June 30, 2008

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

One of last week's greatest entertainments was watching Gamasutra's Chris Remo in the thrall of a hype-induced seizure at the too-slowly-revealed Blizzard teaser. Over that week, the wildest dreams and fondest wishes of Diablo fans built and built to a pounding psychic shockwave of desire whose reverberations were felt across the internet. Personally, what I found more surprising than the announcement was that at the end of the week I really, really wanted this mystery game to be Diablo III. It wasn't a subject I had previously given a lot of thought to since the last Blizzard game I played was the first Warcraft.

Clearly, Blizzard can tease a game, but it was the sincere enthusiasm of the Diablo hardcore that did me in. Watching everyone reminisce over their shared obsessions with Diablo II multiplayer and all the nights they spent in college scouring randomly-generated dungeons with seven of their friends. I liked reading those stories even though I couldn't relate to them.

In fact, that kind of story is generally absent from my gaming memories. I've never had that experience with any multiplayer game; never had them transcend into massive social addictions and cultural touchstones forever identified with certain points in my life. In college, neither my friends nor I risked dropping out because we were hooked on Counter-Strike at the height of its popularity, or GoldenEye, or Mario Kart, or Smash Brothers, or Halo. It's not that I don't like those games, but for whatever reason they never made the jump to become nostalgia. In retrospect, it just seems like a series of accidents and missed opportunities which prevented that from happening in my case: always the wrong games at the wrong ages. And for a long time, though I liked games a lot, I was actually pretty bad at them. My best friend and I used to do Syphon Filter deathmatches and basically I'd run around in circles with the knife and get shot in the head. I hate Syphon Filter.

I'm not broken up about missing out or anything. For me, video games have just never been an explicitly social experience. Nor all that time-consuming: I didn't "lose a year of my life to Diablo II in college." When I think about addictive social experiences associated with my college years I think of smoking. Which might literally have lost me a year of my life.

Here's the thing no one tells you about smoking: it actually does make you more popular. And the social benefits of video games are completely and immediately outclassed by those of cigarettes. I feel like the worst enabler in the world writing this, but life is complicated.

In my last year of college, I was the least interested in games that I'd probably ever been. I still liked them in the abstract but I wasn't spending any time playing them, wasn't really thinking about them and I definitely wasn't reading about them. In college, I dropped out of video games. And instead I smoked a lot and drank a lot.

Maybe there's something about those years, and maybe it's something about living away from home. That somewhere in your brain you need to surrender to a system of rules or compulsions to help regulate what can be the most hectic time in your life; to find stability in instability. For a lot of people it's definitely not going to be the actual classes. It might mean following the Animal House playbook, vomiting on people and abducting school mascots. It might mean playing your life away in Diablo II. Or it might mean... well, what's a euphemism for substance abuse?

I still find it interesting to endlessly, hopelessly speculate about the road not taken. Which is why this is now waiting for me at home.

June 27, 2008

You're Not A Journalist

I can't stop lying. It's such a thrill. Here's another story from GDC 2008. On Friday, there was a panel of game journalists -- Stephen Totilo, Garnett Lee, Brian Crecente, some other dudes -- and someone asked a question about the "cult of the amateur"; about whether the proliferation of amateur bloggers and journalists was devaluing the profession. Crecente jumped in immediately with "well, I'm not an amateur" and cited the many years he spent on the police beat.

I thought it should be self-evident that if you get paid to do it, then you're not an amateur. Instead, Crecente was apparently compelled to defend his journalistic credibility. 'Amateur' doesn't mean 'amateur' anymore, it means 'hack'.

Ben Fritz, the guy who blogs video games for Variety, wrote a post about Civilization IV: Colonization and how the concept was intrinsically offensive and racist. He made the mistake of admitting he'd never heard of the original Colonization before, which of course everyone seized upon as the chink in Fritz's armour; the thermal exhaust port on his Death Star.

Did I, in the year 2008, just use the word 'chink'? Someone write an outraged blog post about me please.

I'm not smart enough to directly contest Fritz's position, although judging by the response so far, that shouldn't stop me from taking to the comments and calling him a tard. What I find interesting, though, are comments -- which appear both on the Variety blog and on Quarter to Three -- like this: "
This is why bloggers are not journalists and should not pretend to be."

That's a weird statement, Fritz notwithstanding. Basically, the internet cannot be an avenue for legitimate journalism, amateur or otherwise. Okay, that's patently ridiculous, whatever. What's puzzling to me is how Fritz writing an opinion piece somehow disabuses him of his journalist credentials. You're not a journalist if you're ill-informed? You're not a journalist if you're wrong? You're not a journalist if you say something which many people vehemently disagree with?

'Journalist' doesn't mean 'journalist' anymore. It doesn't refer to a profession. It's an endorsement; a statement of preference. Like "yeah, Kieron Gillen, man, that guy's a real journalist." Or "yeah, that Geoff Keighley feature on Half-Life 2, man, that was real journalism." Or "yeah, Jeff Gerstmann, man, giving Zelda an 8.8, that's not real journalism." How many times have you gone to a message board or a blog and seen the phrase "video game journalist" in mocking quotes? Well, at least once.

Journalists are art now. Unlike 'journalism', 'art' has always been a subjective proposition, but I see it used a lot to indicate merely that something is at a very high level of quality. There's no discussion about aesthetics or influence or genre or whatever, 'art' just means A+. Metal Gear Solid 4 is art. Why is it art? Because it's really really good!

