December 25, 2007

Portal

Ah, 2007! What a great year for gaming, as long as you define "great" as a slew of over-hyped titles that mostly turned out above average. What a great year for gaming! I wouldn't call it a great year for Hit Self-Destruct. I should have told you upfront that I have the gene for unpopularity. Hit Self-Destruct 2008 will be better. It almost has to be. If it's not I will cry.


Personally, I think "Game of the Year" is a dumb tradition, especially since it's been co-opted by console partisanship and "moneyhats lol." Nonetheless I am compelled to perpetuate it. Pretty much because otherwise I wouldn't have a post. With that preamble out of the way, I'm ready to announce my game of the year pick. If you want a hint, check the title of this post.

Here's something I find interesting about Portal (omg it's Portal!!) I believe it has legitimised comedy writing in the gaming mainstream. I don't mean that it's the first "legitimate" comedy game. It's less of a compliment to Portal than it is an insult to the gaming mainstream, really, or the mainstream in general. The quality of Portal's script has been widely acknowledged in a way that comedy typically is not. While such games are usually praised for being funny (although there's really a ton of allegedly "funny" games which are just terrible,) that's often seen as a separate achievement from "good writing" or a "good story." Sam & Max may make you laugh but if you want good writing you really must turn to Final Fantasy or Xenogears. Monkey Island may be funny but it doesn't hold a candle to the high drama of King's Quest (or to give a less unfair example, Gabriel Knight.) It's a collection of gags strung together and unless it blows your mind or is a gritty thriller it's not good writing. Somehow comedy is lesser. It doesn't require pacing, subtext or structure. All you need to make a good comedy game is the Three Stooges, stoned, in the writing room. Somehow Portal escapes this perception.

And why shouldn't it? Portal has probably the best conceived and executed script in any 2007 game, and it's a game predicated entirely on a simple gameplay mechanic.

It's tight. No extraneous side quests, items or characters. The advantage of the game's short length is that everything you see is absolutely critical. It ties into the Half-Life mythos, of course, but I don't believe that this cheapens the self-contained story. When GLaDOS warns you about what's "out there", yes, it's an oblique reference to Half-Life, but it doesn't even need to be. It doesn't rely on knowledge of the Half-Life canon: it introduces the chilling point that perhaps things will only get harder for Chell after escaping Aperture Science. The future is uncertain -- which is right in line with Portal thematically: Chell introduces free will into the equation by abandoning the pre-determination of GLaDOS and the test chambers and instead embraces the (much more dangerous) unknown. A woman chooses.

Portal must be the perfect narrative realisation of the Half-Life design aesthetic. It's trite, but it's not the story so much as how it's told. Portal succeeds on both pacing and dialogue (the latter largely Erik Wolpaw's contribution.) The advantage of this design is it never has to pretend you can trust GLaDOS, thereby setting you up for the obvious twist. The player is never in contradiction with the game, and can't proclaim they're any smarter because they "saw it coming." And it's still not wholly surprising, moments like the help messages scrawled in blood and the incinerator room come as welcome surprises.

(What is that guy doing in the game?! Get out!!!)

Everything the player learns is what they could realistically learn in that context. "Self-contained" doesn't mean you learn everything, which indeed you do not. There's plenty of room for speculation about how Chell reached Aperture in the first place, some of it supported by in-game hints and this website. And you need to infer backstory from some of GLaDOS's comments -- she isn't teasing you with forbidden backstory for the most part -- everything presented in the game is believable as to what she might actually say. Nowhere does the game become some obnoxious, tacked-on J.J. Abrams clue-hunt, for which I am enormously thankful.

At the core of the story, I think, is the relationship between the two antagonists, GLaDOs and Chell. It's a perfectly balanced juxtaposition. GLaDOS is all talk and Chell is all action. In the face of GLaDOS's innumerable monologues, Chell never utters a word, and GLaDOS is largely immobile and, to a degree, helpless. One is mind and one is body. I feel Valve have been more successful in creating a real character in Chell than they have been in Gordon Freeman (not that they were exactly trying with either.) In a way, they're the exact same person (me/you.) They're both essentially devices, and Chell even more so, as she's just enabling you to use this very exciting portal gun. And yet Chell represents more than that. She is such an integral part of the story, it'd be thrown into disharmony without her. And she has no dialogue. Even in this game, almost a soliloquy, there are still other techniques at work to create this character. I believe I began with that very point. Even Portal is more than the one-liners. From start-to-finish it's a smart, fully-realised story that knows exactly what it is doing. More so than BioShock. Sorry, I had to get that in there.

Did I really post this on Christmas Day? Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Just kidding, I would never be that heartless. Your dirt bike is in the back yard.

December 21, 2007

Recurring Dreams

Remember when all I used to do on this blog was analyse one game at a time? No, I don't either. Perhaps this post is ill-advised, then, since I'm covering three games in one shot, and all of them are deserving of far more than the time and space they're getting here. And all three are great games which don't deserve to have their endings spoiled so thoroughly like I'm about to do. So, really, don't read this one if you haven't played Ico, Half-Life 2, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Not that I have to worry about people not reading my blog. Oh man. If you only knew!

There's an interesting similarity between these games. I don't mean criminally similar. I'm not trying to cause trouble here.

Let's just begin:


Half-Life 2 (2004)

Half-Life 2 ends with the player finally infiltrating that location they've been seeing and thinking about the whole time -- the Citadel. And when Gordon Freeman gets in there, the game takes a slightly odd turn. First off, this epicenter of bureaucratic evil isn't at all like a straightforward office or superbly efficient base of operations
à la Hannah Arendt. It's an oddly constructed tower, coloured in ethereal blues and blacks. And while you're in this vaguely creepy place, you don't have any of your weapons. Rather, you have the gravity gun, which has inexplicably, semi-magically been upgraded into an incredible (and overpowered) weapon. It can finally do what you always hoped -- pick up whole people and throw them around. If you're careful, this logically makes the game easier -- you're tearing more guys thanks to this supernatural monstrosity.

ICO (2001)

What? No, that Half-Life thing will pay off. But right now we're moving on.


The penultimate scene in ICO has the titular character coming back to the castle to rescue the princess Yorda. There's a group of shadows hustling around her body, and you/Ico charge and attack them. This all looks like pretty standard stuff but there's a trick to it. First off, ICO isn't an action game and you're never done this much fighting. Everything up to that point has been you spastically whacking monsters with a stick.
You don't have that stick anymore, either -- you have the most powerful weapon in the game, a magical sword that dispels the shadows in one hit. And as Ico runs around Yorda's petrified body, hitting these shadows which keep coming for an abnormally long time, something unusual happens: the soundtrack finally kicks in. ICO's score would be generously called minimalist, so this is interesting in and of itself. But the electric guitars aren't coming in; the game isn't setting up this moment where you'll, at last, get to kick some ass. Instead, you hear this sad, slow piece that doesn't make you feel good about anything at all. If anything it emphasises how tragic this game is and how what you're doing right now isn't helping. This isn't a fighting game, ICO reminds you. What it is is amazing. It's not quite the meditation on death that Shadow of the Colossus would turn out to be, but it's a great moment nonetheless.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)


This similarity you might have seen coming: Sands of Time owes a big debt to the above game in general. It's pretty much the western ICO, ironically.

