March 31, 2009

Broadcast Failure

Last Friday, I walked into the Moscone Center at four o'clock to catch my final lecture of GDC. Seeing me, one of the volunteers remarked to his buddy: "this show is over and people are still coming in." For a second, I felt like correcting him, and letting him know that in fact the conference had another hour left. Then I thought that would sound like a dog begging for scraps, whimpering that it's not technically over while there's something left on the table.

Actually, GDC isn't very much like being a dog who got to feast for a week. The end of GDC is more like the last day of school. Classes are dismissed and for the most part you won't see all your peers until after the break. In this case, however, the break lasts for 51 weeks, and nobody is all that thrilled about school ending. You hardly see anyone smashing windows and yelling that "GDC's out forever."

So it's not at all like that. Given the long break, it's more like a school reunion, at least for a couple of people for whom GDC is really just a convenient and rare pretext to get together with good friends who live all over the world. The only thing is that the demographics of a Game Developers Conference do not correspond to those of a high school but more accurately a high school computer lab. Coincidentally, right across the street from the Moscone Center there was a football convention and one day their bathrooms were out of order so some jock wandered in and met a GDC attendee by the same toilet and they were confused about who's the boss now and whose head gets flushed.

Actually, the end of GDC is more like -- fuck it: it's like a game industry conference that ended, which can be an unhappy thing after so easily becoming acclimated to that state of existence. I got so used to it, in fact, and so tired and busy, that my regular writing habits basically lapsed and I didn't end up writing as much about the conference as I hoped. The subject is extremely likely to come up again once I have the time to mentally process it, but right now I'm only looking forward to sleeping, for the first time in ten days, for more than six hours and not on an airplane.

When I wake up tomorrow, I will have begun another year of complete isolation from the game industry. Here's to normalcy. Or whatever.

March 26, 2009

Print Is Dead

"Don't you know print is dead?" This is what someone asked me in a tone that was sympathetic, patronising and uncertain of its own cleveness.

This week, Idle Thumbs, the website that I used to write for and which has since been relaunched as a podcast, published 2,000 copies of an eight-page broadsheet newspaper to hand out around GDC. The newspaper reprinted Missed Connections and Interactive Journalism, originally seen right here on Hit Self-Destruct. Seeing those stories and my byline on actual pieces of paper was a strange and anachronistic feeling.

Right now, you can't read this newspaper unless you come to the Moscone Center today or tomorrow and grab a copy that's lying on a table somewhere. In the meantime, trust me: this thing looks amazing. Producing the Idle Thumbs Journal of Games required a Herculean effort and even up close it can be easily mistaken for a legitimate newspaper.

Tangentially, I'm not really supposed to be at GDC. I don't develop games. I see my role at the Game Developers Conference to sit quietly, take notes and not get in the way. The best thing about GDC is that Clint Hocking and Jonathan Blow can have an impromptu and public dialogue about encouraging player improvisation, or that two designers who are total strangers can strike up a high-level technical conversation because they happen to be sitting next to each other at a lecture. The more time I spend here, that's what I want to see happen -- not live-twittering the exclusive first teaser trailer and release date announcement for Modern Warfare 2. I haven't seen yet what's being reported about Keita Takahashi's Noby Noby Boy talk, but if all people got out of it was "Takahashi Announces Noby Noby Boy Multiplayer, iPhone Version" then that will be awful.

Developers talking to each other: that's what I want, but I can't be a part of it. As a member of the press -- in the loosest possible definition of the word 'press' -- I don't fit in at GDC, but this was never made completely explicit to me until I started thrusting newspapers in people's faces.

When you stand in the halls of the Moscone Center actively throwing papers around, people with bluetooth headsets and leather jackets look at you with contempt. They've just heard about Eskil Steenberg's cool tools and the lighting in Mirror's Edge and I'm so last century. Also, I'm annoying them.

I ended up sitting at the Game Design Challenge with two of my friends and about three hundred copies between us. Of all the GDC sessions, the Game Design Challenge is the closest to pure entertainment, and so is extremely well-attended. We decided to stand outside the lecture hall and as the crowd -- over two-hundred strong -- filtered out, we'd confront them all with a free newspaper. This isn't how you network.