But I think that the people praising Metal Gear's artistic merit aren't taking their vacations at the Louvre, and the people telling Ben Fritz he's not a journalist aren't taking inspiration from the opinion pieces of journalists they do like. The words don't have a lot of meaning beyond serving as cards to play in reviews and internet arguments. How do I feel about that? I don't have even a little bit of an idea.

This isn't a blog where I link things, but I am linking this. I don't know if it's journalism but I know what I like.

June 23, 2008

Supermodel Is One Word

Linda Evangelista is a supermodel. Not just any supermodel. With Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, she popularised the whole concept and brought about the Supermodel Era of the late-80s to mid-90s. She was a household name as well as a household face. Everyone knew Linda Evangelista. Capitalising on her star power, she achieved worldwide recognition and massive multi-million dollar contacts with the world's top fashion designers. She grew accustomed to a glamorous, high-profile lifestyle. "We don't 'vogue'," she said, "we are vogue." She had it all. Runway shows, magazine covers, perfumes, charities, talk shows, music videos, football players, oil moguls, Kyle MacLachlan. Every girl in a department store lingerie catalogue wanted to be Linda Evangelista.

But being a supermodel wasn't easy; the honour was not bestowed lightly. The height of the Supermodel Era coincided with the year that punk broke, when, post-Nevermind, major labels, competing to see who could dilute a zeitgeist faster, signed a flood of forgettable, low-rent bands that could sort of pass for Nirvana if it was dark and you were squinting. In contrast, the fashion industry demonstrated remarkable restraint. Six, and only six supermodels reigned triumphant in the Supermodel Era: Evangelista, Campbell, Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. These were the "Big Six", the only supermodels to be officially codified as such. Only six. The term meant something. Being a supermodel meant that you were part of an exclusive Knights Templar-esque order that wielded the influence to chart the course of an industry. It was not a superlative rendered powerless through overuse. The video gaming press has a lot to learn from the supermodels.

The recent one-two punch of Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid IV has brought more absurdity upon the gaming press than it can bear. Reviewers always become hyperbolic and liberally effusive when it comes to a certain class of game -- a masterpiece; exceeds all expectations; buy it immediately; a work of art (?); an Oscar-worthy story; will be revered for years to come; transcends the medium; changes the landscape of gaming; nothing compares to this story presentation; are we allowed to give out an 11? -- but to do it twice in two months with no sense of context is frankly bizarre. "Forget everything you thought you knew about video games, including how we wrote this exact review about GTA back in April."

What's going on here? Is it a medium that increasingly produces instant classics or a press, swept up in emotion, that has no care or concern for the larger picture? It's happening now with Metal Gear Solid, it happened before, it'll happen again. But not forever, because the mainstream press only has so much credibility left to burn. They're running out of time to be seen as thinking critically and not trying to be the most grandiose in proclaiming the dawning of a new day. They're running out of time to be seen as professional journalists and not a smitten 13-year-old writing poetry to his first girlfriend: love of the year, love of the century, love of the forever. I have no explanation. Other than they want the spotlight, the glamour of being first. They want to be the first to break the score barrier and award an 11 out of 10. Finger on the trigger, must be the first to declare that Dewey defeated Truman. And always thinking about being the first, the first, gotta be the first, and it's so close now, to declaring that yes, this is our Citizen Kane moment! The Citizen Kane moment. Like 'the Pauline Kael/Lester Bangs of video game journalism', a soundbite accolade and a hand-me-down goalpost, existing solely as subject matter for speculative editorials and box quotes. As if you'd be able to pinpoint a game with comparable cultural value to Citizen Kane at the peak of its marketing campaign, but that's the only time anyone seems interested in asking the question. No one ever looks back. Citizen Kane wasn't even the Citizen Kane of 1941; that was How Green Was My Valley.

Actually, I don't think it's as haphazard as I might have made it seem. This reviewer behaviour happens frequently and always with a certain stratum of game. Metal Gear Solid, GTA, Bioshock, Halo, Super Mario Galaxy -- supermodels, let's call them -- dominate the press cycle, ensorcell the press and the fans in the months preceding release, and enjoy a feverish review honeymoon.

These are the supermodels; the ones that get the magazine covers and product endorsements. When the mainstream media think 'video game', they go to GTA or Halo. They're famous. They're glamorous. They're expensive. And they don't get out of bed for anything less than a 9.3.

It's bad form to trash a supermodel. For one thing, they have real money backing them up. Ubisoft spent millions trying to make Assassin's Creed into a supermodel, and in that situation, it's not a 'criticism', it's bad for business. The publishers are William Randolph Hearst, ready to pull their advertising and blacklist the press if they don't go for it.

But hey, it's what's en vogue, it's what's in style, so what's the point in being contrary anyway? Bad press spoils the fans' good time. This is a supermodel and it comes with previews and interviews, and collector's editions, and pre-order bonuses. Nothing ruins the show like some editor pointing out that she wore that dress last year. This is meant to be a party, don't fuck it up. Certainly, Metal Gear Solid fans have lately proven themselves to be the internet users least receptive to criticism. I don't understand why you have to be so negative. Maybe you don't understand it. It's groundbreaking, come on. These are video games, it's just supposed to be fun.

Look good. Think superficially. Wrong place, wrong time for serious analysis or discussion. Come on, honey, just look pretty for me. No one tell me she isn't.

