William Friedkin's GTA V

This is the theme song to this blog - Press Play.

Recently I go through phases when watching movies. I am lucky to have a really good video shop (hell, DVD I suppose but old habits die hard) near me which has tons of old, foreign and obscure films and is staffed by people who really love the cinema. They are either in film school or they just want the chance to sit in a shop and watch movies all day long, an ambition I totally understand. I realise these days I could probably find any film on Netflicks or download it, indeed the movie I am talking about here is seemingly available to watch in its entirety on YouTube, but I love the chance to talk to someone about film, or just walk in the shop, stare at whatever crazy shit they happen to have on, and say 'What's that?' I have found a few choice films this way. This is something I think we are going to miss when the last videoshop closes its slightly dusty doors. I probably sound like an dribbling old git, but I pity the kids of today who will never have the experience of walking into a poorly lit, grubby store, staffed by a cynical, underpaid stoner who sneers at your rental for being too mainstream. There is something about this which is so much more vital than the clinical experience of scrolling through titles on a menu. To me as a kid it was absolutely thrilling to scan through the shelves, picking the titles with the most lurid covers and then reading the chilling descriptions on the reverse. Sidling right to the end of the thriller section so you could eye the lingiere covered beauties on the adult shelves, or even more exciting spotting a grown-up casually pluck one from the racks and take it to the counter, all the time expecting alarms to sound or a huge spotlight shine down from the sky to illuminate this incredible deviant. The videoshop was exciting in a way browsing titles on the internet can never be.

Anyway, I go through phases. Recently I have done Kubrick, Lynch and I just took a slight detour into the work of William Friedkin, most famous as the director of the Italian Job and The Exorcist. The first two have their own sections on the shelves, their titles famous and obscure all lined up together. Friedkin is harder to find. Despite writing and directing some of the most iconic films of the 70's for some reason my video shop doesn't deem him an auteur worthy of his own home amongst the greats of cinema. They might have some sort of a point here, but honestly I think it is a little unfair. His peak was undoubtedly the early 70's and he completely fell of the radar until last years Killer Joe, paying the bills with made for T.V. movies and stints on T.V. shows like C.S.I and Tales From The Crypt, but he is a director who, when given free reign has his own distinctive style, which is there to see in the two movies I have watched recently, Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A.

Both films seem like standard police thrillers, and are filled with cliches of the genre, partners with 3 days left on the force who are 'to old for this shit,' and undercover cops blurring the lines between the job and their home life. However Friedkin always has a way of surprising the viewer and upsetting those expecting the famillar tale of good cops and bad villains. Anyone who has watched the French Connection and knows the character of Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle will understand this, but really Gene Hackman's character was just a tough cop who will bend the rules to get his man, a cliche we are well acquainted with. The cops in these two later movies are corrupt; heist men, blackmailers, maybe even serial killers.

'Cruising' deserves a blog post all of its own and there are some great ones out their on the web. It is a fascinating film not just of itself but because of the development and what is being done with it today. It feels like a a film which would just not be comtemplated today, and like all Friedkin's thrillers is wonderfully of its time.

It is amazing to think that it was possible to get such a huge star, Al Pacino at the height of his post-Godfather fame, to star in a movie about a cop going undercover in the leather, S&M sub-culture of late 70's New York. I hate to say 'brave,' about any actor's choice of role, but it feels like the sort of role no current day star would have the balls (pardon the pun) to risk, even in these more permissive times. Anyway there is too much to say about this great film here to do it justice without seriously getting off the point - my advice to you is see it. Then watch it again. Then read about it. A great film with an fascinating development story and legacy.

But the point of this blog is the film I watched last night - To Live and Die in L.A. The first thing to say about this film is that it is crazily 80's in the most wonderful way possible. The trailer, although amazing, doesn't really do it justice. If you are never going to watch the film I beg you to just sit through the opening credits which are like a pastiche of the 80's asthetic done now.

The slap-bass digital soundrack, with the fast urgent synthersiser and the wonderful titles, half-print, half, stylised handwriting, with a leaning, high-topped palm, all in neon green and red. It could be a knowing pop video by some horrible poseurs from Dalston. But it's not - its the real thing and it is beautiful. From the opening scene here, and the credits which it leads into you can see one thing, that this film worships the look, feel and light of Los Angeles and Southern California. Instantly I was reminded of the hours and hours I spent in Rockstars version of the same place, so much so that I can't believe that their team wasn't forced to watch this in development.

Of course there are hundreds of films set in L.A, all of them which cover many of the various themes dealt with in Rockstars epic. David Lynch, who I mentioned above I had just finished a run of (Mullholland Drive, Lost Highway, Inland Empire and Fire Walk With Me in that order) has particular obsession with L.A. which he has dealt with in his last three films and Michael Mann has made the same film twice (L.A. Takedown and Heat) both of which were considered templates for GTA5. However I haven't seen a film which covers the look, feel and action of GTA5 as well as To Live and Die in L.A. So much so that I wonder if there wasn't talk of setting the whole thing in the 80's so evocative does this film feel of exactly what Rockstar were trying to capture.

Its not just the locations either, although this film has plenty. If you watch the opening scene

you will see the resemblance of the hotel the motorcade pulls up in to one where you have to carry out an assassination in the game - on a motorcade. The film worships the skyline, light and feel of L.A. in exactly the same way as the game. There are shots of skyscrapers winking at night, a refinery on the outskirts, the sun setting and bathing the city in hazy orange and pink light before the neon of the evening takes over.

I have never been to L.A. or to the U.S. at all, but in some way I think that makes me even more able to decide what captures the feel of the city most accurately, because what Rockstar go for in their games is not reality, but reality as filtered through the movies, music and culture in general. When you move through their cities I don't think they ever want the player to feel as if they are really in L.A., or New York or Miami. They want the player to feel as if they are in the New York, Miami or L.A. as imagined by Scorsese, De Palma, Mann and Friedkin. Seeing the real thing, to my mind, isn't the real experience for Rockstar. The real experience is the one imagined and mytholgised by decades of directors, cinematograpers and artists. The feeling I got the first time I went out at night in GTA, or when I stood on a hillside overlooking the city and marveled at the digital sprawl are the same feelings Friedkin wants to evoke in this film, and this is very similar to the same way the city forms part of the narrative in The French Connection and Cruising. Both of these films use seedy broken down New York at the peak of its Gotham City grotesqueness to help intensify idea of place which is decaying and tough and dangerous.

The way those two films, especially The French Connection, capture the hard cold concrete feel of New York is matched by To Live and Die in L.A's grasp of the hazy beauty of the West Coast. The opening credits start with a gunshot which segues into a view of the deep red sun peaking over the hills as the palms sway in the breeze. If you are watching the movie on you tube check out the moments from 42mins as Richard Chance drives along smoking a cigarette and the camera takes in the gorgeous pastel shades of L.A. sky. Even the streetlights seem to be lit in pink. This is a movie serious in love with the look of L.A. However it is not a romatic view of the city. The sensual beauty of colour and light is balanced by the images of industry and transport. In the scene above he crests the hilltop to a view of the freeway flyover curving away like a huge brutalist sculpture in the centre of the landscape. Freidkin also fills the frame with shots of refineries, forests of power pylons and junkyards, scrapheaps and warehouses. This is not the glamour of L.A., this is the grit, grime and crime.

