September 30, 2008

The Ambition Men

Ambitious businessmen live out of the top floors of skyscrapers; ostentatious offices that open out onto rooftop gardens and putting greens. They are outfitted in four-thousand-dollar suits, show up to governor's mansions with fast cars and trophy wives, and have cultivated expensive coke habits. Ambitious game developers, by and large, are nerds who have very intense thoughts about game design, and are also really addicted to cocaine.

No video game has ever said so much about life and death, and in so little time, as Jason Rohrer's Passage. More complicated statements have been made in games about the pursuit of love and wealth but typically in cutscenes bolted onto a platformer whose mechanics are thematically unrelated. Rohrer, however, uses no such crutches, and instead his every idea is communicated to the player through his/her act of playing the game. This industry's highest-regarded designers can't do that. Depending on your tolerance for invoking the word 'art' in discussions of games, you could call it art. Or just really good.

For some reason we don't call it ambitious. 'Ambitious' is Peter Molyneux attempting to express the same concept in Fable. The design goals of Fable were generally about probing the conceits of good and evil; Molyneux the self-made morality lifeguard inviting players into his ethical swimming pool. Aside from that exercise, Molyneux intended for players to create a character and watch him grow up, find treasure and accumulate spouses throughout the course of the game, much like Passage. It didn't fully work in Fable, since once the avatar entered maturity the world around him turned immortal. Technically the character would age, his birthdays observed by an in-game statistics menu, but the feature didn't mean anything. The character spends his whole life undertaking low-rent RPG quests, same as it ever was. It could have worked as a depressing commentary but regardless it didn't convey the sense of aging -- unlike Passage, which could do both.

So why, then, is Molyneux the ambitious one? 'Ambition', when used in game reviews, is a pejorative. It means 'almost there': not that a game is excellent but that it underdelivers on initial promise. Grand Theft Auto IV is 'a living, breathing world.' Spore is 'ambitious.'

What were the ambitions of Will Wright, another high-wire idealist? The ambitions that conventional wisdom tells us less than a month after Spore's release, were unsuccessful. Spore was supposed to have serious educational applications; it was meant to be an evolutionary sandbox, an epic biological journey, the mind-expanding, all-encompassing history of the universe: SimEverything. Something like that ought to be pretty complex in nature. Spore should have been renowned for its complexity. Instead, if any word dominated the Spore media narrative, it was -- well, it was 'DRM', but after that it was 'simple.'

We have to believe that someone like Will Wright can't make SimEverything and not at least end up with SimSomething. Spore has several somethings to choose from but for the purposes of this case study here's one particular thing that Spore offers: our third take so far on players watching their creation age. Wright's preoccupation is biology, not genetics, but his game recaptures some of Fable's lost ambition. Spore asks the player to invest, more than Fable ever did, in the physical appearance of their characters and to guide their evolutionary passage (shall we say.) Everyone's favourite part of Spore is the creature creator, but the whole game is a creature creator. The so-named tool, while versatile, can only sculpt the physical form but the game is about forming a protective, emotional bond with your species and writing their genetic history in your mind. Fable does little to indicate the passage (sorry -- let's say 'voyage' instead. Or consult a thesaurus and go with 'aqueduct') of time, but in Spore each evolution of the species is associated with markedly distinct challenges. It reinvents appearance with each scene. The difference between Cell and Civilization is that of three-foot in kindergarten and six-foot in college.

Three ambitious guys all with different takes on the same concept: Rohrer is elebrated by an admittedly small audience; Molyneux is chastised for overpromising; and Wright's contributions go largely unrecognised in the face of scaled-down dreams. Spore was reviewed on the hype and if it lives and dies by critical opinion, then that's its failure: Spore is too simple. It arguably doesn't exploit its own ambitions, it only realises Fable's by accident, and Passage outperforms both of them anyway. So why, then, does Passage work? Well, because it's simple, right?

Unlike Fable and Spore, Passage removes every element extraneous to the theme: if even one thing doesn't contribute to the central artistic expression then it is out. In the absence of distractions, the purity of the theme is enhanced. You could make the case that Spore would have been a better evolutionary playground -- if not a better game -- if it didn't feel obliged to incorporate overly goal-oriented structures. Likewise, Fable might have been a better morality play if it didn't insist on adhering so closely to contemporary RPG convention. Both games balanced their ambition with the safely commercial. Rohrer doesn't have that problem, being the only one to work without a team, or publishers, marketers or distributors, and he doesn't need to worry about critics or hype. Spore and Fable are the expressions of many years and many people. Passage is the expression of Jason Rohrer. Jason Rohrer is one man and Jason Rohrer has a maxim: to live a life of voluntary simplicity. Is the key to ambition ironically not trying to do everything? Will the best ideas and purest expression come out of indie games, the format with the least production but also the least encumberance?

Simplicity is Spore's critical curse and the secret to Passage's success. It can mean 'elegant' and it can mean 'shallow'. Reviewers can write off Spore because it meets the latter definition, but even that negative simplicity can work to Spore's benefit. If Spore is simple it becomes accessible, and to the same mainstream, casual audience who play (and only play) the Sims. To those players, Spore works as a video game primer, a basic introduction to the mechanics and artifice of the RPG, the MMO and the RTS. Is that ambitious? I don't know. Is it valuable? I think so.

