Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ZA Critique: Mass Effect

My work with the ZA series is slowly moving away from linear single-player games into two different categories: emergent narratives and multiplayer games. The driving goal behind this work has always been establishing a strong criteria for a critical discourse on video games. I'm satisfied with my ability to generate a complex statement about the nature of a linear game design, but there is still a lot left to be done.

As Samuel Johnson once noted with this kind of work, it comes in tiny steps. You don't just sit down and write a great essay in one burst, you have to build each angle and understanding of the work by constantly engaging with new approaches. Over time, as you build up experience, you gradually master the subject.

The emergent narrative is an interesting design because it is essentially about giving the player authority over how they play the game. You don't have a sniper rifle or bazooka section of the level, you let them choose what they want to do however they want. A lot of Jesper Juul's emergent gameplay principles come into play with this but I liked Steve Gaynor's adaption of those ideas into a scale of choices which corresponds to a basic design stratification of short goals, medium goals, and long goals. That is, I need ammo vs I need to beat the level vs I need to save the Princess. Emergent choices are structured into, what gun do I use vs how do I resolve this level vs I need to save/kill the princess. These are all linked together in an elaborate spider web of clusters that overlap and sometimes do not.

For this essay, I opted to study the construction of the medium range choice. The short-range design wasn't bad but I get the impression the sequel is vastly improving on it. I never got much out of biotics in the game, I played like I always do in an RPG and just created a walking death machine. I also felt like Far Cry 2 was a better example of a game composed of short-range choice. Where I think Bioware has always been successful in their games is creating a good, narratively coherent mid-range choice. How these are established through linear and emergent structures and why sometimes it's okay to not have everything be an elaborate philosophical discourse.

It's an ongoing process and this is just another step in it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blackwell Convergence Review

I'm a fan of Dave Gilbert's games when he's doing something dramatic and serious. The Shivah and Blackwell Unbound both really impressed me for having character arcs and interesting stories mixed with an intense murder mystery. This entry in the series ended up annoying me because it fell more in line with his recent work making more commercial titles. I don't mind those games, but they always feel like a step backwards in terms of pushing the medium. If it were anyone else I wouldn't bitch, but Gilbert was one of the guys who got the adventure game genre back on its feet with his edgier stuff. I ended up giving it the same score I gave his last game because it was still a high quality plot with mostly good puzzles.

Still...I hope he doesn't totally rule out making darker games.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism

I think the shortest explanation one could give about Unit Operations is that it’s basically proposing a new way of interpreting media. Drawing on an impressive triple combo of philosophy, literature, and computer science, it’s a merger that proposes a way to interpret an increasingly technologically driven media culture. It’s also really hard to follow. I don’t mean that it’s poorly written, I think Bogost got the point across as thoroughly as he could, it’s that it’s highly unlikely you will understand all three fields. I can do philosophy and literature, but I had to get help with the programming theory. It’s not going to get any easier to understand by me rambling about it, so just click the link below and read the post yourself.

At the moment I’m focusing on the psychology books on violence and video games but after that I think I’m going to start exploring the source material for this work. Cybertexts, Homo Ludens, etc. Video game criticism is tricky because everyone is talking about the same things but they are either using concepts that have become ubiquitous like the magic circle or attempting to reinvent the wheel. If this series accomplishes anything, it will be getting readers up to speed on these concepts in their original form so they understand the adjustments people are making.

Law school will be starting up soon, which means that my schedule will be shifting into ‘Sit in a library and read legal documents all day.’ I can only stand so much reading, so this might take a back seat to the usual things I grind out. I also really need to get to work on my not having any clue what to do with myself come May when I graduate. If you know someone who'd want to hire a person with a law degree who knows way too much about video games, don't be a stranger.

Anyways, the summary is about as clear as I could get it to be. You're always better off reading the book yourself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies That Wish They Were Video Games

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't mostly just excited about my TIE Fighter piece.

I think Steve Gaynor was the first person I read distinguishing the strengths of games and what they can do better than a movie. The point got the wheels turning and it finally clicked when I apathetically watched the first Transformers movie. I was drinking beer, sick of playing Xbox Live, and it was on cable. I watched it just to see why everyone bitched about it so much. At the end, I decided it was just like watching someone play a video game.

I reference a more interesting conversation from years ago I had about the Matrix sequel with a friend, but the point is the same. Video games can now depict giant, insane battle sequences where the player is mostly in control. Passively watching such a thing, for me personally, just seems dull.

Hell, even a QTE is better than nothing.

TIE Fighter: A Post 9/11 Parable

The idea for this piece came after the backlash to Six Days in Fallujah. If you want a good grip on how a political game delivers a message, Simon Ferrari did a write-up on what he calls editorial games and the basic principles that Ian Bogost and Alexander Galloway started working on years earlier. You create a set of rules that depict the way something works. The player goes through these by experiencing the simulation and contrasts that with their own understanding of reality.