We assigned ourselves to cover each of the three doors out of the conference. Pretty soon we were asking if someone wanted a newspaper every five seconds. A lot said no thanks or, more pleasingly, took it because it was free. Some tried to ignore us because they thought we were handing out the San Francisco Examiner. One guy accepted a copy and as he walked away I heard him exclaim "this isn't a real newspaper!" Eventually, a second session across the hall also finished and the traffic got so dense that the three of us fell back into a circle facing out at the surge and warding them off with our amusing and semi-fictional newspaper. It was a scene out of a zombie movie, except we were the print guys. We were the ones who are supposed to be dead.

I'm typing this in the GDC press room. As I get up to leave, I think I'll accidentally forget to take a newspaper with me.

March 24, 2009

The Keynote

Rod Humble was once a manual labourer in the lumber yards of Britain, until a supervisor told him that if he kept at it and did a good enough job, then maybe one day he would get to work on the machines. On that day, he quit. In the following years, Rod Humble became the head of Electronic Arts' Play label, supervising franchises like The Sims and Harry Potter; the developer of art games The Marriage and Stars over Half-Moon Bay; and a man whose hometown newspaper, inferring an erroneous fact from The Marriage, printed that he was cheating on his wife.

Humble spoke at the Independent Games Summit earlier today about his perspective and lessons learned working in two commercially disparate areas of game development. When Humble ran his presentation by Jonathan Blow, the Braid designer said his talk was useless. Humble conceded it was a fair point -- his career is already so unique and unlikely that he couldn't and didn't offer much specific and practical advice. The session may have been underwhelming for indie developers who came looking for hard data about business models and team dynamics; instead, Humble spoke generally about "the indie advantage": having the creative freedom of individualism and staying true to one's dreams. He made sure to mention that if anyone in the audience thought he was full of it, that they could do better, make a better game -- then go ahead, go your own way. Much of the territory Humble covered in his 30-minute talk was encapsulated in the three-minute Fleetwood Mac hit of 1977, Go Your Own Way.

Indies, argued Humble, should be trying to carve out their own niche. As he noted, the science fiction and fantasy sections in a hypothetical video game bookstore are overflowing. The Marriage was an entry in the rarely-tackled romance genre -- which, Humble pointed out, appeals primarily to women, who fortuitously are the majority audience on the PC.

The subject matter might have contributed to The Marriage's relative popularity, but as the game is a free download, Humble clearly didn't get into indie games for the money -- and neither, he stressed, should you. He hoped that the audience were all in it for the right reasons: that they simply want to make games. How can I ever change things that I feel?

Humble endorsed another motivation as perfectly valid: you make games because you want to bring joy to others. The world is rough, he said, and there's nothing wrong with making people happy. Humble used the words "bringing joy to millions", which is true for sure in the case of The Sims, but probably less so for the indie games being made by everyone in that room.  If I could, maybe I'd give you my world. How can I, when you won't take it from me?

Be prepared to fail, because indie development ''is a great way to lose money." Most times the failure won't even stop at massive personal debt -- one day your series of commercially-overlooked critical darlings might veer horribly off course.  Maybe the critics hate it, maybe the message boards hate it, maybe your friends hate it, maybe your ideas aren't good anymore, maybe people say your talk is useless. Humble's favourite game designers -- Miyamoto, Molyneux, Wright -- had all at one point been written off by the industry but refused to stop making games. Humble, then, had only one piece of advice: Move on. 

The takeaway:

You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way

Repeat chorus

March 20, 2009

The Fall

Niko Bellic was promised the life of kings. Five minutes after coming to America, he's sharing a squalid one-couch apartment with his cousin Roman and a family of rats. Niko is disillusioned, understandably, but if only he knew how good he had it at that moment. This is not the American Dream, but it's still something he can believe in.

