Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Let's make no mistake: Bayonetta is an embarrassment waiting to happen. To play this game in front of any human being over the age of 12-- indeed, just to play it in front of yourself-- is to develop a sense that something has gone horribly wrong with your recreation. This choice of leisure bespeaks some profound defect in your makeup. That niggling thought that shadows much of our play-- that in the time it takes you to complete this video entertainment and complete it again on hard, you could have taken a serious chunk out of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, an act of actual aesthetic and moral worth-- is amplified to the point of palpable shame by Bayonetta's relentless barrage of steaming tawdry nonsense.

Some commentators have seen fit to praise this game's aesthetics, and it is worthwhile to note what one would be praising here. Bayonetta does not present a world so much as a rich slurry of eroto-religious iconography: butterflies demons motorbikes poledancing archangels cans etc. It has a strictly agglomerative notion of cool. I had the pleasure of reading Hiroki Azuma's Otaku: Japan's Database Animals last semester, and its thesis that Otaku consumers view their entertainments as loose aggregations of chara-moe elements goes a long way towards explaining (if not excusing) Bayonetta's style.

This is especially palpable when we turn to the titular heroine: the game's creators have been refreshingly frank about the creative process, and if I understand them right they concede that she is a loving concatenation of fetishes. (My favorite revelation: when designing the stone-horse torture device, “I didn’t know how she would really get tied up, so I had to check some of “those” sites during work hours to get the production down just right.”) If this game had been made in 1999, she probably would have had cat ears.

As a fourth-wave feminist, I have to admit that I find all the leather and crotch-zooming deeply inoffensive. Leigh Alexander has called Bayonetta “empowering”, and though I don't know if I would go that far, I have no moral qualms about implausibly sexy broads wrecking shop. Which is to say: I don't see any necessary contradiction between humid eroticism and power. Bayonetta is nothing if not capable.

A further point: the real perniciousness of sexualized images of women, to me, resides in the way that they warp our images of womanhood. The evil begins when a girl sees that image and says, that is what I am supposed to look like. I cannot imagine how anyone, even someone in the grasp of the body selfhatred industrial complex, could take these representations seriously. The faux verisimilitude of your standard issue of Cosmopolitan is far more harmful per capita than this ludicrous game.

With these important ethical matters dispatched, I am warranted to advise you, loyal reader, that Bayonetta is an awesome video game. Bayonetta, though it is deeply uncool as an aesthetic object, has some great moments. American developers lack courage when it comes to camp, and Bayonetta is refreshing in its insane commitment to its chosen array of signifiers. (Susan Sontag nails it as usual: “the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”) Finally, here is a game that cries out for an all-male stage adaptation. Amirite?

Furthermore, Bayonetta is the best game of its kind to come out in many years. (that is to say, the best since the Xbox Ninja Gaiden) The kicking and the punching, they are uncommonly fluid and satisfying. The “witch time” mechanic, which is the lynchpin of its combat, is brilliant in that it forces the player to focus on understanding and anticipating enemy behavior instead of mashing away; the loadtime combo training is fantastic addition as well. While the design is hampered at points by a collection of flaws that seem to cramp almost every Japanese-designed character action game (lengthy cutscenes, dodgy checkpointing, repetition of bosses and environments, unpresaged modifications to the ground-rules of combat), the underlying bed hacking and slashing is so indescribably luscious that it redeems these annoyances.

So, Gus Mastrapa's opinion with regard to Bayonetta is wrong: you cannot pass up this game for its visual and thematic inanity. The libretto for your average operatic masterpiece is some genuinely nonsense, and this does nothing to obscure the beauty of the music that is its rationale. Immortal Jazz music has been performed to songs on the theme of horniness. As Frank Lantz astutely noted, games are more music than cinema. Let the music take your mind.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Was on a Podcast!

About a month ago, loyal VCCL reader, eminent game scholar, and beard enthusiast Charles Pratt agreed to have me onto his gaming podcast, Another Castle. If you don't already listen to this podcast, you really should: given the roster of game development luminaries and accomplished scholars that have already been the show the presence of this semidefunct games-blogger is, er, pretty incongruous. Me, I was just pretty psyched to get a free Kirin and appear in a forum whose previous two guests were Eric fucking Zimmerman and Heather fucking Chaplin. Holy Christ!

I really enjoy arguing with Charles, and this podcast is pretty representative of the class of things we like to gab about, such as the nature of reality. Check it out!

