Friday, December 30, 2005

Year End Roundup: Life In San Andreas


Meta


The game was already notorious when, earlier this year, furor erupted over the audacity of developers that would dare to insert hackable sexual content in an ultraviolent M-rated game.

News stories on the series inevitably discuss the merits of propositioning virtual hookers, driving them to a secluded spot for some low-budget shenanigans of the this-car-is-a-rockin variety and then, when the deed is complete, killing said hookers and regaining the money spent. As if that were the core of the game.

If I were to take the same tack toward discussing, say, The Godfather, I would be continually horrified that the movie seemed to concentrate solely on beheading horses. Please, somebody think of the children.


Central

The story of CJ is more than a thin plot wrapped around varying mission types. It filters much of the turbulent 1990s in California through a cynical and satirical lens. Thus we have the corrupt Officers Tenpenny and Pulaski, members of CRASH, the anti-gang task force.

CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) was a real task force in LA. It fell apart amid allegations of wide-ranging misconduct -- falsifying arrests, beating suspects, drinking on the job -- brought up by Officer Rafael Perez, who admitted to personally stealing more than a million dollars worth of cocaine from the evidence locker.

By some accounts it was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded gang in charge of other gangs.

The Tenpenny thread feeds into a much larger plot. Through those missions we get a simplified glimpse into how drugs were introduced into major cities so thoroughly. The cops broker deals with disparate criminal elements possessing different means -- production, shipping, distribution. In return for some measure of protection against prosecution, the criminals give kickbacks to the police, who maintain enough control over the gangs to justify the task force's existence.

The CRASH missions run throughout the entire game, but reach their symbolic peak with the introduction of Toreno.

The character of Toreno is the embodiment of the corrupt government that was exposed during the Iran-Contra Affair of the '80s and continued through the 90s as we trained Osama Bin Laden, funded more "freedom fighters" in South and Central America and armed the Middle East.

Toreno is similar to the CRASH Officers in that he sees himself as keeping a sort of balance by pitting different sets of bad guys against each other -- only for Toreno the bad guys are other governments.

He is the sort of man who would happily sell weapons to Iran and Iraq, confident that such action would keep war confined to that part of the world. And confident, too, that such actions would have no future repercussions. This is more than a "the ends justifies the means" worldview. It sees the present as the only worthwhile place to evaluate -- the past is mere backstory and the future is never here. All that matters is who has the upper hand at the moment.

Toreno's involvement with the drug dealers coincides with the notion that the government itself was crucial in flooding the inner cities with drugs. While many discount the idea as crackpot . . . well, it's not like they asked Ollie North about the cocaine.

Consequently, the Toreno missions hint at a much larger game being played. In the causal chain, street gangs are merely microcosms of statewide gangs, which are merely microcosms of nation-sized gangs. As above, so below.


Patterns
San Andreas is composed of general algorithms coupled with relatively-linear narrative sequences. That's it, really.

The algorithms determine the colors that wash across the sky. The density and type of traffic in which sections of the state. The density and type of pedestrians. Their local behavior. Whether they will switch lanes or drive fast or try to run you off the road if you sideswipe them.

This is not realism. I don't believe that Rockstar strives for realism.

It seems, instead, that they attempt to capture a feeling, an atmosphere, a mood, a palette. They attempt consistency and connectivity. It serves them better to make a game object reminiscent of a real-world object.

Watch how the traffic comes to a halt at red lights and then zooms off at greens.

Watch a high speed chase not caused by you.

Take a plane out over San Fierro Bay and watch the boats jet here and there.

Los Santos is not LA. But it feels like LA. More than True Crime could muster.

There may be an element of the Uncanny Valley at work, but I'm not sure exactly what to call it. Maybe it is the Uncanny Valley -- seeing LA painstakingly simulated, one gets the impression that it's mostly dead space, boring blocks of nothingness. Which it is.

But by replacing real-world places with their own symbolic conceptualizations, Rockstar manages to capture the general tone of an area with more alacrity than an outright re-creation.


Subtext

For all of its braggadocio, San Andreas is more nuanced than Vice City.

Vice City was the glamour of 1980s Miami, the tacky bright clothing, the synthesized music, the hyperkinetic rush of cocaine, porn stars, fast cars and mob wars.

San Andreas, on the other hand, is more laid back and ambiguous. CJ commits every crime known to man but refuses to use drugs. He is not the raging ego of Tommy Vercetti or even the nobody of GTA3, but a man torn. You see a character struggling to make some kind of new life while working to save his brother and escape the oppression of the authorities.

CJ ping-pongs between feuding individuals. The game seems to hint that the best way to get ahead is to work for everyone and be loyal to very, very few.

CJ takes Madd Dogg's rhymes, kills his manager, destroys his career in order to help OG Loc -- then later rescues Madd Dogg from suicide.

CJ tries to kill Toreno, only to end up blackmailed into doing government dirty work. He muscles the Sindacco family only to try and save the guy he had tied to a windshield and taken on a joyride -- and then returns to kill all of them in order to back Rosenberg.

When Toreno requests that CJ learn to fly a plane, he balks for a moment. But only for a moment. Then comes acceptance. He will learn to fly a plane because it is necessary to learn. There is never an insistence on lack of aptitude, only brief lack of willingness.

It's almost the Zen insistence on flowing like water. CJ sees, not a larger picture, but the way that currents can feed into a central stream. His goal is to see his brother free and revenge against the former friends that sold out his neighborhood and led to his mother's murder.

So watching him bounce around between the little fish all trying to grow big enough to eat the other fish is not watching a man easily manipulated or directionless -- it's watching someone with the patience to discover and destroy the network that controls Los Santos and with the confidence and intelligence to build a new network to back him when he does finally seek closure.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Year End Roundup: That Ebert Guy

There's really no point in berating Mr. Ebert further.

But here's a choice little treat from the past, courtesy of Dennis Miller:

"So the next time you see Roger Ebert sitting there on his titanium-reinforced love seat, pissing off on the work of some young person who doesn't quite have it yet, but might be on his way to having it someday, remember the one time Roger decided to dive in to the deep end of the creative pool, he wrote the Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

If you've seen the film, you'll get it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Year End Roundup: The Loved


Games I love
to play. I return to them again and again.

1. Half-Life 2

I've played all the way through at least three times. Tightly scripted, well-choreographed, never-a-dull-moment (the lulls are perfectly planned and welcome). Dabbled with the Hammer editor more than I have with any other game, which isn't saying much, but does speak to the ease and flexibility of the system Valve created.

2. World of Warcraft

Stupid time suck. But it's the only way I get to communicate with certain friends. They've certainly never heard of a telephone. I hate grinding, but getting into a good grind in this game is like finding the pocket in a good funk rhythm -- you can stay there all night.

3. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Provides gameplay for every palate. Coming at the game several times over the course of the last year, its flaws become more apparent. But exercise caution -- it's dreadfully simple to get sucked back in to running missions, making money and tooling around the countryside.

4. The Movies

Still monkeying with this one, but that's the whole point. In-depth monkeying. The amount of content is staggering. A million-and-one expansions, please.

That's it. Only four, I know.

You might notice some high-profile titles are missing from this list.

Maybe you think F.E.A.R. should be on here? Sorry, I hated it. What of Civilization IV? I have the misfortune of owning a RADEON card which refuses to run the damn thing unless I perform an elaborate Ewe Voodoo ritual. I have better uses for my gris-gris.

Year End Roundup: The Hated


A truly
insane year.

I left behind the Marine Corps for several months of desperate living. Parlayed my contacts (one generous friend) into a job working QA. An absolute dream job for a great company -- even though I joined during the dreaded crunch time. Still beat pulling night watch in Yuma, Arizona. Or Iraq.

Here are five games I learned to loathe. Keep in mind they were not necessarily released this year.

Yes, they are all on the PS2. There are very good reasons for this.

I no longer own an XBox. And due to lack of funds I avoided all but the choicest PC titles.* But thanks to the magic of trade-ins I was able to get my hands on a fair number of PS2 games.

Not the worst. But the worst of those I played. In no particular order.

1. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

An RPG that starts with an intriguing premise and quickly spirals into absurdity. I reached the first boss and could not make a dent. After realizing I was meant to get into thousands of random, repetitive monster fights in order to level up enough to beat this first boss (out of several hundred) I turned it off. The good bit -- this game helped me reach the conclusion that I no longer cared for random, repetitive leveling, unless the game was called World of Warcraft. Sorry, Final Fantasy Whatever; It's not you, it's me.

2. I-Ninja

Fun. For a few minutes. Terrible fixed camera. Stupid boss fights consisting of first-person Rockem Sockem Robots -- only lacking the visceral feel of the real thing. Used a system of unlocking levels where each level ended up being recycled several times over, only with moronic new "goals" tacked on, usually a frustrating timed race. Bad levels, no cohesion in them or between them, surprisingly straightforward bop-fest despite the main character being a Ninja.

3. Malice

I like platformers. Sometimes underrated platformers will still yield fun gaming experiences. Not this one. I'm ignoring its place in the overhyped, very late pantheon (Gwen Stefani! Not Really! Dreamcast! Whoops!). It is just a horrible platformer by any standards. The levels are unbelievably short, sloppily-designed and ugly. There is little discernible connection between levels. The enemies -- stupid. The weapons -- stupid. Yes, you get magic, but it's so useless you'll forget you even have it - well, assuming you're playing this game, which would be a mistake in the first place. I admit that I beat this game, but only because it can be done in about three hours (which I spread out over the course of several months).

4. Run Like Hell

Started out . . . interesting . . . to me at least. Ended up being a boring corridor crawl with several swarm-the-player moments that led to replaying certain unnecessary segments. What really clinched it, though, was the constant advertising of Bawls. And an overly difficult boss fight.

5. The Getaway: Black Monday

The most annoying aiming system I've ever encountered. And just generally shitty controls. I can't comment on the story because I couldn't maintain interest long enough.


*Okay, I did play Boiling Point, but that game is contentious. It's the best worst game I played this year. So it stays out of the running owing to its contradictory nature.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Never Sleep Again


Apparently
a good friend of mine figured that I had way too much time to post (y'know, a whole once or twice a month), so he got me a 60-day World of Warcraft game card.

He obviously hates me. Or he's doing some kind of sleep-deprivation experiment.

Bastard.

Thanks.

If You Work In Advertising, Kill Yourself


The other voices
that have already chimed in on this Round Table pretty much nailed every sentiment I wanted to express.

Marketing tends to make me vomit, yet there are a few instances where I might consider it appropriate.

I would find ads appropriate in any game modeled on a shallow world of sleazy corporate interests that place profits over people. So, y'know, sports games and car racing. That's about it.

Must admit, though, this does sound interesting. The best of luck. I recommend only using sponsors that would allow ceaseless mockery of their products -- sooo, yeah, you'll need the best of luck.


Let's roleplay

Say you're an ad exec. You're Soulless McAsshole, in charge of corporate branding for the InaneCorp Branding Factory. You decide to set up some research on the efficacy of this New Hot Product (NHP in prick-speak) coming out in the fall.

So you go down to a mall. Set up a stand. You're displaying your NHP prominently, chatting up high school girls, generally acting like a pushy, insufferable, fake-ass jerkoff. In other words, smooth like butter, baby. Or a greased weasel.

You show off the NHP. You ask, "So, would you tell other people to buy this?"

The pretty plastic suburban couple respond as a single unit, their eyes twinkling with general malaise. "Oh, definitely," they say. "We'd tell all our friends about it." Of course, they have no friends.

The giggling teen girls, they chew gum and twirl their hair and say crap like, "Oh, like, totally. It's cool, yeah, it's cool," using the same tone of voice as when they assure their father that his taste in music is not complete shit. Of course, teen girls think everything new is cool, until someone decides it's no longer new enough.

The stoned dude, he looks at it, nods his head. "Yeah, man, it's alright." Of course, he's fucking stoned. You could have showed him a small guillotine used for castration and he would've said it's alright.

You flash your teeth and think, "We have got a winner."

So based on these absolutely meaningless responses you launch a blitz campaign. You tell your overlords that the product tested perfectly, that it was already hot and in and there was just a fuckton of buzz. Buzz everywhere. Absolutely insane amounts of buzz, the sewers were backed up with buzz and beginning to fester and smell and suffocate the homeless.

You start placing ads. Your key demographic is all that matters, so you push in that direction. The key stupidity of marketing is the idea that creating awareness of a brand is the single deciding factor in whether people purchase your product. That's good, go with that.

It's just like e-mail spam. People love that flood of excrement in their in-box every day. Or billboards. Why yes, I would like to know where the nearest car dealership is as I drive down the road in my fucking car -- hmm, maybe I should pick up a spare car on my way home.

So you're spamming all the target demographic's key media, just laying it on, the NHP is the killer app, the must-have toy, it will cause riots and floods and possibly lead to Armageddon.

The ads are, naturally, enormous lies, but they have flash and pizazz and you got some fancy psychiatrist guy to touch all the right buttons without imparting any information. You never give the customers information -- not ahead of time, not during purchase and certainly not after they've forked over their money and discovered the NHP is really a POS.

You send the NHP to a bunch of celebrities, especially dumb, shallow, privileged, rich blondes. "Just carry it around with you, get one shot of you with it, flash your tits if you have to. What am I saying, you've done this a million times before."

Sure enough, on the cover of Fit In! Magazine (Top essay: How to lower your self-esteem) there's this vapid, loathsome sellout in an assless designer dress, the NHP positioned by the corner of her partially open mouth, providing just the kick that the hint of an erect phallus presents -- totally professional.

You buy up time during the trendiest evening shows in order to run a 20-second spot which was designed by a too-clever-by-three-fifths fresh-outta-film-school twenty-something and is so fucking artsy that people find it unbelievably clever but can't seem to hold the product name in their mind for longer than three seconds. Total success. It repeats every twenty minutes.

You make sure that stores are stocked chockful of the NHP. You tell your salespeople to push that baby, push that little fucker like it's crack, make those consumers choke on it.

Let's say the product is an overpriced, cheaply-made pair of sunglasses released as part of a movie tie-in (the movie had a black guy and a white guy and they were soooo different but really they ended up saving the world and getting along and the quirkiness was just hilarious) and the videogame is due out in spring followed shortly by the obligatory porn parody (all companies involved being subsidiaries of InaneCorp).

As soon as a potential customer walks in the store the thralls spring into action. "Can I help you? The awesomest most greatest thing I've ever seen is this NHP, it's so totally you. Did I tell you it's you? There's a discount. Yeah, all the other stuff in this store is garbage, substandard, I'm not supposed to let anybody know, but the NHP is the only legitimate thing we sell here."

BAM! Sales are up. For some reason. Must be them intrusive advertisements.

Of course, all that money spent oversaturating the market and buying off the media to hawk your shit has resulted in a substantial net loss. And it doesn't take long before people tire of the incessant stupidity of your commercials, if they pay any attention to them at all (you might even pause for a moment to reflect on how DVRs are making your job so difficult -- maybe it would be worth it to push some restricting guidelines on the cable industry). And now you have to defend your market space from bastards trying to outbid your payoffs -- damned vultures, you bribed those retailers fair and square.

The next NHP that comes along requires you to go even bigger. InaneCorp wants to see some actual profit this time, and since you assured them that the marketing done last time boosted consumer brand loyalty they ask you to work your magic again. The price will be higher, due to increasing 'development costs', but that's just how things work.

Bigger. More. Consume. Grow.

You decide to go all out. You find some bald guy to slap a logo on his fat head. You paste up posters at bus stops and on taxi cabs and in public restroom stalls. TRL gives your new product a twenty-minute sermonette/handjob delivered fresh from a teeny popstar fuckdoll. Tombstones plastered with splashy graphics, graffiti artists pissing your moronic logos in the ultimate commodification assrape of a typically defiant artform, cut-and-paste marketing kits sent to notable blogs. Dirigibles over sports arenas, collector's cups, phony websites cross-pollinated with automated text-messaging services, you're all about the synergy, baby.

It's never enough. Never enough to justify the ever-spiraling budgets or the fact that you're an empty husk of corporate greed and manipulative insipidity.

