August 31, 2008

Classic Tech Demo

I was a Linguistics major for four semesters, which was the time it took me to realise I never liked it very much. Sometimes -- not often, actually, but for the sake of a Hit Self-Destruct post -- I wonder about the alternate timeline where I didn't bail out. Certainly my physical degree would feature different words, but it would probably still be on my bookshelf underneath dentist bills and issues of Vanity Fair like it currently is. Changing majors means more than that, though. It disrupts a network of routines, friends, acquaintances, professors and processes of critical thinking that had been established over two years. My exit strategy from that particular strata was to abruptly disappear. Linguistics almost defined my academic life and it never ended in any satisfying manner. Fortunately, these days I have a little thing called Hit Self-Destruct, which is a productive outlet for all kinds of lingering disappointments and lethargic searches for fulfillment. It's time to put the past behind, well, just me I guess. I'm ending my linguistics career for real by embarking upon one final adventure into our wonderful language. Hit it!

Let's look at how the meanings of certain words have changed within the only community of language users relevant to Hit Self-Destruct: gamers. You may have noticed critics and message boards patrons using the phrase 'tech demo' as a pejorative. Where it was once a straight-forward descriptor, 'tech demo' can now imply that a game is full of graphical and programming tricks but low on substance and gameplay. Example: "Crysis is a tech demo" is an insult, whereas "This Unreal engine tech demo is a tech demo" is an objective statement. In an earlier, similar study of the cultural vernacular of video gamers, sociolinguist Duncan Fyfe examined how the words 'journalist' and 'amateur' were used not to refer to professional status but as "endorsement[s, or as] a statement of preference." [1]

In this sophisticated etymological investigation I don't intend to campaign for the preservation of tech demo's original meaning. Instead I will help ruin it by diluting the term even further.

For instance, if you think the guitar solo in a rock song is a little too prominent, call it a tech demo. "Sure, it's an epic jam, but the song is such a tech demo." That's a serviceable cross-media translation, but I'm interested in really obscuring the etymology of 'tech demo' and coming up with less and less sensible definitions. Earlier this year I borrowed the word 'supermodel' from the fashion industry to mean games with high production levels, critical immunity and a devoted fan following. [2] It seems appropriate, then, to return gaming technology to the fashion world. A 'tech demo' is someone whose only professional value is to showcase a new, and possibly radical/experimental clothing design. These women are tech demos:

Helpfully, this new definition also serves to distinguish between your everyday department store models and your charity-minded social advocates and talk-show perennials i.e. Linda Evangelista.

Alternately, a tech demo can be considered synonymous with fashion plate, as it alludes to one who is quick to adopt the latest, hippest styles or accessories. Many years ago, this gentleman would have qualified as a tech demo by virtue of the once-novel reverse positioning of his baseball cap:

Today, one might refer to these three friends, pictured below, and the population of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not pictured, as modern tech demos.

I hypothesise, however, that 'tech demo' has widest resonance when it refers to the kind of person who is basically flighty in nature. When you take an online personality quiz and it says you are a tech demo, that means that you shortsightedly flit from one attraction to the next, touting each phase proudly but never with any lasting sincerity. It is consequently hard to pin down who you really are or what you really care about. The tech demo chases what is new, hip and fun, committing to little and always moving on. You are the kind of person who switches majors after two years because they are bored.

Time's up. Pencils down, papers up front, then leave the lecture hall for the final time, walk straight back to the dorm never looking back. I'll get a C- for this if I'm lucky. In any event, I leave the ephemeral majesty of tech demo behind me. It will remain forever isolated within some university's archives never to be seen or used again. In the classic tech demo manner, it will be forgotten and passed over for something new. That is the way of things.

Or is it?

(The AV Club, The Huffington Post, YouTube)

Spread the word. I started.

[1] Fyfe, D., 2008, You're Not A Journalist, Hit Self-Destruct, accessed 29 August 2008,
[2] Fyfe, D., 2008.
Supermodel Is One Word, Hit Self-Destruct, accessed 29 August 2008,

August 27, 2008

Don't Stop Now

Picture this:

You start the game as the pilot climbing out of the wreckage, you're in Antarctica in a snowstorm, you're freezing, flight suit torn, all the radio and navigational equipment is busted and so you start running. The cold is slowly killing you either way, but if you can't find shelter or if you stay in one place to think through your options, you're done. You have a pistol but it's frozen up and can't fire. You can't get rid of it anyway because the frost has glued your fingers to the metal. Soon, the cold will cripple your legs too, reducing your movement to a limp. You don't get any time to consider your situation. You have to move and keep moving or you lose. There is no HUD, no quest arrow, no progress meter: you are lost. You start out with 360 degrees of barren, level terrain surrounding you and immediately have to choose one path. As far as you know, you could be running forever and in the wrong direction. But either way, don't stop.