That's Spore standing apart from its purported goals. That's another point of view, that Spore should be accepted for what it is and not held to what Will Wright said at a GDC presentation three years ago before he had to come back down to earth. Wright and Molyneux are smart guys with bright ideas, worth listening to even if they don't always deliver. It's good to talk about failed ambition, I think, because it makes us look for it elsewhere. In looking at smart games by smart people, patterns will emerge. To create an awareness of missed opportunities establishes a subconscious need for them to be realised -- design goals not yet achieved -- and maybe that's how someone else is inspired to finally make them happen.

At the end of the day, where does that leave Wright or Molyneux? That while they fail ambitions and expectations, the discussion they elicit is ultimately good for the industry? They are the accidentally selfless? How can people so hugely ambitious find personal solace in that kind of reputation? Maybe Molyneux and Wright, after working so hard, don't feel totally pleased to wind up with a certificate of participation while some nobody aces the same test. Well, tough shit. Jason Rohrer makes a game a month and most of the time they're not Passage. Such is the life of the ambitious man.

September 25, 2008

Everything Old Is New Again

This is the decade of the comeback; the decade of other decades. Evidently, it's an era for veterans and retirees to survey the entertainment landscape and conclude that now's about a good a time as any to finally make their fortune. Amongst the most-discussed games of 2007 and 2008 have been Fallout, Alone in the Dark, Prince of Persia, Diablo, Shadowrun, Deus Ex, Thief, Karateka, Turok, X-COM, Starcraft and Duke Nukem Forever. Meanwhile, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, John McClane and Fox Mulder return to the silver screen. Every band that was ever active between 1977 and 1989 has reformed. And Linda Evangelista, 43, ex-supermodel, has a new contract with Prada.

The comeback can be embarrassing, especially for those performers whose brilliance evaporated in the intervening years. Some acts remain on the stage for far too long, and trail off into obsolescence; and some acts are remembered for going out at the height of their power. It's the latter that will return ten years later to be terrible and break hearts. Why they do this is often a mystery. Perhaps they, like the audience, are simply nostalgic -- but for a time when inspiration came easier and the critics were kinder. It's not, for them, because of the money -- they just miss it. That's probably the case for the creative minds behind Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The X-Files: I Want To Believe, two films which give no justification for the enormity of breaking silences of nineteen and six years, respectively, offering only the most mediocre possibilities of their potential. They have nothing to say. If they didn't want to be forgotten, they made a mistake by returning to the spotlight with the forgettable.

Video games are at once similar and dissimilar to those examples. 2003 and 2008 reinventions of Prince of Persia have not only acknowledged contemporary standards of game design but have sought to raise the bar. It's nice when they innovate, but an important reason why these franchise remakes and resurrections exist is simply to exist. Next-gen isn't just a buzzword. Prince of Persia 2008 is Prince of Persia 1989 reinvented with a next-gen vocabulary and for next-gen audiences. It has to be this way because old games (here's the problem with being the innovation medium) do not age well. The Prince of Persia has returned to recapture his relevance, and hopes also to keep his trademark in the public consciousness. Gamers could go through the trouble of finding a copy of, and successfully running on Vista, Jordan Mechner's original, but on the other hand here's this new version. It's made for them. This is the explanation behind every American remake of a foreign culture's film, or the movie adaptation of a dense novel: one version is saddled with subtitles and footnotes, available for those willing to stray outside of their comfort zone, but there's this alternative that was created to be accessible today.

In a way, it's not completely cynical. It only ever matters if the original idea meant something. The idea of Fallout, the idea of Prince of Persia, they meant something. The ideas will persist, but the reality is that the form has to change. It's like the annual EA Sports variations only with fewer iterations. People buy Madden '09 to get the best available Madden experience and to keep conversant in the series. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a Prince for '03. It added to the original formula but it was very much what Prince of Persia was always about.

Even an ostensibly original game like The Force Unleashed is a reinvention of what Jedi Knight was doing twelve years ago, but repackaged and made attractive for 2008. Even if it's not as good, it's the only one of the two that can make a case for itself today. Unfortunately, old games die. They can't be shown off to anybody's kids, for two reasons. The first is availability, a challenge which every other entertainment medium on earth has resolved. This might be changing to a limited extent, with ventures like Good Old Games, but in the face of Microsoft and Sony deprioritising backwards compatibility for the consoles, it doesn't make fiscal sense to be old anymore. To say nothing of what the future holds with DRM, limited install activations and incompatibility with future versions of Windows. There is an effort to preserve old games, but they're preserved -- as museum pieces, not contemporary prize-fighters. The world of video games is a world where Raiders of the Lost Ark is available only as an out-of-print VHS on eBay, and where, consequently. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will define a new generation's expectations of Indiana Jones.

Secondly, innovations in graphics, physics, AI, camera, control schemes and narrative techniques happen with such frequency as to render games older than five years painfully antiquated. That's the effect of these franchises coming back -- while studios cashing in on a license is part of it -- to maintain relevance through a legacy. It's why Chrono Trigger DS is good, not redundant news: it's an update of an absolute classic that's modernised and playable on current hardware. It's why there's the clamour there is for a Final Fantasy VII remake. Fans want what was emotionally powerful and groundbreaking in 1997 -- overwrought and clichéd now -- to be all those things forever. Games have a short lifespan. The evidence for Final Fantasy VII as a landmark moment in game storytelling becomes less convincing as time goes by.