Eventually you're slash-and-burning swathes of rainforest to spell out the name of your next big thing for satellite images.


Buy Shit!

I'm not impressed with current marketing techniques. Knowing that the crapfest is going to become more prevalent in videogames just cues up my gag reflex and boosts my internal filters. I hardly notice ads anymore -- even the clever ones might register a laugh and then get purged from my system. In fact, I've noticed that trying to pay close attention to ads often makes me feel ill; Now that's conditioning.

Aggressive marketing is a blight, it is a mind-numbing pandemic, it skews the noise-to-signal ratio of useful information toward the noise end in a major way. I'm not against advertising one-hundred percent -- but I'm certainly against the wasteful and mendacious tidal wave of garbage that is slotted into every available media crevice.

We cannot expect a comfortable, supportive relationship between game companies and advertisers. Will we see design documents being vetted for product mentions?

Inevitability is often tossed around -- it's the excuse that people making stupid decisions use in order to justify those decisions to suckers.

Anybody know how I can get some ad revenue?

This post sponsored by InaneCorp

Monday, December 05, 2005

Mr. Ebert's Homework


I know that
Corvus is tired of all the discussion concerning Roger Ebert's spurning of videogames as a viable medium.

But I have to add some things.

The conceit that, since Mr. Ebert reviewed a single videogame years ago, he was thus gifted with the insight to write off an entire medium is the ultimate in snobbery.

I saw the movie Leprechaun 4. Based upon that viewing, it is clear to me that movies cannot be art. There were a few scenes of visual artistry (a leprechaun wielding a lightsaber), but all in all movies represent time wasted when I could have been bettering myself and culture by chiseling naked men out of marble. Shape them glutes!

The idea that authorial control is the dividing line for art is nonsensical. The idea that mutability of a medium is the dividing line for not-art is also nonsensical.*

He'll never visit
my site, but I've compiled some very basic coursework with simple descriptions. Playing through a good deal of games on this list might give him a single leg to stand on:

Visually Awe-Inspiring Games

--Shadow of the Colossus
Not only for its unity of visual elements but also for the way it completely understates its very sequential narrative and puts the player in a state of moral ambiguity, subverting the dominant thrust of typical heroic videogame archetypes.

--Rez
Fully psychedelic, creates an interactive synaesthesia.

Games That Maintain Strong Authorial Control

--Metal Gear Solid and its sequels
Well-known for its incredibly strict interpretation of story. My favorite is the third game, which was the most coherent -- the exploration of cold war themes, escalation and shifting alliances that connected with modern issues.

--Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
The twist with this one is that within its linear structure there was a strong element of time-manipulation -- one could call it postmodern, if one wished to be a prick.

Games That Assemble An Implied Narrative From Disparate Elements

--Civilization
Almost like abstract art. A Picasso, perhaps, wherein familiar yet loosely-defined elements lead to the viewer filling in the blanks, building up detailed backstories. With time always moving forward and the interplay of reaching historical milestones there was never a case of stagnation.

-X-Com
Similar to the above, though at a largely tactical level. Had one of the best unseen methods of constantly and consistently raising the challenge without relying on fixed points.

Games That Encourage Empathy

--Nintendogs
Yes, it's a glorified tamagotchi. Yes, that actually matters. People do form empathetic connections with them. Deal with it.

--The Sims 2
Well, this one probably encourages both empathy and sadism. Still, even if it's not your cup of tea, it's pretty easy to figure out that a living freaking dollhouse is an appealing idea to lots and lots of people.

Games That Are Even Now Altering Society

--World of Warcraft
You can't get that many people together without changing something. For better or for worse. Or both.

--Second Life
The creative side of the online gaming scene. Some artists would scoff at considering anything modeled on a computer to be art; Those artists are idiots.

--Pretty much any MMO
And it's only going to get worse. Worse as in farther-reaching.

Most of the games I've listed are somewhat recent. While I'm sure that Ebert could gush for hours over the simple propaganda of Potemkin, he probably would be completely unable to see anything of merit in any videogame classics. So that can be saved for a later class.

Then he needs to travel over to Grand Text Auto and brush up on interactive fiction and different varieties of text adventures.

Then he should go to Water Cooler Games and read up on games that explore social, political, educational and other issues.

Then try Avant Gaming and see what is happening on the cutting edge.

Also, he could go out on a huge limb and at least take a peek at some pen and paper RPGs. And I advise him to go beyond anything strictly munchkin or swords & sorcery.

Of course, none of this, I suspect, would alter Mr. Ebert's view. I assume some kind of cultural blind spot, a gut-reaction on his part that would lead him to conclude that videogames cannot make people more cultured, civilized or empathetic; On the flip side of this, then, is the assumption that somehow all dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers automatically make us more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

My hats off to you, Uwe Boll.

*I use mutability instead of interactivity, the latter seems to be the word most commonly employed when defining games. However, I feel that all media has interactive elements -- even if it's as basic as yelling at the screen MST3K style. Mutability, of course, has its own problems -- what to make of a DJ re-mixing songs on the fly? -- but that's a subject for another day.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Blah Violent Bleh Links Bluh Games


This just in:
Video games turn kids into violent sociopaths just like drinking shots of heroin while listening to hippity-hop and feeding their tamagotchi!

Snagged this link from buttonmashing, which discusses the Federal video game legislation proposed by Senators Clinton and Lieberman.

I've gone over
the idiocy of this issue before, but it bears repeating. Look at Senator Clinton's summation of her proposal.

"Senator Clinton was motivated to take action on this issue when it was revealed in July that Rockstar Games had embedded illicit sexual content in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This game had received a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which was unaware of the embedded content."

So she was motivated by the fact that a MATURE-RATED GAME had hidden MATURE CONTENT. Is the stupidity clear enough yet? Hilary Clinton was motivated by the SHOCKING REVELATION that a game that was rated for seventeen years and older had naughty content, and she wants to protect all the children that SHOULDN'T BE PLAYING the game anyway ACCORDING TO THE INDUSTRY'S SELF-REGULATING STANDARDS.

To be fair, Senator Clinton just wants to punish those nasty retailers that sell naughty stuff to kids. I'm wondering just how much this will affect places like Wal-Mart versus smaller retailers.

Tell you what
, I have my own addition to the bill: Any parents found buying restricted material for their children or giving their children money to purchase items without supervision will be chained to their children until they reach 18 years of age.

In other Stupid Legislation news, there is the big story of the Illinois Violent Game Bill. Cathodetan had a very good post discussing the Illinois Governor's words. Of course, the bill was found to be unconstitutional.

The judge in this case said some great things, most notably, "If controlling access to allegedly 'dangerous' speech is important in promoting the positive psychological development of children, in our society that role is properly accorded to parents and families, not the State." Outstanding.

Moving on
to my Misleading, Vague and Idiotic Statements file, the American Psychological Association released a call for reduction of violence in interactive media by children and adolescents (dated August 17, 2005).

First, the Misleading:
“Playing video games involves practice, repetition, and being rewarded for numerous acts of violence, which may intensify the learning. This may also result in more realistic experiences which may potentially increase aggressive behavior." No, no and no. Just no. No discussion of how children have been seen to differentiate between playtime and reality. No talk of possible cathartic effects. No concept of what could possiblyconstitutee 'realistic experiences'.

Second, the Vague
: ". . . recommending that all violence be reduced in video games and interactive media marketed to children and youth." Who determines whether a video game advertisement is aimed at children and youth? I'm guessing that the APA would just assume that any video game ad would be aimed at children and youth -- they don't clarify how to make the determination.

Third, the Idiotic:
"Based on the findings, the APA recommends:
* Teach media literacy to children so they will have the ability to critically evaluate interactive media.
* Encourage the entertainment industry to link violent behaviors with negative social consequences.
* Develop and disseminate a content-based rating system that accurately reflects the content of the video games and interactive media.
* Developers of violent video games and interactive media address the issues that playing these games may increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors in children and adolescents and that these effects may potentially be greater than the effects of exposure to violent television and movies."

The first one is a great idea. Awesome idea. Really has as much to do with every other form of media as it does with video games. So let's just take out 'interactive' from that first statement and, y'know, make it that much more useful.