All this is great , but if you have seen this film you will know which moment made me sit up and exclaim to no-one 'I've played this movie.' Friedkin was already famous for the car chase in The French Connection and it appears he wanted to go one better here. In fact the whole film could be seen in some way as a West Coast update of the picture that thrust him into the big time, and what is more GTA than that? Same story, same world, different side of America. Now I can't remember enough about GTA's 3 and 4 to recall if there is a car chase mission which takes you under the L, barrelling through the streets of Liberty City, but I sure as hell know that in playing those games I created that car chase over and over again. Emergent game play I think they call it. This time I had the same experience the other way around. As I watched the screen I saw unfolding in front of me the chase I had experienced countless times during my hundred or so hours with GTA5. Shots ring out, a man goes down and I need to move. Down side streets, into alleys dodging pedestrians and trucks while my pursuers close. I head for the train tracks to shake them but they keep coming. I see the train ahead and push my foot to the pedal to race in front of it and cut across the rails. Then down into the storm drain, through the water, into the tunnel, up on to the freeway heading into the traffic, faster, faster, now using bonnet cam to increase the sense of speed. Cars pile up behind me, trucks jacknife, pedestrians scream. It is an amazing scene and I felt I had lived every part of it right up to final shot of my character climbing onto the roof of his damaged wreck of a car and kicking the windows in.

All through the film I had felt some connection to GTA greater than the genre and location, but this scene to me drew them inescapably together. Obviously the scope of GTA is far greater than is possible in any one movie.The theme and visuals of To Live and Die in L.A.take in a small slice of the city and its inhabitants, while GTA tries to draw the whole county in huge thematic strokes with lashings of visual detail. But in where they do meet up, their visions of L.A. seem so aligned that it is hard to believe that this film wasn't a large inspiration for a lot of the creative thinking behind GTA5. Obviously Rockstar can and have drawn their influences from the vast number of depictions of this city but I wouldn't be surprised if fantastic film had a special place in the hearts of some of the people who worked on that amazing game. Watch it and you will know what I mean. In the meantime I am keeping my fingers crossed for DLC where you play an agent on the counterfeit team in 80's L.A.

Thanks for reading. You're beautiful.

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The Walking Dead - A Beautiful Fraud

Yep, this is a bit long, but there is cake and ice cream for anyone who makes it to the end...

The moment that best sums up The Walking Dead comes as my eyes are welling up with tears and my throat is choked with emotion, and sobbing silently in front of my TV I hammer away at the A button of my controller with all my might. The utter and ridiculous incongruity of my emotions and actions forces out a blast of surprised laughter. Then I go back to sobbing and furious jabs of my index finger.

I cannot think of another game which has rung so much emotion from me, yet at the same time The Walking Dead is barely a game. It is an experience I cannot shake from my head, an experience I want to relate to everyone I meet, but at the same time it is insultingly simple, deceptive in its intent, and for a great deal of the time, downright broken. It is really extraordinary that something this mechanically and technically bad should pack the punch it does and even more extraordinary that it has garnered such critical and financial success.[1]

The Walking Dead has left me hugely confused about what I, and gamers in general want from their pastime and has left me questioning what criteria I use to judge a game’s quality. What does it say about what we want from games that something this technically bad and deceptive in structure can be such a hit?

Before I go any further it might be worth me putting down exactly what I think is so poor about The Walking Dead in case people are confused or disagree with me. By the criteria we generally use to judge games TWD is at best mediocre. The art is passable, not poor but with no great style and any animation can generously be described as workmanlike. As for the sound design, well the zombies squelch and the guns go bang. However worst of all is the gameplay, supposedly what makes a game worth playing. The gameplay in TWD separates into three basic sections, puzzle solving, action, and dialogue. Puzzle solving boils down to searching for an item and using it on the only puzzle in the area. Obviously Telltale thought normal adventure games with inventories stuffed full of rubber chickens and the like were all played out and what players really want is something undemanding to do so they don’t rush through the story too fast. The puzzles in TWD are the equivalent of doing 50 press-ups between each chapter of your book so it lasts longer, although at least this would give you some muscle tone.

Can't I just skip this bit?

I am not sure why Telltale tried to include third person shooting, or tense escape sequences because without exception they are awful, providing moments of tension only through the abject brokenness of the controls. I actually screamed in anger at one sequence (an awful high-pitch wail which started all the cats and foxes in my area screeching) where Lee has his foot stuck through the wooden stairs of a bell tower while approaching zombies must be dispatched. The horrible sluggishness, the weird aiming which scores a hit when you shoot a foot wide but registers nothing at other times, the action sequences are without question dreadful. They come across exactly as they are, fast-paced 3rd person action sequences forced onto an engine designed for methodical pixel hunting. Besides these, the rest of Lee’s important actions were left to Quick-Time-Events, and while these worked they were implemented in a drab an uninteresting fashion especially when compared with games like Asura’s Wrath. No attempt is made to contextualise the button prompts within the game, or even vary the basic sequences, it is simple finger-mashing stuff from the first time Lee crawls away from the cop zombie in episode one till his heartbreaking crawl across the floor in the final scene.

The dialogue, and the choices the player makes were presented as a tool to drive the story forward; the decisions the player makes determining how the story plays out for Lee, Clem and the other survivors. However this is true on only the most basic level, affecting only tiny details at the margins. Lee’s actions have no meaningful effect on the state of the world in TWD. This isn’t a game like Heavy Rain where characters can drop out of the storyline completely and can live or die depending on your actions. In TWD the world plods on remorselessly with the player unable to change the how pre-determined events will occur. The story always ends with Clementine alone and everyone else dead or missing. I have seen this presented elsewhere as a comment by Telltale on the powerlessness of players to control the huge events which swirl around their lives, that ultimately all we can change is how we live our life and how we react to those around us.2 If you accept this you may as well believe that the action and shooting are shoddy because you are playing a character unused to fighting for survival, struggling with firearms and thrown off balance by this terrifying new world. It is too convenient an excuse for what is basically a system designed by Telltale to maximise the illusion of choice while keeping the design complexity down to a minimum. It is telling that you only need to complete the game once to get all the achievements, this isn’t a game with alternate endings or different ways of advancing the plot.

Really?

All the player is offered in TWD is the chance to tinker round the edges, and even this is presented in clumsy mechanical way which almost manages to ruin the believability of what is unfolding on screen. Despite your choices only affecting minor story beats like when someone dies (never if -because they always die) or how much other characters like you Telltale seems desperate to show you when these ineffectual decisions are being made. Messages like ‘Kenny will remember that,’ or ‘Clementine was pleased you told the truth,’ will pop up at every hinge in the story and at certain major points characters will give speeches which run like a laundry list of the all the decisions you made in your respective interactions rather than talk like a real person. Before you leave to rescue Clementine, Kenny runs through a list of all the times you have taken his side (or not) during the game, a spreadsheet speech matched by Clementine’s captor’s tickbox summing up of your deeds during the game. I get that players want to know how they have affected their characters path through the game but it could have been done with far greater subtlety, and it is great credit to the potency of the drama that it survives this cack-handed exposition.

It is a shame when the mechanics of the game poke through in this way because the dialogue and writing in general are what make TWD memorable. The great success of this game is in creating a cast of believable, empathetic characters and then putting them into situations which are not just entertainingly brutal and sickening but also morally grey. What is so great, and so human, about the TWD is not that you can make the wrong choice, but most of the time there is no right choice at all. This is something new and challenging for gamers, something we undoubtedly recognise from our real lives but something we very rarely encounter with a controller in our hands. Most games put us squarely at the centre of everything, the white-hatted hero kicking the universe back into shape. Games which do give the player a moral choice may as well have a cartoon devil and angel arguing it out over the player’s head while he chooses, so binary are the offerings. Kick a man through a window or take him in? Kill the Little Sister for a reward now or redeem her for a reward later - it’s all basic stuff. TWD doesn’t have a meter filing up each time we make a choice because nearly all the time the morality behind each decision is murky and it is impossible to tell right from wrong. This ambiguity works wonderfully well in making us more invested in the game, as we agonise over the horrible deeds we are forced into and come away from each crisis wondering how we could have done things differently. This is choice based in the real world where we don’t get the choice to push the Paragon or Renegade button before each action and are decisions aren’t based on what ending or achievements we wish to receive. 3

This complex, adult system of morality enables the TWD to go where this medium generally will not. Children die, by your hand if you chose, something which would be an awful look-at-me, shock factor moment in a game like Homefront but here (in the case of Duck’s death especially) is an incredibly moving episode, which shocks our emotions rather than our sense of taste. Moments like this happen over and over again through the game but it never feels as if it is engaged in one-upmanship, trying to top itself by providing ever-increasing instances of horror and shock. These events during the game are shocking, but they shock our emotions rather than our sensibilities. The overriding point here is that because the game has so successfully created a world which feels impossible to fully grasp and control, the opposite of nearly all other videogame worlds, means it has license to go to places other games will not, with the players consent.

