February 28, 2009

Domestic City, Part Five

On Saturday night, Emily walked around the lake with her boyfriend. That day, in between online matches of Death Tank which were totally amazing and destructive, she had played through the entirety of Braid. Afterwards, she took an aspirin and lay down on the couch for ten minutes in silence. Video games did not usually move her or confuse her like Braid had, and after completing the game she felt a strong need to be contemplative. She didn't really know what being contemplative properly entailed, but decided it would probably work if she and Patrick went and stared quietly at a lake. Unfortunately, there was a jetski speeding around the lake blasting techno, which ruined the mood but it did make Emily want to buy a jetski.

Braid has set Emily's brain on fire. The game, she was sure, had to mean something. Emily had about thirteen thousand different thoughts on the game rushing through her head (was there something in there about a nuclear bomb?) and she needed to talk about it with somebody who would understand.

Patrick was not that person. Emily and Patrick had an equal share in their living room bookcase: Patrick's half contained books, DVDs, music and comics, and Emily's half was nothing but games, and also one Philip Roth novel.

A couple of women in Emily's new office had recently organised a 'game group' which chose a certain game and then met every week in a cafe or somewhere similar to discuss it. Emily briefly considered joining, and submitting Braid as a topic, and then pictured herself in a library drinking tea with women ten years her senior and felt so uninspired that she wanted to throw up.

"Listen," she said to Patrick, "when we get back I want to show you this fun game Death Tank. It's cool; you can guide the missiles."

The jetski buzzed past the shore. Emily raised her arms and shouted as it sped away: "Whoooooo!"

February 26, 2009

Domestic City, Part Four

The worst thing about married life, Anthony discovered, was his keepsake photo of Dom and Maria from the Gears of War 2 limited edition and having to explain to his new wife why he wanted to tape it to the bathroom mirror. Nina had not been impressed then, or when Anthony had told the movers that the Rock Band smoke machine goes in the bedroom. Some of Nina's facial expressions made Anthony reevaluate his lifestyle choices.

She teased him one day about all the games he played being a neverending series of big macho men shooting each other and exchanging high-fives. When Anthony tried to explain the subtle thematic variations between Gears, Killzone and Army of Two, he could not do so in a way that made him feel very good about his hobby.

Eventually, Anthony reasoned with himself that being a responsible husband and a professional businessman probably meant saying goodbye to the more bro-ish aspects of his frat days -- things like violent online shooters and urinating on freshmen.

Sitting at the kitchen table with the household laptop on, Anthony tried to build swimming pools and carpet floors in The Sims, in between attempts at solving a crossword puzzle. He wondered what he would look like with a haircut.

February 23, 2009

Domestic City, Part Three

Emily's posters were affixed by thumb tacks to her dorm room drywall. The posters, collected by Emily and her roommate, had been free -- sort of, they had stolen them -- and promoted the release dates of games like Castle Crashers and PixelJunk Eden. When Emily left for class every day, she always threw on her white, faded and hand screened Minotaur China Shop t-shirt. It was the only game shirt that she owned and so she wore it as much as possible.

The shirt testified to Emily's passion for cool underground games and she wore it as a beacon for others with like-minded tastes, who she hoped would approach her and be all like "oh, sweet, rad" but the reality was that her tastes ran so niche that no one who saw the shirt even knew it was a game. The same went for the N+ patches sewn on to her jacket. Upon this realisation, she slouched sullenly in lecture halls, carving Stars over Half Moon Bay constellations into the desks with a penknife.

On weekends, she visited game stores and made her way to the alternative section at the back and flipped through the rows of second-hand games. Selecting a bootleg CD-R of Gravitation, she walked back to the counter where she overheard two guys discussing the copy of BioShock that they were buying and in particular what a deep story it was supposed to have. Emily rolled her eyes.

That Tuesday, Emily and her roommate lied their way into a club downtown where the launch party for Flower was being held. Emily flashed her fake ID at the door and with her posture affected a maturity that wouldn't be legally hers until the next year. In the club, Emily and her roommate pointed out to each other all the developers that they recognised from blogs. Late into the night, someone took the stage to make a speech and Emily threw her arms into the air and at the top of her lungs screamed "whooooooo!"

A morose-looking guy stood at the bar talking to his friends, wearing a Flashbang Studios t-shirt. Emily leaned across the bar next to him, and shouted giddily over the music: "hey, I like that developer."

February 22, 2009

Domestic City, Part Two

Between semesters, Anthony might visit the game store up to five times a week. Each time he brought in a game that he had previously purchased and was now trading in for something else that he would also eventually exchange for store credit.