For a while, Grand Theft Auto IV is nothing but the extremely authored, slow-paced and dialogue-heavy saga of two Eastern European immigrants who work at a taxi service in a facsimile New York City. They have girlfriends and gambling debts, they get shit-faced drunk and sober up to heartfelt emails from Niko's mother. The premise sounds like it belongs to a sitcom or an arthouse movie, but of course Grand Theft Auto is a series about blowing up cop cars with rocket launchers in a sprawling urban world. In this game you shop for clothes and take girls out bowling along a very narrow story path.

For hours, the game doesn't make you do anything illegal or even put a gun into your hands. This is not Grand Theft Auto. It's better.

The grudging affection Niko Bellic feels towards his cousin, his earnest attraction towards girlfriend Michelle and his controlled resentment at loan shark Vlad belittling his ethnicity all feel authentic and capable of driving an entire game. It's subtle, it's sincere -- a Grand Theft Auto game is sincere? It doesn't give me a gun or make me steal a car, but for the first time I don't feel like I need those.

If Liberty City feels like a living world, to skirt a cliche, it isn't because of the significant upgrades in visual fidelity, the physics engine or the traffic density. For the first time, the city is populated by people who aren't larger-than-life. Car thieves don't actually make their getaways in helicopters, hurl grenades at pedestrians or dive-roll out of police cars.

In Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City, you do things like obey traffic lights and buy hot dogs from street vendors because no one yet has betrayed their contract with reality to sanction random, meaningless violence. It means something, I think, that the default movement speed is to walk. When the game first told me to walk to Roman's office, I did it, I walked all the way, just looking around without ever carjacking someone to speed up the process. That's what psychopaths do, and Niko Bellic is not a psychopath. Not yet.

Grand Theft Auto IV doesn't stop me from stealing a car or shooting a police officer with his own gun, but as this game begins, that feels like an actor in a play deliberately screwing up his lines. It's a testament to the fiction of this game that I'm willing to sustain it by forgoing gameplay conveniences -- like hotwiring a car instead of borrowing Roman's -- that might contradict Niko's character.

It's curious that Rockstar would attempt a mundanity so contrary to their well-worn groove of casual, amoral mayhem. Grand Theft Auto IV works well enough for a time because the missions do not encourage the player to fly off the handle and do something insane. But check out that completion statistic, still in the single digits.

The game is called Grand Theft Auto and there are snipers and car chases right on the cover. Niko's story is clearly going to be about his unfortunate slide into crime. This is his downfall. How long, though, can we stay in that shitty apartment, where all we care about is collecting on taxi fares and where to take Michelle for dinner? How far does Niko have to fall?

If past Grand Theft Autos are any indication, Niko will not simply run drugs and extort shop owners to make ends meet. He's not headed for a life of crime, he's headed for a life of cartoon sociopathy.

It's difficult to picture Niko Bellic, who appears have to a conscience, and has evidently made some mistakes in his past but does not intend to repeat them, assuming the role of a Grand Theft Auto protagonist. This is a guy who only wants to take a girl to the funfair.

When Niko takes a stand against the mobster harassing his brother, he goes too far and the guy falls out of a window to his death. "I didn't want to kill anyone here," he says, shaking his head. That moment is like the teaser poster for Star Wars: Episode I with young Anakin Skywalker casting Darth Vader's shadow. We know, at that point, that little innocent Anakin is going to grow up to be an unlockable Soul Calibur character.

For the first five hours, Grand Theft Auto IV almost succeeds in escaping its history. Then all the memories worm their way back in -- like the amnesiac Jason Bourne, sitting on a park bench, who suddenly disarms and incapacitates two cops without even knowing he could do that. Alternatively, like A History of Violence, a movie I have never seen but remember its trailer fondly.

Sometimes when you tell Niko to hail a cab, the game mistakes your input and has Niko brutally curb-stomp the driver. It's a horrifying accident, but at the same time it's a little too familiar. It's all coming back now.

Multiple mission icons appear on the map, Niko visits an arms dealer, buys an assault rifle -- what would he ever need an assault rifle for? Will it help his darts game? -- steals a car, turns on the radio and is struck by an obvious and crude satire of American culture and the vapidity of excess; a bluntly political kind of humour that would have been vetoed by the editors of a George W. Bush-themed joke book from 2004. That embarrassing parody, even as it co-exists with the realistic coming-to-America story, warns that Rockstar haven't grown up quite so much as it initially appeared.