How can today's developers build a game that endures? Not just a game that audiences will still be playing in ten years but one that stays profitable -- a game of today that has the audiences of tomorrow picking it up for the same reason they buy the DVD of Badlands, The Third Man, or Rashomon over The Kingdom, Never Back Down or Street Kings. Developers can be, and have been, remarkably creative, but they're still inevitably outdone by the pace of technological advancement. To a significant degree, the staying power of their game is out of their hands. Developers need a game built like Linda Evangelista, acclaimed by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfield, who says today of the nineties supermodels: "Time makes them more interesting.... They are, and stay, irreplaceable." It's an imperfect comparison -- video games to human beings -- but both have faced, and will face, the struggle of being a last-gen girl in a next-gen world.

Which of today's developers best resembles Ponce de Leon questing for the Fountain of Youth? I think it has to be Crytek, who push the envelope of mortality and are placing their bets on the future-proofed Crysis and Crysis Warhead ("Opportunity Warhead" in China.) How likely is it that gamers of 2013 will be hyped for Grand Theft Auto VI, Fallout 5 and... Crysis? The technology will finally be up for it, but will the gamers? It does seem like Crytek are undercutting Crysis' position as a game built to stand the test of time by releasing an improved game one year later. What makes Crysis more desirable than Warhead, or instead of the already-planned Crysis 2 and 3 -- all of which will likely be packed with improvements over their predecessors? The problem with future-proofing is it necessitates future-predicting: what will be en vogue in 2013 or 2018? Can Crysis compete with the games of 2013, which will look as good as it does now and have incorporated the heretofore unseen next five years of gameplay innovation?

Crysis may learn the moral of every single parable about vainglorious men who should have been careful what they wished for. Crytek want immortality, or at the very least, to live a little bit longer than everyone else does. Games should be able to compete, like every other medium can, with their descendents. Somewhere there's a solution to that problem. Trying to prolong a game's life, however, through future-proofing or content updates or rapid-fire sequels, might not be the best way forward, because sometimes they end so perfectly. Consider what the game gets, and what the audience get, from the graceful exit. There's a quiet dignity in retirement, and benefits to a legacy consisting solely of memory. Standard-bearers for the contrary are the Simpsons and the Rolling Stones, both of which, sad to say, have been bad for longer than they were good. Look how many fans get mad that bad sequels to their favourite games even exist. Remember what Team Fortress 2 was like before the achievement farming? And how exciting were Katamari Damacy and Guitar Hero, once.

Once upon a time, it was kind of prestigious to have seen the Pixies live -- before the Pixies actually did reform and anyone, however young they were, could see them at far from their best. The comeback is fraught with peril. It can diminish the value of memories. Who can't see the Pixies or the Stooges nowadays, but who would want to either? But for those who were at the Pixies' very first show in Boston, or at the premiere of Raiders of the Lost Ark have those moments to themselves, which were maybe nonchalant occurrences at the time, but have since been mythologised by the next-gen. That's the reward for losing favourite things; they can be remembered at their best. If it ever seems like it's not the best of times, imagine someone asking how amazing was it to be a gamer when Jeff Gerstmann was fired, and to have witnessed the laughably disparate reveals of Diablo III and Dragon's Age, and to have listened to GFW Radio every week. In a thousand years, even that may be worth something.

September 20, 2008

Sharing And Caring

If everyone can agree that games deserve to be reviewed, critiqued and discussed by intelligent and literate journalists, no one can agree on what they'll sacrifice to make that happen. There are too many public representatives of developers and publishers who champion a smarter gaming press but only until it affects profitability. Evidently games journalism walks a thin line between respectable, serious criticism and unfair, irresponsible sniping and reviewers cross that line every time they dent somebody's Metacritic average. Then PR is like the father turning the car around because video gaming's road trip to Integrity And Mainstream Legitimacy would have been real nice but the game journalists in the back seat just couldn't play nicely.

There will always be cases of bad critique but pressure from PR and publishers is as responsible for a sub-par enthusiast press as compromised editorial direction and individually poor writers. The industry is a quagmire and there's a lot of blame to go around, but this anonymous PR representative doesn't see it that way: " needs to be remembered that most serious games are projects that have involved dozens, if not hundreds of people for years.... The developer, in most cases, kills itself to get a game completed. Any good PR people working for a game publisher understand what a developer goes through, and should fight hard to get the game looked at by journalists fairly. This is not to say a bad game should get a free pass, but every game should be given a fair appraisal, with considerations made for target market and price."

To distill his argument, developers work hard and critics don't. That sounds reductionist, but so does this: from Michael Fitch of THQ in his response: "it's easy to criticize but hard to create." Games deserve special consideration because their developers worked so hard and for so long, and the righteous art of creating a game is many orders of magnitude tougher than the random act of assigning a score. Life is a conservative paradise where if a man is honest, fair and hard-working then he will succeed and have valid opinions about video games. Reviewers rarely take into account the man hours put into a game, or how much the developers cared about making something great, or enduring the misery of crunch time in service of art, or the collateral divorces, and so for a developer to see two years of his life reduced to an off-hand 6.5 that disregards all of the above factors, it hurts. If this all sounds like developers don't respect the press, it's because the press doesn't respect them.

Everyone else is wrong. That's the mindset of life in a foxhole, where alliances with the press are tenuous and laden with suspicion but an unfortunate reality. That's why the panelists at the 2007 GDC developers' rant concluded (to applause) that you can't really criticise games unless you've made one (not a problem for game journalists these days.) This is exactly true of the gaming press as well, when they portray PR representatives as score-obsessed obstructions. Journalists and PR are two groups of people who fundamentally do not get each other. They live in the separate houses of Montague and Capulet. They both think they know what's best for the industry and that best thing happens to coincide with their job description. There is an impasse.

