January 27, 2009

School Sucks

Prompted, I assume, by the closure of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine earlier this year, a NeoGAF poster scanned the first EGM issues from 1989. They're a great read. I'm not linking it to make fun of it, or to point out the obvious disparity in the quality of criticism compared to the level expected (or not) today. These pages, 20 years old, are a kind of uncomplicated, unabashed and cynicism-free writing about games that really no longer exists.

It might not be very good, but I find its effusive wonder to be endearing in a bittersweetly nostalgic sort of way. By way of a repetitive metaphor, Editor Steve Harris suggests that the rival console manufacturers could be seen as engaging in a 'console war': "The lines have been drawn and the artillery is about to be revealed to the game playing public.... Both NEC and Sega are poised to enter a heated battle for control of the 16-bit system sweepstakes!" Even technical pieces on the Lynx, the P.C. Engine-2 and Nintendo's new "portable arcade", the 'GameBoy' are written with unbridled enthusiasm, including an exclamation point at the end of every sentence. At one point the editorial collapses into a cheer of "Games, games, games!"

EGM reveals a lot about the state of games journalism in 1989 by how it chose to promote itself. EGM, it declares, is "the magazine to turn to for the hottest new game tips, tricks and strategies!" Furthermore, its "Top Secret section is also loaded with power-ups, codes, and other tricks of the trade! You can always rely on Electronic Gaming to blast your scores to new heights and get more out of every game you own!" Pre-internet, the print media used to be exclusively privileged with that kind of inside information. The idea, insofar as it's apparent from these early issues, was that you read EGM not because you were interested in games critically but that you aspired to mastery.

Harris brags on his reviewing team, advancing their credentials not as writers but as hardcore gaming experts. The 1989 EGM reviewers are "four of the hottest players in the nation... who have what it takes to finish any game that comes along." EGM evidently hired quiz show contestants, another quirk of games journalism which (for the better) hasn't persisted. The move towards serious critique comes at the unintentional expense of the charm this early house style must have held for school kids who would read EGM and view it as a dream job. EGM positioned the responsibilities of a games reviewer as honing video game skills, with special access to awesome cheat codes, and then either dismissing or boosting games in a magazine. They didn't have to be writers, because the job was the ultimate and probably only reward for a life of playing video games obsessively to the detriment of school work. They could claim to their parents that indeed they could succeed with their specific skill set, and high scores would get them somewhere in life. Magazine writers were gaming experts, but they, and the magazine itself, would eventually be supplanted by anyone posting on a message board. I don't think that level of childhood idealisation is present anymore.

I don't remember what gaming was like in 1989, but I hope it was all like this anecdote from EGM issue #2: 300 Japanese kids skipped school to buy a Dragon Quest sequel the day it came out, and were arrested for "truency". I hope on the day that game was released that some burnouts in their parents' Cadillac passed by some nerd walking to school in the morning and told him that they were cutting class to get their hands on the newest Dragon Quest. They dare the kid to come along, and he hesitates, but then a girl with a mohawk and nose ring tells him not to be a pussy, so he agrees. 300 surly teenagers arrive at the mall and pound on the windows of an electronics store, screaming for Dragon Quest. Nervous staff freak out and call the police, who surge into the unruly mob, who yell about the pigs and fight back. The Dragon Quest riots spill out over escalators and through fountains; the perpetrators hurling trash cans through storefronts and the police neutralizing delinquent teens with pepper spray and batons.

That one kid gets pinned down on the ground with his face pressed hard against the cold tile floor. He feels a knee shoved up into the small of his back as his hands are cuffed. He hears the cop call him a stupid punk, who does he think he is? And the kid thinks: "Fuck you, man, I'm going to be a video game journalist."

January 24, 2009

There's A Monster In My Closet

"Don't leave, Dad," said the kid, all tucked up in bed.
"I'm frightened of things and they're not in my head."

"I know young boys like myself ought to be brave,
When facing black bears or a big tidal wave.
I admit it, I'm scared. To you, I posit:
I know there are monsters hiding in my closet!"

Dad sat on the bed,
With a smile on his face.
"You know, son," he said,
"I've been in your place.

"There's no shame in fearing those creatures Satanic,
But you're scared of an outdated mechanic.
Hiding monsters in closets? That's yesterday's news!
That trick doesn't work, it's been overabused.

"Sliding panels and invisible triggers,
Monsters spawn behind me, no shock, it figures.
It's too easy a fright, a cliché, no surprise.
Once I ran screaming, now I'll just roll my eyes.

