Thursday, October 30, 2008

Survival, and Sometimes Horror


Over on the Brainy Gamer podcast this week, Mike Abbott had Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting and Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland on to discuss the survival horror genre. Odds are that you know the work of all involved if you find yourself on this blog, of all places, but if you don't you should visit their sites and listen to the podcast, it's top-notch. (On the podcast tip, I would also recommend the recently-resuscitated Idle Thumbs podcast. It's been soothing my GFW Radio withdrawal; also, for some reason I find Chris Remo's voice incredibly appealing.) But the discussion of survival horror got me thinking.

Now, Wittgenstein thought that the job of philosophy is to help us overcome our bewitchment by language. But I'm a Hegelian, so I have this idea that our common speech contains glimmers of reason, waiting to be brought forth. And so it is with “survival horror” as a tag for the hallway-stalkin' zombie-shotgunnin' genre that began with Resident Evil for the Playstation. And because I'm not above pedantry I'm going to take each word in turn.

The “survival” of survival horror represents the genre's commitment to an experience centered on vulnerability. All games trade on empowerment in some fashion, if only because you get better at them as you play. But classic survival horror had a tool to worry the edges of your progressive mastery: scarcity. Survival games differ from most other games in that they deliberately ration the things you most need to make successful congress with the environment, even as you proceed through the game-- weapons, ammunition, save points, and (in one notorious instance) the ability to save. Trying to make your way past enemies under conditions of extreme scarcity creates this immense feeling of tension, because you are always anxious as to whether you have survived your last encounter in the right way-- if you've been sparing enough with your ammo and recovery items to make it to the next checkpoint.

Not all survival games are horror games. For example, I believe that the most recent Ninja Gaiden series are great survival games. Even though the combat is fluid and satisfying, the relative strength of the common enemies and the distance between save points fills the games with a feeling of frenzied desperation. Even when I wasn't dying (which was often), I was always worried about whether I had survived in a way that would allow me to upgrade my weapons in the next shop, rather than spending my resources on recovery items. I even felt that the early stages of Fallout 3 had a suitably survivalesque feeling to them-- when you go into a game and you're unsure about the reward scheduling, those first few levels make you feel like you need to save every last bullet you can. In the early going, I found that the limiting resource was ammunition rather than health, and this facet of the game injected a level of gravity into my early choices.

I was glad Krpata brought up Resident Evil 4, since that game made some bold and successful experiments in vulnerability. Instead of heightening the scarcity, RE4 uses basic combat mechanics and the feeling of vulnerability key to the survival genre. As he noted on the podcast, the key element is the fact that you cannot run and shoot at the same time. This turns open ground between you and the enemy into the scarce resource; you are constantly torn between ceding and standing your ground. Since RE4 also surrounds you with enemies (there's an unforgettable standoff in a house, where zombies start swarming through the windows from all sides), your inability to strafe (along with the slow, un-shooter-like turning speed) turns a shooter into a tension-filled dance with death.

Horror is a different animal. There are two distinct types of horror, the scary and the uncanny. The general consensus is that the American school of horror excels at the first kind, espousing the jack-in-the-box theory of dread. Where it succeeds, it manages to create this constant sense that some horrifically jacked-up human or irregularly-thorax'd beast is set to spring from the nearest closet or vent at any moment. Even though I have some fondness for this type of scare (it's been perfected in Dead Space; which apparently compiles the extant elements of the American-scary-game genre so well that David Ellis memorably dubbed it “Now That's What I Call Survival Horror.”), I'm going to pass over it in silence.

The Japanese school of horror thrives on uncanniness, rather than the surprise and phantasmagoria of the American school. Freud, who wrote a treatise on the uncanny, noted a theory that our root sense of the uncanny comes from a sense of “intellectual uncertainty,” our inability to distinguish reality from delusion. (The sanity effects from Eternal Darkness is a great example of horror-as-intellectual-uncertainty.)

But Freud goes on to say that uncanniness is fundamentally tied to the familiar. Playing on the fact that the German word for “uncanny” has the word “home” in it, he notes that “It may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfills this condition.” Of course Freud immediately connects this idea to his lifelong obsession his mothers' genitals, but he makes a good point. Psychological horror comes from the juxtaposition of intense intellectual uncertainty and with things that are familiar; it's why nursery rhymes, children, dolls and clowns are so terrifying when shorn from comforting context of childhood. Contemporary Japanese horror often creates dread by rendering familiar modern technology (the cell phone, the television) alien, mixing them with magical elements (demons, ghosts and magic)from Japan's “repressed” past.

By breaking these elements down, all I want to show is that these various elements of the survivor horror genre come apart. They turn on distinct experiences. Vulnerability, in particular, is an extremely interesting game-experience to me-- I wish we saw more survival-style RPGs, for example, because the scarcity-model (rather than the regnant loot-drop model) makes your decisions about upgrading your character and choosing weapons feel pregnant and interesting. And I hope keeping horror and survival separate shows why bad combat isn't crucial to the genre. There's no doubt that survival and horror go together like Eric B and Rakim, but knowing the unique dynamics of each can make us better critics and designers.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Life in Fallout: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

As I've said before, I'm not crazy about Ian Bogost's “Procedural Rhetoric” idea. Maybe it's just me, it has this reek of system about it that always inclines me to skepticism. But the idea does give powerful expression to an important idea: video games can be a form of persuasion. Bogost's basic idea is that a game can be a sort of argument, an argument that unfolds in the player's assimilation of rules. And as I've been playing through Fallout 1 and 2 the last week I can't shake the feeling that the game is making an argument to me, an argument about hazardous joys of the state of nature.

The idea of a “state of nature” was a common device in modern political theory; it represents the conditions of human existence prior to the advent of society. It wasn't that anyone literally thought there was such a time in history; rather, reflecting on the complexion of human nature in the absence of any civil order was a sort of heuristic device, one that was meant throw the basic functions of human social life into full relief. They thought the best way to get a handle on what society was for was considering the complexion of human life in its unvarnished state and then asking what benefits civil organization provided.

For the political thinkers of the Enlightenment, the natives on the newly discovered continent across the Atlantic offered an apparent (though, of course, false) analogue of this state, a world stripped of civilization and guided by the untutored hand of human nature. But now, it seems to me that apocalypse has displaced colonization in the popular consciousness. It's not a world prior to civilization, but the world after civilization that fires our imaginations. Thermonuclear war means wiping the slate clean: no government, no society, no police. Just men, their native powers, and the scarce goods that survived the apocalypse. Fallout is a vision of that world that is grim and liberating at the same time.

How grim? The outlaw vistas of Fallout reminded me of the state of nature as it's envisioned by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is as well-known in the public mind for his colorful misanthropy as for his highly influential constractualist political theory. To Hobbes, any scrutiny of human conduct testified to the fact that humans are essentially motivated by the constant, destructive, and restless desire for power. When this need runs up against the needs of other humans, the result is predictable: “Felicity is the continual progress of the desire, form one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter... so that in the first place, I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death... competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other.” This understanding of human nature explained the function of the social compact-- by setting up a system of laws and ceding their individual wills to the sovereign, they gained a measure of protection from the relentless lusts of their fellow-men.