Criticism is a two-way street but seemingly the greatest defense that the above quoted can muster is that a lot of work goes into games and reviewers don't appreciate that. Nowhere do they explain why hard work and ambition specifically matter to critique. PR assert the nebulous existence of a trump card instead of playing it. I'm right, but I won't tell you why. It is the last refuge of the oratorically exhausted. Their perspective is worthwhile but not persuasive. In fact they themselves prove how hard criticism is when they propose to measure quality by developer effort.

In cases where art acts as personal expression (if games even do that -- I have vague assurances that they do) it might help to know the behind-the-scenes story. But you didn't even have to know about Bob Dylan's marriage breaking up to like Blood on the Tracks. It would augment a reading of it but not create appreciation where there was none before. Nor would hearing about how sometimes the design team had to stay as late as three -- three! -- in the morning. It's callous to dismiss personal hardship, but the audience doesn't care, and they'll like what they like regardless. To convince them otherwise would take some kind of writer who could explain clearly and thoughtfully a game's positive qualities and its accomplishments relative to other titles, and communicate insights in such effective language that readers reconsider their own opinion, and describe game experience to captivates the reader's interest. Too bad more people don't do that kind of writing, because I hear it's pretty easy.

To fall back on "we tried to make a good game and worked very hard" is to say you lack confidence in the game itself; that it does not stand on its own; that given all the history and all the ideas behind it you're not ready for this one thing to speak for everything. But the audience doesn't care about everything. The trick is knowing what to leave out. "It was hard" is always what you leave out, especially as an attempt to convince players that your game was good. Jonathan Blow took some hits for his reticence to discuss interpretations of Braid's story, but he is comfortable with what he feels the game says. He does not try to match others' perspectives exactly to his so that they are treating the game "fairly." Although it is possible, to hypothesise for a moment, that Blow's attitude would differ if reactions to the game were not as positive and if no one was interested in discussing the story.

It's a skill any creative person needs: knowing when to stop sharing; knowing when it gets in the way and starts to annoy. This includes games journalism, the worst excesses of which outweigh the anonymous tirades of any jilted PR representative.

"Spore is a highly anticipated game. So much so that when my editor assigned this review to me, I didn't know how to approach it. I began at least six different drafts but none of them seemed like they were going to say what I wanted them to. I stayed up all night thanks to at least six cups of coffee (!) and I IMed my editor (Steven) and he gave me some really great tips on writing. Anyway, yeah, Spore sucks."

"Flying to Bethesda (in first class), I reflected on the fact that I would be the first one to see Fallout 3. Not just the first journalist -- although I am the first journalist to see Fallout 3 -- but the first person ever, because the guys and gals at Bethesda have actually been working on the game blindfolded this whole time. They have this whole theory about Beethoven being deaf and making awesome music and they want to replicate those results. So, find out in our exclusive preview, does Fallout 3 measure up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor Beethoven? Yes and no."

The press. The developers. It's an uneasy relationship. It's hard to make it work but audiences only care about it when it works and not when it was hard. There's no answer here, not one that will make everyone happy, because this relationship will never be a great one. There's disrespect and impasses and mutually exclusive goals but there are always things everyone has in common. There are ways not to fight.

September 17, 2008

School Daze

School can be a pretty scary place for kids who don't play a lot of video games. Concerned parents worry that games lead to an onanistic lifestyle of physical unfitness, senseless violence and the loss of our children's morals through titles like Grand Theft Our Children's Morals and Manhunt (For Our Children's Morals). In fact, video games can be beneficial. The structures of video games are very similar to those of life, particularly with regard to schoolyard challenges. Kids who familiarise themselves with gaming conventions actually become very well-prepared for the obstacles they will face at school, although when I say 'very well' I mean 'very speciously'. But this is highly accurate stuff, and when it comes to children, my judgment is pretty sound, since I have seven of them.

Games begin with the player at a disadvantage to the world. They enter it blinded by bloom effects and HDR and are overwhelmed by entirely foreign people, situations and obstacles. Everything is wonderful and new and frightening, but through all the distractions there is a ladder to climb. Through making friends and solving problems they develop a mastery over the game world, and so by the end the roles have reversed. The world is not so alien, not so enchanting, and the player is tired and ready to move on to another game. This is the path from first day to last day. Though the kid beginning kindergarten doesn't know this yet, every first day -- of school, of college, of his job -- will be like this for him.

Games believe in no child left behind. They offer the player basic assistance to make sure they're on the right track: quest arrows, journal entries and tool tips; they are handicaps disparaged by the hardcore but necessary for some. The kid needs similar help. Training wheels offer a safety net, braces teach teeth to follow the path of their designer, and glasses are his aim assist. In games, fortunately, these handouts are invisible, and the player's relative inability is not subject to ridicule. At school, however, the kid sometimes feels like the lone tricycle in a sea of motorcycles.

Among school's many exciting features is the option to align oneself with a variety of factions/cliques. An easy way to make new friends is by what console everyone has in common. When the parents chose one console to buy for Christmas, they had no idea that their decision would have implications (lasting into post-adolescence) for their kid's identity; which crew he rolls with and where the new friends hang out and spend their Saturdays. A PlayStation will take him from fencing practice in the morning to watching anime dubs; an Xbox will buy his way into someone's parents' corporate box to preside over a baseball game; and a Wii will have them in sunglasses loitering at an overpass checking out cars because they're just so casual. And the PC gamer is home alone with algebra homework.

