Category Archives: Critique and Analysis

These are articles on particular games, series, or tropes which don’t attempt to offer an all-encompassing review. You might have guessed, but I prefer writing these.

We who are about to die salute you

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I just suffered my first real ‘bad end’ in X-COM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Brainwashed comm operators sabotaged my base and, having just come off a string of terror missions leaving most of my top-ranked soldiers KIA and my high-end MECs in for repairs, I didn’t stand much of a chance against the ensuing alien horde. So it goes.

Starting off on a fresh file with the Enemy Within expansion appears to have been a big mistake, as there are a lot of balance issues and weird staggering of events that make it difficult to proceed conservatively, even if I felt like it. As it is, I’m playing chiefly to have something to play. There are few enough games that can be played one-handed (my dominant hand is still, unfortunately, too injured to do much more than press Enter occasionally), and fewer still that don’t seem to fall into the trough of either puzzle games or sims, and better the devil that you know, I guess.

Still, something’s been rolling around in my head since I read Michael Lutz’s piece on First-Person Scholar about “replay value” as a quality of performance art. In it, Lutz suggests that the reason Spelunky expresses (that ol’ canard) “replayability” for him is not just the emergent dungeon design, but the particulars of its interlocking parts.

A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, [Peggy] Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance”. According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced [...]

I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience. Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay. The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths -– but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured.

I’d like to dispense with the idea of “future accomplishment” here — I only include the end of the quote so as not to change Lutz’s meaning — and focus, really, on the performance of loss. Because I like the idea of playing through doomed scenarios, not in anticipation of some 11th hour Hollywood cliche, but to see it all crumble as well it must.

Too dark? I don’t know. I remain convinced that a major issue many people had with the original Mass Effect 3 ending was that you couldn’t really save the day. Not how you wanted. Not how the series had set you up to believe you could. And I actually rather liked that the game pulled the rug out from underneath you like that. It changed the rules and made every win state horribly unacceptable. Love it. Give me more.

Another game I managed to play recently was Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. It’s a damned triggering game and I needed a lot of self-care afterwards because — spoiler — the protagonist almost surely kills himself at the end, no matter what you do. But I suppose I’m glad I played it because that’s the point of the game, to reveal in the harshest terms the raw brutality of this man’s depression. Or, as someone suggested to me when I discussed it with them afterwards:

I feel like [Actual Sunlight] is a game about using the hopelessness of the worst case scenario to make the possibility of hope more apparent.

You can’t “win” Actual Sunlight. You can only participate in a doomed situation. If I replayed the base defense mission in Enemy Within a hundred times I’d probably get no closer to completing it, simply by virtue of how poorly equipped my remaining units are (the same way Evan, we might say, was not adequately equipped to combat his suicidality). No, it’s not about the “specter of future accomplishment” here, not within the context of these units or these representations. It’s more about that certain poetic catharsis gained from bringing something to the only end available to us.

Put another way, my Enemy Within squad, my Commander Shepard, and Actual Sunlight‘s protagonist are each headed toward death (unless you take the interpretation that Evan doesn’t die at the end — not a reading I hold to, personally), but the particulars of getting there make up the actual performance. The real disappearing act, you could say.

(See also: Lee’s demise in The Walking Dead; most samurai films; nearly any classic arcade game; Super Hexagon except for a few skilled individuals.)

I’m a big fan of your private tragedy

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Anyone can tell you that ambient dialogue is often a high point of exploring some of these big RPGs out there nowadays. BioWare is habitually the go-to for this, although I find some of the conversations you can listen in on in Obsidian and Bethesda games just as pleasurable. If my finances ever do a 180 and I find myself in a position to pick up Dishonored, I’ll likely say the same about it as well.

But (arguably) stealth games like Dishonored, Alpha Protocol and the like take a rather explicit and perverse pleasure in voyeurism. Listening in on people’s unguarded moments is just what those games are for, inasmuch as they are ‘for’ anything. It’s not quite the case in something like a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, where supposedly some manner of upholding social norms ought to be honored. Unless I’m playing as a thief in, say, Skyrim, or I’m going through one of the rare missions in among the whole Dragon Effect pantheon which accommodates and rewards stealth (the “Arrival” DLC for Mass Effect 2 for example, though the chapter’s resolution is otherwise so frustrating I usually just don’t bother installing it), being an eavesdropper tends to make me feel even more morally transgressive than if I just walked right up and knifed the poor chatty bastards.

