April 29, 2008

Weather Cancellations

Far too late for it to mean anything, I bought the de facto final issue of Games for Windows. I had to have a copy so I could unload it on eBay for $7,000. I accept PayPal.

I didn't read Computer Gaming World in its mid-90s Johnny Wilson heyday and I wasn't in the Post's newsroom in '74 breaking Watergate wide open so I'm not feeling overly nostalgic for the death of PC gaming or the death of print (pretty unlucky to be at ground zero of that particular Venn diagram.) But I'm hardly thrilling to a world where "GFW magazine" now refers, uncontested, to Golf for Women. I've never been interested in gamer-identity-by-platform-stratification and that's not what I'm going to miss about the magazine. I'm going to miss the writing.

It was exactly the kind of writing that gamers, developers and critics bemoan the lack of while not really looking for it. Was GFW gaming journalism's Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael? No, but who gives a shit? In its last months, the magazine's writers could be counted amongst the very few in the profession not only eschewing the press' traditional role as marketing tools but actually trying to raise the bar. This meant critical previews and long-form, in-depth features that resembled investigative journalism over exclusive covers and vapid hype. It was beginning to transcend its mandate to appeal to everyone interested in video games or gaming culture. Evidently no one cared.

Who knows what was stopping people from realising it was actually a good magazine. It takes a while for that kind of reputation to catch on, and GFW probably started at a disadvantage sporting the official Microsoft brand. Maybe it's hard to overcome the perception of EDGE as the only gaming magazine that does any real writing. And some might have found it hard to believe that in 2008 CGW could be something greater than the standard-bearer of a tapped-out zeitgeist. Computer Gaming World had its day for sure, and that day was very specifically part of a different era. Kind of like video game journalism's Juliana Hatfield; whose relevance was tied exclusively to 1991-3, but she still makes albums for some reason.

Or maybe GFW's decline in popularity has everything to do with it not being online and not being free. It couldn't be the same magazine it was even ten years ago. Print can't subsist on reviews and previews anymore. Kane & Lynch's not such an interesting game to read about in February, especially when the review is so substantively similar to all the ones published in December. A magazine can't be the internet except two months later and you're supposed to respect it more for being in print.

You weren't going to get timeliness with GFW. Nor did you need it. GFW was delivering exactly the kind of features and editorial that made them viable as a print magazine. They weren't just viable, they were good. They could promise articles that were at this level and had this degree of investigative detail and, yeah, they were going to look really nice. It didn't matter if you liked PC games or not. It mattered if you liked games. Lara Crigger reported on gaming in the Middle East and the process of codification for video game writers. Robert Ashley hung out in a virtual representation of Manhattan's Lower East Side, watching band videos at a club with hipster bots ("Technology has taken music in many cool directions. This is not one of them.") Erik Wolpaw played Universe at War as a responsible civic planner. Reviews and previews were written intelligently and with an eye towards analysis rather than hyperbolically validating the reader's choice of gaming platform. It threw its weight behind the most hopeful conception possible of the gaming press: critical, level-headed, independent from PR coercion and staffed by writers instead of product evaluators. Sort of like real journalism. It's amazing how long it's taking to get there.

The internet has some great writers, but signal-to-noise ratios mean it's going to take longer than it should to find them. GFW did the work. It assembled great, smart writers every month. You could rely on a certain standard of quality. Everyone talks about the danger of the cult of personality, and yeah, it's a little ridiculous how every gaming publication suddenly needs a podcast. But personality is what it should be about. When you picked up a copy of GFW you should expect more of it than an affirmation of your PC gaming enthusiasm. You should know Jeff Green, Shawn Elliott, Sean Molloy, Ryan Scott; you should know how they write. That should be worth something.

But apparently it isn't.

April 26, 2008


I'm going to audit my hipness for a second. You can tell a lot about someone's underground video game cred by how early he bought 2005's Pathologic. (I use the male pronoun because girls don't play video games.) Maybe he bought it after Rock, Paper, Shotgun's enthusiastic post-mortem, along with ten thousand other commoners. Or maybe it was 2006, after John Walker's stunning Eurogamer review. Or maybe it was day one, after he read a review unscored critique in a Russian fanzine. He filed it beside his Dostoevsky and Nabokov first editions, chuckling at the gaming mainstream who still clung to their Fable and their San Andreas. So when did I get it? Uh, the Rock Paper Shotgun thing.