Niko and his morals can be indulged for a while, but at a certain point he's got to drop the act. They didn't build this city to be set dressing. It needs to have glowing pigeons to shoot. Rockstar flips the switch. Wake up.

Niko decides to kill Vlad because he was possibly sleeping with a woman Roman has a crush on. It's a drastic overreaction, and it's not a momentary logical lapse but the beginning of the end.

This guy has to fit into the established Grand Theft Auto template. After killing Vlad, he abandons all normal ethical compunctions. Niko needs money, he says, to get by, but he never stops to try and get by, and twenty hours into the game he's got more cash on hand than 80% of households in the country. Score one for the American dream.

Niko's a criminal, but who's there to be disappointed in him? You'd think friends would disapprove when he kicks off their date by kicking someone in the face and stealing their car, but they exclaim "Niko, what are you doing?", if that, and then it's back to normal. It doesn't feel like this is a tragedy about Niko's inability to save himself. I feel like in my traditional role as a gamer, I'm complicit in his ruination. I'm the teenager telling him he'll be cool if he smokes a cigarette and listens to Led Zeppelin, although instead of cigarettes it's blowing up a tractor trailer.

Where Grand Theft Auto IV fails is that beneath the accent, the superficial ethics, the dry wit, the regrets, the fierce protectiveness and pride, the pondering gait, under all that, Niko Bellic is really just this person:

I tried harder to resist Niko's descent into crime than Niko himself. By the time the player reaches the second island, Niko is any other thug and this game is any other Grand Theft Auto. Cellphone calls from Roman, originally a means to delve into the characters' backstory and explore the world, become far-too-frequent minigame intrusions. Subsequent stabs at realism ring false: Niko disapproves of Roman's gambling problem, but doesn't stop to consider the severity of his own murder problem.

Niko's after money, and the player is forced to adopt a similarly pragmatic approach. Niko robs banks, slaughters the denizens of row houses, sleeps with a girl to unlock a special healing power. I hit civilians with my car, flip off police officers, walk around with a sniper rifle in the daylight because nothing is real anymore, and why should it matter?

The systems are transparent. NPC questgivers change their names, their faces and their ethnicities to prolong the length of the game without ever changing the game. Grand Theft Auto IV is long -- for 2008, anachronistically long -- and is subject to diminishing returns in the same way that the Simpsons, after having been on the air for 20 years, cannot be good anymore. Grand Theft Auto cannot and does not command the same respect or cast the same spell at hour 50 that it did at hour five.

How could this not be the case? This is Grand Theft Auto. It's formulaic by design, and for all the strides they make in this one game, they've got to compromise eventually, just like Niko. It's as if Hideo Kojima patterned Metal Gear Solid 5 after Half-Life 2's unbroken camera and contextual environmental storytelling then freaked out halfway through and fell back on a 40-minute cutscene. Grand Theft Auto IV can dream, but, as one of its character remarks mournfully: "we can pick the game... but we cannot change the rules."

In America, you can do anything if you work hard for it; in Grand Theft Auto you can do anything you want; and Rockstar are the kings of the industry and can do anything they want -- but not really. Rockstar had an ambitious idea once -- a real-time 3D world with traffic and a world clock independent of the players' action -- and they did it. In Grand Theft Auto IV Rockstar's ambition was to tell a serious story, which they really can't do if they're still beholden to letting the player run around killing with leisurely impunity.

Niko doesn't make a new life for himself; neither does Rockstar. Their old ways are easier. That's why in the end, Grand Theft Auto IV is a tragedy, though not for the reasons intended. It's the same thing with BioShock's third-act collapse that mirrors the trajectory of Andrew Ryan's failed underwater utopia. These games are so focused on portraying the fall, and succumb to the same fate. It's an irony out of Greek mythology or a Twilight Zone plot twist. Grand Theft Auto IV's undoing has a sting that other good games with poor endings do not. There, it's merely frustrating. Here, it's a heartache.