"I'll tell 'em, 'No sir! You don't scare me too much,
No, not your red eyes, green horns, blue claws and such.
With greasy skin, you look like a teen at the mall,
Not a towering serpent, five hundred feet tall.'

"Don't let them get to you,
It's mind over matter:
You just say get lost,
Get outta here -- scatter!

"Don't give them respect, 'cause their scares are old hat,
And they can do better, so much better than that.
There's smarter ways to make your hair stand on end,
Your skin to crawl and your disbelief suspend.
Psychological terrors, sound and atmosphere,
Bloody visions of corpses that then disappear.
Static on the radio heralds your doom,
Not junior high bogeymen camped out in your room.

"Headcrabs and lurkers attaching to faces,
That's just the small stuff, now we're off to the races.
The doors slam shut and the lights are a-flicker,
Isn't your heart beating a little bit quicker?
Growling in the dark, make sure you have a gun,
But no flashlight, no map, you don't know where to run.
A chase through a hospital? The thought reviles.
Now do it in the fog while moving some tiles.

"Screaming monkeys are experiments gone wrong,
Creepy apparitions were dead all along.
Uncover dark secrets that fill you with dread,
the Shalebridge Cradle and the Pyramid Head.
Villagers in shantytowns worship Cthulhu,
Is that a cute little girl? No, she's fooled you!
Watch her dash like a spider over the ceiling,
She leaves mental scars from which you'll be reeling.

"Don't shine lights on witches,
You'll end up with stitches,
Don't get trapped in castles,
The staff there are assholes.
And don't go down tunnels
Without ammunition,
The mutants in there have
A viral affliction.

"There's so much to be scared of, don't settle for less.
Sophisticated techniques can cause real distress.
Look at your window, a hound could come through there!
Better block it at once with a bookcase or chair.

"But you'll do fine, 'cause you're a smart enough sort:
You'll conserve your resources and put in some thought.
If you're alone and you're scared, that's no way to be,
Remember I'm your father, you'll always have me."

January 20, 2009

The Sisters

[As of yesterday, I have a regular biweekly column on GameSetWatch. I don't know exactly how this is going to work yet, but for now what follows is a partial reprint of the first column. The full thing is available on GameSetWatch, but only on Hit Self-Destruct do you get access to the bonus behind-the-scenes liner notes on the column. This is a new and recurring feature -- short interviews with game industry professionals -- which has nothing to do with the column I wrote.

Duncan Fyfe: Right now, you're working as a programmer on the indie game Plain Sight at the six-person studio Beatnik Games, although I like to think that you are more famous for writing about the Austin GDC and video dames. What's your greatest regret about working in the games industry?

Alex Ashby: I think it's that I spent so much of my life believing that the success of my career hung solely on my ability to get a job with a big AAA company. From the age of 16 when I decided that I wanted to make games, I've had dreams of working with the huge company, being on the technical cutting edge, and making epic blockbusters that everyone would know about. There was no way that I could realise my grand visions single-handed, they would be only pale imitations of the kind of games I could make if I were at the helm of a huge lumbering giant of a studio.

So I made it my mission in life to climb the ladder, take the shitty jobs, moan about them and work up and up through the status quo, instead of actually doing anything. It was fun and I met a lot of super people, but at 25 that's nearly a decade of any creative potential I might have, wasted. Since then, every job I've taken has been with a smaller and smaller scale company, I've enjoyed the job more and more. I've slowly and stubbornly discovered that actually, I could have been doing this for years if I'd pulled my finger out. But I didn't.

Working for indie companies has changed my perspective so radically, that if I lost my job tomorrow, I honestly don't know if I'd take a job at a big dev studio again. If I couldn't find a small company or work for myself, I might just quit and do something else entirely.

Duncan Fyfe: You told me once that one of the first indie games you ever worked on was something called "Test Your Mettle", and that title was a pun because the character was a robot.

Alex Ashby: It wasn't called "Test Your Mettle"! It was just "Mettle", I added the "Test Your" for irony.]

The Sisters: an excerpt

The protagonist of Bethesda's Fallout 3 is a cipher, a window through which to view the gameworld, so if he had a LiveJournal he would not be writing about his feelings. He'd write about the post-nuclear Wasteland, about the slaves who rallied around the Lincoln Memorial, the android who wanted to live like a human, free elections in a one-man republic, the day the ghouls crashed the gated community.

He'd write about the young girl who fell in love with a priest, the father who took shelter with his injured son in a storm drain, the downfall of Vault 106 and the rangers trapped on the hotel roof. Fallout 3 is like any other RPG insofar as the player collects experience points, gear and currency, but it's essential to the experience that they collect stories, too.

