It's Expected to Be There

As an artform, games have more in common with music than they do with cinema.

If you’re making a tabletop RPG, you’re often creating a set of guidelines that will let a group of people tell a story together. The rules of these games help decide what’s canon and not, and often provide a little creative input, but the real power of tabletop RPGs is the ability of the players and game masters to tell interesting stories on the fly. If you’re making a more traditional tabletop game, or a video game, and you can’t package humans with it, telling stories gets a little more challenging.

Outside of tabletop RPGs, there are three, maybe four broad types of “story” you encounter. The “fourth” type is questionable because it’s the non-story – games that are completely abstract, or feature no story elements beyond the barest context of the game within. Think of the perpetual Red versus Blu conflict in Team Fortress, for example, or the nuclear-threat premise of Missile Command.

Games with more elaborate stories often bolt a pre-written, linear narrative onto the gameplay. This practice strikes me as ill-advised, since, in the simplest philosophical sense, linearity and interactivity are mutually exclusive. Linear storytelling, like that featured in books, comics, and movies, is made powerful and effective by the ability of the creators to exercise complete control over the audience experience. Games, by contrast, require the creator to hand control over to the player, allowing them to determine what ultimately happens. The incompatibility lies in the fact that the creator cannot simultaneously control the entire experience while also allowing the player to express themselves, hence the innumerable game stories that feel like they are quite separated from the gameplay itself. These games have to shift between modes of linear narration and player interaction, but the two are ultimately immiscible.

If you want to integrate story into gameplay, you need to make a game out of the story – player inputs have to affect the story. The most familiar form of this is probably the branching story, in which the player is presented with a set of discrete options, and unique pre-written narratives accompany every possibility. Think of choose-your-own-adventure books, visual novels, some RPGs, or the modern adventure game design codified by Telltale’s various oeuvre.

The final story variety, and the one I would like to see more of in the future, is the emergent story. These are hard to pull off, because they amount to playing an interesting game and hoping that something narrative-like will spontaneously happen. In theory, any and every game is capable of emergent stories, but they’re usually very personal, and they don’t come across as well with a retelling. One can, however, deliberately design a game so that it will reliably produce emergent stories, and that’s an art that I think needs much more exploration. For a few guiding examples, look to Papers, Please, Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, and (so I’m told) the Fire Emblem series.

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Just for Avery: Dead Space

I enjoyed doing me earlier Let's Play of Amnesia, and since I had another "horror" game on my to-play list, I figured I might as well do the same for Dead Space. I fucked up and lost the first episode, then later fucked up again and lost the final episode, but the bulk of the game is still contained herein.

Part 1 is not the beginning, but I never intend to fix this, because Dead Space is pretty bad, and I don't want to play it for any longer than I have to.

In Part 2, I continue my horrifying battle against shitty mouse acceleration and tonal inconsistency.

In Part 3, while otherwise grumbling as usual, I finally get a surprising moment of effective horror!

For Part 4, I finally fix the aiming issue, and suddenly Dead Space is fun again!

In Part 5, once again, I refuse to shut the fuck up while failing to solve simple puzzles.

In Part 6, the story finally steps up, I continue my grand tradition of claiming to know more about design than I do, and I fuck up some more simple "puzzles" and die.

And finally, in the penultimate/ultimate episode, I finish on a cliffhanger, only to corrupt the footage of the ending – AGAIN.

Dead Space doesn't merit a second play through, so this is all the ending you get. If you really wanted my comments on the ending, though, there are spoilers below:

So, there was a big twist when the one support character reveals that she was informed in advance about the marker and the necromorphs, and that she's been sent here to retrieve it. I was actually pretty pleased, since this explained her previously irrational hostility to Hammond (not completely, but it helps, at least). There were also some final stages that were pretty interesting – more elaborate terrain and a variety of bad guys, combined with a running kinesis activity. So, between the step up in storytelling between this episode and that one, plus those solid mechanical challenges, I was ready to give Dead Space a passing grade.

And then it all went to shit. They made a huge goddamn show of revealing that Nicole was DEAD ALL ALONG, even though that had been abundantly, ridiculously obvious from the start of the game. I was legitimately offended that they would try to pass that off as a twist, and it pretty well undermined any and all brownie points they had managed to earn up to that point. This was followed with a boss fight with a giant tentacle monster, which was the final straw in the general horror failure – the entire reason a giant space monster is horrifying is because it's unstoppable: if a single engineer armed with a plasma cutter can kill it, then there's absolutely nothing to fear.