Yet I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3, my first time in doing so since putting the franchise to bed after the whole tedious ending controversy last year. I’m revisiting it now so that I can be up to speed for the upcoming “Citadel” DLC, which sounds like a gigantic BioWare fanwank if ever it existed, and damned but I’m still a sucker for that anyway. What I’m noticing are principally two things:

1) They foreground the “unacceptable” original downer ending more than I ever remembered. Characters are constantly reminding you that you need to reevaluate what a “positive resolution” looks like. My favorite illustration of this came from an exchange on the Normandy right after you pick up (ahem) Garrus. Lightly paraphrased:

“When turians go to war, if even a single soldier survives, we say that it was worth it. But humans want to save everyone.”

But everyone and their mom has written about the game’s ending at this point, so I won’t launch into another essay on that. I just find it perfectly encapsulates what I’ve felt about the game from the start.

2) The Citadel is like a sandbox of tragedy porn.

Now, this is nothing new for the franchise either: Mass Effect 2 flirted heavily with representations of a post-9/11 security-obsessed society, and also memorably poked fun at its incompetence. But the Citadel of Mass Effect 3 is a bottomless pit of anxiety, grief, and diasporic despair. The relatively privileged folks of the Presidium worry about the ethics of war profiteering, but the refugees of Dock E24 walk around in a daze, huddle around photo-filled walls of the dead and missing, languish on the stretchers of emergency triages.

In some ways it feels like Mass Effect did its 9/11 motif in reverse order: first it described the security theater in a “war on terror” world, then it scaled back to the imagery of tragedy we collectively recall as inspiring all that rhetoric.

Dock E24 is my favorite location on the Citadel. It’s depressing. It’s raw. It feels hopeless. But then you wander around for a bit. You see a batarian wrapping his arm around a sobbing human companion, where just a couple years ago these two species were (and to a large extent still are) at each other’s throats. You find Garrus arranging for supplies for his people’s wounded. And you see a lost human girl who’s wandered up to a C-Sec information desk because she doesn’t know where else to go.

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This is my favorite set of ambient interactions in the entire game. I found out yesterday they were written by Ann Lemay, which figures, because she’s brilliant. Here you have a turian C-Sec officer, every grizzled cop archetype in the book, finding himself at a loss trying to help a recently orphaned, and fairly naive, human teenager who has crawled her way into his heart (whether he appreciates it or not).

It’s so tender and sweet, and perfectly sums up what I love about the Citadel writing for Mass Effect 3: even these relationships which exist in the backdrop of this entire cataclysmic event are still developing, precious things. It reminds me how little Shepard actually matters. Oh sure, she’s the one who’s asked to pull the switch at the end, but she’s hardly the only one with a life going on. If anything, I find it tremendously reassuring that other people’s lives in this big squishy sci-fi universe don’t begin and end where the player’s path intersects theirs.

(This is something I adore about Jacob too, by the way. He has adventures of his own; he doesn’t need Shepard to start and stop him like an automaton. But I’ve grown to accept that virtually no one in the universe likes Jacob except me. Siiiigh.)

The inverse of this all is, well, why am I so enthusiastic to discover other characters have their own arcs, the bulk of which I will never get to see? Why should I cheer for the C-Sec officer and the lost girl, instead of feeling ashamed that I’m continually racing my Shepard back and forth behind them to hear more snippets of their conversation? The poor girl lost her parents, and my heart can only swell for the beautiful friendship I’m seeing (rather, hearing) develop. If these talking heads were cognizant of their surroundings they’d start yelling at Shepard for being some kind of a weird pervert.

But that’s the particular cognitive dissonance of these games, I suppose. (Not ludonarrative dissonance, I should add, which is a term so many critics get so desperately wrong I’ve all but banned its inclusion in TWIVGB– but more on that in another post.) These are games where engaging in social systems (dialogue, diplomacy, compromise) are at least as significant a series feature as all the runny-shooty stuff, but transgressing some of those unspoken systems –namely, what not to ask, and where not to listen in– largely gets a free pass. These are games about interacting with people, but we’re never exactly punished if our interactions are more in line with those of a sociopath. (See also: Kim Moss’s post on BioWare’s romantic Nice Guy syndrome.)

So I feel left in this awkward moral limbo, as a consumer who eats up the private melodramas these incidental dialogues shoot forth into the ether, but also as someone interested in seeing how games can reflect or deconstruct real-world systems. It didn’t take me more than a half-second to lavish some excited praise for Ann’s work over Twitter, and I do not believe this praise is anything but well-deserved –these little moments can often be what really sells a fan on a game, and rightly so, I think– but it strikes me as a little funny that I should latch onto this set of ambient dialogue, of everything in Ann’s considerable portfolio. Thank you for writing a great moment of private loss and desperation! I loved eavesdropping on it!