This moment occurs near the end, right after Farah dies. The Prince looks up in anger at the sand monsters who are now coming to get him. What don't you want to deal with after your love dies? Sand monsters, duh. That's easy points on the SATs. That's the point of the scene, though; even though you have to take on all these creatures, it's not about fighting anymore. It's about reacting to Farah's death and the constant stress that this game put you under and how these frustrating monsters will not leave you alone ever. It's about being angry. It's about letting out your frustrations. And you can do that more easily than usual because you have the one hit-one kill sword. You don't need to consider the normal process of beating monsters to the floor then stabbing them with the dagger to stop them recovering. Hit, kill. Hit, kill. The great battle music here, also, really encourages you to let it all out.

This sequence is the least "ethereal" of the three, though I'd argue it makes up for it with the dream sequence earlier -- the one with the bath, the dripping water, and that long staircase. The music there, too, is something special. I called it the western ICO, but Sands of Time still contains so many non-Western idiosyncrasies to make it stand out.


So, what do these three have in common? Hopefully you've pieced it together. They're all the penultimate (or close to it) stage of the game, and they all have an overpowered weapon, a torrent of enemies to let loose on, and an oddly surreal quality. But it's unlikely that all three developers assembled all those superficialities independently. Each of these scenes, I believe, have a larger purpose. The game isn't "easier" because of balancing issues. The lower difficulty is a capitulation to let these climaxes be about emotion and atmosphere instead of challenge. The sequences are memorable because of that. It wasn't a moment in the game that you remember because you died a hundred times against an endless wave of enemies. It's the moment where you entered the citadel and wandered uneasily through its unusual decor while dispatching your foes with your newly acquired, almost superhuman powers. It's the moment when you tried to protect Yorda against overwhelming odds and perhaps failed. It's the moment when Farah died and you were furious.

How many times has a game built to a crescendo at the end, with a really palpable sense of drama and urgency, and then you get stuck. On some supremely difficult boss. Where you keep failing because you don't have pinpoint precision and expert timing to hit him in his one weak spot. What better way is there to kill momentum than that? These final bosses, or whatever final challenges the game throws at you, shouldn't still have to be absurdly difficult. That's the Space Invaders school of design where the game gets exponentially more difficult, with the end boss the game's greatest challenge. At least arcade games were about taking players' money. To get stuck at the very end in Shadow of the Colossus or Psychonauts or Beyond Good & Evil or Mafia or whatever, what does that do except piss players off? Instead, in these games, you're rewarded for your investment by being allowed to move at the story's pace.

This is what I like. I have no idea how these three games discovered the same formula, but I'm very glad they did.

December 15, 2007

Fall back on Fallout

(I had my first blog death scare. I panicked.)

"War," intones Ron Perlman, "war never changes." There's something we don't hear often enough. Very pithy. Really sums up the history of warfare. I guess if I could amend just one thing in that statement it would be this: war changes. Sorry, Interplay/Black Isle/Bethesda et al, you're just wrong. But don't let that stop you from opening every Fallout game ever like that.

There are three criteria you can look at throughout history by which war has demonstrably changed. These are a) the purpose of war, b) the role of civilians during wartime, and c) how war is fought vis a vis institutions and practices.

Prior to the 18th century, wars were fought by various groups and were largely chaotic (and relatively short-lived) in nature. John R. Hale called the wars in western Europe "a matter of violent housekeeping." After the 17th century, in Westphalian Europe, wars emerged as an instrument of state policy -- we now call this "institutionalised" or "traditional" war. In this period, war was an accepted, legitimate activity. Martin Luther wrote that war "[was] as necessary as eating, drinking or any other business." As Von Clausewitz put it, war was "the continuation of politics by any other means."

The purposes of war in this period included advancing diplomatic interests, maintaining internal order, territorial defence, and, yes, Fallout, gathering resources, colonies and building empires. However, war was not waged to annihilate a state's enemies but rather to achieve certain limited goals. In these wars there was a clear distinction between combatants and civilians. Trade continued, for the most part. Noblemen even led armies. "In the ideal war," said Frederick II, "civilians would not even know about it." Civilised nations that went to war adhered to certain standards of conduct: they would not shoot at generals or messengers, war was strictly impersonal, and battle was elaborately choreographed.

This all changed (!) with Napoleon. Napoleon, like none before him, aimed to destroy the European political system, and in so doing revolutionised warfare. His wars were "wars of annihilation," and partly because Napoleon introduced mass conscription, were extremely costly in terms of lives and resources.

The Concert of Europe, a precursor to the League of Nations, was established in response to the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and survived until 1822. The great powers now saw war as a problem that needed to be regulated. They agreed that no sovereign state could go to war without the Concert's consent, and decades of relative peace followed. Here we see the "norm" of war changing -- no longer is it an essential and inherent policy tool.

This informal regulation was not enough to prevent World War I, which was unprecedented in its scale of destruction. WW1 saw the mobilisation of entire states and societies, and the opposition to this war led to the League of Nations and greater regulation of warfare. The League only permitted war in three occasions: in self-defence; to enforce League-sponsored sanctions, or after a 90-day waiting period, as if you're buying a handgun. Even this wasn't enough: the Kellogg-Briand Pact in August 1928 outlawed war altogether, and was signed by 62 nations. War had gone from an unlimited right to a last resort.

World War II is the apotheosis of what is called "total war". WW2 introduced nuclear weapons, systematic genocide (of civilians) and death camps. The Tokyo and Nuremberg trials ushered in further restrictions, as per the notion of war crimes. The United Nations was established in 1945 to save future generations from "the scourge of war," and allowed war only as an instrument of a) individual or collective self-defence, or b) enforcement of collective sanctions.

Post-WW2, new forms of warfare were born -- the "wars of a third kind" (K.J. Holsti), low-intensity conflicts, and "new wars" (Mary Kaldor.) The 'wars of a third kind', or 'extra-systemic wars' were wars of national liberation, with no front lines, no fixed bases, no uniforms, and no respect for territorial boundaries. Unpredictability and surprise were virtues. The elaboration and signifiers of institutionalised-era were gone, and the tactics that replaced them were supremely effective (i.e. Vietnam.)

War was about different things: establishing communities, rather than disputes between states. These wars were fought in and about weaker states in the developing world -- Sierra Leone and Serbia, as opposed to Germany and Japan. As in Vietnam, the warring parties were prepared to pay an "irrationally" high price for their goal.

Where "old wars" were about classical military pursuit and capture of territory, and were fought by the armies of states; thus a bi- or multi-polar conflict. Kaldor's "new wars" are networked, spilling over boundaries and disregarding sovereignty. They are fought by multiple actors, and take place in/around weak -- decentralised, fragmented -- states, which often only have the formal qualities of a state and nothing else. The warring parties are groups usually held together by extreme ideology, who claim the right to exclusive power on the basis of identity, whether ethnic or religious. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and genocide are established "new war" strategies. Large-scale battles are rare and violence against civilians is common. Civilians are almost exclusively the victims of new wars. Hans Magnus Enzensberger argues that the new wars are about "nothing at all."

