim anticipation, a sense of guilty fascination, of morbid curiosity. Something terrible - and, maybe, secretly satisfying - is about to happen.

Eventually the priest stops swaying. There is an interminable pause.

And then, with a sharp crack, the floor opens. The prisoner drops. A thud as his body smacks against the scaffolding. The lights dim as the castle doors close. The scene, like the prisoner, is dead.

And it only cost a quarter.

This grisly scene was one of several contained in the antique coin-operated machines housed at the wonderful and weird Musee Mecanique in San Francisco. One of the highlights of my business trip there earlier this month - aside from hanging out with Gamer Melodico proprietor, musician, Kill Screen contributor, beer connoisseur, and International Cool Dude Kirk Hamilton - was touring this collection at Fisherman's Wharf.

Alongside vintage Pole Position and Star Wars cabinets, one can find an eclectic assortment of antique test-your-love-skill meters, crank-operated moving picture displays (many of the scandalous peep show variety!), pinball tables, photo booths, player pianos, nightmare-inducing laughing puppets, and mechanically-animated dioramas such as the morbid spectacle described above.

The animated scenes range in tone from pedestrian (a depiction of a farm at work) to exotic and salacious ("The Opium Den," pictured above) to surreal ("The Drunkard's Dream," in which mechanical monsters emerge from every dark corner of the wine cellar the drunk has collapsed in).

But most curious, and most genuinely disturbing, were the "execution" machines. Mrs. JPG and I saw at least one other: in this one, clearly inspired by the French Revolution, a criminal was guillotined after being read his Last Rites. Again there was a tense pause before the blade swished down and lopped off his wooden head, which fell neatly into a tiny basket.

It's strange to say, but somehow true: watching these crudely-painted, wire-controlled figurines enact these pantomime executions was far more shocking than nearly any digital murder I've been a party to in a videogame. And I've killed a lot of virtual people.

There is something undeniably grotesque about witnessing a death, real or virtual. Doubly so when that death is an execution. You can't help but feel, looking at this terrible thing, that you bear some small measure of responsibility for its occurrence.

One of the most disturbing images I've ever seen was a grainy .mpeg of the Nick Berg beheading my brother managed to download shortly after the event in 2004. I barely made it through the video before leaving the room. I remember being filled with a palpable disgust, not being able to shake the idea that by viewing this act, I was somehow complicit in it. Maybe that's just latent Catholic guilt, but it's still difficult to get past.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the execution scenes at the Musee Mecanique was the fact that I caused them to happen. I brought those scenes to life with my quarter. It's one thing to view a murder scene; it's another thing entirely to be the cause of it. And unlike most videogame deaths - which have become so fantastically gory, frequent, and inventive as to render them cartoonish parodies - the very crudeness of the Musee scenes, coupled with the awareness that they were explicitly built to showcase real-world "taboo" events, made them all the most resonant.

People who call games like Gears of War "murder simulators" have a poor understanding of the videogame landscape, or a distinct agenda, or (likely) both. The vast majority of videogames, I would argue, do not attempt to present emotionally affecting or even realistic depictions of death. Death is a mechanism by which obstacles to player progress are removed. Gory death animations such as the close-up chainsawing in Gears are, perhaps, intended as sensational rewards for players' displays of skill, and derive most of their impact from that sense of reward, not from the depiction of violence itself.

At a fundamental level, there is little difference between chomping a ghost in Pac-Man and stabbing a mark in Assassin's Creed II, despite the obvious gap in the degree of verisimilitude. I'm not saying the latter game is appropriate for young audiences. But I do find it hard to believe violent videogames make children more prone to violence. (Instead, I think, actual violence makes children more prone to violence. But that's a topic for another post.)

As in a given real world situation - the media's videogame-like depiction of the first Gulf War comes to mind - we find it difficult to empathize when death is presented on an abstracted level. Only humanizing victims, something most videogames fail to even attempt, can inspire that kind of emotional connection. The only videogame death in recent memory that not only intended to evoke genuine emotion in the player, but succeeded brilliantly at doing so, was in Deadly Premonition - a game that would never show up on the cable news radar.

Anyone who's endured a traffic jam caused by rubberneckers on a highway understands a basic fact about humans: we're fascinated by the morbid. This is nothing new: thousands of years of cultural artifacts, both mainstream and subversive, attest to this. The existence of decades-old coin-op execution scenes - with their embedded questions about audience, function, complicity, etc. - speaks volumes about the reactionary discourse around videogame violence in 2010.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Seat at the Table

(WARNING: heavily charged political content ahead. Videogame talk toward the end.)

In its November 29 issue, TIME magazine ran a profile of Senator Jim DeMint, R-SC, anointing this Tea Party champion leader of the "Rebel Brigade."

The article - a four-page feature by Michael Crowley and Jay Newton-Small, including the artfully dour full-page portrait of an austere-looking DeMint - is fairly representative of establishment media's fascination with the Tea Party upstarts, attempting to place its subject in the context of a broader social movement that's obviously having a large impact on the political climate. It's a longish feature for a news magazine, pondering the implications of DeMint's growing influence and his crusade against earmarks ("the gateway drug to socialism," as he calls them) for the Republican Party and even the White House.

The piece is solidly written. Except for the part where they take this guy at all seriously.

I'm not talking about the Senator's outright McCarthyish proclamations, like the one above. That's par for the course in today's GOP, and mostly simple anti-Obama posturing at bottom. No, it's this passage, which appears in parentheses in the fourth-to-last paragraph of this ~2,500 - 3,000-word article:

(And while he has recently downplayed social issues, DeMint is as conservative as they come in that regard. Witness his view that gay people or sexually attractive single women should be barred from teaching in public schools.)