Fallout embraces this basic argument about the basic tendency of mankind towards destructive self-aggrandizement. As Hobbes wrote, “it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.” In every town you visit (save a few Vaults) the demise of society has ushered in an era of entrepreneurial criminality: racketeering, gambling, slavery. Not only are you liable to be attacked by raiders as you cross the wastes; you can also be attacked for minor breaches of honor in regular conversation at a saloon. Your life and property are never secure, always threatened by the casual malice of the other survivors. In this world there is “no account of time, no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brustish, and short.” It is a world that is unendurable without a quicksave key.

Despite all this, relentlessly hostile world created by Fallout has an incredibly satisfying quality. A few weeks ago, I read an article on the excellent blog Game Design Advance that captured the allure of Fallout to me. Bob Clark wrote a post on how most modern games (with their increasing reliance on autosaving, adjustable difficulty, and other miscellaneous handholding devices) deprive the player of the “freedom to fail.” His guiding idea in the post is that games reflect different underlying assumptions about the importance of sociality, about the tradeoffs between allowing for failure and maximizing freedom. Based on this idea, he spins out this great riff on the way that capitalism and socialism propose different philosophies of game design: “If Ronald Reagan were a game designer, he probably wouldn’t be happy with the state of modern games– he’d say that without the risk of really losing, the player loses a vital piece of agency.”

And he has a point. The old-school world of Fallout is a masterpiece of deregulation. It is a world dreamed especially for entrepreneurs-- there are unimaginable gains to be had for the person who is willing to assume the risk and operate without a safety net. You can freely wander the scorched wastes and you will most likely end up dead. But unlike many RPGs, there is this chance that you will happen upon some unthinkable bonanza: weapons and equipment that are far beyond your current level, resources far outstripping those closer to the beaten path.

I can't deny that there is something empowering, even freeing, about a world in which total failure is a live possibility. The successes are more rewarding, more tangible because they carry so much more risk. In exchange for the constancy of death there is a constant sense of possibility. And it makes your final triumph feel earned, because you have had something truly at stake as you've played.

And it's this fragile sense of agency that sticks with me after playing Fallout. Where Hobbes' rhetoric in the Leviathan was meant to work on the reader and convince her of the empowerment she gained from participation in the civil contract, Fallout's rhetoric is all about the compelling ambiguity of a world without security and without laws. Your essential vulnerability is an inescapable component of your sense of mastery. the unfettered freedom the game's design affords the player conveys a unique sense that your individual gifts as a player (the choices you make amongst your skills and attributes and perks) have a purchase on the world that would be lacking in a more structured, socialized environment. Here's hoping that Fallout 3 can retain this balance that has made the series so compelling.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Review

Rock Band 2: The Instruments

Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii Developer: Harmonix Publisher: Electronic Arts

Box Quote: “Fuck you, downstairs neighbors!!!” -- Iroquois Pliskin, versusclucluland.blogspot.com

Full Discosure: I know the words to Electric Version by heart. I placed third in a Guitar Hero competition at the Cambridgeside Galleria Best Buy in the fall of 2006. I once brought my ex-plorer guitars cross-country for a family vacation by packing them into my backpack and carrying them on the plane. (The pilot said, “I'm more of a Gears of War man myself.”) My firstborn is going to be named Harmonix Music Systems Pliskin. My old band, Just the Tip, has real t-shirts; we completed the endless setlist on Hard, with myself and Galen alternating on drums and vocals. I could probably be described as a partisan.

Gameplay: It all comes down to the strum bar. My hand-eye coordination is pretty solid (thanks, squandered childhood!), and though I can send my fingers skittering across the fretboard with relative ease I run into issues keeping time on long passages of sixteenth notes, due to my intense whiteness and poor sense of internal timekeeping. The classic Guitar Hero controllers have this metronomic click in their strum, and a lot of people (such as my esteemed colleague, Dr. Toaster) found the clickless action on the original Rock Band Stratocaster kind of smooshy, as if you were trying to whisk a bowl of pudding with a boiled carrot. The new Strat has a tactile chock at either end of the strum, which gives some subtle feedback and helps with nailing those strummy passages. The fret keys on the new guitar have a nice substantial feeling to them, and the wirelessness is a huge plus, as it obviates the need for that chintzy, power-strip-hogging USB hub that came with the original.

Story: So, somebody called the cops on us last winter when we were playing Rock Band back in Allston last winter. We suspect the downstairs neighbors. The whole event was pretty ridiculous, and I can only imagine the police officer's interior monologue when he was taken of his usual beat, cracking the skulls of drunken BU students, in order to chastize an apartmentfull of stone-cold-sober nerds whaling away on prosthetic instruments. Since then it's been customary to 1) Shout “fuck you downstairs neighbors!!” during the vocal overdrive fills and 2) put a yoga mat under the drum kit to reduce the pounding on the thin floorboards. This latter innovation also helped allay the kit's tendency to progressively slide out of reach as you pound away at Won't Get Fooled Again. The new kit has a more texturized rubber padding the base, and it's been staying put for the most part. This is one of many incremental improvements to the original's kit: wirelessness, a metal-reinforced foot pedal (I snapped my first set's pedal in half during Go With the Flow), quieter rubberized drum pads, and the addition of some rubbery material on the kick-pedal housing which keeps the pedal horizontally locked to the base if you pick the kit up and move it about. All of these modifications are impressively thoughtful, and though none of them render the previous kit obsolete by comparison they reflect an impressive grasp of the all-important details, one which evident throughout Rock Band 2 as a product.

The Takeaway: The evolution will be televised. Though probably not indispensable to owners of the previous instruments, the new instruments offer across-the-board improvments on the originals

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Da Art of Storytellin' (pt. 2)


The video game cutscene has a way of inspiring puritanism in games critics. Like its bastard cousin, the quick-time event, the cinematic interlude is a convenient shortcut for the designer to make the player feel like something is happening without having her do anything. And spending some time with Metal Gear Solid 4, which is barely a game, is liable to turn even the most tolerant gamer into a fanatic on the cutscene issue. Even the industry-standard letterboxing of a cutscene broadcasts the fact that the device is a maladroit shoehorning of an inherently passive technique, drawn from cinema, into a medium whose defining quality is interactivity.

In their defense, It's devilishly difficult to exposit anything of narrative significance while giving the reins over to the player. Even if you assume that the player is interested in a game's narrative elements, you must also assume that the average player of a video game is a creature of the Internet age, and that she lacks the ability to voluntarily direct their attention towards any event for a span of more than a few nanoseconds before she is overcome by the desire to interact with something else. (When you listen to the developer commentary for Half-Life 2, one is struck by the all the subtle artifice required to funnel the player's attention towards the significant narrative elements.) And in most cases, the problem is not one of execution: as Michael Abbott recently wrote in reference to Yakuza 2, almost no-one is really offended by a well-scripted and well-acted cinematic interlude. As the Grand Theft Auto series consistently shows, simple competence in the areas of dialogue and voice acting has a way of making matters of principle seem petty.