It really was an impressive piece that doesn't leave me with anything new or interesting to say about Pathologic. To be honest, that's kind of a disincentive for me to finish the game. The other big disincentive is Pathologic. You hear a lot about its tragically flawed beauty and crippled transcendentalism with less emphasis given to the first parts of those descriptors. It's functionally awkward and stilted. It's kind of a lousily put-together game, period. Enter it sceptical and disappointed.

Nonetheless there is something charming about Pathologic weirdly dying in front of you. A lot of that has to do with how it talks.

I think there's an uncanny valley in effect for translation. If it's just slightly -- but clearly -- wrong, as is the case with many, many games, it really drives me crazy. This applies to every adventure game released in the last seven years except Sam & Max. Translation consists of a cursory pass which renders the words recognisable but never structured in a way that would ever be produced by an English-speaker. Beyond Good & Evil's "intruders have penetrated into the facility" forever resonates, along with other grammatical faux pas. I always wonder why these English-speaking actors never correct their lines. Maybe they think it's some video game thing or maybe they have to blow through this gig so they can get to their toilet commercial by 2:30.

Pathologic's translation stands at the absolute edge of the valley, threatening to jump. You could call it stylised if it wasn't so demonstrably wrong. It's beyond minor imperfections and "real people don't talk like that." Pathologic is so far gone it's like it was never translated at all.

A plague runs through a broken city and the player is trapped inside. Pathologic's language is of urgent emotional distress and stark terror presented through clinical and impenetrable literary and metafictional ambition. Its boldness and verbosity is rendered grandly ineloquent and as you read along you frequently stop to pick out the wrong word choices and wonder what any of this actually means. It shouldn't be this complicated.

Maybe it should. Pathologic is characterised by the inexplicable and the inconsistent. This game is at once so broken and discordant, but every part, every mistake, is working to alienate, intimidate and oppress the player. Translation included. It's a rationalisation, and it's a game for whom rationalisations are necessary to like. Regardless, a lucid translation wouldn't be appropriate here, and anyway, making sense of this game would be horrifying.

This is a world wrenched out of sync with itself; quickly, violently throttling towards its own destruction. It needs help but it can't speak, communicating only in obscured spurts of choked, screaming brilliance. It is a wreck. It is an abyss. You have to look into it to understand it and you hope that by the end you'll know enough to tell if it was genius or madness.

April 23, 2008


Intuition is a sweet deal. Perfectly valid decisions, preferences and theories are supported only because they "feel right", and you don't need a thesis to explain your position. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink was a sterling testament to the power of intuition, specifically, how the power of intuition can make a bestseller out of a weak book. It's always been my intuition that "sad" endings, or those that withhold some degree of gratification from the main character, are inherently superior to the alternative. Especially in video games. While I'm surely not alone in that, I've never been able to articulate a reason for that thinking. It's something I can only justify because, instinctively, it feels honest. And that might be good enough. Except I just unlocked the secret and am going to spell it all out like a video game scientist.

Stories, after a while, end. Games are at once the epitome of and the exception to that truism. There are, of course, a ton of games, even some with prominent narratives, that don't actually end. Still, gamers clock more hours in a single stand-alone story than in any other medium, unless we're talking about a TV series or a tedious "cycle" of fantasy novels, neither of which ask the player to identify with one principal character as video games do. In games, it's really a 1:1 match. The player and the protagonist are the same character and that doesn't happen anywhere else.

Inhabiting a character for so long, you're entitled to have that experience pay off. Total up the hours spent in a sprawling epic like the Baldur's Gate series and the result is humbling and embarrassing. If that story doesn't resolve itself to the player's satisfaction, they've kind of wasted their time.

The whole game, you and the character are in pursuit of the same goal, the same power-ups, the same love interests. At the end, it's best not to get any of that stuff. You shared motivation but ultimately the character will have those things and you won't. The player's reward is never going to be as substantial. If you lose, you lose together.