Love hurts. But Niko Bellic, who's up to four cop stars, doing a stunt jump in a stolen motorcycle, shooting an Uzi at the crowd and breaking up with a vapid stereotype over the phone, wouldn't understand that.

March 16, 2009

A Shark In The Sewer

Video game protagonists define stoicism. Every time a hero is called upon to save the world, tragedy befalls him and yet he presses on without complaint. Sometimes he won't even utter a word. At least one of his friends or family will get murdered, he's forced to make difficult moral choices, his home is burnt to the ground, all his equipment gets stolen, he gets betrayed by those he trusts the most, he's revealed to be a secret villain and for certain he will have to brutally kill hundreds of people. He does this in post-apocalyptic dystopias, poorly-lit dungeons and the various circles of hell under constant pressure, and subtly oppressive conditions like ammunition scarcity and everyone trying to shoot him.

These heroes can put up with basically anything. In the event of a personal disaster, they never seek nor are they given any opportunities to wallow in self-pity or take a moment to compose themselves. After a parent or love interest is executed before their eyes, a voice in their ear barks "Soldier, there's no time to mourn them; we need you to get on that turret!" They'll get on that turret, and pump their fist when they bring down a helicopter.

Video game heroes, like sharks, never stop swimming. If you need to pull aside a shark for a quiet, personal conversation, the shark says "sorry, dude, I'm a shark, I have to keep swimming or I'll die." This is why sharks make for shitty friends but why video game heroes are beloved by their fictional constituencies. They are dependable and resolute in any crisis.

It's common practice for one of those guys, in a single day, to chainsaw his way out of the belly of a giant worm, take a detour through a zombie shantytown, euthanise his long-lost wife, and spend hours in a sewer trawling through blood and waste, with monsters leaping up at his face and depositing their brain matter on his boots.

How surprising would it be to emerge from the sewer to an NPC colleague who exclaims "Soldier! Oh my God, I can't believe what you've gone through! That must have felt absolutely horrible, I can't even imagine what kind of pain you're in. Are you OK? Don't worry about the objective, I'll get someone else to take care of that. Let me buy you a drink, you can tell me all about it."

Experience would never teach him to expect that. The hero would probably get confused and shoot the NPC. Pausing over the corpse, he quickly runs off to blow up aliens at a water treatment plant.

March 9, 2009

War Crimes

When I was an International Relations student, I shared desks with idealists and overachievers. Once, the professor polled the class of twenty-year-olds, asking what we wanted to do with our post-academic lives. Most wanted to work for an NGO or the United Nations, dispatching humanitarian aid, negotiating ceasefires or spreading democracy. Well, I thought, I'll probably write about video games.

The fictional conflict in a fictionalised Africa depicted in Far Cry 2 differs from the modern warfare of Call of Duty in a significant respect. It's an informal war. It's a war of mercenaries and militant rebels, not of armies or soldiers. Mercenaries are effective because they're anonymous, privatised and accountable to no one. The game likes to use the term "deniable asset."

For instance, mercenaries aren't required to abide by the rules of engagement, as the Marines and SAS of Call of Duty 4's campaign are. The rules of engagement distinguish between civilians and hostiles, and dictate permissible levels of force. Soldiers are allowed to shoot only when the rules of engagement are satisfied. Call of Duty 4 isn't set in Iraq (instead, "the Middle East") but take this example from Generation Kill, the journalist Evan Wright's account of the first Marine company into Iraq, and its subsequent HBO dramatisation. At night, the Marines establish a roadblock. Approaching vehicles receive warning shots, as it's impossible to infer whether the drivers are hostile. Most turn around, but one truck doesn't -- it keeps on coming and only then, when all procedures have failed, is the driver killed through his windshield. Maybe it was a member of the Republican Guard; maybe it was just a guy who didn't understand what was going on.

The luxury of the Far Cry 2 mercenary is that he isn't bound by the appropriate and lawful conduct in a situation like that. He shoots as soon as he sees the headlights. There are no rules of engagement in Far Cry 2 -- which might mean something, but there aren't any rules in Call of Duty either. The Marine shoots everything that moves. There is never any question about who's hostile and who's not; everyone is, and they'll confirm it by firing first. The rules of engagement, in part, exist to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. In these games, the civilians are never there to begin with. These are entertainment wars.