And yet when you play a game that manages to craft a satisfying narrative without relying on cutscenes, it's impossible to acquit yourself of the feeling that storytelling in games is at its best when it turns it back on cinematic convention and embraces the techniques that are most appropriate to the medium. I've been playing Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time over the last few weeks, and making my way through that game has served as a perfect illustration of how to tell a story in a game. Much like Ico or Half-Life 2, it's the kind of game that makes you say to yourself: “Oh, so this is how things are to be done.” Now, to be upfront, Sands of Time has a longish cutscene or three in it. While they're competently done they're rendered in a different graphical engine from the rest of the game, which makes them especially jarring despite their graphical superiority.

But the real lesson to be drawn from Prince of Persia resides in the wealth of different techniques the developers draw upon in order to convey a story without breaking up the action. One central conceit is that the prince is retelling the events depicted in the game to the player as she plays them, and this overdubbed commentary is a smart device. In other scenes, the prince talks to himself in the present tense about the events that have just occurred, speculating about the developing relationship between himself and the princess; in others the verbal sparring between the prince and princess transpires in the midst of the action. This sparring is consistently entertaining, especially since some of the funnier bits are clever nods to the artificial devices in the game's design, like the omnipresent slim cracks-in-the-wall that offer paths to the princess. Like the retrospective narration, it has a way of making the player feel like she and the protagonists are in on the joke together, and these fourth-wall-breaking moments in the swashbuckling repartee have a way of absolving the game of its numerous design tics.

The effect of the narration is kind of like the audio guided-tours you get at art museums, and I think this approach is an excellent way of filling in the narrative without taking the player out of the experience; it has a way of enriching the environment you explore without getting in the way of the environment itself. (Come to think of it, the audio fragments in Bioshock are almost guided tours to the doomed city of Rapture. You probably have to return that audio recorder at the exit.)

In addition, it seems to me that Ubisoft Montreal has learned the basic lesson grasped by the producers of every MTV dating show: if you contrive for the romantic interests to collaborate in some kind of activity, no matter how arbitrary or absurd, the romantic connection will seem plausible. Much like dating in real life, the mere act of being engaged in some activity together does ninety percent of job-- it provides fodder for conversation (like the protagonists' repartee) and a sense of shared purpose. Making female non-player-characters useful to the player is a device that has been so often used in games over the last few years now that it almost feels manipulative (there's something almost pavlovian about your relationship to Alyx in Half-Life 2), but in general the moments of shared danger and mutual triumph are key elements of the storytelling in Prince of Persia, and they are noteworthy examples of how you depict emotionally significant relationships through play mechanics.

Games, as a narrative medium, are still finding their way. Sometimes I'm convinced that it's only the hardcore who care about story anyway, and as games become a truly mass medium it seems we're witnessing a movement towards a gaming culture in which story is less and less relevant (Exhibit A: the Nintendo Wii). But I still hold out this hope that designers will continue to take the path taken by Sands of Time, and continue to invent ways of making the things we do with our hands seem like they are the significant doings of human beings.

P.S. Don't sleep on the embedded video; it's the best video from the best song on the best hip-hop album of all time, Aquemini. If you still need convincing, there is a puppet version of Slick Rick.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The View From Pripyat

In the last post, I mentioned the level of Call of Duty 4 set in Pripyat, Ukraine, one of the cities affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and subsequently abandoned. Aside from being the high0-water point of an excellent game, the Pripyat level was one of the most memorable settings for a game in recent memory; there is just something extremely compelling about the total desolation of a nuclear ghost town. I scoured the internet and found more pictures of the city, which brought home how pitch-perfect the game's recreation of the environment was.
Apollo Park, site of the memorable two-man standoff against a small army of Russian soliders
The empty pool in the town's center, which you navigate on your way to the arms deal.
A view of the Chernobyl plant from the roof of a Pripyat apartment complex.
Another view of snowy Apollo Park.

P.S. Chris Hyde (whose tumblr blog is consistently awesome) also pointed me to this great post featuring other abandoned cities. It's totally worth checking out.

War is What No One Wills

[Coletta Factor: Call of Duty 4 spoilers aplenty below]

Sometimes I waver between thinking about games as works of art and thinking about them as artifacts. Where the end of art is the representation of reality, the end an artifact is to do something for its users: carry their olive oil, or amuse them.. When we look at a grecian urn, we may admire the still unravished bride of quietness, but when we ask what the urn is for we would say that it's for storing olive oil. And when posterity digs up a copy of Call of Duty 4 and asks what it's for, they will say “this disc is for entertainment.” Simply put, Call of Duty 4 is an entertainment machine. I am almost never tempted to call anything a thrill ride, but I can think of no other expression meet for the machine-like entertainingness of Call of Duty 4.

Unfortunately the thrill-ride metaphor is too apt to pass up. On one hand the railed nature of your thrill ride captures the essential linearity of the level design and gameplay. Call of Duty manages these epic and impressive setpieces by restricting the character's choices. Not only are there few areas for reconnaissance or exploration, the game often punishes your severely for running off the set track. Perhaps I was not resourceful enough, but in most cases I found that advancing through tricky sections of the game was a matter of discovering the precise intended avenue towards the enemy position (usually by following a breadcrumb-trail of cover), and memorizing the set enemy locations. At its worst points, there is a shooting-gallery feeling to the levels in Call of Duty. However, the middle sections (including several pitched battles on a tiered Russian hillside, and a indelibly desolate Chernobyl-set flashback) have a positively open feeling to them, one missing from the clausterphobic alleyways of the anonymous middle eastern city that dominates the early sections of the game.

Really, Call of Duty as a whole is an object lesson in the importance of pacing and gameplay variety. Given that shooting and hiding virtually exhaust your congress with the world, Call of Duty creates an impressive array of different combat scenarios by varying the terrain and weaponry throughout the game. You never feel like you are doing the same thing over and over again. You are never locked into one tempo for long, and the most intense scenes (the frenzied dashes to a landing-zone rendezvous) alternate with slower, more deliberately paced passages that call on different sets of skills.

Indeed, the most memorable feature of Call of Duty is the way it juxtaposes moments of exhilarating empowerment with episodes of complete helplessness. One moment your enemies are a superior force that sends your squad cowering behind hay-bales, and he next they are sinners in the hands of an angry god, scattering to the four winds as you rain ordinance down upon them from an AC-130 gunship. In one scene you courageously rescue a comrade from a downed helicopter; in the next, your heroic solider watches a mushroom cloud rise above the city, wiping out the entire corps and rendering those heroic deeds meaningless. The alternation of empowerment with disempowerment has been a staple of the genre for some time now (every shooter feels the need to put you behind a turret at some point), but Call of Duty's setpieces are so well-crafted that they transcend the conventions of the genre. The moments of most extreme helplessness-- the opening sequence played from the the perspective of a man on the way to his execution, or the scene in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion-- achieve a kind of haunting power that is uncommon in the medium.