It's an infatuation, not love. We don't actually treat our supermodels very well. We want to be seen with them on our arm but only when they're fashionable. In this medium, beauty increases at an alarmingly fast rate, and supermodels have very little staying power. San Andreas and Snake Eater can't compete anymore. The graphics are worse. The gameplay is worse. All the problems absent from the initial reviews have emerged. Time reveals all wounds.

There's no industry for old supermodels. Why should anyone talk about the old games anymore when we have their contemporary counterparts right on hand? The media has to keep looking forward, because there's another ingenue out there somewhere. In twenty years, Metal Gear Solid IV will be a joke. The game will in fact become the grizzled, obsolete Solid Snake outpaced by younger, sexier super-spies who work the catwalk and the cover shoots like he never could.

The press accelerates. It doesn't reflect. No time for classics or slow burns. It won't ask, in 2030, is this game the next Grand Theft Auto IV? It'll say, what have you done for me lately? Because I'm looking at this first screenshot and I think it could be Citizen Kane. It has a certain star quality about it. It reminds me of a younger, hotter Linda Evangelista.

June 19, 2008

Objectivism Society Poet Laureate

I lied. I have a little more to say about GDC '08, but only because I found a picture that arguably bests this one. (I shouldn't really be linking that, because if I ever become super famous, that's #2 on the list of Hit Self-Destruct posts that could get me in trouble.)

Look at him! Look at that guy. I love it. All of a sudden he's in Phantom of the Opera. Or West Side Story.

Christine! Christine! I've never seen Phantom of the Opera. I don't know what I'm talking about.

June 18, 2008

Writing Shotgun

Sometimes I think the old school PC gaming traditionalists are like less-influential religious right septuagenarians, in that a younger generation is waiting impatiently for them to die off so that the rest of the world can fully embrace evolution.

Not that I advocate such a genocide. I'm sort of an old school PC gamer myself. And while I love new games and I find all those stubborn posts about Fallout 3 or Oblivion-being-console-trash massively stupid, there are some relics from the nineties that I wish were never buried. This one might seem impossibly trivial, but I've thought my position through and you'll find it's plausibly trivial.

I miss not being able to name savegames.

It's such a simple thing, and it's not like I'm Deputy Alarmist in the Gaming Liberties Watchdog Group crying at the developers taking away our freedoms. I do miss it though. I miss hitting save for the first time and the game prompting me for a title, and wanting to come up with something clever. I wanted something befitting of the story, because "cant get out of mortuary" seemed so inappropriate. That's how it starts. Then I'll care about what my save game history looks like, and then it occurs to me that certain lines of dialogue would make great titles, and then critical game moments will be deserving of a epigrammed save.

Soon it snaps into focus. I haven't been selecting saves based on difficult or otherwise arbitrary moments, I've been breaking this story into chapters and composing the table of contents. I'm not a player, I'm a co-writer. The game and I, we're now writing this story in tandem, and I love it. The player's role as "author" of the game is always so nebulous to define, and certainly it varies from game to game, but this one small thing is so tangible and so clearly mine.

One extra little layer of personalisation. If I'm into the game, I'm really into that part. I want to do well by the game and chronicle it with chapter headings that are suitably poetic and powerful. When I was heavily into Deus Ex, I kept a running tally in the in-game journal of which characters I could and could not trust. Same thing: I was perfectly happy to make the extra effort for a game I loved, and felt that much more involved as a result.

It becomes a creative exercise, a game in itself. Make these titles funnier or develop patterns. Somewhere in Baldur's Gate II, for no reason, I decided that every save game had to be a phrase beginning with the word "The". Seinfeld, pretty much. The chapters of Fallout Tactics (a game that was 25% of the way towards being fantastic) had to be named after song lyrics that accurately summarised the action on screen. That particular save game model obviously developed because I was listening to music to take my mind off the boring game.

That can be fun too. Sometimes it'll be the only thing that keeps me going; that my save game titles are consistently better than my game experience, and in this fight between the two writers, I want to win. My 225 Morrowind saves record better than anything my ups and downs with that game. Frustrating gameplay affects my general mood which controls the volume of profanity appearing in the save titles. "Never Say Nerevarine Again" (#204) effectively eulogised Morrowind for me.

Without titles none of this happens. The save game screen is just a dump where you put files. It doesn't matter how many you have because it's just a menu option; a fourth-wall-breaking morass of numbers. I can't buy into that fantasy anymore. Because controllers don't have keyboards and these days, for all intents and purposes, that usually means PCs don't either.

But I'm over it.

June 16, 2008

Dream Analysis

I wonder what this means. Two nights ago I had a dream about writing a Hit Self-Destruct post. When I woke up, not only could I remember the post but I felt that I had done a okay job with it. That afternoon it still seemed good to me. And this wasn't just an idea. This post was completely finished and merely waiting to be published in real life. So, here we are. Writing credit goes to my dreams.

Earlier this year I read David Michaelis' biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Maybe the most interesting thing about it is how Michaelis illustrates the narrative with some of Schulz's strips from the period. It's staggering, in an "all these Deadwood characters were real people" kind of way, to see how much of Peanuts' 50 years commented on or was directly influenced by Schulz's personal life. Their placement in this book lends them with a tremendous surplus of meaning. About three people in the world would have fully understood the intent of some of those strips when they first ran; a time when hundreds of millions of people were reading them. When a love-struck Schulz began an affair with a woman about twenty years his junior, he writes Snoopy a storyline about longing after a cute girl puppy he met at camp. Schulz's wife suspects when she sees all the long-distance phone calls Schulz had been making. Soon after, Charlie Brown angrily forbids Snoopy from making long-distance calls to his girlfriend.