It's about being emotionally synchronised with your character. The game Mafia is structured according to a very conservative design where the story, a distinctly separate institution from the gameplay, progresses only in the cutscenes. With the player and the character, Tommy, forming this gestalt entity, a schism develops between the two of you. Because in the role of this mafia hitman, you do all the work and Tommy gets all the reward. You have no input into the cutscenes, which are where Tommy gets to enjoy all the ostentatious benefits of mafia living; sex and fine scotch. But Tommy doesn't show up for the exacting shootouts, speed limits and race missions. That's all you. The two of you are not really on the same track.

Why shouldn't you want your character to be happy, or for the game to close out peacefully? Well, it's easier to empathise when you both lose than when the other guy wins. Unless you watch The Office and squeal at the Jim/Pam scenes; unless you fetishise it, there's no fulfillment for you there. Loss resonates, because at the end, you're losing the game. That should be depressing. You can't take it with you. That emptiness isn't sated by watching the last cutscene where your guy gets married. Who cares about that? What do you get for saving the world? Not much. Most players aren't getting a contact high off some dude sailing off into the sunset.

Digital happiness doesn't mean as much to the player as it does to the character. It's the heartbreakers that hit home. That is, unless you're really super-altruistic and get actual satisfaction out of helping Tommy win, and the smile on his face is all the reward you need.

Video gaming is exactly like Quantum Leap, by the way. Here you are, jumping from one story to another, plunging into the established lives of soldiers, heroes and superspies. Everyone in the game world expects you to live up to your reputation but you being with no experience and are completely winging it. Then you improve, solve your character's problems, set him up for life, and move on to the next challenge.

A miserable ending is not always better than a positive one, but games are better at conveying the emotional qualities of the former. It doesn't have to be completely bleak, either. I'm thinking of the fourth Quest for Glory which literally does end in traditionally narcissistic RPG fashion, with the townspeople all patting you on the back for a job well done, but the events of the game still go down as a bittersweet personal loss. You don't have to forfeit everything, but you should miss out on something. It's like Indiana Jones losing all the artifacts.

Sad endings can still be affirming. That's what Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did, that's what Planescape: Torment did. On the other hand, there's Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, which has a poster of Torment up on the inside of its locker, and Neil Gaiman verse tattooed on its thigh, but ultimately it fails its heroes. After maintaining a somber, fatalistic mood for most of the game, it takes and abrupt and disingenuous turn into sunshine. In no way do I undervalue positive moments and their potential to be incredibly powerful. But an ending that's across-the-board positive, that gives the character everything? You don't feel that, you shrug it off.

Therefore, if there's a way for me to end this blog that depresses you, it's going to happen.

April 18, 2008


"And the winner is... Cracktime! Crackdown." Another GDC highlight.

GDC 2008 is finally out of my system. Not because I was waiting to repeat the Cracktime thing, although that was a vital piece of the puzzle. Instead, I wrote a GDC article for my friends over at Idle Thumbs, which covers pretty well the very last thing I wanted to say about the conference, and marks my return to sincerity. It's not a "GDC impressions" piece written two months after the fact. I would not do that to you. In fact, I don't think anyone's written a GDC article like this before. If anyone has, I will fight them.

And with that, GDC 2008 is hereby retired as subject matter, unless I think of something really funny. Or if I decide to troll for traffic and start running blind items.

April 16, 2008

Parker Lewis Can't Miss

As a university-qualified political scientist, let me tell you that there is no lobby more important than the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. I can only pray that one day handguns will become another must-have college student accessory, alongside laptops, cellphones and Rohypnol. This is one of those real winners of an idea. Can you believe how few guns we have in our public schools? It's sickening. This is exactly what's wrong with big government. School shootings should be regulated by the free market, not gun control laws. Ron Paul in 2008.

I know Chris Avellone has said in the past that he wants to do a high school RPG, and I think that would be fun. I'd like to see the social dynamics of high school through the dialogue, party and side-quest mechanics of an RPG. In light of this recent news story, however, I think a high school RPG shouldn't resemble Final Fantasy-esque melodrama as much as it should Fallout.

I use a shot of Fallout 3 to represent "Fallout" knowingly and pointedly.