This is a game that doesn't exist called Don't Stop. To revisit the topic of context shaping experience, Don't Stop can take a couple of forms, each with different strengths. In one, gameplay and theme converge to subvert the traditional video game experience. The other one you can actually play. As a set piece introduction to a typical FPS, it's not bad. Instead of a stiff tutorial, the game opens with a jolt while requiring only basic interaction. Eventually the player hits a trigger point and transitions to the next chapter.

Imagine, however, if this was not an opening level but a short, self-contained game, where the emotions and themes within that level become the centerpiece. It's a game about trusting one's life to faith and to the hope that there even is shelter out there in the wastes and that the path you chose will lead you there. I like the feeling you first get in open-world games like Oblivion, where the fiction and mechanics are so overwhelming and foreign that the player initially struggles to keep their head above the water. By the end, you're so conversant and confident in its language that you're playing it like a slot machine. I'm more interested in a game that keeps the player under its thumb the entire time.

If the player knows Don't Stop is level one of sixteen, then they think about how to win. If they know that Don't Stop is all there is, they think about if they can win. Within the fiction, all the character has to keep them going is the faith that they will be able to find shelter. The player, while running as fast as they can against the chill winds and getting ever wearier, is also taking it on faith that the designers have made a game in which it is actually possible to win and not just about being thrown headfirst into a horrible unending oppressiveness. Their investment in this game must pay off, the character must survive, because games are intrinsically about rewarding the player. The player trusts in that conceit. Except so far it doesn't seem to apply this game, where nothing is happening, and pangs of existential uncertainty take hold. Maybe, they think as they keep running, that Don't Stop is some art game, an experiment, where there's no other option but to fail? Is the developer simply being a contrarian or teaching the player a lesson about perseverance? Maybe there is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is something over this horizon? Or maybe you should have turned left an hour ago?

The problem with this variation of Don't Stop is that it can't stop. What's the ending? The game is thematically strongest when it's predicated on the uncertainty of belief, which is undermined if the game flat-out answers the question of whether shelter can be found or failure is inevitable. The player's answer is the only one that matters and it shouldn't be wrong.

The only ending that preserves the integrity of the theme is that the player turns the game off when they get bored. Is the answer to Don't Stop that it must exist as one chapter of many within the conventional structure of an action game? It's the most practical solution. But is there a way to salvage the idealistic, metaphorical Don't Stop, or is that incarnation doomed to languish as a conceptual pipe-dream?

Nobody knows. That's the big mystery of Don't Stop.

August 23, 2008


December, 2001

The box art was Shinkawa-san's best work to date, he thought. He especially liked how the harsh strokes which formed the chin emphasised Snake's courage. If he could, he would have that image painted on his bedroom wall or tattooed on his back. But his dad said no.

Reese, fourteen, was a skinny kid with greasy black hair and big glasses lying prone on the bedroom floor over a stack of math homework. Reese had a fondness for video game t-shirts and tattoos; temporary ones, of dragons. He had two square inches on his left shoulder reserved for his 18th birthday present: the kanji symbol for "otaku". The Metal Gear Solid 2 box positively radiated in his hands, and after algebra, he would return to the U.S.S. Discovery. He'd woken up at five that morning to huddle around his 17" TV, with the sound way down, and play through the opening chapter in a sleepy haze. He did it that early because an asshole on a newsgroup had said how you didn't even play as Snake in this game; instead, some underpowered and effeminate teenager. Reese, through his Usenet handle DreamOfTidus, had called him a liar and a troll, then realised he'd better see for himself. He was right. Troll was wrong. Reese had smirked.

