May 31, 2008

The Vignette: Sunday

Harrison drummed his fingers on the desk in a staccato pattern that was making Anderson crazy. Wheels were turning in Harrison's head, and being the man he was, he had to give voice to the thought process.

"Everyone agrees. If we're thinking about fighting back, if we were going to commit ourselves to a war... there's no way we would last. That point's simply inarguable. We just don't have the numbers. We would lose. It'd only be a question of how long we could keep it up, and just think about how much we'd have to sacrifice before the end. There'd be no recovery.

"We can't provoke them. We can't subject ourselves to their attack. Everyone knows that. But everywhere we look we see our own destruction. What options do we have?

"Why are we here, Colonel? What are we about to do?"

The monitor flickered. Four.

May 30, 2008

The Vignette: Saturday

"You like to talk, don't you, Harrison?"

Harrison thought about it. "Yes, sir, I suppose I do."

"That's fine," said Anderson, "there's nothing wrong with talking. Talking has its place; just remember that there's a time for action also. You feel a sense of duty, Harrison, and that's what's called you here. Trust that sense. It will impose some choices on you which you might interpret as difficult or wrong, and in those times duty must be your watchword. It is a compass. It will light a path in the darkness and hold your hand when you sleep. You must learn to trust it. We deal in horror here, Harrison. You'll come to understand when action is necessary."

Harrison nodded sagely. "What does that mean, sir?"

"Stop talking, Harrison."

The clock ticked over to five.

May 29, 2008

The Vignette: Friday

The key hung from a thick cord anchored at his waist. Harrison idly rotated it between his thumb and forefinger; a distraction from his otherwise intense staring contest with the monitor.

"My nephew is going to a private school," said Harrison after a minute of absolute silence. "His parents were busy so last week I took him to the open day the school was having. It was fascinating. Do you have kids, Colonel? I liked it very much. It was a lot of fun to meet so many people, and not just the teachers and the faculty, but the parents too. I met a lot of really interesting people. And we just talked, you know, we shook hands and introduced ourselves and talked about our lives. I was networking, I was a networker. You never know who you're going to meet or who someone will turn out to be. You don't know what opportunities are going to come out of exchanging business cards or how a connection you made might prove useful in the future. And who knows, you could even meet a special lady! Just kidding. I'm engaged. I guess I just love meeting people! I can't get enough. Are we the only ones in the building right now?"

Anderson choked out a terse "Yes."

Harrison looked back at the monitor. It read: six.

May 28, 2008

The Vignette

"Well, jeepers," said Harrison, "I understand all that, and I understood our position at the summit, but I'm confused about what's going to happen here. What are we going to do?"

Colonel Anderson, a heavy-set mustachioed fellow, kept his eyes locked on the terminal in front of him. He nodded once. "Just wait."

Leaning forward on the desk, Harrison very consciously ran a hand back through his closely-cropped hair and sighed. There were no mirrors in the room but Harrison was fairly sure the motion made him look dashing and perhaps rakish. He wished that cameras were around to immortalize his moment of handsome narcissism.

The two men looked at the screen. It read: seven.

May 19, 2008


A promise is a promise. There's more where this came from.

May 17, 2008

Hit Self-Destruct

The day after I finished college, I launched Hit Self-Destruct. It wasn't until last Friday, seven months later, that I actually graduated. Having now experienced both, I'd have to say Hit Self-Destruct has proven to be the more rewarding and satisfying epilogue to my college experience. And between the blog and the piece of paper, it's the former that's had the most influence on my career path. That's the thing that breaks my heart.

Graduation has its special charms, sort of. Those ten seconds on stage; kind of a thrill. There's seeing all the people you didn't want to and not seeing the ones that you did. And even though everyone was wearing the same thing, I still think it was a pretty embarrassing outfit. Also, the hood was pink. I looked like a girl. A girl on the Supreme Court.

And then there was the weak graduation address delivered by an MA in Creative Writing, and me, with all my unchecked arrogance, dismissing it and writing something clearly superior in my head. (Seriously, it included a Powerpoint reference. Come on. You can't come at me with Powerpoint jokes, of all things.)

I had a lot of time to think. I thought about everything I was feeling and about how rarely those emotions or anything similar are represented in videogames. ("Videogames", just this once.) They're neither compelled in the player or evinced by the game's characters. Games have an emotionally-stunted vocabulary.

I thought about how discouraging that ought to be, and how I might form an incendiary manifesto to the industry in response. Grow up. Do better. Graduate. There's this entire emotional spectrum still uncharted and massive potential that remains unlocked.

Only I don't care.

I play games and so of course I am eager for games to improve and mature. I'm all for playing better games. I'm not a developer, though, and so I join the ranks of a thousand other amateur commentators whose influence is limited to lecturing and shouting. In some ways, that's a very enviable position, with little accountability and the possibility of breaking big in my favour: no one ever went broke criticising the immaturity of the game industry.