Again: this man is a United States Senator.

If you can even begin to unpack the incredibly dense homophobia and misogyny in the Senator's belief, you ought to be awarded an honorary degree in abnormal psychology.

At the risk of breaking Godwin's Law, let's try a quick thought experiment. Replace the word "gay" in the above passage with the word "black." What year would you assume it was? As a corollary question, what color hood would you assume the speaker was wearing?

And as much as I'm sure the proprietors of Am I Hot or Not websites would love fat government contracts, I'm not sure All Sluts Left Behind would be a viably enforceable piece of education legislation.

Let me stress again: the above passage appeared parenthetically about 85-90% of the way through the article.

Reading this piece was like chatting politely with a mildly disagreeable, if civil, acquaintance at a party - only to have him tell you, an hour into your conversation, that stuffing live kittens into the garbage disposal is his favorite pastime. It's unlikely you would seriously consider his views on health care reform or deficit reduction after that little nugget of insight.

When you believe and say crazy fucking hateful things, you do not deserve a seat at the table. This is how adult societies operate.

In America, land of iconoclasts, we elect you to national office instead.

You could chalk up the problem here to Tea Party wackjobbery or irresponsible journalism or an immature political culture whose level of discourse is currently at sub-3rd grade standards. On some level you'd be right on all counts. But I think the issue is deeper.

There is an inexplicable, almost pathological need in American culture, and especially in politics, to resolve the inevitable and frequent cognitive dissonance with a minimum of critical thought. It is enough to believe. The details are trivial.

"Okay, maybe Senator X's views on gay marriage aren't, quote, 'politically correct'," one might say, speaking in the passive-aggressive code of the righteous. "That doesn't mean he doesn't have good ideas on tax policy." It does not enter this hypothetical voter's head that someone who proudly, publicly, and repeatedly spouts baldly illogical and hateful horseshit about one issue has thereby compromised his integrity on all others. (While we're at it, let's agree there is a marked difference between hateful horseshit and dumb crap politicians say all the time.)

The problem becomes trickier when, in the particular synecdoche of party affiliations, one individual's aberrations become representative of an entire group. Senator X is a bigot; therefore bigotry is a hallmark of Senator X's party.

If the preposterous Schwarzenegger vs. EMA Supreme Court case has shown us anything, it's that videogames still don't have a seat at the table. And despite the many indignant cries to the contrary, maybe it's our own damn fault.

I don't have personal experience with many games that present outwardly hateful messages in and of themselves, without the intervention of 12-year-old Future Klan Grand Wizards on Xbox Live. Games have definite issues with gender equality, diversity, jingoism, and maturity amid other concerns; but as far as outward bigotry goes, seems to me there's an awful lot more of that in the movies, on TV, and in political speeches than in videogames. I can think of many games I'd say have "problematic treatments of sexuality," for example, but few that overtly encourage or legitimize bigotry on the level of a Jim DeMint. As a whole, and despite the massive amount of growing they have yet to do, videogames are actually a fairly progressive medium, I suspect. The problem is that nobody outside our little circle realizes this.

The Grand Theft Auto games, for example, are often vilified as the worst examples of virtual degeneracy. Nevermind that such vilifications always entirely neglect to examine the messages behind the degeneracy, or even consider that there might be messages there. When Mom sees Junior blast away half of Liberty City as Niko Bellic, she doesn't stop to think about what Niko's narrative arc could be teaching her son about the futility of revenge or the need to move beyond one's past. She just says, no seat at the table for this filth.

I'm not arguing that Mom is necessarily wrong in this scenario; Junior may not be sophisticated enough to pick up on GTA's messages. GTA's messages may be poorly-conveyed or poorly-crafted. Any given game may, in fact, be crap. Many are. But the majority of games, I'd argue, do not promote hatefulness in and of themselves; like the dumb crap politicians say all the time, they may be stupid or vapid, but they're not usually explicitly hateful. Gears of War is macho and gory as hell, but I don't find anything particularly hateful about it. It's because Mom equates violence or gore with hatefulness - without understanding or examining the functions and motivations for the violence or gore, or the broader context of the genre conventions, developer tendencies, etc. - that games don't have a seat at the table.

Again, it's silly to argue all parents, or gamers for that matter, should become videogame critics. But those of us who do care deeply about games, creator and player alike, should have some responsibility for helping others understand why the games we love might be stupid, but are not hateful.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Rotation, November 2010

Work, holiday travel, and brief bouts with illness may have prevented me from writing much the past few weeks - but not, thank goodness, from playing videogames. Here's what's been in rotation this month:

XBOX 360
  • Deadly Premonition. Finally finished this endearingly bizarre thriller a few nights ago, and holy crap was the ending a revelation. Actually, the whole game was a revelation, on so many levels. There's lots more to come from me on the subject, including some analysis of the many risks this game takes that the AAA blockbusters won't even touch. But for now, let me just say, without the "so bad it's good" irony common to many reviewers' takes, that Deadly Premonition is without a doubt the most ambitious, challenging (not difficult, though - more like subversive), and ultimately rewarding game I've played all year. It features easily the most memorable protagonist of any game in recent memory, and a story that oscillates between absurd and poignant with more frequency and dexterity than everyone's favorite Sean Connery-in-a-Speedo postapocalyptic film, Zardoz. Approached with an open mind, this game can be an amazingly resonant, if unrelentingly odd, experience. If you are even the slightest bit interested in Deadly Premonition - and are willing to endure some obvious and frustrating design and technical issues to get to the brilliance underneath - do yourself a favor and pick it up. And for God's sake, DO NOT indulge in spoilers. You're better than that.
  • Dead Rising 2. Completed the last quarter of the story early this month, and I don't mind saying how touching it was to see Chuck save Fortune City wearing only Borat's banana hammock. The close-ups featuring our hero's bare ass as he shared a tender moment with his seven-year-old daughter were especially emotional.
  • Red Dead Redemption. Well, I got to Mexico. And now I get it. For a game that's so high on so many GOTY lists, it drags like a sumbitch in the second act.
NINTENDO DS
  • Harvest Moon DS. Just as impenetrably directionless and cheerfully addicting as the SNES classic, this portable version makes me wonder how, and no offense to the 70 million of you doing so, anyone could play Farmville. Not because Farmville is a "blatantly cash-grubbing spamming app made by an evil company for the PopularStalkingPlatformBook" or "only moms play it" or "it's more interactive advertisement than game," although all these things are true, but because nobody can fuck with the cuteness of Harvest Moon. Yo, you seen that sheep? With that fresh-sheared look? Straight ADORABLE up in this bitch. "This bitch" being, of course, the barn.


PC

  • Dawn of War II and its expansion, Chaos Rising. It's been a mystifying but not entirely unwelcome journey into the Warhammer 40,000 universe this month, largely propelled by the very solidly-executed Dawn of War II. I'm not sure if this game qualifies as an "action RPG," "tactical RTS," or some other variety of "descriptor ACRONYM," but it's damn fun regardless. While I enjoy the resource-gathering and base-building of games like StarCraft and Age of Mythology, I'm generally lousy at adopting any other strategy than turtling. DoWII removes that temptation along with most of the intense micromanagement, freeing the player to aggressively pursue and destroy enemies the way any Space Marine worth his 41st millennium equivalent of stripes would. In many ways this game has more in common with Diablo or Torchlight than with StarCraft, but the distinction is academic: what I love most about these Warhammer games is the way their over-the-top weaponry and righteous pseudo-religious xenophobia give just enough context for me to jump in, guns blazing. Very much looking forward now to a game that would have never otherwise been on my radar, the upcoming 3rd-person shooter Space Marine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Links, and a VGBC Update

November's been a rough month for blogging, as my scant output here attests. Not much to report on the games front; still plugging away at Dawn of War II, Deadly Premonition, and Red Dead Redemption. I picked up The World Ends With You from the library, but haven't had nearly enough time to play it; I want to give it a fair shake, but it's not grabbing me the way I thought it would so far. Combat feels haphazard, and the endless tapping to advance conversations, which veer precipitously into "..."-speech-bubble emo territory, gets old quickly. Still, I'll give it another go this weekend and see where I get with it.

Click the image to see Yahtzee Croshaw's very NSFW take on TWEWY.

Despite my busier-than-usual professional and social calendars lately, I do hope to continue to post regularly. The pieces I've got in mind, though, are a bit more long-form in nature and will probably be split up into multiple parts. Of course, I have to have time and energy to write them before I split them up. A notion that inspires only one reaction right now: ...

Apologies are in order, meantime, to all three of you who've been eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Video Game Book Club. I've actually got two reviews to catch up on - one for a StarCraft novel and the other for the latest Mass Effect book. Been dreading writing them, to be honest. The StarCraft book was so comically inept that making fun of it feels redundant and more than a little petty, which gives me pause about this whole endeavor. But fear not: I refuse to let this imposing tome, which rivals The Room in the audacity of its incompetence, dull my snark.

Also, re: the phrase "the audacity of incompetence" - PATENT PENDING, BITCH.

So. Friday links. Without further ado, here's what I rustled up from the great wide ether this week and last:
  • A very funny and insightful post by Margaret Robinson of UK studio Hide & Seek about the difference between - sigh - "gamification" and "pointsification."
  • At Edge, Randy Smith spends five hours with Alan Wake.
  • Wouldn't it be interesting if developers of big AAA games could study this weird proof of concept "game" about the subconscious of a man stood up for a dinner date, and insert that kind of intimate interaction into their grand narratives? What a fascinating way to inhabit a character.
  • Hate to keep plugging the GWJ Conference Call every week (well, actually, I don't), but this episode's time capsule to 1998 was a trip. Had no idea it was such a banner year for gaming.
  • On his blog Flash of Steel, Troy Goodfellow has begun an ambitious, and so far excellent, series of articles examining how the "character" of prominent nations/cultures have been portrayed in strategy games.
  • David Carlton's post about "practice" in games stems from his experience with Rock Band 3, where the idea of pure training modes is a natural fit - but then goes on to make some interesting suggestions about extending that valuable opportunity to refine skills to other game genres.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Primary Sources

When I was a kid I was given some D&D sourcebooks as a gift one Christmas. I don't think I ever played a single game, but I remember obsessively trawling through the books, finding the world implied by the ruleset fascinating. It wasn't so much the setting, which seemed like generic fantasy fare, but more that there were rules governing how the fantastical stuff worked. I was especially riveted by the descriptions of spells and their effects, which seemed peculiarly plausible in the matter-of-fact tone in which they were written. It was like reading an instruction manual for a Honda, except the Honda was your character. Also, the Honda could shoot lightning bolts.