Then he had gone to school and the day was downhill from there. For the past month, all anyone wanted to talk about was the Xbox: Microsoft's latest misfire which had tried in vain to pry the gaming market from Sony's deserving clutches. The Xbox was made for a mainstream, casual audience: specifically, slow-witted jocks who cared more about shooting and beer than swordplay and honour. These casual gamers threatened to replace the hardcore (like Reese) if the Xbox was a financial success. Not that there was any chance of that: Reese followed the internet pretty closely, and he knew that the Xbox was failing everywhere. Except, apparently, within the confines of Reese's high school. Reese hated high school. Reese lived his life by the gentleman's moral code but the mutants he shared gym showers with believed in so little. Even college students, when they stripped freshmen frat pledgers naked and unleashed a torrent of cheap vodka and urine down their throats, at least believed in brotherhood. High schoolers were primal anarchists and they made Reese so mad. Especially at the new Xbox owners who now dared to call themselves gamers when they wouldn't recognize a Masami Ueda score if the maestro himself was in their bedroom jamming on a Casio.

He wished he could be broadcast, by some Xenogearian witchcraft, into the homes of every Xbox player; a megaphone by which he would call them out as newbies and retarded. If they knew how serious Reese was about video games; if they shut their fat mouths for one second and let him talk then they'd defer to him as an expert on gaming culture, instead of deferring his head into a toilet bowl like they usually did. Because Reese knew better. The console, a joke. The launch titles, pitiable. Amped? A glorified tech demo. Dead or Alive? It was disrespectful to leer at scantily-clad women. Halo? Halo. Reese had no idea why that monstrosity was so popular. Xbox fans too dumb to know the difference, he supposed, because everyone knew shooters only worked on the PC. Not that he liked PC shooters. Or PC games at all, really.

But, no, Halo. The so-called shooter dominated all gaming discussion. Reese suffered those fools in silence, allowing menacing thoughts to swirl round his head. I got three frags, bro. I got two frags. Moronic. Halo this. Master Chief that. Gamer-come-latelys. Had no respect. Halo, Xbox. Halo, Halo, Halo. They were assholes. Assholes. Fools. Clowns. Idiots. And gay. So gay. Project Gotham. Halo. Losers. Gay. Halo. Gay. Halo. Halo. Halo. Gay. Gay. Hay... Gay. Halo. Gay. Hey -- Haylo. Gay. Lo. Gaylo. Gaylo. Holy shit.

That was when Reese froze in shock; the moment that light broke through his insult cloud and snapped into focus on that one divine creation. Gaylo. So simple, so perfect, so holy. The collision of the syllables so natural, as if those two words were meant for this union and as if Reese was meant to say it. Was he a prophet, whose mission it was to spread this word? For it was too beautiful to be his alone. This alien shard of fully-formed genius had crashed into his brain, and now it belonged to him. He racked his brains and his heart raced and he knew he had never seen that word before. Reese wondered, was he the first? Could it possibly be? Did he have this? Did Reese have this one? Gaylo! That was it. That was it.

He had to make sure. Snake could wait. He had to know. In the computer room, PC booting up, he twirled in the desk chair, it was taking so long, so long, it was Windows 98, he hated Windows 98, begged Dad to buy a Mac but Dad said no, who cared though, Reese had Gaylo in his pocket, it was his, soon he could buy a thousand Macs. Double-clicked Netscape, yelled at his sister to get off the phone -- bitch could talk -- and dialed up AOL. He swore the dial tone stretched out an extra beat, taunting him now, as his heart was pounding and with clammy hands he typed in, having to redo it three times; clumsy, clumsy, stupid fingers. This was it, he knew it now. This was what he was always meant to say. 'Gaylo Halo'. Entered. Click. Search. And it was loading. And Reese stopped. The world was a PS2 disc, spinning in its drive, and God held his finger down to stop the revolutions.

No results were found for your search term gaylo halo. Colour returned to his cheeks and he cracked a nervous, sweaty smile. He was the first, he realised, and that made him quite sure that he was a genius. He was the inventor of the devastating slur Gaylo. Perhaps Sakaguchi-domo would even pull him out of high school to do this professionally. Regardless, he at least held high school in the palm of his hand, ready to crush it like Sephiroth. He could picture Nick's face now, reduced to cowardice at this revelation of his mighty intellect. Nick could not compete with his wordplay; who could? Reese would be the hero of the high school, securing adulation from all; a celebrity, like Chris Tucker. He could, in his benevolence, even teach the others a thing or two about video games. Jane, who liked books and poetry, was sure to tear up at Ico, and after witnessing the tender love of Tidus and Yuna she wouldn't need Psycho Mantis' hypnotic hooks in her to fall all over him.

