VIDEOGAMES: a close reading in three parts

So I wrote this last night and then woke up to it this afternoon. Here, you take it.

part i

it is a self-evident truth that, when given the option, those raised on two dimensional video-games will turn right. sit outside any major video-game convention and you will see droves of writers and fans step out into the sun and, on a dime, swivel to the right and bound out of view. they do this because ‘Go Right’ was the first intuited command they ever understood. ‘Go Right’ got them somewhere, ‘Go Right’ got them a princess. it’s a happy practical joke that i would join them.

by 1996, Nintendo’s Nintendo Entertainment System was three years gone. the Super Nintendo Entertainment System had been released and magazines were anticipating yet another console launch, the one that would bring us the highly fetishised addition of 3D graphics. by 1996, I wasn’t aware of any of this. in my wooden tv cabinet, in my South African home, in my purple one story house with a climbing frame out back that i would later learn to my horror that other people Do Not call a ‘Jungle Jim’ in intelligent company, sat my NES. it’s some happy accident, that i still can’t understand, that i had one. i was born in january 1992, seven years after the NES became a thing in north america, and just months before its successor would be released. more than that, the NES wasn’t even released in south africa. see, i lied, the box sitting in my wooden tv cabinet, i would find out much later, was not an NES. it was known as a ‘famiclone’, a knockoff of nintendo’s console designed to play their games. so, somehow, through all the time differences and the supposed illegality of it (my parents were pirating games before i was) i played 8-bit video-games. specifically, i played The 8-Bit Video-Game. i played Super Mario Bros.

***

having been birthed into existence in an excruciating stop and start process which began above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, video-games almost died barely a decade after the umbilical cord had been cut. to go into how and why all that happened is the responsibility of someone with a greater interest in facts or truth in relation to art than i have. it serves this article to simply say that in the desert of New Mexico, USA video-games were buried, and that in the farmland of Japan they were reborn.

the man who dug them up, Shigeru Miyamoto, was The First Genius Of Video-Games. there were geniuses in the video-game industry before him, and there would be geniuses after him but he was the first whose genius pertained specifically to video-games. his Donkey Kong arcade game would take the visual language of the ‘one screen narrative’ that Space Invaders and Missile Command created, and perfected it. at the top sits our antagonist, at the bottom our protagonist. set between them is a continuous series of rolling barrels, obstacles and platforms that all scream a single word: Jump. so you jump.

by the time 1985 and Nintendo’s first major home console had arrived, Shigeru Miyamoto was ready to make a game that took all the narrative and friction and joy of Donkey Kong and package it into a single button press. it was about that single, triumphant action. in Super Mario Bros the jump animation has Mario splay his legs and raise his fist in the air. like he knows how much excitement the contact between your thumb and the round bit on plastic underneath it can generate, so he gives you a little fist pump every time.

maybe i should talk about the game.

***

Mario stands facing the right side of the screen. there are impossibly round, impossibly green hills in the background. there is a perfect sky and a single cloud hanging just out of reach. the opening screen of Super Mario Bros is like an illustrated guide to basic art composition.

“be sure to capture your subject moving into space, not away from it”

and so on. the difference here is that you are afforded the rare opportunity to run headlong into that space. and because our brain is a predictable mess of associations sometimes, that is exactly what the screen is telling us to do. the first world, World 1-1 oddly enough, is an act in demonstrating the basic tenets of the game.

run to the right and you’ll encounter your first goomba, mushroom like little things that waddle towards you with alarming ease. with a genius of the kind that takes your breath away fifteen years later in a tiny Copenhagen flat at 4am, the first two things you see are a) a shiny golden square with a question mark on it, suspended perfectly along the arc of Mario’s jump, and b) a goomba walking its way towards you. you discern the goomba must be an enemy, because it is moving in the opposite direction to you. it is an obstacle and you have to stop it. how? well that’s where the shiny golden box, irresistible to anyone who has ever played a game, comes in. the way it is positioned encourages you to use the second ability you’ve discovered (the first being walking), that jump. so you jump and you hit the box and you get a coin. delicious, sticky, feedback. that moment does something else though. it connects the two elements in your mind, between the jump you just pulled off, and the goomba in front of you. the wide, squishy looking head suddenly look like just another platform to bounce on. so you jump and you land on it’s head, and somewhere thousands of miles away Shigeru Miyamoto smiles. it’s possible that many people on found out about this by jumping for the coin, missing, and landing on the goomba by accident. not at all an accident on the game’s part.