I can't wait to see what we'll find out when David Michaelis writes a biography about a game designer. I think it would be fascinating to learn that a well-known commercial game was secretly all about the life of its developer. Probably getting a biography of a game designer published is a tough enough proposition as it is, though. (Incidentally, I'd pay for a Seamus Blackley biography. And when I say "pay" I mean I would finance it.)

Has it ever happened? That a story, or a character, or a piece of level architecture was written in code. While it was meant to stand on its own for an audience not conversant in the developer's psych files, that game element had immense personal significance to that developer. It was inspired by the developer's divorce, or a bereavement, or their drinking problem. He or she is the only person to understand it and that's exactly how it's supposed to be. Schulz wasn't publishing his strips with annotations or even clues; transparency makes it boring. Then it becomes a private tragedy processed into an accessible tearjerker, when it should be a creative person using a creative outlet for cathartic and therapeutic reasons. The latter of which is infinitely more respectable, and when we discover these things after the fact, as kind of a work of archeology, it becomes so much more interesting.

Is anyone even doing this? I would be satisfied with a yes-or-no answer to that. It seems like it would be so hard. Video games have such a protracted development and are produced in such a collaborative environment that co-opting and shaping a major theme of the game without telling anyone sounds impossible.

What will we learn in the future about the games we play today? What were Bioshock or Metal Gear Solid really about? What did the endless corridors of Doom and Halo signify? Are we talking about the next step in the emotional maturity of this medium?

It doesn't look like I dreamed an ending for this post.

June 14, 2008

Chase Howard

Chase Howard looks good on a resume. No other firm of market analysts has Chase Howard's predictive accuracy, their research capacity, or their client list. If you're a financial analyst in the consumer electronics industry, you've either worked for them or been fired from another firm because you were wrong and Chase Howard was so, so right. No one argues with Chase Howard these days. People resent them. People mock them. But they don't do it out loud. Chase Howard's the best, and everyone knows it.

That was why Adrian got up at four a.m. every day and drove for two hours in his father's 1985 Hyundai to his unpaid internship at Chase Howard. He didn't have a desk or a phone, he had an office chair in a corner and he would sit there every morning, balancing in his lap a red pen, a bagel, a Styrofoam cup of coffee and 85 pages of internal memos and press releases. Before he took lunch orders, he spent an hour with his cheap ballpoint pressed to the paper and spell-checked every word. It was tedious, but, as Adrian had discovered, completely necessary. Adrian had all the respect in the world for the men at Chase Howard, but even his three-year-old sister, who wrote on the walls in crayon, knew that the word 'lose' did not have two 'o's.

"I think this is a typo."
   Dean looked up from his monitor. He was dressed –- and it wasn’t even Friday –- in a sweatshirt and khakis. In two weeks, Adrian had only seen one person in the building wearing a tie, and it was Adrian.
   "What is it?"
   Adrian held up Dean’s memo to eye level and pointed to the offending word.
   "It's this right here, you spelled 'Microsoft' with a dollar sign."
   Dean chuckled and leaned back in his chair.
   "No," he explained, "that's a joke, a subtle joke. Do you know what a moneyhat is? It's sort of a reference to that."
   "I see," said Adrian, although he didn’t. "So I could write 'Sony' with the dollar sign too, right?"
   Dean's face instantly darkened. "Well, that wouldn’t be funny, because there's no basis for that. You're just making that up. Aren't you?"
   Adrian was looking a bit flustered so Dean relaxed. The kid didn’t mean any harm by it, he reasoned.
   "No, I'm sorry for snapping. You're a bright guy, and you'll go far here, but you have a lot to learn about comedy."
   Someone walked by Dean’s desk. "Conference in five."
   Dean nodded, then smiled at Adrian. "You haven’t been here for the numbers yet, have you?"
   "Enjoy it, kid, it's gonna be a show."
   Two guys ran past Adrian, stopping briefly to bump chests.
   "You ready?" asked one of them.
   "It's D-Day, bitch!"
   The louder of the two men turned and yelled at someone five desks away.
   "Max! I have it on paper, you douche! You said it! If GTA doesn't crack 500k on the PS3, you've gotta resign!"
   Max looked unhappy. "Mr. Howard said we weren't allowed to make that bet."
   "You shook my fucking hand!"
   Max hurried into the conference room, followed by a procession of men in their mid-20s, most of whom Adrian had never seen before and all of whom looked like they were out for blood.