So Bethesda, if you're reading this, how about kicking Fallout 3 off with this post instead. I'm sure nobody would mind. Fallout fans are a fun-loving group, they're very loose about this sort of thing.

December 6, 2007

Breaking the fourth wall in Jade Empire

Have you noticed "Jade Empire" has the same number of letters as "Mass Effect"? And "Baldur Gate"? And... "Neverwinte"? Back to the drawing board, guys.

Fortunately this post isn't about counting letters (that's the next post.) It is about something nearly as trivial. I'm lucky that the very end of Jade Empire isn't part of the game's fiction, so I can write about it without spoiling the game.

I don't know what game ever got this right: the "funny outtakes". It's hard to get right, of course, because it's an awful idea. Over Jade Empire's ending credits, the characters Dawn Star (voiced by Kim Mai Guest) and Sky (voiced by Cam Clarke) talk about their "experiences" making the game Jade Empire. So you have the fictional character Dawn Star blathering on about working with "the writers" at the real-life company BioWare. Now, it's not that I can only read this game strictly literally. I don't understand, however, what comedic potential is being realised by "Dawn Star" acting like she's on a real-world press junket. Reminds me of those interviews with fictional characters -- who on earth is interested in these things?

Nor do I understand why BioWare is so eager to violate the verisimilitude of their story. Thank you, I guess, for not doing it in the game proper, but when you don't commit to your somber mythology, guess what, neither do I. You don't even have the decency to make it an easter egg, unless you were thinking players might not sit through your nine minute (!) credit sequence.

And I don't understand why BioWare suddenly decided to cut loose at the very end of their dour, meaningless epic, and where, after Knights of the Old Republic, their sense of humour went. Jade Empire's outtakes follow a certain comedic style in which you emulate a form (in this case, press interviews and promotion) but forget to say anything funny, so that's just the joke, that it's a secret thing you found and it's kind of like they're on Entertainment Tonight. Yeah, there's a couple of jokes in there, but it's like open-mic night and BioWare's the last one to excitedly jump on stage and launch into their horrific comedy bit and then completely die. It's embarrassing.

If you couldn't tell, this really bothered me. Probably more than it should have. It was an unpleasant end to a lacklustre game.

Here's what I do understand: I've heard people say that the part of their work that's a big joke was the most fun to write but they don't realise that they're damning themselves. Of course it's more fun, because you don't care about it. It's easier to write because you're not trying to make it any good. You shouldn't be bragging about this.

(You can watch Jade Empire's credits here if you like.)

December 5, 2007

Weird post

I think giving birth must be a bit like a boss fight. Supposedly it's a spectacular and epic event but very quickly it gets difficult and repetitive and when it's finally over there's less a sense of accomplishment and more of a frustrated relief.

November 30, 2007

If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.

I'm beginning to feel obsolete. I don't mean because of my readership of four. I mean, mostly, that I'm talking about three-year-old games when what I really want to talk about is CNET firing Gamespot editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann for his Kane & Lynch review -- a 6.0 that wasn't quite in harmony with the massive advertising dollars publisher Eidos sunk into the Gamespot front page.

This comes on the heels of Ubisoft apparently throwing a hissy fit over Eurogamer's Assassins' Creed 7 score, and withdrawing all advertising from the site. It's not wholly surprising that in the game industry this is how business is done. It's a little surprising that Eidos, whose one big hit long since descended into comic irrelevance, can still throw their weight around like they're the Corleone family. (Incidentally, my reasons to take less and less of an interest in Deus Ex 3 are piling up -- see previous entry.)

What really burns me up is that this is all over something so insignificant. Like Eidos gives a shit what Gerstmann says, they care about the number. And, by the way, so does everyone else. Review scores. What other industry has this absurd preoccupation with an arbitrary two digit number? Who among those deeming Gerstmann's firing long overdue for giving Twilight Princess an 8.8 (an 8.8? be still my heart!) can recall a single word from that review?

Writing in games (ostensibly the subject of this blog) is not a very popular field, but writing about games? Pissing in the wind. The whole system would run just as well were journalists replaced with random number generators. The content of reviews doesn't matter. All that matters to the wider gaming public is whether the review has a politically acceptable score and whether or not it asserts the superiority of any specific gaming console. Even a less reactionary commentator like Penny Arcade's Gabe is gaining a reputation as an anti-review advocate or something equally asinine. What a completely thankless profession.

I love games. I don't like this industry at all.

November 29, 2007

Myst versus Myst: why can't we have nice things?

Myst really ended with Riven (that's the second one.) Those two games told a complete story about the history of a civilisation. Then the rights get passed around to various developers and "The Further Adventures of Myst" are born.

Let's start with Myst 1, though. I promise I'm not about to take you through the entire series. After you spend innumerable hours wandering around the game trying to get a handle on things, you find your first clue. Two books in a library. Open them and on the first page there's a window from which a man, in real time, is talking to you (go with it.) The message is heavily distorted -- all you can make out is that you need to find missing pages to improve the quality of the signal. First of all, this is pretty cool. You have to assume bringing back the page will help you progress in this game that lacks any HUD or menu. You even have a choice about which book to get pages for. It's the only thing you can really do, appropriate since it's the only thing you know to do. If this game came out today we'd all be stroking our chins approvingly at this groundbreaking emergent narrative... in this game that came out 14 years ago and everyone played! Myst. So unappreciated.


The more pages you get the more you learn that the men -- brothers, Sirrus (megalomaniac) and Achenar (lunatic) -- are trapped in these books. You need to bring them the final page to release them, but there's only one final page. There's a third option, of course, but you have to discover it yourself instead of checking your journal and seeing "Sirrus and Achenar don't seem very trustworthy. Maybe I should look around the library before making my decision." Please.

The third option is to bring the page to the third book (surprise!), where Atrus, the father of Sirrus and Achenar, is trapped. He's actually the one who trapped them, because in case you hadn't figured it out (and this is by far the easiest thing in Myst to figure out) Sirrus and Achenar are evil, and they trapped him in turn. You free Atrus, you win, game over. But there's one more thing of note: after Atrus is released you're free to wander back through the library and you notice that where the Sirrus and Achenar books were, there's charred wood. Pretty chilling. That's the best moment in Myst, really. Come on, this game didn't deserve all that ire! Let me show you something that does.

Ubisoft's Myst IV: Revelation opens with a monologue by Atrus, which concludes thusly:

"I've often wondered if you thought I'd killed my sons when I burned up those two Books."

Not really, actually! In fact I knew you did, much like everyone who played the game and everyone who made the game, including you, Rand Miller, co-designer of Myst and Riven, who's speaking right now!

"But never once have I offered you the truth."

Oh, fuck off.


That's what Myst IV is. Sirrus and Achenar are back, with a vengeance. In Myst III Atrus and his wife gained a young daughter, Yeesha (?!) who is kidnapped at the beginning of this story following an explosion. Kidnapping? Explosions? What game is this? Myst is about arriving at the end of the story and very slowly piecing together what happened and then concluding it. Are you trying to make a Myst game into a thriller? What's wrong with you?