hit the next question mark box and another kind of mushroom will appear, one that is almost unavoidable and clearly signposted as A Good Thing. This is where the fun elements of folklore, or alternatively drug use, lead to a very postmodern moment.

in Disneyland, on Main Street, everything is built to a 5/8ths scale. when you walk through the gates and enter a small, midwestern Main Street of the late 19th century, your surroundings appear untouched by time. you might not notice, but there isn’t any garbage, or anything that might point towards anything but the ideal they are presenting. but the primary, subconscious, trick of Disneyland, is of being physically seized. from the dull, empty, repressive, postmodern urban environment of Anaheim, we have been released into a ‘familiar’ world of which we are masters. in Disneyland, you grow in stature. not just physically, but in a sense of place and inclusion. here is an easily understood world where you feel dominant and free. it’s the most powerful illusion Disney have. on Main Street, you are enlarged and situated, leading almost to a collective nostalgia for childhood.

in Super Mario Bros, that first mushroom acts in a similar way. the enlargement of Mario, the seizure of him and situating of him in this now scaled down world, changes our perspective. Mario is dominant. he is in a space that appears nostalgically sentimental, cute and defiantly suggestive of an imagined childhood running through fields outside your house. this is emphasised by the next element of the level design. continue right and you’ll encounter a series of progressively taller pipes sticking out of the ground. as well as introducing you to an important element of the game, the four pipes explore and explain Mario’s jump. the first requires nothing more than a hop - a tap on the button. the next is insurmountable with just a single tap, so you hold the button and .. and suddenly the future of millions of people was decided. the ‘floaty but not quite loose’ holdjump is miraculous. it’s like a superhero jumping a building, and descending in complete control. you go from one pipe to the next, extending your jump to its limits. to really drive home the joy of controlling those 4 jumps, there’s another little obstacle after the pipes: a small gap in the floor. you could hop over it, but you don’t. you fly over it, because it’s a victory lap. it’s Shigeru Miyamoto nodding at you.

there is one more lesson left before Super Mario Bros’ ‘tutorial’ ends. hop over the gap, hit the next question box (as you’re wont to do by now) and collect the flashing flower. Mario is now endowed with a projectile weapon, a fireball attack that kills anything that it hits. jump again and run along the top set of bricks (you’ve never been this high and it’s just sitting there, of course you’re going to!), letting loose your new fireballs and you’ll notice yourself speeding up. you’ll pitch off the end of the platform, hit the perfectly placed goombas and lose all your newfound power. maybe. if you didn’t do that, well done. but it is certainly A Way that was intended, because suddenly, after feeling the most powerful You Have Ever Felt, you are sucked out of Disneyland and dumped back into Anaheim. you are small. all you have is your jump. and your jump is all you need, it turns out. your jump will always be there. so cherish it.

as gorgeously designed as Super Mario Bros’ levels are, it wouldn’t mean anything if not for the mind-numbingly intense amount of effort put into the tiniest moments. the jump is timed to the exact, perfect millisecond that would offer the greatest satisfaction. it hangs long enough to impress a sense of importance, and drops quickly enough to form a snappy rhythm that wastes nothing.

and that turn, oh that turn

***

i lied again. though perhaps by now you’re used to it. see, although the Stylish Intro holds some truth, it is a lie. it is a lie because it should go like this: it is a self-evident truth that, when given the option, those raised on two dimensional video-games will turn right. and then left. and then right. sit outside any major video-game convention and you will see droves of writers and fans step out into the sun and, on a dime, swivel to the right and bound out of view. look for long enough and you will see these people plant their right foot down, twist their bodies around 180 degrees and continue in the opposite direction. usually with a look of deep dissatisfaction on their face. they do this because as biologically imperative the knowledge that they should ‘Go Right’ once was to them, even more important is the desire to capture their Original Joy. turning left in Super Mario Bros., after building up a head of steam going right, results in this perfect moment of video-game joy. Mario grinds to a halt, flips to face the other way, kicks up his leg, swings his arms and sticks there for just the right number of milliseconds. it’s ludic beauty. i like to assume Shigeru Miyamoto spent a year perfecting the jump animation and a year perfecting the turn animation in a white room, on a blank level in the game. and everything else just fell into place.

