Friday, November 30, 2007

Things to Consider

I'm still seeing
this whole "Are videogames art?" thing all over the internet, from serious discussions to parodies to outright mockery.

I've found one constant between all of these discussions: all of them assume that art has to be good.

I know I've talked about this before, that old X of Y Postulate. Where is the Mona Lisa of videogames?

But think about it. There is a lot of really shitty art out there, and yet plenty of people will accept it as art. When I see some enterprising Norwegian who has wrapped a building in cellophane and says it is a deep musing on human calamity, I can at least say, "Pretentious, moronic, insulting, ridiculous and absolute shit. But its art."

We really just need to remember that shitty art is still art.


I've kind of arrived at a way that I recognize art. I look for the intersection of technical knowledge with aesthetics for the purpose of expression.

Think about architecture. There are architects who are considered artists, because they used an intimate understanding of their craft and combined it with an exploration of their aesthetics and created something that aided their own self-expression.

What about painting? I can paint. Anyone can. It's a craft. What makes those museum pictures art-worthy is that someone used their internal processes of judgment to create a thing appealing to their own nature.


I'll say it one more time to break it down:

When people do the whole videogames vs. art debate, the art they use as a comparison is always a fucking masterpiece. But masterpieces constitute maybe .1% of every kind of art ever created in recorded history. Even some of the masters only made one or two masterpieces and a bunch of humdrum crap. Not every Shakespeare play is a hit.

Videogames are art. It isn't a big deal, so why do people treat it like it's some crazy unknown thing? Oh god, they're interactive, how can they be art? Oh god, they're commercial products, it's as if Andy Warhol never existed? Oh god, a medium in its infancy doesn't compare to music, which has had thousands of years to mature, or film, which has had over a century, or photography, over 150 years, or painting, or architecture.

Can we get over it? Then maybe we might be able to talk about how to make it better. And maybe someday get a masterpiece.

But even if we don't, big deal. Shitty art, which is most of it, still has value.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Amazon has released
its own E-book reader, and it will probably flop just as bad as all the others.

I wrote a post once on my objections to E-books. My feelings haven't changed.

And now, reading Boing Boing's description of the harsh Terms of Service and mind-bogglingly prohibitive DRM involved in overpriced digital books, this looks like one of the stupidest gadgets. I don't doubt that someone, somewhere will plunk down money for this, the same type of person who regularly purchases from Hammacher-Schlemmer catalogs, but I doubt it will be as ubiquitous as an Ipod.

Let's go over the basics:

1. It's 400 dollars.
2. The books are 10 bucks.
3. You can't loan out the books to other people.
4. You can't resell the books.
5. It's 400 fucking dollars.

The screen does look nice, but I don't doubt that we'll see the technology used in other readers, hopefully ones that don't cost more than an Xbox 360.

I really wouldn't mind an E-book reader. The pricing sweet spot for me, though, is more like a hundred bucks, with books somewhere around 5 bucks.

Sometimes technology really isn't worth it.

Out of Time

I got me a 360
for my birthday. It just felt like it was time.

Jesus but this has been a great season for games. Almost every thing I've played has been outstanding.

Mario Galaxy halfway in the bag. I'm at Bowser but still have to go back and collect the hidden shit.

Mass Effect waits for my sister-in-law to leave so I can wrest control of the television from my wife and the neverending stream of shows (the writer's strike is truly a shitty situation for writers, but I can't help feel a bit of relief that I might be granted a small reprieve from constant idiot-boxing.

Crysis will be a future purchase despite the fact that Crytek obviously hasn't done fuckall with their AI since Far Cry.

I still jump on Team Fortress 2 regularly. I feel competent with the Pyro and sometimes the Medic. Other than that I go from mediocre to awful, but with a pretty even match it's a good time anyway.

I tried out Crackdown and my judgment is that it's a great platformer and an OK action game. It's basically a futuristic mercenaries with a comicbook sensibility. I spend about 90 percent of the time collecting agility orbs and hidden orbs and then remember that there are gang leaders to take out or something.

Assassin's Creed will also be something to maybe buy when it gets cheaper. I spent about two hours with a borrowed copy but there was a scuff and the disc wouldn't load any intel points in Damascus. By now if you've heard about this game at all you've been spoiled for the sci-fi "twist," which apparently has the ability to instantly twist nerd panties into a knot of anger. It happens in the first five minutes and is about on par with a good Michael Crichton novel. I enjoyed the nods in the story to the real Assassins (stories that are no doubt apocryphal, but nevertheless show detail to crafting the world).

The real flaw of the game is that it's exactly like Spider-Man 2 - run around a city, do the same five or six kind of tasks until you earn enough plot points to trigger the next part of the story. It feels lazy, which is a letdown when you consider how much work was evidently put into the rest of the game. The combat's been criticized but I didn't have a problem with the implementation.
Rock Band's also out now, and there is no way I can afford it anytime soon. I'm not too disappointed. I don't have time to play single-player stuff let alone gather a bunch of friends together to bang on plastic instruments. Hell, I've been trying for a few years to find enough time and friends to get together to bang on real instruments.