The second one just shows that the APA doesn't really know anything about videogames. How, exactly, is a game to link violent behaviors with negative social consequences? That doesn't even mean anything. I tried to think of a joke, but it's so illogical that it repels humor.

The third, well, already exists. No, really, it does. It's called the ESRB. But I guess you could always listen to the MediaWise folks. Again, thanks to cathodetan, I don't need to offer any analysis. And the ESRB has responded.

The fourth is basically like saying, "Confess, game developers! Confess to something that, to date, is assuredly not definitive! Confess, or else!" It's nonsense and meaningless.

Thanks, APA. Truly you are a worthy contributor to the dumbing down of humanity.

Friday, December 02, 2005

What I Do


WARNING! BORING POST: READ WITH CAUTION


Some people might wonder what exactly occurs in a QA Testing department.

Since that is where I spend one-third of every week, I thought I would give a rundown of the generalized processes that consume my life.

I start work sometime between 8 and 10. Flex-time is great.

There's a computer and a 360 on my desk. Right now I don't have a cubicle, so it's a little cramped but not too bad.

I logon and check Outlook -- look for reports of balance changes and skim the new A bugs (those with highest priority) and any other important announcements.

I open up the game folder and run an archive update. This will pull down the current build. Xbox builds are usually run at a scheduled time, so while I'm waiting for the PC I'll fire up the 360 and start a new game. Well, after I get my morning cup of coffee.

It's pretty clear within a few minutes whether a build is stable. Major bugs will go in right away, and if they're glaring enough we might roll back to an earlier build. The same thing will happen with PC -- often there's a pretty mad scramble to find a way to make a build stable enough for us to go through our testing cycle.

Testing

All testers have assignments, sections of the game in which they look for issues with AI, graphics, physics, saving/loading, pretty much anything at all.

I don't think I can overstress the importance of having organized and thorough test cases.

Sometimes the problem will be completely obvious -- missing texture, broken model. Sometimes it takes very careful sleuthing, backtracking from effects to causes, and in these cases it can be useful to speak with the other testers. Familiarity with the game systems are very important, and it would be rare to have one tester be an expert in them all (or any of them, really).

So as the day goes by I work my way through my assignments.

When I hit a bug, then a whole different process kicks off. The first step is to see how often a bug reproduces. Which means repeating everything I did prior to setting off the bug (to the best of my ability) and getting a save before the bug occurs.

If a bug doesn't repeat (and it's pure guesswork figuring out how many times to try and get it to repeat before you decide it was a one-of-a-kind glitch) then I will move on, keeping a lookout for similar problems, trying to see if there is a general issue.

If a bug repeats, then I enter it into the database.

The bug database will ask for a summary of the bug (short and simple terms, to make it easier for other people to search for known issues) and has dropdown boxes to classify the issue -- on what build did it occur, what type of system is affected, what percentage of time it occurs.

There are also two large text boxes. The first is for a description of what happens -- this is a good place to put down any incidental information that might be pertinent.

The second text box is for the steps to reproduce. This is especially tedious. You have to write down exactly what someone else needs to do in order to get the bug to occur. The better the description, the less likely the bug will come back to you with a request for more information.

Regressions

Another side of QA is performing regressions.

After a bug is marked fixed, it goes to the QA lead to assign to team members. Then it enters a team member's queue.

So, the breakdown of the life cycle of an ideal bug might look something like this:

1. A bug is entered in the database.
2. The bug is assigned to be fixed -- art bugs go to artists, code bugs go to programmers, and so on in that fashion.
3. The bug is fixed and gets assigned back to QA.
4. The bug is assigned to a QA team member -- they attempt to reproduce the bug.
5. If the bug does not repeat, then it is verified in the system and closes out; If it occurs as described then it is failed and goes back to Step 2.

This is the essence of QA. There are other tasks that more experienced members of the team handle (TCR stuff, which is something so tedious that, if discussed, it would triple the Boring Level of this post).

Quickdesign - Call me, Tyra!


Watching
America's Next Top Model with the wife.

Would make a pretty good game.

The show is set up around fairly simple challenges that could be reconfigured in different ways. The real challenge would be creating what is, for me, the core of the show: the inflated egos, the shifting alliances, the backbiting, the support, the pomposity of fashion.

Also important would be making an interesting pose system. How do you make a system that allows overall changes to body and face while under time pressure? I suppose there could be randomized poses and hitting a button would swap them around -- but that's so boring. I'm thinking some kind of organic "drawing" system (almost like what's being seen in Okami).

Not sure how the judging would work, either. They each have personalities, but they have to be able to reach a consensus.

Anyway, that's it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

I Need Some Spats


Tinkering
with The Movies has been a joy.

It requires patience, large amounts of it -- it is not so much directing as it is remixing, so you must have the mindset of a DJ poring over samples, cutting and splicing and tweaking until everything is just so.

Some people might be disappointed to find that Sandbox mode doesn't even unlock everything, you still have to build up your studio and play the game -- though with considerable help. While I too would have liked all the moviemaking options laid out for me, I also find it fascinating to think of all the content that remains for me to discover.

And there is a lot of content.

What follows is a short-term wishlist:

1. Detailed light placement and color picker.

2. The ability to lay out routes for dolly shots and camera panning.

3. Freeze frames in postproduction.

I made a small film to celebrate my two-year wedding anniversary. I'm sure my wife wouldn't mind me sharing it (since it's uploaded on a public web page anyway).

Here you go.

And while it might still be debated by some whether or not videogames can make a person cry, I now know firsthand that things created with the aid of a videogame can turn on the waterworks.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Talk About a Trial


I decided to give
the Star Wars: Galaxies Free Trial a go, because I'm a sucker and learned nothing from my initial experience with the game.

The installer works on a strange system whereby it puts up a completely arbitrary set of numbers to represent the time remaining to download -- and then those numbers increase at a steady rate.

I think at one point it told me that the download would finish a short time following the heat-death of the Universe.

I'm assuming that they are sending the information by way of a trail of ants marching their way through the modem cable, each ant carrying an orgone imprint of a 1 or 0 -- upon reaching my end, the ants self-immolate, the moment of their deaths transmitting the information encoded upon them through the ether, captured and translated into electrical signals by some type of Reichian collector.

Oh, and by the way: 200th post!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Here Today, Gun Tomorrow


Gun
.

Far too short. The gameplay is narrow, but with a wide view.

When you make a large world designed with freedom and choices in mind, it's important to remember to fill that world with lots of interesting activities that actually contribute to freedom and choices.

It doesn't take very long, after you've learned the ropes, to find that there is simply nothing at all to do other than a few repetitive sidequests or advancing the plot.

There's no dynamic to the game, no feeling of making an impact outside of the fixed storyline. The cities feel like facades from a spaghetti western. The countryside has tumbleweeds, grazing buffalo and not much else.

The weapon mechanics are slick and friendly, but there are few situations where weapon choice takes on any significance. It's usually enough to plug away with whatever you've got, every now and then dropping into the (apparently now a requirement in every game*) slo-mo system to plug the bad guys with your pistol(s).

You can scalp enemies. This serves no purpose whatsoever and is not tracked. Do it often if you like repeating activities that have no impact on the game.

The story itself is engaging, but it zips along. There's never a moment where a segment doesn't feel rushed. The characters don't get fully fleshed out and they aren't expressive enough to develop much attachment to them. The voice acting is great, though, and helps a bit, but the body language is a canned loop that is absolutely laughable.**

I feel this game should come with a label: Warning! This game contains a cheap end-boss fight that will be so stupidly frustrating that not beating it won't impact your self-esteem.

Here are a few things I would have liked to see:
--An American Bison stampede
--A herd of Mustangs
--A detailed duel system
--The ability to swim
--A barfight - which would also mean hands & fists combat
--Buildings that had some purpose
--Stagecoach/train robberies
--Cattle rustling
--Claim jumping!

*As dictacted by the Bullet Time Act of 2005

**Why, oh why does everyone do that stupid fucking shrug when they've finished talking? Way to recycle the 'lame skater punk' mocap data, Neversoft.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

An Aside


My television show
standards are not very high.

But how is it that not one fucking show can refrain from using a variant of the phrase, "I'm feeling nauseous."