Around the same time (age 11 or 12, I think) I read through Lord of the Rings for the first time. I suppose I enjoyed the adventure story, though I'm sure I didn't fully grasp it. But what sticks out the most in memory is poring over those huge appendices detailing the history of this imaginary world. The fact that Tolkien had gone to such lengths to invent extensive cultural, political, and linguistic backdrops for his novels blew my mind. There was a real lived-in feeling to this fantasy world, although much of it was (and is) so esoteric I could never commit to it on the level others could.

When I read Dune for the first time a few years later, I had a similar experience. There was, again, an extensive appendix, featuring a glossary of the pseudo-Arabic future space language, a timeline of significant historical events, assorted fragments of religious documents, even a satirical poem. Whatever the reasons - probably my growing maturity and reading comprehension skills combined with the availability of a feature film, a protagonist about my age with godlike powers, and Frank Herbert's slightly less opaque writing style - I latched onto the Dune universe much more strongly than I had any other fictional setting.

By the time I'd gotten to college and delved into the Wild West of campus network file-sharing - this was the pre-Napster early days, mind you - I had probably re-read the book and seen the David Lynch movie five times apiece. So when that untamed landscape of free software opened before me, I immediately jumped on the old DOS adventure game simply titled Dune and its not-really-sequel, the famous pioneer RTS game Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

But the real treasure was a massive PDF of The Dune Encyclopedia some kind soul had painstakingly scanned.

This giant tome, first published in 1984 with the bemused, if not entirely wholehearted, approval of Frank Herbert himself, is the finest example of "fan fiction" ever published. Come to think of it, the fact that it was published, period, speaks to its quality.

The volume's editor, Dr. Willis E. McNelly, and dozens of collaborators penned hundreds of entries on the ephemera of the Dune universe, everything from arcane descriptions of future weaponry to centuries-long histories of the novels' various factions and races. Although not canon, it was a brilliant compendium of background material, lovingly assembled in a brilliant way: in the form of an in-universe encyclopedia, referencing fictional texts throughout its extensive study of the Atreides Imperium. Dr. McNelly's collection was so thorough and so compelling that Westwood Studios, developer of Dune II and later Dune games, stole from it. The idea that there could be "primary sources" in a fictional universe was especially notable to me, buried as I was in my literature and writing studies; it lent the universe an air of legitimacy, however slight.

(Of course, this was all in the days before Frank's son Brian and his hack ghostwriter accomplice took a giant dump all over the series with their procession of abysmal cash-grab "canonical" prequels and sequels. And used the power of copyright and estate to muscle everyone else out of the Dune business in the process.)

Had The Dune Encyclopedia been compiled today, it would have undoubtedly been in wiki format, much like my recent insomnia cure. But in some ways, I think that might have missed the point.

To my mind, nothing can replace the feeling of a tangible artifact when it comes to building on a fictional world's reach. As a kid, I adored the "feelies" that came with some PC and NES games. Michael Abbott's great post about these in-box extras - paper maps, decoder puzzles, 3D glasses - links them to the in-game codex in Mass Effect 2, which functions as a digital encyclopedia of sorts to flesh out that fictional universe. His point that the codex contains "pertinent, not disposable lore" is well-taken. There is a lot of fascinating stuff in there for those players who choose to explore it. It makes for a much richer Mass Effect experience, helping set this particular game's story within a larger fictional space. I'm sure I'm not alone in appreciating the creativity and dedication it takes to construct an engaging universe for your game to take place in.

That said, I have to disagree with Michael's comment that this codex, or any in-game codex, really, is "well implemented." In ME2, as well as in that other high-profile BioWare opus, Dragon Age: Origins, navigating through the codex is a chore. In Dragon Age, the codex/quest menus (on 360) were especially difficult to manage; entries were not numbered and navigating to a new codex entry often meant inadvertently marking other unread entries as read - thus dropping them off my list of "new" material. It was even worse in Oblivion: while it was cool to be able to pick up and read books, it felt like a disruption to the flow of gameplay, even when the content of the supplementary material was interesting.


Thing is, I'm not sure there's anything developers can do. It's just a pain in the ass to read text on a large screen. It might be more palatable on a PC, but that's how I played Oblivion and it still felt like a distraction. The act of playing a game and the act of reading about that game's world feel like two distinct activities that, to me, are best enjoyed separately. It would be interesting to see if BioWare keeps stats on how thoroughly players explore the codex in, say, ME2. After all, it does serve a similar function to the appendices found in Lord of the Rings and Dune.

Yet while I understand the desire for an in-game codex to help players understand the fiction and immerse themselves in it, I can't help but think there are more effective, meaningful, and potentially profitable ways to extend your game's universe. And I'm not talking about Collector's Editions; most seem stuffed with demonstrably useless physical artifacts that are more marketing collateral than supplemental content. A figurine might be nice for a desk display, but it doesn't connect to the game experience in a meaningful way like the feelies of old did.

Honestly, I don't think that's just nostalgia for outdated copy-protection mechanisms: as Michael points out in his post, feelies were often essential components of the package, a (sigh) meta-game experience that brought the player out of the computer game, but not out of the game world. There's something psychologically interesting that happens there, I think. You are compelled to reflect upon the game and its fiction in a different way because of the switch in modality. The very act of reflection should be an important goal in itself.

Game developers often have to (and should) think like teachers: their students have different learning styles. Communicating content in different modes is crucial if you want to reach everyone. If you want to meaningfully extend a game world's fiction, I would argue, you've got to look outside the game itself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Link

That's right, there's only one selection this week. Because you really ought to take a listen to the latest Gamers With Jobs Conference Call.

In addition to regular hosts Shawn Andrich and Sean Sands, this week's podcast features Russ Pitts of The Escapist and Justin McElroy of Joystiq. The main topic stems from an open letter Russ recently wrote to game makers.