He was looking at the official Bungie website. Hideous. Too much white space, too many sidebars. Still, Reese acknowledged that he must know his enemy if he was to destroy it. By his hands Halo would be reduced to a laughing stock and that would be his legacy. Susannah came into the room then, five years older but almost twice as tall. "Hey," she said to Reese's back, "are you fucking done? I had Matty on the phone because Sam is in the hospital right now getting her stomach pumped and you..." And she saw the screen. "You," she said, jaw dropped, "you kick me off the phone for one of your dumbass computer games?" Reese spun around in his chair and drew himself up to his full height with a confidence that surprised his sister.
    "Hey," he said, "this is not one of my video games."

Dinner was a lousy casserole and was consumed in satisfied silence. Reese smugly tore through the over-cooked folds with his fork, thinking about the message. You like Halo? Son, that's Gaylo. It needed a rhythm to it, it required an eloquence that honored the concept. Only morons play Gaylo. Gaylo's for jerks. These were all good ideas. The dinner tasted like crap. Gaylo tasted like glory.

Bargaining with his sister gave him fifteen more minutes online. In exchange, they would tape Ally McBeal next week instead of Angel. Fifteen minutes was ample time to log on to Usenet and incinerate with "Halo? More like Gaylo." They'd never know what hit them, but they would tell the police it was something magnificent and powerful. Infiltrating the newsgroup, he realised, had brought him full circle. He was Solid Reese, who wore a sneaky suit and dealt deadly blows. And then Solid Reese saw it:

Right, like you're the only one to associate "gay" with the GameCube... Such an immature usage of that word... You could just as easily call HALO "GAYLO" and get the same result... Grow up. HALO rocks, by the way -- getting pretty good at the Heroic difficulty.

To Reese it seemed an impossibility. Posted by silverx10 -- who? -- ten minutes ago. Silverx10 had to work for Metacrawler, because that's the only way he could have pried the secrets from Reese's brain. How else to explain it other than that evidently silverx10 was a Liquid Reese, tearing down what Reese creates? A panicked Reese tore through all his options, thought about how to reverse time and reclaim his prize, cursed his father, his sister, but casting a shadow across that maelstrom was the looming thought that it was all over, that he was not the first. Not the creator. Not the genius. Not anything. A rising heart rate and disbelieving horror whipped his thoughts into a storm that raged and roared and eventually subsided to circle the drain and leave his head, and then he was done.

Sinking into the living room carpet, Sadness Reese counted ceiling tiles. He was reminded of when he lost Aerith. One day the trauma would fade and eventually he would only ever think about ceiling tiles. Susannah was laid out on the couch, where Reese had vaguely informed her of his tragedy, and she watched him struggle quietly with life's injustices.
    "You know, Matty said," she said, tracing a painted finger along the cushion, "he was reading this book called The Prestige, and in it there were these two scientists, who invented, like, I think, something, they invented calculus, but they both did it at the same time from different parts of the world, like a total coincidence, and they became enemies and they ended up fighting because of that."
    Weary Reese raised himself from the floor. "Newton and Leibniz invented calculus," he said, and Susannah watched her brother leave the room, "Tesla invented radio. You don't know anything."

August 21, 2008

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August 15, 2008

War Correspondent

1730: City is quiet now. Sunlight filters through the palm trees and paints the black Cadillac below. Wheels and windows have been shot out, smoke is billowing from under the hood. Driver missing. I haven't suddenly adopted a new affected style for writing blog posts. I am covering the missions of Ghost Recon in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter as an embedded journalist. Writing these dispatches in real-time. You can't really play this game as a reporter so I also have to be the guy with the gun. Anticipate this will make life difficult. Squad leader will have to frequently stop to write hurriedly in paper notebook. No pressing pause either. "A journalist cannot press pause on the truth", as they say.

1735: What are we fighting for? I don't remember the objective. Must secure VIP from rebel forces. Rebel position is 440 away. I don't know what unit of measurement we are counting in. Fortunately squadmates are AI and not aware of this ignorance. They are so stupid. We have encountered no resistance.

1739: I forgot to order Ghost Recon to follow me so they're still back at the Cadillac. What a bright bunch of guys.