The "theme" of Myst IV is redemption, which basically means "a character is redeemed". It's a badly written, incredibly pedestrian game all around, really; ploddingly leading you from plot beat to plot beat ensuring you're fully comprehending this Screenwriting 101 high-stakes redemptive tear-jerker. You'd think poor writing wouldn't stand out in a Myst game since there's usually little of it, but Myst IV really piles it on. Too bad it doesn't have anything interesting to say. Unless you count the stupifying spiritual diversion -- seriously, watch this to experience an absolute gaming nadir. What a horror show.



Anyway, in this completely conventional and obvious game, we are stunned learn that Achenar isn't actually evil, despite every appearance to the contrary in Myst. Reinvented in Myst IV as the well-meaning, noble retard, Achenar works tirelessly to defeat Sirrus and rescue Yeesha, toward his grand redemption.

What's the best way to "redeem" a character? By "best" of course I mean easiest to write and over the fastest. Achenar sacrifices himself to save Yeesha, and she sobs over his dead body. It'd all be so very sad if it wasn't so very cloying. What just happened? Ubisoft switched out Myst's chilling, subtle death for total melodramatic banality. Thanks a lot. Next time keep your revelations to yourself. Did I mention Peter Gabriel shows up playing a spirit guide? Myst IV was actually better reviewed than Myst has proven to be. You reviewers are a soft touch.

November 26, 2007

Deus Ex 3 (2009)

Oh, wow, there's really going to be a third Deus Ex. I don't know how I feel about that. Well, actually I know exactly how I feel about it: at first I was completely wary but then this teaser made me giggle like a little girl (one part of it specifically.)

I'm coming back round to wary though. It's being developed by Eidos's new Montreal studio, which means, probably, no Warren Spector, no Harvey Smith. Eidos probably doesn't even know everyone who'll be working on this yet. Sheldon Pacotti might. I would love it if they brought back Chris Todd (who wrote all the unvoiced text -- datacubes, books, etc -- in the first game.) What are those guys doing these days anyway.

If this was a Deus Ex "reboot", or even if largely ignored the story of the last two games I'd be happy. It's hard to make a good Deus Ex game, it's impossible to make a good Deus Ex game that follows this convoluted continuity. Let's see something (mostly) new.

And how often have story-heavy franchises switched creative teams and not screwed it up? I'd say Knights of the Old Republic II and Curse of Monkey Island. Even Curse has a caveat since, while it was quality, it wasn't quite in sync with the previous two games. LucasArts pushed their luck by bringing in another creative team for the next Monkey Island game. Whoops.

I'm going to give Eidos the benefit of the doubt for now, though I probably shouldn't. I would love for this to be good.

BioShock, Again

This is spoiler country.


I'm not part of the BioShock backlash. I think that's a spectacularly uninteresting place to be. What I find interesting about the reaction to BioShock is that everyone who likes the game is so secure in their appreciation of it that they have no trouble admitting its flaws. There's no hyper-defensive fan contingent denying that major problems with the game exist. And indeed they do. Here are three of them.

1. No! No! No, no!

I don't like to throw around this word but the choice whether to harvest or rescue the little sisters is broken. It's hard to understand why this is the case because it's such a fundamentally simple and classic philosophical debate. You can make the rational, self-interested choice to gain as much resources as you can from this one interaction. Or you can sacrifice/minimise your short-term reward in favour of long-term benefit. This is how it's presented to you and it's basic political philosophy. It's realism versus idealism. You'll get less Adam for rescuing the little sisters but there's the promise of a greater reward down the line. That could be the "good" ending. Or it could be the difference whether the little sisters or Tenenbaum help you with Fontaine or not.

What it can't be is what it is. "Long-term benefit" does not mean frequent gifts that not only make up your Adam deficit but also give you the supremely powerful "Hypnotize Big Daddy" plasmid which you can't get otherwise. The whole dichotomy is useless now. No sacrifice is made with the liberal option and there is no rational, objective reason to harvest the little sisters. The fundamentally irrational choice almost immediately becomes more rational than the rational choice.

It's an absurd situation. Choosing whether or not to kill Sander Cohen is a more interesting dilemma and the game spends no time on that one. I think everyone killed him though. I didn't.


2. A slave obeys

After the magnificent Andrew Ryan scene, BioShock slips. It's partly because, in a sense, that scene was the end of the story. It's the end of a story about objectivism and self-interest but, less theoretically, it's the end of a story about freedom of choice. We've been under Atlas's spell the whole game but now, after we bust free of his mind control, what's any different? Now we're doing what Tenenbaum tells us to do. This would be fine if the game appeared more aware of this irony. But post-Ryan we don't hear anything more about men versus slaves or anything about the player character at all other than "I hope you won't hurt the girls." That one scene embodied all the grandiose and fully attainable pretensions the game had and from that point on, it's all rather more straightforward. Unfortunately, BioShock failed to deliver on the implications made explicit in that scene and in the game prior.

There's an argument to make for this. Ken Levine's point is about the general lack of player agency in video games, but covering himself with the mind control element to legitimise it within the game's fiction. And in Ryan's ideology you don't need to be brainwashed to be a slave. It makes sense that the player is still ultimately a slave, because that's the point Levine's made. But without the mind control device it isn't legitimate anymore.

There's an argument there. But the game doesn't make it. After the Ryan scene BioShock shows no interest in engaging the player in a dialogue on this subject. The scene becomes a neat reveal and an incisive piece of meta-gaming commentary instead of the cornerstone of a greater game. During that Ryan scene we all assumed BioShock was about to become that game.

3. I chose Rapture.

After Ryan, the game is about different things. As of the endgame, BioShock is more a story about Little Sisters and uncomplicated avarice than objectivism or philosophy. Fontaine's final form is a nod to what the game used to be about but that's it. The (good) ending is a great conclusion for the little sisters and for your character (apart from it projecting desires onto the player character for the first time: wrong game to do this in)... but it's not a good conclusion for BioShock. What's neglected in this ending?


This whole city and everything it represents! A microcosm of society, chaos and order, objectivism and nihilism, and, oh yeah, a massive art deco city under the sea! Neglecting Rapture here really puts a point how BioShock fails to realise the city throughout. Rapture is a great setting for a shooter: great architecture decorated with enemies and ammo machines and audio diaries. I don't believe that anyone ever lived here, and not for lack of trying on my part. That's why I was ultimately content to waste so much time dicking around in the service of Sander Cohen, because it was an intriguing new facet of Rapture. BioShock opened presenting you with this amazing location and I wanted to know what about it. More than that I wanted to know what happens to it. We don't find out, but not in a "BioShock 2!" way. We don't find out in a "you were a good/bad person, the end." way.

The end admits that Rapture wasn't important. It was an illusion. So what was BioShock really about? I honestly don't know.

November 23, 2007

Off-Topic

I took off all those numbers because I was starting to hate them. I didn't like the idea that someone would visit my blog and immediately realise I'd only been doing this for a few weeks. Now it should take at least ten seconds to figure that out.

