Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Masochism

One of Theodor Adorno's central ideas is that our cultural activities dramatize our attitudes towards the existing social order. The crabby German critical theorist was fixated-cum-obsessed with the formal qualities of modern music for this very reason-- he thought that the interplay of material and form in a given composition constituted an ethical stance towards political and social reality. While music offered the most abstract representation of these attitudes, Adorno thought the governing logic of a given society was manifest in the most innocuous artifacts. He even wrote an ingenious and scathing little book, The Stars Down to Earth, analyzing the authoritarian tendencies of the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times.

Adorno's analysis of capitalist culture-- the "culture industry"-- in The Dialectic of Enlightment, twins this stance towards the social significance of culture with Freudian analysis. On his veiw, there is a distinct psychopathology manifest in modern cultural forms, a tendency to masochism.

Genuine aesthetic pleasure is a threat to technical society because it offers an alternative-- call it an escape, or as Proust put it, “a promise of happiness”-- to the routinized degredation of industrial capitalism. The job of the culture industry, is to manufacture entertainments that reinforce the underlying logic of capitalist society and blunt the potentially liberatory potential of art. And this is where Freud's theory of masochism comes in. A key to understanding the culture industry, on Adorno's view, is to see that its pleasure is a delight in our own impotence. Adorno has manifold examples to back up this thesis-- titillating-yet-prudish films made under the eye of the Hayes board, slapstick comedy, even Donald Duck. (An example which I used once in class is the classic TV series “I Love Lucy.” Every episode Lucy dreams of stepping outside the household and playing with Ricky's band, and in every episode these aspirations are humorously punished. The spectator is meant to enjoy the pain visited on her due to her aspirations after transgression.) The goal of the culture industry is to dull the anarchic force of pleasure by encouraging the spectator to revel in their own impotence. (NB this is all gross oversimplification of Adorno's Byzantine views on these issues, but is not actively misleading to my knowledge)

Though I've never put much stock in this thesis as a diagnosis of modern culture as a whole (it's freighted with more Freudian commitments than is wholly sensible), it does have a way of explaining some things. For example, it's got a lot of explanatory payoff when it comes to golf. It is difficult to explain the staggering injustice of golf to a layman. It is perhaps the most arbitrary and maddening form of leisure ever devised. You see, golf is a game in which you have a very very slight margin for error. The ball is so small that very minor faults in your swing the thing can cause things to go horribly wrong. I've been playing golf since I was 12 or so, and I can still completely miff shots-- knock them with the blade of the club and send the ball dribbling 2 feet to the left. Even when I'm doing hitting the ball squarely, I have some insidious, ingrained element of my swing mechanic that imparts a spin on the ball, curving it ever rightward.

It makes you want to smash up the implements you use to play the game, because they're the closest you can get to smashing golf itself. Back during my caddy days I witnessed grown men throw clubs into water hazards and trees, and though I was embarrassed on their behalf my heart was with them. On what else can you wreak revenge?

I say: here is a game that neatly captures the masochism of late capitalist culture. For eighteen holes your life is prey to the whims and malicious and arbirary forces, forces made all the more hateful by your sense that you should be directing their course. Every once in a while, seemingly at random, your efforts towards competence seem to pay off (sometimes you'll string a few decent shots together), but this is just another turn of the screw. Golf is life under the thumb of an inscrutable corporate overlord.

Which brings us to Halo. I'm crap at Halo. And yet every few months I'm mysteriously driven back to it. Despite my stack of unplayed and unfinished games, games that do not require interfacing with horrible racists, I keep playing Halo every time I sit down with the controller in my hand. I'm not sure why. It causes me actual dismay to keep throwing myself against the limits of my own competence. At least golf is outside. Golf courses are picturesque and varied, which is something I can't say of team slayer on Guardian. And yet I'm always coming back for more, lured by the illusory promise of that one decent game.

Aside from my basic puzzlement at my own motivations it occurred to me that frustration-- frustration of the controller-throwing sort-- is a disturbingly common emotion that when it comes to games. Especially the beloved games of your youth: those games were insane and difficult and arbitrary. There was always some ornate enemy behavior or finicky jump or boss battle that made you want to swing your NES controller above your head and launch it into the nearest water hazard. What does this say about us?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Talking about Trigger Happy

Ever since I wrote that piece about game-labor a few posts back I've wanted to check out more Steven Poole. While I was cruising his website I found that he wrote an actual book about videogames called Trigger Happy, which I swiftly procured from an Amazon seller.