I'll protect you...

This swirling sense of moral ambiguity and horror encloses the heart of the story, a relationship between your character, a convicted murderer, and a little girl. It is one which could collapse in mawkish sentimentality but which remains believable and touching all the way to the end. Usually inserting a child into a storyline, especially in a medium in which they are visible on screen, is a shortcut to grabbing emotions. Goggled-eyed, flaxen hair little moppets are staples of the movie world although usually provoking nausea and feelings of infantacide4, at least in myself. The advantage of an interactive medium, one which Telltale has cunningly recognised, is that the impulse to protect and nurture which children engender can be corralled into action rather than just the anxious parental concern we might feel in a movie theatre. You want to protect and care for Clementine from the moment you meet her in the first episode, and this emotion is heightened by your developing experience of the world you are shepherding her through. The bond of attachment I developed with this charming character is unlike anything else I have felt through my videogame playing history and on par with other attachments I have developed for characters in cinema and literary settings. Tom Bissell tells a story about him playing a section of the game where one of the characters tries to take Clementine away from him. He reacted with violent emotion to the incident, as I am sure many of us did and turned to see tears in the eyes of his watching girlfriend, tears provoked not by the game itself but by seeing the protective fatherly emotions being stirred in the potential future father of her children. That’s pretty serious stuff and amazing depth of feeling to be stirred by a mere videogame, (you should hear those last two words in a sarcastic, highbrow tone) but feelings I am sure many of us recognised being stirred by playing TWD. I don’t know if I have ever watched many more painful and heart-wrenching moments on stage or screen anywhere than the final scene with Clementine saying goodbye to Lee. It will stay with me for a long, long time. It says a huge amount about the quality and believability of the writing that I was so desperate for there to be some way for Lee to survive being bitten, hoping against hope that he would fall asleep and wake up cured, yet at the same time knowing the game couldn’t give this to me. A happy ending would sell out all the great work gone into making me empathise with these characters, but all this great work was really making me want a happy ending.

This is a confusing situation for those of us who follow videogames. Here we have a game which to all intents is a terrible game, but a fantastically moving experience. It defies all accepted logic about what makes a good videogame. Go back a few years, when gaming magazines treated reviewing like a science, scoring points for categories and averaging the result and TWD would have scored terribly. Yet here it is current sitting in the low 90’s on Metacritic with an armful of end-of-year awards and bumper sales. At first sight it would seem as if it says that for all the years we have supposedly been yearning for more graphics, faster gameplay, better AI, multiplayer and the like, what we really wanted was believable characters and a story we could get emotionally involved with. That all those years we were salivating over screenshots of Quake in PCGamer, like teenage kids with a stolen Playboy, what we actually wanted was in-depth features on sensitive writers tackling difficult themes in our games.

Gaming...fun times for everyone.

Look a bit closer and the success of TWD isn’t actually that hard to understand. Consider some of the really loved games from the last decade or so, big sellers but also games which get people talking and make people passionate. A lot of these, Half-Life 2 (Alyx Vance as grown-up Clementine anyone?), Mass Effect, Dragon Age (most Bioware really) GTA, succeed, yes because of great gameplay but also because of the stories they tell us and the way they let us get involved in relationships with the characters in the game. At heart we are all suckers for human interaction, the thing all our parents, teachers and commentators assured us we were desperate to avoid as we disappeared into our bedrooms to tap away at controllers and keyboards.

However the success of TWD doesn’t just tell us that good stories and good writing make already solid games more engaging and entertaining. It tells us that games are actually the place to tell stories. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons Clemetine doesn’t join the long list of children in games you would rather euthanise than spend time with stems partly from the fact we are allowed to act on the paternal feelings she provokes, rather than sitting inert as another child actor makes you want to claw your eyes out and shove them in your ears. Taking that step from being told a story to being in a story makes a huge difference to how we react to the media we are experiencing. Suddenly instead of feeling that a character feels guilt for their actions, we feel that guilt directly as we take the decisions ourselves. At the end of TWD I didn’t feel bad because Clementine was going to be on her own, I partly felt bad because I was leaving her on her own. Picking up a controller and taking control takes us through the pane of glass which separates us from the action when we watch TV or a movie. The reason people were so unhappy about the ‘wanting to protect her,’ comments about Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider game wasn’t just because it assumed that all gamers were men but also because the comment seemed to misunderstand precisely what we do when we play video games. We are not helping Mario rescue the princess or Shepard save the Universe (or not, or combine it with synthetics or grrrrrr…. I don’t know) we are Shepard and we are Mario. The reason people got so angry at the end of Mass Effect 3 was not because the story did not have a satisfactory conclusion, but because all the choices and actions we had taken over 3 games were ignored and abandoned. We’d decided whether to kick Krogans through windows, sterilise planets, fought scores of battles, shagged half the galaxy and now we were being told none of it mattered. Tell us a story and it’s your story, let us play it and it’s ours.

Despite all the praise and sales it is hard to see how TWD is going to have any real influence over the future of videogames. To me it seems destined to remain an odd one-off, a strange artistic oddity in gaming’s canon. The more I think about it, the more it seems like a trick, a project conjured up to hoax gamers who normally run a mile from anything with a whiff of artistic experimentation into playing a game which is actually a deeply subversive offering in gaming’s normally conservative world. TWD is a distraction scam, a piece of flimflam, pretending to offer the player an adventure game with choice and action, while actually giving them a parent simulator and an essay on the reality of choice to a real, socially aware human being. It is an amazing con trick, which hasn’t been called out anywhere, because what it gives the player is so real, affecting and human that by the time tears are dripping down onto our controllers it seems churlish to point out that everything we did along our journey to this point, everything apart from feel, was a hollow, hollow lie.

Ain't that the truth...

This to me seems a beautiful dead-end, a detour worth taking but not one any alternative game studio or publisher is going to be able to recreate. One might hope it would herald a change in the critical mindset of the average gamer, where he or she were prepared to look beyond gameplay and what we traditionally expect from games and give a higher regard to narrative, theme and message but I doubt it. Telltale’s game was helped massively by licensing a very popular comic book series and anyone else wanting to create experiences as gameplay free and narrative heavy as the TWD better have something similar to fall back on if they want to snare Jack and Jill Xbox. As I said it’s almost a proof of concept, something developers and writers can point to next time someone wants to destroy their story for the sake of an extra level or gameplay mechanic, a small example that proves gamers really do value character and narrative. Hopefully another lesson from the success of TWD will be that gamers are prepared for mature storylines, by which I mean complex and morally grey rather than gory and blood splattered, (which we all know they enjoy) and that more games will concentrate on providing these experiences. The fact that it was such a commercial hit will at least provoke some thought in big boardrooms around the gaming world. My fear is that it is destined to remain a one-off, an unrepeatable hit borne from a loved genre5 and a popular comic on the wings of overwhelming critical praise in a medium where the tastes of the public and professional writers align more than any other.

