Friday, October 26, 2007

Plausible Deniability

I am all for game designers tackling social and political concerns through interactive media.

But there are certainly times when a designer tries too hard to convince people that their game is deep without actually adding any depth to the game.

That's what I think of when I read this Gamasutra interview:

Are you at all concerned that people are not going to get the message, and the game might, instead, glorify this situation? Because the characters themselves do look like the ultimate male power fantasy.

CF: Well I think that obviously when you see that armor and the masks and the guns and stuff -- we need an image to get people to go into the game, right? And the world is obsessed with it. I mean how many shooters are at the show today -- eleven plus? So it’s popular. People like guns. Americans love guns. The world likes violence. It’s human nature. People enjoy war, they enjoy this stuff. It’s creepy when you look at it... a singing game [compared to a] shooter, what the sales numbers are, it’s actually kind of scary in just the amount of violence. But what we’re doing is... we’re going to try to bring this to light subtly.

I look at it like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That movie came out back when, and people were like “oh, it’s a horror movie.” And some people took it at face value -- “oh, it's a horror movie... I’m afraid of body snatchers!” But other people realized that the underlying message was McCarthyism, and what was going on in America at the time.

We’re hoping that someone who plays the game a lot and who really follows the story, and doesn’t just skip through it and pays attention, that we can spark them to say “you know what, I’m going to look into this.” That’s all. “I’m going to gain interest in this, and find out what’s really going on here. What am I doing?” In the game you’re doing all kind of crazy stuff for this company. You’re sent on all these different missions, and then you find out what’s wrong with this deniability and what’s wrong with everything in general.


I would really like to believe Chris. It's very possible that he is in fact making a highly negative statement about mercenary armies through the medium of videogames. But every single trailer makes it look like any other consequence-free run and gun. The slasher-mask helmets, impossibly beefy main characters*, Dukes of Hazzard water jumps - I am just so totally reminded of Blackwater opening fire on civilians.

Chris isn't completely wrong. Violence can be titillating. Where he's wrong is that he thinks the widespread enjoyment of violence in media means that he has to portray it as enjoyable. Were he really interested in making a statement he wouldn't be crafting a game where two buddy mercs blow a bridge with rocket launchers. Radical, dude!

It isn't an impossible task to make a playable game that also makes a statement. It's just not as easy a sell as balls-to-the-wall murder.

A scenario I would like to see: Your character is attached to a squad that detains a group of civilians. You are told to pull the truck around. When you do, you see through the windshield that they have opened fire and the civilians are running for cover while the squad laughs. You have to make a decision - place your vehicle in the line of fire, watch as the civilians are murdered, join in, or radio to headquarters explaining the situation. A thirty minute game with these kinds of decisions would be infinitely preferable to twenty hours of gunning down faceless "ethnics" in a scenario based on the fantasy world of xenophobic right-wingers.

*The funniest thing to me about these roided out character designs that seem so popular in shooters is that I saw maybe two Marines during my four years that resembled those inflated ubermen in any way. Do developers not realize that military members are recruited from the general population and not grown in a genetics lab?

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Jared Diamond's Collapse is an interesting read, in an absolutely chilling way.

I am always reminded of its lessons whenever I hear how a social organization designed to make human life better ends up creating the opposite situation.

Consider this firedoglake post about the California fires.

To sum up:

People form communities so they can collectively achieve more than they could alone. These communities pool resources in order to effectively deal with disasters. Then some of the people in the community become so wealthy that they don't have to worry about disasters, because they can insure their property for more than its worth and they can always move to their summer home. So they form another organization of other wealthy people who pitch a fit that their taxes are too high.

They use their wealth to gain influence, and use their influence to buy politicians. The politicians cut taxes to please these shitheels. Children starve. People walk around sick and dying. Food is contaminated. Toys leak poison. Cities are swept off the map because the levees weren't maintained.

And in California, fires destroy lots of property and kill lots of people.


The signs of our collapse are pretty clear. They are in the headlines every day. Not just America, but we're already in the disintegration process. We can shamble on for a couple hundred years as a husk - the Roman Empire did.

But we're at the point where we are squandering our resources at such a fantastic rate and lack the political will to take care of anyone but the superrich.

Our President, phony huckster fuckstick that he is, demands billions for his imperial ambitions and then threatens to veto a bill that gives health care to children. He should've choked to death on that pretzel. Too bad the opposition party can't muster enough courage to pluck a lame duck.


California burns. The budgets were cut more and more every year. Unchecked global warming increased the fire risk year after year. The National Guard is busy being overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. FEMA was gutted by the Department of Homeland Security, who are too busy selecting targets to be kidnapped and sent to Syria for CIA torture to do a goddamn thing to save people.