Just once, only once, I'd like to find out a script writer remembers that nauseating is still a word.

Check out dictionary.com and read the usage note.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Twelve Steppers and Teetotallers


Allow me
, an authority on absolutely nothing whatsoever, to get the word out:

Video games are not addictive.

It can be difficult to change from thinking "things are addictive" to "people exhibit self-destructive feedback loops in reaction to different stimuli."

It's much easier to endow objects with a mystifying quality than to take on more responsibility for our actions than we may desire.

We blame the games, like we blame the drugs, like we blame everything but ourselves.

[Note: The following website, MAVAV, is a confirmed hoax, as pointed out by Allen Varney. I'm leaving the paragraphs they way they originally appeared, even though I was duped. A clever hoax has sturdy legs -- just ask HL Mencken.]

Just look at Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence, filled with unverified claims, black-or-white thinking and sensationalism. For example, their definition of an MMORPG:

"Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) is a digital escape from the real world for emotionally unhealthy and mentally unstable people. It is a place for computer enthusiasts and social outcasts to gather un-bothered and un-harassed by the realities of real life."

Notice the demeaning tone and the core assumption that MMORPGs are a harmful activity. Seems a pretty strong claim considering that MMOs capture an ever-growing world market that is at the least in the tens of millions. I would say that being an ignorant demagogue is a delusional escape from actual logic for emotionally manipulative and mentally questionable people.

You could also take a look at The Daedalus Project, which strives to collect data from actual players. Taking a look at their model of player motivations shows an issue more complex than the alarmists would allow.

Our brains are addicting machines. They create connections, compulsions, responses, tendencies, habits, and patterns, all of which are reflected in our behavior. Combine the chemicals that sort conceptual data with those that trigger somatic responses and complex behaviors emerge.

Specific interactions may react more forcefully inside certain people, fulfilling mental/chemical needs with such efficacy that attempts to interrupt or cease the behavior results in physical/mental distress.

Chemicals don't decide our fates anymore than those experiences which trigger those chemicals. The tricky part is that there could be no discernible difference between physical and mental addiction, other than the type and magnitude of chemicals involved.

Can it be difficult to break a cycle of dependency? It can be grueling.

There is a rat. When this rat presses a button it triggers a release of endorphins in its brain. There is a surge as the neurotransmitter floods all available receptors, then a lessening of the effect as it is drawn back into the cycle. The stimulation of the receptors may lead to an increase in the number of those receptors. The next time the button is pressed more of the neurotransmitter may be required. Why does the rat push the button over and over until he starves?

There is a girl. When she presses a button, images flash and she watches the screen react to her input. Dopamine floods her receptors. This is a pleasurable experience. So she continues to push the button, neglecting friends and family. She craves that dopamine rush.

There is an NPC. This NPC has been programmed to open a door. The door is locked. The NPC has no key. The NPC tries to open the door. The door is locked. The NPC tries to open the door. Until an instruction arrives to supersede that instruction, the NPC will continue to try to open the door.

Do we blame the chemicals? Do we blame the activity which triggered them? Should we?

Maybe it's just poor programming.

All those sad sacks in AA, are they all alcoholics? What about the ones that have been sober for 10 years?

The first step is to admit that you were powerless. The admission you must make from that moment forward is that you are an addict. You must never say you were an addict. By always framing yourself as an addict, you attempt to prevent the insidious little thought: "But all that bad stuff was in the past. What's one little drink?"

This is how magic works. Or you could call it Will to Power. Or adjusting your self-image. Or empowerment.

I would discuss metaprogramming, but Leary, Lilly and others have done the job wonderfully.

The governments of the world can pass all kinds of legislation designed to (ostensibly) protect citizens from their own desire-run-amok, but that won't stop addiction.

If you have to, if you absolutely must, keep pressing the buttons, even as the hours or days slip away and you stop eating, even as your friends leave and your family frets and you dig that hole deeper, ever deeper, until you've guaranteed that escape would be nearly impossible, then your problem can't be solved by laws or social outcry or demagogues.

Eventually, if you've recognized your problem and are willing to seek help, then there's only one button left to press.

The power button.

We have done an outstanding job with our myriad cultural inventions to fulfill the manifestations of our hidden chemical needs. And when those needs run away from us we do an even better job of shifting the blame.

A videogame can't make you a killer; You first have to be willing to kill.

A videogame can't make you cry; You first have to be willing to cry.

A videogame can't make you play.


Supplemental Anecdote
:

In twelfth grade I gave a report in my Anatomy and Physiology class. The name of the study I was discussing is now lost to time, but I clearly remember the subject and the resulting confusion it created.

The topic was the Alcoholism gene and its implications.

Of course, hands were raised and the question that came out again and again: "So if you have this gene you're going to be an alcoholic?"

"No, no, no." I'd shake my head and try to explain. "You see. If you have this gene it is possible that with the correct circumstances that the ingestion of alcohol could set off certain cascade reactions that would lead to a feedback loop encouraging the continued ingestion of alcohol. Addiction would include not just repetition of the behavior but intense withdrawal symptom following any attempts to stop the behavior."

This was not exactly an easy-to-float concept, even in that class. "So this gene makes you an alcoholic?"

Sigh. "No. Consuming alcohol to an extent where it begins to negatively impact your life and subverts your patterns of behavior that allow you to function -- where the consumption is near-impossible to moderate -- that makes you an alcoholic. The behavior goes hand in hand with different cycles of chemical dependence."

"So, like, no matter what, if you have this gene you're an alcoholic?"

"Oh god, how do I explain this. If you have this gene and drink alcohol, there's a significant chance that you may develop behavioral patterns consistent with addiction -- at least compared to samples of persons that lack this gene. If you never drink, you'll never become an alcoholic. Ever. And actually, you could have this gene and drink alcohol and never fall into a pattern of alcoholic behavior. It just depends on a lot of other factors."

Blank looks.

I'm still trying to get a handle on the subject myself.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Favorite Language, Blue


Thanks
to Majcher, for sending me a link on IGDA forums that had a minor little back-and-forth on my Warren Spector post.

Most surprising, to me, was this little nugget, from arsagano:

"How you present an argument is more important, if not drastically so, than the argument itself. Since I couldn't finish the article, I have no idea if his points were valid or not. When you attempt to debate using such harsh language you completely undermine your viewpoint."

The saddest thing, to me, about such a statement is that the author will probably never experience Bukowski, or Hunter S. Thompson, or Chuck Palahniuk.

They'll probably never give a chance to certain types of music simply because they use vocabulary in a manner they find distasteful. And they'll ignore the many excellent movies that have employed vulgarity.

I don't think I undermine my viewpoint by using harsh language, because my viewpoint includes harsh language.

The presentation is more important than the message? Did I miss a memo? Or is this some kind of extension of the videogame industry's fixation on graphics over gameplay?

Here's gametitan:

"I couldnt get past the harsh language, just seemed to juvenile.Warren's post was well written and mature from a developer with a praised career. Countering that with something that is juvenile just makes Warren's case more stronger."

I would have rather had some discussion of, oh, my content rather than the window dressing. As it is, disparaging my post (and not reading it) over some potty mouth makes me wonder, then, gametitan: What's your point?

You didn't read the post and then you cite the presence of a few curse words in order to label the whole thing too juvenile.

What really bothers me when people dismiss ideas whole cloth simply because of "bad" words (and when they use their dismissal as grounds to call the work childish) is the implication that when I use profanity it's reflexive; As if I were not aware whatsoever of my word choices and the reactions that some people might have toward them.

Believe me, I'm aware.

I have a dream . . . that in the future my words will be judged, not by their content, but by whether or not I use harsh language.

Anyway, thought this was an interesting little aside.

Now I'm going to wait for the inevitable comment that suggests I'm far too sensitive and shouldn't post on the Internet and so on.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Spector Hangs Over Us


Reported already
, but thought I'd chime in.

Warren Spector waxes nonsensical.

"At this point, GTA is the ultimate urban thuggery simulation, and you can't take a step back from that. But I sure wish they would apply the same level of design genius to something we really could show enriches the culture instead of debases it."

Ah, yes, enriching culture. Also know as empty term.