I think in five, ten years time we might see the game as an interesting, exceptional outlier in the progression of videogames, especially if the forthcoming sequels cannot pull off the same trick. However Tom Bissell, again, offers an alternative view of TWD’s legacy. He talks of a future, powered by new consoles and other increasingly powerful tech where we are playing games whose gameplay is made up of our reactions to those around us. Imagine a way more complex version of the conversation sections of Mass Effect where the reactions of the characters around you are determined not just by what you say but by your eye movements and hand gestures, whole games whose story progression is not based on fighting through conflicts but by how you react to other characters and what choices you make. A whole gameplay experience which is about exploration and interaction. TWD, with its emphasis on human relations could be the precursor for this new kind of experience where the player gets fulfilment from how they relate to the population of this virtual world, finding new experiences and stories opening up as they progress. It is a fascinating idea and would require a shift in our attitude as gamers from violent protagonists to empathic facilitators. Technically TWD is generations away from a game of this nature but its spirit is very similar. It is a game about human interaction and in the same way we can see the roots of Skyrim in game like Zork, maybe we will think back to TWD as our future selves explore yet to be imagined worlds.

Enjoy...

[1] According to Wikipedia 1 million individual players have purchased 8.5million episodes although I am not sure how these figures stack up for a 5 episode series – did some people like it so much they bought it twice? And the game has won over 80 game of the year awards – that had to have been beyond Telltale’s wildest dreams when they started development.

2 I think this theory would have some merit but I think the inability of the player to change anything is a choice much more likely to have been imposed by technical limitations than stylistic ones. I think it was just too difficult for Telltale to have implemented a system of player choice that allowed for widely varying endings or divergent storylines. TWD is not even the diamond style interactive storytelling of Mass Effect, where player choice can spread the game in a range of directions before it draws back in for a universal conclusion.

3 I still believe that the lack of real options to change the progression of the storyline was provoked more by design and resource constraints than by narrative choice, but I would be interested to know if this limitation prompted the eventual style of murky, desperate decisions the players were eventually presented with. It is easy to imagine Telltale thinking that they didn’t have the resources to make a truly open ended game where player choice really matters so instead would focus on making the player more concerned with how his companions react to his decisions. In truth this seems more in spirit with what I understand about the comics, (I have only read a small portion of them) in that it focuses on the generally unhappy and fraught relationships between those struggling to survive in the zombie apocalypse. I realise I am in danger of contradicting my earlier disbelief that player choice has been made ineffectual as part of Telltale’s aim to make a wider point about our inability to affect the major forces in our lives. However I think it is more that Telltale realised their limitations but surmised that these restrictions could actually be useful in helping them create a system of choice which more invoked this nasty, morally ambivalent world, drawing the player further into the game and staying true to the spirit of the original works. I guess it can be argued either way quite easily by it has given them the opportunity to present the player with options for which not only is there no right answer but there is also no way for the player to categorise any of the choices they make – no paragon or renegade here.

4 See Jerry Maguire

5 No matter how much people complain zombies are still an immensely popular subject matter, although I think this is because of the world they engender rather than the aimless shambling things themselves. To me they are the same genre as the post-apocalyptic as they give the player the freedom to explore a ruined world free from the restrictions and traditions of government and society and are about survivalist fantasy rather than a certain enemy. Fallout, a hugely successful franchise could just as well be a zombie game, they both appeal to the player or reader in the same way.

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I won't believe it!

So I am on page 19 of the NeoGAF thread which started as a result of the Skullgirls article Patrick wrote this week. Mostly it is a fascinating breakdown of how games are made, especially the laborious, time-consuming dedication that goes into making a hand-drawn 2D fighting game. I have learnt a lot. However it is also a revealing insight into how opinions are formed and how 'common sense,' is generally nothing of the sort .

When I first heard the the $150k figure I wasn't really sure whether it was a lot of money or not. I generally don't like forming my opinions until I have some idea of the facts, so I waited until I had read the article and then decided that $150k seemed like quite a fair figure, probably even a little cheap. Way back in the mists of time I took a philosophy degree, and while I can't say I remember a great deal specifically about who said what during the 3000 years or so of Western thought, having spent most of the 3 years at university surgically attached to the end of a bong, the main thing the lectures and seminars I did attend impressed on me was the importance of understanding a topic before offering an opinion and never, ever, venturing a point of view based on instinct or gut feeling. Despite only scraping a 2:2 in a subject seemingly hand-tailored for long term unemployment I am grateful for this one little insight I gleaned, because reading that Gaf thread has made me realise how much we tend to argue from feeling or instinct rather than evidence or understanding and how reluctant we are to change these unreasoning viewpoints even when faced with conclusive evidence to the contrary.

The thread, for those you who haven't read it is a startling blend of eye-opening insights into how game development works, with posts from at least two developers of Skullgirls, and eye-opening stupidity from posters who feel the developers are either spendthrift idiots or running some sort of scam. The figures for the developments costs are broken down quite clearly in Patrick's original article, which is backed up by some big cheeses of the developement world (and Dave Lang) and in the thread we get even more detail about exactly how much everything costs. They show quite clearly that the designers were getting paid about $600 a week for 70-100 hours, a terrible wage for people with such skills.

Yet the thread is littered with people who think the overall cost is far too much. Why is this? I think at first it is understandable in a way. For someone, like me, with no real knowledge of game development $150k can sound like a great deal of money for one character. What gets harder to understand is how people continue with this point of view after all the facts of the contrary are laid out in front of them. There is only one poster in the whole thread who after reading arguments to the contrary, and charmingly, drawing his own character to see how long that would take (2.5 hours and apparently it takes around 4500 frames for one complete character) who has his viewpoint changed.

This to me is terrifying. It scares me so much that so many people have such an unshakeable faith in their own instincts and 'common sense,' rather than an analytical view of the facts. Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised as the world is full of prejudice, paranoia, and irrationality, but it is hardly like this is a debate around a heated issue like race or human rights - it's basically very simple economics. However, so many posters are still utterly reluctant to be shifted from the viewpoint which first popped into their heads, probably on seeing the headline to either the thread or Patrick's original article.

The best example of how this chain of thought works this is a poster who gets into a debate with the CEO of the company. His thought process starts at being surprised at the cost (a comment he makes a number of times) and never moves on from that. Despite being presented with reams of evidence that $150k is reasonable amount, he firstly claims that bad management must be to blame, then that not enough 'fat' has been trimmed, then that they should use tools which makes coding and animating quicker and ends up saying that they should have invented some piece of equipment which just makes everything faster and cheaper. Anything other than accept the facts and change that 'feeling' which was the first thing to enter his head.

Its generally not worth writing something this long and in-depth about what people say in a forum thread on the internet, but I thought it was so interesting how people are so prepared to form views about something they know nothing about and then be utterly reluctant to change them or even consider something different. How much of our views are based on this kind of non-reasoning and how much can we actually trust our own points of view? I try quite hard to have an open mindset on most things but I wonder how much of my opinions are based on a gut feeling around which I have tried to build supporting walls of hand-picked facts. Everyone thinks they have an open mind, thinks their views are composed of clear reason thought and deduction but I doubt it. Even myself I wonder, how much of what I believe in was something I decided, (or was decided for me) many years ago and is now so much a part of me that changing it is like stepping out into the street with strange new haircut, or going to a party where there is nobody I know. It is a very difficult thing to ignore that part of you that instinctively says 'I don't like that,' or 'that must be wrong,' you need to be a strong self-confident person to challenge and change your own point of view. Anyone who spends any time in the real or virtual world (especially the anonymous virtual one) will see how many opinions are thrown around and never really thought about. This small debate has made me want to understand a bit more and talk a little less.

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Thinking Not Required

This turned into a bit of an essay quickly, my congrats if you get to the end.....

Pretentious? Moi?

The Quick Look for Fez provoked a familiar reaction from portions of the gaming community. Although there were some positive or interested voices a small majority of comments were damning of a release they deemed ‘the game de jour for indie devs looking for wank material’ or another game hyped by ‘pretentious assholes. ’ While some of this distaste can be explained by people’s aversion to Phil Fish, its expression feels like a gag reflex many have toward games which appear arty and I wondered why, and if this was justified in any way.