It's not that things haven't been this bad before.

It's that I've got to fucking live in it.

This Blog Post Does Not Exist

Portal might be a perfect game.

It has been criticized for being too short. Two hours if you catch on quick, four if you ponder or multi-task.

It is short, but it's not too short. There is a big difference. I found that the game ended just as I was craving more resolution. To me, that's perfect.

I finished the game wanting more, but this doesn't mean it was too short, either. Merely that it was effective.

The writing is excellent: alternately funny and menacing without ever going out of character.

This is one of those games that shows every single strength of the medium. You could make a Portal movie, or a book, or a graphic novel, but none of them would have the same impact. The interaction makes the story a personal journey.

Also, the end credits are the greatest I have ever seen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Squash This Trend

I absolutely hate the recent trend of putting "reaction events" in games. Maybe they're called Quick Thinking Events or Press Stuff Sequences. The shit like in Resident Evil 4 when you're walking along and they switch to a cutscene of a boulder and at the last second they tell you to press 'A'. You don't and you get the honor of watching a death sequence and then wait to reload your game.

It's lazy and boring and not fun at all. Simon is not a fun toy, not for more than five minutes, after which it is a nuisance.

There is no reward. Either you have fast enough reflexes or enough patience for unnecessary repetition.

These are barely tolerable in God of War, and even then there's no reason to use them more than once or twice, not all through the games.

They absolutely ruined Fahrenheit. Here's a sequence made of twelve different timed button presses, if you miss one you die and have to start all the way at the beginning, have fun. Not much of a loss, because the game itself was shit.

They may as well put electrodes on controllers and administer electrical shocks every time you miss one of those button presses. At least it would get my adrenaline going.

My most recent encounter was in the Jericho demo, an okay shooter capped by a Pres Butan sequence that added nothing to game except a chance to reload and try it again. Easy enough, but pointless.

The grandfather of these sequences is the Dragon's Lair laserdisc game. This game was not fun. It was cool to watch if you had a friend with perfect recall to play through the whole thing, but it did not provide enjoyment in a traditional sense.

Stop doing this, designers. You do not want to rely on either of these two variables to keep people interested in your game: Reaction time or Patience.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Aging Process

Apparently getting older entails growing increasingly frustrated at a world you barely understand.

I can feel it myself. That creeping suspicion that videogames aren't as fun as they used to be, or as good, or as meaningful.

So take it away, Mr. Bushnell:

"Video games today are a race to the bottom. They are pure, unadulterated trash and I'm sad for that."

This from the guy who made Atari the Playboy Mansion of videogames and then sold out to the highest bidder, not giving a shit for quality or meaning or message. This from the founder of Chuck E. Cheese, purveyor of shit-grade pizza, nexus of germ-ridden ball pits, token-eating ripoff machines and quarter-munching arcade blastathons.

Please, don't let the change happen to me.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gaming War

I understand that
the new Resident Evil raised a stink for alleged racism because it takes place in Africa and black zombies get killed. I would like to state for the record that I oppose zombie discrimination.

But I also wanted to point out that there is another game on the horizon that probably deserves the attention more than Resident Evil.

I'm talking about Far Cry 2.

In this game you play a mercenary in Africa. You can accept work from two different warlords in exchange for blood diamonds.

Unlike zombies, there are actually mercenaries in Africa. There are also blood diamonds. And warlords who pay mercenaries to kill lots and lots of people.

I'm not going to assign blame to the game. That kind of formulation is ridiculous. But as videogames become more of a cultural phenomenon, I wonder how they might be used as a way of tracking the general emotional state of the nation.


What I'm trying to say is that our diversions don't make us, but they can say something about us.

Consider a game like NARC. The game structure is reflective of the time - technology, game mechanics, arcade sensibilities. The content is a perfect distillation of loud 80s ultraviolence and anti-drug reactionary politics in a garish, unregulated package.

That's not to say that we don't have loud, garish ultraviolent games today. We just have different reasons for them.


The glut of modern war shooters doesn't seem outstanding considering that war shooters are practically the bedrock of videogaming. But in tone and content they can offer small reflections of current events and attitudes.

And seriously, there are just a ton of modern/future military shooters coming out. This reminds me of the analysis that the return of the torture porn slasher subgenre was due to the Iraq Invasion and subsequent horrifying images as well as the disgusting admission that torture is now standard in CIA questioning.


I won't comment too much on my extended absence except to say that it happens. A lot. Lately I've hit some strange writing brick wall, which hasn't happened to me before. I can usually work on something. Now it all comes out a mess and I feel like I've completely forgotten how to make an English sentence.

Maybe I'll try nanowrimo this year.