If there's one issue that should really dominate the conversation about videogames, it's the problem of half-baked "AAA" games being foisted on the oblivious consumer. When Fallout: New Vegas, which by all accounts is so buggy it's nigh-unplayable on any platform, costs the same $60 as more meticulously QA-tested games and somehow dominates them in sales, there's a bigger problem than what some film critic is saying. And yet, we bullshit about "art" and motion control and console wars and who wins trade shows.

So give the episode a listen, if for no other reason than to hear the phrase "We made who the king? The pattycake guy?"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Warhammered


I'm rooting for this guy.

I have no idea how this happened.

Seduced by the Steam sale last week, and despite its ridiculous name, I bought Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, the 2009 Relic hybrid RTS/RPG that, it turns out, is pretty great. It's like StarCraft with cover-based shooting and no building, or an isometric Gears of War with loot and leveling up. Both the game design and the fictional universe, or at least what little I've grasped of it, are curious blends of genre and style. And somehow, it all works. The single-player is damn fun, a well-balanced tactical RTS that's almost entirely combat-focused. I haven't jumped into multiplayer yet, but I've heard good things. Although my weak gaming setup - BootCamping into XP on a Mac Mini - necessitates turning down all the graphics settings, I'm assured the game looks great in higher resolutions.

But the game being good wasn't the revelation. It's that I've been inexplicably, and pretty embarrassingly, drawn into its fiction.

I knew nothing about the Warhammer 40K universe going into this game. I dabbled in some D&D-lite tabletop games like HeroQuest and DragonStrike as a kid, but that's about it. I've never been anywhere near hardcore enough to paint miniatures. So it was doubly surprising that this videogame got me curious about its Lord of the Rings In Space backstory.


Yep. Seriously.

Here's the premise of Dawn of War II: you command a squad of Space Marines (yes, they are actually called Space Marines) on a campaign to cleanse the galaxy of, no shit, Space Orcs, Space Elves, and the Xenomorphs from Alien. There's some kind of Fundamentalist Space Church that rules all of humanity, I guess, and your Space Marines - massive armored behemoths who look like the love child of Duke Nukem and The Hulk - have a sacred duty to whoop alien ass up and down the galaxy while dual-wielding flamthrowers and chainsaw swords. The voice acting brings a cheesetastic meatheadedness to the pitch-perfect melodramatic sci-fi dialogue. Your soldiers constantly refer to each other as "Brother," reinforcing the comforting thought that 38,000 years from now, just as today, society is dominated by bloodthirsty frat jocks.

I'd like to blame this week's particularly severe bout of insomnia for this, but it's true: I've been reading the Warhammer 40K Wiki. And it is endlessly entertaining.

Consider the following excerpt:
The torture cults eroded the future of the Eldar as a viable galactic empire. While this debauchery would have been destructive within any society, it was even more damaging for the Eldar because of their powerful psychic abilities. Within the parallel dimensional realm of the Warp, the psychic emanations of these perverse activities began to gather, strengthened by the souls of departed Eldar hedonists and cultists. As the Eldar's vices grew, this dark mass of negative psychic energy did as well, producing the terrible Warp storms that defined humanity's Age of Strife and made all interstellar travel and communication impossible for the human colonies of this period. Eventually, this growing mass of negative psychic energy came into a life of its own and came to consciousness over ten thousand years ago at the end of the Age of Strife as the newborn Chaos God Slaanesh, the Devourer of Souls and the doom of the Eldar. The psychic scream of Slaanesh's birth tore the souls from all the Eldar within a thousand light years of it, sparing only those sheltered in the wraithbone hulls of the Craftworlds. The Prince of Pleasure's awakening was so forceful that it tore a hole between the physical realm and the Immaterium, plunging the Eldar homeworlds into a nightmare existence, trapped within the realm of Chaos. This region is now known as the Eye of Terror, and is the home of the forces of Chaos in the 41st millennium.

Again: Yep. Seriously.
Look, I don't mean to shoot fish in a barrel here, honestly. There is something genuinely endearing about fantasy worlds that are detailed with such thoroughness, no matter how absurd. When sleep eludes me I find myself clicking through Wiki entires on the Imperium of Man, the Horus Heresy, Tech-Priests and Terminator Armor, the gene-seeds of the Primarchs. None of it makes much sense to me, nor do I expect it to, but it's fun feeling like a tourist in this intricate and throughly baffling place. And in turn, I'm going back to Dawn of War II with a renewed, if bemused, investment in my Force Commander.

I've always loved the idea that the silly sci-fi stories and games I was into had a history, an evolutionary path you could trace. The world didn't have to make sense or even be particularly internally consistent; someone just had to care enough to draw up the imaginary playground.

I miss that part of being a kid. I miss leaping headfirst into stories about Space Marines fighting the Orc Hordes across the galaxy in the 41st millennium, without the detachment of irony or the vague guilt of the responsible adult. I miss living in other worlds and not needing to think about why I wanted to in the first place.