In Africa, the mercenary's freedom from responsibility for killing non-combatants is a redundancy, since at no point is he able to do it. It's not that civilians should exist to get casually slaughtered, but the gameplay could use a little variety: the only non-violent character interaction in the game is when someone orders the player to go and kill someone else. All the characters are either fellow mercenaries -- with whom the player's alliances are extremely shaky -- and the infinitely-numbered faction warriors, who inexplicably open fire at first sight. Even the guards in the central towns, where there's a vague truce in place, still turn the crosshairs red. There are displaced former residents fleeing the country, and of whom the player can catch only a removed and fleeting glimpse. In these moments, the game restricts the player from using a weapon at all. In Far Cry 2, the player murders hundreds of people, diverts aid to criminals, betrays his allies, assassinates police chiefs, pillages the country and burns it to the ground -- but here the game draws the line. The Far Cry mercenary will do anything for money (but he won't do that.)

In all of Call of Duty's urban cities, apartment complexes and television stations, there isn't a single civilian. One mission in Russia takes on a certain urgency when the player is told that rebels are massacring villagers right over the hill. They must have done a really good job.

Call of Duty is problematic as its firefights are so chaotic and swiftly-paced that the player would be guaranteed to maim a civilian in error. The game trains the player in a kind of trigger-happy twitch combat that is probably hugely dangerous in real life. It's hazardous even in this virtual war zone: I shot my own teammates so many times. Generously, they'll even brush that off for at least a couple of direct hits.

What happens, then, in the hypothetical Call of Duty when the player does make that mistake? This is a singularly-focused game with no branching paths. Does it stop entirely or let it slide, inviting controversy by implicitly endorsing the action? Presumably for these sort of reasons, and other practical design or technical considerations, is why these games don't have any vulnerable friendly NPCs. In doing so, however, Call of Duty 4 eliminates a crucial element of Modern Warfare, where tactical planning has to factor in amateur jihadists and Iraqi soldiers disguised as farmers.

Consequently, these games are a military wet dream: there's never a civilian in that truck. You cannot screw up. Everyone innocent has left and the country is made freely available for gung-ho wannabes to run around playing paintball. There is no possibility of a fatal accident. Shoot with confidence. Far Cry's Africa is a mercenary theme park where everything bad that can happen will happen to somebody bad. Neither it nor Call of Duty are so reductive to have good and bad guys, but they do have, clearly and consistently, sides who are there to fight each other and no bystanders get in their way.

If there's a reason this standard should be applied to Call of Duty and Far Cry, and not to Killzone or Crysis, it's that the former two purport to represent contemporary conflicts with actual and continuing body counts. In their choice of mechanics, and removal of civilians, they end up presenting white-washed versions of real-life wars that are easier to stomach. It's military escapism to places that people are trying to escape from.

There's no inherent issue with staging fiction in a war zone. Call of Duty's story is of above-average quality, very well-presented, and it treats its setting with due gravitas (except for not naming the Middle Eastern country in which it takes place.) The thriller storyline isn't the game's main draw, though, that would be the frenetic action set pieces, the combat, the multiplayer -- all the things that were designed to make the game fun. Call of Duty is indeed a really fun action game, but "fun" and "escapism" are grossly inappropriate reasons to set a shooter in the Middle East. The game is a fantasy, and keeping civilians in might not have changed that but keeping them out results in a game that looks like it doesn't want to deal with the ethical hassle. No one wants to see soldiers on either side kicking women and little kids in the head before executing them on the sidewalk. The game wants to be a space where players can enjoy themselves. Admittedly, there's a lot of hardship in virtual war too: missed headshots, respawning enemies, weak cover systems. Sometimes war is so frustrating I almost throw my controller at the television.

I can enjoy Call of Duty, playing from encounter to encounter, but to take a step back, it's as if the ultimate destiny of mortars exploding over the Gaza Strip is to become a mass-market entertainment product for a greasy teenager who trash-talks and griefs over Xbox Live and gets an achievement for killing two people in the same car explosion.