King of Aughts: The Shock of the New

Never forget: Somebody invented Tetris. In June of 1984, a new light dawned on the world. Tetris was not a simulation of some extant human activity; when those blocks descended from the top of the well, something theretofore unimagined came into being. Especially in 2009, a year defined by its parade of ocassionally-ingenious incremental refinements, we must celebrate the new. This is no time to cheer retrenchment.

Grand Theft Auto III
Even now, it is not difficult for me to summon up the wave of awe that I felt on first playing this game. One representative detail is burned into my mind: there were radio stations. Not only could you walk on a street and get into a car, but that car was connected to a wholly fictional radio network. While the later games in the GTA series better achieve the perverse environmental sensibility that the first open-world GTA groped towards, there is no downplaying the fact that that wonder, the thrill of jumping in and out of cars and driving around a populated cityscape, was the maybe the most impressive thing that happened in a video game this decade. All I know is, I wasn't playing much during late nineties, and it was putting this game into a rented playstation 2 in winter of '01 that got me thinking: I should keep an eye on these video games. So, GTA 3 was my personal road to Damascus moment when it comes to computer generated entertainment. Feel free to allot blame accordingly.

Katamari Damacy
God bless Keita Takahashi. Seriously. Katamari Damacy is a game of only one idea. But what an idea! This game would have been revelatory for its wholly unique mechanic and playful manipulation of scale, a work of genius even without the dadaesque sensibility that informed the gameplay: the panicked shrieks of innocent children and livestock, the batshit crazy king in the sky, the continuous splendid parade of visual nonsequitur.

Rock Band

To think: how happy we were in '07 to be onanistically plunking away at plastic guitars. Perfecting our run at Buckethead's Jordan. Make no mistake, I loved that shit. We just didn't know any better. Rock Band wasn't the mere accretion of supplemental prosthetic enjoyments. It took the core pleasure of Guitar Hero, participating in the creation of music, and brought a wholly novel feeling of collective achievement. It unlocked in me a previously unknown, burning desire to croon in a semipublic forum. It added drums. It was the most fun I had with a video game this decade. Just watch the video. Look how happy these people are! And the they are right.

WarioWare: Twisted!
I am continually amazed by Nintendo's uncanny grasp of the basic elements of play. When it published its first collection of microgames for the GBA, we confronted a shuffled deck of primordial gameplay elements, sheathed in an absurdist casing and revealed under duress. WarioWare posed a novel challenge to its players: "figure out what this game is! You have three seconds!" Twisted!, the second game in the series, gets the top nod for the way it expanded the number of verbs at hand. Furthermore, physically rotating a gameboy is the way that world 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers was meant to be played.

Boom Blox
To me, Boom Blox is the first and maybe the only Wii game that made optimal use of the gestural possibilities afforded by its hardware. An accelerometer bestows myriad potential actions, and it just so happens that hurling objects with physics at blocks and cubical beavers is the best among them. Layering puzzle elements and a marvelous version of Jenga into this formula only heightens the impressiveness of this seemingly obvious discovery.

World of Goo
I must admit that I had not given much thought to the gameplay potential of adhesion. The virtual representation of physics was a mainstay of this decade's games, but World of Goo stands apart for the way it devised an innovative game around the pedestrian idea of structural engineering. If that were not enough, the game spins a delightfully indirect yarn throughout the course of the game and continually introduces novel gameplay wrinkles into its basic recipe. As the game develops, you are always doing something new with your brain, and that is a mark of great design.

Friday, November 27, 2009

King of Aughts: Preamble

I am a believer in lists. And not just the exuberant catalogue-- no, I am a believer in rank. A lot of sane people will tell you that pleasure in general and the pleasure of videogames in particular is an irreducibly private phenomenon, and that definitive judgment has no place in our commerce with art. De gustibus non disputandum. I am not one of these people. I think that video games are things, and that there is a difference between good things and bad things. This is why we make lists about them.

However, I also believe that it's madness to affix numbers to a decade's worth of creative effort. Why? Well, it's because I am a pluralist, and I have think there is more than one kind of excellence in this world. Just as there are diverse virtues that belong to human beings-- one can be a good soldier, or a good scholar, or a good politician, or a good husband, though rarely at once-- there is more than one way to be an excellent work of art. The heterogeneity of goodness is one reason we are inclined to think that artistic taste is only subjective.

This heterogeneity is especially critical when it comes to games. The video games are a hybrid medium-- they're both systems of rules and systems of representation. It's entirely possible for either element of this alloy to be independently magnificent. While I think the happy marriage of these two members is the manifest destiny of the artform, as critics we should find it our duty to appreciate both artistry and design.