So fuck Dead Space.

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Carolyn Petit: Bayonetta 2’s Sexless Sexiness and the Fetishization of Domination Through Violence

This article is a response to this one written by Carolyn Petit.

A lot of people, including, of particular note, a lot of women, have said that Bayonetta is a feminist sort of character – an empowered, powerful woman in control of her sexuality. I find this deeply confusing, because, by all appearances, she’s a generic sex object, made noteworthy perhaps only because she’s such an extreme example thereof that she might be a satire (but she ain’t).

When Bayonetta the first arrived on the scene, I was treated to this analysis by Bob Chipman (a dude). Chipman seems weirdly unaware of the objectification that permeates his own analysis, but his point is salient nevertheless: Bayonetta is sexually aggressive or intimidating, but is not sexually submissive, nor sexually unavailable. This seems like a superb, pro-sex alternative to the traditional sex kitten, ice queen, or vamp archetypes.

Except: while she may not exactly be a factory-fresh clone of every other sex object in gaming, she’s still a sex object.

More recently, another male Escapist writer, Yahtzee, made a ramble-y, naive article in which he eventually (the first 7 paragraphs can and should be skipped) points out that

[…]Bayonetta never employs sexuality in the context of a relationship or seducing a special friend - it’s only ever used as part of combat[…]

which is the most crucial piece of evidence throughout this whole affair. It’s something Yahtzee also discusses in an earlier article in more general terms, and while in that one he also claims that vulnerability and intimacy are prerequisites for sex (not really), he at least manages to identify Bayonetta as a sex object, and even connects sexual objectification to general sex-negativity (“prudishness” in his words).

Bayonetta doesn’t have sex. She doesn’t have intimate relationships, either. She might be powerful and confident (or arrogant?), even, but I find it hard to regard her as a “sex-positive” character when, as Petit points out, she’s still so obviously there only to titillate a presumed straight-male player, and not to be her own person, nor even to do both at once.

It seems almost, to me, like the positive perception of Bayonetta by female audiences is just a happy coincidence, rather than a feminist success. And here Petit puts the last nail in the coffin:

Sadly, Bayonetta seems to lack any real sexual desire or sexual agency of her own. From the opening shot in which the camera caresses her body to the pole dance set to “Moon River” while the credits roll at the end, Bayonetta 2 joins the mountain of other games that only serve to reinforce for the uncritical straight male player the idea that women’s bodies and women’s sexuality exist not for women, but are the property of men.

At the end of the day, if the heterosexual males playing Bayonetta still regard her as a sex object, then that is all that she can be as far as the broader culture is concerned.

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Irony: Penny Arcade on Dragon’s Crown

There’s a difference between criticism and censorship. This is something that I did not always understand, even as it seems obvious to me now, so I fathom that it can be a confusing distinction. To be clear: censorship is an attempt to prevent artwork from existing (or from reaching its audience, which is functionally the same thing); and criticism is the assertion that artwork has flaws or problems.

An article I read that was attempting to highlight that distinction for the general public brought up an old Penny Arcade newspost in which Tycho argues in defense of the artwork of the game Dragon’s Crown. In it, he pulls a straight-up strawman argument: “It’s very weird to pull up a story about a game with frankly visionary art and hear why it shouldn’t exist,” he says.

At the time that Dragon’s Crown came out, I can recall rolling my eyes at the sexualization featured in the artwork. I was on Team Criticism, that day, but neither I, nor anyone else I can recall, suggested that Dragon’s Crown shouldn’t exist. For that matter, I don’t think people suggested its art shouldn’t exist, either. Some people may have suggested that its art would be better if it were not so overtly sexual in a manner specifically intended to appeal to the male gaze. Maybe, if you backed a particularly zealous critic into a corner, you could induce them to suggest that Dragon’s Crown’s artwork should be better in this way, or else not exist. But no one asserted, as Tycho implies they did, that creators may not create.

There is an intense irony here. Tycho didn’t see it, then, and apparently neither did the writer of the aforementioned article that dredged up the newspost. The irony is in the comic strip, to which Tycho’s post is attached.