A great many of these are emergent gameplay structures since there really isn’t a narrative behind “High taxes inhibit city development”, which is one of the messages of Sim City. You don’t say it to the person, you let them encounter the rules and adjust their behavior to achieve victory conditions. How they feel about that behavior is up to them. Subsequent games dealing with history like Colonization or the Civilization series also fall into this ideal. Religion, in a Civ game, has certain effects on your culture’s development. The Tycoon series is depicting the way a business works and making a tangible argument about the best way to run that business because it creates a rule system where certain kinds of conduct make you lose. Give too many bonuses to your staff and you don’t have any money, so the game is saying excess giving is bad, that kind of thing.

Where this becomes tricky is when you want the game to focus on a specific political issue or topic. For starters, playing a game where you’re a sweat shop worker does not sound particularly fun to anyone. You might get five to ten minutes out of the player, but not nearly enough to hammer home a point. The second is the incessant complaining people still make anytime a video game wants to be something more than just “pwew pwew pwew”. I have no idea if Six Days in Fallujah was any good or respectful towards the battle, but refusing to publish the game because of public outcry hardly settles the matter. Games can and should engage with modern topics precisely because they are capable of delivering such powerful messages. To that end, I decided to pick a game that was a) very fun and b) made a political point about the Iraq war.

Although a few titles have taken place in Iraq-like settings, such as Call of Duty 4, they don’t really have much to say except “war sucks”. Yet finding a game that made a profound comment about America’s behavior after 9/11 was not really that difficult. More than any other artistic medium, a video game critic with a sharp eye can divorce the narrative and game design with neither losing their potency. Raph Koster makes this point literally in A Theory of Fun by explaining how you make Tetris be about the Holocaust. You just make the blocks be shaped like bodies going into an oven. The behavior that the game’s rules induce, efficiently organizing the blocks to maximize space and score points, suddenly becomes very disturbing with a simple graphic change.

So all you have to really do is find a game whose design induces the kind of behavior you’re seeing in the real world, then swap out the narratives. You can’t just replace it with anything, the reality and the narrative have to resemble one another. Think of it like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc with the bag of sand and the gold statue. You just swap them back and forth, making the argument that they are interchangeable, by showing how the behavior of the game design matches with the new narrative you’re imposing.

The fact that I can match a game's design & plot to a current event speaks volumes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Monkey Island: Special Edition

If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know what I think of this game. I also already heard most of the flaws in my complaints, but I'm sticking to my guns on this one.

I'm a big fan of Monkey Island. I was a big fan of the idea of a remake. But my basic understanding of how a remake works is that you modernize and adjust the experience to meet a new audience while still holding appeal for the original fans. This game instead opted to feed the purist fanbase and keep the game exactly the same. You can now alternate between the original game and a graphically improved version, which means that visually everything looks exactly the same except glossy in the new mode. When they do apply new art, it mostly works fine, except for Guybrush (the HAIR). Finally, the interface in the new version is terrible. Even during the twitter argument proponents of the game admitted they just used hotkeys the entire time. Can you imagine playing this game if this was your first time?

I'm not going to praise a remake that adds nothing new except bad character art and a bad interface.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Design of Everyday Things

Part of the reason Duncan Fyfe quitting bothers a lot of people isn't just losing an interesting writer, it's that the bastard actually quit. WE ALL think about quitting. The unpaid ones, certainly. Even if you're a paid writer for a major magazine you think about quitting. The money is mediocre, a noticeable percentage of women are turned off by it, and the amount of time it kills is prohibitive. People come back to it for a lot of different reasons but the notion that one can very easily lose that sense of fulfillment is a bit scary.

Whenever the urge to quit writing comes over me it usually means it's time to get a new direction with my writing. A new style of blog or agenda that I need to develop and promote. You have to keep expressing something grand with your writing and not feel like you're repeating yourself.

I started reading video game academics earlier this summer for a different project and out of a general desire to understand their angle. One of the complaints Simon Ferrari always levels at me is that people in the blogosphere rarely acknowledge the groundwork these folks have laid down. So I started reading video game books.

The selection is wide and mostly revolves around books I see developers mention or whose titles I know because I already read their authors. I've written several of these posts already and have books lined up but if you think of one I should do let me know. I'm also generally broke, so a free copy improves your chances remarkably if you're an author yourself.

The style I opted for was to abandon reviewing and instead write an introduction to the book. I'm not totally sure how else to explain it except as a synopsis of a book, but with lots of quotes and a basic message about what the author is trying to say.

It's not as good as reading it yourself, but it ought to get you up to speed.