So, in the name of these principles the good ship Clu is going to steam out of drydock and praise the shit out of some video games over the next few weeks. I've been thinking about doing an end-of-decade list for a while, and I've ginned up some categories designed to capture the manifold ways that games are good. At this point, I am also prepared to promise some blurbs. Blurbs as far as the eye can see.

Bear in mind: I am a total charlatan when it comes to video game criticism. For about four out of ten years in this decade I didn't play many video games at all. I don't own all the console systems and I've probably played less than a dozen PC games to completion this decade. (Baldur's Gate II? I barely knew 'er) My frame of reference is not to be trusted.

Finally, dear readers, I entreat to you distrust anything anybody ever says about art. Stephen Deadalus advised us rightly: “Beauty is a blank wall with Post No Bills.” Play, in particular, is the most anarchic of human pleasures. What kind of fool goes about trying to yoke joy under laws? Iroquois Pliskin, that's who.

Monday, June 22, 2009

So Close!

Mirror's Edge is a curious case: the game that gets exactly one thing right. I may have spent some time in the past prattling on about the idea of a Gesamtkuntswerk, but the bald truth is that in most circumstances a video game can get by, critically speaking, through dogged adherence to just one successful gameplay concept. Take Crackdown. That game has almost nothing going for it: no narrative to speak of, a charmless and weirdly depopulated open world, janky driving, mediocre graphics etc etc. But then, there is the jumping around on buildings and shooting. That is all it takes, folks.

The cardinal achievement of Mirror's Edge is how effectively it creates the feeling of inhabiting a fleet human skull, rather than a steadicam. While so many first-person games give this dogged feeling that the smooth arc of a camera boom is being made to simulate animal locomotion, Mirror's Edge just nails the feeling of momentum, the sensation of weight in your movements, the subtle but increasingly palpable bob of the head as you gain speed. First-person platforming has been attempted before, and effectively at that (remember Jumping Flash? 'course you do!), but it's never been done in a way that does justice to the particularities of embodied vision. Mirror's Edge shines in these small gestures towards perceptual realism: the way the world swirls around your head when you make a tumbling landing, the way it swims in front of your eyes as you plummet to your death.

To me, it is astonishing that the designers of Mirror's Edge apparently managed to mistake these core pleasures that their game offered. Prince of Persia's no-death mechanic (actually an unusually dense checkpointing system) was maligned at release for being a sop to the noobs, which it was, but it also had a positive function: the impossibility of failure incentivized throwing yourself headlong through the environment as fast as you could. Prince of Persia is most successful when you fell into a rhythm and were able to whip past the lush scenery in top gear.

The heights of Mirror's Edge are even better: you're booking across the rooftops, looking around for the next legible piece of the environment, navigating the world at a such a terrific pace that you lose the habit of conscious reflection. While the path through its roofops are almost as linear as Persia's consistently funnelish pathways, your elevation and the breadth of your field of vision in Mirror's Edge lends a unique feeling of grandeur and freedom to the business of running and tumbling and losing the fuzz.

Which all makes it, again, so baffling that the game's mechanics seem to actively deter you from falling into this insanely pleasurable flow. The “runner's vision” environmental color-coding is an excellent technique for making the environment instantly readable, but the platforming is too finicky to engage in without the prospect of failure. Chris Dahlen put it best: “I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.” While Prince of Persia was too generous, rewarding you if you jumped in the general direction of the next platform (which gave rise to the otherwise-curious comparison of the game to an extended quick-time event), Mirror's Edge is too exacting: lining up your jumps requires too much precision. (This is doubly the case when your destination is a vertical pipe or horizontal bar.) It's too hard to make the tricky jumps on your first try, which brings the game to a grinding halt; this turns the game into a frustrating trial-and-error affair and ruins the best aspects of its gameplay.

As for the elements of the gameplay that do not directly involve running and jumping and shaking the fuzz, the less said the better. I think the game's Spartan visual aesthetic is praiseworthy, but the bleached fascism of the environments is so uniform that the individual spaces lose any feeling of specificity (the “shopping mall,” for example, looks like another deserted skyscraper atrium). The gameplay elements that are meant to modulate the basic platforming are atrocious: the combat is an abomination, an active deterrent to enjoyment. (I recommend the “easy” setting, which reduces, but does not eliminate, the frustrating interactions with law enforcement.) The narrative is forgettable and poorly delivered. Despite frequent stabs at variation (an absurdly simplistic battle with an enraged wrestler, a “sniper” mission, and a surprisingly uninteresting battle against a posse of fellow "runners."), Mirror's Edge never succeeds in creating any satisfying variety in its gameplay. The level design deserves a special dishonorable mention: the spatial arrangement of the environments often makes it difficult to distinguish makeable jumps from impossible ones, and the “jumping puzzles” in the interior levels were uniformly tedious and unintuitive.