Still, it's not all bad. At least I'm not playing WoW.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Links

The Oh God I Really Need A Weekend Edition:
  • Not sure I fully agree with everything being claimed in this Atlantic article, but it does raise an interesting question - and no, it's not the tired one about "art." It's more the implied question: when is a game (or artistic product, really) "finished"? Does the ability to patch/fix games so easily undermine their value? In other words, how is the idea of a "published product" changing?
  • An Australian columnist reads some serious political and moral subtext in Angry Birds.
  • At Gamasutra, designer Ernest Adams' column on "joy" in games is a terrific read for aspiring developers and established pros alike. As a player, there's a lot of fun to be had in just screwing around in a game world.
  • My favorite thing about Stallion83 - he of the quest for 1,000,000 Xbox achievement points - is the way even the most tongue-in-cheek fluff piece about him inspires crazy polarizing reactions.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Rotation, October 2010

Not a ton of new stuff to add to the list this month, but good stuff nonetheless:

XBOX 360
  • Dead Rising 2. Happy(?) to report the game's unabashed, directionless sexism continues apace. That aside, I'm having fun with it. I've still never not finished last in the multiplayer, but the whole premise - a kind of American Gladiators spectacle with zombies - is so ridiculous I hardly care. I won't pretend I'm not a little let down by this sequel; as Brad Gallaway points out, there's really not much new or different in this iteration. Still, it has its bizarre charms. There's nothing quite like repeatedly smacking a zombie in the face with a foot-long purple "massager" while wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and boxer shorts. Unlike MY WIFE, I appreciate that Dead Rising 2 gives me the opportunity to do that. Regularly.
  • Red Dead Redemption. I haven't progressed much since I wrote about RDR last week, mostly because I've been obsessed with:
  • Deadly Premonition. Nothing, not even the aforementioned face-dildoing, comes close to the sheer WTF-erry of this budget-ass Twin Peaks ripoff. I'll write more about Premonition this week, but for now, let me just say that it has rapidly, unexpectedly, and thoroughly unironically shot up my "games of the year" list. In the meantime, go read Daniel Wiessenberger's excellent series of articles on the topic.

NINTENDO DS

  • Trauma Center: Under the Knife. Picked up this one, along with Harvest Moon DS, as a gift for Mrs. JPG. While the gameplay itself is fairly mediocre - it's a glorified pixel-hunt embedded into an anime-style medical drama - the real value of the title has been its voice clips. "Doctor Stiles?" Yeeeeeeessssssss, sexy nurse? Never gets old.

ANDROID

  • Angry Birds. Mad love to Rovio for bringing their adorable, addictive puzzler to Android - and for free, at that! If Jon Hamm's proselytizing isn't enough, the game is so great it's even inspired its own line of plush dolls. Only a few triumphs can pull that off.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Links

Here's the roundup of pieces I've enjoyed this week:

  • This brief interview with the creator of Minecraft hints at an interesting, and I think worthwhile, take on videogame design - namely, that it should seek to emulate boardgames more.
  • Troy Goodfellow's post about how his deep immersion in the "grammar" of strategy games has conditioned him to respond to games in other genres is another topic that deserves further discussion, and I hope to see more from him, and others, on the subject.
  • As a nice companion piece to the above, check out Nels Anderson's recent post discussing the difference between "mastery" and "domination." A good read for game critics looking to build their lexicon.
  • Darby McDevitt's feature "A Practical Guide to Game Writing" at Gamasutra delivers exactly what it promises.
  • The reviews of Fallout: New Vegas are pouring in, and while I'm usually not big on reviews, Justin McElroy's and Russ Pitts' stand out. I've written before about how certain games seem impossible to quantify, and New Vegas seems like one of them. Where does that leave the reviewer, then? An experiential narrative style can go a long way in these cases.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 2

I should have mentioned yesterday that I haven't even gotten to Mexico yet in Red Dead Redemption. Which means I'll probably be coming back to revisit these posts later on, since by all accounts that's when things take a sharp narrative turn for the worse (link contains spoilers). And with the game so heavily encouraging "taking the high road" in all encounters, I'm beginning to understand the big question in this review: "What's the point of a 'Moral Choice System' when so many moral choices are made for you?"

So: here's hoping "revisit" doesn't end up meaning "delete in embarrassment."

I haven't experienced enough of the story yet to make any pretense of intelligible analysis. Instead, having spent just north of ten hours roaming New Austin with John Marston, I want to talk about two other factors I think make the game successful - or at least more enjoyable than GTA IV.



1. Use of Space. It's only natural that a Western game would feature plenty of wide-open spaces. This is a welcome contrast to Liberty City, where I spent most of my time being chased down by cops for unintentionally flattening pedestrians on every street. You could make the point that GTA IV uses the cramped environs to make a thematic statement about Niko being trapped in his violent nature, and you might be right, but that's an annoying-ass way to make a (pretty obvious) thematic statement. Even when you're galloping full tilt down a narrow trail in RDR, you still have plenty of room to avoid any wagons or riders who happen by. This is enormously freeing: instead of tension being built by wondering when my janky-ass-controlling vehicle will accidentally smash into a cop and fail me out of my mission - a kind of Resident Evil tank control artificial difficulty - that job is left to the missions themselves. Whether RDR's missions succeed or fail at building tension effectively isn't my point, but rather that the designers' use of open space has largely liberated the player from this concern. Most of the time, you're not worrying about crashing into things - although, in typical sandbox game style, I did still manage to back my horse over a woman I'd just rescued from bandits the other night. Whoops.

Because towns and buildings are so few and far between, and traversal objectives so plentiful (see below), RDR encourages the player to truly explore the world in a way other sandbox games fail to. The "free roaming" in GTA IV, Crackdown, Red Faction: Guerrilla or Mercenaries 2 is an illusory at best and often simply tedious. Despite claims of "verticality" or "destructability" in these games, there's nothing intrinsically open-feeling about them; the worlds may be detailed, but you're always aware you're either in or between cities. Just Cause 2 avoids this trap somewhat by incorporating nifty traversal mechanics in the grappling hook and parachute and by featuring a massive map. Open space is an illusion in RDR too, of course. But there's nothing quite like an empty horizon - and, I think quite tellingly, a lack of motorized vehicles - to give you a satisfying illusion. The only other games I've played that pulls this off well is Oblivion and to some extent Fallout 3, although neither fantasy world felt as believably expansive, or as easy to traverse, as New Austin.