Anthony was so frequent a customer that at least one of the clerks considered him a friend, although Anthony had never learned his name and after a while it would have been awkward to ask. Anthony had been calling him 'bro' for three years, which seemed to suffice.

One day the clerk asked why Anthony kept trading everything. Anthony explained that he liked trying out lots of different games, without ever feeling the need to finish or indeed stay with them for very long at all. He thought of himself as a busy and important guy and if a game frustrated him, or bored him, then he would ditch it fast and move on. He preferred things that were immediately appealing and uncomplicated. He didn't want his games to be serious work.

After beating a game once, there was little reason to keep it around. Anthony found more value in trading it for a new thing rather than playing it through it again or holding onto it.

"I'm almost out of college, bro, I'm not ready to tie myself down to a permanent game collection," Anthony said. "Oh, incidentally, I almost forgot, I'm getting married."

February 20, 2009

Domestic City, Part One

When Emily was sixteen, she disturbed her parents by dying her hair in red streaks and having her lip pierced. Her mother and father worried about what rebellious moves their daughter might make next -- teen pregnancy? identity theft? tax evasion? -- and about how to set her straight. They had seen on a MSNBC segment that teens her age could relate to popular media like Twilight, the Jonas Brothers, and video games better than to their parents, and so they decided to make her play an instructional video game in the hope it would teach her about propriety and virtue.

The game they had bought for her was a first person shooter that related a cautionary tale about teens giving into peer pressure. It was called Resistance: Fall of Morality, and it was about aliens who invade the planet because of a teenage girl who smoked pot and lost her virginity to a skateboarder.

Emily had never cared about video games, but as she idled with the controller in her hands and skipped through preachy cutscenes demeaning her value system, she realised she liked the feel of the guns. Tuning out the didacticism, she ran her avatar through virtual alleys and bombed-out office buildings, equipped with the rail rifle and shooting the heads off of grunts and nailing shock troopers to the walls by their dicks. For a video game, she considered, this was a lot of fun.

February 11, 2009

Whatever Happened To

When I was a kid, my dad would disappear for weeks at a time on his "trips" and never explain where he went. That's not true, actually, but I am going on a similar trip. A trip to not writing.

I'm taking a break from Hit Self-Destruct for the next couple of weeks. But if everything works out then I'll still be posting something almost every day. How can this be possible? Wait and see, or leave forever and read one of the many superior blogs that are available to you and never take breaks.

In other overdue announcements, I'll be at GDC next month. I hope to produce some special San Francisco-based Hit Self-Destruct content, although the last time I was there all I did was point out a printing error on the program guide. What a great service I provide.

This thing will be back soon enough. When you least expect it.

February 10, 2009

Everyone's Fired

Three drinks:

"I have to learn not to take it personally. It's the economy, right? This is happening, you don't know this, but this is happening all over the industry, even to the press. I was not the problem. We were not the problem. Our games were great. Maybe you don't play games, but trust me. You have to trust somebody.

"If there's one thing I really regret it's that I never got to send my farewell email to the company. I was looking forward to doing that for five years. I had been writing it in my head that whole time, and also on some post-it notes. I was thinking that whenever I left it would be on my own terms, and I'd be able to go out with this fantastic goodbye message I had prepared. You've never seen a farewell email this amazing. What are they usually, 'thanks everyone, good luck'? Please. My thing had fucking class. It had structure. It would wring pathos out of you like a strongman at the circus. That was my exit strategy for so long. Then when we got the news, I tried to remember what I wanted to say and I just couldn't. So I didn't write anything.

"I'm sorry, tell me your name again? Cheyenne? That's spectacular."

Seven drinks:

"This is funny, actually, because I had been thinking about quitting for months. Again, we were making really cool games but... I guess I have to explain to you how the gaming press works. We got some bad reviews, no matter what we did. Really dismissive, nasty, snarky stuff, you know? You wouldn't know. That kind of thing hurts. Especially when you can see all the flaws in their reasoning but before you even have a chance to respond they've already got hundreds or thousands of people convinced that you're an asshole based on their specious bullshit. Without even thinking about it, they'll decide we're bad at our jobs. And you can't change their minds. It's unfair, sometimes.

"You're looking at me like I can't cope with criticism, but you're so wrong. Call me a dick, right now. Watch me not react. See, you can't even do it. You know it won't affect me. I'm much stronger than that.