All this is a shame, because Mirror's Edge is very close to being a fantastic video game. The failure of Mirror's Edge reminded me of an interview that Shigeru Miyamoto gave to Steven Totilo, in which he said the only revealing thing I've ever heard Miyamoto say about the craft of game design: “I liken it almost to cooking. There are certain elements of cooking where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient, all you have to do is put a little bit of salt on it. Then you cook it and it tastes amazing... chefs are more interested in finding the most delicious ingredients they can find and cooking those in a way that really highlights the inherent deliciousness of the ingredient. And that, I feel, is our job in game design.” To follow up on the analogy: the designers of Mirror's Edge drowned fresh sweet corn in the awful sauce. Maybe they'll get it right next time around.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Against my Better Judgement, I Discuss Citizen Kane and Maybe Art

The video-games-writin' set has an odd set of preoccupations, and many of them hinge on the question of legitimacy. The is-games-art debate, the Citizen Kane o' games question, they're all about the stature of games in the cultural marketplace, where they stand in the artistic pecking order. (Here's a hint: pretty fucking low. It's lonely at the bottom. Hence the contest between video game and comic book enthusiasts, the “Saddest Fight on the Internet.”)

One of the major problems with this discourse is that the are-games-art conversation almost never goes anywhere. I'm not denying that some good work has been done in this line (N'Gai Croal's reply to Roger Ebert is maybe his finest piece), but I've never felt the conversation produces much. As soon as you pose the question the whole issue becomes a definitional wrangle over what art is; one party or another begins lobbing stipulations at the other and a substantive issue becomes a semantical one. Comment threads allover the internet are overstuffed with useless arguments of this very form.

The pervasive error here, which Wittgenstein warned against, is the presumption that there is one or more properties-- authorial intent, emotional depth etc.-- the possession of which unerringly discriminates art from nonart. The Philosophical Investigations (supposing you try to understand it, which I cannot in good conscience recommend), will disabuse you of this misguided idea that there's a criterion to be had when it comes to applying concepts like “art.” There's a wealth of interesting historical and anthropological observations to be made about how we use the concept of art-- what it means for us to treat some portion of our culture the way we treat Pride and Prejudice, say-- but we're not going to unearth a metaphysical truth, an occult rule, that will magically decide the question for us.

Leigh Alexander, in partnership with games-crit mandarin Ian Bogsot, recently launched a salvo in a neighboring dispute, the Citizen Kane o' Games question. Their point is that we should put the whole issue to bed, as the dynamics of cultural legitimacy presupposed by the question are outdated and irrelevant in the new-media landscape. “we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy,” Bogost remarks, “but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore.” There's a lot of truth to this; the critical discourse on games, like all other cultural discourse, has become more and more fragmented and specialized since the advent of the internet. The scattered condition of our critical polis is ill-suited to king-making. Artistic legitimacy is a social phenomenon, something that we create ourselves-- a fiction, as Bogost says. It's necessarily bound to the forms of media that sustain and disseminate it.

The problem with all this is that we're asking the wrong question. The “are games art?” question is boring. The “will there be a Citizen Kane of games question?” is equally so. While we can make some more-or-less intelligent prognostications about the the new economics of cultural capital in the internet era, even this is a purely speculative.

The interesting question, to me, is what kind of art games are. That is, we should be asking ourselves what kind of formal dynamics and pleasures are inherent in the medium, and be able to identify when these formal capacities are used well. (This is another way of posing the question: how are games fun?)

And this is one area where thinking about what Citizen Kane achieved (rather than what it represents) is genuinely important. The reason that Kane has the kind of cachet it does is because it displayed such a consummate command of the formal capacities of cinema, as a medium. (I think Alexander and Bogost do Kane something of an injustice; the article reads as if its cultural status is an accident of history, and underplay the role of its superb artistry in its achievement of that status) It wrought a novel marriage of form and content by creating a visual language that complimented its thematic preoccupations.