1740: Stop to admire in-game advertising. Viva Axe! indeed. L Alexander just wrote GSW post about in-game advertising. In a Tom Clancy game. I will launch my own investigation from this battlefield. Didn't realise how disconcerting lack of day/night cycle would be once I started timestamping my reportage

1743: Allen reports contact. I hide behind a pillar.

1744: Allen's a liar. We're scoping out this courtyard at -- I look around for street sign and there's a Nokia billboard SHOTS FIRED! I hide.

1747: We've been taking fire from across the courtyard. I can't get a visual.

1748: I have been stuck behind this corner this whole time while this rebel shoots up the wall. This is advanced warfighting? Pathetic. I'm going to make a run for the doorway across the street.

1749: I hit him! I think he's down! My first kill. What's it like? Don't have time to think about it. Good reporting job

1750: Second shooter. Snipe him from across the courtyard. Three hits with rifle and he goes down. I look at my team. Some help you guys were. I don't know anything about these dudes except their last names. No talk button in this game. Journalistic obstacle. OPEN FIRE

1751: This courtyard! Tried moving but guys shooting now. Allen shoots while I drop to my stomach and write "OPEN FIRE" in notebook

1800: Courtyard secured. We pause at the bodies of the rebels we just took out. This one guy is frozen in horrible rigor mortis contortion but he is still blinking rhythmically. I think this is a glitch.

1801: Strolling down Ardillo Rojize unopposed. I wonder where all the civilians are. Should interview them. Does the game not want to deal with the consequences of me shooting them? Is it afraid of the truths I will expose. Probably. I ask Kirkland why he enlisted. He doesn't even respond.

1814: We have been pinned down. Around the corner couple of hostiles taking cover behind vehicle, across street from our position guys hiding in plaza. I lean round corner and get a kill. Two kills. Brown is trying to shoot that one guy in the plaza across the street and cannot do it. He has been firing constantly for two minutes now. Good work. That rebel is just in that plaza chilling. Kicking back. Playing a little DS. Brown reloads.

1817: Lying on ground have low shot lined up on hostile's legs through underneath vehicle. Writing in journal now poor strategic choice.

1818: These guys are down. Is Ghost Recon STILL trying to get that one guy? KIRKLAND IS HIT KIRKLAND IS DOWN I HAVE A MAN DOWN

1820: Kirkland's body. I ordered him to his death. What does that feel like? It feels okay. What button do I press to arrange proper burial? Shouldn't I snap off his dog tags? I don't think he's wearing dog tags. Was Kirkland a spy?

1825: I'm not a war correspondent, I am a GRAW correspondent.

1840: Game crashed computer. Upon relaunch forgot to run FRAPS. Career in photojournalism finished. As result of reloading, Kirkland alive again. I'll call that immersion breaking.

1905: Why am I doing this? Dumb idea. There's nothing to report on in this game. Should have done it in multiplayer. Leigh Alexander would have done it in multiplayer. We are making our way down the Republica de Uruguay and I shoot a sniper on the rooftops. He was taking cover behind -- I am not making this up -- a Nokia 6110 billboard.

1914: Orders come in to blow up a gas station to create a diversion. Brown: "Let's blow that gas station!" thanks Brown. I don't remember at all why we're creating a diversion. Combat fatigue.

1915: We're at the huge Mexicoil gas station on Isabel II. Tanker is indeed present. Someone clearly designed this thing to explode. How do I safely blow up an oil tanker? I have a grenade. Get ready for a big explosion. I threw the grenade. It comes way short and instead destroys a traffic light.

1916: Fire in the hole!

1919: Yikes. Had to duck behind wall to avoid massive fire storm. Don't remember why I needed to do this. Looked cool though. Radio guy says multiple hostiles inbound. Regroup at parking garage where VIP stationed. We secure road and prepare to hold position.

1937: That sucked. Jeep pulls in with about a dozen guys. We flank and eliminate.

1938: Huge TANK rolls in from behind. Didn't expect this. Grenades do nothing. Kirkland is killed. See he was meant to die all along. Kirkland cannot escape fate or big tank

1940: Ghost Recon evacuate and run for garage. Going through alleys.

1950: Totally lost. This is not journalism. This is a solitary and sad experience. Two guys pop out right in front of me, I shoot, framerate twitches and they disappear. Is this gameplay bug or evidence of higher power? Who can say

1951: Don't know where Allen is. Brown is dead. Tank got him. No time to check dog tags.