"It wasn't like we only got one bad review, or a few for one game. We were getting them with every game that we made. Do you know how long it takes to make a video game? One year, minimum. These things take years of my life and at a certain point it feels like I'm only making them to get shit on down the line. I didn't want to wake up every morning to read about someone else who hated our game, so I decided to leave. I liked the attention, I did, but I'd rather not do this at all than do it badly.

"I was thinking about moving and doing some design or programming work for an educational software company or something, some place where nobody would pay any attention to what I'm doing. You read the internet, don't you? You have a Facebook page. Probably. You go on the internet and see that vitriol come in, and if you're even just a little bit unsure about yourself then you think that they're right and you don't want anyone to associate you with your product ever again. I suppose I'm not anymore, so it doesn't matter.

"How about you? What do you do? Oh, I don't care, don't even say it."

Ten drinks:

"If there was a reason I didn't quit before they fired me, it's because I have no idea what I would do otherwise. I could go to another developer, but it would end up being the same thing all over again. I spent my whole life wanting this job. This job. Games. I wanted it so much, you don't even know. I was more, uh, determined to make video games than I have been about anything else in my life. And all the crunches, all the late nights, all the stress... I'd go through that because I wanted to get better and better. But that stuff, I'm just gonna tell you this, killed my social life and ruined every relationship I ever had. You know? I was putting so much effort into my work, and it wasn't like I was in, in, fucking Doctors without Borders. I made video games. She didn't understand what games were.

"I wanted so badly to be good at this. I let everything else fall apart because I wanted to make games for a living. I thought when I got there that I'd be satisfied. But look what happened. What am I supposed to do now?

"What about you, Cheyenne? Where would you go?"

February 6, 2009

Seen Your Video

[The following piece, except for the endnote, originally appeared on GameSetWatch yesterday. First, however, a brief conversation with Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting, the Boston Phoenix and Paste magazine.

Duncan Fyfe: What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about games for a mainstream publication like the Boston Phoenix over the gaming enthusiast press?

Mitch Krpata: "Mainstream" may not be the right word, since the Phoenix is part of the proud tradition of alternative newsweeklies, whose mission in life has historically been to stick a thumb in the eye of the corporate media. But I get your point. It's a much different outlet than the traditional games press, with benefits and drawbacks all its own.

They're two sides of the same coin. A paper like the Phoenix doesn't rely on game publishers for advertising, or even for a significant portion of its coverage, so we have complete editorial independence. There's no conflict, real or perceived, between sales and editorial. I can be as honest and as unsparing as I'd like, and I'm free to explore the review space a little bit more than I imagine the [enthusiast press] can.

On the other hand, that also means that we sometimes have trouble getting any access at all. We hardly ever cover games in as timely a fashion we'd like, often running a review weeks or even as much as a month after a game's release -- which is a lifetime in this industry. Some publishers still don't even seem to realize we exist. (The New York Times probably doesn't have this problem.) That's the downside, but it's a trade-off I'll gladly make. In the long run, I think readers are better served by what we're doing than by outlets that trade high scores for exclusives.]

I Will Dare

The last time I played Rock Band, I was in someone's living room and the game was running on a PlayStation 3 hooked up to a HDTV and 5.1 surround sound system. Playing bass along with Blitzkreig Bop, a basic enough track that my mind has time to wander, I start thinking about the Ramones at the time they made this recording.

The original line-up were alarmingly dressed in leather uniforms and hammering out no more than three chords in New York dive bars with horrible acoustics. Their act was an aggressive endorsement of simplicity in an age of overcomplicated prog rock, delivered to a bemused audience. After the set Dee Dee, the real bassist, would get stabbed in the ass by a prostitute.

Here I am, 30 years later, button-mashing in time to the flashing lights with a look of grim determination. The biggest concern I have in the world is whether my cellphone is fully charged. My problem with Rock Band is that I overthink it. This is as close as I get in my life to rocking out, and that's a depressing notion.

Not that it should matter, since Rock Band isn't a rock band. It's a video game, and one I like. The mechanics are enjoyable in the same way that Tetris is enjoyable, aside from whatever fictional veneer is pasted over them.

I haven't committed to the game fully, however: I get into it exclusively as a casual party game and social experience. I don't own a copy, mostly because if I dragged a drum kit into my small apartment it would have to double as at least one additional piece of furniture. Keeping up with the franchise's additional instruments, accessories and iterations seems totally irrelevant to my appreciation of the game.