It would be great. Post-apocalyptic dystopia meets Rebel Without A Cause meets Class of 1984. Leather-clad greasers on turret-mounted motorcycles. Jocks decked out in steel armour patterned after letterman jackets. Students lose karma when they give freshmen swirlies, and gain it when they ask nerds to the homecoming dance. Promise rings are +1 CHA. Cigarettes buy the answers to math tests. Militant cliques patrol the grounds at lunch, armed to the teeth, recruiting new students to their cause. Cheerleaders don't spread cheer as often as they spread syphilis. Prostitution rings and drug trafficking run the economy. The vice-principal enlists students to depose the principal in a bloody coup d'etat. While they are surrounded by wimpy followers, the kids never forget that they must act the outlaw, must trust no one, and that vigilantism is necessary for survival.

And bullets fly everywhere. Groin-targeted shots, of course.

April 13, 2008

High School Poet Laureate

I believe that there is no photograph from this year's GDC more accurate and entertaining than this one.

That's Erik Wolpaw and Kim Swift, who showed up at GDC to collect a dozen awards on Wednesday night and give a post-mortem on Friday afternoon. Expectations were low for the Portal post-mortem, or, as I called it -- once, accidentally -- the Portem post-mortal. Those things tend to be pretty non-revelatory, especially for games like Portal and BioShock which had already been thoroughly dissected. Still, we all liked Portal, and Erik Wolpaw would probably say something funny, so we went. Along with a thousand other people.

Expectations were met, and the content of the post-mortem adhered to a predictable and forgettable formula. Wolpaw probably did say something funny but I don't even remember what it was. What I do remember is a thousand people bearing witness to the most awkward presentation -- I'll go out on a limb -- at any GDC, ever. Swift and Wolpaw arbitrarily traded points ("Alright, now Erik's going to talk about...") It didn't really matter who was speaking, because the points in their entirety were right up there on the Powerpoint slides, and they just read them aloud. They struggled with embarrassing audience questions: one guy took three minutes to ask why they had changed the colour of the portals from early proof-of-concept footage, and another reminisced meaninglessly about Narbacular Drop, as if trying to subtly establish his Portal fan credentials as superior to everyone else in the room. Swift and Wolpaw weren't particularly powerful speakers, either. Not that I blame them, especially given the size of their audience.

In fact, I don't blame them for anything. I loved their presentation, albeit for slightly backhanded and patronising reasons. The entire aesthetic was straight out of high school. Sloppy Powerpoint use, stupid questions, over-reliance on notes, hesitant delivery. Not to mention they're both pretty young to begin with. Gabe Newell was probably in the front row grading them. Actually, that's kind of what I'm doing.

Above all, Wolpaw and Swift seemed exactly the kind of pairing that could only possibly come about via random assignment in a high school class. The guy, who's quiet and sort of nerdy, but is weirdly funny and spends the whole project loading the Powerpoint presentation up with Google Image Search results and internet memes his partner is too cool to understand. The girl is much hipper and more sociable, though not as smart in that obsessive-nerd way. She will be at a party this weekend while the guy is playing Starcraft. Separated from their cliques, they both are out of their element in having to deal with the other and would never have otherwise interacted if not for the intervention of Vice-Principal Newell.

It doesn't map exactly. But if you couldn't tell, I really want it to. Because it makes me laugh.

I love that uncomfortable, arrested-development chemistry somehow being transported to this professional, grown-up setting. The protagonists are elevated to superstars at a time when they couldn't be less prepared for success. It feels so wonderfully wrong that more people showed up to this amateur hour than any other GDC session. Portal is a solid game, and that's how they got them in the door, but seeing Swift and Wolpaw hold court to their appreciation society was like a celebration of the cheerfully, unapologetically amateur. It was great.

In closing, I would like to apologise. To everyone.

April 6, 2008

The Pitch

As you can see from my LinkedIn profile to the right, I am ushering myself into a new era of professionalism. Among my many professional endeavors, I am beginning to make inroads into the exciting arena of game development. A key part of the development process, I am told, is pitching your game ideas to studios and publishers. After some practice, I believe I am starting to get good at this. For instance, I know that if you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you need to use something called "Powerpoint". In fact, I have been writing all my game proposals in Powerpoint and I am starting to see a marked improvement in the quality of my ideas. I would like to share one of my pitches with you but I don't know how many people have Powerpoint on their computers. I came up with a solution that I think will make everybody happy.