Fallout 3 is easily cross-referenced and classifiable in the modern video gaming canon. The game grew up in an Elder Scrolls household where it aspired to be Fallout, it has all the trappings of a Western RPG and the unbroken camera of Half-Life, and gameplay buzzwords cling to it: non-linear, open world, emergent. Its least likely structural resemblance, though, as per the above paragraph, is to a book of short stories. Essentially, it's Dubliners with guns.

Holding forth on Irish municipal politics in a drunken stagger, this thought probably never even crossed James Joyce's mind. There was nothing to suggest the eventual similarity in the video games of Joyce's day (older games, they would have been in black and white). Dubliners and Fallout 3 compile isolated tales about unrelated people to establish the character of a city in decline: Dublin and a fictional future Washington, respectively.

They abstain from a central unifying plot (more on Fallout's exception later): Dubliners relies on its 13 vignettes, Fallout 3 on an array of sidequests, text and environmental tableaus for players who skip all the dialogue.

Joyce presents 13 drunks, writers, schoolboys and stage mothers whose collective epiphanies on themes of religion, nationalism and masculinity inform the artist's portrait of a city. The book is less a chronicle of individuals but of the social, religious and economic constitution of early 20th century Dublin. Fallout 3, obviously, is not nearly the literary equivalent of Dubliners: they are analogues in form, not in depth.

This is, in part, because Fallout 3 is collaboratively written and designed, and so lacks a prominent auteur as its figurehead. While critics can analyze Dubliners in the context of Joyce's personal history, Fallout 3 players don't know as much about the troubled Roman Catholic upbringing of Todd Howard or the trenchant alcoholism of Emil Pagliarulo, and so instead of subtle and deeply-encoded meaning we see plainness.

[Read the rest on GameSetWatch.]

January 18, 2009


At first glance, Yakuza 2 has rendered the city of Osaka in realistic and modern detail. The open world exists as a kind of interactive relief to the game's linear and cutscene-driven story, a pretty dour affair featuring gangsters, detectives and people getting slaughtered. In between, there are restaurants, convenience stores, driving ranges, arcades and random fist fights with deadbeats. There's also a pregnant lady who demands child support from you but is actually wearing a large rubber ball under her shirt, a guy who needs a steady stream of tissues to plug up his running nose, a petition to save the trees which is a front for an extortion ring, secret parties, illicit video dealers and nerds who attack you with laser swords.

The streets are lined with baffling non sequiturs. Scripted encounters with pedestrians last a few minutes, convey some offbeat theme or situation, usually just in text, and then vanish forever. Urging a guitarist to pursue his dream or feeding a picky cat might feel inconsequential compared to saving your love interest from a sniper attack, and why, in this crime epic, is the protagonist spending half an hour helping a man buy presents for his girlfriend? Yakuza 2 is like Mass Effect if every piece of side content was like the fan who wanted an autograph. These small, weird moments would seem like afterthoughts if their inclusion in this game wasn't so deliberate and unapologetic.

The city is steeped in subdued surrealism: in Osaka, no one thinks it's insane for this yakuza to field all these bizarre and unimportant problems, like the guy who claims to have an icecream toothache and shakes down a store owner down for dentist money. This aspect of the game's character is self-evidently incongruent with its very serious and bloody mafia story. The contrast might be more irritatingly dissonant if it wasn't also so charmingly absurd. There's a likable quality to an open world that works overtime to hold the player's interest rather than abdicating all control of the sandbox. Other games often hide backstory and lore in incidental characters and elective missions, but Yakuza 2 tries to make them as superficially entertaining as possible, even when limited to dialogue text.

I like Yakuza 2 because of how it slowly makes you realise in the middle of a fight that you've been violently beating a room of Mahjong players, and that when you win a bowling match against one of the employees, you win a sealed fried chicken lunch. All right! The silliness can work against the long and humourless story -- every character has a remarkable tolerance for getting shot -- but they usually stay separate, to their mutual benefit. The plot remains high melodrama, and Osaka a place where hilarious things happen.