modern video-games have thrown away their lineage of Totally Sick Joyous Turning Animations because modern video-game designers aren’t Shigeru Miyamoto circa 1984. modern video-game designers build inwards instead of outwards. Shigeru Miyamoto, for all his failures, always designed outwards. he found a core action, honed it until it shone like a gift from heaven, and then offered it unto the people. in fact, Original Joy isn’t far off of what the two primary actions in Super Mario Bros. could be called. They are gaming’s Original Sin. the moment we partook of the forbidden fruit of Totally Sick Joyous Turning Animations and could never go back to a time before that moment. Shigeru Miyamoto may have offered us Super Mario Bros as a gift, but we took it greedily without truly understanding its lesson. and modern video-game designers continue to suffer because of it.

so the people who grew up on Shigeru Miyamoto’s gifts will continue to turn right, and then left and then right. because the last game that delivered on the promise of Super Mario Bros is always too far away in the wing mirror, and the next one is never quite over the horizon. you might see them pump their fist at a convention, when they’re playing the newest Mario game, and walk away with empty eyes - like they’ve lost something and can’t remember where they last left it.

***

i used to think that my dad has some secret life of video-games before i came along. to me, it explained the long past its relevancy NES, and the games we had for it. it was fun to imagine dad playing the games i played, doing the things i did and pumping his fist when he jumped. this is probably not the case. or, if it is, he has kept it a secret much better than i would expect of him. what i remember though is sitting next to him, passing the controller back and forth, as we tried (i’d like to say once a week, every Sunday, but that would be too fictional even for this outrageous essay) to complete Super Mario Bros. years later he would pick up a controller again. we would pick a team from the respective list of football clubs (he would inevitably be Man Red, i would inevitably be Merseyside Red) and Pro Evolution Soccer 5 would entertain us for an hour or two. i don’t know if he even remembers playing Super Mario Bros with me. i don’t even know if it happened. a lot of what i take to be fact is simply a cosy little dream that my mind has cobbled together from half-remembered moments long ago. i like to think that those afternoons were real, whether they happened or not.

***

it’s at this point that i should probably admit that i haven’t played more than a few levels of Super Mario Bros since 1998. all my memories of the game are flashes of clarity in mostly muddy conjecture. yes, i owned Super Mario Bros. yes, i spent afternoons sat on the floor, controller in hand, as i tried to beat the game. yes, i have gone back to it since. i would play it for an hour, marvel at it once again, and set it down at roughly the point my memory becomes most unsteady. after World 1-4, there are moments i recognise and plenty i don’t. whether i beat the game and rescued the princess is a mystery to me.

eventually my NES clone would break. we would take it in to the store, a place i remember as three walls lined with grey nintendo cartridges and towering plastic bins of games, to get it fixed. the clerk would stare at the thing blankly. he would say that there was nothing he could do about it. it was likely a decade old at this point, and something the clerk had maybe only heard about. i was standing surrounded by the literature of the moment, great walls of the ‘newest and greatest’ video-games being produced, and the little box that contained worlds and joy and multitudes to me was irrelevant plastic to him. i would cry, my dad would take me home.

so now i’m sitting in the middle of a foreign city, in a bed that i don’t own, writing this in the cold glow of my laptop. and i can’t sleep because i drank too much coffee, or i am so obsessed with the act of getting this down that my body won’t let me go until i say it all. so i click on the icon that i’ve been staring at when not looking out and wondering why the apartment across from me has its lights on at 4am. the one with the file name ‘Super Mario Bros..nes’. why i’m awake in Copenhagen at 4am, playing Super Mario Bros is the same reason i turn right. it’s the same reason i still play games and it’s the same reason that when i ask myself if being twenty-one is any different from being six, i say no. being eighteen was different. being twenty was different. now, i am essentially the same person i was fifteen years ago because the act of pushing a button can make me involuntarily pump my fist. it can make me smile. and that’s dumb. but so are video-games, yet i still call them the art form of the times. Super Mario Bros is a pop-art gem you see on the side of a wall, it was the first chords of punk music you ever heard, it was the first and only religious experience that made sense to you. it was the button press that spawned a million more.