The aims of Poole's book are evangelical. It's out to convince joe six-pint that in the year of our lord two thousand, this whole videogame phenomenon has really arrived. The narrative demands of this missionary effort are the kind of thing that'll vary your mileage. Poole cites the customary battery of statistics about the size and ethnographic makeup of the fin-de-siecle videogame scene, and he notes the collaborations between established cultural enterprises (pop stars! name brand trainers!) and the videogame business so as to confer legitimacy on the nascent artform. If you are already inclined to the view that the video games are a culturally significant and interesting pasttime, you will find the book less-than-revelatory in the early going. But remember that this was 2000: Poole was doing God's work. As Kieron Gillen notes, Trigger Happy “was an serious, accessible book on videogames where no one else had published one.”

And he can certainly evangelize with wit and verve. Poole manages the difficult feat of striking a tone that is both fiercely literate and unpretentious-- even when he is is showing off, it reads as constructive whimsy rather than writerly self-aggrandizement: “Games such as Defender or Space Invaders offer 'extra lives' when a certain score is achieved... It resembles an ethically inverted form of Buddhism... whereas Buddhism's final aim is to jump off the exhausting carousel of constant reincarnation and to be no more, life in a videogame is always a good thing, and killing is the morally praiseworthy action required to resurrect it.” Trigger Happy abounds in learnèd-yet-appropriate asides of this sort (the index contains entries for Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, and “Nietzsche, Friedrich, pummeling the joysticks”), and its greatest charms reside in Poole's capacity to weave old and new media together: “Just as Timaeus argues further that the four numbers (or atoms) that make up the cosmos correspond to the four elements of ancient Greek cosmogony (earth, wind, fire and water), so modern polygons can be made to draw every kind of substance on the videogame screen: rocky outcrops, sure, but also lakes, blazing torches, grass, even snow.” Despite the erudition on display the tenor of the prose is inviting, and the knowledge of other artforms on display throughout Trigger Happy gives birth to may of its best insights.

On his website, Poole says that Trigger Happy is “about the aesthetics of videogames: what they share with other artforms, and the ways in which they are unique;” The “about” is telling. Trigger Happy doesn't make an extended argument about the nature of ludic pleasure (the kind you'd find in Raph Koster or Steven Johnson); it's more an inventory of the various aesthetic elements of the videogame: graphics, perspective, character, narrative, and so on. Poole has a wealth of perspicuous insights about the way that games differ from other media in their handling of these elements, but you won't find a narrative.

Indeed, the reader already-familiar with video games will find the side-streets the most interesting elements of Trigger Happy. There's a great bit on the the conflict between the aims of gameplay and realism; an Piercean-semeiotic riff on Pac-man, and a thought-provoking meditaton on the relationship between Japanese aesthetics and Japanese game design. My favorite parts of the book were these stray aperçus, his astute observations about the subtleties of reward scheduling and the narrative pitfalls of infinite repeatability.

It's churlish to register complaints with a work with so many stylistic felicities and such a wealth of keen observations, but I have to say that Trigger Happy left me wanting in certain respects. Though it engages with a wide variety of popular entertainments and never lacks for witty things to say about them (in this respect it is vastly superior to the stuffier game-studies approach of Persuasive Games, which rarely treats popular games and embarrasses itself when it does), it lacks a certain generality. Trigger Happy isn't animated by a single idea-- Poole is a fox rather than a hedgehog, in Isiah Berlin's terms. The craving after generality may be a particularity of mine, but as I read the book the I felt the continual disappointment of my hunger for a thesis.

This disappointment was made the worse by my sympathy for Poole's fundamental attitude towards the medium. Much of the game-studies lit operates at a substantial remove from the experiences of the game-player, and unintentionally evince a kind of lofty disregard for the very elements that make games compelling to their audience. (Bogost's concept of “procedural rhetoric,” for example, explains why someone would design a game-- to persuade, of course-- but is strangely mute on the seemingly inessential question of why someone would want to play a game so designed.) Poole's book operates on the assumption that popular games are objects worthy of an aesthetics, and though he doesn't give a cohesive picture of the native excellencies of the medium (what it means to be "trigger happy"), he is on the side of the angels as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Clarification

Here is my theory. Game criticism isn't about telling the player whether a game is fun or not. If that's the critic's job we are all in a lot of trouble, because in the near future everyone will be able to pick up a demo and tell themselves whether a game is fun or not. “Is it fun?” is a question destined for obsolescence. We should be telling people how a game is fun.

I think this task is a something like what Aristotle does in the Poetics. Aristotle thinks that there is a certain experience that is constitutive of tragedy as an artform: katharsis, or the cleansing release of pent-up emotion and pity. With this end in view, Aristotle asks how the various elements of the dramatic work (the plot, the characters, and so on) need to be structured in order to create this emotion for the audience. And it's the same for games; what a critic can do is explain how the various elements of the game-- the visual design, the narrative, the gameplay-- conspire to create pleasure.