If there's anything else about this blog you want me to change you might as well let me know now. Please understand that I may not be able to personally respond to the flood of comments, but my assistant will be keeping track. Your feedback is important to me.

Coming up very soon on this blog: more BioShock; ICO; something about types of game storytelling; an adventure game, finally; and BioWare's new RPG epic -- Jade Empire! Watch out academia.

November 22, 2007

Jak II (2003)

I'm going to give you some credit for once. I'm assuming that you're aware of how different Jak & Daxter was from the rest of the franchise; in gameplay but especially in tone. Let's just leave it at this picture:


I don't think I can leave it at that picture. I need to elaborate. I'm very sorry, but I like talking so much. Here's how Jak & Daxter differs from the rest of the series. That game was a decent, inoffensive, light-fantasy, sub-Zelda 3D platformer which exhibited a cloyingly 1995-hip sensibility. That's a recognised genre by the way. Jak & Daxter's the only game that qualifies, though, maybe it's too specific.

Jak II... frankly, let's forget about the rest of the series. It's the third paragraph already and it's the first time I've mentioned the subject of this post. Jak II is a frustrating, testosterone-laden, plot-heavy apocalyptic-future GTA-clone/platformer/action game. Interestingly, Daxter, the absolute worst character in Jak & Daxter becomes the one character in Jak II who's tolerable. (Back to awful for Jak 3, though!)

I'm actually not as indignant about this attitude adjustment as I was when the exact same thing happened with Prince of Persia a year later. Because this was absurd.

How do you even begin to construct a continuity between these two games? Naughty Dog manages it with the most audacious cop-out I have ever seen. The end of Jak 1 has Jak, Daxter and their elfin fantasy pals activating an ancient stargate device and they stare into it in wonder. That's it. Jak II begins at exactly that point -- Jak and Daxter fall into the stargate and out onto the streets of a dark broken city under a military junta. Jak is captured, tortured by the game's villain, Praxis, and experimented upon for two years until he turns into this guy:

Daxter helps him escape and Jak breaks and free and shrieks "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Did I mention that Jak never talked in the first game? I guess he never had anything as interesting to say as "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Imagine if Half-Life 3 began this way:

"Gordon, I'm so glad you're alive!"
"RRR, LET'S BUST SOME HEADS"

Jak II is utterly insane in a very special way. What I've just described occurs in the first two minutes of the game. Then they break out the guns. In Jak & Daxter you killed monsters by jumping on their heads. Naughty Dog wastes absolutely no time in destroying the coherence of this series. How did they think they'd get away with it? Obviously, they did. But the disconnect here is staggering.

After thoroughly repudiating the first game what's left is some epic trilogy garbage that's very "dark and edgy" with every connotation those quotation marks imply. There's a lot of nonsense about time travel, resistance fighters, oracles, adolescent sex appeal and this total moron:

Jak is comically off-putting in this game. Selfish, moronic and hyper-aggressive, this fantasy hero is a carjacking thug on a quest for blood. The whole story is presented so earnestly and then Jak walks in and sneers about how tough he is. He's a high school bully hiding his cracking voice. I don't know this idiot is able to navigate the complex-if-super-generic plot of the game. I don't know how this idiot is able to dress himself.

Jak, like everyone else in the game save Daxter, is so incredibly serious about this tale of prophecy and rebellion that it's embarrassing when it's not hilarious. It's a bad story. It's bad dialogue. They're bad characters.

But I'm not complaining. The whole monstrosity is so indescribably stupid that I actually sort of love it. I connected with these dumb characters more than those in any middle-of-the-road narrative-driven game. I didn't like them. I didn't care what happened to them. But they -- the whole thing, really -- were so magnificently stupid and angry and juvenile that I was engaged. I never got past bemusement with this game. Maybe if I had then I'd be ready to dismiss it. But I never stopped marveling at it, and it never stopped entertaining me (however indirectly.) Jak II evoked legitimate enthusiasm in me. I would much rather watch this terrible character do stupid things than I would an average character do acceptable things.

To this day I'm not sure if I like this game. I don't believe I do. But I can't hate it.

November 17, 2007

BioShock (2007)

Welcome to the general, spoiler-free BioShock post. The next one will be full of spoilers and cover the topics that everyone's talked about already. I hope you like reading about Objectivism!


BioShock, Part One

BioShock is a great game. Here's what's wrong with it.

Sorry to be so glib. But look how quickly I did that! Some blogs take paragraphs to choke out that disclaimer.

To be fair, what I'm about to discuss isn't an issue exclusive to BioShock, but it's something the game does quite frequently. The player has one goal for the majority of the game: get to this guy. That's driving the plot. And for all you've read about the game's philosophical undertones, it's a shooter. It's fast paced. Which is why there's no bigger buzzkill than this:

"He's right through that door! Go! Go!"
"The door's locked. You'll need to find a way to open it! Begorrah!"

Three hours later:

"It's open! What are you waiting for? He's right through that door! Go! Go!"

What happened in those three hours? I visited a new part of Rapture, I shot some splicers, I listened to some diaries, ooh, new plasmid. Much like the rest of the game except the plot was on hold. I might as well have been in a coma. Can I get back to the real game now? Thanks. Please don't do that again -- oh, you did it again.

Okay, in one sense, it doesn't matter. You're progressing from one level to the next as normal: no reason why Fort Frolic is any different from the Medical Pavilion. Clearly, though, it's a lesser part of the story. The writing in BioShock, by design, occupies such a high echelon in gaming: players are supposed to be into the story, it's not there as an excuse for them to shoot things. So if you're into it, and you can't wait to find Andrew Ryan, when this Sander Cohen douche says "I locked the door, come do something for me," maybe, maybe, he's not commanding your full enthusiasm. I understand that this is a video game, the levels are set in stone: I need to go to Fort Frolic. But the reasons the game gives me are ridiculous. I'm going there to remove the obstacle that you arbitrarily threw in my way. The story has not changed once I get past it.

"Well, if all the game was was chasing Andrew Ryan, then the game itself would only be three hours. No one would buy it." I don't know who I'm imitating there. But the story doesn't have to operate in such a transparently stop-start fashion. Why not rewire the narrative so traversing Fort Frolic is progress and not a chore? The way it's framed, I'm not enjoying it as much as I otherwise could be. The only way the player can really enjoy and take their time with these diversions is if they accept that this is an unavoidable part of the game and you need to spend three hours here before resuming the story. But how is that not unsatisfying?

Like I said, this problem extends past BioShock, but it's almost a Ken Levine staple. System Shock 2: I need to get to Deck 4 to meet someone, and to do that I need to active the elevators but to do that I need to flush out the radiation in the area and to do that I need to use the fluid control computer and because the fluid control computer is locked I need to go to Cargo Bay B to find the unlocking code and Cargo Bay B is locked so I need to go to Cargo Bay A to find the key to Cargo Bay B and STOP IT. You're padding the story and it's frustrating.