April 4, 2008


"Blah blah blah cuckoo clock." -- Orson Welles

The Third Man is one of my favourite movies, which I believe entitles me to more film snob credit than I honestly deserve. I don't want it anyway.

I like it for its sense of low-key hopelessness and heroic exhaustion. I like it for being firmly unsentimental while not being mean. I like it for its downbeat, depressed humour. Still, the movie's not important enough to me -- or perhaps I just didn't see it at a formative enough age -- that I'd immediately namecheck it as a writing influence. An influence on the writing I do outside of the medium of unpopular video games commentary, of course (you mean Hit Self-Destruct is not in fact influenced by Graham Greene? huh.) That's not to denigrate the quality of the movie or its value to me personally. It might not be a capital-i Influence but it's one of those movies that you watch and immediately find yourself in tune with. It affirms my perceptions of how the procedures and nuances of fiction really ought to be. That's the way being influenced should work; through exposure to a wide variety of media that subtly and subconsciously constructs individual prejudices and preferences.

I've gone back and forth on whether I like it or not that the influence of one of my favourite movies on one of my favourite games is so transparent. The Last Express (written by Jordan Mechner and Tomi Pierce) switches the contentious four quarters of post-war occupied Vienna for contentious internationally zoned pre-war train cars. Penicillin smugglers are upgraded to arms dealers. The dead American still pulls his American hero friend (who's not that heroic) into the story. There's still a sullen, sultry Austrian woman named Anna.

As much as it might seem like I'm building the case against The Last Express -- and I guess I am -- I really do admire it for drawing on something like The Third Man as inspiration, like I admire BioShock for much the same thing. Those games are entitled to way more literary credit than the games medium honestly deserves, not that the medium wants it anyway. I also love The Last Express for not twisting the trappings of The Third Man into something strange and embarrassing, or taking the easy way out and rolling it all into some amorphous noir parody. By contrast, and yeah, I haven't played the game, I would love to know how Insecticide exhibits its purported The Wire influence.

The Last Express is firmly not a familiar ride through superficial fictional touchstones. The story has a heart to it and while its point of view is not discordant with The Third Man, they're not stolen from it either. Even with all the Third Man overtones, this is decidedly a Jordan Mechner story. It's weird to be able to identify a writing style over only about three game narratives but nonetheless the idiosyncracies come out pretty strongly. Mechner likes to play with time: Last Express and Sands of Time's rewind functions, and Prince of Persia's time limit before them. There's always some element of inexplicable mysticism, a protagonist struggling to keep his head above the water, and a bittersweetly tragic romance.

Mechner's become one of my favourite (and maddeningly infrequent) game writers, which is a preference based entirely on The Last Express and The Sands of Time. He didn't really do a lot of game writing before that. Of course, the lack of a strong narrative didn't hurt Karateka or Prince of Persia and the Prince of Persia 2 story is inoffensively bland in an early 90s platform game kind of way. I really do think it's impressive though that the only two games where he's arguably done any real "writing" are two of -- arguably! -- the best game narratives ever. Mechner writes with a distinct voice which comes across with tremendous clarity, which right there sets him apart from so many people who are writing games.

To wrap up this low-energy meandering on influence, I have to wonder if there'll ever be a game narrative which will ever be cited as an influence on non-video game fiction. More to the point, I wonder if I'll ever cite a game narrative, since it is all about me. I actually respect a lot of game writing. Mechner, of course. Deus Ex's network of non-intrusive and colourful backstory. Anachronox's brutal honesty. Portal's slowly, beautifully revealing structure. Tim Schafer's effortless and immediate switches between comedy and incredible poignancy. Chris Avellone's gift for unleashing brutal, nihilistic sadness. And still I can't imagine looking at any of that and then looking at any other medium and thinking "hey, that's how it should go."


Unrelated postscript: Note the sidebar modifications on the right, which includes the disappearance of the hilarious (?) "popular posts" joke, now gone the way of the cartoon train. Welcome to the new professional Hit Self-Destruct. WHOOO