A lot of people seem to be perfectly happy doing this but I don't like it very much. This, right here, is a dead end. It can be as fun for as long as it is but it can never be what I do. I don't want to make a living telling other people what they're doing wrong, or as the guy who tells the other guy to be the change he wants to see in the world. It's too many degrees removed from anything of substance. I need to do more than that. But in this field it's the only skill I have, and, I suppose, I don't care enough about the industry to embrace it. I really can't pretend to be passionate about advancing the social and emotional complexity of virtual worlds when I can barely handle the real one.

Each time I get concerned about the future of video games, to some extent, it's disingenuous. If I didn't have a blog to write, I wouldn't care as much. I'm not committed to following through on any of the manufactured issues I raise. My investment begins and ends right here.

It can take a while to realise you're not in something for life.

May 12, 2008

Blue Skies

After you issue a ponderous, vaguely provocative call-to-action like I did with Headshot, the last thing you expect is exactly what you asked for.

The Mirror's Edge trailer paints a startlingly accurate picture of what I want. It's an action game that's built on an interesting and unconventional gameplay mechanic. It's an action game that exists without the player's input limited to killing guys. It's an action game with a realistic body count. And it's still unquestionably an action game; intrinsically about adrenaline and movement. This is what I'm talking about. "Action" has a broader definition than just "shoot-out". I love it. It's a great feeling when games are designed especially for you.

I wouldn't dare ask for anything more than that but the thing's also got such a great aesthetic. The art design is contrarily bright and optimistic and the oddly serene music lulls you into a sense of wonder. If DICE wrap a smart narrative around this, it's going to be the next Portal.

When the trailer was released there were actually a ton of forum quotes which I could reprint here criticising the lead character's ethnicity and insufficient hotness. As far as saber-rattling goes, that'd be pretty good fodder, but forget it. Let's just have this moment.


A "lousy op-ed writer who just riffs on [last week's] headlines." Okay, so I might be a hypocrite, but a hypocrite is right half the time.

May 10, 2008

Making Movies

Yeah, yeah, okay, so this is nice:

But you know what would make it even better? Imagine if it was an animated movie with Tim Burton at the helm, infusing the production with a quirky, offbeat sensibility. And we could get a real actor -- Johnny Depp? Just throwing that out there -- to play Manny. Now we're in business.

I'm using sarcasm to make a point and be a dick. Film has become the final destination of any work of fiction; sort of a pop culture meridian. That's great for the author whose book was optioned for a cool seven figures, and great for the studios and everyone working on the project but I have no idea why consumers get at all excited at the prospect of a video game being made into a movie. I don't understand the people who actually want to see a Monkey Island film. The story was told pretty well the first time. Who wants to watch that?

Translating a novel into film makes some sense because there's a visual and a sonic dimension being added, but games are already so cinematic as to render the translation pointless. A video game narrative is the closest thing to movies that any medium's got going. In fact, cutscenes are movies.

In exchange for seeing something we like up on the big screen, we have to cut five-sixths of Planescape: Torment and remove what's interesting about Half-Life. Doom and Super Mario Bros. are going to need a story and so the producers will use the template that came with the scriptwriting software. It's not 1990. Games these days are pretty good with cinematic techniques and they're using talented actors and for the most part they know how to structure a story, so I am moved to ask: what's the point? It's a cynical cash grab and that lack of inspiration is reflected time and time again in the product itself.

It's unfortunate that video game movies have, with depressing consistency, been some of the worst pieces of celluloid trash ever; the province of the special effects guy making his directorial debut. That's bad luck and the movies will get better. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Max Payne look like they'll reach a basic level of filmmaking competency. Although Max Payne is a fan letter to film cliché to begin with; it's going to be very exciting when that's all filtered out, leaving the story of a tough-as-nails cop who plays by his own rules.

It's not even about whether the movies are bad or not. It's about gamers thrilling to the very possibility of a movie adaptation, and apparently assuming the cinematic treatment will somehow unlock the game's heretofore unrealised potential.

What's the reason? Is it that a wider audience will be exposed to Metal Gear Solid and we'll be all I-told-you-so. You see, we weren't engaging in meaningless first-review hyperbole when we claimed this was an "Oscar-worthy story". You made fun of me at the time but didn't that thing with Aeris move you more than you ever thought possible?

Do we want to live vicariously through a game's second life? Are the people photoshopping the Firefly cast onto a movie poster for Mass Effect looking for the satisfaction of having their fannish wish-fulfillment writ large? Are we trying to validate the artistic merits of this medium to a mainstream audience by, ironically, repackaging it in an already established and acceptable format?