Each time a game comes out which looks different, asks unusual questions of gamers or tries to include themes and ideas outside of gaming’s usual milieu it seems to antagonise certain sections of the community. This response would be understandable if it was a considered reaction to psuedry, or shallowness masquerading as insight, but generally, and especially it seems in the case of Fez, this is just a gut reaction rather than serious criticism. The forums seemed desperate to deride Fez, calling it boring, simple, ‘is that all there is’ ran one quote, another, ‘it looks like a basic New Grounds game.’ Clearly to anyone who has played Fez or even listened to the excellent discussion on this week’s Bombcast this is not the case. While not being to everyone’s taste, it is obvious the game is seriously complex and creates a world of codes and symbols for the player to puzzle over. The meat of the game is much more than jumping, rotating and collecting.

Emperor’s New Clothes?

It’s not just Fez, Braid and Limbo are two other games which have suffered sniping over their degree of pretentiousness and have been derided for attempts to be profound. Why do they provoke these reactions? Are the detractors right and these games are the emperors new clothes, naked of gameplay and fun, enjoyed by deluded audiences desperate to be hip, or are there a section of gamers scared of games which innovate outside of basic gameplay and graphics power.

A Typical Indie Dev Team

The answer, I think, is somewhere in between. I think there certainly are a section of gamers who feel threatened by people being or trying to be thoughtful and intelligent. These are the same people who would pick on the clever kid at school or pride themselves on never having read a book, but I think there is more to this than mere boorishness and something else is disturbing those who scorn fashionable indie games.

I think the issue is related to games’ youth as a pastime, and what the pastime entails. The clue is in the name – games – these are things which are supposed to be fun and enjoyable and for most people fun is something simple, almost thoughtless. Games are a way of escaping from the pressures of life, a release from being judged, tested, assessed and challenged. In gaming you can find release from your perceived intellectual or social failures and be who you want, it is a safe zone where preference confers no real intellectual caché. If you prefer Quake over Team Fortress or Halo over Call of Duty your taste or skill might be criticised but they are not choices which divide audiences into sophisticates and plebs, just different flavours of simple fun. However if your taste is for Hollywood blockbusters and Dan Brown novels there will always be someone, probably with a funny haircut and thrift store clothes, looking down their nose at you. The uniformity of gaming reviews in comparison to cinema reviews bares this out. In gaming blockbuster games get big sales and 5 and 4 stars uniformly, but film critics tend to sneer at the big Hollywood releases even as the public pack out the picture houses. Gaming’s short history has meant that up till now it has avoided this split into Arthouse and Mainstream or Literature and Genre Fiction. I think some members of the community, whose taste falls in the latter of these categories fear this distinction coming to gaming and being left among the lumpen once again. This may not be a conscious motive as they deride the lastest indie sensation but I think it is there, lurking at the back of their minds.

Am I a Game?

This is a shame because the two can exist side by side, but I understand the fear that some people have that they are going to be left in the dumb half of culture constantly apologising for their lowbrow taste, that somehow their simple paradise of fun is going to be highjacked by arty types and sneering aesthetes. As one person wrote in comments to Patrick’s article on the Cambodia “not game” The Killer – ‘Games are meant to be a fun escape from the real world, I don’t play games to get a deep message.’

Too Much Hype

However it doesn’t follow that all criticism of this nature is invalid. I think the current state of the industry can starve games of intelligent thought (although there are exceptions among the AAA titles) and this can make the audience hankering after these experiences too eager to praise the next big thing. The expense of making Video Games is something that can work against the creative process, something pointed out by Peter Molyneux in his interview about the Molyjam with Patrick. He says,

.....when you’re making a title that is going to end up costing millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars, Patrick, you just cannot have that attitude of ,”Well, let’s just do it.” It’s all got to be meticulously and carefully planned and structured and thought through and discussed and that does take the creative energy out of it. It must, whether it be a triple A computer game or a film..

Looks like art, sounds like art, must be.....right?

The point here that he is making is that the size and cost of making games stifles their creativity. Designer’s ideas are always being filtered through different teams and focus groups and creative risks are avoided when large sums are at stake. This leaves us with a selection of titles which while fun may not really show us anything new outside of updating old gameplay ideas and boosting visuals. For the media and enthusiasts who play these games this can get boring and the anticipation for a game which looks innovative or striking can lead too quickly to hype and often this over inflates the importance of certain products. It is also dangerous to artistic or mistake distinctive style for depth and true conceptual innovation. Limbo is a game which got critics and bloggers frothing superlatives (it is currently running at 90 on Metacritic) but was this praise justified? Limbo is a beautiful looking game and a fun platform-puzzler and was thought a worthy candidate in the ‘can games be art’ discussion with much made of the themes supposedly contained in its mysterious narrative. Although I enjoyed the game immensely I thought its stylish black and white presentation and ambiguous story gave an illusion of depth and no real thought was provoked outside of its fun puzzles. Articles and discussions sprung up about what the game meant or what it was trying to say when to me it was just a series of different puzzle arenas connected by a unifying art style. I thought the ambiguity of meaning was actually an absence and while it is no real criticism to say Limbo was just a great looking and fun puzzler, that’s all it was.

So I can understand why some people get snarky about commentators cooing over the next interesting little gem but I also understand this sometimes misplaced enthusiasm is there. Video games are not filled with many spaces for quiet reflection and generally don’t leave you with too much to ponder outside of how to up your APM or kill ratio and now the audience has grown and expanded far outside the teenage male’s bedroom it is not surprising that there are group of gamers hungry for something thoughtful from their experiences. When you compare what videogames want to say about the world with what is being discussed in cinema or literature you realise how far they have to go before they can really reflect human experience with the same depth as these two artistic institutions.

I am not sure if Videogames will ever reach this point and I fully understand that there is a good portion of the community that don’t care if they do. However would also say that there is no reason for anyone to fear or deride those that try, it’s never a bad thing to think hard about your art or try to push it in weird and innovative directions, even if these experiments fail sometimes. The main thing we as consumers can do is make sure we are always using our critical faculties to distinguish the merely stylish from the truly visionary, and the updated from the innovative.

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More Ill Judged Ranting about Mass Effect

I've written a blog post complaining about Mass Effect and all of a sudden I feel deeply ashamed. I had to say it though. I just had to.

I took a lot of inspiration for this from Go Make Me A Sandwich and excellent but sadly defunct blog on sexism in Gaming. The stuff related to Mass Effect and Bioware is here but it is all worth a read, even if you don't agree with it all. I didn't but it opened my eyes to a lot of stuff.

People are worried about Mass Effect 3. This is a fact. The recent reveal that Jessica Chobot has a small part in the third game seems to have crystallised a lot of this angst and also provoked a lot of amazement at the response to her reveal. I just wanted to take this blog to explain what Mass Effect means to me and why it’s not so much Jessica Chobot but what she represents which is the problem

Mass Effect 1 felt to me like a game for grown-ups of both sexes. The story and the character design were unlike anything I had experienced in previous games. – bear in mind that I only really started serious gaming again with this generation so if you have examples of this from PS1, PS2 era etc I would be interested to hear them.

Mass Effects two main strengths are its story and characters. There are a plethora of well rounded male characters of various backgrounds and motivations across gaming. The minority of female protagonist will usually be poorly written and over-sexualised. The average video game producer seems to think games are for boys and boys like tits so no matter where in the universe she happens to be a female gaming character will normally be dressed for the pole rather than the battlefield. One factor that made Mass Effect so wonderful to play a game was that it took for granted that it could hold your attention with its story and cast and not by titillation. All the female roles were well rounded, fully clothed and tough as hell. Although Ashley got on my nerves a bit she was a tough soldier, Liara was a scientist and powerful Biotic, and Tali (my fave) was an excellent technician and like the others all shared motivations independent from pleasing your Sheppard. The complexity and genuineness of personalities sharing the Normandy with you was one of Mass Effect’s biggest strengths.