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My Games of the Year, and Why It's Been An Incredible Year for PC

Being a slightly poor, slightly busy, slightly lazy university student for the past year has changed my gaming habits drastically. A couple years ago, the release of Skyrim, Skyward Sword, Dark Souls, Deus Ex and a bunch of other seemingly endless experiences in a single year would have been an exciting prospect. This year though, I had neither the time, money or hardware to play much of them at all. What I did have was a relatively hefty laptop, a friend's 360 and about £10 a month to sustain my habit. So this year, more than any other, has been about the smaller experiences that exist outside of the traditional 'Triple A' cycle.

Turns out that's not such a bad position to be in. Although I missed out on games like Saints Row, Battlefield, Arkham City and many others, this has been my most diverse and interesting year since, well probably since I started playing games. I've always been a part of that smaller (can you tell I'm trying not to use 'Indie'?) market, out of interest, but this year was the first time I'd been totally dependent on it. It has been an incredibly year for the PC, so without much more blabbering on, here's my list of games that I enjoyed above everything else.

The Dream Machine

Very few games focus on 'the near and low', or the minutia of everyday life. Not that you're going to find much of that in an adventure game preoccupied with exploring dreams. Yet The Dream Machine's opening chapter is a pretty low-key affair, focussing on establishing a grounded reality. Superb writing, a disarmingly charming aesthetic and an unsettling mystery help build a unique atmosphere around your new apartment. It's a special game, one that isn't afraid to build slowly, to let you settle in and make yourself at home. Its unique visual charm and the stellar writing don't cover mediocre mechanics either. Although grounded in traditional adventure fare, Dream Machine brings a passion and ingenuity to the genre that has been lacking for a while.

Ace of Spades

A voxel based, Minecraft-esque, WW1 build 'n' shoot. I'm not exactly going to pretend this isn't entirely derivative from a number of things, or that it is an especially unique game. You build stuff (or more often break stuff) and you shoot stuff. It's what those mechanics open in a multiplayer setting that is enthralling. I went through a period of about 3 weeks where I played this game obsessively, solely because for the first time combat felt real, it felt dynamic and it was uncaring. Collaborative efforts to build a trench, outpost or tunnel were framed by sudden and uncompromising deaths. Slow and careful was the only way to progress. Eventually my obsession petered out, but I still remember the incredible, dynamic experiences that were born out of those two very basic concepts.

SpaceChem

So my favourite game this year might just be a puzzle game I never finished. It's often-times hard to explain why a puzzle game is a work of beauty, there seemingly isn't any outward sign of anything special. SpaceChem is genius. No other way to describe it. It's wildly insane, brilliant and engenders immense respect. It doesn't try to mess you around, it presents its internal logic and states 'Solve Me'. It becomes successively harder to resist, and successively harder to dive back in. Which, I'll admit, is intimidating. I still have to go back, but there's no doubt that I will. Mechanically perfect, lovingly crafted; SpaceChem is phenomenal.

2012 IGF Pirate Kart

As I've mentioned elsewhere, in one of the many GOTY threads hanging around, I'm considering the IGF Pirate Kart as a single, cohesive experience. Which is odd, considering it contains almost 300 games. Irreverent, endlessly inventive and fun as all hell, the Kart is the merry end of the indie spectrum. Instead of the slow, somber games that reflect on life (don't get me wrong, I'm more than up for those too) that seem to crowd the space, the Kart gives us ludicrous self referential humour.