Some commentators on the game have puzzled over the game's attitude towards war and military service. Daniel Golding took the characterization of your fellow soliders, and the pithy quotes that flash across the screen on your demise, as a sign of the game's anti-war message. Mitch Krpata wrote: “Some time ago, the US Army released a game called America's Army to help them pick up new recruits. If those kids played Call of Duty instead, they'd probably make a run for Canada.”

I think both of these writers make fine points in favor of their arguments, but I think this alternation between empowerment and disempowerment in the gameplay is the key to understanding Call of Duty 4's viewpoint on war and military service.

I obviously have no idea what military duty is like, but based on what I've gleaned from firsthand accounts, participation in war involves a horrific combination of responsibility and helplessness. On one hand, being a solider means that the lives of the people you care for the most-- your best friends, your fellow soldiers-- depends your intellect and courage, your skill at your craft. I can't imagine the burden of being responsible for the lives of the people closest to me, having their lives depend on my capabilities. It is this burden of responsibility, rather than some abstract commitment to God and country, that ison the mind of soldiers as they enter the battlefield.

On the other hand, the reality of armed conflict is that war often renders the best efforts of individual men and women meaningless. Tolstoy wrote that war is something that “no one wills,” and what he meant is that everyone involved in the conduct of war-- soldiers and generals alike-- is subject to a chain of effects and contingencies that are radically beyond their control. The forces that dictate life or death for individual soldiers in the field are arbitrary and impersonal, both too complex and too random to be mastered by even the most farsighted men.

Call of Duty 4 succeeds in being more than entertainment where it conveys both of these elements at the same time: both the ennobling heroism and the powerless vulnerability that are intrinsic to warfare. While the player's skills suffice to stave of nuclear holocaust in the end, she finds herself unable to prevent the extermination of the rest of the company and the apparent death of your gamelong mentor, Captain Price. The triumph of skill over death is always incomplete. This strikes me as a welcome step towards realism in the most implausible of games.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kevin Leddins: The New Games Journalism at its Finest

Simon Carless over at GameSetWatch pointed me to this hilarious video review by Scottish Nu Skool journalist, Kevin Leddins. I kind of think that there is something wrong with me for getting the jokes, but it's still been my favorite thing on the internet this week. cheers!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Leaving the Vault Means You Probably are Going to Die

Busy! I've been besieged with non-gaming-related business this week, like going on the job market and traveling back to visit Boston, my adoptive home town. It's hard to keep the blog up while you're on the road, and the steps needed to secure gainful employment at the conclusion of my PhD seem to trump my impulses to apply the later philosophy of Wittgenstein to Crash Bandicoot's Nitro Kart. But since I knew I be spending some quality time with the lappy whilst on the road, I brought Fallout 1&2 along.

Fallout makes me anxious. Anxious about failing.

Maybe this requires some explanation. I grew up playing Japanese role-playing games as a kid. While many of the other boys were out avoiding obesity, hitting on girls, and developing critical social skills I was in my bedroom leveling up Moogles. Strangely enough I have a great deal of retrospective fondness for this time. I can't help it. It was my childhood after all.

I began playing through Final Fantasy VI for the GBA during my last round of traveling, and though it's been totally enjoyable the thing I notice most about the defining game of my young adulthood is how structured it is. The early Final Fantasy games, in retrospect, seem like they are very safe and user-friendly adventures.

Paradoxically enough for a game with an amnesiac protagonist, FFVI excels at keeping the player to the path they are intended to pursue: your movements are largely restricted to particular areas of the world in the early going, and the hostile menagerie you find in those areas is always scaled appropriately. Even when you don't know where you're supposed to go next, you can be supremely confident that there is such a place. You're supposed to be someplace, and you know that Final Fantasy is going to do its damnedest to get you there.

Final Fantasy VI draws a set of well-defined boundaries when it comes to the incidence and relative difficulty of its obstacles. It's not that it lacks challenges; it's more that the challenges it sends your way are predictable-- monsters in the fields, but not in the towns. Bosses are at the end of the dungeon, not at the entrance. You know that victory will be in your grasp so long as you keep on grabbing at the next rung of the ladder the game feeds to you, and it's a cheering piece of knowledge to have.There are a definite suite of rituals to be observed : keep leveling up your Moogles, keep buying them better equipment, pack lots of potions, and everything will turn out fine.

So given that this reassuring brand of tightly scripted role-playing adventure is my primary frame of reference, Fallout makes me nervous. Here's the setup: A man tells you that you're supposed to get a new chip for your fallout shelter's water purification system, or they will run out of potable water in 150 days. You begin the game by shooting a couple of rats in a cave, which goes pretty well. And then you step out of the vault and into the surrounding wasteland. Now what?

I've played the game for hours and hours now and I still have no idea whether I'm making any progress. I've wandered from town to town, asking about this chip; nobody seems to know where to find one. I have no feel for whether I'm getting anywhere; I just don't know if I'm doing the right things. There's 94 days left, and though I know I've made some good moves along the way (I've cleared out some Radscorpions, I've killed some bandits, I've freed some slaves) I have no idea if I'm any closer to finding that water chip.

Sometimes, in the towns, you will say the wrong thing in conversation and somebody will just jump you. The next thing you know you'll be locked in a fight to the death with a crowd of religious zealots or petty criminals, because you've picked the wrong dialogue option. I was wandering around a new town yesterday and I was suddenly attacked by a monster-- a deathclaw, for chrissake-- that was entirely capable of killing me and my companion single-handedly. Random, unforeseeable death of this kind is a constant in Fallout.

Even though I find this constant sense of aimlessness and danger unsettling, there is something of genius in the way that this experience of aimlessness communicated by the gameplay dovetails with the setting and narrative of Fallout. Your character has spent his entire life sequestered away in a shelter, where a form of society has survived in complete isolation from the rest of the world aboveground. The surface world of Fallout has been obliterated by nuclear war, and in the wake of this conflict all the order and regularity promised by social life has been wiped from the earth. In its wake only the barest rudiments of settled living have taken root-- small, largely lawless settlements, linked by hazardous trading routes. In the absence of the social contract that makes life predictable you face a world governed by chance, a world that is only accidentally susceptible to your talents and foresight.

And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship. We're saving often.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Talk to the Laz Gastronomique about WoW, Racist 14-Year-Olds, and the Crack Rock

Despite my steadily increasing knowledge of the gaming landscape, there's a huge hole in my experience when it comes to the MMOs. I know that there are these games you play on your PC, where you go online with other people and “raid” things for “loot.” Based on my extensive research into the burgeoning field of MMO design (read: watching that one episode of South Park) have also learned that that collecting wolf pelts is also a common pasttime.