Steve wrote a post about why games should be shorter and I sort of disagreed with him at the time ("at the time", like it wasn't a couple of days ago.) I don't feel too strongly about whether a game is 6 or 60 hours, so long as it's the right length. What this BioShock post has prompted me to note is that "the story" and "the game" are such separate concerns. BioShock the story and BioShock the game aren't fully in sync. I'm not sure whether it's the story that needed to be longer or the game that needed to be shorter, but one of them should have acquiesced.

To be continued... after I write a post about Knights of the Old Republic that's completely unrelated to BioShock. Spot the metaphor.

November 16, 2007

Insubstantial Invective

Let's get this out of the way. This is an empty, reactionary post and hopefully it's the worst one I'll ever write. I'm sorry for that. That's why this post will be followed by another, real post faster than usual.

Assassin's Creed hasn't been doing very well lately. A while back, Eurogamer accurately observed that "[n]ot since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has the publisher seemingly had so much riding on one particular product." So, then, that wave of "7" reviews is not good news, because in the idiotic, reductionist game review parlance of our times, a "7" means "highly disappointing."

Well, hey, reviews are reviews. Let's wait until people really play the game and then we'll see if it's IGN or GameSpot who are vindicated. And when people did play the game, the reports were pretty good. Pretty pretty good. That's when I, like many others, decided to give it a shot. After all, I'm practically made of money.

I don't know why this next part happened. Maybe because I can't have nice things. I checked out the game on IMDb. (Don't worry, this is where the obnoxiously leading narrative thankfully ends.)

Come on. They're even the first names?

I'm not going to belabour this point, but the recent Prince of Persia "trilogy" is one of my biggest gaming heartbreaks. I suppose in retrospect it was sort of predictable: replacing virtually the entire Sands of Time creative team to rush a sequel out within a year, and swapping out Jordan Mechner (effusive praise regarding Jordan Mechner is scheduled way down the line) for two "professional Hollywood screenwriters" who don't have any professional Hollywood screenwriting credits. And it was these two guys, in case I'm being too oblique. (I wish I could say that this patronising narrative is about to thankfully end, but... it's not.)

So we all know how that went.






Charming. And yet, it was three years ago, and I am over it. I am over being frustrated that these power-hacks cannot write for shit; that they are far too preoccupied with superficialities -- Prince of Persia must be an epic trilogy! What's an epic trilogy? It turns out it's amateur plot twists, ham-fisted dramatic arcs, misogyny, one-dimensional characters and the most adolescent notions of sex and violence possible.

I think I might even be okay all that if it didn't take this story so seriously. Imagine Pirates of the Carribean told with the gravitas of The Godfather and the violence of Blade II, with none of the quality, humour or modesty of any of those.

Apparently I'm not over it. Because finding out that these guys are writing Assassin's Creed? I have lost all interest in picking this up. I'm not kidding, and it's sad that this is the case. How hard can it be to ignore the writing in a video game? Especially a game this pretty.

But I can't do it. I loathe these guys' work that much. It's that invasive. I hate that with all the relatively high-profile talent Ubisoft threw at launching this new IP -- Jade Raymond! Kristen Bell! Patrice Desilets! -- they are so uninterested in the actual writing that they said "Let's hand this one over to the Warrior Within dudes, they can start a franchise."

Hey, I just noticed this startlingly attractive girl, who, okay, I can kind of tell: she's a little empty and repetitive and the PS3 version has framerate issues, but still hot. Oh, wait, she's a furry. I just can't do it.

The morning before I found all this out I read Tom Chick's post about the game, which for a professional game reviewer, had an unusually large amount of vitriol reserved for the writing. It struck me as interesting at the time but now it makes a depressingly large amount of sense.

Since this blog exists, you can tell I care a lot about writing, and since nobody reads it, you can tell no one else does. But I honestly didn't think I cared about it this much. To pass on a novel or a film because of the writer is understandable. But writing occupies such a place of irrelevancy in games, it's absurdity, even to me. I didn't expect the visceral reaction I had seeing those names. I'm so sad right now.

Sorry, Ubisoft. Sorry, Patrice. Apparently there actually was one guy that your choice of writers would really bother. I can't blame you for playing those odds.

Next: back to normal.

November 12, 2007

Love Story

At last, a post about the exciting game "Love Story".


Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance may be the closest thing video gaming has to a "will they or won't they". On the face of it, there's really no reason to think that these two characters (and in reference to Gordon, I use the word 'character' very broadly) would ever get together. Yet the subject is advanced at least a little with each Half-Life installment. As much as I love Half-Life and Valve, and would trust them to pull off most things, I'm really wary about this prospect. Especially given how much attention Valve lavish upon Alyx, it's very hard to buy that anyone would have any feelings for Gordon Freeman whatsoever beyond "thanks for continuously saving me."

Think about the Half-Life fiction solely on its own terms for a second: has the character Gordon Freeman actually never spoken once? Or is this an abstract area we're not supposed to think about too much, like Half-Life only has to abide by the rules of its own Calvin & Hobbes-like reality?

Honestly, I think I'd be concerned even if Gordon had the depth of Charles Foster Kane. For the most part, love stories in games are handled really badly. My main criticism -- and I'll be criticising a lot -- is of love stories in RPGs, or, to use the RPG vernacular, "romance quests". Which sounds almost as stupid as "Police Quest", but at least Sierra has the excuse of being all about branding. (1)


It's an RPG convention but I still find it weird where "romancing" a character is akin to an Xbox Live achievement, a box you have to tick off, just another part of constructing the ultimate character. "Congratulations, you have successfully romanced Jaheira." What is that? BioWare's a good example, given they write the same romances in every game they do. Maybe it's too much to ask to make one of these very linearly-progressing relationship a story, or build it around the real story, rather than having it be this perfunctory sidequest (2) that's only there to distract you from saving the world for two hours and to satisfy RPG fans for whom "romance quests" are apparently a requirement. If you take them away it irritates players (3) but who really cared about them in the first place?

They're even in Morrowind, which isn't a game I would normally associate with emotion. Unfortunately in Morrowind the only available object of your affections is a cat, and maybe it makes me a little bigoted to physically recoil at the thought of chivalrously seducing a literal catwoman, but then I'm not an RPG fan. I might note that these quests are usually just a little archaic -- she might like a gift! Get her a gift! You're halfway there. These games are not only set in fantasy worlds but also within the confines of idealised 1950s morality. (4)

Yikes.


This is one reason why I really like the work of Chris Avellone, who's very conscious of these separate schools of thought. In Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II you'll note the "romances" are intentionally stilted, incomplete and a little tragic. Not only is it more realistic, it's more interesting. And beyond the existing "quests" in Knights of the Old Republic II, there's the character of Mira, who's the third and last hot woman in your party. Not only do you get to hit on her, instead of arbitrarily being confined to the repressed matriarch of the group, but you get unconditionally turned down. It's almost as if Mira had an actual personality.

I'm not saying every game has to be a Façade (as if anyone played
Façade for the relationship drama.) (5) However, I do think relationship stories work the best when they're a restricted part of the narrative and not an optional diversion -- but this doesn't mean they still can't suck. There are probably more examples of this than of the romance sidequest model, and most of them aren't very good. For the sake of brevity I'm going to ignore the romantic arcs that are outright shit (Fahrenheit, Final Fantasy X) or totally banal -- like in the ending cutscene the heroine kisses the hero and they're both looking a bit embarrassed, ha ha, I'm gonna miss these morons. (Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter.)