I like rock more than Rock Band and as much as I do video games. I tend to gravitate towards a lot of relatively unsuccessful indie or punk bands who spent a lot of their careers slightly above the poverty line, sleeping on urine-soaked floors during tours, or pulling multiple day jobs so they could afford to be in a band that they loved.

Either that, or they suffered from all kinds of internal conflicts, creative frustrations, ill-fated vacations on major labels and alcohol or drug problems, because they wanted to make music, which a majority of the population found to be inaccessible. Their music is why I like them in the first place, of course, but those circumstances, which I find so instantly endearing and relatable, are why I continue to think about them.

These same bands, despite their devotion, weren't technically expert, didn't have classically trained voices and gave shambolic, noisy performances. It's a bit ridiculous that the music I like colours my feelings about a video game that I otherwise should, but there's something a little too inauthentic about the role the Rock Band player is supposed to assume.

Rock, to me, is about chaos and Rock Band is tightly controlled, with defined victory and failure states. I still enjoy the act of play, and perfectly understand those who can embrace it without reservation, but for a fantasy fulfillment game, Rock Band captures none of the idealism I have about rock music.

When the Replacements, a bunch of mean and heartfelt drunks, were propelled to a major label and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, they got trashed, destroyed their dressing room, threw their performance and said "fuck" on the air.[1] When forced to make a music video for one of their songs, they filmed a three minute-long close-up of a stereo speaker.

That contrarian attitude was a big reason why people liked the Replacements at all, even as it detonated the band's chances at commercial success. A Replacements track appearing on Rock Band 2 without irony is like they performed at the Academy Awards with complete solemnity and reverence for Hollywood. It's almost subversive, but the Rock Band fan is on the wrong side of the subversion.

Rock Band songs are adorned in shiny colours, lip-synched to by animated hipsters and contained in the trappings of a franchise that so quickly became synonymous with completely crass commercialisation and exploitation. It's a series that in seeming earnest produces official Rock Band smoke machines, disco balls and eventually, probably, Rock Band-branded red cellophane that you tape over your ceiling lights, and a footstool that gives the illusion of being on a stage.

It's not exactly in the DIY spirit. That kind of glitz is antithetical to actual rock bands that gave everything they had with utmost conviction and then fell apart. It's the fantasy of four-star hotels and one thousand brown M&Ms; rock that's overindulgent but safe in its excess.

I feel self-conscious pretending to emulate that raucousness in front of a TV screen and by jamming on plastic instruments, and concerned about looking stupid. It's a little pathetic, I'll admit, compared to the stage fright these actual bands felt getting up in front of anonymous and unreceptive crowds, possibly including Black Flag fans who would try and burn all the band members with lit cigarettes.

Bands like the Replacements and Guided by Voices would get over that fear by drinking a lot, and over the years that would become an intractable part of their image. First, they drank to ease performance anxiety, then drank simply because they were performing, and then drank to get drunk.

I play Rock Band as a party game in a social setting, which means I'm usually drinking too. Generally, I don't have to be drunk to play video games. I'm not slamming vodka to get psychologically geared up for Age of Empires, but then I don't have any hang-ups about Age of Empires.

Getting past the hesitation of sobriety, I realise that a Rock Band performance is going to look embarrassing and artificial to a certain kind of person -- including myself most of the time -- but I don't care. I'll do it anyway. In that state of mind, I decide that rock is not caring about what rock is.

This is how I came to insist, after a night of weak Police songs, on ditching the bass so I can sing on the New Pornographers' Electric Version. I can't sing, and in any event I'm thoroughly outclassed by the high pitched vocals, but I launch into it regardless with arrogant and obnoxious self-confidence, not thinking even a little about things like indie rock or ludonarrative dissonance.

Two minutes in, I'm slurring the words. The chorus is this line, repeated: "streaming out of the magnets" and so I yell an absurd lyric in an absurd setting with dead sincerity. Then the amp blows out and the song abruptly collapses into an awkward vacuum. That was the best time I had playing games all year.

I'm drinking, I'm saddled with unresolved contradictions, I look like an idiot and I don't care. Is this rock? It's close enough.

[1] This is not immediately verifiable, at least not on the internet. The Replacements did both Bastards of Young and Kiss Me on the Bus that night, and only the former is viewable online. That's actually a great performance, and apparently it was the second song that they came out totally trashed and were dropping their guitars. I think the curse may have been in Bastards of Young though -- there's an abrupt edit at about 1:47 into that video. If you know more, please tell me!

February 3, 2009


[This post is a spoiler-heavy discussion of Gravity Bone, a thoroughly worthwhile -- and also free -- indie game.]