Tim was the first to speak.
   "HD gaming am epic fail, huh?"
   The room murmured their agreement with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
   "Confirmed," someone echoed.
   At that moment, an unfamiliar observer wouldn’t have been able to make out anything in the room except for the twenty men seated at the table and another twenty hovering over them –- and, of course, the bound reports they all held in their hands. In fact, there was little to see. The conference room was sparsely decorated by design. A widescreen plasma television was the only thing hanging from the walls, but if one looked closely they might notice the clusters of pin pricks marring the plaster. Someone had put up a giant Wind Waker poster once, at which several people in the building had taken exception. They argued it projected a bias that was not reflective of Chase Howard as a whole and this perception would damage the company’s reputation. In the interests of equality and compromise, a new policy limited conference room posters to one per platform. This spurred a heated discussion over whether you could honestly call Resistance "equal" to Halo. To hang them side by side was an insult to Halo, they thought. They eventually decided that they would be okay with it if they were allowed to hang the Halo poster a few inches higher, and that suggestion went over very badly. One day a grateful client had presented the firm with a life-size Master Chief statue, and it was placed in the lobby. On that day the building actually caught fire.
   "It's the exclusivity factor," said Jason. "Gamers know Metal Gear Solid, they like Metal Gear Solid. It sells systems. And we'd predicted last month that the PS3 would get a bigger bump from GTA4 than the 360 would."
   "Amazing numbers!" someone shouted.
   "First to ten million wins!" A third of the room were all sporting Cheshire Cat grins.
   Ryan leaned forward. "You’re forgetting that the 360 user base still largely exceeds the PS3 user base."
   "Fuck the both of you! You didn't know what you were talking about last month and you still don't know shit! This is like when you assholes still wouldn't give up on HD-DVD. It was fucking over then and it's over now. We won." Mike stood up and threw his fists in the air. "We won!"
   Half the room applauded violently.
   "Hey! Hey!" Ryan tried to make himself heard above the rabble. "Where the hell were you in December? You guys were ready to kill yourselves." Ryan dug into his jacket pocket for his Palm Pilot. "I have this funny picture of a cat that I think will better make my point."
   Adrian was standing next to Dean by the door, flicking through his copy of the numbers.
   "Hey," he whispered to Dean, "I think I have a page missing, I can't find the PC figures."
   Dean rolled his eyes.
   As Ryan and Mike competed for volume, Adrian's attention drifted to Tim, who was sitting at the opposite end of the room. He hadn't said a word since the meeting started, which Adrian found strange. In Adrian's experience, Tim was one of the most energetic people in the building, and here, amidst the biggest display of enthusiasm Adrian had ever seen, he was sitting completely still, with his head held straight down.
   Before Adrian could give this any more thought, Jamie jumped to his feet, breaking off Adrian's line of sight to Tim.
   "Hey! Are you guys forgetting something? HD gaming? Laugh-out-fucking-loud! These Wii figures are incredible! They’re incredible for the second month going! You guys wonder about what gamers want and you don't have a fucking clue. Gamers don't want install times, they don't want RROD, they don't want an HDTV. The only HD game in the top ten is GTA and let’s see... how many of those top ten games are on a Nintendo system? Oh! Seven of them! Wii is number one. DS is number two. Oh, my pants are tightening. Yeah, I'm definitely aroused. Give up. Face it. Next-gen starts when I say so. Nintendo domination!"
   The room erupted again. Mike and Ryan looked sour.
   "I'd like to know," Jamie continued, "in the face of these figures, what possible explanation Ubisoft can give for not supporting the Wii. Why they'll release for every other platform except ours. Why they'll serve us the worst shit and expect us to eat it up? I want to see Prince of Persia on the Wii. I want to see Beyond Good & Evil on the Wii. I want to see Far Cry 2 on the Wii. I don't want to see that bullshit game about the dogs. No reason they can't do it. How do they think they can get away with this? This is racism. This is console racism. I want someone to ask them that. I want someone to call Ubisoft and ask them why they’re not supporting the Wii. I'm going to call them! I'm gonna call them right now!”
   Jamie made a grab for the phone on the desk.
   "I'm calling Ubisoft right now! What's the number?"
   "You have to dial 1 for an outside line," Ryan offered.
   "I know that! You don’t think I fucking know that? You think because I'm a Nintendo fan I'm a retard?"
   "I think you wouldn’t be able to find your dick without a Wii game to toilet train you."
   "Yeah? Look at these numbers, they could make that game and it would sell more than any dumb shooter on your failed fucking platform."
   "Okay," Jason said, raising his voice a little. "Everyone settle down.    Jamie raises an interesting point: videogames are trending away from a hardcore player base."
   Ryan interrupted: "I don't think the PS3 will keep climbing like certain people in this room seem to think it will."
   "Why not?"
   Ryan looked at Mike. "Think about the value proposition. You really think Metal Gear is going to do the numbers you think? With ninety-minute cutscenes?"
   "Hey," said Bruce, waving his hands, "hey. Seriously: you don’t joke about Metal Gear. It hurts me when people say that."
   "Yeah, you asshole," said Mike, "this is game of the fucking forever. I'm going to put a poster up."
   "No you’re fucking not!"
   "Okay!" yelled Jason. Sometimes Jason wished he had a gavel. "Everyone. Where are we going? Casual games. The wave of the future?"
   "No!" shrieked an unfamiliar voice. Adrian looked up. It was Tim. "No no no no no. Why are you happy about this? Why are you going to take this?" Tim stood up. "Why are you all so ready to accept that this, this, thisthisthis console sold over 650k this month and 700 last month when there is nothing, nothing, nothing worth buying on it? I hate this! God damn it! God damn you all!"
   Tim started pacing.
   "You all disgust me. I am a traditional hardcore gamer and I have been one all my life. I am a hardcore gamer, I do not play casual games. The Wii is taking developers and money and players away from real games and real consoles. The Wii is not a console. It's a child's toy. Is that the future? Are you telling me this is the future? Is it? Then this is the end of video games!"
   With a guttural howl, Tim span around and shoved the TV off the wall. It landed with a lame thud. Tim stared down at it in a rage, his whole body shaking.
   "Oh, God," he whispered. He backed up against the wall and slid down to the floor.
   "The Wii is ruining gaming," he said in a cracking voice, covering his face with his hands. "The Wii is ruining gaming."
   The room turned. Sir Simon Howard stood in the doorway with his arms folded. Everyone was deathly quiet as Tim helped himself to his feet and shuffled past his forty co-workers to follow Howard outside. No one made eye contact. Dean closed the door behind him. For a minute, no one said anything.
   "Okay," said Jason. "Let’s talk about price cuts."