There's a brilliant bit in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay that captures this. They've just come from the movie, and Joe is trying to explain to Sammy that Welles' masterpiece holds the key to their own nascent, illegitimate medium:

It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had seen, the total blending of narration and image... Without the witty, potent dialogue and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have been merely an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventuring of the camera, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was much more, than any move really needed to be. In this one crucial regard-- its inextricable braiding of image and narrative-- Citizen Kane was like a comic book

Now, cinema is much more akin to comic books than games. Let's lay this aside. It's this braiding we should be thinking about. We should ask ourselves whether a game can achieve a relevantly similar kind of synthesis.

To tip my hand a bit, I think this would involve exploiting the fact that games are both rules and fiction, form and content. The game creates a certain space of possibilities for the player to inhabit and the fiction invests those choices with meaning. The genius of Bioshock, for instance, was the way that the game's upgrade-mechanics (acquiring ADAM, a scarce and morally hazardous resource) played off against its thematic concerns with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. It lost its way on this point, but Bioshock offers (along with Portal, and maybe Braid) something of genuine use: not a cultural monolith, but an example of what videogame art might look like.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Review

Gears of War II

Platform: Xbox 360 Developer: Epic Software Publisher:Microsoft

Box Quote: “This game will INVITE you over to its house and let you bang its sister!” – Iroquois Pliskin, igndotcom

Full Disclosure: The reviewer played through the coop campaign, but didn't do much with the multiplayer component. The original Gears of War was my first experience “playing” competitive online shooters over xbox live. The scare quotes are there because there are vast stretches of nonconsentual sodomy between picking up the controller for the first time and playing a game, an activity one would do for recreation. My dominant memory of this experience was when some frenchman shrieked “Putain!” and lodged a torque bow bolt into my side. Then, I exploded. Word on the street is that the Horde mode (like Resi 5's Mercenaries mode) is the best portion of the entire product, but I wouldn't know.

Gameplay: Maybe because of its doggedly generic trappings, it's easy to forget what an innovative game Gears of War was on its release in 2006. The cover-based gameplay exchanged twitchy run-and-gunning of the classic FPS for tactical firefighting. Gears' novel integration of co-op into the campaign dovetailed perfectly with this shift in emphasis; success in the pitched battles often hinged on coordinating with your partner to execute flaking maneuvers on the enemy positions, flushing your enemies out of cover. The challenge for Gears II is the following: the bloom is off the rose of cover-based combat. So many of its predecessor's gameplay tropes have become de rigeur in modern shooter design. Where does the series go? The marketing runup for the game basically conceded that the sequel was going for a quantitative leap rather than a qualitative one, and after playing Gears II you'll recognize that “more badass” means “more of the same.” Not that this is a bad thing. Epic is simply better at this thing than its competitors; they've done a great job, again, of using clever level design to concoct memorable, tactically interesting firefights. The most creative moments in the sequel come when you're forced to deal with living, moveable, and otherwise unreliable cover. They've devised some fun new weaponry for this outing as well (I dig mortaring fools), and the complement of weaponry at your disposal gives you the means to vary your tactics in the individual encounters, switching between long, medium, and close-range murder-tools. Unfortunately, the game's other stabs at injecting variety and novelty into the gameplay fall flat. The game is never really enjoyable when you're not hunkered behind cover. A lengthy sequence inside of a colossal worm tries to integrate some platformer-style gameplay into the formula, but your character's movements are too lumbering for this segment to be much fun. The primary function of the numerous re-skinned turret sequences the game throws at you is that they make you pine for conveniently placed sandbags.

Story: You have to give them credit: their unironic devotion to the hoariest action-movie conventions is so total that the whole affair begins to verge on the intended iconicism. To sum up: you're a grim marine. You're toting a metric ton of arm and a blithe attitude towards carnage. The actions the game demands of you save the world, somehow. (The reviewer is a little hazy on the causal nexus) This unflinching adherence to caricature is certainly a discredit to the imagination of the game's creators, but in their defense, it's virtually impossible to recall the central events of any shooter game; even in great shooters like Half-Life 2, it's the texture of the world and the atmosphere that sticks with you, rather than the plot beats. And this is what Gears is really about: when you charge an enemy with your upraised chainsaw, you unseam them from the nave to th' chops, spraying gouts of ichor allover the camera lens. Everything about this gesture is gratuitous, down to the camera lens, but Gears of War II achieves a kind of lunatic grandeur that's hard to dismiss. It's the gore that gives the game its personality. When you walk away from the game you're likely to forget about the emulsion and the purpose of the research facility and the tearjerking zombificaiton of the protagonists' loved ones. You will remember all the the cheerful vivisection.

The Takeaway: Are you not entertained?