New friends invoke the after-school-special demon called peer pressure. As he grows up, the kid will be double-dared to break into his dad's liquor cabinet; to steal his older brother's collection of VHS porn; to turn his baseball cap all the way around his head then look the principal in the eye and tell him to shove it. With his RPG experience, however, the kid has a finely-honed moral compass. Helping the teacher, he knows, puts him on the side of the angels, and taking part in the circle jerk sets him on the path of lawful evil.

A video game education has not taught the kid to be complacent; he is watchful of playground enemies. The real dangers are the big, ugly boys who straddle the cusp of puberty and zoom around on skateboards, all decked out with chain wallets and facial hair. They stuff the kid into lockers and plunge his head into toilets, between shouts of WHAT'S UP NERD and NICE GLASSES NERD I THINK I'LL TAKE THEM. But the kid knows the bullies from video games: they are the boss fights. And like all bosses, the bullies have critical weak spots: like the groin, and well, basically just the groin. The kid has to fight back, as telling the teacher is tantamount to consulting the FAQ: a temporary solution not deserving of respect.

Much as there are good and bad video game designers, the discerning kid will discover that his teachers similarly vary in quality. If he is not learning anything in the class, it may be the teacher's inability to effectively communicate intent. If the kid can't read the teacher's specific thoughts he will not fully grasp the concepts he is supposed to have been taught. To progress, he'll need a god mode/noclip-style workaround. He could get together in a study group with some smarter friends and then cheat off them. Or stash a brick of cocaine in the teacher's car. Or take a cue from Planescape: Torment and write answers all over his body. Note for teachers: when the kid starts taking off all his clothes in the middle of a test, he is up to something.

The kid, a gaming scholar, expects that between the shooting galleries, the car races and the saving of the worlds comes the pathos injection game designers insist on administering. Somewhere -- in cutscenes, usually -- the kid is subjected to a maudlin love story that ought to appeal more to his younger sister. He has comparable disdain for the school-organised social events, where all the students his age are enlisted in an evening fundraiser dance to buy textbooks. There, a teacher assigns the kid a dance partner, a girl. They are made to dress nicely, and he rolls his eyes they tepidly embrace and shuffle quietly across the wooden floors of the main hall, illuminated by the blue cellophane taped over the ceiling lights.

Towards the end of his stay, the kid has to pass -- to use gaming terminology -- a 'final exam'. In video games, this is the culmination of all the gameplay elements that have figured into the design so far, and the player has to prove his proficiency in all of them at once. Only if he succeeds can he proceed to the next stage. This is no problem if he is earnest and studious, but every now and then there is a difficulty spike, and if he is not prepared then it can be debilitating.

School is constructed around a checkpoint save mechanic. A save is lodged at the start of every school year, and if the kid screws up the endgame then he has to repeat the entire thing from the very beginning. He can't simply retake the final exam, either: all the classes, all the cutscenes are unskippable, even if he's seen it all before. School doesn't have a lot of replay value. Possibly as a result of poor teaching, the kid may even find himself in a failure state, where at least one critical element was screwed up earlier in the process and its effects only apparent much too late.

The kid ends up at so many crossroads. If classes become so hard that he decides not to care anymore, he will become interested in other things beside his study, and his social standing in particular will take precedence. He cares now about being taken seriously by his peers, and about being accepted by and inducted into the cooler cliques. It's why he scorns Nintendo franchises and gravitates to the unbridled masculinity showcases like Gears of War. He'll start to experiment with character customization: he'll start dressing in black and smoking in the school bathrooms, hanging out with the fake ID club.

No one finishes games anymore. After a point, the storyline simply isn't good enough to hold the player's attention, and he's got enough out of the gameplay as he knows he can. The concept of 'giving up' has such negative connotations, but the time inevitably comes for him to try something new; something which is attractive simply by virtue of being new. For the serious gamer there is always something more interesting on the horizon; less and less are games worth the final push. So it goes with the kid and his school days; at some point or another he will lose interest and consider dropping out. He'll do something new, he thinks. And he doesn't know where he's going -- maybe college, maybe the army, maybe skid row -- but that is the appeal. Whatever he does, he will chart the uncharted, embark upon one of life's many great adventures, and he likes that. Unless it turns out to be something really horrible.

The player, when he suits up for battle in a Neverwinter Nights t-shirt and cargo shorts, doesn't know that his digital heroics double as life lessons for troubled teens. But life is full of surprises.

September 13, 2008

The Night Stalker

"Dear Blizzard...

...what it looks like...

...what it should look like."

Everyone remembers the hot, sexy summer of 2008, when the city of Irvine, California was terrorized by a mysterious serial vandal whose crime spree was inspired by the visual style of the computergame Diablo 3. This masked marauder defaced many street signs, libraries and mailboxes with gray, black and dark black paint, but focused his attacks mainly on the offices of Diablo developer Blizzard Entertainment.

The vigilante was only ever known by the moniker 'the Doctor of Desaturation' and patrolled the streets by night on a 12-speed BMX bicycle, armed with a tournament-regulation paintball gun (theorized by Irvine police to be his weapon of choice.) Local business owners would awake to find their storefronts marred by splashes of black paint. The doctor regularly attacked the Blizzard Entertainment parking lot, methodically dousing cars in paint thinner and then keying the doors to achieve a dirty, gritty look. He eventually incorporated a portable cassette deck into his act, from which he blasted a special lo-fi version of the Rolling Stones' 1966 hit 'Paint it Black', which he had re-recorded to four-track to shed the glossy production. He was never captured.