1953: Arrive at garage. Nine friendlies. This is awesome. Breath of fresh air. Allen catches up. We don't talk. VIP is in car park.

1955: VIP is in a tank. Could have used that earlier. Rebels coming back, have to evacuate VIP. New mission objective is to protect VIP. HE'S IN A TANK

1956: Post will look bad without any screenshots. Just put in some pictures of dogs or something, who cares

1958: Shots from outside garage. Told over radio to get to roof for some reason that doesn't sink in. I sight multiple hostiles. Bad tank from before has returned, is blocking exit.

2000: Trying to get to roof. It's dark in here. Fire drilling down against walls. Snipers. Am advised over radio that President Ballentine is safely en route. Nobody cares. Can't find my way up

2001: I hear helicopters. Where am I going. Shots. Hit. Car ad. Where is he? Can't see. Allen takes out the sniper! The roof! Helicopter there. Daylight.

2002: At the chopper. Ammo selection screen? Buzzkill. Grab the rocket launcher as advised.

2003: Instructed to destroy heavy armour aka tank. Okay I'm on the roof and seriously if I stand still and do a 360 I can see SIX Axe billboards. Bad marketing plan

2005: Time to rock this tank's world. Rocket launcher takes forever to lock. Come onnn TARGET LOCKED. Boom.

2006: "I think that's it!" Better be.

2007: In the helicopter. I hear shots. Don't care. Not going on next mission. Will cover Soul Calibur instead. Has sexier ladies.

August 8, 2008


When fiction attempts some thematic or metaphorical relevance, it's disappointing when the execution is incomplete or incompetent. If the point is not made well then the audience and critics risk reading meaning into what originally had none, or speaking about the fiction's ambition without conviction. These failures occur in every medium but I feel as though video games have a higher proportion of them. I'm talking about games that have no trouble introducing themes but never deliver the payoff. Good ideas that never coalesce into a thesis and so their inclusion comes off as scattershot; a clumsy seasoning instead of a careful foundation.

Some games are able to pull this off, no question, but I think you still see a lot of these missed opportunities. It's an easier process, I would assume, for games that rely heavily or exclusively on cutscenes or other passive media to tell the story, since the narrative rarely interacts with the game proper. Narrative concerns like subtext and metaphor probably come dead last at crunch time. If the story wraps up at all, the conclusion usually owes more to the convolutions of the plot rather than the purity of the theme. It reveals the last piece of the puzzle, reveals the last straw man hiding inside the series of Russian dolls and then has the player fight it.

Either that, or gameplay, when push comes to shove, will take precedence over narrative. The endgame administers the final exam on mechanics and subtext is a secondary priority. This segregation of gameplay and story into two different estates can cause issues of incompatibility to arise, especially when the story intends to progress to where narrative themes dictate the chain of events and the fates of the characters. It's hard to write about determinism or fatalism in an interactive medium. Hard to do stories about how different ideologies interact within a competitive micro-ecology. Hit Self-Destruct is evidently in its high school English phase, so let me use a played-out and familiar example. The boys kill Simon in Lord of the Flies because he represents one thing and the boys and the island represent another. There's simply no way for Simon to survive in that environment. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise: if Simon lives the story dies. Gamers don't expect that honesty. In the Lord of the Flies video game, players want the power to save Simon, headshot all the other boys and ride a motorcycle.

For an example of thematic disappointment, here's Deus Ex: Invisible War, which is about as far as you can get from Lord of the Flies.

The strongest point Invisible War could have made was about humanity. The game takes place in a future heavily dependent on invasive and intractable biotechnology. A faction called the Omar modify themselves beyond simple humanity. They're outfitted with hi-tech and permanent exoskeletons and form a collective consciousness. One character refuses to sleep because he knows the Omar will come and induct him surgically into their ranks.

The game also explores how far actual humans will go in the pursuit of power and advancement before betraying their conscience and each other. The conservative Templars are so single-minded in their opposition to technological enhancement that they become out-and-out killers; murdering sympathisers and collaborators in the interests of preserving human purity. Even the more level-headed of the factions will abduct and execute the main character's colleagues and friends in the hope of coercing him.

The contradiction of Invisible War is that this game, predicated on freedom of choice, is constantly leasing the player's autonomy to NPC factions. For an ostensibly free agent, the player character is always following the orders of a higher institution. This is territory better explored in Bioshock, but its presence here is no less intriguing.