The second question, then, is what kind of pleasure do games aim at? What is the gaming equivalent of katharsis? My answer is that games aim to inspire a characteristic sort of pleasure, the delight in the discovery and mastery of rules. Play is an expression of the human mind's native lust to master the lawlike natural world through experiment and planning. As Kant says: “The understanding is hungry after rules, and it is satisfied when it finds them.” And video games are most fitting artform to satisfy this desire, because unlike other games and sports the rules of a video game are not disclosed in advance. Each game reveals a novel rulebound world to the player, and asks her to uncover its underlying logic through inquiry and imagination. And that is why the games are fun to play.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Virtual Reality

"James' big night included his remarkable run in the first 2:50 of the third quarter, almost single-handedly turning a six-point halftime deficit into an eight-point Cavaliers lead. And he could have scored two more in that stretch if he hadn't missed a pair of free throws.

'It was almost like watching a video game,' Zydrunas Ilgauskas said."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For Fun!

I have no interesting or substantive ideas to write about today, so I'm thinking I'm going to turn the comment thread of this post into a twitter feed. Feel free to reply, and then when you get responses it will be in your email. This is how real twitter works, apparently.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Y'all Should Read Dave Hickey

First off, a note: some guy on twitter, who is a real writer, called me a minor-league Pauline Kael of games crit, and that was about the best thing that happened to me on Friday. I didn't say "all weekend," 'cause on Saturday I prepared an elaborate meal for the lady friend, and this was followed by us curling up on the couch and watching Battlestar Galactica. Ahh, romance. And then, on Sunday, everything I ate had barbecue sauce on it.

Speaking of whichawho, I'm fairly certain I'm the only videogame blog type on earth who is still not on the Twitter. Which leads me to ask: am I that one guy who's like, "I don't have a cell phone," as if he should be proud about not availing himself of a technological advance that is both fun and useful? I don't have anything against the microblog phenomenon but I think the pressure of thinking up interesting things to say about myself would slowly drive me insane. Also, as a side note: video game bloggers, I am lurking your twitter feeds. It is because they are they are there, on the internet.

Last week I asked Insult Swordfighting's Mitch Krpata about video game writing he wishes he could write and he responded. In the question I mentioned Dave Hickey, who does not write about video games. Most folk are unfamiliar with Hickey's work-- I wouldn't have come across his stuff if I hadn't found his book Air Guitar in the meticulously curated remainder section of the Harvard Book Store.

It is not enough for a critic to have keen insights into the object at hand. It's a start, but it's not enough-- you need to have wit and style. People knock critics for being parasites on others' creativity, but the truth is that good criticism is art, because it requires good writing. And if you care even a little bit about writing well, writing is about the most agonizing task on the planet. It's why I stand in awe of my favorite critics: Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Lionel Trilling, George Steiner, Adorno, Nathan Rabin. They're all brilliant prose stylists in their own right who turn their minds to the work of others.

Hickey has a really distinctive sensibility; he writes about so many topics-- basketball, Sigfried and Roy, Punk Rock, visual art, Perry Mason-- and he brings to each this mix of erudition and complete sociability. The style is conversational, unassuming, even hip, and yet absurdly well-informed. He can tell a good story and he can drop in an illuminating quote from Ruskin. Despite the coherent sense of what makes art important that emerges along the length of the book he's not out to sell you a system. He's just out to explain why certain things are worth your admiration. Since an example, unlike the previous paragraphs, is really the only thing that'll do him some justice, I'll close with a passage:

"In the process of writing about works of art, then, we make the same sort of Draconian decisions that we do when writing about nonart experience. We write about what can be written about. We decipher that which lends itself to cipher and discard the rest as surplus. Unlike the lost surplus of nonart experience, however, the surplus we ignore in works of art survives, remains available to be invested with meaning by subsequent viewers under different circumstances. But a problem remains, which is that the aspects of visible artifacts that are most effectively translated into writing usually have little or nothing to do with the occasion for writing about them, which, in my experience, invariably resides in the pleasurable, confusing, or horrific nature of the experience itself-- an experience which is neither surplus nor cipher. 'In the landscape of spring,' the koan reminds us, 'the branches are neither long nor short.' They are simply present, precedent to the standards and expectations we impose upon them as we name their attributes, pronouncing them long or short, strong or weak, young or old.

In the act of writing about art, then, you press language to the point of fracture and try to do what writing cannot do: account for the experience. Otherwise, you elide the essential mystery, which is the reason for writing anything at all. The easy alternative is just to circumnavigate the occasion of seeing something-- to 'professionalize' art criticism into a branch of academic art history-- to presume that works of art are already utterances in art-language that need only be translated into a better language to achieve perfect transparency. In this way, the practice of criticism is transformed into a kind of Protestant civil service dedicated to translating art-language into word-language that neutralizes its power in the interest of public order. The writer's pathological need to control and reconstitute the fluid universe of not-writing is fortuitously disguised by this stratagem-- since in the truly 'professional' discourse, no more intimate engagement with the 'needy' object is requires than that of a doctor with a patient, and no more stress need be placed upon the language than that required by the clinical assignment of symptoms."