Returning home one September night to his gated community of one, Blizzard vice-president Rob Pardo parked next to his below-ground swimming pool/racetrack and noticed with some alarm the black brushstrokes marking his front door. "I'm sorry, honey," said Mr. Pardo, on the phone to his wife, "he found us."

September 11, 2008

The Crying Contest

Gamers who came up in different decades each have their own Bambi's mother. Emotional benchmarks for a generation. In the eighties, it was the game Planetfall and the robot Floyd's sacrifice. In the nineties, it was, what else, Final Fantasy VII and Aeris. For the 00s, it was when Kirkland died in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.

Which one of those moments was the saddest? While we're at it, which euthanising of a video game character -- the little sister or the companion cube -- caused the most distress? Think carefully, because emotional responses aren't strictly private and personal anymore. They're another way of saying that a game is good.

What does it mean when people say it was harder to burn Portal's inanimate object than it was to harvest Bioshock's little monster girls? Probably not that players finding the latter more troubling are better-adjusted. Compare the two: in a sterile and lonely plaster-white environment, the companion cube is a surprising and welcome curiosity. By the time the player is given the option of killing their first little sister, they've already seen and shot more than enough hideous antagonists. Little sisters fit in, and are already familiar: the moral dilemma which accompanies them is a major focus of the game, the player's seen them before, he knows he'll see more of them. There is, however, only one companion cube. And Portal forces the player's hand where Bioshock does not -- for some, being made to kill a little sister would have been disgusting. If you equate Valve and 2K's design goals with these characters, then this is an argument you can make for the superiority of Valve's approach. You could say all that, you could say that Valve has a better understanding of the player and a better execution of the concept, or you could just say "I cried."

To some extent you can't argue an honest reaction, which is why it makes for a good defense. Given context -- two high-profile games with similar moments -- it becomes a contest, because that's the dialogue we're used to. It's a culture of competitive enthusiasm. We can't help compare these things, to try and objectively judge one game as the best of the year or simply better than another (not to mention the Xbox 360 as better than the PS3 version, or vice versa.) The aesthetics of the little sister are clearly designed to provoke sympathy, and if it doesn't do that, or if it is outdone by a box, then doesn't that say something about the storytelling prowess of these two games relative to one another? You can distill, if all else fails, emotional reactions into objective pros and cons. Which game made you sad? Which one made you laugh? That's the winner.

It's the same situation when anyone asks the general question of can/has a game ever made you cry. The answers are always the same: Aeris Gainsborough, '97, Tommy Angelo, '02, and so on. What's happening in this case is that medium is being ranked against all other entertainment. Again, it's a contest: do games, as literature, have the same artistic potential as fiction or film? If the answer is no, then isn't this all a waste of time? No gamer wants to lose that comparison, and will often overcompensate with hyperbole. Video games have always been under siege as juvenile or corrupting so it's hard to blame gamers on that one. Maybe that's why so many communities care so much on sales figures, the great equaliser.

In that same far-off wonderland where graphics technology plateaus and developers can make games all about art direction instead of keeping pace with polygon counts, maybe gamer self-confidence will level out too. One day gamers will be able to like the things they like without having to justify them; to react emotionally without having to convert it into debate ammunition. Because isn't it weird that all these guys are talking about crying so much. Let's get back to repressing those feelings. Wait, which one of these these idealistic futures was supposed to be the good one?

September 6, 2008

Other Things

Why is it that the first time Hit Self-Destruct really becomes about other people, it's because of something sad?

Well, let's say "downbeat" instead of "sad". This is about gaming journalism veteran Jeff Green, who, it was announced yesterday, is leaving and the field of gaming journalism to work as a producer at EA's Sims studio. Sadder things happen in the world. It's a good job going to a cool guy and I'm glad he's having a positive career turn following the April closure of Games for Windows magazine (née Computer Gaming World). Understandably, he seemed less than thrilled with the de facto transition from editor-in-chief of a national magazine to the editor-in-chief of the PC gaming section of

It would be weird if he was happy there. The move is a sad one for purely selfish reasons. I admired and respected Jeff Green and his work, and losing the latter hurts even though I wonder why I have such a high investment in the quality of the gaming press since I still have never written about games professionally (although I am a "game commentator" according to Gamasutra.) Jeff Green was a smart writer and a talented reporter, a charming and likable media personality. He's not dead, of course, he remains all of those things, but the qualities which make Jeff Green special are seldom found within gaming journalism. He was one of very few in the profession writing from the perspective of a responsible guy in his late 40s with a family, instead of -- to quote his colleague Robert Ashley -- "the teenage exploits of an anime fan."

Given the relative immaturity of the entire medium, I feel a little self-conscious mourning the departure of a gaming journalist, especially one I have never met. It happens to everyone, though, with any number of public figures, and within a certain niche Jeff Green had become a kind of celebrity. Even though it's a gaming podcast he was still the host of an entertainment program. Over the past year the GFW Radio podcast quickly became my favourite gaming-related thing but also one of my favourite anythings across every form of entertainment. I looked forward to it every week and to see it so abruptly diminished, if not outright ended, was truly heartbreaking.

It was inspiring to hear Jeff Green single out everything that was wrong about gaming journalism and talk about how he wanted to change it, about how, at this late stage in his career, he refused to write any more content that was stereotypically dull or trite or uninspired in all the ways that come to mind when we think of bad games writing. And he talked about how the profession would have to fight to switch to a non-endemic advertising model to better assert its independence. Then he was rewarded with the cancellation of his magazine and finally being forced to switch career tracks entirely because of unfortunate circumstance. Jeff Green made the move out of necessity, as I understand it, and I don't blame him. I'm always discouraged by seeing so many people treating games journalism as basically a waitressing gig, or as the new QA: a foot-in-the-door to game development. But what does it say about the state of gaming journalism when the people who are committed don't have homes anymore?