I used to listen to stories about former International Relations students who were motivated to ban land mines, and when my in-game avatar steps on a mine it's such a minor irritant that I can't be motivated to find the quickload. Increasingly, that's less and less how I like games to portray actual war. I don't get excited about the new flamethrower. Where there are no civilians, there are no mistakes, there's no collateral damage and it starts to feel safe. It changes from war into a murder mystery vacation. Maybe there isn't a morally unimpeachable way to make a entertaining game about atrocities, but I'd feel better if those games didn't try and make me feel so good.

Far Cry 2 is like an absurdly literal interpretation of Call of Duty 4. The civilians actually are all bailing out of the country, leaving it to the people who really want to go wild shooting at each other. The fiction supports the mechanics, but never pretends that this open-world environment is a gamer's paradise. The player is not there to save the country but to profit from its suffering. Far Cry actively tries to make players enjoy themselves less, with degrading weapons, debilitating bouts of malaria, frequent guardposts, a general surface oppression and persistent fast talking that's more irritating and inexplicable than anything else in the game. Your mercenary "buddies" are self-interested, amoral assholes and the player rarely gets to engage in any more ethical behaviour.

All of that makes Far Cry 2 sound like a horrible place to be, but then it's set in an area of the world where traditionally, African rebels and power vacuums have led to some pretty grotesque outcomes. It's oppressive, it's nihilistic, but why would it ever be anything else?

At one point the player is given the choice between saving the lives of a group of civilians or all the buddies he has met in the game to date. By then, the buddies will have rescued the player multiple times, he has a history with them, and the civilians only exist as an abstract concept without gameplay effect. After hearing this, you get in your car and arrive at a distressingly non-proverbial fork in the road. The right thing to do would appear self-evident: the buddies provide all kinds of tangible benefits and extra missions. Helping the civilians doesn't seem to net the player anything more than an ephemeral feeling of good will and a little post-hoc rationalisation that he's not a completely irredeemable person.

In this kind of place, though, you need that.

March 4, 2009

Domestic City, Part Nine of Nine

When Emily turned 45, her immediate family showed up at her house in the tradition of celebration if not the spirit. Emily's younger brother had two boys, who, out of everyone assembled in the living room, were the worst at concealing their boredom.

It had been suggested to Emily's nephews that she liked video games -- or did, at one point -- and so a quick trip to EB would result in a surefire birthday present. After getting saddled with some kitchenware and historical fiction, Emily was handed their gift last. She unwrapped it to find something called Sudoku: Another Wet Weekend for the DS, and she smiled and said thanks.

While Emily made coffee, her brother, her sister and their spouses argued in her kitchen about whether to relocate their mother to a rest home. She passed them some cups and withdrew to the kitchen counter, where she stirred her coffee in silence and listened, but not really, to her siblings' debate over responsibility. After a minute, she excused herself.

Emily's nephews were outside, in the back seat of their parents' car and huddled over some handheld game system that she had never even seen before. They were fighting over whose turn it was. Folding her arms over the window, she asked: "Do you guys have any games where you can shoot things?"

Domestic City, Part Eight

When Nina told Anthony that their marriage of eighteen years was coming to an end, Anthony wanted two things. First, his wife back. Then, to lock himself in a hotel room for two days with a dozen video games. One of his wishes came true.

In preparation for his lost weekend, Anthony walked through a game store picking up a variety of titles which he selected almost at random and without regard for cost, like a shopping spree of the super-depressed.

Stationed at the foot of his single hotel room bed, he loaded the new Grand Theft Auto. His intent was to steal a sports car and drive it straight down the sidewalk in a violent kaleidoscope of property and bodily damage. Anthony hadn't touched a Grand Theft Auto since college, and was surprised by how easily the motions of play returned to him. He was diving out of moving cars and steering helicopters as if no time had passed. It felt like coming home, which was lucky for him now that he didn't have one.

