June 30, 2009

Move Over Once

It should be to nobody's surprise that the Beatles are still extremely capable of making people very excited. At least, the concept of the Beatles. For instance, personally speaking, the cinematic trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band revealed at E3 last month was immediately more interesting and exciting than pretty much any other game displayed at the show.

The animated trailer, less than three minutes long, doesn't say anything new, but is so completely charming and evocative of the entire legacy of the Beatles. The source material that it draws upon is incredibly strong.

It immediately puts into perspective the Beatles' extraordinary cultural relevance and creative power, and Rock Band, wielding these, shames every other action game with a convoluted plot about Russian warlords. It's not really fair. It's almost like cheating outright. A video game about the music of the Beatles versus a sequel where you still mostly shoot people, but this time it has a "very dark story." How can the Beatles still not automatically trump everything else, unless you are a huge fan of cover systems or anime backflips?

The Beatles: Rock Band, because of, presumably, a multi-million dollar deal, is able to draw on a massive and important cultural cachet. Unlike every other game at E3 which seemed to reiterate upon the comparatively narrow history and inventions of video games.

This is all exciting, then, but also, for a couple of reasons, sad.

First of all, none of the above enthusiasm for The Beatles: Rock Band really has anything to do with the game in question. It's entirely in the presentation, and compared to the new Modern Warfare, Uncharted, Splinter Cell, whatever, The Beatles: Rock Band is going to be the less mechanically interesting of them all. The fictional layer is fascinating, but it's the same game that you have been playing for four years and buying five times a year.

The inverse credit arrangement -- first, 'The Beatles'; second, 'Rock Band' -- is probably a contractual stipulation, and historical precedent for loser acts like Green Day to argue for top billing when they get their own Guitar Hero game in 2015. (Steve McQueen dropped out of starring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he couldn't get credited first on the poster. Welcome to the future of video games.) But the positions are also accurate: the notion of a Rock Band game isn't as attractive as it used to be, and the Beatles are going to carry this game's weight.

And it's sad because all of this music is at least forty years old, and so to a certain extent the excitement is based on nostalgia. Which means either that the video game industry has yet to come up with anything on the same level as the Beatles -- probably true -- or that nothing in your own life is currently as exciting to you as the music that your parents listened to.

The E3 situation reminds me of the Beatles' last live appearance in 1969, the spontaneous rooftop concert in London, because the Beatles were so obviously cooler than anything else that was going on that day. They brought everything to a halt.

Except there was that one guy, the very proper British gentleman who says that, "this type of music is alright in its place, and it's quite enjoyable." That part is a completely transparent lie. "But I think it's a bit of an imposition to actually disrupt all of the business in this area." Then he either calls the police or is glad when they break up the party. And, you know, is the last live appearance of the Beatles worth less historically than whatever typing he had to do that day?

I can appreciate his point: deadlines don't go away just because someone is playing rock music pretty loud. The man's problem is stodginess rather than outright anhedonia, but if you can't get excited about the Beatles playing on a roof after not appearing live in years, what can you get excited about?

Imagine how much the sophisticated young sixties radicals on the street hated that guy. Also imagine him transplanted 40 years into the future onto the E3 show floor and besieged by game journalists who sneer at his conservatism and tell him go play M.U.L.E.

The Beatles' music is now the same age as that guy, but instead of being relegated to the past, it's part of the future. Rock Band is the future of how we experience music, haven't you heard? Or maybe it's not, and that's a hyperbolic dot-com era kind of claim unsubstantiated by the fact that not very much has really happened since Rock Band and Guitar Hero were invented.

If Rock Band is the future of music, what would that mean for the future? That kids' first exposure to rock music will be in the form of a Rock Band challenge, rather than on the Ed Sullivan show or in English dance halls or whatever? They're never going to experience an album as a complete entity, they're not going to be buying anything in a store, and they're not going to be able have songs stuck in their head without 3D guitar charts also scrolling down across their minds.

The cool mod kids who loved the Beatles in 1969 have become the old man who thinks that "this type of music is quite enjoyable in its place", and don't understand what a video game is, and resent how their grandchildren think of music. But regardless of whether Rock Band exists or not, teenagers still aren't going to be buying vinyl en masse -- or whatever a 40 year old's romantic conception of how music should be experienced it is. Everything will change anyway.

It might be too bad if kids who are capable of producing great music but no more than three chords get dissatisfied with actual guitar playing and give up. If Rock Band and Guitar Hero ever get to be satisfaction enough for would-be musicians, and they never produce any recorded material, that isn't a turn for the better. Of course, there's no evidence of that yet, and I guess we've got to wait at least another generation.

Things change. The primary relevance of the Beatles changed all the time. They've gone from being a teenage girl's wet dream to acid-tripping weirdos to a litigation factory and now to video game business leaders.