That's the thing about Jeff Green: he was in it for 17 years and you always assumed he was a lifer. It was such a shock to see that he, of all people, would be leaving. I'm never ready, I realise, for the things I like to go away. It's easy to forget that they always do.

What's left, then? All the moments between people leaving. Appreciate that you still have them. And try not to dwell on the eventually devastating -- and yeah, sad -- promise that anyone who enters public life always makes, always fulfills, but never says out loud.

I promise to leave you.

September 4, 2008


Playing video games affords the role of the constant tourist. Gamers will forever explore new and different spaces, which themselves are becoming ever more like simulations. Game worlds are increasingly places to visit as much as they are challenges to complete.

These are some strange places to visit.

One is a post-nuclear shooter/RPG hybrid and one is a self-described simulation tool for an epic disaster. They should have nothing in common but for the sense of a shared culture which is so distinct that it transcends genre and even physical borders. Stalker is Ukranian and Pathologic is Russian, and to gamers of foreign lands these two games are unmistakably and bizarrely Eastern European. Players will discover just how deeply these games are entrenched in the same cultural identity, exhibiting values and ideologies uncommon in the medium, and which strongly influence every narrative or design element. Only one part of the world makes games like this.

You're the tourist. Where do you want to go? America and Japan are booking your flights and they recommend exotic alien planets and lush uncharted islands and historical battlefields. All places to realise power fantasies; all backdrops for tales of extraordinary adventure. America and Japan entice, allure and sell you on your destination. Pathologic and Stalker take your money and strand you in deplorable shitholes. The town of Pathologic is an artifically constructed, fast-deteriorating metaphorical madhouse. It's bleak and ugly and its streets breathe disease. Staircases collapse as they reach for the sky and the slums are home to orphans and monsters, butchers and corpses. It exists as a social experiment, designed to make you think about dying. It's hard to think of a less attractive locale but then Stalker is set in the Chernobyl zone of alienation.

It bears repeating that no other country would ever think to make a game quite like this. A Western-developed Stalker would leverage irradiated Chernobyl as a superhero origin story, bolstering the player's arsenal of firearms and grenades with pseudo-scientifically justified telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers. But there's no freezing and levitating of enemies in Stalker, and any supernatural abnormality is a deadly threat. The player character is a miserable, undistinguished scavenger, and if he believes in the great Chernobyl dream, works hard and eats right, one day he will become a miserable, undistinguished scavenger with better equipment. There is no glory to be found or grand humanitarian gestures to be made in Stalker. The player's primary concern will always be survival and that primal impulse frequently reduces them to the indignity of fleeing from packs of barking dogs across open wasteland and onto the roof of a rusted truck, hoping they can't actually jump that high. They can.

Hero is a dirty word. Stalker and Pathologic don't train the player to do much except feel comparatively underpowered and unimportant. Both games establish an equal playing field, and the only reason the player has any hope for survival is because they are an actual person. Mercenaries, militia and bandits patrol the exclusion zone independently and are formidable opponents. There are no skill points, no character customisation, the only way to get the jump on your enemies is to use tactics and pray that the shotgun you stole is in better shape than theirs. Stalker actually keeps track of the various NPCs and ranks them according to power. The player character is at the very bottom of the list for a long, long time. And the way Pathologic treats the player is thoroughly odd. The player, it stresses, is the guy sitting at his computer not to be confused with his in-game avatar. Certain characters will address you -- you -- directly, and your character will have no idea what's going on and you have no way to respond. It might be weird and unsettling but the player comes to rely on these strange masked dramaturgs because they are the only ones who understand and acknowledge what they're going through. It's a relief when they appear since they appear so rarely. After having their head shoved underwater in these game worlds with no clues and no safety nets, the player wants a lifeline so badly. No tutorials, no tool tips, no correspondence from the designer direct to the player except for, in Pathologic's case, these obscure dispatches that raise more questions than answers. These are the worlds that GSC Game World and Ice Pick Lodge want to immerse the player in: unremittingly horrible nightmares. Overwhelming places of death and depression, where the scariest truth you wish never to hear out loud is that, really, you are on your own. You're stranded in these dystopias, at turns abstract and brutally realistic. Oh, the places you'll go. And when you're alone, there's a very good chance, you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.

The world never ends with you. You're not that important. The worlds of Stalker and Pathologic are persistent and procedurally generated, with events, battles and quests happening outside of the player's awareness. Pathologic even taunts the player with that knowledge. It issues a list of individuals whose lives are in danger and whose lives the player must protect. But the player can't keep track of them all at once and probably isn't strong enough to defend them from their assailants anyway. That's where panic sets in, when anxiety attacks, and it's how Pathologic reduces your character, an outside investigator, to one more obsessive lunatic dotting the streets of the Steppe. Pathologic says you need to play the game three times as three different characters to fully understand what happened. It's questionable how many players have the stamina to play it through even once, and whether anyone would want to fully understand it.