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Yeah. Well, it could be argued this is what a lot entertainment boils down to: looking in on the lives of others. But games are unique in the way they make us an active participant in that process. Or another way of putting it is: linear media assumes our curiosity, while interactive media invites it, and (generally, but not always) rewards it. The interesting thing is when you map that invitation to curiosity onto social structures that are designed to discourage too much interest– like what we learn or don’t learn about other people.

It’s definitely not a situation unique to BioWare’s games in any way –hell, this probably goes back to Night Trap, if not much, much earlier– but certainly something that’s been turning around in my head recently, what with replaying ME3 as well as Dragon Age: Origins earlier this month. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about with respect to the game I’ve been writing, Stargazer Pavilion… but more on that another time.

Anyway, it should be said I am definitely looking forward to the “Citadel” DLC on March 5th, and inasmuch as I don’t believe AAA games are the be-all and end-all of what games can be or are, I adore the richness of Mass Effect‘s world, and I admire all the work that has gone into making it that rich. Especially the little things. I daresay it’s always been about them.

More Context-Sensitive Spec Ops

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My friend and Iraq War veteran R. had a chance to go back through Spec Ops: The Line again recently and elected to send me his blow-by-blow impressions by email. I believe those who enjoyed the first post on his impressions will like reading through R.’s second look below.

R.’s notes are reproduced in full with only minor touch-up for clarity. Again, I am expressly not the US Marine here, so I’m trusting the accuracy of his observations.

Oh, and also- spoilers for the game again, obviously.

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Best Emergent Trends (and Other Things) of 2012

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Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to narrow this list down to anything that is in anyway manageable. It’s been a great year for games- especially indies. At this point I think it’s more useful to look back at certain movements in this year’s releases rather than specific titles.

Naturally, in the course of that, we’re going to be discussing plenty of titles. I started out creating this “game of the year” list believing I didn’t have much to say about this year’s offerings. The more I looked, the more I found was there. This has been a great year for the single-author game; for grassroots and fan-driven projects; for outsiders; and especially for animated discussions about the medium. In this I’m very much in agreement with Michael Abbott– I believe we’re going to look back on 2012 as another important watershed year for games and criticism. The only lingering question I have remaining is– did it sneak up on you too? Or did you already pick up on it months before?

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Beyond Complete Freedom of Movement

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The title of this post refers to Henry Jenkins‘s “‘Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” which itself references the 1998 game Die by the Sword. The article, as well as the book in which it appears, is a valuable precursor to some of the recent discussions the ludodecahedron have engaged in regarding games as a virtual outdoors.

It’s been over two years since Roger Ebert enraged the hive, and despite the insistent hopping about from all corners that No One Damn Well Cares about the “are games art?” question, we still seem to keep trucking it out. The latest came from Guardian guy-with-a-blog Jonathan Jones, whose forays into the “but is it art?” arena are long documented, and about as neatly thought out as shoving stuff into a blender to see what happens.

He’s just a guy, though, and not a terribly interesting one at that. It’s the damned question itself that seems to take on a life of its own and clog up my reading agenda for TWIVGB every few weeks. As games blogging strawmen go, it’s probably right behind “can games tell stories?” and just before “are casual games games?” in terms of frequency on my RSS feed, and none of them are terribly fruitful lines of inquiry (if only because the obvious answers to the three are yes, yes and yes).

Given this, the last thing I should be doing is throwing my own two cents (more a haypenny) in here. But no matter how often this “are games art?” thing gets brought up, and no matter how many bloggers leap to defend the vidya, I always feel like the best argument is one they aren’t making. Where “but X is interactive, and it’s considered art” everyone is quick to mention participatory theatre, dance, and all the rest, and yet they neglect to mention the most glaring example of all:

Installation art.

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Context-Sensitive Spec Ops

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I was ecstatic to learn that an old high school friend of mine, R., had recently picked up Spec Ops: The Line, and was playing it over Steam just a scant couple days after my own play-through. After leaving high school, R. went into the Marine Corps–he served two tours in Iraq before returning to California to pursue a degree, where we got to reconnect over IM.

R.’s been very open about sharing some of his war experiences with me for my research on an upcoming project, as well as lending his perspective on films and articles I’ve shared with him. (For instance, I linked him W.’s “Call of Apathy” to see whether it jived at all with his own impressions about his fellow vets, or even himself– he said that it didn’t, but he did agree that the most destructive force to reckon with during a tour like his or W.’s is the long stretches of boredom.)

On the subject of war-themed videogames, he and I have generally agreed that they’re horseshit. But having now put Spec Ops: The Line behind me, I was interested what an actual veteran thought of its depiction of war in the Middle East and some would say critical message. So naturally once I learned he’d picked it up I bugged the hell out of him about it.