See, I was raised not knowing what the fuck 'enriched' our culture or not. I was taught to make my own judgments concerning what culture I consumed and not bother with trying to figure out what was best for someone else, what might possibly advance humanity. With, naturally, the influence of my fucking parents (you can tell they did a good job).

Culture doesn't enrich or debase. Anybody heard the one about the guy that butchered his father, fucked his mother then gouged out his eyeballs? A classic.

I don't want to read too much into Mr. Spector's words. I admire his work in the videogame industry. But that phrase "urban thuggery" just comes off a little teensy-bit . . . oh, elitist. So, like, conspiracy theory-based thuggery good, urban thuggery bad?

"And as we're seeing, they're feeling threatened. And that's not something I think we can afford to ignore."

We can't ignore them, see, so we must give in to their demands to ensure that everything will be communicated to us at a fourth grade level. Or we could politely listen to them, educate them on the measures in place to inform consumers and thank them for being so understanding. As if.

"They don't understand why their son is barricading himself in his room killing demons all day. And they don't understand why their daughter, instead of playing with Barbies which is something they understand, is instead raising families of little virtual electronic people."

First off, get this: Boys play violent games and girls like The Sims. That's another nitpick, but it shows that even famous developer-types still hold onto stereotypes like a dog with an old sock.
I'm wondering if these hypothetical parents have bothered to talk to their hypothetical children about why their children choose to play such games. You know, that whole communication "thing" that was so popular back before we blamed everything on media (back before never, in other words).

"They don't get it. And people blame and fear what they don't understand," he added.

And we must placate them. Placate them by any means possible. Or we could do that other words that ends with -cate. Educate.

Oh, and the particularly nasty ones we can just tell to go fuck themselves. Those types tend to burst into flames upon hearing naughty words.

Spector finished by calling for the industry to create games that are more than "mindless pathetic killfests," games that show players the consequences of their actions and evoke emotions. He said that "right now pretty much all we [game makers] offer is a cheap adrenalin rush."

Yes, yes, make a call for more creativity by disparaging all that has come before. That always works so well. I want to pull out as much meaning from the last few statements as I possibly can. Keep in mind this is going to reek of assumptions. Deal.

1. All games made to date have been mindless pathetic killfests. Which means not only are you all idiots, but you're also pathetic. Especially if you played Deus Ex (I get hit twice, since I also played the sequel - doubly pathetic).

2. No game has ever showed anyone the consequences of their actions. So when you ate the power pellet in Pac-Man you only thought it allowed you to go after the Ghosts. And when you shot all those people in GTA, it was your imagination that there was an escalating system whereby law enforcement personnel would attempt to prevent your forward progress.

3. Games have never evoked emotions. Ever. Nope, won't even entertain the notion. We'll tell you shitheads when games have evoked emotions, yes sir.

4. Mr. Spector has never thought of games as anything other than cheap adrenalin rushes; Ergo, games have never been anything other than cheap adrenalin rushes. I know, he said 'pretty much' so there's a little wiggle room. Good show.

"I do think that a lot of the games we make lead to a coarsening of our culture. And I think that inevitably leads to government and judicial intervention. And that means eventual cultural irrelevance."

Coarsening of culture is always the first cry of dickheads that find themselves and what they say growing increasingly irrelevant. That's my guess, at least. Can't wait till I can join my voice to that bullshit party line.

Mostly what his statements seem to boil down to is the lovely battle cry of the industry folks that see dollar signs in them thar hills (them hills being the Hollywood system and traditional Big Media) and are worried of pushing envelopes too far before they've managed to carve out their own niche.

That battle cry, as I've mentioned before, is the delightfully cognitive dissonance-causing "We must preemptively censor ourselves so that the government does not censor us; Only by not doing anything potentially offensive can we ensure that freedom of expression is protected."

Absolute horseshit.

As for cultural irrelevance, yeah, sure, I buy that.

After all, look at what happened to books . . . and movies . . . and music . . . and comicbooks . . . and the Internet . . .

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tangential


Books, you fools!


"Software giant Microsoft Corp. said Friday it has signed a deal to scan and put online 100,000 books from the British Library."

So, there's that.

Then there's Google Print. Somewhat controversial (it's a copyright thang) but nevertheless moving forward.

And I discovered how to check out e-books using my county library card.

It's like the world suddenly remembered that reading's not so bad. And they're making it really damn easy for those of us with librophilia (assuming that's a word) to slake at least some of our lust.

Though speaking as someone who is in dire need of at least three or four more bookshelves, I'm sure I will continue, with the help of the spouse, to acquire more and more analog texts. It's almost a sickness, at this point.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Snickers


Crunch time
.

Know this much, ye who seek employ at a videogame development company: You will inevitably be called upon to sacrifice many, many hours in order to provide the masses with digital interactive distractions. Forget your aches and pains, forget your extended commute, forget all matters of body and mind.

This is not a complaint, but a warning. Not even much of a warning, more like a heads-up.

Be prepared.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Strogg Thumping


So. Hm
. Quake IV.

I liked it less . . . when it was called Doom 3.

My nitpick: Are there no subtitles? I couldn't find an option for them, so I'm going to assume they just aren't available.

Wow. Carmack can code an engine capable of eighty-gazillion texture-mapped polygons with a googolplex of shaders per second, but he can't figure out how to display text to a screen in response to a voice trigger?

I prefer games that offer subtitles, even if they're simple run-shoot-run-shoot affairs. This is because I play games with the sound off . . . because I have about three hours of free time a night in which to watch eight hours of television shows . . . because, well, I suppose because that's how I like to do things. And that little bit of text is often all that keeps me following the thread of the game, like little carrots in between the chunks of meat.

I apologize if there is a subtitle option and I've simply missed it.

But if not --

WHACK! With the Minor Annoyances Stick.

--This post brought to you by the Grand Order of Onomotopoeiacs of Boom Bang Crash--

Monday, October 24, 2005

Basic Training

"Once upon a time, psychologists usefully distinguished between the meaning of fantasizing a thing as opposed to doing it, but those days seem to be very long gone."
-Fred Smoler

Booting Up

"Welcome maggots."

I looked up to the source of the voice from my position on-line. I was in my skivvies, awaiting the introduction of our Drill Instructors.

Shivering, I was shocked by who I saw standing on the quarterdeck.

Jack Thompson! It was unmistakable. The shock of white hair, the rheumy, piercing, venom-filled eyes, the permanently furrowed brow. All capped by a stiff Smokey Bear.

"Now then, pukes," he spat. "Which of you sorry fuckfaces have played videogames before?"

Hands shot up around the squadbay. Jack broke into a vicious grin. "Hardened killers, every one of you. My job's half done already. The ESA had no idea their rape and murder simulators would actually do a service in the War Against Terror." He chuckled, a sick, gurgling sound.

He passed a cursory glance over us. "Why are you all lined up?"

I stepped forward. "Drill Instructor Sergeant Thompson is supposed to do a hygiene inspection, sir!"

He sneered. "No, no. None of that claptrap. We get right down to training." He clapped his hands, and burly men began wheeling televisions and large, unmarked boxes into the room.

We were each issued a TV and several videogame consoles, along with a smattering of games.

I spoke up again, immediately regretting it. "Shouldn't we be issued M-16s, sir? Actual weapons?"

Jack strode over to my rack. The guys around the room cautiously avoided looking in my direction.

"Weapons? Weapons!?" He made it sound like I'd asked for a meatball sub and a handjob. "The only weapon you'll ever need is that controller. You'll carry it everywhere, even sleep with it. Now get your ass on my quarterdeck, pick up that PSP and start expanding that cranial menu!"

My face covered in spit, I did as he ordered. The game was GTA: Liberty City Stories.

Letter Home

Dear Mom and Dad,

Boot camp is ok. Our DI, Sgt. Jack Thompson, is a little strange, though. He's had us playing Grand Theft Auto, Full Spectrum Warrior, Halo 2 and, for some reason, The Sims 2 day in and day out. We hardly get any sleep. I'm starting to get RSI in my hands and my thumbs feel like they're going to fall off.