Tim sat sniffling in Howard’s office. Howard lightly pushed a box of Kleenex towards him. He took one and dabbed his eyes.
   "It hurts me to see you like this," Howard said. "You've been with us as long as anyone and we all respect you. You're a first-class analytical mind. You know I only want what’s best for you."
   Tim snorted loudly into the tissue.
   "Are there problems at home? Take a vacation, Tim. Take some time off.”
   Tim screwed up the tissue and dumped it on the floor. "What," he said, "are you high? I love this."

June 11, 2008

Academia In The UK

Where were you on the 29th of July, 2008? I'll tell you where you were. You were in Brighton, England attending the Games:EDU conference! Seriously, I think you should go. If you like Hit Self-Destruct but would love it if it were written by someone in the industry who shares his design wisdom instead of spending so much time trying to be funny, then you'll love Games:EDU. I think. I hope. I've never been. I won't be there this year.

Another great Hit Self-Destruct endorsement! I wrote profiles on some of the attending developers for the program guide, and if you go there you can read them. The people organising the event were cool enough to let me write my usual mildly-humourous essays so you might enjoy that.

There's one I wrote that didn't end up in the magazine. I'm going to post it now, but with all the specifics blacked out. I would like to see if you can guess what company I wrote it about. No prizes or anything, it's just fun something to do today.

Here it is!

No, just kidding. Here it is for real:

Yeah, kidding again. I'm done now though, here it is:

No, but seriously:

Okay. I think I'm done.

June 8, 2008

Aeris University

My personal history with Final Fantasy VII is a powerful one. I saw the commercials when they originally aired on TV and thought the game looked amazing. And that's about it for my powerful personal history.

I've never played the game and really don't know much about it. But apparently that didn't stop me from saying something mean about the character Aeris and her fans on this very blog. I believe I used the word "contempt". Well, I hold myself in contempt in the court of human kindness.

I felt bad. Because this isn't just anyone. Aeris has to be one of the most famous and fondly-remembered female characters in video game history, and clearly she touched many players' hearts. Who am I to demean that? Look at this face:

Is any character better with that "come hither and write erotic fan fiction about me" look? If there is one, please don't tell me about it because I really can't be writing erotic fiction all day.

My point is I didn't treat Aerith-san with the proper respect. I just did it again with the erotic fiction remark. I want to apologise. My insult was made in ignorance and so that's how I decided to make amends: I would learn all about this mysterious Aeris, so I could hopefully understand and empathise with her and her fans. I went to school. . .

Aerith (or Aeris, or [][][][][]) Gainsborough is a 22-year old woman. Her height is 5'3", her birthday is February 7 and her blood type is O. I can't even imagine how this game would make her blood type necessary information, but there it is. Everything I read about Aeris seemed to gravitate very quickly to a) her personality and b) her looks. Please refer to the picture below for what I found out regarding her looks.

Important elements of Aeris' design, to summarise: nature, femininity and a whole lot of pink. "Aerith" is evidently the proper spelling (and not indicative of a lisping condition) because it's an anagram of the English word "earth." Well, almost. Five out of six letters isn't bad; give her a break. Her most prominent character traits are her empathy and compassion. She is "independent, outgoing and kind" and "displays a stark understanding of others." She stands for everything pure and good. When she meets FFVII protagonist Cloud, she crushes on him instantly but they don't seal the deal.

Here's where I think we're going with this. Correct me if I'm wrong. Everything I read online (except maybe the erotic fiction) affirms the notion of Aeris as this demure, immaculate, virginal princess who players can fall for because she doesn't intimidate them. If she's sexualised at all it's done so innocuously that the romance is able to stay safe and platonic. It sounds like I'm being insulting again but this is the game where Cloud's hairstyle was changed for fears that the original design's masculinity might have alienated players.

Let's get into some personal history. Aeris sold flowers at a church to support her adoptive mother -- see, look, what a goddamn princess. Wait. I'm sorry. I'll try that again.

Let's get into some personal history. Aeris sold flowers at a church to support her adoptive mother, which makes her a real hero in my book. This church is in the polluted, moribund city of Midgar (Joke: Where do pirates live? Midgarr!) and that, coupled with the flower-selling thing, makes the innocence metaphor plain enough.

At age 16 she goes out with a guy called Zack. Zack is a soldier in a paramilitary group called SOLDIER, who terrify Aeris. One day Zack crashes through her church, doesn't pay for the damage, freaks her out when he says he's a SOLDIER, and then just by giving her a lousy pink ribbon makes her his girlfriend. Nice going. Aeris got steamrolled by the Zack Attack.

I now present a scene from the courtship of Zack and Aeris: "Aerith says that his eyes are pretty. Zack then lets her have a closer look, and as they draw nearer, Aerith becomes aware of their close proximity and pushes him for teasing her. He then comments that his mako eyes are like the sky. Aerith smiles and says: "If that's the sky I'm looking at then I'm not scared"." What does that mean? And what is a mako eye? It works for them, though.