To The Moon

Ah, so straight after its complete antithesis, we reach To The Moon. I'm not prone to crying, not at funerals and not at games. So this game didn't make me cry. Fortunately, whether or not you cried at something is a stupid metric for artistic merit anyway, and I can still safely say that To The Moon is a staggering achievement. All the complaints levelled at it, simplistic gameplay that feels like it was tacked on included, are entirely valid. And sure, it does feel like the developers failed to marry the mechanics and the narrative - which is a difficult thing to do, as evidenced by the very few that have done it. What To The Moon actually contains though, is a beautiful, effective, stunning narrative. One that we rarely see in the medium, and one that taps into emotions more nuanced than just excitement.

Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story

To be honest, I'm still fairly torn over Christine Love's latest game, just as I am over her previous work. That's really what her stuff does, it's meant to stick with you and prod at that bit of your brain that you haven't used in a while. Don't Take It Personally is visually bland, but philosophically inciting. It's little more than a visual novel, but what little interaction I had with it always left me drained, unsure of whether I had done the 'right' thing. Love is unsparing as you watch your, and those around you, life collapse in light of your choices. It's sometimes silly, pointless and boring, but in the end, I'm still thinking about it aren't I?

There are plenty others I could mention; Bastion, Dungeons of Dredmor, Stealth Bastard, Gemini Rue, Orcs Must Die, Portal 2 and Deus Ex all could have easily earned their place here.

So that's been my year in games. The whole process has been an interesting look at what I most readily respond to in games. Emergent, mechanically driven rhetoric and experience is certainly something I seem to crave in games that has been less available this year (with Ace of Spades and SpaceChem being the standouts for that category). Whereas tight, authored narratives (Dream Machine, To The Moon) have been plentiful and, I would argue, better than ever.

That's it for my thoughts on the year. If you've made it this far, thanks. Let me know how you felt about my list, and whether you had a different experience with any of my picks.

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Dishonest Destruction; or War in Video-Games.

As one of the most wide ranging, encompassing settings used in the video-game industry, you would have thought that developers would have figured out how to 'do' War by now. When a medium's main focus is instant gratification, violence becomes a central point of discourse. Yet year after year, with almost no exception, in a now forty year old form, that has at times successfully tackled intimidating themes such as death, we are continually presented with the most infantile of gropings at war. The failings come in a number of forms, but each of them holds an essential element; the huge and maintained disconnect between narrative and form. When I refer to narrative I mean the account of experiences, and emotions, that you build through playing a game, the plot of these games is another matter. This disconnect is found in almost every Shooter on the shelves, because the developers go after the lowest common denominator. It's like we're stuck in the 80s all over again, and anything that comes out has to be a ridiculous, over the top action movie. They're fun, for a time, but look closely and they become unsettling in how they deal with war, especially in such a direct medium.  
 
Case in point, the franchise that has dominated the scene for the past three or four years; Call of Duty. Specifically, the Modern Warfare branch, which presents the player with the most detailed, painstakingly realistic world with which to interact, explore and experience. However, that aesthetic they so carefully build is immediately host to a shit ton of killing. Constant, unfettered killing. Fine, violence can be an incredibly effective tool, or just a very fun activity in digital form (so much so that the majority of the art form is based around it). But it is in this hyper-realistic environment that the cartoonish levels of violence disconnect with my personal narrative. Each little digital guy I kill is a trivial matter in here, no emotional impact or shock is present. Even in the infamous level in Modern Warfare 2, one rife with the potential for creating a meaningful impact on the player, and showing a humanity to war, was squandered as it fell flat. In terms of plot, the bombastic events only serve to heighten the disconnect, and distance us from the human core of real warfare. The effect on you as a character, and as a player, is minimal at best. A small splatter of blood, death, slight annoyance, and we start again.  
 
Not every company has gotten it wrong with war. In fact a number have made concerted efforts to address the less than 'black and white' situation. Although heavy handed, Haze took a unique stab at employing a tangible sense of unease over whether there is any traditionally 'good' side to war. It also attempted to explore the psychological and stressful aspects. Some might also point me to ArmA as a simulation leading to the intense fear, and relief not found in Call of Duty. I have always had a personal fondness for the Brothers in Arms series; although not entirely subtle or fluid, BiA is effective in that it places a value on every life. Every squad member you encounter and command becomes important, both mechanically and narratively. Outside of combat we are treated to a closer study of the men that make up the squad, less about melodrama and more relate-able. This serves to further an emotional connection to the men you are carefully instructing, and pushes the stress of command fully onto your shoulders. 
 