The male-gaze oriented, sexualized nature of the Sorceress’ artwork appeals to men, but is understandably alienating to women – that’s what makes this comic strip funny. Tycho and Gabe could not possibly have crafted this joke without fathoming the issue at hand, so they get that the Sorceress is problematic.

This comic, which in so few words elucidates the problem, could not be funny without being critical of Dragon’s Crown. Tycho and Gabe made a strip criticizing this game, and then Tycho made a newspost conflating criticism with censorship.

That’s arguably hypocritical. It’s also incredibly ironic, and, in many ways, tragic: these miscommunications, these misunderstandings, turn people who agree with one another into opponents for no reason.

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Jerry Holkins on "Final" Games

Today’s Penny Arcade isn’t anything exceptional; Tycho’s newspost starts with a brief acknowledgement of it, and ends with an announcement RE: the PA Scholarship, but it’s the meat of the post that I want to talk about, so hit the link, have a read, and then join me back here.

Referring to this idea as the Final Game is very interesting – in my youth I called them “perfect” games, but “final” might be a more accurate term. A game you could play forever, one that would never need replacement. I have one, of course – it’s called Left 4 Dead 2, but I constantly hunt for a replacement or enhancement upon it’s relatively simple formula.

The trick of a Final Game is that it needs to have, as a key feature, unlimited content. Narrative-driven games generally have this issue where they end, which precludes their achieving infinity, except on the same level that films and books do – you can re-play a game like you re-read a book, but I doubt it could ever be, as Tycho characterizes it, “a game-as-life-practice”.

The actual property a game needs to have infinite longevity is to be different every time it is played, and that’s all. Multiplayer games, because they generally feature as sporting events, almost all have theoretically unlimited life spans. Games with extensive UGC approach infinite life span, but unless the community lasts forever, the content won’t. So, on the single-player or cooperative spectrum, it falls to procedural generation.

That’s Left 4 Dead’s secret, of course – versus mode is a potent element, yes, but the cooperative campaigns can be replayed endlessly because the zombies are different every time; because the director changes things every time. More can always be done: the maps themselves could change, as they do in many roguelikes, and you can expand upon player customization as an avenue for increased gameplay variability. Left 4 Dead has “customization” in it’s most limited forms: shotgun, assault rifle or sniper rifle? But there could be more – drop a MechLab in there and see what comes out, I say.

The last note I have on this subject is mostly a question. Instances, or sandboxes?

MineCraft offers you limitless creative potential, but once you’ve built a floating palace made entirely of golden, magma-spouting dongs, is there ever reason to return? Do you simply start over, for want of better things to do? Forge out into unexplored territory, and repeat the month-long construction in another place?

By contrast, Left 4 Dead undoes all progress you make with every new campaign. Instances – ever resetting, put you in the shoes of Sisyphus rolling the boulder. But if the climb of the boulder, and not the attainment of the goal, is the source of the entertainment, then is that not better?

Is there a merger of the two? Destiny attempted to offer a multiplayer arena, open commons and instances all at once, but the design is, by most accounts, unfocused – jarring, lacking cohesion. I think, also, of FireFall’s “thumpers”; a player-driven instance that is spawned onto an open world.

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Just For Avery: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

My good buddy Avery said that he would gladly watch a stream of me playing Amnesia, and encouraged me to record myself for that reason. After the gang and I all made fun of him, 'cause none of us really partake of the whole streaming thing, I figured why the hell not, and downloaded the required software. Since no one else is going to watch the show (well, no one's going to watch it, not even Avery has...), I called it "Just for Avery", and you can now watch me play on YouTube.

Behold, Part 1, in which I refuse to shut the fuck up while staring at corners like it's the end of the Blair Witch Project.

In Part 2, I inaudibly take forever to solve simple puzzles.

In Part 3, I make up for my general incompetence with rampant cheating.

In Part 4, my dreams of a voice acting career are soundly destroyed.

Suddenly, the animator had a fatal heart attack. I mean, I fucked up the recording software and recorded an hour of audio with no video. So, because the checkpoint system wouldn't let me reload and re-play the ending, I started the whole motherfucker over.