There are generational shifts in progress all the time, and only when we notice them does it make us uncomfortable. There were people for whom early, early, I Want To Hold Your Hand-era Beatles was something dangerous, and they wouldn't have wanted to surrender their experiential or moral ground, even though, in retrospect, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to let happen.

A generational shift makes your experiences obsolete and little more than a novelty to your children. I can't tell whether Rock Band is an important change or a change at all. But do you just go with it because you as a person in the 21st century would have told that British gentleman in 1969 the same thing? Because you would have told him not to call the police, and just live with it even if he isn't excited about it, since it's so obviously the right thing to do?

Who knows. That's what makes it so exciting, though, right? Or does it?

June 19, 2009

Prometheus Unlocked

For thirty seconds at the end of 2008 I considered putting together a list of my favourite games of that year. I found it difficult, however, to rank games by quality, because the titles I remembered the most fondly, or that produced the most personally affecting experience -- if either of those are an acceptable definition of "favourite" -- were not necessarily the games that I had enjoyed the most. The games I felt closest to that year were the ones that I had written about.

That could mean that it was a good game, or a mediocre one or something that didn't even come out that year. Neverwinter Nights 2, for example, fulfills the last two categories. Honestly, that clunky anachronism still means more to me than, say, World of Goo, a game that I like far better. 'Cause I wrote about Neverwinter Nights, and then, somehow, it feels like it's mine.

Having never been a professional game critic, I was never under the obligation to turn in a thousand uninspiring words about an uninspiring product. I never had to review a game that I didn't care a little about. The game might have even been okay, but for whatever reason, all you can ever do is limply summarise the kind of thing it was, and then agree that it's about as good as everyone said it is already. I think if I was a game journalist at this point in my life, I'd be the guy who walked into my editor's office a week after being assigned to review Infamous or Prototype (I only barely know the difference, but I can say with all confidence that whatever the difference is, it doesn't matter) and announce that there's no sparks between me and this game, I'm not feeling it creatively, and so I'm taking myself off the review. Fortunately that isn't my profession, because I would get fired so hard.

I only know what it's like to write about games that excite me, and for that reason, those are the games that stick around in memory. Some games are personally inspiring, an extremely unpredictable quality. There are some games, regardless of how much you like them on their own merits, that put a thought in your head. They make you think that you have the capacity to say something about them that has never been said. I can't underestimate how good that makes a person feel.

You like the ideas inherent in this game, you like its successes, or the potential that it implies in its failures. It makes you feel something new about video games. It doesn't matter how good a game it is, it can excite you in any case: about the medium and about discussing the medium. If you feel, truly, that you have something important to say, then you want to write it out regardless of whether you're being paid or whether anybody's reading it. Even if it's not important to some wider discourse, it's important to you, at least temporarily. Some games make you feel like that, and a handful made me feel like that over the last year. It's really something special, not least because you can't force it. You can't will inspiration into existence.

This brand of adrenaline can and often does manifest itself by a reviewer ripping a really terrible game to shreds in an entertaining, linkbait manner. That same enthusiasm can be more subtle, though, and I like it when it's more positive. Even a mediocre game can make you feel good about games in general, and make you feel good about things other than your ability to diminish someone else's work. You want, really, to talk about games in a way that feels like you're making a real contribution to a discussion less tangible than your review. You want what you write to be valuable, and there isn't the potential for that in every game that you play.

This is a weird relationship that develops between games and critics. It's a whole extra level on which to like a game. You get seriously sentimental about it. It's an extra echelon of appreciation, unlocked. I didn't know that I could feel this way.

The reverse of this is: are you only playing games looking for material to write about? They're more worthwhile if you can get that extra measure of enjoyment out of them. I.e., what are you going to do for me, video game? You'd better be more than just fun. You'd better be intellectually exhilarating on a very personal level, otherwise I'm wasting my time.

This is what four and a half years of writing about games for an audience has done to me, I think. What happened to just being able to play a video game like a normal person!

I can't simply "play video games" any more. I approach every game with a different, unusually eager perspective. In many ways, though, the feeling I get from writing about a video game is far better than the feeling I get from only playing it.

It ignites something in you, a sense of temporary purpose that makes you feel more talented and capable than usual. That's something special. It makes you -- the critic, the reviewer -- happy in a very self-centered and unsustainable kind of way that's completely at the expense of the game itself. It's a strange, egocentric relationship, but then again, what are these games meant for if not gratification? The joy of being driven to write about a game that everyone else finds unremarkable is what lifts that game out of mediocrity for you.

To this day, over a year after writing about it, I think back on Neverwinter Nights 2 with sincere and warm affection. Games like that, which I would consider mediocre and not appealing to me at all, still inspired me to say something, and that's where I found it meaningful. It was never fun for me on the terms that it proposed, but I genuinely engaged with it and am glad that I played it. It's a very condescending kind of compliment. I bet the developers can't wait to thank me.