The Game as Total Artwork

In 1949, Richard Wagner wrote an essay entitled The Art-Work of the Future which articulated his theory of modern art. At the heart of this vision is the idea that an authentically modern artwork should be a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total-art-work. The highest form of art, dramatic opera, is a synthesis of the various classical arts. Operatic performance brings the three performance arts (dance, music, and poetry) and the three plastic arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) together into a unified work whose aesthetic power outstrips the isolated capacities of each individual artform.

On Wagner's conception, the union of the arts is a kind of civic republicanism. Each of the individual art forms attains its highest power by being incorporated into a common order, which subjects each of them to a higher principle and thus unifies them into a single aim. Dance, song and poetry only find their individual fulfillment when they are each bound into a single will: “It is in [the stage artist], the immediate executant, that the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding. By working in common, each one of them attains the power to be and do the very thing which, of her own and inmost essence, she longs to do and be.” Wagner's aesthetic rhetoric consciously evokes the political struggles that broke all across Europe the previous year, with the gesamtkunstwerk stepping onto the revolutionary stage as a model for political liberation: “This purpose of the Drama, is withal the only true artistic purpose that ever can be fully realised; whatsoever lies aloof from that, must necessarily lose itself in the sea of things indefinite, obscure, unfree. This purpose, however, the separate art-branch will never reach alone, but only all together; and therefore the most universal is at like time the only real, free, the only universally intelligible Art-work.”

Orchestral tonality plays a central role in this unification. Music's unparalleled capacity for emotional expressiveness enriches all the other performative elements, and makes it fit to serve as a lingua franca for the other arts: “the manifold developments of Tone, so peculiar to our instrumental music, unfold their utmost wealth within this Artwork; nay, Tone will incite the mimetic art of Dance to entirely new discoveries, and no less swell the breath of Poetry to unimagined fill... in the Orchestra, that pulsing body of many-coloured harmony, the personating individual Man is given, for his support, a stanchless elemental spring, at once artistic, natural, and human. The Orchestra is, so to speak, the loam of endless, universal Feeling.” In this sense, tonality is what unites the various arts because its emotional texture straddles the different senses. We say that different sounds are rough, cool, warm, elegiac, or foreboding, and when we talk this way we mean that these aural textures correspond to the feelings effected by other art forms like prose or painting. The effect verges on synaesthesia, in that the qualities of different senses bleed into each other. And so tonality provides the bridge between different visual and auditory media.

Naturally, Wagnerian opera is not the only art-form that can aim at the unification of the various plastic and performative arts. Music and graphics usually play an ornamental role in game design-- they're so many skins thrown over an indifferent frame of game-mechanics. And this is fine: not every game must to strive for concinnity, because the play's the thing. But I often think that the sought-after “art” in the is-games-art debate is the aesthetic unity we find in the total artwork.

The key point, it seems to me, is to recognize that gameplay has tonality. Just as music, a non-representational medium, can evoke certain moods and emotions, game mechanics can elicit emotional states.

One side of this tonality is tactile. We often say that controls feel crisp or mushy, and this is a way of describing the feel of the connection between your inputs and the ingame happenings. This is important too, but I mean to point to something more fundamental: the feeling of interacting with a world through a piece of molded plastic. Every game establishes a particular rhythm for what you're doing with your hands: mashing on buttons as fast as you can, steering your jumps with the sticks-- maybe waggling (if you're into that sort of thing).

Pixeljunk Eden doesn't require a flurry of buttonpresses to play well; the pace of your physical interaction with the game can be downright leisurely. The platforming in Prince of Persia has a unhurried but constant rhythm and flow. Controlling Mario in three-dimensional space is kinaesthetic perfection; the controls are perfectly pitched so as to communicate this distinctive feeling of lightness and momentum. In each of these games the gameplay exploits the kinetics of control and movement in order to impart a certain aesthetic feeling to the player.

The other side of this tonality is more psychological. The texture of your engagement with the game-world differs radically from one game to another. Different genres have different ratios of reflex action to problem solving to discovery to strategy. Most long-form action games modulate between periods of calm and periods of high tension, but other genres can be entirely tensionless. Some games require you to solve many small problems quickly (Tetris) and others one large problem slowly (Portal). The thoughtfulness, vigilance, or wonder that gameplay mechanics can inspire are key ingredients of gameplay tonality.

To my mind, games are at their best-- maybe, their most artful-- when they construct a synthesis of sound and vision around the texture created by the play. Of course, Mario provides a template for how this is done. Every part of a Super Mario Brothers title-- the gameplay, the music, the visual artistry-- conspires together and complements the others. And the net effect is that unmistakable sense of total fucking delightfulness.