Just as thrilling was the plot. I have raved about this in forums before, but the moment you find the Promethean research base on Illos and get the full story of Reapers from Vigil is my favourite moment in gaming. The utter bleakness of the Promethean’s fate - having their life support systems shut down until only a handful are left is truly horrible. Vigil’s story of the dreadful inevitability of the Reapers posits them as almost a Godlike presence in the universe, an elemental force capable of the complete destruction of life, clearing the universe ready for re-birth. Are the Reapers like farmers, leaving the fields fallow for a new crop to grow, or are they an interventionist God, clearing the universe and starting again with a new big bang, experimenting with different forms of life each time round? Videogames don’t normally ask these sorts of questions, or at least so overtly. The Reapers inspire a huge sense of dread – how can humans possibly overturn what seems to be an inevitable and unstoppable part of how the universe works?

Perhaps this brilliant story was the start of the problem for Bioware. How do you continue a story like this in a medium which demands a successful ending without undermining the dreadful force and inevitable end you have summoned? I would like to see the current galaxy end in a similar fashion to the way the Prothean’s with Sheppard and his crew finding that the Reapers are far too deep and awesome a power to be defeated. It would be interesting to portray them as an inevitable rather than evil force and one the universe needs to be re-born and continue, much like humans must die for others to continue living.

But that’s just me – I can understand why Bioware don’t want to send gamers down this path in a multi-million selling series but I think it is the only way they can maintain the integrity of the story. Bioware seem to have realised this as well and in ME2 you could sense that they were trying to destroy the mystique and threat of the Reapers to make them a more defeatable foe for Sheppard and co in 3. The way the Reapers were introduced in ME1 did not seem to leave much room for them to be defeated and because of this Mass Effect 2 attempted to diminish their power to leave scope for victory. How else to explain the fact the Normandy takes out a Reaper ship with ease when in the first game one ship lays waste the Citadel and countless allied craft? The comparison between Sovereign in ME1 and the ridiculous Humanoid machine you take down at the end of 2 says a lot about how the menace of the Reapers has deteriorated.

COMPARE
AND
CONTRAST

However what most worries me is how Bioware’s character design has deteriorated from 1 to 2. I have already mentioned how great ME1’s female characters are, and the way they don’t pander to adolescent sexual fantasies. In contrast Mass Effect 2 introduces Miranda, Jack and Samara, who are woeful compared to Tali, Ashley and Liara.

Miranda’s ass is already an internet meme and however they spin her character’s backstory and try and justify her sex appeal by genetic design her skin-tight costume and relentless ass run opposed to the grown-up portrayal of women in the first game. Jack is another character seemingly designed with teenage boys in mind. The first Mass Effect gave us tough, believable characters so it’s hard to understand why Bioware would have a prominent NPC wear only a leather strap on her top half. How does it stay on? She is a cool character but dressing her like this just makes me think they are trying to give teenagers erections and it kills my belief in the game. Samara is written interestingly but whose idea was it to have her massive blue tits centre screen all game. Why would she buy a suit which doesn’t zip up? Did she put on weight somewhere out in galaxy where there aren’t any shops? Is it a device to distract people before she kills them? And doesn’t she get cold on those drafty space stations? In some games (Bayonetta for example) I can put up with this stuff, but Mass Effect is supposed to make sense, to be a believable universe. Why have a giant codex and lore if your characters are going to dress like bad anime girls?

I know these things are not important to some people who just like to play games to have fun and don’t like to think deeper about them. However for those of us who want to be treated as grown-ups, or god forbid people who want to play and see non-sexualised female characters in games the first Mass Effect is held in high regard. It is a pleasure to not have to block out obvious gamer-bait or stupid sexism and signs that Bioware are forgetting this make people worried about how the series is progressing.

This is why the reveal of Jessica Chobot provoked such a reaction – not because people are averse to her being in the game but because of what she represents. That a game that set out with such integrity is descending to stunt casting and cheap titillation is very sad. Maybe it is all just marketing, maybe Bioware know they have the original fans in the bag so they are using the hype just to attract new sales, but if so they need to throw us a bone because it looks as if they are forgetting what made the first game so special. I don’t hate Chobot and if she is a good actress and adds something to the game then great, however it’s hard to believe this is why Bioware have signed her and her really creepy likeness to Mass Effect 3. People are reacting to her not because of her, but of what she represents, which is Bioware losing sight of what made this series so great. Great grown-up characters, great lore and great story – I really hope there is space left between the multiplayer, space-tits and stunt casting for some of what has made Mass Effect such a perfect experience.

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Review of 2011, writing in games and hopes for the future........

2011 felt like a year of missed opportunities. There were some great moments and maybe a few truly great games but for the most part it seemed as if the industry could not take steps towards the mature art form it professes to be. In a year in which gaming proved itself conclusively to be the most profitable entertainment medium on earth it seems almost shocking that so many games, even those ranked amongst the highest-quality of the year failed so badly in certain aspects of their execution, most notably writing. The inadequacy, again for the most part, of storytelling, characterisation and dialogue tells of videogames origins, and how the blessing of interaction can lead to unfocused or lazy design.

Your Mum or Gran might still think all video games are simple childish affairs where hirsute D.I.Y men jump on mushrooms or space men shoot down aliens but they have, or have attempted to be, more than this for quite some time now. However this innocuous statement of fact still angers people, the type of poster who cries, “Games are supposed to be fun, they are not serious” in every debate about games as art, or sexism in the medium. Games these days want to say something, they want to be a story or they want to create a world, an attitude which requires a serious artistic approach. The problem that this year has highlighted is that game developers are still too willing to abort attempts at an integrated approach and retreat back to simplistic notion of ‘games as fun’ even if today’s idea of fun is nothing like the 8-bit efforts of yesterday.

Uncharted 3

This is not to attribute ambitions which do not exist to today’s developers. Consider one of the year’s biggest releases, Uncharted 3. The sequel to one of the most highly praised games of all time and a title which really defined what we could expect of characterisation and writing in a blockbuster mass-market game was in the words of its own writer “about fundamentally the characters and what is happening to them and why you are emotionally invested.” These are big, ambitious words and the upfront presence of the writer Amy Hennig spoke to the importance the production team placed on the writing in Uncharted 3. I am not the most experienced gaming historian but I can’t remember a game’s writer ever getting as much prominence as Amy Hennig received in the lead up to the game’s November launch.

Why then was the game’s story, plotting and characterisation such a disappointing mess, not just relative to the first game but on its own terms as well? We may never know the how the production process unfolded, and even allowing for the usual pre-launch puffery we have come to expect the writing of Uncharted 3 felt beaten into submission by the demands of the game play designers. Of course this will always be the way to a certain extent, producing a game must be a collaborative effort, and no writer is ever going to write a script and expect a game to be designed around it especially when the genesis of many games will be mechanic knocked up on some designers computer or a cool character on some artists pad. But....for a game trailed as a cinematic experience it was disappointing that the only filmic quality Uncharted 3 possessed were the undoubted pyrotechnic brilliance of its set-pieces. There were sights of a compelling script dwelling on themes of madness and love but it was lost in diversions aboard pirate ships, through the unresolved characterisation of Talbot, one of main villains, and other missteps. The game broadly hinted that Talbot may have supernatural powers but failed to resolve this, such was the confusion that Amy Hennig ended up having to try and clear up the mystery via Twitter and other gaming forums. This is clearly unsatisfactory in a game with the pretentions outlined above.