The recurring theme gains prominence when the player, late in the game, meets the character J.C. Denton. Here, as an unfamiliar NPC, Denton has merged with an AI program and is coldly advocating the unwilling draft of the entire race into some kind of a social networking nightmare; linking all human minds together with his own, and he and the AI monitor their needs and administer treatment accordingly. Denton came about this theory after a 20-year isolation and apparently more of the AI remains than his own mind. He demonstrates no human characteristics, no rebelliousness, no compassion (not that he ever had much to begin with.) As Denton was the player character in the first Deus Ex, he was the most human character in the entire Deus Ex canon. Now, he no longer bears any resemblance to the player's original experiences. The transformation is sobering.

As the game escalates, the time seems absolutely right for an acknowledgment or prioritising of the question of the player character Alex's human potential. Alex has been revealed to be less than human, something of an ad hoc genetic experiment created to approximate technologically superior models. The game is perfectly poised to say or prove something about humanity at the denouement, and to make the endgame all about that. About contrasting Alex against all these other characters with their eroding or absent human credentials (one character previously thought to be real turns out to be a computer program, come on, it's not a reach) and asking whether he and the player can be the one to remember and affirm their own humanity. Deus Ex is not prone to emotional displays, which is exactly what would make the reversal so striking.

The theme is crying out to be realised, for a unifying theory that never arrives. It should be connecting the dots, should be crystallising its purpose, but at its finish, Invisible War has only the last link in its hands when it should be holding the whole chain, and then lets it slip from its fingers.

What about our future? While it might be easier to preserve thematic arcs in cutscenes, I think things are likely to improve as games move away from them. Narratives are becoming more sophisticated in delivery and closely integrated with gameplay mechanics and direct experience. That trend is going to force designers to stop thinking of story as cutscenes whose script and production can be outsourced. It will also, I hope, make them smarter in choosing the things they want to talk about.

The release of the original Deus Ex was delayed six months so Ion Storm could, amongst other things, write endings for disappearing characters. I hope that's the way we're going.

August 6, 2008


Debate is not an instinct. It's far easier for gamers, sports fans, political partisans, and anyone waging a proxy war through message board avatars and lolcats to simply shout down the heretics and rationalise their complaints so as to diminish their validity.

Some of us can't enjoy a thing if someone else is hating it louder. They see dissent not as subjective opinion but as a threatening affront demanding a response. It's not a rational reaction, it's an emotional one, and while we're all perfectly capable of achieving the former, some so rarely move beyond the latter. At a certain level, it's not discourse, it's a game. Allegiances are quickly drawn to various franchises, developers and consoles, and no one can admit any fault because one little concession is a victory for the other team. The internet ruins everything.

Over at Michael Abbott's The Brainy Gamer, someone accused Steve Gaynor (or Michael, it's not clear, probably both) of not being a true gamer because he didn't like Metal Gear Solid 4, or, more accurately, "finished it out of spite". It's a common tactic. The opinions of de facto "false gamers" or "false fans" are worthless. When N'Gai Croal suggests that the imagery in Resident Evil 5 has racist connotations, the counter-argument is that he's trying to make a name for himself and that he's only played video games for ten years. As if the ambitious never had anything relevant to say, but the black-and-white/for-or-against defence mechanism doesn't let them entertain that nuance. It's uncomfortable to deal with the idea that this beloved game might be racist, so they don't accept the premise. They're not even willing to concede that the game might play great yet still have unintentionally racial overtones. Private disagreement does not suffice, as others might read Croal and be convinced by him. Those people will turn against the game and that's a big loss for the Resident Evil 5 team. Instinct directs the fans to destroy Croal instead of destroying his points. Cognitive dissonance is the watchword. As long as we can create for ourselves a reality in which Steve Gaynor's opinions do not count, then we'll always win.

It happens to everyone. I believe that I have good reason to be excited by Bethesda's Fallout 3, but when I turn my thoughts towards that game, it's not its merits or its heritage that I first consider. Instead, it's the people who don't like it. To clarify: there are the people who are pessimistic about Fallout 3, there are the people who don't want to like it, and then there are the people who violently complain about not being able to murder virtual children, graphically liken journalists to whores, threaten to piss in the mouth of the Fallout 3 composer, sneak into press events, brag about slapping their girlfriends for disrespecting Fallout, produce this image without irony, and accuse Bethesda of orchestrating a massive conspiracy to personally discredit them and the truths they seek to expose.