But to me, the best contemporary example of this striving after holistic unity is Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter. It's not just that the music and graphics are brilliant, judged on their own terms. It's that these elements harmonize so perfectly with the gameplay. The levels of Everyday Shooter are structured such that the player's actions harmonize with the music and visuals. Each “track” presents a different set of enemy behaviors and a different chaining system, and these changes work in concert with the other elements to establish a distinct tone for every level. Some levels are frenzied and some are relatively serene; some require a lot of planning and others only demand quick reflexes. But in each case the art follows the mood established by the gameplay, and this is what makes it such an expressive and wonderful game.

The artistic program first glimpsed in games like Tetsuya Miziguchi's REZ is still young. But games like the recent PSN release Flower show the expressive possibilities that skilled designers can create through the aestheticization of gameplay. By uniting visual and musical art under the banner of gameplay, games can end their protracted tutelage to cinema and stand on their own. This is a worthy task for the art form of the future.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Praise of the Mundane

Yesterday I was talking about game labor, or the increasing onerousness of electronic entertainment. Game labor-- or what Steven Poole calls the “employment paradigm”-- is a big problem in modern game design. If you ask me, the prevalence of game labor is the main reason why that Nintendo Wii is outselling every damn system on the market right now. Normal human beings aren't willing to work for their fun, and they shouldn't have to. I don't mean to demean delayed gratification, but what passes for delayed gratification in most modern games is just drudgery.

Today I wanted to talk about another aspect of the employment paradigm: the simulation of labor. That is, not hacking fourty-six boars to death so you can get your next sword, but driving a simulated forklift. There are whole video game subcultures oriented around the performance of virtual jobs: men and women who are safely and efficiently piloting 747s from Sanfrancisco to Denver in Microsoft Flight Simulator, where they are guided in by other men and women who are staffing Denver's air traffic control. There are people running functional investment banks in the popular MMO EVE online, and embezzling money from them. I'm talking about bus driving simulations, which are currently on the market.

One could see in this the death of pleasure. Surely Adorno would say that simulated employment represents the total surrender of the imagination to capital, a degredation so total that we've come to take pleasure in our enslavement to the capitalist system. But surely this goes to far. (This is, remember, a man who though that Jazz was enslavement to the capitalist system.) I can't help but find this wholehearted commitment to normality endearing. Maybe this just betrays my midwestern roots, but it's utterly heartwarming to see people out there whose free time revolves around preventing simulated air disaster. And I'm hopeless as a critical theorist, 'cause I have a hard time with the false consciousness concept-- can't bring myself to declare others' quaint diversions a form of pathology. Apparently, some folks like a routine, and I can understand that.

I think there's deeper point here that goes beyond labor: to me, there's something enchanting about simulating the mundane. Games usually turn on shooting the next guy in the head and watching the world burn. I'm so inured to being thrust into violent, death-defying scenarios that the quotidian has a paradoxical charm.

In the very beginning of Indigo Prophecy there's a brief episode that goes like this: you've just come back from a disturbing scene in the restaurant. You get back to your apartment in the next scene, and spend about 20 minutes engaging in these unremarkable activities: you watch TV for a little while, have a drink, practice your guitar, have an awkward conversation with your ex. From that point on the game gets goes down the rabbit hole, but for that one scene it succeeds in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who's trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It's the most successful sequence in the entire game.

Injecting these moments of normalcy into the unremitting stream ludicrous heroism has this way of transfiguring the everyday. I've been playing Yakuza 2 this week, and the really interesting moments don't come when you're fending off hallwayfulls of well-tailored thugs. They're when the game sets you free to roam the packed streets of Osaka and you to get lost in the commonplace events that unfold in every corner of the world-- the man trying to win a robot out of the crane machine in the arcade, or the restaurant owner who asks your help tracking down a dine-and-dash customer. Aside from the fact that these scenarios are essential to creating a believable world, they also serve to mitigate the alienation that comes with making your hero an all-crushing god-king every time he fights some dudes. Fumbling with the crane machine makes your protagonist a person, and that's essential to the fiction.

While the mundane may have a special charm to me, I'm not calling for every game to be Animal Crossing or The Sims. You can capture the texture and rhythm of real life without disposing of the heroism. It's the juxtaposition of the mundane and extraordinary that fascinates me. Few games take advantage of the possibilities when it comes to using quotidian detail and, yes, quotidian labor to create an authentic sense of world and character. (Well, No More Heroes apparently does something along these lines but I'm led to believe it's some kind of cruel joke.) Games are meant to pull us out of our lives and transport us into different worlds, but the funny thing is that they're often best at this transport when they take our world with them. And this is just what good art does: it reveals our everyday world under a new aspect.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

They Call it the Grind for a Reason

Work is where you spend your time conforming to other peoples' whims. And then leisure is where you do what thou wilt. Except when you don't. The strangest thing about modern games is how they make play into work.