Yet when you enter a gang hideout or head into the hills to capture a bounty in RDR, the space inevitably narrows to allow for solid third-person cover shooting. I know this choice has caught some criticism - how convenient, there's cover in this combat location! - but think about it: how exciting (or long) could a gunfight in an open field be? There's a reason shootouts in Western movies always take place on horseback or in town - they'd be over in seconds otherwise. I'm a little baffled at the complaints here, especially since 100% cover-based shooters like Gears of War 2 make you press buttons in the game world to pop up cover during battles. As if the alien architect who designed Alien Palace anticipated there might be a firefight on the Promenade some day.

2. Traversal is Fun. I've fast-traveled, I dunno, five times in my ten hours with the game. The environments are so gorgeous, and full of so many sub-objectives - collecting herbs, hunting and skinning animals, rescuing strangers from bandits or coyotes, beating a fellow gunman in a sharpshooting challenge - that the only incentive to fast-travel is to save time between missions. So far, the "story" missions have been, by and large, the least interesting activities in the game for me.

I should pause here to note that I have a personal aversion to hunting for sport: I understand why some people like it, I guess, but it holds no appeal to me. It seems bizarrely anachronistic and unnecessary in 21st century America. I guess I view hunters in the same way I view people who refuse to use email: I can respect their reasons for doing so if they make sense, but I don't see much gain to it. Hell, I don't even like killing animals in videogames. (Humans are another story, but that's a topic for another post, and possibly for therapy.)

And yet, hunting is probably my favorite activity in RDR. I can't quite explain why. It's not the tangible rewards - the progress toward the Challenge objectives and the money from shopkeepers for the skins and meat - because in a way, there's so many sub-objectives in the game as to render them meaningless. Maybe it's the thrill of finding a hidden element and claiming it/dominating it, the same psychology behind pixel-hunt or whack-a-mole games. More likely, it's the first modern game to capture the unadulterated joy of hunting in Oregon Trail. Also, and maybe I just haven't gotten to this part yet, there's no dysentery.

Because RDR does give you all those sub-objectives - which are all, as far as I can tell, entirely optional and irrelevant to your character's skills or power - you have additional incentive, however arbitrary, to fully explore this incredibly detailed world the designers have presented you. This must be a tricky problem for designers of sandbox games - how do we get the player to dig into the nooks and crannies of this amazing space we've killed ourselves creating, to really appreciate the fidelity or polish of this product? I don't think we've quite found the answer yet - achievements/trophies can only motivate certain of us so far - but RDR is a step forward.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 1

In Thieves' Landing, I watched a pig flick his ears to wave away invisible flies.

Meandering to the edge of his pen, the little porker snuffled the grass for a few seconds, then hunched down his front legs and slowly rolled onto his side. After a moment's pause, he squirmed onto his back, hooves raised in contentment as he wiggled in the mud.

I wandered over to the newsstand and bought the latest Blackwater Ledger. At the bottom of the one-sheet was an advertisement for a combination dining room chair/commode. "Relieve yourself without having to leave the table!" it proclaimed. Shit where you eat, indeed.

As the sun set, I mounted my Kentucky Saddler and rode west, back toward the MacFarlane Ranch.


About halfway to my destination I dismounted to pick some herbs for old Billy West, who had asked me to help put together a bouquet for his wife, Annabel. Annabel, it later turned out, was a rotting corpse propped up in a rocking chair, Mother-of-Norman-Bates-style.

It was at this point in Red Dead Redemption, when the game referenced a famous Edgar Allen Poe poem, that I was finally won over.

Admittedly, I'd been ambivalent about picking up RDR. After my bad experience with GTA IV, I was hesitant about plunking down money for what had been described by more than one source as "Grand Theft Horse." And Rockstar's history of asshole protagonists we're supposed to enjoy embodying didn't bode well for its Wild West outing. (There are convincing arguments for why they do so, however.)

And so RDR was maybe the first game I've bought with the express purpose of "being part of the conversation." It had popped up on so many "Game of the Year" lists that I'd have felt negligent not at least giving it a shot.

So far, I'm glad I did.

There are, of course, problems with RDR. In addition to the inevitable open-world jankiness, there are some serious disconnects between the game's fictional world and its sandbox structure. Many of these are detailed by Michael Abbott in this excellent post, so I won't bother going into more detail. But I do want to quote a passage from Michael's piece that perfectly captures my sentiment about RDR:

The GTA template is easily seen in RDR, but Rockstar has filled its new sandbox with rich atmosphere and an iconic landscape rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. GTA IV impressed with its skewed fidelity to New York City, but RDR's take on the American West transcends it and approaches visual poetry. The lighting alone is worth a studious blog post. I've grown so fond of riding my horse at sunrise and sunset that I've timed my sleep/saves to make the most of them.

Landscape is mythos in Westerns. RDR's pictorialism and environmental ambiance convey a sense of place more effectively than any game I've played. Its evocative, understated soundtrack amplifies the visuals, and its score echoes Ennio Morricone without aping him.