What I just said about Chris Avellone remains largely true here: the emotionally fulfilling games are typically the ones where the characters don't get together. Who was honestly satisfied to see Guybrush Threepwood marry Elaine at the end of The Curse of Monkey Island? Maybe it was the abbreviated ending, but it didn't exactly feel like a pay-off seven years in the making. My guess is the players who this did satisfy are the same players who feel a game with an unrequited love is somehow lacking in "closure", whatever that is, and therefore a sequel is necessary to "wrap up the loose ends". I'd name some games that do "get it" but I'd be automatically spoiling them (6) and, four posts in, I'm trying to appeal to a broader demographic. Please take my word for it that these games exist. You've probably played a few of them.

This is probably true of fiction in general, so I can't pretend it has anything to do with agency or sandbox gameplay. Sorry. Heartbreak is, dramatically, more satisfying. Surprisingly, I can think of quite a few really good games that realise this. I say surprisingly because games are generally so far behind other forms of writing in every respect. For the moment, at least, I'm actually very pleased with this medium I complain about so much.


(1) There's going to be a post about
Police Quest some time later, unless I forget about it. I wouldn't be the first person to forget about Police Quest.
(2) Yes, Bastila in
Knights of the Old Republic may qualify as an exception, but Carth, in the same game, does not.
(3) Further reading: "the internet".
(4) So, two fantasy worlds.
(5)
Façade anecdote: Ernest Adams used a Façade transcript I did in a lecture he gave at GDC called "A New Vision for Interactive Stories". Without my permission. Ernest better get ready for a new lawsuit.
(6) Note that I don't care about spoiling, say,
Fahrenheit.

November 7, 2007

Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)

I'm going to begin this entry with two words: "Harvey Smith". What does that mean to you? To me, it means there's a chance Harvey Smith will find this post and respond to it, since he responded to Steve Gaynor's casual diss of Invisible War, and -- breaking news -- Steve only played the demo.


Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time. I said that last entry with Fallout, but this time I actually mean it; I'm not just trying to lend myself credibility. Like most Deus Ex fans, I hold the rather boring opinion that Invisible War is, in a lot of ways, a total misfire. And yet, I think it is highly underrated. I'm not going to go into why it's not as good as Deus Ex because you can go anywhere for that. Here are some things I do want to talk about.

Invisible War doesn't operate on the same scale as Deus Ex. It's about half as long, but much tighter in structure. Far from the dense, sprawling semi-epic that was its predecessor, Invisible War is more like a stripped-down action/thriller that takes place over one day. When Invisible War really works, it's when it embraces this new format.

This isn't necessarily to suggest that Invisible War is only successful when it's as far away as possible from Deus Ex. Invisible War does a great job of -- spoiler alert! -- gradually phasing in characters from the original, culminating in the return of Deus Ex hero JC Denton, which is by far the most interesting reuse of a character in video game history, excluding the games I haven't played or have forgotten about. JC's return may not be all that great in the traditional video game sense, in that you and JC don't instantly team up and shoot the shit out of government agents side by side, in typical video game pleasure principle fashion. After being mythologized throughout Deus Ex and most of Invisible War, JC Denton is positioned here not as a villain, but, disappointingly, a high-minded schemer who wants to use your character, Alex, just as much as everyone else. Invisible War delivers a sobering lesson about hero worship.

It's a bold move that deserves so much more credit than it has ever received. By no means am I implying that subverting expectations like this is automatically a great choice. I mention it because the only critical point I've ever seen about this plot development is that it isn't what players immediately wanted, therefore it stunk.


Let me get away from Invisible War apologia for a minute and return to Invisible War-as-action/thriller. Invisible War contains one of my favourite levels ever: the return to the Arcology in Cairo, the penultimate stage in the game. This multi-story building has been overrun by militia, and your Die Hard-esque infiltration of the building isn't even the good part. The actual fighting's almost irrelevant. What matters is the ultimate goal of the mission, which I'm arbitrarily choosing not to spoil. But every faction who's played a part in the game is invested in the outcome, and have agents on site to ensure a favourable result. Everyone's in the same place for the first time. As you walk through this very uneasy armistice, everyone waits on you to make what is not an easy decision. Finally, you feel that your decisions matter; that a sword is hanging over your head. I did just slam the design paradigm of having the player always be the most powerful, important character in the game except for FINAL BOSS, but there's really something to be said for finally being the center of attention.

The level is a brilliant convergence of basically every major element in the game. It's a hard act to follow, and, indeed, even this game can't do it. While your big choice (memorable because it reintroduces a major Deus Ex character) is ultimately disappointing since it subsequently proves to have little consequence, numerous little choices start to pile up, and these do matter. It's the level where (almost) everything pays off before the later denouement.


Your buddy Leo Jankowski, for instance, is in real trouble, and his life is in your hands. Another character kidnaps your on-again/off-again ally Klara Sparks and threatens to execute her if you don't make the big choice his way. You can try and save Klara, but that means having to fight one of your former employers, Donna Morgan, who, unlike her employers, hasn't ever done anything to fuck you up; whose only crime is loyalty. Invisible War is not so different from Deus Ex in that the emotional depth is understated, and for the most part whatever meaning the character has is what you project upon them. But you give a little, you get a little.

Because of the tenor of this whole mission, it has my favourite line in the entire game. One faction sends you to the epicentre of the conflict, where you make your big decision. Once you make this decision, the ceasefire will break and the factions you shut out will be really pissed. One faction in particular occupies the hangar where you make your decision, and to help them you have to give some blood for... something, I don't even remember, I played the game four years ago. This hangar's swarming with soldiers and robots ready to turn hostile at a moment's notice, and you open the door and this middle-aged genial doctor solemnly walks up and asks you for your blood. You have two possible responses. You'll only need one.


"Go to hell" is the best line in the game. Lowbrow? Yes. But this is Invisible War at its best: nowhere near as philosophical or as deep as the first game but as a streamlined action/thriller, it's the tops.

This might be more praise than Invisible War has ever received in one place, so let's put a halt to that right now. All of the magic of this level is undone by the next, which attempts to maintain this engaging dynamic instead of building on it, rendering your big decision totally meaningless. And then the ending sucks. After winning an uninspired boss fight, the game cuts immediately to one of four outsourced cutscenes that narrate in the vaguest possible philosophical terms about what basically the world was then like. No follow-up on you or any of the characters you're interested in. It's over in twenty seconds and then it cuts to the credits -- which you have to click through?! Go to hell.

But we'll always have Cairo.

(Harvey Smith.)


So in my blogging history, I've praised Deus Ex: Invisible War and contradicted Fallout? What a contrarian. Next up: so you thought you knew what the rules of this blog were, huh? Wait until I completely subvert them! The blog so far has all been a training exercise for level 19.

October 30, 2007

Fallout (1997)

1997! I'm catching up fast.