In Part –1, I start the game over. The good news is, there's a lot less figuring out what to do. The bad news is, unburdened by the need to figure out what to do, I'm even more garrulous than usual.

In Part 0, I get caught up with my original recordings, and discuss the parts of Amnesia that I think could have been better, because, obviously, I know better than the actual game designers.

Then I cheated a bunch to skip over the middle part, and jump straight to the ending again, where after losing the footage three times over again, I finally completed Amnesia in Part 5!

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Thoughts From Re-Writing Game Reviews

Minecraft is actually a really messy game. I think I would rate it much more poorly if there were anything else worthwhile in the same gameplay genre – as it stands, the other available games are messier still (titles like Dwarf Fortress and The Forest).

Which would you rank better, BioShock Infinite, or Bastion? They’re both linear, story-focused combat games with customization elements. I tend to prefer shooters, and BSI has twice the content and an assload more size and grandeur, plus it’s story has all manner of science-fictioney fun. But Bastion, I would argue, has a vastly superior customization system, and a much more solid, cohesive story that is much better integrated with the gameplay. I don’t really think either one had obviously better combat mechanics, which is pretty much the meat of both titles, so that’s a legitimately tough call.

Imagine how much more awesome Magicka would be if it were structured like Left 4 Dead. It’s biggest problem, by far, is the fact that it’s such a pointless slog to play through any of those levels a second time. If they were more interchangeable in terms of their ordering, and had some of L4D’s dynamic enemy spawns and a similar Director AI to calibrate difficulty, I think Magicka could have really risen above it’s limited means.

Does Gone Home’s purity as a story-game make it better than games like BioShock that switch between story/exploration play and gunplay? Or is BioShock just Gone Home plus guns, and therefore “better” because “more”?

Cogs is a really hard game to evaluate. It’s so good. It’s really friggin’ good. But it’s just slider puzzles! How do you rank that against some shit like Brink, which is a way more elaborate, complex kind of game, but sucks so bad at everything it’s trying to do? Same goes for all these little indie puzzle platformers. Braid? Limbo? Thomas Was Alone? Trine? Yeah, they’re all great, but, it’s just platforming. I don’t even LIKE platforming.

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GamerGate, Please Stop Trying to Ruin Games

GamerGate consumes more of my time, lately, than PLAYING GAMES does, and I find that notion almost as offensive as the movement itself. All I want is to enjoy my games in peace. But I can’t, because GamerGate insists on butting in. It’s spread across the sites I frequent, it harasses the developers making the games I love, and it’s trying to silence the critics and analysts that I trust.

I’d rather be playing games.

I want to enjoy my games. I want my games to be good. I want my games to be fun and sad and hilarious and scary. I want my games to be dark and edgy and violent and bloody. I want my games to be innovative and thoughtful and meaningful and beautiful. I want games to be sexy and racy and hot and explicit. I want games to be tense and touching and heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I want games to grow as a medium. I want independent development to get bigger and easier. I want the industry and get stronger and better and appeal to larger audiences. I want games to bring in new people and new ideas and always keep moving forward.

I want games that give me something I’ve never experienced before. That let me experience things I could never get from my life. Things I can’t get from film or text or music or sculpture. I want to know what it’s like to be someone I’m not, to deal with things that I don’t.

Nothing GamerGate does ever seems to line up with what I want. GamerGate harasses and shouts and distracts from games, distracts from the making of games and the analysis of games. They attack independents making unique games; attack critics voicing dissenting opinion. Whatever their professed goals, all I see them enact is hatred, bigotry, and ignorance – and a constant drive for the status quo. For repetition, homogeneity, exclusion and stagnation.

GamerGate won’t get out of my life. It won’t stop threatening and attacking my hobby. It won’t just fuck off, leave games alone, and let me enjoy them – because, of course, it was there first. Not GamerGate, mind you, but hatred; sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, and harassment.

It’s the status quo in games, in culture, in society, and in my life in general. And it’s poison. Stalling progress, creating losses and opportunity costs for every living person, and corrupting any pathetic pretense to morality that ever might have been.