The fact is, you develop a personal connection with games like that; the games that motivated you to write an impassioned editorial and post it on a section of the internet that you know nobody reads. The games you write about, you get inside them. You think about them so much more than anything else; you explore their strengths and their weaknesses because you care. You incorporate those games into your avocation and they become the stories that you covered.

The games you write about, the games you really cared about: they're really a part of you. This is why I can't rank games objectively anymore. Neverwinter Nights 2 is a part of my life. Neverwinter Nights 2 is part of my life? Get it out, please!

I can make jokes like that because, you know, I really do love it.

June 14, 2009


Barring some truly unexpected change in circumstances, games like Call of Duty 4 and STALKER are the closest I’ll ever get to a shootout in Chernobyl. Video games have trained me for that eventuality, though, and if I ever end up in the Red Forest or squatting by this ferris wheel with an MP5, I know exactly what I’ll do.

This is Call of Duty 4, and I’ve carried my crippled superior officer to this extraction point in Pripyat. I put the Captain down by the ferris wheel, where we’re supposed to wait for a helicopter to arrive and get us out of there. Until then we need to hold our ground against the approaching Soviet 1st Respawn Division.

The Captain checks out the buildings across the courtyard and instructs me in a level whisper to lay some claymores around the area, then find some cover and take up a sniping position. He starts a timer.

I nod stoically and walk past him, past the ferris wheel, past all the cars, up the steps, back the way we came, into the previous level, until I get to this little corner of an apartment complex where I sit down and hide. Back at the ferris wheel, I start to hear gunshots, explosions and an orchestral score climaxing. The Captain barks over the radio that we are heavily outnumbered. I look at the red dots on the minimap: yeah, definitely.

The chopper takes six and a half minutes to arrive. Six and a half minutes sitting under the sliding window of someone’s abandoned apartment is a long time to think.

To begin with, I notice that I’m speaking in the first person as I go through this story in my head. The reason, I think, is that my character, Price, would never do what I'm doing. Lieutenant Price so absolutely would not desert his comrades at a critical point in battle that, accordingly, the game refuses to recognise it. Captain MacMillan, crippled, abandoned and under fire, keeps calling to me to hold on, hold on for just one more minute, as if I was right there with him. Clearly I've thrown Call of Duty 4 into denial. In this game that’s so scripted and so linear, for the first time I’m calling the shots.

I think about how much I’ve disengaged from the fiction of this game. I’m willing to disregard so much about this heroic fantasy by taking advantage of a cheap exploit.

My Gamertag ought to be scarlet-lettered for what I did, but the game has no idea. This is embarrassing, to a degree; clearly I’m not very hardcore. I’m no Price, for example. But I have lived this exact moment before, multiple times. I’ve tried taking shelter, I’ve tried planting explosives, but no matter what I do, in seconds grenades are landing at my feet, bullets are hitting me in the back and dogs are leaping at my face. I liked Call of Duty 4 and I wanted to continue, but I couldn’t last one more minute in Pripyat.

I’ve been in this kind of place before, in other games, and this is how I know instinctively that a setpiece like this is so far beyond my ability and what the game has required from me to date. It's clear that the only way I can beat a mission like this, with its sparingly-issued checkpoints, is to spend almost the length of the full game on it, being shot in all the same places, hearing all the same soundbites, trying out little variations to come unbearably close to the finish line only to fail once again.

I'm at a loss to explain Call of Duty 4's difficulty spike. The heightened pressure builds tension, sure, but unless a player implausibly succeeds on their first attempt, the ensuing repetition and frustration erases it completely. This is not an issue with challenging games generally, but the incongruity of suddenly raising the bar so unusually high and out of nowhere to ratchet up in complexity.

My heart’s not in it, and so I cheat. I’ve cheated before and I know that if Call of Duty 4 has a second mission like this, I won’t hesitate for a second to bail out – and probably wouldn't try as hard to complete it as I might have otherwise. I've established a precedent whereby the rules hold no meaning for me, and my investment in the game’s fiction is pretty much gone. I deliberately screwed up my lines, but nobody noticed. This isn’t real anymore. Right now, the narrative, the atmosphere, the fiction are all losing their power over me. This isn't Pripyat and I'm not Captain Price -- this is just a video game and I'm trying to get through it any way I can.

In this case, I’ve outsmarted the game, and in doing so, I’ve disengaged from it. This game is beneath me now, 'cause I’m not going to give it the courtesy of playing by its rules. I think that this is much the same thing as when I turn down the volume on a video game and instead listen to music or the radio as I play. Even in a game like Far Cry 2 that places a premium on immersion, I’ll do this. It can’t otherwise keep my interest for the 40-hour investment that it asks of me. At these points, I’ve decided that it’s not necessary – or that I’m bored – of the environment and the story. The game becomes nothing more than background entertainment. I tune out the surrounding texture and reduce the gameplay to a series of entirely mechanical and plainly geometric challenges à la the Mirror's Edge time trials.