I thank god that Grand Theft Auto isn't out yet.


The bane of all developers is player expectation.

Players can't help but talk about how they would have implemented a feature or designed a character or mapped a control. It's a natural thing no matter what the media.

But I've seen more and more reviews by supposedly professional reviewers that judge a game based upon player expectation rather than on the game itself. It's sloppy and lazy and one of the reasons that I read about games on joke forums where the users do nothing but flame each other over their choice of console/game/controller/avatar.

At least it's honest.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Long 'i' Live

Microsoft's XNA program is a strange mish-mash of freeware, indie development and corporate culture.

The biggest complaint is the $100 fee to join the XNA Creators Club, a required step if you wish to develop for the 360. To me, it's a negligible cost for access to great dev resources.

There's another problem, though. If I, as a PC-only developer, wish to join the XNA Creator's Club, there is no way for me to do so without signing up as a 360 developer. That is, I need to have a Live Subscription (which means access to a 360).*

This doesn't make any sense, and it's illustrative of Microsoft's entire approach thus far to their Games for Windows "initiative." Piss-poor, nonsensical, a seeming afterthought. It was only recently that you couldn't sign up for Windows Live without purchasing a game (and even then access was only possible with the game running).

Still, the free SDKs are nice, and they get better and better. My only gripe is that the coding world changes so fast that tutorials are superseded quickly and stuff that is done to make professionals have an easier time can lead to confusion for newbies.

I keep on banking that someday I'll just "get" programming. At this point I understand every single basic concept, but then I look at basic code and it's like "How the fuck did you even find that? How do you know what it does and how to use it?"

Ah well. Dabbling is fun.

*There is a bit of logic here, but only a small bit. The Creator's Club resources are geared toward 360 development, so Microsoft might be trying to avoid complaints from PC developers that the examples don't help them with PC development. But the whole draw of XNA is how easy it is to cross-develop between the 360 and PC (and really, it's mostly just a matter of leaving out the 360 using statements).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Simulated City, Real Propaganda

I was looking forward to the new Simcity. Tilted Mill did a decent job on its first title, Children of the Nile. Their follow-up, Caesar IV, was lackluster, especially considering its pedigree.

They really seemed to have an interesting take on the overly-familiar Simcity formula. The focus would be on developing a city's "energy," its overall feel - whether authoritarian, liberal, etc. It definitely sounds cool, dealing not so much with micromanaging spreadsheet numbers but shifting the emotional aura of districts.

But now I'm not so sure.

See, it turns out that BP, the energy giant, was so fascinated by the social implications of the title, that they generously offered to consult with the publisher. How we deal with pollution is very important, you see.

That's why, in the game, all the environmentally-sound forms of energy are branded with BP's logo. Gas stations, too, but automobiles miraculously don't cause pollution.* All of the high-polluters are unbranded; I guess we're lucky they aren't marked with BP's competition.


“We want people to understand the climate issue a bit better and understand that there are twice as many greenhouse emissions from generating electricity than from all forms of transport combined."

Holy fucking shit. I know that EA has been spreading their legs for in-game advertisements for a few years now. This, though, goes beyond product placement. They are now presenting industry propaganda completely unchecked. I really cannot support this game in any way. In fact, I would encourage people to buy completely legal copies and destroy them.

Here are a few of my own ideas for the game:

-When you build a BP headquarters, they will spend millions buying off your city officials in order to deregulate the publicly-owned energy utilities. Once that happens, they monopolize the energy industry. Then they start manipulating the reserve power in order to artificially inflate supply and thereby raise prices. You can actually zoom in and watch your old Sims freeze to death in the winter because they can't afford heat (alternately, you can watch as they pay for heat but neglect their prescription medication).

-As your city fills with automobiles, your oil demand skyrockets. The pollution they generate causes a high incidence of respiratory disorders. The BP board surreptitiously fixes prices at gas stations, causing ill will. You are forced to pay huge subsidies to BP in order to replace their oil rigs destroyed by tsunamis (an unfortunate side effect of global warming). A war in the Middle East causes gas prices to triple, business suffers, the crime rate skyrockets. Billions of dollars in oil is lost to the black market; BP is of course completely innocent.

-You have to levy huge taxes on your middle class citizens because, for some reason, you can't tax the upper class above 4% (the slider won't go higher).

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Not all energy companies are the same. They just all collaborate behind closed doors with the Vice President for some reason.**

*I recall Buckminster Fuller's take on the LA smog - a rebuttal to oil companies who denied that automobiles contributed a significant amount of pollution - and how Sunday mornings had mysteriously clear skies along with little traffic, surely a coincidence.

**For those who think I'm being unnecessarily conspiratorial:
"The document, obtained this week by The Washington Post, shows that officials from Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco (before its merger with Phillips), Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. met in the White House complex with the Cheney aides who were developing a national energy policy, parts of which became law and parts of which are still being debated."