So I decided to talk to my friend Laz, in the hope that she would deign to enlighten the heathen about MMOs. Aside from being one of the most brilliant human beings on the planet, Laz is a World of Warcraft enthusiast and the author of the witty and delicious blog “The Laz Gastronomique.” (Note to readers: join us in making every week spicy asian soup week.) She graciously took some time off from publishing articles about brain science in top-flight academic journals to share a wealth of info, and a picture of her WoW avatar Ennui, with me. Enjoy!

Q: So, on a post a while back you asked whether I was aware of "all the research showing that playing lots of video games can actually alter your brain in various ways." What's the empirical data say about the way games affect the brain?

So, I went onto google scholar to make sure I had my facts straight before I answered this question, and I discovered that the study I was thinking of when I said this hasn't actually been published yet. The reason I know about said unpublished study is that I participated in it 2 summers ago as a favor to a friend in the department; apparently he was having difficulty finding caucasian females between the ages of 18 and 30 who played more than 8 hours of video games per week. I and my freakishly oversized corpus callosum were happy to help a brother out.

I imagine that if his study ever does get published, the reason it will get published is that it will show some kind of correlation between brain volume (I would guess prefrontal? or white matter? hard to say in advance) and video game expertise. What has already been shown is that playing lots of video games can actually improve (in the case of younger adults) or preserve and remediate (in the case of older adults) various types of cognitive function such as visual attention and executive control. This is not a very surprising result (hardly even up to the high standards of a video gaming blog) because it falls into the category of "if you use your brain, your brain will be better at doing the things you use it for." I think that the only reason these papers showing the positive effects of playing lots of video games even get published, given that what they say tends to be old news from a theoretical standpoint, is that they piss off oldsters who don't want their kids to play so many goddamn video games-- making this type of study potentially more interesting and controversial than similar types of studies showing that organized quilting improves cognitive function in old people (those actually exist!).

Q: A lot of MMOs have tried to replicate the magic of Wow, but they've all failed. Why is it that WoW is so much more successful than all its competitors?

At this point I've read so much about Why Wow is Awesome that it's hard to disentangle the opinions of others from my own. One suggestion that I think Tycho Brahe made that makes a lot of sense to me is that wow has such a huge head start now it's impossible for any competitor to catch up. I've sunk what, a million hours into making my various wow characters? Am I going to give up stalking Void Reaver in Tempest's Keep with my party of 25 epic guildies now so I can go hit rats with a stick in a forest that is still buggy because it hasn't been effectively beta tested yet using an interface that I don't understand and causes me to die every 3 minutes? No way, Jose. In order to wrench players away from WoW's iron grip, a potential new MMO is going to have to have a better interface, better graphics, better reward system, better character class, better anything than WoW has, but that's going to be hard to come up with now that WoW has been streamlining and improving itself with such a huge user base for so many years.

A second potential reason that I've heard professed is that the reward system in WoW is just perfectly tuned to our frail mostly-still-reptile cognitive systems, so that we can't but help ourselves from playing. I put less stock in this reason, because I know what kind of people end up doing cognitive research for video game companies and they tend to be the kind of people that got PhDs out of playing video games 6 hours a day because their advisors felt sorry for them. However, in my own experience with WoW I do have those moments of "oh my god, just one more hour, I need to farm enough iridescent pearls to make those exceptional gloves for my alt" or "oh my god just one more try at Lurker we'll get him this time and then the looooooooootttzzzz"

At some level though, the best answer to this question is just that wow is awesome! It's interface is easy to use for beginners and infinitely customizable for experts. The graphics are beautiful, have lots of variation, and run smoothly. The quests are fun, and if you don't like quests you can kill other players, and if you don't like either of those you can farm for resources, and if you don't like any of that you can just fly around on your wind rider and take it all in (as I do), or (as my 14 year old guild mates seem to enjoy) stand in one of the cities and alternately undress yourself and dance around or stand there in your epic armor and wait for the n00bs to admire you.

Q: Yeah, so what is the deal with epic loot?

LOOOOTTTTTTTTZZZZZZZZZ!!! Ok. So in WoW, there are various qualities of loot. In ascending order of awesomeness, there's your "vendor trash" (e.g., dilapidated cloth gloves), your "greens" (e.g., Epaulets of the Whale), your "blues" (e.g., Apexis Cloak) and your EPIC LOOTS (e.g., THE SUN EATER). Of course, the more awesome the loot is the rarer it is and the harder to get it is. Your really really epic lootz come off hard bosses that you need your guild to help you kill. Wearing epic loot has all kinds of awesome consequences. First, of course, it ups your stats (see, for example, my epic 2136 bonus healz). Second, it looks awesome, so not only does it make your character look cooler, it also signals to all the n00bs walking around Orgrimmar that you are 3l33t. Third, it enables you to move up in the kind of instances and bosses you are ready to take on. Even in a guild with lots of level 70s, there is lots of content that is way too hard to tackle without a pretty high tier of epic gear. It gets to be in your high level raiding guilds that everyone knows what gear everyone else is trying to get and what bosses have to be killed go get it. So you go do this epic 15 minute boss fight, and you down the boss and feel awesome because it was hard and maybe you couldn't do it last week because the guild wasn't firing on the strategy needed to be successful, and then you go over and loot the corpse and see the loots there and often there will be either a big cheer--if the loot someone needed dropped-- or groans of despair-- if low quality loot or loot that everyone already has dropped.

My main character is all tricked out in almost full PvE epic loot, with the exception of a blue cloak that is actually one of the top 5 or 10 healer cloaks in the game despite being blue.

Q: I tend to be really wary of playing games online with other people, but I get this sense that in WoW it works out for the best, even if you're a antisocial person like myself. How does it happen.

You know, even with all my years of psychological training I really don't know how it works either. This summer my friends got ENDLESS amusement out of my stories of what 14 year old boys had said to me in wow the night before, and after they got done wiping the tears of mirth from their eyes, professed amazement that I, a woman who is known to be able to clear out a room if a foolish male inhabitant of that room implies that I don't understand football, would not only put up with being told that I was a whore for dating a black man by a 14 year old from Georgia, but then sign up to go raiding with him the next day (that actually happened!) So I've thought about this alot, and the best explanation I can come up with is that the sheer addictive force of wow, and the need to party up with other players after a certain point, overcomes almost any interpersonal obstacles. I'm like you, I don't really like playing games with other people either: the last 5 or so of my diablo ii builds were all characters who could at least in theory solo baal on hell (zoomancer whuuutttt!) specifically for the reason that I didn't want to have to play with anyone else. In fact, my main wow build was also originally a character type that could easily solo all the single player content in the game (disc. priest).