 There are several, small examples that make attempts but unfortunately the market is not there. Although willing and eager to see a film such as Hurt Locker or Saving Private Ryan, gamers are unwilling it seems to accept that the industry has the potential for the most powerful and effecting takes on war. Games are 'just fun' after all. 
 
A small rant.

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Overblown Comparisons; or the Homeric Ocarina.

If ever there was a representation of the collective mythoi of our society in video game form; traversing the traditional narrative of a journey of discovery, growth and maturity, it would undoubtedly be, for me, Ocarina of Time. I'm here saying this not as a rabid fan, but as someone who recently returned to the classic, with mild appraisal, intent on evaluating what about this experience tapped into so many young gamers back in 1998. The core success in Ocarina lies in the way Nintendo gears everything from aesthetic, thematic elements, gameplay and plot at creating a narrative of growing maturity and knowledge.  Every item I gained, area I unlocked and change in aesthetic shows a progression in character that mirrors the plot of one special child having to mature rapidly, in time to save the world. As I step out into Hyrule Field, fresh and new in the world, everything is filled with the promise of a novel experience waiting for me. After each dungeon I've learnt new skills, grown as a player, and connected with the world in physical, real ways. This makes travelling back through the environment an emotional experience, as every area evokes memories and challenges past. This kind of interaction is the real narrative of a game. Plot and characters are a side show, the real meat of game narratives (and the area where the industry has to evolve) are the chronicles of experiences and the memories and emotions they instill. Narrative through gameplay, as also explored in Portal and Wii Sports, is done beautifully in Ocarina.   

For such a child friendly centered game, Ocarina tackles surprisingly mature themes. The superficial plot events hide a truly powerful story; one boy growing and learning and once again returning, seeing his home in a new light. All of this is reflected in every aspect of the game. The basic palette available, fusing subdued greens and autumnal colours transcends the ugly models and textures to convey the loss of your childhood, something you never fully experienced. This is accompanied by, quite simply, a stunningly integral score. Ocarina connects on the same level as any centralised myth, going as far back as Homer's Odyssey, and uses its medium in a way others wouldn't do for almost a decade; as Valve and Retro came along. Link himself acts perfectly as a mute, blank slate for the player to write their experiences on. He is a fantastic record of your own emotions and memories, doing away with a pre-programmed personality and history. The journey, from your infantile fumblings as you step out in the light to your final struggle against the entity threatening your childhood, is everything in Ocarina.   
 
If we take Ocarina in this light, as the archetypal myth akin to The Odyssey, then we also have to consider it's inseparable counterpart; Majora's Mask. No two games better compliment eachother than this pair. Majora's Mask is the evolution, the expansion of the myth, using the structure of Ocarina to explore connections, what they mean and the emotional resonance they achieve. Majora examines your place in this world, as a hero. Termina is what Hyrule should have been, a bustling, living world with dozens of waiting citizens in need of your help. You as the hero, are just as dependent on them as they are on you. I found myself spending more time attempting to help these people than I did worrying about the dungeons or temples I had available; the connections I had forged carried over each time I skipped back to Day One, as I realised that I can't always be the hero to everyone. Majora's Mask is a more openly mature game than its predecessor. It replaces your physical and mental maturation with an emotional one and focuses on the deepening care you have for Termina and its inhabitants. This is reflected in Skull Kid. Instead of a traditional overarching evil, Skull Kid is someone to be sympathised with. He is, at heart, a wayward young boy; and by keeping Link in his child-like state you can empathise with him more directly.  
  
Both Ocarina and Majora's Mask tap into the unifying mythology of world culture. Just as The Odyssey, Ulysses and Star Wars did, they chart the most inherent human experiences, and emotions. The loss of your innocence, discovery of adulthood, and all that comes with it. The Zeldas are a journey, an entwined push for a place in the world, and two of the greatest games ever made. 
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