Or does it? Zack leaves one day, and that day becomes four years. In that time Aeris writes him 89 letters and never once takes the hint. Turns out for those four years Zack was being held in a basement dungeon and was eventually killed. Hey, Aeris and I actually have a lot in common.

Aeris later meets Cloud while running from "the Turks." As in, what, the Ottoman Empire? Just when I thought I was beginning to understand this shit. Cloud agrees to act as Aeris' bodyguard in exchange for a date. Oh, Aeris. You can do better than that. For a while she's in a love triangle with Cloud and a guy named Tifa, and then she dies.

"In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.' These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith's death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood." - Yoshinori Kitase

That's the rationale behind the death and it's admirable enough. But Final Fantasy's brief excursion into realism is self-evidently compromised when the fairy tale comes crashing back down around it. Aeris' death allows her to be together forever with Zack in heaven, which clears the way for Cloud and Tifa to hook up. Perfect! Feeling pretty Hollywood to me.

When someone's "gone", they're supposed to be gone and for a dead person Aeris is a fairly regular fixture in the rapidly expanding Final Fantasy VII universe. Prequels get players used to having Aeris around and in sequels she appears as Cloud's spirit guide. There's much less trauma involved when the dead are allowed to stick around as personal grief counselors. Not to mention the "death of innocence" theme is undermined a little by having Aeris team up with Disney characters. I think it's like if Princess Diana were brought back to life for a Celebrity Boxing tournament.

This is one of those subtle apologies.

However cheapened or melodramatic I think it might have been, Aeris' death -- Aeris, period -- really has affected a lot of people. Final Fantasy VII has a tremendous following and while some of those fans are psychotic, I choose to believe that they are the minority. I choose to believe that there are psychologically stable people for whom Aeris and her death mean something genuine and I respect that.

The whole game was blessed and cursed with being part of a super-specific zeitgeist: as much as the game is derided and overexposed and emotionally means nothing today, it was entirely the opposite in 1997. In 2008 it's an anachronism. It's a link to the past. Fans have sewn time capsules all across the internet, from poetry to Geocities fanpages to animated cursors. Nothing says "internet in 1997" quite like animated cursors of Sephiroth killing Aeris.

I've learned about as much as I'm comfortable with and of course I still don't care. Nothing would do it except being right back at the beginning with everybody else and that's never going to happen. But it did mean something once. And to some, it still does. It was a special moment that was shared by millions and which has now become a sincere cultural identifier for those that took it seriously. For missing that, from the bottom of my heart, I'm sorry.

June 4, 2008

Fire Rockets!

First thing was control. A metal joystick hooked up to a three-inch television determined the trajectory of two white dots, and this was fascinating. Men staggered in bars along with a cheap beer in one hand and a light gun in the other, and they were saving the world. Game boxes began to overflow with floppy disks, and this was thrilling. One afternoon twenty math majors hung out in a San Jose living room, and that was the Game Developers Conference. Readers savoured every word in 500-page magazines, and these were monthly industry bibles that constructed a global community of video game fans.

In schools, one kid was the first to own a Mega Drive, and everyone decided they wanted to be better friends with that kid. In dorm rooms, students passed out at dawn after 24-hour GoldenEye deathmatches. In bedrooms, brothers mocked their sisters for crying at Titanic for the twelfth time, then went back to Disc One of Final Fantasy VII and couldn't stop the floodgates.

In San Francisco, team of programmers and artists assembled under the banner of a film producer's side project, and these people were soon revealed to be the best comedic minds in the industry. In Dallas, rock star developers got coked up in a towering glass monument to hubris. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a de facto fraternity of MIT alumni quietly changed how games were played.

These are the moments that echo, which call out to be favoured by nostalgia, and immortalised as a golden age. These moments are historical signposts that set daunting standards for the future. They are satellites; explosions in the sky, sending signals that write the story of what we choose to remember. In a contemporary context we cannot predict with any reasonable accuracy the new moments that we will forever care about. We can be certain, however, that there will be plenty of these moments to come.

This medium is going places. The last hundred years charted entertainment transcendence. Cinema established itself as more than the novelty of moving trains and factory workers. Comics grew beyond newspaper pages and television proved it wasn't just the poor man's picture show. The funny pages worked its way to a place that could support Maus and Watchmen, and television got Twin Peaks and the Wire. All accomplished by good people working hard to redefine and subvert every available preconception and stereotype of the medium. These things take time, and now we've got time. We're gonna have our moments. The 21st century will belong to video games. We're transcending.

Look around you. It's not hard to get excited. Games are written up in international magazines as entertainment and not as a mysterious teenage fad akin to MTV and skateboarding. Developers enjoy greater name recognition and creative control. A historically obsequious press is becoming increasingly resistant to the impositions of publishers. There's never been a better support network for independent developers, and for that matter, the independent scene's current field of talent is astounding.

And games are getting better. They can advance the medium and comment on the human condition, but even when they're not, the games are getting better.

It means it's not such a bad thing to be on the sidelines anymore. There's value in being a witness -- not a developer, not an advocate -- but just someone who believed in the medium when it counted, who embraced it although its legitimacy wasn't universally recognised. In the face of misinformation and flimsy attacks, when video games were painted as cop-killing sexboxes, we were smart and cool enough to know who and what was right. That's something to admire.