More damning is that the pirate ship levels, which seemed to most like a totally unnecessary detour plot wise, contained some of the best game play in the title and technically, as expressed by Cowboy on one of Giant Bomb’s E3 podcasts, were the developer’s proudest achievement. For me this was a crystal clear demonstration of the conflict which gaming failed to resolve in 2011. If James Cameron had a kick-ass sequence in Aliens where for 20mins of undoubtedly thrilling action Ripley was abducted from LV-426 by space pirates before escaping back to the main plot he might stick it as an extra on the DVD but it wouldn’t make it into the film because directors understand that a successful work of art requires the constituent creative strands to be considerately balanced. Game production still thinks in terms of levels and content before harmony.

Other Offenders

While Uncharted 3 was the most obvious offender this year mostly because of history and pretention most of the year’s big games seemed to share a weakness in one or another pillars of their storytelling. That two games, Skyrim and Deus Ex, should give rise to memes of varying tiresomeness predicated on aspects of their dialogue and delivery, “I took an arrow to the knee,” and “I didn’t ask for this,” amazes when one thinks of the ambition of the designers. Both games were aiming for immersive, believable worlds but seemingly failed to realise that more was needed to convey this ambition than beautifully designed environments. Skyrim was one of my most joyous gaming experiences of the year but it pains me to realise how much better the experience could have been, indeed how this game could have been the defining achievement on this generation of consoles if only they had chosen to populate their stunning, snowy province with fully rounded, storied individuals. It’s not as if a Bethesda published game hadn’t managed this before. Last year’s Fallout New Vegas was packed with believable, winning characters, Veronica, Yes Man, Cass, Lilly and more, all personalities unmatched by any of the dry NPC’s in Skyrim. Is this just down to the limitations of staid fantasy tropes? It hardly seems likely when The Witcher 2 has been so highly praised for storytelling. Skyrim may have boasted of over 60,000 lines of dialogue but this mountain of words left me unable to describe the personality of even one of its characters. Compounding the problem was a fault it shared with Deus Ex, leaden or risible delivery. Why are performances which would get the worst hack actor laughed from the stage of a village hall considered acceptable in huge budget blockbuster videogames? Speaking like Jason Statham after a year living in the desert on a diet of Gauloise and black coffee is no substitute for nuance and even the most inattentive gamer is going to notice when the same actor plays the entire support cast of game supposed to enjoyed for scores of hours. Even more so when it is all in the same accent.

Why?

Why do developers and game studio believe performances and scripting like this are acceptable? It cannot be because they think they are providing quality, Deus Ex’s voice acting was being called out well before release and Cole’s voice in Infamous 2 had to undergo a rewrite when the internet complained about his new gruffer tones. It is especially sad when so many games get it right, even when you think they might be the very projects to not pay too much attention to the less traditional aspects of production. Dead Space 2 and Batman Arkham City both realise that the stories they wanted to tell would kick that much harder if they had quality behind the microphone. Mark Hamill is rightly famous for his Joker but great performances run right through Arkham City and what could have been cartoonish dialogue is delivered with just the appropriate amount of manic glee and serious conviction. It’s not easy to do and getting wrong can yank the player from the game world.

Why then do studios fall short so often? Aside from the games I have mentioned other big names to fail with either voice work or writing included Dead Island who managed to include a poorly acted stereotype of most major nationalities, and L.A. Noire who destroyed a perfectly serviceable James Ellroy pastiche by writing themselves into a hole halfway through the game. Developers obviously still think great experiences can be created with writing either an afterthought or as tool to link the disparate game-play arenas they have created. In this they are sadly half-right, as evidenced by Skyrim as my number two game this year and Deus Ex my number three. However gamers are hopefully going to become less and less tolerant of this as attitude, especially so when we consider the experiences we might have had if developers had paid more attention to story, dialogue and character. If Bethesda had passed the writing of Skyrim over to Obsidian or some equally competent wordsmiths we could have been left with a title to stand as the War and Peace or Vanity Fair of gaming.

The Good Guys

Thankfully there were some people who got it right this year. I don’t think Volition ever thought the Saint’s Row series would be in the vanguard of videogame writing, I expect they just wanted to give people a good time and make them laugh. However Saint’s Row the Third’s strengths and design aims seem the exact opposite of Skyrim and Deus Ex. The game play is nothing new and the visuals are certainly not exciting at all, what makes it so appealing is the snappy, witty dialogue and ridiculous set pieces the writers conjure up. Even all the toys they throw at you from early on couldn’t keep players entertained, if it was all played out in a serious crime story setting. The writing plus the fantastic comic performances make Saint’s Row the Third and are a lesson to other developers not to underestimate or be scared of comedy. Also in the plus column we have Bastion, and amazingly Gears of War 3 but again it was left to masters of videogame storytelling to show us how to integrate design, narrative and acting into a perfect whole.

Portal 2

I am talking of course of Portal 2. This game has received a lot of praise this year but I really don’t think people have appreciated just how perfect its conception really is. There is no fat for a start. There are no levels which feel extraneous, where the puzzle designer had a real killer but it happened to be set on a pirate ship. All the parts feel in service of each other and while this isn’t a new quality in a Valve game and I don’t think I am blowing anyone’s mind by pointing out how well they combine action and story, it sometimes seem we don’t appreciate what a rare treat this is. What makes Portal such a special series is that there is really no need of a story at all. After all, you start the first game believing it is just a little puzzle game. However after finishing Portal 2 you could not imagine going through the test chambers without the glorious world and characters Valve have built to accompany you. Why this game is so important and why it shows so glaringly what is lacking in the rest of this year’s titles is Valve’s insistence that all facets of game design are of equal merit. It is this approach which will lead gaming out of the strange ghetto it occupies in so many people’s eyes. To be sure Portal 2 is not some strange outlier, there are other games which manage this unity of vision but it needs a work of real creative excellence to show others the way, to prove that it can be done. This is not a plea for games to change, to stop being fun and to start being art, just to be better. I am not demanding that all our experiences are played out to Oscar worthy scripts with emotive performances in every role. It’s not about that, but it is about treating this medium more seriously, again not in tone but in conception. It is about understanding what makes a great game and that if we want to create something truly amazing, unbalanced priorities won’t cut it anymore. Videogames are still the only medium where multi-million dollar projects have design choices which are either baffling or which seem not to have been made at all. Films, books and visual art can be consistently mediocre but they do not demonstrate the incoherence so often found in video games. But yet I keep coming back, and keep loving it and this is the advantage an interactive medium possesses. The reality of how much more satisfying it is to watch a car move through the streets when we control each turn is gaming’s blessing. However the innate thrill of interaction means there is still so much joy to be garnered from unbalanced or substandard games that development can be unfocused, especially as regards writing. This natural advantage gaming has should be the first step to a different, more visceral art form, a starting point for exploration rather than an end in itself. This is a lofty ambition and is understandably rarely met. Maybe only one game has succeeded in 2011 and it has rarely been bettered.

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An Oasis in the Desert

I have just finished listening to the first half of the day-one E3 podcast. I didn’t get the chance to follow it live as it starts at 4am UK time but jumped in as soon as the feed went up, and while listening browsed through some of the comments on Giant Bomb. Obviously having not listened live I didn’t see the chat, which I understand from Gary Whitta’s comment on the show and looking at some of the posts on here was rather displeased with what they heard.

  I have to say this makes me very sad. What I heard in this section was an hour and a half of excellent games journalism with the regulars we love and then some interesting, intelligent guests from different ends of the industry who could provide some differing viewpoints and debate. It was very enlightening for me, and I thought would be for most people, to hear about the problems of getting games published, what it is like to work for a big publisher/organisation, and the general insides of the gaming industry.

 However it appears some people on this site think differently. These complaints seemed to boil down to two main points. The first being we want to hear about the games, and the second we don’t want Suits on our Podcast.

   The former is easily dealt with: You will hear about games, just be patient and you will get hours upon hours of Podcasting with the crew joking about E3 and all it holds, however some of us are actually interested in the industry and we would like Giant Bomb to have a small chance to educate us.