Take Rock Band 2, a game I adore. From the moment I pulled the shrink wrap off the case, all I wanted to do is croon Lindsay Buckingham's torrid farewell to Stevie Nicks at top volume. I had done my research and I knew it was on that very disc in my hand. But Rock Band says: not so fast, Pliskin; you have to earn the privilege of pouring out your heart to Stevie Nicks. Emotional closure with Stevie Nicks is something you have to work for. Why don't you spend a few hours playing through a bunch of other songs, possibly multiple times, and then once you've put your time in you'll get a shot at Go Your Own Way.

When games demand this kind of behavior from their players all I can think is that something has gone seriously wrong with our leisure. It's gotten so bad that Stephen Totilo compared gaming to gymgoing, an activity that most people view with a tinge of dread: “Playing lots of games can be pretty unpleasant, not unlike going to the gym a lot. You like what you get out of it, but you've got to put in a lot of work, much of it tedious.” And just earlier this week Mitch Krpata made the same point: “Ultimately, playing games is work. They ask a lot of you. It's a matter of how much effort you're willing to put in to get out what's there.”

And they're both right. It's not just that games require a high level of engagement relative to other forms of entertainment. Games have always demanded that the player surrender their will to a set of arbitrary rules (a set of controls and a system of game mechanics), and this is precisely what makes them fun. (Or so I argue) It's the kind of conformity that modern games ask of the player: repetition of menial tasks; accumulation; joyless travel. When the fundamental gameplay becomes routine, a superstucture of systematized rewards-- orbs, achievements, cutscenes, and XP-- is there to keep the player's eye on that next promotion and her nose to the grindstone.

Totilo has a fascinating explanation for this in his piece: he says this phenomenon is a symptom of video games' growing pains as they've developed from the three-minute quarter devourers of the arcade era to the twenty-hour-plus epics of the modern era. Even great gameplay mechanics like shooting and jumping are difficult to keep fresh and engaging over such a long span; and the narrative payoff of lengthy engagement still isn't enough to fend off the distinct sensation that we're laboring in our free time-- spending our time doing things we'd prefer not to for the sake of the game, rather than for the sake of our own pleasure: “That's what you get when you, the gamer, indulge in a creative form that was created to convey satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action for a quarter per minute. This is the creative form that has somehow evolved into a medium of 25-hour, $60 collections of satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action without inventing many successful strategies for telling stories, figuring out how to develop characters, or turning into a more interesting way to spend an hour than listening to Beethoven or watching The Wire.”

This is an intriguing proposal, but I could not let it pass without mentioning RPGs. Unlike the games that flourished in the arcade era, role-playing games don't rely on having the player do fun things with their hands. They offer a different species of pleasure, the sense of satisfaction that comes along with the feeling of progression. Progress is a way of forging the player's connection to their characters, because the time and effort dedicated towards earning levels and items invests the player in their avatars. Though I've praised the use of light RPG elements in other genres in the past, these mechanics can be a crutch when they're transposed into boring and stale forms of gameplay. Given our documented willingness to wander around a world map and mindlessly press A at regular intervals for hours on end, us gamers have a shown a marked disposition to pursue progress for its own sake. Progress is an easy hook, and getting caught in its clutches is what transforms our play into labor.

There's a brilliant piece of social analysis to be written about this phenomenon. Luckily Stephen Poole has written that piece, replete with the (to my mind, necessary) nods to Adorno, Horkheimer and Twain. But I think Poole draws the wrong lesson from his trenchant analysis. The solution to game labor isn't open-world game mechanics and user-created content. If we wanted our leisure to offer unfettered choice even the openest of open-world games are a poor option; games always drastically constrain the range of options available to us.

No, the solution to game labor is the same as the solution to real labor: even work is joy when you're doing something that truly exercises your faculties. We wouldn't hate work if we got to do something new and challenging every day, or if we were offered a truly great complex and difficult task to perform. It's the mindless repetition of menial tasks that makes work intolerable. And so the cure for game labor is good game design. When a game continually challenges you to think and react and adapt as you move through it, it never feels like work. But it's incredibly difficult to create gameplay that meets this standard, and that is why Valve only releases one game a year.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Review

Devil May Cry 4

Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom

Box Quote: “As if Baz Luhrmann adapted the Necronomicon into a video game” -- Iroquois Pliskin,

Full Disclosure: I played Devil May Cry 3 for the Playstation 2 back in the day, and I have two memories. First, that game was an ass-kicker. It didn't have check points, so if you died you had to play the whole level over again; because the first boss was in-fucking-sane, it took me almost four hours just trying to get through the first level. The game made you spend your precious orbs in order to buy mid-level continues. Who does that? Second, I remember that the main character had this move where he would chant “Blastoff!” and knock these demons into the air. “Why is that dude saying 'blastoff!' all the time?” my roommates would ask. “That's what you say when you're fighting demons, and you're unconcerned about your safety.” I replied. The main guy was totally intent on looking cool as he fought these hellbeasts, apparently unaware that I was sending him to certain death yet again.