But after a few thousand hours of solo play, I came up against the barrier that I just could not advance my character any further without partying up. I had started to almost be burnt out on WoW at that point, because I was really at a point in the reward structure where I would spend 100 hours collecting badges or whatever and only get an incremental increase in my statz. Then I randomly agreed to heal an instance for this 14 year old kid who was the guild leader of my first guild, kingg kobras [sic] (now dissolved.) OH MY GOD. After that first day healing the mechanaar, it was like I had gone from powdered coke to rock. HOLY SHIT. My heart is like racing now just thinking about it. Wow was a brand new game. I had thought I was addicted to wow before that, but I didn't even know what addiction was. Once you join a guild, no matter how fucking annoying the 14 year olds in the guild are, how stupid, misogynist, sex obsesseed, you somehow manage to get over all that because if you stay guilded with them you can play this whole other game that is even better than the one you already loved. You all of a sudden have access to all this content and loot that you didn't before. You NEED them, and they NEED you, and that co-dependency makes it possible to put up with a lot.

It's also the case that, just as in life, you can find people who are more or less annoying to play with. So even though kingg kobras was mostly populated by racist 14 y.o.s, there were a few other (relatively) normal adults who I ended up playing with almost exclusively (although the 14 y.o.s would regularly eavesdrop on our voice channel to hear us talk about lesbians.)

Q: I know that you own a PS3 and a Gamecube, last I checked. What is your favorite console game?


I thought and thought about this, and decided there was nothing for it but to tell the truth and be embarassed. I think that my all time favorite console game is probably super mario world for the super nintendo. Wow, did I love that game. I loved it so much! I still love it. That was one of the first games that I ever really played as a kid, so my love for it has this element of childhood wonder in there that no game I will ever play as an adult will have. I don't really even know what about it I love so much. It's colorful, and cute, and a side scroller (dear game developers: please make more side scrollers. I hate sandboxes and will not buy them. Love, laz), and you can figure out all the controls in 2 seconds but not be able to beat the game for weeks and weeks. My hallmates actually dug up some old super nintendos at one point in college, and I wasn't the only person who put aside our hall gamecube and ps2 and xbox to play super mario world exclusively for about a month.

In the "modern" era, I love mario kart double dash and also lego star wars (the original trilogy version... I do NOT see getting to play as jar jar as an enducement to play a video game and have therefore never even finished the prequel version.) I don't get to play double dash the "right way" any more because I can't abide enough of the other graduate students to let 7 of them into my home to get drunk and play double dash, so I haven't played that in a while. Lego star wars I actually liked enough on the gamecube to buy again for my ps3 (in retrospect I don't know why I did that, but it does make it so I don't have to switch my consoles in and out of my tv as much, and I guess I do get to play it "in hd" or whatever now.) It has this great unlockable level where all you do is run around and collect studs. This is a great level because for the whole rest of the game, there is this tension in ever level built around whether or not you will collect enough studs to gain "true jedi" status, and a relief of that tension every time you pick a stud up and hear that stud collection noise. Then in the unlocked level, you just get to go around collecting studs as any character you want (I usually choose ghost obi-wan kenobi) with no enemies for like 20 minutes, and hear that stud collection noise over and over again. Ahhhhhhhh.


Q: Which Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics are you? I'm “Introduction to Knot Theory.”

It's interesting to note that I had actually already taken this quiz a long time ago, and been told I was graduate string theory. At the time I took it, from what myself and my cohort at MIT could determine, graduate string theory was the only possible result of the quiz. I took the quiz again this morning, and was happy to discover that both I and the quiz had matured: now I am told that I am Categories for the Working Mathematician.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Two Scariest Videos on this Site (Since that Gunship Footage I Put up Earlier This Week)

I have been utterly obsessed with the album Cross, by the French dance group Justice, ever since I put together that custom playlist for WipEout. The video for the song Stress is culled directly from the nightmares of the French middle-class: gangs of multiethnic teen delinquents wantonly wrecking shit.




The companion piece is from the recent trailer from the game Bayonetta released for the Tokyo Game Show. The protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Sarah Palin, and the Palin-doppelganger aspect adds that extra level of unsavoriness to the game's manifest fondness for closeups of leather-sheathed female parts. enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Limits of Escapism


There was an article up on 1up.com last week, in which Michael Pachter gives a pretty upbeat assessment of the financial crisis' effect on the gaming industry: “I don't think that the market meltdown will impact game delivery for a couple of years, if ever.” This is good news, I suppose. When the liquidity crunch combines with peak oil to hurtle the global economic system back to subsistence agriculture, I plan to be hitting Devil May Cry 6: Fran├žois' Tumescence pretty hard. (I aim to run a lucrative sideline in black market AK-47s and fermented-millet moonshine to finance these luxuries.) According to the folks over on the 1up Yours podcast, the gaming industry is “recession-proof:” just as the film industry thrived during the great depression, the gaming industry will thrive during the coming world-spanning economic clusterfuck, because it provides a relatively cheap commodity whose value rises in direct proportion to the sum total of human misery: escapism.

Michael Abbott has been running an interesting three-article series this week about cultural attitudes towards play. One of the running themes of his articles is that American attitudes towards unproductive activities are the product of what the great Sociologist Max Weber would have called the “Spirit of Capitalism.” While the idea of asceticism-- disciplined abstention from pleasure-- arose from religion, Weber thinks its lives on in the capitalistic ethos of ascetic productivity: “Victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs [religion's] support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.” I agree with Abbott's argument that these negative judgments of unproductive leisure should pass away when ethical and religious values that sustained them have died. We don't believe office drudgery is going to save your soul, and who should be willing to sacrifice one of the chief goods of a Godless cosmos-- pleasure-- for the sake of that mouldering corpse-god, late-stage Capitalism?

Despite all of this, I still feel uncomfortable justifying entertainment in the name of escapism, or mere pleasure. I don't know which classical image best captures my reservations: it's either fiddling while Rome burns, or the Caesar doling out bread and circuses. Along with the wholesome and by any measure necessary idea of refuge comes the less savory idea of hiding, immersing oneself in a dream-world in order to deny the reality of the world going on around us.

Junot Diaz touched on this feeling when in his review of Grand Theft Auto IV: “For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.” Though Diaz is wrong about GTAIV (it's a a funhouse-mirror snapshot of American consumerism being consumed by its own excess-- it presents a world that is vulgar, exuberant, and bleak by turns), I think he is right about the sort of demands we ought to make on art.

The reason games lack the cultural capital of books, movies, and even TV is that they only rarely attempt to be anything other than than entertainment. Last year, N'Gai Croal wrote a wonderfully sharp critique of Roger Ebert's debate with Clive Barker over the status of games-as-art. And though Croal does a fine job of exposing the ignorance and contradictory presuppositions that fuel Ebert's derision of games, he chooses to duck one of Ebert's more probing questions: “the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?” Croal's response was to play the Pauline Kael role, and question whether art should be edifying at all. Skewering the art-as-broccoli crowd puts Croal in good company (J.G. Ballard called the moralizing bourgeois novel “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented”), but I think this response ducks the real force Ebert's question.