We're all getting a lot fatter here, but every time we suggest a good run or even a day at the range the DI tells us that nobody ever learned how to kill by getting in shape and firing actual weapons. He doesn't seem to understand even the simplest metaphors, like abstract thought is too difficult for him. I think maybe he confuses reality with the games we're playing. Somebody said it could be schizophrenia.

Yesterday I tried to do some pushups and when the DI caught me he made me pick up prostitutes over and over again and then run them over -- which isn't even fun the first time. Then he said I was a killer, and the only thing keeping me from jail was that the government needs murderers like me.

They say we'll probably be sent over to Iraq soon as we get out of Boot Camp. We don't even get to go to our MOS school. The DI says it's unnecessary, that the games are all we need.

I'm a little scared.

Love,

Your Son


Coin Insertion

The chopper's blades drowned out any other sound. The whole team was with me, all of Jack's Boys, as the papers were calling us.

We descended onto a makeshift helo pad and offloaded.

Our CO was there to meet us.

"Welcome to Hell," he yelled above the roar of the chopper as it gained altitude and disappeared over the horizon. "I am your commanding officer, Colonel Grossman. I understand Sergeant Thompson put you guys together as a crack unit, and I expect nothing but the best. I know you've had the best videogame training available, so you all know what it's like to kill, to rip a man in half, to hold the steaming guts in your hand."

I started to protest but held my tongue.

He pointed toward the distant mountains.

"That is the Hindu Kush region. You boys are to load up on AMTRACs and assault an enemy position on a ridge. Out there. Somewhere." He smiled. "Smoke 'em out of their holes."

We crammed into our vehicles and rode out over the dusty desert.


Too Few Health Packs

"Go, go, go, go!" shouted Colonel Grossman as the rear hatch slammed open.

The night was suddenly awash in smoke and tracer fire.

I shoved Spencer forward. "Get going, and get down!" I yelled. His eyes were teary, but he listened. He ran into the night and flung himself on the ground.

I followed after and struggled to get my bearings.

Paczkowski kneeled down next to me. "What's the reload button?" he screamed.

"What?"

He fiddled with his M-16. "The reload button. I don't see an 'R' key or anything."

"Get down, you idiot!"

Pacz's head exploded in a shower of thick blood and bone fragments. Spencer began howling and pawing at his face. "What's the command to disconnect from this server? Disconnect . . . disconnect . . . " I left him babbling and crawled forward.

By now the enemy was concentrating arcs of fire toward our vehicles and automatic weapons. I remembered that they had given Williams an M-249 SAW. For some insane reason. Sergeant Thompson had made him play Ghost Recon for two weeks and decided to make him the machine-gunner.

I found Williams wheezing. His blood was soaking into the sand. "Hey," he said when he spied me.

"Hey, Williams."

He looked around. "I-I tried, I really did." A thin line of blood streamed out of his mouth and down his chin. "They didn't even give me ammo. Said I'd be able to find it just lying around. Said I could run over a bunch of bullets and they'd go right into the weapon."

Williams closed his eyes.

I grabbed the SAW and sprinted toward a rocky outcrop.

Adams and Rider trained their weapons on an enemy. Surprisingly, the combatant raised his arms. Adams grabbed a grenade and lobbed it toward their new prisoner. Who was standing only fifteen feet away.

"Drop to the ground, you morons!" I yelled, but they were too far away to hear. The POW went up in a red misty cloud. Rider was cut into pieces by the shrapnel; He caught the brunt of it. Adams got his share, however.

I ran down to Adams. "What happened?" he croaked.

I shook my head. "It was a grenade. You threw it. Those things have a range. They send out shards of metal that rip through flesh."

"That's stupid. Worst particle effects evar." And then he died.

All through the night men -- boys, really -- were dying.

Cutty ran into a minefield screaming, "I ownzzor, fags!" And he blew up.

Maddox grabbed a flag and began running around screaming about finding "the base." He was killed by friendly fire.

Eigen tried to wrestle the controls away from a helicopter pilot. He crashed it into a humvee.

All around, devastation. Death. Poor grammar and third-grade insults.

A small flicker of light caught my eye and I low-crawled toward it. It resolved itself as a Game Boy Advance held by the radioman, Allen. "Hey," he mumbled. He was playing Advance Wars. "This isn't so hard."

"You got the radio," I breathed out.

"Here." He tossed me a handset.

I called for an airstrike. "You okay, Allen?"

He shrugged. "Sure, man." He pointed to his Game Boy. "Those other noobs just forgot their training."


Continue?

Grossman and Thompson surveyed the battlefield.

"They're all dead, sir." I walked up with Allen at my side. The stench of charred corpses, cordite and napalm hung thick in the air.

The colonel and the sergeant nodded in unison.

"Well, a new crop will be ready soon enough," Colonel Grossman began. "Thompson, step up the training."

"Oh, no problem, sir." Thompson grinned. "Bully should be out in a few months."


"Grossmanism, then, is a compound of various forms of historical illiteracy, aggravated by a perfect absence of common sense. The assertion that video games have produced an ever-more violent American population runs afoul of the simple fact that rates of violent crime in this country have been falling for most of the last decade, precisely the period in which video game use has exploded. The argument that disinhibition of an imaginary instinct via immersion in violent visual imagery is the only possible source of increasing popular violence -- an argument that is repeatedly shrieked throughout the chapters of Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill -- runs afoul of the fact that some of the cultures least exposed to violent visual images -- —medieval England, for example -- —had horrific levels of personal violence, while cultures immersed in staggeringly violent visual imagery -- —for example, contemporary Japan, where popular theaters featuring sado-masochistic burlesque do a land office business -- —have some of the lowest rates of personal violence recorded by modern societies."
-Fred Smoler

Friday, October 21, 2005

Spot Me A Few Health Points, Bra?


After playing
a few rousing rounds of the F.E.A.R. multiplayer, I realized why I had stopped playing any kind of competitive games.

Dude, I totally suck.

So I thought, "Well, why don't games allow handicapping all us punk-ass biatch players that always get taken out by a damn headshot!?"

Then I considered my own statement.

What a stupid idea. Because the only thing it would lead to is asshole players deliberately setting it up so that they maintained some godawful profile with like fifty last-place markers displayed prominently like loser merit badges. Then they'd get on a server and say, "Whut up? I am the noob suxxorz. Handicap me?" And then they'd proceed to lay waste to the other players. "Woop. Beginner's luck."

Yeah, dumb idea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Can't Wait To Get Old


Great article up about the over-50 gaming crowd.

Best part, in my opinion:

"But Coffey thinks it would be a mistake to design games specifically for seniors. 'The appeal of a game depends on your individual tastes, not your age,' he adds."

I really wish I could skip all that in-between stuff and get right on to retirement. Then I might have time to play a game or two.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Round And Round The Table

Medium Difficulty

ONCE upon a time there was a technology that came into its own around the tail end of a century. This technology spawned an exciting, strange, wonderful, terrible new medium.

It had the humblest of beginnings, barely growing from static roots to vibrant flower. It found an early spokesman in a person who very probably stole the idea outright from another. Right from the get-go there were highly-contested court cases, most often concerning how strictly one could control both the technology and the building blocks of the new medium as well as its uses and influence. (1)

Its earliest proponents were mostly tinkerers, assembling their own hardware, connecting bits and pieces, hacking away in their homes and garages to put together something compelling. When they needed talent they often enlisted volunteers, friends, family, those with raw passion rather than experience.

As the technology advanced it grew in portability, eventually supporting a stable hobbyist movement.

There was constant argument over the importance of style and substance. There were those who argued for clarity, special tricks, effects, higher resolutions, more elaborate presentation; There were those who argued for story, drama, talent, soul.

And those who dared to dream of the combination of the two.

The critics of already-established media could be explosively vitriolic in their appraisal of this -- newcomer. They often, and unfairly, compared it to older media without making appropriate attempts to understand its general relevance. They downplayed its impact, making emotional appeals that the new medium would degrade intelligence and stifle thought.

Many of the early results of this new medium were modest simulacrums of common activities or short, abstract sequences. They relied on novelty to dazzle people, flashing lights, exciting sound effects (which were often synthesized) and salacious subjects. (2)

There was also a glut of works based upon other media - stories that had been in the popular culture in other forms and were deemed fitting for a transformation. Many cried out that this was shoddy commercialism - or cheapened the story - or showed lack of imagination. Sequels and spin-offs were trotted out, earning the same estimation. It was even said, sometimes, that there was nothing new at all for the medium to offer. So why bother?