Gameplay: Ninja Gaiden designer Tomonobu Itagaki once derided Devil May Cry by saying that it's not an action game, it's a combo game. This is true, but it shouldn't count as a knock. The combat system in Devil May Cry isn't as complex as Gaiden's, and it's not as spectacular as God of War's, but it has a unique fluidity. The enemies aren't really there to kill you; they're a canvas for you to weave interlocking sequences of stylish attacks, dodges and juggles. Making it look good is an end in itself, and the mechanics reward your commitment to style over substance. This approach to character action is exceptionally smooth-feeling and satisfying, which is fortunate given that the game has some serious deficiencies in the level and enemy design department: after you've battled through the first twelve or so levels of enemies and bosses, be prepared to hang a uey and play the exact same levels and fight the same bosses in reverse. The final level also contains a japanese-action-game convention that has become my personal bete noire: the final-level tour de bosses. This means that you will have fought every boss three goddamn times by the time you finish. However, these boss fights should challenge your reflexes and pattern-recognition skills to their limit; even after my third tango with the demon frog I found myself pumping my fist in exultation. Good times.

Story: The problem with video game stories isn't even that most games don't aim at realistic drama. It's that so many try for genuine pathos with such a blithe disregard for their own cliche-ridden scripting and boldly mannerist voiceacting. Devil May Cry, on the other hand, makes lemons out of lemonade by basking in its own ludicrousness There's more than one dude in a trenchcoat to control this time around, and you'll run around killing demons with guns and demonic hands and implausibly large swords. No-one seems too intent on portraying real human beings, and this frees all the characters up to spit corny dialogue at each other and display a careless attitude towards death. It's the Ocean's Thirteen of video game narratives: everybody just seems happy to be there. They show up, chew some scenery and take home their paycheck. There's a plot in there too, and if the faux macho posturing doesn't hook you, the rampant anticlericalism might do the trick. Coletta Factor! At the end of the game you kill the pope. Good times.

The Takeaway: Devil May Cry 4 protagonist Nero sez: “Now I know what this hand is for: it's for sending guys like you back to hell!” No, seriously. He's not just jerking you around. That is what it's for.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pleasure (Pleasure)

Sigh. I am probably not cut out for this kind of piece. I'm more of the analytical type.

We partisans of the games-is-art cause talk a big game. We're all for this idea that games ought to embrace some long-term goals in the realm of narrative artistry. Above all we demand maturity, by which we mean: something that is true to reality as it's experienced by adults. In fact I was praising Far Cry 2 for these very qualities in my last post; the attentive reader might notice that I might have cast some mild aspersions on pleasure for getting in the way of mature narrative.

Aaaaand then last night I decided to throw Devil May Cry 4 into my Xbox. Honestly, the whole enterprise mocks the search for le mot juste:

I should try anyways, since words are my business: The Devil May Cry series is a character-action demonicidal opera. You pilot a white-haired wiseass in an implausible red trenchcoat from one implausible scenario to the next, and kill a heap of demons. For some reason, your sword revs like a motorcycle. I have principles and all, but I'm not made of stone, people.

Devil May Cry, as a series, wields a simple and nonsensical palette: Motorcycles. Demon popes. Rocket Launchers. Boobs. It acts as if it doesn't owe you an explanation why these things belong together. There's such a gleeful devotion to artificiality and exaggeration that it ultimately comes off as charming naivete. It knows that the demon-slaying is the main attraction, and so it feels free to cram every cutscene full of absurd demon-centric melodrama. There isn't an authentic human emotion to be found in the series. Everything is subordinated to style. (This is where a comparison to opera might work. Even great operas are often crammed with of stock characters, exaggerated melodrama and convoluted plotting; and all that is immaterial, because the libretto is in service of the music.) The Devil May Cry series, like all great trash, has the courage of its convictions. It commits to its frivolousness with admirable devotion.

Were I a helpless genius, I'm sure I could transform this experience into some brilliant “Notes on Camp”-like cultural analysis. That woman could spin gold out of straw.

But here's the lesson I take. It's like hip-hop: regardless of how great your MC is, no matter how mesmerizing his wordplay and no matter how slick his storytelling, it doesn't matter if the track doesn't move you. A ridiculous beat will redeem a hapless vocal, but the opposite isn't true. (Exhibit A: Gang Starr. Exhibit B: Canibus) Same goes for games. Doing pleasurable things with your hands comes first.