There's not a lot to get about Gravity Bone, the indie game from Pandemic designer Brendon Chung. You can't understand the purpose of the missions you receive, or the significance of the woman in the number 99 shirt. You can't reconcile the hints at galactic exploration with the exploding birds. You're surrounded by surrealistic imagery and blockhead characters, and what on earth is a "gravity bone" anyway?

The game has no ultimate reveal, and its deliberate obtuseness (it takes its music cues from the film Brazil) leaves it vulnerable to misconceptions. New players, knowing that Gravity Bone is indie, weird, experimental and well-received, might equate the game to Passage and Braid and the Marriage and assume that Gravity Bone's absurdity-for-absurdity's-sake actually belies a message. Gravity Bone isn't an allegory, and players who assume that it is may suppose instead that the game poorly communicates it -- especially in the early stages of the game where nothing stands out beyond its aesthetics.

In Gravity Bone's second level, there's a part where the player can cruise the list of residents at an apartment complex. The names are immediately recognisable as Seinfeld, Cheers and NewsRadio characters, and this I think was a mistake since it gives the impression that everything else in the game can be similarly decoded. Most of Gravity Bone will never be explained, and its mysterious fragments and non-sequiturs are there to trick players into thinking that answers are actually forthcoming.

Though it isn't as infused with subtext, Gravity Bone is very similar to the Marriage and Passage: at a certain point, the player has an epiphany. They don't fully appreciate why the game's so well-renowned until their moment of clarity, and then the game's over. Anyone who's played Portal knows that revelation well: it's a fun enough physics game for a while, but -- "oh! I see." All these games lead the player to a realisation, after which the game's true purpose is evident at last. With the Marriage, it's what the symbols represent and how they behave; with Passage, it's how the play changes based on whether the character is married or not, and with Gravity Bone, it's the ending. (This is where, I believe, the still-present frustration with Braid arises from: its story is the one puzzle in a puzzle game that will never be definitively solved. There's a "correct" interpretation, but one that remains unconfirmed. It's like Jonathan Blow gets off on being withholding.)

The criticism that Gravity Bone ends too soon, or that it comes off as incomplete are misguided. The ending doesn't send a message other than it exists to confound expectations, which is a motivation I can appreciate. Without its conclusion, there's less to recommend about Gravity Bone. The unique lo-fi art style is nice, and the reductive Hitman/No One Lives Forever spy gameplay supports it for a time, but the ending is what makes Gravity Bone such a laudable piece of game design.

The game is one long exercise in structural misdirection, pulled off masterfully. Kieron Gillen explains why at Rock, Paper, Shotgun: Gravity Bone, like most games, progressively introduces new skills and talents, and in mapping your equipment to hotkeys 1, 2 and 4, suggests the existence of an item #3. The player will die before it ever materialises.

The game asserts the existence of a deeper fiction and plot threads that will never be resolved. It establishes a pace of simple, episodic missions, and ends before anyone would predict. Gravity Bone is a 300-page novel that ends on page 60. Because the art style is so charming and pronounced, players might think that that's the big attraction and therefore the extent of the game's creativity. Gravity Bone's purpose is to manipulate expectations by cutting them short, which is why it's effective at all. Everyone who plays Gravity Bone gets played by Gravity Bone. If you remember the debate over Portal's shortness from a year and a half ago, the consensus was that Portal's brevity was beneficial. Here, it's essential.

To argue, as commenters in this Gamers With Jobs thread do, that Gravity Bone is more of a proof-of-concept and isn't even a game because it lacks victory conditions is to miss the point utterly. Presumably they also think that Passage isn't a game because the player dies at the end, and a better use of Jason Rohrer's time would have been a full-length squad-based treasure hunting game, or to let the Passage player unlock an alternate ending wherein instead of succumbing to old age they can speed away on a motorcycle.

Occasionally, games will off the player character in what is clearly a final cutscene, but Gravity Bone makes the foregone conclusion a genuine surprise. Pretty much everyone has played a game in which they assume the role of the universe's greatest hero but fall down an elevator shaft or get shot by some hoodlum in the first level. Gravity Bone canonises that embarrassment.

Gravity Bone needs no sequels or additional installments. It subverts video game convention with such finesse that it rattled hardcore gamers. It ends at the exact right time and there's nothing more to be done with it. This is the rare game that manages to communicate its intent exactly and would be compromised by saying anything further. It is a full stop, conceived and executed perfectly.