Very few games make me put down the controller and just stare, but this one does. In this world, wild horses still roam the plains; hawks circle overhead while the trail under your steed's thundering hooves coughs up clouds of dust. Look closely at the grasses and you may spot an armadillo nosing his way through a clump of desert sage. Standing atop a cliff overlooking the ramshackle town in the valley below, not feeling to the need to shoot anything or rescue anyone or fetch some item for a few experience points - that's a rare moment in a videogame, and an unexpectedly valuable one.

Which is why it's especially ironic that for a game that almost gives the player too much to do - too many activities and too much freedom - its best moments are the quietest ones.

RDR's most impressive achievement is, as Michael says, transcendence: the scrupulous attention to environmental detail results in an experience that transcends its own sandbox trappings. As a player, having broad freedom of action is secondary to the powerful feeling the game creates of being in this place. One might even argue, if one were feeling mildly pretentious, that RDR even transcends the myth of the Western, presenting a world that, even within its own internal fiction, both challenges and reinforces that myth. The early 20th century was a time of rapid social and technological change - change that came at a high cost and faced lots of resistance in "the last frontier" - and to some degree, I suppose, RDR is more effective as an exploration of that tension than as a sandbox shooter, or even a "Western" game.

And it's odd to say this about a Rockstar game, but damned if there isn't a lot of love that went into Redemption.

Tomorrow I'll write about the specific elements I think make RDR a success, and elaborate on how they illustrate key issues in game design. Until then, pardner.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Links

A little late today, but here are your selections for the week:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eating Our Young


(Image courtesy of Natalie Dee)

While enjoying my delicious Store-Brand Honey Cluster Cereal this morning, I happened upon a website full of critical essays by an author who was billed, by a poster to another site, as one of the few people out there writing worthwhile pieces about videogames.

What I found was a collection of some of the most vitriolic, pseudo-intellectual, downright hateful ranting I've ever seen. I'm not linking or naming names here for obvious reasons.

Might be because it was only 7:30 AM, but this stuff - which degenerated disturbingly quickly into misogyny and homophobia so thick they bordered on the legal definition of hate speech, and which was so obsessed with attacking other people that it almost parodied itself - really shook me. I'm not new to the Internet, but a level of trolling that pathological, that articulate, that thorough, was something I hadn't encountered before.

Lots of nuts couch their nuttery in a species of pseudo-philosophical justification, explaining away their meanness with a half-assed devotion to "living by principle," or some equally nebulous concept that only means something to people who think ideas will ever be more important than food or a warm bed or being loved. As if to say, the reason I'm an asshole is because I'm the only one out there who gets it, who's woken up, who's puzzled out the proper way to understand and interact with the world.

I don't want to engage with these people. At some point they've crossed a psychological threshold, lapsing into a persona that's incapable of being reasoned with and thrives on its own dysfunction.

There will always be wackjobs in the world - that's genetic, immutable. It's their followers we have to worry about.

These are the people, in politics as well as gaming, who are systematically devolving the level of discourse to the silliest playground ad hominem crap. And whether they realize or admit it, it's all in service of either attacking an enemy of their chosen champions or flattering the champions themselves. It doesn't matter whether these champions are human beings or ideas or "texts" like games; the intent is the same. There is a war to be fought, and I am a soldier in that war.

Thing about soldiers is, and with all respect to our actual armed forces: they're trained to not ask questions. They're trained to follow orders. Military discipline is not meant to inspire thoughtful debate, to make a soldier question his beliefs. It's meant to win wars. It's meant to keep our soldiers alive. And it works for this purpose.

But applying this doctrine to civilian life and particularly to any kind of discourse, especially around a topic as relatively trivial to human life as videogames, is not just silly. It's dangerous. Remember: without their armies of sycophants, the wackjobs are relegated to sandwich-board-street-corner status. No reasonable person bothers to engage with crazy people's ideas because, well, they're crazy. Give the nutballs a legion of followers, though, and pretty soon everyone has to engage with those crazy ideas, if only from sheer force of numbers.

Look: there are lots of passionate people in the gaming space, and I won't agree with a lot of them. I get that. I like that. But the level of casual incivility, exemplified particularly by the outright refusal to admit you might be wrong or reconsider your ideas, speaks to a larger problem. Some of us are so obsessed with tearing each other down, with proving incontrovertibly how vapid game journalism is or how the "games are art" debate is relevant/irrelevant or whatever the cause of the moment happens to be, that we are - at a time when gaming really is emerging into mainstream culture on an unprecedented scale - eating our own young. It's so ironic and sad. You can't be a soldier in the war for better game discourse if all you do is carpet-bomb anyone who might disagree with your dogma.

Since I started writing about games just six months ago, I've been lucky to receive encouragement, support, and the occasional friendly kick in the ass from a number of writers I admire and respect. I've met academics and developers and journalists at events, and corresponded with other industry folks - and without exception, they've all been really nice people. I may not always agree with their viewpoints, but they have interesting things to say, and they've never once retreated into rude, juvenile, or spiteful attacks - on games or on people.

And what characterizes this community more than anything else, I think, is an eagerness to listen, an almost childlike excitement to engage with differing viewpoints and invite doubt into their own beliefs. And accordingly, these folks often produce work that isn't interested in being "right" on some objective or philosophical level, but rather in exploring issues in gaming with nuance and precision and good humor.

So instead of feeding the troll, I'd like to end with some shout-outs to Chris Dahlen, Michael Abbott, Matt Weise, Rob Zacny, Leigh Alexander, Troy Goodfellow, Ryan Kuo, Gus Mastrapa, Kirk Hamilton, Dan Bruno, Ian Miles Cheong, Darius Kazemi, Chris Lepine, Justin McElroy, and of course, the whole Gamers With Jobs crew. Thanks, all, for the inspiration.