The change in soundtrack is about gradually being less and less enthralled by a game. Here, in Call of Duty 4, it feels like my hand is forced. I violated reality because of a difficulty spike, and because I’m not good enough to handle it. I broke up with the game, but I don’t believe that it was entirely my fault. I thought about how much I was going to lose if I committed to my cowardice; and conversely how much I cared about investing seriously in the world and fiction of this particular game. Maybe I'll have a change of heart and a genuinely heroic moment, maybe I'll storm into the fray with guns blazing.

No, I won’t. After six and a half minutes, the helicopter lands and I crawl out of my hiding place. Picking up the Captain and carrying him into the ‘copter, everyone treats me like I’m a war hero who stuck by his allies and survived against impossible odds. It sounds good, what they’re saying. Maybe next time I’ll try to live up to this kind of praise. Then again, I seriously doubt it.

June 7, 2009

Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

I. The worst thing about being a lifelong fan of video games, he considered, was not knowing any other lifelong fans. He was deeply immersed in gaming culture but couldn't share this enthusiasm or knowledge with anyone around him. He could reel off a thousand gaming references that would sail right over people's heads, as if it had come out of Little Jacob's mouth. Like that, for example, they wouldn't get that.

This was too bad because he was convinced some of the thoughts he had about video games were hilarious. He could come up with great video game-related jokes, but nobody could truly appreciate their brilliance.

For instance, he had recently started dating a girl named Jennifer, and coincidentally his last serious girlfriend had also been called Jennifer. Thus, this new girlfriend was the 'next Jen'. Though he was the only one who understood this reference, he liked to say it all the time. It made him laugh when he first realised the connection, and he got very excited about furthering the comic association: in what other ways was his girlfriend like a new console generation?

He decided that, appropriately, this new Jen was definitely a lot prettier than her predecessor. More responsive, and she sounded nicer, too, so it was definitely an upgrade on those fronts. She had enhanced... fidelity? No, strike that, that didn't work. Tighter controls? Well, that sounded weird. Whatever, it was enough to say that the new Jen was shinier and more attractive. On the flipside, however, some might say that the last Jen was actually a lot deeper, a little smarter and this new Jennifer was a little too accessible, maybe a bit easier. None of this was actually terribly accurate to the women in question but it was the only way that the joke would work. Meanwhile, Jennifer wished that this guy wouldn't talk about video games or his ex-girlfriend quite so much.

II. When Jennifer heard him stumble drunk into her apartment at 3 a.m., audibly trip over something in the kitchen and pass out on her couch, she knew that the weekend had officially begun. When she heard him yelling at her roommate to shove it, she knew also that she would soon have to start looking for a new roommate.

Jennifer stood over him in her nightgown looking unimpressed and stated that clearly he had a drinking problem. He said that he didn't have a drinking problem; he just couldn't drink without throwing up. This made him giggle. Jennifer called him a blackout drinker. This was a term that the last Jen had also been fond of using and she cited it numerous times when she broke up with him.

"You are killing yourself," they both had said. He protested that he's in control of it and besides, it's not like he's into harder stuff. It's not like he does cocaine, he said. Not like he shoots up. Not like he does rails. He cracked up at this. "I don't shoot rails. I'm not a rail shooter. A rail shooter! Ha ha! House of the Dead!"

While Jennifer remained impassive, he laughed and laughed, convulsing and clutching his sides, until he fell off the couch and vomited all over himself.

III. With great reluctance, he voluntarily admitted himself into a rehab center. This decision came after a very serious conversation with his family and coworkers. Jennifer was out of the picture at this point but had temporarily resurfaced to strongly agree that he needed to seek treatment.

Checking into the clinic, they took his iPhone, his DS and his PSP. Among the things that the staff mentioned was that he would have to start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He also knew it by its shorthand: AA.

This got him going. He knew, obviously, that there were triple-A games, expensive, commercial titles. He'd even read in somebody's blog post about 'single-A' games, indie titles with smaller teams and budgets but resembled those big-budget titles with reduced scope. But nobody had ever thought about what a double-A game might be, and this was obviously it.

What would you do in an AA game, he wondered. This was potentially a rich area for comedy. There'd be a lot of dialogue, he guessed, confessional stuff from NPCs and the overall quest would be less about saving the world and more about saving yourself. Of course, there would be twelve levels.

There was so much potential and as he began to explain this entire concept he looked at all the grave faces around him, realised where he was, and none of it seemed very funny anymore.