First of all, I would like to note that Fallout is one of my favourite games. Secondly, it hasn't aged very well. Literally every mechanic dealing with your party is so outdated as to be embarrassing. I know the SMG-burst issue is so infamous at this point as to have become part of the game's charm, but it's really awful. Anyway: Fallout!

Fallout's ending -- spoiler alert!! -- is often mentioned as one of those "can a video game make you cry?" moments, or more specifically, "well, this didn't make me cry exactly, but it was kind of sad." Unfortunately the ending isn't on YouTube, so I guess you'll have to conjure up the memory while you read the rest of this post. Try not to choke up.

Essentially, you, the hero, get exiled from the vault because, having spent the length of the game out on the strange, dangerous surface, you're tainted. Cue the Ink Spots and "Maybe" as the hero marches, forlorn, back to the wastes. It's a laudable enough twist in a genre that (even today, but more so circa 1997) is mostly about jerking you off every five minutes to reassure you that you are the most important character in this particular power fantasy. This is significant. Even though Fallout grants you typically massive influence over the settlements and people you encounter, you're denied your final accolade.


This ending doesn't work. The entire game is about discovery: for the first time, you're seeing the world outside of the vault. Nobody from the vault's ever been out there. You assume it's going to be this anarchic wasteland, a total nightmare. It even sort of is. But although in all the entropy you don't find as many pockets of sympathetic or pitiable humanity as you do in a Deus Ex or a Planescape: Torment... they're still there! The whole game has you outside your comfort zone, and I think that while, yes, there are scorpions and raiders and mutants, it is still a really interesting place, the place you should have been all along. It is better than the vault. While you're less likely to get murdered, there's absolutely nothing interesting there. It's conservative, repressed and closed-minded, a point well made by their iconography so evoking the 1950s, not to mention their casting you out. Who played Fallout and was saying to themselves, you know, this is really great and all, but what I really want for Fallout 2 is to stay in the fucking vault?


The game experience is not about making you homesick (you've never been home) by making you trawl through some horrorscape. It's kind of like that ER episode where those Amish kids go through that rite of leaving home at 18 to check if the outside world's for them before going back to their Amish ways. Maybe that happens in real life too. I'm not an expert. I did see Witness, and now that I think about it, I'm really embarrassed to admit that I saw a late-period ER episode.

Fallout doesn't create even a perfunctory emotional connection between the player and the vault. It's not "home". Even if it was, who cares? The outside world is by far more attractive. Yeah, it's a risk, but that's life. I don't even feel bad on behalf of my character, because he's the typical RPG blank slate. Dude feels bad when I tell him to feel bad. (Side note: Fallout 3 is apparently rectifying this by starting you in the vault proper and then having your dad get kidnapped. For more, see the excellent Shacknews preview written by the famous Chris Remo, a.k.a. the most successful ex-Idle Thumbs staffer. So far.)

This is why I was fully on board with Fallout until that ending. Pathos was completely the wrong note to play. You did me a fucking favour. And because during this game I did so much good for so many people, they're practically obligated now to set me up for life.

I wish she didn't have her eyes closed in this shot.

I'm perfectly willing to admit my interpretation of the game is the wrong one. But it's the better one.

Finally, having majored in international relations, I can tell you that war actually does change.

Next up -- a game from this century!

October 25, 2007

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

A list of the best cutscenes of all time might be the least inspired post I could possibly make. I think I'll save that, as well as a meta discussion about the whole concept of cutscene storytelling for when I'm really desperate. That's when you'll know it's time to stop reading.



This post is about Thief, the game from nine years ago. I've really keyed in on all the relevant contemporary touchstones. Wait until you see the next post. It's only because I accidentally deleted my essay on BioShock. You know, I have a life.

Here's a cutscene from Thief, which, startlingly, is on YouTube. Don't watch it unless you've played the game. Or read any further in this post. Why am I even bothering.



There is so much that's right about this scene. When you reached this point in the game you'd be totally forgiven for underestimating the storytelling prowess of Thief: The Dark Project. It is a video game after all. The first few seconds of this scene would confirm that the characters Constantine and Viktoria are in fact the villains of the piece -- which you probably were pretty sure of as early as their introduction. They're pretty much the only characters you know, and they talk in sinister tones. It's a reveal the game did a really bad job of hiding.

It helps that Garrett is typically so sardonic. No kidding they're the villains. They were manipulating me all along? In a video game? Well I never. This is no shock. This is an eye-roll. What's kind of a shock, though, is when they mutate into fucking monsters. Constantine looks like the devil. Viktoria is a tree woman. This was a little harder to see coming. And while you're processing that, then -- then! -- Viktoria rips your eye out with a branch! Your fucking eye! Where did that come from?

Thief's lulled you into a false overconfidence -- oh, they're the bad guys? oh, wow -- then immediately throws at you the two craziest things to happen in this game so far. Three twists in rapid succession and you're actually missing an eye, how often does that happen in a game? (A brief digression regarding the merits of cutscenes -- sorry -- here, because of video game storytelling conventions, you know this is permanent and not the avoidable result of you screwing up.)

Then Viktoria and Constantine pontificate very theatrically to themselves. It's not so important exactly what they're saying: I'm not paying attention because my eye is missing from its socket. But it's great, because it's not like "oh no, eye out" --> Mission complete! The horror of this scene is sustained so adeptly; it doesn't even matter what Viktoria and Constantine are talking about, what it's established is that this game clearly took a very bizarre and irreversible turn.



Thief is a very subtle game, both in gameplay, obviously, and in storytelling. It has a slight irreverence to it in Garrett's wry observations. Given that, it's so laudable that Looking Glass commits to going all the way with this completely insane moment and don't pull their punches at all. It's one of the best moments in the game and it's executed flawlessly. It sets you up going in, thinking you know what's up and throws so much crazy shit at you you don't even know where to respond. The whole tenor of the game changes in a minute. It's really quite remarkable.

If Thief II had a moment of that caliber I would have liked it more. Thief II had an absurdly inferior villain. I hope that guy's not on YouTube.

Shiftless When Idle


First post.

I used to write for a site called Idle Thumbs, and unfortunately if you're reading this right now you probably know exactly what Idle Thumbs was. Idle Thumbs was a gaming site that was very good for a very brief period of time. I started writing for it in 2005, when it was just "good", and stayed with it through 2006, when it was "frustrating and painful". I'm only even mentioning it because it was the best thing I ever did on the internet, not that my self-worth is measured by what I do on the internet or anything. The whole thing doesn't come up much anymore, except for talking about it right now and referencing it in the title of this blog post. That's kind of like John Fogerty calling his new album "Revival" except that more than one person gives a shit about that. Let's hope that's it for the Idle Thumbs references, though.

Idle Thumbs (whoops!) fell apart mostly because it was a volunteer project that eventually ran out of steam -- much like this will! I promise the second I lose interest in this thing, it's getting shut down. Not many blogs would guarantee you inevitable failure like that. I did write four posts before publishing, though. Guess how many posts this will run.

For the next four weeks, this is going to be all about examples of writing in games. It's like my own lecture series, meaning that I get to mouth off like an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. I chose writing because I don't know shit about anything else -- possibly not even that.

There'll be an exciting post up in a day or two.

Does this layout suck? I think it might.