Why? Because though Ebert is wrong about the expressive capacities of games, I think he's right about why we value great works in other media. The Wire is endlessly entertaining, to be sure. It has indelible characters and pitch-perfect dialogue, tight pacing and an engrossing narrative. But the reason I care about that show is because The Wire is also a great work of moral imagination. It brings a multi-dimensional, morally complex world to life in order to challenge, provoke, and confound the audience. We could say the same about Battlestar Galactica or The Godfather or Middlemarch, and that is why we value them.

In the abovementioned review, Diaz writes that “Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human.” Entertainment is wonderful-- don't get me wrong here, I love whaling on demon hounds and lining up sparkly blocks as much, if not more than, the next guy. But I honestly believe that games will never have the same stature in modern cultural life as other media until they can do what successful art does. It's not just a matter of getting over the last dregs of the Protestant ethos.

Steve Gaynor argued that there is something redeeming, even cathartic in the way that games transport the player into a world in which she is the unique locus of power and significance. A designer, he says, can “give our audience the kind of agency and autonomy they might not have in their daily lives.” And this is surely the right kind of answer to give when it comes to justifying the kind of escapist transport that is gaming's stock and trade.

Call of Duty is no standard-bearer for the games-as-art movement, to be sure, but it does have these daring moments where it shows the player a world as seen through the eyes of a helpless human, facing down immanent and irrevocable death. This is the challenge, it seems to me. It's to do with the tools of design-- rules and states-- what other media do with images and sound. reveal the world as seen through different eyes, with lapidary clarity and moral courage. And this means moving beyond merely empowering and entertaining the player.


Taking Stock


When I was writing my last post, I realized that I have a pretty sizable stack of unplayed and “stalled” games populating my library. I thought it would be a good idea to take stock, if only to shame myself into finishing some games and prevent myself from investing in new ones. I omitted games I'm actively playing (like, in the past week-- Call of Duty, Viva, WipEout HD and Eternal Darkness) The inventory breaks down thusly:

Unplayed:

Devil May Cry 4-- An important consideration here is that Devil May Cry is one of these games that will be utterly shameful to play in front of my new housemates. There's some things you just can't expect the outsiders to understand, and having some absurdly-coiffed Japanese dude with sweet abs chant “Blastoff!!!” as he mutilates demon hounds is one of those things.

Burnout Paradise-- I only have room for one racing game in my life, and it's the erratically capitalized WipEout HD.

Killer 7-- I'm just intrigued. I'm don't expect to like it as a game. But I think I'm the kind of person who would dig it as a conceptual exercise.

Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty-- This game is perfect for me, since I've never played any of the other Ratchet games, and I like my games compact and flavorful. When it comes to my gaming diet, I'd be more than happy to eat tapas every day. Hey game publishers! More tapas!

Knights of the Old Republic-- The problem is that I rarely get the RPG itch anymore. As much as I like to kill things and earn levels, I find myself reluctant to put in the work. I really should have just played this game instead of Mass Effect, because my willingness to sink the amount of time time necessary to garner sort of rewards offered by RPGs is getting pretty slim.

Fallout 1&2-- Ditto. The fact that it's only on PC is another deterrent. Honestly, i should really play this one before I buy Fallout 3. But who has the time to play a Fallout all the way through?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time-- Better known as “the only game that Yahtzee likes.” In the comments section of my last post it garnered a lot of ups from the reader base, including a top-five o' the generation mention from the always-reliable Mitch Krpata. I think this one moves to the top of the stack come the completion of Call of Duty.

Legend of Zelda Promotional Disc-- I have never played Ocarina of Time nor Majora's mask; both were released during my lengthy gaming hiatus and I never owned an N64 anyway. I'm also nursing this pet theory that Windwaker is a better game, and I don't need to take a step backward for the sake of literacy. Amirite?

Stalled (Played but Unfinished):

Silent Hill 2-- I got stuck in the first apartment block. You call that puzzle solving? It's always get the red coin, then get the green coin with you guys. On the other hand, I'm kind of hooked by the atmosphere, the beguiling sense that you have no idea what the hell is going on, and the game seems very demure about letting you in on why you're wandering in about the fog with this terrible camera and zombie-smashing plank in tow. Once I polish off Eternal Darkness out the way I'll come back for you, Silent Hill 2.

Final Fantasy Tactics-- On the second mission, my computer-controlled ally barged into a swarm of goblins and got himself killed, and that was the end of it for me. I love me some turn-based tactics but, Nintendo puts everyone to shame when it comes to making strategy games that are streamlined and easy-to-manage; Square seems bent on putting obstacles (read: menus) between you and enjoyment. (I just read a great review of Grimoire of the Rift over on the excellent Murderblog 3D which totally captured my sentiments on this front.) When I have a yen for this sort of thing I just play more Advance Wars: Dual Strike, which is an inexhaustible well of delight.

Final Fantasy XII-- This game is actually excellent. But I haven't touched it since 2006. I ran out of gas in the village full of slinky, tall rabbit-women, and Stephen Totilo tells me that I needn't ruin a good thing by forcing the game to overstay its welcome. I don't think people give this game credit. It's easily one of the best games in the series, and it took a lot of risks in terms of streamlining the combat. I think people disliked it for not being Final Fantasy enough, but do you really miss the experience of mindlessly jabbing on A through each turn-based battle in order to level up? Also, the plot is actually good, as in, not actively insipid. Which is a step forward. Hey, why didn't I finish it?

Planescape: Torment-- No, seriously, why do we quit playing games we enjoy? For me the reason is twofold: 1) I feel like I just got distracted at some point, and now I don't feel confident that I will remember what I'm doing if I try to make a final push. I remember I was making some sort of dream machine, and that it was a feather. This ring any bells? 2) Even with games as good as this, I am rarely drawn in by the plot and characters. Like, I admire and appreciate what the game does in terms of its approach to narrative but it fails to fill me with a consuming desire to discover the next chapter of the saga.

Conclusions

I think I need to write a blog post about why we quit playing great games in mid-stream. We don't stop reading good books in the middle, or stop watching good movies in the middle. Why games? Is it just that we have to put effort into making them happen? In the case of the two excellent RPGs above, it's not a matter of challenge. I could get through them if I put my mind to it, and if I remembered what I was doing.

I also want guidance from the community: October 21 is soon upon us, and time is of the essence. I wholly expect to be exclusively designing LittleBigPlanet levels based on episodes from In Search of Lost Time for the Winter months, and it will leave little time for other pursuits. What are my priorities? Are there any of these stalled games that are worth going back to, or do I forge on to new challenges?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Modern Warfare: Call of Duty?


I have a big pile of un-played and un-finished games chilling in my DVD drawer. The problem is, I make unrealistic judgments about my ability to dedicate time to gaming. I also am something of a stickler when it comes finishing games. Like books, I just can't stand to leave them unfinished without lying to myself, promising that I will get to them in the future. This same impulse also accounts for some weighty tomes cooling their heels in the nearby bookcase (I promise that I will come back for you one day, Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age!)