Anthony looked, for what was really the first time, at all the games that he had bought that day. Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Mario: all new versions of things that he was playing eighteen years ago. It occurred to him that if developers kept remaking and revising these franchises as they evidently did, then he could have been playing these same games all his life. He tried to imagine what it would have even been like, always having a current generation Tomb Raider or Sim City waiting for him, no matter who or where he was.

He'd made himself learn how to balance spreadsheets in Baldur's Gate, how to cook in Order Up, how to handle sports cars in Burnout Paradise, how to arrange furniture in the Sims, how to putt in Wii Golf and how to enhance his awareness of current affairs with Global Conflicts: Palestine, but in retrospect couldn't remember if he had enjoyed doing any of it.

From where Anthony was sitting, stability had its merits.

March 3, 2009

Domestic City, Part Seven

Weeks after the death of Emily's father, she was persuaded by her therapist to attend a bereavement group. Plainly dressed for the first time in twenty years, Emily joined eight other people in a church basement decorated by plastic chairs and posters about gambling addiction.

The man leading the session spoke about grief and coping with loss. Emily found herself nodding along as he described the death of a loved one as a sudden absence of structure in one's life. It was normal to feel without guidance, like you're stranded in the world with no clue where to go next. He said that people in mourning commonly lose interest in their routines, that they feel alone and afraid now that someone they relied upon for direction was gone. Emily thought about her father always insisting what was best for her and a lump formed in her throat.

There was a television in the corner of the room, and the man flicked it on with a remote. "It can feel a bit like going from this," he said, and the screen showed an excerpt from a Final Fantasy game, with the player character running back and forth between clearly-defined objectives and cutscenes, "to this." He pressed a button again and the television now displayed a game of Far Cry 2; the player standing unguided in the epicentre of the massive African savannah. "Look at this. No one's telling you where to go. You have so many choices. You can feel anxious. It's normal to feel overwhelmed when you switch from some very prescribed JRPG to a big open-ended, hands-off Western game like this. The differing approaches in design can result in a very abrupt adjustment. Where are you supposed to go from this point? Why isn't there someone telling you what to do?"

Emily, confused, turned to a elderly woman who had interjected, nodding vigorously. "After my husband died I started playing Grand Theft Auto, which was unusual for me, I never do that. I play Persona and Metal Gear mostly, it was like I was in a trance. But playing that game was a revelation for me: the openness of the world, it spoke to me. It knew exactly how I felt."

She collapsed into sobs and a sympathetic teenager sitting beside her held her hand tenderly. Emily got to her feet. "What the fuck is going on? Stop talking about video games!"

March 1, 2009

Domestic City, Part Six

Given the demands of his office job, Anthony needed to blow off some steam occasionally, and so had organised an informal golf game with three of the other managers. On Sundays the regular four convened in Anthony and Nina's living room, uniformly dressed in polo shirts and khakis, and lined up in front of the Wii.

Jason erred on the third hole with a wild swing that sent his ball flying into the ocean. His friends laughed at the apparent ineptitude but Anthony, as the senior manager, secretly wondered if this was Jason letting him win. Anthony did win these games an awful lot, and he was a casual player at best. If it was true, he considered, at least he was getting some respect.

An hour passed, and Greg was first up on the ninth hole. He asked his caddy to hand him the Wiimote, and the fifteen year-old boy standing behind him passed it over from his shoulder bag. Greg stared at the proffered controller and said "if I wanted the nunchuk, I would have asked for it." As the boy rummaged deeper into the bag, Greg shook his head at the guys. "Unbelievable."

After a sandwich break, Paul asked Anthony if he had any other games: "maybe something by Rockstar?" Anthony explained how, with his job and everything, he didn't have much time to play video games for fun. He indicated his entire game collection present on the living room bookcase.

"I mostly play these now, these are what's called 'serious games'. This one," he said, pulling down a shoebox-sized DVD case, "is about managing your stock portfolio in an economic crisis, and this follow-up by the same developer is about controlling inflation. We're saving that one for the kids."

"That's a pretty big case," said Paul.

"Well, this is the collector's edition, it comes in this cool tin box and it has a little figurine of an investment banker."

"That's cool, can I see it?"

"No, nobody's allowed to touch it."