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Shocktober 2014

My beloved has taken a year-long trip overseas to study at Oxford, and I’m attempting to ease the transition with a little extra distraction for the first month by participating in Patrick Klepek's “Shocktober” month-long horror movie marathon. Accordingly, I’ve prepared a list of 31 horror films – old and new, classics and crap – to watch. Theoretically, that’d be one per night, but given that one per night is a practical impossibility, it’ll more likely be rather sporadic. Odds are, even, that I won’t get through all 31, but whatever, it’s not a friggin’ contest.

Anyway. Most of my films are taken from the suggestions provided by Patrick, with a number of modifications, mostly in the interest of replacing especially shit films with ones I’ve been meaning to watch (mostly adpatations of HP Lovecraft stories, because I’ve been on a big HPL kick), or replacing sequels with originals in cases where I’m not up to speed with whatever series. ANYWAY anyway, here’s the list.

  1. Alien
  2. The ABC’s of Death Funny Games Trick ‘r Treat
  3. Funny Games The ABCs of Death Funny Games
  4. The Guest (In Theatre) Honeymoon
  5. Coherence
  6. Honeymoon The Signal
  7. The Signal The Guest (In Theatre) Pandorum
  8. Grabbers
  9. Death Spa
  10. The Houses October Built (In Theatre)
  11. Dead Snow
  12. Trick ‘r Treat The ABCs of Death
  13. Kill List
  14. The Resurrected
  15. Halloween
  16. Cthulhu
  17. The Loved Ones
  18. The Banshee Chapter
  19. Possession
  20. The Haunted Palace
  21. The Battery
  22. V/H/S
  23. V/H/S/2
  24. Escape From Tomorrow
  25. Exists
  26. The Whisperer in Darkness
  27. The Entity
  28. The Borderlands
  29. The Babadook
  30. Eraserhead
  31. Horns (In Theatre)

So, if you want to join in, then assemble a list! You could use mine, of course, or Patrick's, or make your own, which is probably most advisable. I'll be posting reviews of each film as I watch them on Tumblr and my personal blog, too. My apologies for all of the edits – I keep running into technical or timing difficulties!

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Are You So Blind

Frictional Games: The last name “Grip” is strangely apt for a horror game designer.

I recently wrapped up Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and, like many, I have almost exclusively good things to say about it. The atmosphere of Amnesia is pretty much perfect, and while the pacing of the game effectively switches gears from moments of calmer investigation or puzzle solving to moments of excitement and tension, it goes great lengths to avoid letting the player ever feel completely secure. I thought, however, that to keep an Amnesia review interesting, it would be educational to examine the places where the game actually failed for me, and analyze what went wrong. Spoilers abound, but are predominantly relegated to the last paragraph.

You may find it surprising that I think the seemingly hokey, disembodied-hand-based physics engine was actually under-used. I found it quite intuitive, and I can’t conceive of a better way to simulate the flailing dexterity of a panicked person trying to operate a door handle, or pile up a makeshift barricade. The real disappointments were the occasions when it was unclear whether a given puzzle required an abstract solution (like combining and using inventory objects or finding a switch) as opposed to a physics solution (like throwing a rock). If I had it my way, it would have been all physics manipulation all the time, so as to maintain consistency and immersion.

When I first encountered the game’s monsters, I discovered that they would eventually disappear altogether if I merely waited long enough in a secure location, causing me to adopt a boring, tension-dissolving strategy of sitting around in the dark twiddling my thumbs that was in no way discouraged by the game. I discovered that, in later sections, certain monsters never de-spawn – a breach in the apparent “rules” of the game that resulted in me waiting in a side room for 20 minutes straight and wondering whether the monster music had simply bugged out. The permanent monster, aside from shattering my immersion, also totally undermined my “wait it out” strategy, causing me to wonder: Why did the designers choose not to make EVERY monster permanent?

Most of Amnesia’s plot is, predictably, made up of antecedent action, delivered through notes, flashbacks, and monologues with middling to good effectiveness (taking a few cues from Gone Home might have improved this somewhat). The most egregious disruption of immersion in the entire game, however, came from a late game “conversation” with Agrippa, who awkwardly pauses while speaking to the player as if to let Daniel reply, then continues talking as though Daniel had said something that he didn’t. Ideally, I would have simply cut Agrippa from the game, since the appearance of a friendly person significantly undermines the ongoing tension, but in lieu of that, perhaps they could at least have suggested that Agrippa was deaf, or the like, to justify him monologuing at a silent Daniel.

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