It leads to a strange kind of roleplaying, where your actions might not reflect either your personality or your notion of a tough yakuza character. You might think it's a really bad idea to involve yourself in a certain sidequest, but follow through on it anyway because Yakuza 2 is trusted to make it worth your while and ensure that you'll get more than extra playtime out of it. Example: A loud and obnoxious drunk is harassing a cabaret girl on the street. Usually the RPG hero's cue, instead her boss shows up with a bouncer and threatens the drunk to lay off. At that moment you are given the opportunity to intervene on the drunk's behalf. If you accept, you'll fight the bouncer, after which the drunk is revealed to be a famous manga author who is now really upset that you did that because he was trying to research what it was like to get beaten up. Now the boss is enthusing wildly because he's a big fan of this guy's work. The author changes his tune and proposes a manga written about you. Never has the JRPG mainstay "..." been more effectively employed.

For hypothesis' sake, imagine a game that was comprised entirely of these moments, without any pretense at a larger story. Yakuza 2 is not the worse for its operatic revenge saga; it hints at a different model of game, not a better version of the extant one. Pretend that you weren't flying to Osaka to settle a score, but to hang out in the city for the weekend. It would be a game with all the same bowling and golf minigames and the self-contained and ludicrous vignettes, but with much deeper potential for interaction, the ability to enter into extended relationships with other characters, operating under the overall premise of cool things that you could happen on your vacation. You don't start the game thinking that you're about to be drawn into a web of intrigue and body counts, but that you're in a new city for two days and you should make the most of it. It recalls Warren Spector's long-proposed "city block" game concept -- a comparatively narrow game space with much higher levels of interaction -- without Spector's penchant for science fiction and conspiracies. It'd be Lost in Translation.

It might be a novel representation of a game world, and if it was anything like Yakuza 2 there'd be a surprise on every street corner. I wonder, though, how long a game like that would be able to sustain itself, or remain tolerable outside of the overt direction of a narrative or conventional video game goals. Without any counterbalance, what was refreshing in Yakuza 2 could easily become monotonous or lack any incentive to continue. Could it work? I hope so. I'd visit.

January 16, 2009

Graduation Day

Who remembers the true meaning of the Game of the Year awards? Ostensibly a celebration of quality games, the tradition has garnered some negative connotations. It can look like an arbitrary list-making exercise, driven by an irresistible urge to compare things, and in which hardcore gamers seriously invest themselves because it's fun to argue about rankings and the biases of the enthusiast press. Most of these lists only ever seem effective at provoking high-strung forum posters. Also, the GOTY season is unfortunately handcuffed to the ostentatious frat shimmer of the Spike VGAs.

I think the role of Game of the Year within video game discussion communities is as the curtain call for all the nominees. December's festivities were the send-off for Mirror's Edge, Fallout 3, Spore and all their friends. Why do we need such a thing? Those games aren't going anywhere. Well, they are.

In May, Grand Theft Auto IV emerged from its cocoon as the most important video game of all time, a scion destined to change the gaming landscape. It was so exceptionally influential that a month later it was forgotten en masse for Metal Gear Solid 4: another once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece promptly devalued. Every superstar gets a honeymoon and a backlash, and then most of them disappear forever. A few stick around as game design examplars, but older games are valuable primarily as nostalgia trips. The games of 2008 were quickly assessed and the thoughts of hardcore gamers and reviewers turned to what was next.

Gamers move on and their initial enthusiasm diminishes, until that magic time of year: GOTY, the reprise.

After a hiatus, all the year's major games return to the forefront of public conscious and briefly, they all matter again. No More Heroes and Sins of a Solar Empire, 11 and 10 months old respectively, might be dinosaurs by December but even they are welcomed back. They're part of the Class of 2008, an erratic assortment of triple-A, indie and casual titles linked only by their age and their fashion sense and cultural sensibilities with which they grew up. Dead Space catches up with Valkyria Chronicles and Far Cry 2, and like a high school reunion, everyone is reevaluated. What was unjustly popular once and has received their comeuppance, and what used to be niche and unpopular and is still unpopular. Special achievement awards and dubious honours are handed out: who makes the most money, who got fat. It's not really like a reunion, though, because this cast of characters won't ever get another one.

I've never been to a high school reunion but I have been to a university graduation and Game of the Year is like a month of graduation days. The ceremony serves as the gaming industry's cathartic purge of these games from their system. It was their year, and now they're done. Their names are called -- Braid, Saints Row 2, Left 4 Dead, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Prince of Persia, Persona 4, The Club, Audiosurf, Boom Blox, PixelJunk Eden, Gears of War 2, Burnout Paradise, World of Goo -- heralding their ascendancy into history, and if they're lucky, out of irrelevancy. That was 2008. Let's never talk about it again.