 The second point is more interesting and it goes to the heart of the current malaise in games journalism. I can understand why people don’t want to listen to corporate suits, they are like politicians, toeing the party line, afraid to admit mistakes or fault and generally would rather you remained stupid and handed over the cash than engage in intelligent debate. And yes, if you look at the rest of gaming press this is what happens when the Suits turn up. Watch Game Trailers, or Spike, or go to IGN and see the awful softball questions that get thrown at execs and VP’s.

   “Oh you have a great new game coming out, tell me, just how great is it?”

   “You must be very excited to have implemented Kinect in everything?”

   “Tell me just how good will Moronic Shooter 5 be?”

You get the picture.

Games journalism for the vast majority of the time is not worthy of the name, it is just PR dressed up as news, and I think why the majority of people don’t want suits on the Bombcast is they are afraid this is what they are going to get.

 However if you listen to the actual programme no PR puffery was allowed. What it most reminded me of was a good, highbrow news programme (with added swearing and fart jokes) where they get 2 people of opposing views (Jonathan Blow and the Microsoft guys –2vs1 unfair I know, but maybe it takes 2 suits to make a real thinking human) and let them debate an issue of the day.

 All I heard on here was the Microsoft guys being challenged over and again about Kinect, Advertising, Cert and other issues. No softballing here. If you really listen to the programme what we got was an hour and a half of intelligent debate about interesting topics. REAL JOURNALISM FOLKS! That is a rare thing in the gaming industry and I salute Giant Bomb for having the gumption and brains to do it. 

If you want jokes about games, you’ll get them I’m sure. I haven’t listened to the second half of the Podcast but I imagine there was some degree of foolishness about video games. If you are worried about a corporate influence, I understand, but what we got was more interesting because there was some corporate influence to challenge.    However if it is just that you don’t like intelligent debate: Fuck Off. The rest of the internet will have you covered.          
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And Moral of This Story Is........

 I have been loving this site for a while and over the last few months have been getting more active amongst the community in my own low-key way. My first Blog Post went up the other week which I was please to see attracted a meagre and not entirely troll-full debate. It’s a good feeling when you find somewhere, whether it be in the real world or the virtual, where you feel at home and among relatively like-minded people.  
  So there I am feeling more at home each day, and lo and behold each time I sign in I find my Profile views are growing in number. First up to 10 and I get the quest and then up to 100, 200 and away. Wow, I think why can this be, am I really such an interesting chap that people want to dig deeper behind the words and find out a little bit more.  Pathetic as it might be I feel slightly warmed by the fact that people are interested even though they will find out exactly nothing by clicking on my Profile page. 
 So I go to my Profile with the thought of maybe adding some greenery to the desert of information which currently greets any visitor. As I stop to think my eyes slide up to my avatar, a cool photo I found a month or so back of a girl representing the Hindu God of Gaming. Then a jolt, and I think, wasn't it a month ago that my Profile views started to build up? A shiver of shame runs down my spine. You fool! 
     Each little click on my Profile has just been a male GB'ers pavlovian response to the attractive female posing next to my name, and every view of my Profile has been through the disappointed eyes of the same lonely male gamer who thought that maybe, just maybe, a slim six armed brunette might want his grubby eyeballs all over her personal details. 
 I guess I'm as vain as you lot are shallow.

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Killing For Your Country

What is it like, I wonder, to be a German, Russian, or Middle Eastern gamer? To know that purchasing a game in the huge selling Military Shooter genre, will at some point call on you to wield your weapon against advancing hordes of your own people?

  As an American or British gamer, of which I am the later, this issue never really arises. You might have to take out some American troops if playing as Op-For in a Deathmatch, but the character in your sights in multiplayer never really feels as identified with its supposed nationality as do the enemy in single player. Divorced from any storyline, your opponents online always seem more representative of the real person in control, whether friend or faceless Internet foe, than the uniform they happen to be wearing.

 In single player, or story mode, things are different. If the story is good you feel invested in the character you represent and take some of his motivation into your actions in the game. Your computer-controlled opponents become the “baddies” and you feel righteous in your culling of their number.

 Or so I thought.

Playing through the recent Call of Duty, Black Ops, I came to a scene where I was required to sink and then escape from an ice-bound warship filled with a chemical weapon sought by various warring parties. I had no problem filling countless nameless Germans with bullet holes on the way onto the boat and spilling Russian blood all over the decks on my way out. However, then something strange happened.

  Suddenly British commandoes arrived on deck, also seeking to capture this terrible technology for their masters, and suddenly faced with foes of my own nationality I was strangely reticent to fight back.

  This series has tried before, generally in an incredibly cack-handed way, to try and make us “think” about our actions. Witness the infamous “No Russian” mission in ‘Modern Warfare 2.’ Maybe this was one of those moments, but it seemed too short a section, and also unlikely, in that it would be strange to just target British gamer’s perceptions.

 Whatever the intentions of the designers I was weirdly jarred by this section. I wouldn’t claim to be strongly nationalistic in anyway, and think patriotism is more of a curse than a virtue but I really had trouble turning my gun on virtual representations of my own countrymen. I fired as few shots as could get away with and still progress but mostly ended up using sprint to barrel through the short section.

  Now, if I had trouble with this five-minute slice of game what must it be like to play this game as a Russian, German, or Vietnamese? What must it be like to play this whole genre of games if you are from one of the countries or religions regularly portrayed as the bad guy? Don’t misunderstand me, I realise that there must be enemies in shooters and it is enjoyable to recreate History for fun but it must be strange having to swallow down on that nationalistic instinct most of us have to play the world’s most popular game.

 I suppose as a German shooting SS or Gestapo in ‘World at War’ one could look on them as Nazis before Germans, but for a Vietnamese playing Black Ops? The Vietnamese War is far less black and white than WWII, and recent enough that there might just be some combatants from the Viet Cong side who have sat down, controller in hand, to find themselves slitting the throats of their former comrades.

  This isn’t a plea for change, for MW3 to be told entirely from the view of a jihadist in Afghanistan, or a Communist special operative cutting swathes through Cold War N.A.T.O forces. It is obvious who makes these games and what markets they make them for and I can’t imagine the next edition topping the charts if Treyarch, Infinity Ward or whoever takes any of my examples as their starting point.

  At its heart this is just another example of the hegemony of the western entertainment industry. What makes it so interesting is the way it forces foreign gamers to take side against their own people and literally wipe them out to take part and succeed.  

  Maybe that is stretching things too far, however it is true that these games don’t just sell by the bucket load in the US and the West. Gaming is a worldwide phenomenon now and there is no doubt that Russians, Germans, and Vietnamese have spent the last few weeks gunning their own people down in pursuit of achievements and the secret of “the numbers.”

  I would love to hear how gamers whose nationalities or religions are normally represented as the enemy in videogames deal with having to take arms against their own. Maybe my fierce reaction was due to the scarcity of situations such as this for a British gamer and those used to these scenarios have become inured to the nationality of those they fight against, although if this is the case it must be quite hard to care about the narrative and feel motivated by a game’s storyline.   

  This is not an issue that needs to, or will be tackled any time soon. Our modern military shooters are still going to feature the US as the good guys and their historical foes as the baddies. I suppose if gamers find this arrangement distasteful there are plenty of aliens and other strange beings to kill when they feel the virtual bloodlust rising. However there are many new potential lucrative markets coming on line around the world. The vast number of non-gaming fingers in China must be interesting companies like Activision and if the worlds most populous country liberalises and wants new ways to spend its burgeoning wealth they will no doubt be looking for ways to repeat the success they have had in the west. Would this mean a new approach with games such as C.O.D? Will developers have to find new protagonists to tell their stories, sell different games to different markets or will Chinese gamers follow the rest of the world and surrender to the American cultural juggernaut?    

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