These games are difficult. Not necessarily in terms of enemy AI or requiring pinpoint precision, but because it's a challenge to comprehend the game at all. Stalker's easier since it resembles far more the conventional structure of an actual game as opposed to Pathologic's Brechtian nightmare. Still, Stalker exists as a weird strain on the DNA of the first person shooter. In 2007, to Western audiences, it's an anachronism. Its closest counterpart is not Bioshock, Crysis or Half-Life 2: Episode Two but 1999's System Shock 2 and its oppressive, overbearing atmosphere. In the nine years that have passed since Irrational Studios made a game with degrading weapons, respawning enemies and no fast travel, Stalker emerges outdated at a time when Western shooters are equipped with training wheels. Half-Life 2 is a rollercoaster that desperately wants players to see the best it has to offer. Stalker and Pathologic don't care. Western games reward the player and these ones don't even like its players that much. The difference between Half-Life 2 and Stalker/Pathologic is the difference between visiting Disneyland with your parents and visiting Amsterdam alone as a hitchhiker and getting mugged and shanked.

Stalker and Pathologic might not love the player but they love scaring them. Stalker relies on some basic -- though extremely effective -- horror techniques, while Pathologic is just fundamentally unsettling; the kind of thing that erodes your psyche the longer you're exposed to it. Stalker does this too, in a way. When you hear a sound somewhere in the distance, you have to wonder whether it was a thunderclap or a mutant's roar. That's creepy enough but sometimes even when all is calm you'll break into a sudden sprint anyway because you just don't want to be there anymore. Pathologic is ostensibly about healing people but in actuality it's an endurance test. The player character is there to help the town but the game will have none of it, and pushes the player to his absolute breaking point, where he will cheat and steal and murder to keep himself alive.

There is no hope. In Pathologic, you start as a good man, and an outsider, but as the town succumbs to tragedy, you're beaten down along with it. It degrades your humanity until you are no longer a visitor but one more actor in the despairing charade. Everything is downhill. Players won't save the world because they've become junkies scrambling across dirty warehouse floors after a used needle because maybe it's a shot of vaccine. When Stalker continues the story, the world is already lost: a post-disaster zone, full of scavengers and thieves, with you amongst them. And you fight your way back up to the top, to the status you once held? No, actually. You'll never be that good man again. You're a scavenger forever, nonchalantly nihilistic. And there's no third part to this trilogy. There's no ending, at least not the type Western audiences are conditioned to expect. This is a world in which the sun is setting and where everyone loses.

Appropriately, these themes of depression and obsolescence extend to the physical products themselves. Both games are badly put together, horribly translated, clunky, full of bugs, not even a little optimised. Bad UI in Stalker's case; bad everything in Pathologic's. That's what's preventing universal enthusiasm and acclaim. Technically, they're just awful, and despite Pathologic's obsession with stages and masks, it looks like a junior high school production compared to the theatricality of Bioshock. These games are broken, ruined, unfinished. Stalker is a mid-90s relic that feels like it was built from spare parts and Pathologic is a junky mess that only made it halfway to the finish line.

All of that is true, and persuasive rhetoric will not distract anyone from Stalker or Pathologic's flaws -- nor, of course, should it. These games are a culture shock from a place where, apparently, technical standards are not so rigorously enforced. But they serve as cultural ambassadors regardless, for the good and the bad, inducting players into an alien culture: some nebulous Eastern European thing where rewards are foreign and punishment is habitual. Perhaps Stalker and Pathologic's lineage traces back to the best Russian fiction. Perhaps the unfamiliarity to Western audience heightens the appeal: players can excuse broken translation, at least in Pathologic's case, when the thing is so fundamentally confusing anyway. Imagine the low-rent freelancers who are hired to translate superficially middling Russian adventure games into English. Imagine if they approached translating Tolstoy or Chekhov with the same lack of enthusiasm. The English edition of Pathologic is the worst translation of the greatest literature.

Here's the question: why do we want to visit these places at all? Well, they're smarter for one: Stalker requires a degree of cunning and strategy that the typical Western shooter forgives, and Pathologic deserves to headline any discussion about portrayals of in-game morality. But it doesn't even have to be about higher education. Ever so occasionally there's something very appealing about the unknown. There's nothing else like these games.

Is it the quest for hardcore gamer credibility? Certainly some Stalker fans will claim that. But there's no simplified console version of Pathologic. These games are not made as a hardcore alternative to Halo or Resistance. These games are the inevitable byproduct of their cultural heritage. And really, who are you going to impress when you claim fandom of a badly-executed PC game over Braid or Portal?

It's hard to explain the appeal to those who haven't been there before. But evidently there is something that makes people want to visit it -- I mean really want to visit it. Some elusive quality about Stalker lights fires in the collective unconsciousness, as if these players are alien abductees drawn first to the stars in their window and then to the actual barren fields of the still-radiated Chernobyl. There are actual Stalker cosplayers who don't care about safety nets even when they really should. These guys don't assemble at the placid, suburban Los Angeles Hilton dressed up as noble schoolgirls and sexualised bunnies. Stalker means enough to certain people that they want to run around at the site of a nuclear disaster in military costumes with possibly real rifles. We're so far through the looking glass.

Stalker and Pathologic both come highly recommended, although the former example of fandom is not even a little bit necessary. Both games are unfinished to certain degrees. Their execution is rough. They treat the player harshly. But there's something inexplicable about it. They're incomplete. You'll never be fully satisfied by these games unless your chosen milieu is unresolved angst and self-destruction. Even so, these games are broken. They share an aesthetic and it's clunky. It's shaky, it's hard, it's outdated, it's punishing, it's oppressive, it's a bad dream, it's constricting, it's alienating, it's unlikable, it's irritating, it's mean, it's depressing, it's sad, it's aggravating, it's too much, far too much, way too much for anyone to endure.

But it's...