January 11, 2009

Time After Time

The tragedy of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time's ending -- spoiler warning on this paragraph for Jake Rodkin and others -- is that while the Prince has saved the life of his new love Farah by rewinding time, she has now never met him. The Prince remembers their relationship, and still loves her, but they can no longer be together. The irony of the ending is that soon the Prince will forget all this too, as will the audience. In 2008 the slate was wiped clean and the Prince and the Princess met anew and fell in love for what is now the third time. Their story, once patterned after the fables of One Thousand and One Nights, has become Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

After only two games, not including a DS card-based spinoff and a baffling array of repackaged PSP and Wii versions, Prince of Persia needed a reboot. Maybe audiences viewed the series as inaccessible or irrelevant; thought of its history as baggage. The new (and conservatively-titled) Prince of Persia erased from its legacy all but platforms, a sword, magic, a girl and a guy who doesn't seem either princely or Persian but does appear on the cover. The series has taken the drastic step of resetting its entire history, shortly after it reset its entire history in 2003. Sands of Time quietly called itself a prequel, not a reboot, probably because the film Casino Royale hadn't yet been made, and Ubisoft overestimated the audience's protectiveness of Prince of Persia continuity.

Before Casino Royale, James Bond had worn out his welcome. The secret agent himself was an old, larger-than-life caricature and the films were creatively stagnant. Even though Bond's love interests and physical appearance were reset all the time, those changes alone couldn't halt the series' gradual decline. If anyone was going to take James Bond seriously again, there would have to be a clean break from a 40-year, 20-movie quagmire of gadgets and supervillains, and it would have to start all over. It took Prince of Persia three games to get to that point.

It's been pretty easy to fall out of love with Prince of Persia. It was great in 1989 and then never again until Sands of Time, which had unequivocally divorced itself from the preceding three games and from the clunky misfire Prince of Persia 3D in particular. To broaden its appeal, the roles were recast, the story was retold, and it regained the attractive simplicity the series had lost after 1989. It made itself young again. (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, released the same year, pulled off the same trick, but because it's not quite so permissible to "reboot" Star Wars, placed its events 4,000 years before the movies.) A year later, the series discovered a new nadir in Warrior Within, prompting another rethink. After two promising starts, Prince of Persia sank each time until someone came along with a crane to haul its corpse out of a tar pit.

Prince of Persia has never ended well, and so Ubisoft brings it back to the beginning. That was where the potential was, and it's the only way anyone will care again. Where does Prince of Persia keep going wrong, and is it doomed to be eternally reinvented?

Prince of Persia began with, and has twice returned to, a fairy tale in the style of Aladdin and the magic lamp. A noble prince overcomes an evil vizier to rescue a beautiful princess. That's the origin of its narrow fiction. The initial game mechanics have attained a similar timelessness within the video gaming canon: the 1989 game directly communicates objectives (the princess, level exits) and obstacles (traps, monsters) to the player in an unencumbered language less and less possible with each successive gameplay generation. It offered the template for a genre just as simple parabolic fairy tales and myths have inspired later fiction.

Fables aren't so charmingly minimalist when they're progressively convoluted sagas, but because Prince of Persia's a franchise it must move in that direction. The Prince of Persia sequels retrofit myths into trilogies with quick-time events and DLC. If Sands of Time's time rewind ability doesn't feel anachronistically complex compared to its still-basic platforming and combat, it's because the mechanic is easily understood in terms of moving back and forward -- far more intuitive than back, forward, A, B, right trigger, and tap X while running to execute the Whirling Dance of Blades (Warrior Within's contribution.)

The recent games haven't been comfortable with their predecessors' ordinary elegance. In Warrior Within and Two Thrones, we see an affected "adult", "sophisticated" take on the fairy tale and Prince of Persia '08 updates the fiction for modern audiences via a sassy hero. Out of the series' two completed trilogies, the first game in each still stands as the best. It's proven difficult to improve on a classic, but not so hard to wave all the progress away and pretend none of it ever happened. This is the franchise that can't grow up.

From the beginning, Prince of Persia was at heart romantic, idealistic and nostalgic for the 10th century, or for being ten years old and reading about viziers, djinn and young heroes. It was never meant to grow up. Sands of Time delivered with a slight relationship story about a boy and a girl in a world of magic, and with its colourful visuals, Prince of Persia '08 embraces that style halfheartedly, reserving the right to snark about it. The game pledges that there's more to come, but is the new trilogy already off to an unsteady start? Historically, it's all downhill from here. This Prince is off on a great adventure, but maybe he has less time than he thinks.

The Prince may be cursed to run through that dungeon chasing the same girl for the rest of his life, every five years forgetting the way out. But it's alright. That's where he's loved.