Still, I have far more respect for those who have no interest in video games and never play them than I do for the forum poster who hunts for objective proof that the PS3 version of Grand Theft Auto IV has less tearing; or the teenagers setting back their generation on Xbox Live; or the staff reviewer jumping at the chance to trade advertising space for an exclusive review. It's not hard to get excited about this industry. But it takes an extra special something to care about it.

It's fun to be an observer, to have brushed up against history and be able to impress others with tales of just how close you were. You saw Casablanca in theaters, you saw the Clash in 1977, and you've been playing Metal Gear Solid since it was on the NES. It's satisfying to know all about the cool medium before it breaks fully into the mainstream. It's better to do all that while also being a good guy.

Fifty years from now gaming will resemble something so much greater than what we can presently imagine. You can tell your kids that you remember what it used to be like, and tell them that you were on the right side. That you cared about this industry: supported it where you could and encouraged every effort towards its improvement, helped it evolve until it stood at its zenith, shoulder-to-shoulder, with every other medium in existence. These things take time, but they don't happen without you. And it's worth it. Look around you. Tell me you don't think this is going to be something good.

Welcome back to the show that never ends.

June 3, 2008

The Vignette: Wednesday

Harrison didn't even know that he was standing. His throat was closing and the colour had drained from his face, leaving him slouching in the corner in a cold, nervous sweat. Panic pounded against the walls of his brain, droning out the sirens and Anderson's insistent yelling. Vision filtered through a monochromatic haze, he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. It occurred to him that this might be a dream, which prompted this question: if this was a dream, why couldn't he wake up?

Anderson didn't know quite what to do, so he grabbed Harrison by the collar and shoved him hard into the wall.

"Listen to me! That timer's about to hit zero and -- "

"You crazy man," stammered Harrison. "You're out of your mind. You're going to kill me. I'm going to die. We're going to die, you're going to kill us, oh my God, I can't believe you're so crazy oh my God what are you doing holy mother of God what oh no..."

Harrison needed to calm down and Anderson was out of ideas. He pulled Harrison back from the wall and shoved him again. Harrison didn't even appear to register the impact.

"You're going to kill me."

Anderson wondered if Harrison was even hearing him. "You need to turn your key -- "

"You're going to hit self-destruct. I'm going to die."

Anderson finally had enough. He slammed Harrison against the wall for a third time. Anderson was not a creative man.

"You don't get it," Anderson shouted. "we're not going to press self-destruct, we never were. Listen to me! You have to listen to me! We're running out of time. Do you hear me? That wasn't the plan. We were never going to initiate self-destruct. We are not about to hit self-destruct. We're about to -- "


June 2, 2008

The Vignette: Tuesday

"Do you know how to use one of these?"

Anderson was holding a small silver key up to Harrison's face.

"Yes, sir."

"Show me."

Harrison pointed to two keyholes embedded on the console, located about ten feet apart.

"When the counter hits zero, I put in my key and I turn it."

"Turn it how?"

Harrison held his key up in the air and demonstrated: 90 degrees, clockwise. Anderson nodded approvingly.

"Then what happens, sir?"

Anderson didn't even look at him. Harrison waited for a response and his expectant stare was beginning to make Anderson very unsure of himself. While the bright, earnest Harrison would forever remain inscrutable to the prosaic Anderson; in this moment Harrison finally had the Colonel all figured out.

"There's a reason we're the only people left in the building. Isn't there? You're not just surrendering. You brought me down here to hit self-destruct."

One. Sirens wailed.

June 1, 2008

The Vignette: Monday

He'd been wearing the engagement ring for two months and while he'd never admit it, it made him very uncomfortable. The extra weight was a constant reminder that something was wrong, and the idea of being branded with this circle of metal for the rest of his life made him want to scream.

"Have you ever been in love, Colonel?" he asked.

Anderson looked like he was about to cry.

Harrison answered for him. "Sometimes I think I know what love is. There are all these moments, you know, there's the first date and the first kiss and the proposal and the wedding and the pregnancy and the house and the birth. Those moments are great, those are the once-in-a-lifetime things, right? There are all those moments, those memories, but every lifetime you're only allotted so many of them and one day you don't have these milestones to reach anymore. Nothing's left that's special. Then you're just in it for life and you have no goal and nothing to look forward to. I'm a young guy, Colonel, and I'm getting married this year. I'm already using up all the moments I'm gonna get.

"That's what I think love is, Colonel. You understand that, and you understand that most of the time things might be routine, and you commit to it anyway. I might not enjoy it everyday, and it's not necessarily about loving her or even liking her all the time, it's about the understanding that you entered into a contract to build something greater than yourself and that the things which are needed to maintain that institution might not be commensurate with your own. It's about sacrifice and it's about long-term rewards. She's something so special and from time to time I should be happy to be unhappy as long as I'm miserable with her. Is this making sense? I should be dedicated to my marriage and my family because this is something more important than me. Where's a life of self-indulgence going to get me? It's not going to help her. It's not going to help my child. And, you see, that's my reward: to have been a part of something so wonderful, to hold my wife's hand in the delivery room, to watch my children graduate; to know that it was because of me... that should be worth anything, right? That's worth compromise.

"Then I think, do I feel that way about my fiancée? And the answer is, maybe not."

Anderson pressed his key into the palm of his hand so hard that the skin broke.

The clock now read two. They had missed three while they were talking.