The advantages and the reasoning elude me. The aesthetics of the major leagues seem fine but we do some things okay. There's the red carpet and there's gold statues, but right now I'm actually pretty content with video games.

P.S. You almost surely read this post as a response to the recent announcement of a BioShock movie, when in fact I had this idea three weeks ago. I blame the news cycle for detonating my post's time-sensitive originality and making me out to be some lousy op-ed writer who just riffs on the day's headlines. Gore Verbinski, how dare you. This isn't over. You're going to feel what I feel. I swear I'm going to find your BioShock script and I'm gonna leak it. Don't mess with me.

May 5, 2008


Here's a thought-provoking piece of trivia from my other life. United Nations peacekeepers wear berets instead of helmets because while the latter affords considerably more protection against getting shot in the head, the less obtrusive headgear better emphasizes the target's face; their vulnerability, their humanity. It's psychologically harder to kill them if they look less like a soldier; in which case the response is automatic. It's like a tactic to combat military dehumanisation. Sometimes snipers are even moved to tears. Then I guess they shoot them anyway.

I don't know if that's actually true. I read it a year ago and I might have since invented some of the details. Nonetheless I can feel my thoughts being provoked even as I type.

I'm still bothered by what Chris Taylor (Supreme Commander) said at his GDC panel: that he got uncomfortable with the idea of video games being about killing thousands of people so he took out the blood and made them all robots. We don't feel empathy for robots and we're not grossed out by their corpses, so we're happy. Problem solved and we can keep on fighting with a clear conscience; just like those guys who are conditioned to recognise that the man holding a gun and speaking another language is an enemy combatant, not a civilian, and so different rules apply.

I neglected to mention that in my other life I am apparently an anti-video game crusader. Games do this all the time, though. We fight zombies, mutants and suits of armour as often as we fight humans. Enemy troops are caricatures; needing three bullets in the chest to take them down. Life and death are binary states. There's no pain and not much blood.

When we play games we sign up to kill people and the game abstracts the process so we can deal with it. Otherwise we might freak out like the guy in Munich did. It works like this scene from Call of Duty 4, which, incidentally, is based on a real-life detachment mechanism:

We don't want to see their brains blown out on the street. When we shoot the bad guys we want them to lose hit points, not scream, bleed and defecate. We want to look into the familiar, robotic eyes of NPC_Face_Generic_2, not someone with a family. Condemned or Soldier of Fortune makes us uncomfortable because we don't want to be disturbed by the violence we have to cause. And that's fine. That's the only way it's going to work.

I don't know why we're so accepting of the premise that our video gaming duty is to kill the enemy; that it's our only way to win. Half-Life and Oblivion aren't necessarily about being a soldier but that's the role we play. It's the role we almost always play. Developers who don't like it instead make it easier to stomach. We're built to shoot. We do it all the time. We go into war zones like the experienced professionals we are and eliminate the opposition. We don't broker cease-fires or reconstruct occupied territory. We don't know how to do that. We're meant for one thing.

It's at least a little creepy, right?

May 1, 2008

Bad Day

It's a very good title because there is no game so guaranteed to make a bad day even worse.

At this point in their maturity as a medium, video games can satisfy many of our social functions. We can go to the movies.

We can go to art galleries.

We can be in a relationship.

But even in this golden age of $400m openings and hot next-gen narratives, there's one thing games can't do. They can't cheer me up.

Seems like it should be easy, right? Games are built on power fantasies and pleasure principles. They're designed to reward the player. None of them do what I want them to do right now, though, which is stop me feeling sad. Epic campaigns are too slow, too involved. I don't have the patience for funny dialogue. Shooting dudes doesn't make me feel very good about myself.

Legally, you're not allowed to call them "party games" if you're the only one at the party. Those are in fact "lonely games." And I don't want to be challenged, especially when that means exacting difficulty and making jumps with pinpoint precision. On the other hand, something like Endless Ocean is way too meditative and forces you to think quietly about being miserable. I'm not asking for a lot. I'm asking for a happy distraction. I guess I'm looking for something full of really bright colours and pictures of smiling babies. That'd do the trick.

I tend to fall back on the classics. The mindless simplicity of Tetris worked for a while but there was something uncomfortably literal about always ending in crushing failure and death. I did like this web version because I figured out how to cheat. I can win TypeRacer legitimately, but if I play it at work I can't actually tell the difference. Line Rider was nice until that little guy sailed into the air and snapped his neck on a line that I drew. Crayon Physics comes by far the closest. It's pleasant and tranquil and it lets me do anything I want. Problem is it's not out yet so I'm stuck with the proof-of-concept. Likewise, I have a 60-second trial of Puzzle Bobble on my cellphone and sometimes I'll just play that one demo over and over. This is not a fulfilling existence.

P.S.: Understanding what that Sonic thing is all about will also cause many bad days.