I've never argued about this game with anyone, but, as they say, if you stare into the Abyss long enough, the Fallout fans make you furious. To my mind, they represent the absolute worst aspects of video game fans and fandom in general, their only saving grace being that they don't actually want to have sex with the Vault Boy. I want to deny the lunatic fringe the satisfaction of my disappointment. That's got to be an emotional reaction, one that puts my credibility in danger. Will this affect my honest opinion of the game? I'm demonising and dismissing these fans as wife-beaters and throat-pissers. Am I trying to make sure others don't take them seriously? Is it my turn to be the internet asshole? Why am I supposed to be better than the guy who accuses Croal of playing the race card without reading his thoughts? If I examine this situation logically will I be forced to change my mind? There are a lot of questions involved and the simplest answer is to ignore them all.

In that same Brainy Gamer post, someone accuses Michael of thinking too much. That isn't the problem.

August 1, 2008

One Thousand Little Cuts

It might be a while before anyone can put together a story about what sunk Flagship Studios. Too bad that piracy didn't sink them, otherwise the metaphor would be complete. Probably safe to say that Hellgate: London's pricing system engendered some hostility in potential players and contributed to the game's downfall. Hellgate took the microtransaction to nightmarish extremes: the establishment of a full-on caste system, allocating some significant perks to the upper class.

Western developers have a hard time presenting microtransactions as a thrilling addition to a stand-alone game. Microtransactions have the stigma of in-game advertising and the fiction-breaking dissonance of achievements, but none of the acceptance or ubiquity of the latter. I don't know how successful microtransactions need to be for developers to turn a profit, but the perception of the hardcore gamer is still against it. Microtransactions are usually introduced not with a flourish but a small whisper about how this gives the player "more options."

Why has this been so hard? Gamers get suspicious when extra fees are required of them, and more so when they see that the natural lifespan of the game in question is being artificially prolonged to sell some trivial cosmetic adjustments. There's also the fear, however, that developers will privatize features that we would consider either necessary to the experience or just good game design.

The only alternative is that the microtransaction means nothing. When we evaluate Hellgate or Battlefield Heroes, we see a good microtransaction model in that type of game as that of a store which sells things we could never want or never need. That gets the seal of approval.

We can react pretty strongly to the whole concept. There's a lot of talk about how developers can institute tough moral choices in games, but nothing stings as much as paying two dollars of actual money to stare at a gold-plated flak jacket and soak in the knowledge that you are never ever getting that money back. This is an irreversible action in a medium of virtual consequences. In buying a video game, we are paying for an experience, and each microtransaction is not an experience but an augmentation, one of dubious worth, and each augmentation is one more costly nick, one more superfluous tuck, and altogether are one thousand little cuts that bleed away the player's appetite for ephemeral luxuries.

Developers and publishers are betting that gamers will still want access to microtransactions even if they have no intention of buying them. The mere existence of microtransactions should work as an incentive to players. If they could only choose one version of the game, why wouldn't they choose the one that had the option? Even if they thought they were never going to use it?

These companies want to get the microtransaction to where DLC is today; where that dichotomy of choice is actually happening. DLC also acts as an alluring bonus feature even if the content in question is lame. That's Microsoft's approach with Grand Theft Auto IV's mythical downloadable episodes, and the recent announcement that Fallout 3's DLC would be exclusive to the Xbox 360 and PC. Microsoft hopes that the simple idea of expanded content is enough to entice multi-platform gamers away from the PS3. Gamers recognised this and freaked out at the news, not that it takes much to enrage Fallout fans (or Sony fans [or video game fans]).

Gamers might make that platform jump even though such additional content has historically been questionable. Once Bethesda got past horse armour in Oblivion, admittedly, the content-to-price ratio radically improved, but it was still all about getting a shiny new equipment. The experience never compared to the game proper because it was a microtransaction dressed up as a perfunctory quest. It's either that or an unnecessary addendum like Mass Effect's slight Bring Down the Sky, which let fans of that game desperately continue their experience, however diminished, by hitting the snooze button.

Are game revenues in such bad shape that these measures are necessary? Any gamer familiar with DLC or microtransactions knows enough not to care about them. The experience they offer is small or absent. What about the subject, then, so excites gamers? What keeps it in the public consciousness? It's just business. But for some reason, we care about that.