In my effort to chip away at the pile, I settled on Call of Duty 4. (I do want to play Prince of Persia:Sands of Time and Fallout before their respective sequels come out this October, but I will have to put that project on the back-burner. Anybody have any suggestions on this one?) I've never met a military shooter that's impressed me much before (None of them have stacked up to the likes of Bioshock and Half-Life 2 in my estimation), but I have heard critics rave for going on a year now about how Call of Duty 4 is an example of peerless craftsmanship.

And it is. I'm only about a third of the way through the single-player campaign now, but I have been continuously impressed by the firm grasp on the finer points of pacing and gameplay variety shown by the folks over at Infinity Ward. Although it can't match Half-Life 2 in this department, it does a good job of overcoming the essential homogeneity of its level design by varying the combat-- moving from street-level fighting in claustrophobic Middle Eastern streets to pitched battles in Russian fields to helicopter turrets.

The multiplayer game bears out my recent thesis concerning leveling. Although the jobs-and-perks system builds imbalances into the game that are grossly punitive to the novice, it also offers the alluring idea that diligence and steady application will one day result in the murderous feats glimpsed only through your killcam, during one of your many deaths. I tell myself that I will be able to walk away before I am drawn into the vortex, but then again that next carrot is always only 150 XP away. You know how I feel about red dot sights. .

When I was playing online today my roommate walked by and said “Hey, this is that game that they use to recruit people for the Army.” She's not kidding. Even though Call of Duty is not an official recruiting product (unlike Full Spectrum Warrior and America's Army), it may as well be. It's not even that Call of Duty is jingoistic and triumpalist. It's just that it depicts war as a professional affairits depiction of wartime service is overwhelmingly dominated by the feeling of competence. Games are almost inherently empowering, because their very structure trades on the player's gradual mastery of the virtual world. Coupled to the representation of military service they almost cannot help but glorify the cool-headed professionalism shown by the officers in Call of Duty.

I am less bothered by games' attempts to glorify warfare than I am by the steady convergence of warfare itself on video games. I trust that any sane human being can distinguish a video game from reality. But there is this eerie way that the tools of modern warfare can turn the killing of human beings into an intangible abstraction, no different from the dance of pixels on a screen.

I had heard Shawn Elliott discuss the chilling distantiation involved in Call of Duty's gunship mission on GFW Radio some time back, but it is worth having these two representations of an AC-130 gunship in action in front of you:




The top video is a mission in Call of Duty. The latter is an actual camera video from an AC-130 mission in Afghanistan. You have to hand it to the game's creators for nailing the flat, affectless tone of the radio chatter. And anyway, it's impossible to feel any pathos for blobs of light on a computer monitor. War is not a game. But how would you tell?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! = Shadow of the Colossus

Because we are boys, my brother Drew and I spent much of our childhoods whaling on each other for amusement. In retrospect, our thirst for novel methods of of pain-infliction was downright polymorphous. Aside from schoolbus classics like Slaps and Lumberjack, we would do stuff like crawl into cardboard boxes and have the other pummel the box with elbow drops and body splashes. Pro Wrestling furnished a lot of material-- not only a suite of devastating maneuvers to try out (the ddt, the perfect-plex, the swinging neck breaker) but also a plethora of characters to inhabit.

All this gives some insight into why we were reenacting Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! on the sofa. In our defense, were spent ninety percent of 1988 in-character anyway-- at the beach, in the car, anywhere. (Popples, ocean waves, and neighbors would often round out the cast by taking on the meaty roles of Piston Honda and Don Flamenco.) My six-year-old brother was performing Bald Bull's signature crouching-bounce down the length of the sofa, and I was ready with my best nine-year-old right hook on the far end. We had gone through this routine dozens of times before without a serious injury, but this time I hit him square above the right eye. Drew goes down, and his face turns the brightest shade of deep-beet-red I've ever seen. He starts wailing. I think I saw blood. At this point, I freak out and run as fast as I could to the neighbors' house in order to get my parents. Luckily everything one turned out OK. There was talk of stitches, but a bandaid did the trick. No hard feelings either, since I felt visibly wretched for causing any real harm. I think there is still a small gap in his eyebrow where I left a tiny scar.

I think Punch-Out!! is a truly unique game. In the 8-bit era most games had very simple mechanics. Take your classic side-scrolling adventure. You could jump, and attack horizontally. If you were lucky, you had a boomerang. That was it. Unlike the modern design path laid out by Zelda, the majority of 8-bit games didn't introduce new mechanics and abilities as you played through. The way the games' designers injected more challenge and variety into the game way by varying the enemy types. Whether it was Metroid, Contra, Castlevania or Mega Man, the chief way the designers kept up the challenge was by throwing a consistently lethal mix of novel enemy behaviors at you. (The sinusoid menace of Castlevania's Medusa heads has been a bête noire of mine, going on fifteen years now.) The truth about these games is that no measure of reflex ability would get you though. The only path to victory was memorizing all the patterns and learning the script by heart-- where to stand, when to jump, when to shoot. The 8-bit classic was the schoolmistress of the most cruel drama class imaginable, but her demands were few: hit your marks, watch your cues, and you will survive.

This went double for boss encounters. If the behavior was the basic unit of challenge, then the way to apportion more challenge at the end of the level was by throwing (roughly) four new behaviors at the player. Boss battles always tested your uptake of your opponents' attack patterns-- whether you could read the cues that indicated a particular kind of attack, learn the safe spots on the screen for each routine, memorize the best times to get a few shots off. Modest puzzle-ish elements were also de rigeur; you commonly needed to decode some facet of your antagonist's routine before they would consent to being damaged.

Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! was less a boxing simulation than a ludicrously inventive re-imagination of boss-battle gameplay. Punch Out is the quintessence of gaming as pattern-recognition. Given a few simple mechanics-- a dodge, and a punch-- Punch Out dispensed with the regular combat and set you against a series of escalatingly difficult bosses. The cue-reading and attack-memorizing and punch-timing were made into the main pivot of the gameplay. (You even saw puzzle-like elements in your battle with King Hippo. No damaging him until you find a way to knock his pants off) It was all about knowing how to distinguish Soda Popinski's wink from his nudge, if you get my drift. Despite the fact that the basic fighting strategy always boiled down to dodge-counterpunch, the game was satisfyingly deep because each new boxer required you to rework your fighting technique from scratch. (I spent a year losing to Von Kaiser until I realized that you could not beat him by repeatedly hitting him in the face without dodging. My six-year old self hadn't quite made the leap that what is good for Glass Joe might not be good for Von Kaiser.)

Which brings us to Shadow of the Colossus. If pressed, I would probably say that SoC is my favorite game of all time. But I was wrong to think that it invented the boss-battle game. That honor belongs to Punch Out!!