That might serve as the credo of what N'Gai Croal called the “shake-your-ass” school of game criticism, in his discussion of God of War 2 with Stephen Totilo. : “[GOW2] is unquestionably a game that will make you shake your ass. And that's my point of departure when assessing the quality of my gameplay experiences.” Alas, this is the case.

Addendum: I realized, having written this post, that over the course of this blog I'm just going to end up comparing games to every musical genre in existence. (In my defense, it was N'Gai Croal wot started it) When I compare Killzone 2 to bluegrass you have my permission to drag me behind the shed and put me down.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Must to Learn to Invect Like This


"This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles' mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub's Court Composer and General Director of Hell's Music—Wagner!"

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Game Made Me Do It

*** Coletta Factor: Spoileresque discussion of Far Cry 2, Bioshock, Prince of Persia below***

No, I'm not talking about the moral hysteria periodically visited on the medium whenever some malfeasant decides that simulation mitigates their wrongdoing. Listen, old people: I don't think that 12-year-olds should be playing GTA either, but I don't think that their doing so is going to lead to a life of bank heists or jetpack abuse. I consider myself beyond outrage when it comes to Victorian panic, but it turns out I'm still capable of shock: last week, I heard a video-games expert on the BBC suggest a correlation between the rise of video-game enthusiasm and suicide in middle-age women.

I'm talking about the things you do in the games themselves. We often operate under the assumption that games realize their storytelling potential as a interactive medium when they give the player full control with regard to the important decisions in the story. But one thing that struck me as I've been thinking over my favorite narratives of the last year is that these stories are most compelling when they force you into actions you'd rather not commit.

In Far Cry 2 the game tells you: go to this town, and hold a machete to the throat of some low-level functionary so he gives up some information. And then kill him. Or it says: go to this town, murder a bunch of guards, and destroy this shipment of malaria medicine. Things of this nature. The rationale for all this destruction gets progressively fuzzy as you move through the game. But the moral queasiness you feel as you walk down the path that the mission-structure sets out in front of you is one of the most compelling aspects of the game.

Quite a few games have traded on this productive friction between the demands of the game-structure and the player's sense of choice. The most compelling narrative moment in Bioshock doesn't emerge from the vaunted moral decision; it comes when you face Andrew Ryan and learn that the player's obedience to the rules of the game-world is slavery. The only memorable aspect of Prince of Persia's narrative is its conclusion, where the game compels you to undo everything you've accomplished and betray your consort in order to finish the story. GTAIV progressively humiliates the player's desire to shape their protagonist's character and destiny by sending the player on a program of senseless murder that leads to his ruin.

Some might think that this friction between the player and the game is a sign that the design has gone horribly wrong. One can feel especially betrayed when the game-mechanics suggest a level of control over the shape of the whole experience that is lacking in the narrative elements. (its open-world, coerced-narrative) But it appeals to me. I think the deliberate friction evident in these scenarios is an audacious response to a central problem with narrative in games.

The problem is this: on one hand, games traffick in empowerment. From the perspective of gameplay, the fundamental goal of game-design is to give the player a feeling of agency, a sense of power that grows as the player masters the rules of the game-world. It's agency that makes games fun. This is the core value proposition that games offer w/r/t non-interactive media-- games have this unique capacity to make the player feel like an active participant in the creation of something grand: a picaresque fantasy adventure, a rock concert, a war epic.

But the omnipotence of empowerment presents difficulties when it comes to making meaningful narratives. If the mechanics always tell the story of the player's glorious triumph over the world, how is it possible to craft a story that embraces the full range of dynamics available to mature narrative: failure, regret, chance, tragedy? Narrative thrives on conflict, ambiguity, and irresolution, values that are difficult to realize within the triumphalist script laid out by the gameplay.

And this is why I admire games like Far Cry 2 so much: their narrative elements make the player feel uneasy about their thirst for power. Realizing that fun is at any rate indispensable, they decide to make power itself problematic. Far Cry 2 knows that it feels like a colonialist power trip, and it doesn't shy away from the unflattering aspects of murder; if you're paying attention it subtly leads you to some unsettling conclusions about the behavior it forces on you in the name of fun.

And the thing is, I think it's more interesting to be unsettled by your behavior than spend all your time heeding your better angels. For me, moral choice is usually boring. I can't help it: given the choice, I attempt to be a good person, and the comfort of making the virtuous decisions makes for an uninteresting narrative. Fallout 3 is an excellent game, but there's nary an interesting decision to be made in it, because the choice for unstinting heroism is always on the table.

So perverse as it might sound, I'm going to plead for less choice in video games. It's a paradox: by limiting the player's discretion, you can expand the narrative possibilities of the medium. Coercion can create a kind of emotional heft that you can't achieve within the confines of the empowerment-myth. When I play games like Far Cry 2, Braid, and Shadow of the Colossus, I'm convinced turning the myth against itself may be the way to go.