The technology first gained mainstream appeal by distributing in self-contained units, where patrons could insert coins in order to partake in brief doses of the experience. These parlors often served as gathering places for youth, and it wasn't long before the technology was being seen as a moral corrupter -- or at the very least an arrestor of intelligence, contributor to truancy and catalyst for sexual deviance.

For obvious reasons (to anyone familiar with basic human/animal psychology), the medium was filled with sexual imagery and violence. But mostly violence. The violence caused an uproar often enough, but it was the sex that really set the opportunists afire. Both would grow in intensity as boundaries were pushed -- any arresting influences averaged out to negligible over time.

The new medium spawned a nexus in the Western United States, a place toward which the industry, talent and capital gravitated. (3)

Women and minorities were marginalized by this new medium, stuck in stereotypical roles. Women were almost always portrayed in distress, while minorities were often completely absent. Likewise, the industry itself seemed to reflect this disparity, with few women or minorities involved in the production process, and even fewer in the top levels of a company. The reasons for this disparity were argued back and forth -- social factors, historical factors, prejudice -- and almost all the reasons were at least partially correct; It's just that the reasons were rarely paired with any effective suggestions to correct the problems.

At one point, a process was developed whereby the medium could be copied and distributed throughout a wide network. The industry was in an uproar. Profits would be lost. The art form would suffer. Which is not what happened at all. In fact, the industry expanded, growing larger and larger. (4)

Production costs, too, expanded, pushing toward greater and greater budgets with astronomical assets required. This shed light on working conditions, on consumer issues, on a whole lot of messy, confusing ideas that caused a lot of uneasiness -- even among fans of the medium. Each time the budgets were pushed forward, hordes came out of the woodwork decrying the rising costs, claiming that they would drive away innovation and stifle independent development.

Which is also not what happened -- at all. Independent development had always, all throughout history, been trickier, more prone to risk, harder to fund -- but plucky and daring individuals had still managed to envision their dreams and get them made. Over time independent development tools grew ever easier to use as they matured and more viable channels for distribution emerged. The technical barriers were no match for the creativity of individuals and their constant push to make the act of creation more accessible.

Eventually the new medium began to have mass appeal. As the technology progressed, so did the way of delivering the content to the consumers. Soon it was possible for thousands, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions to enjoy the same general experience.

The medium entered into its own, fully absorbed into the cultural framework. Constantly changing, flowing, altering, updating, innovating, reimagining, fueling controversy, relieving pressure, causing discussions, creating and adapting its own critical language, contributing to a shared dialogue and otherwise exerting massive influence over humanity's continuing development.

Which seems to be pretty much the way of any new medium.


Exposition

While movies and video games are not on a track of 1-to-1 correspondence, nor do they seem to advance at similar time rates, the parallels one can draw from film history are undeniable.

The social ramifications of any medium are hotly-debated, contested, denied and heralded constantly and continually.

The same kind of arguments are trotted out again and again -- and they serve an important function, as much as they sound like been there, discussed that.

As we flirt with the uncanny valley, there will be more and more conversations about realism and lifelike -- what those mean, how we perceive humans, how we perceive the world around us, the worried looks that hint at something sinister in pushing CGI too far (as if there were a tangible danger to it, not just a chance at more eerie digital animation).

Likewise, there will continue to be what some see as an unfortunate marriage between Hollywood and the games industry. I would caution that simply because, in general, such mergings haven't established a track record of competence, it isn't necessary to write them off -- completely. Simply because something has had more failures than successes should not stop people from trying to be one of those successes.

Much of early cinema was deliberately created to appeal to "simpler" folks. The intelligentsia looked down upon movies as entertainment for the slow and easily-amused. It wasn't until large movie houses were erected that had the trappings of elegance that films were embraced by the middle and upper classes.

Videogames have had a similar stigma - seen largely as fit for little kids or non-social geeks. It has only been relatively recently that games have been breaking free of these stereotypes, though it has been a difficult path. Much of this might be attributable to the Playstation -- Sony created a brand that was decidedly aimed toward a larger market, they cast their net wider and found it filled.

The very technology that spawned videogames and altered filmmaking (digital editing gaining wide acceptance and even favor among directors) has also caused tremendous ramifications for all media. We are seeing a confluence of content on a scale that is often overwhelming -- Future Shock happening constantly and consistently.

The ways of old media are falling rapidly behind. Even Apple tends to be at least two or three years behind the curve. Copyright and IP issues affect movies as well as games -- and books and music and everything else that can be digitized.

With art, pop or not (whatever that might mean), there is always more crap than cream (judged solely on the basis of individual tastes). Crap, however, can have value -- fertilizer, perhaps. That, and it makes the cream taste sweeter.

While it can be easy to assume a bad movie or videogame is the result of an unholy marketing scheme and nothing more, we would do well to remember that true artists also miss -- the good ones just tend to miss so well they either shake the foundations or disappear quietly.

We like to believe that our tastes aren't tainted in any way, that they are the result of true appreciation -- and all else is corporate-claptrap, ripe with the stench of money. Gamers seem to be especially incensed when it seems like someone is, oh, trying to turn a profit for god's sakes.

Not in this business!


1. British inventor William Friese-Greene claims he sent details of an early motion picture camera to Thomas Edison. Edison's penchant for hucksterism and his Bill-Gates-ish business methods - buying out, stealing or otherwise acquiring promising technology, refining it, then muscling out the competition - means it's very likely that Edison ripped off the idea (and maybe not solely from Friese-Greene).

There has also been controversy over who first created Pong, Nolan Bushnell or Ralph Baer. Lawsuits ensued.

2. Early film milestones -- marvel at the wonder! And remember that even way back most movies were bullshit sequels -- only they called them serials.

Early videogame milestone -- marvel at the amazing gameplay of sending a single pixel across a screen!

3. For the slow, here's a hint: Hollywood -- movies, Silicon Valley -- games. Note that these places are more symbols than centers of development. They may be where the deals are made, but not so much (anymore) where the content is made.

4. See: The printing press, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, Xerox machines, pretty much any kind of reproducing mechanism. Silly Putty, Parrots.

Also:
Indebted to The People's Almanac Presents the 20th Century by David Wallechinsky

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Again, Already?


It looks as if
the fine folks over at Penny Arcade have joined in with the popular sport of Jack-baiting. A monstrous thing to behold, yet it fills hearts with merriment.

Careful, now, the Thompson-creature may be chained, but get within reach of his massive blowhole and he will confound you into a realm of anti-logic and nonsense.

My daily dose of both the schizophrenic homeless man and the woman with Tourette's at the bus stop are far more coherent than JT could ever be, even with lithium and a text of logical fallacies.

We know how this will go down. This isn't some 1930s radio serial.

"Will our heroes Gabriel and Tycho defeat this laughable lunatic of litigious leanings? Will they stop Thompson's Irrational-Fearbots from sweeping the city and causing unscrupulous politicians to draft laws wholly ignorant of the medium they presume to regulate? Will Jacky-boy see the error of his ways and repent of his gross abuses of power, misrepresentations of scientific inquiry and tendencies to absolve murderers of their crimes by placing blame on an art form?"

No, not at all. But if we're lucky the PA guys will dish. This is our meat and potatoes, the good shit. We crave more missives from Thompson's fevered ego. The man is a perfect foil -- just barely treading coherence, making statements that don't so much distort reality as warp the fabric of spacetime, generally being a dick.

I feel kind of like we're taking advantage of him. It's obvious he's always on the cusp of anger, needing only the slightest intimation that one might engage in interactive digital entertainments in order to begin the hatestorm, churning forth vitriol so rapidly one might think him some kind of artificial intelligence (which would certainly be a Twilight-Zone-ish twist ending).

It's like riling up a really old man about the Barbary Pirates or FDR -- funny . . . but also very sad.

Here's something about JT: When he speaks, his mouth puckers and puckers into a perfect asshole, complete with sphincter, and what issues forth is not man shit but, in fact, the steaming excrement of a bull.