What follows are a few spoilers for the game. R. isn’t a professional writer so a few of you might be a little disappointed by the brevity of his impressions, but I think he brings a unique take to things, especially since he (as of this writing) hasn’t been exposed to Spec Ops‘ source material either.

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New Horizons

Late last month, Alan Williamson (whom many of you will recognize as half of Split-Screen and the man behind Critical Distance‘s latest incarnation of Blogs of the Round Table) approached me asking if I wanted to be in on a new webzine of his, Five Out Of Ten. The timing was short notice–he wanted to approach me for the next issue, but another contributor had had a scheduling conflict and needed to back out, leaving him a writer short for the premier issue–so I gathered up some ideas that had been kicking around and tried putting them into words. They each came out decently–at least, enough so that I don’t stand out too awkwardly next to the likes of Brendan Keogh, Lana Polansky, Bill Coberly and Alan himself, all of whom are spectacular writers and whose work here is as grand as always.

The zine comes priced at £5.00, although you can donate a little more, if you like. The cool thing is that revenue for the magazine is split evenly among the five contributors, so basically if you pay £5, you’re paying each of us £1, which is cool because that means I can take that money and start saving toward the things I need to Write More Stuff for you, like coffee and antidepressants. That’s a pretty awesome cause, right?

Each author contributes two pieces to the collection, one pertaining to the theme “new horizons” and the other on a subject of the writer’s choice. Here’s a little preview of my two so you can sneak a peek before buying your very own copy, which is available as a DRM-free PDF suitable for most platforms.

Piece #1 – New Horizons – “Letting the Sunlight In”

On indie games, Papo & Yo and the virtue of an individual voice.

The final summit of Papo & Yo is set far above the familiar Brazilian favela in which the rest of the game takes place. Our player-character, Quico, travels above the clouds on a magical skylift which bears him and the monstrous alter-ego of his father toward the floating island of a mystical shaman. Around them, rusted iron siding and discarded tires float alongside the fragments of family homes, suspended weightlessly across the sky just as other improbable mountains of shacks and lean-tos rise up to meet them.

It’s a profoundly destablizing moment, even in a game premised on a departure from the normal laws of physics. What starts out as an imaginative trek through the muddy, rain-drenched city streets of a boy’s childhood adventuring spaces soon becomes an increasingly desperate escape from violence. Finally the world Quico has spent the entire game cleverly bending to his will is coming apart at the seams of its own volition, as reality starts to seep back in.

Piece #2 – Writer’s Choice – “Unfinished”

On the nature of unfinished things, unfinished people, and The Unfinished Swan.

“This is your college education,” my father says, waving a hand toward the home studio he had invested countless weekends into, to say nothing of far more money than his railroad job paid. It’s lined with hand-made sound insulation panels and stocked with enough recording equipment to make some professional studios green with envy. “So we all need to work together to make this record label work.”

In the end the biggest barrier to our father’s dreams of a music career is himself. Every weekend and most evenings he cloisters himself away inside his home-made studio, plucking at the same chords over and over, searching for a note that doesn’t exist. Later, he loads the recordings into his Mac and plays the clips again and again, iterating by degrees, never finishing. Eventually he scraps the whole song and starts over on guitar, plucking strings, never finding whatever it is that he’s listening for.

Sooner or later he’ll say that it’s our fault that he can’t find it.

-

The Unfinished Swan isn’t simply the title and explicit goal of the game; it’s the singular work which ties the family of three together, and provides the player with the game’s theme. Unfinished things, unfinished people. Children doomed by their genetics to the sometimes-beautiful, mostly-horrible agony of being artists. Of facing the void of boundless creativity and having to sort out the path to not going insane for themselves.

Those who enjoyed my previous bit in CTRL-ALT-DEFEAT on growing up among hoarders will recognize some resonance here–but hopefully not too much familiar territory. You can go buy your own digital copy of Five Out Of Ten now.

My Own Personal Key of the Twilight

In many ways I owe .hack//G.U. for my involvement in games blogging.

I’ve spoken before –everyone has– about the games that influenced me, and to be sure, there were a decent handful which made a particular impression and I could say I “owe” my current career path to. But .hack//G.U. is, for once, a direct case of cause and effect.

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Burning Invaders: A Return to IndieCade

“I hope one day this thing is huge,” a young games journo tells me breathlessly. He wears a fedora and a pixel tie and I would peg him as not old enough to drink.

I frown. The kid has just finished bragging about “sneaking in” to his first E3 this summer, a so-called industry conference about which I have some pretty strong feelings. E3 is still not back up to its tottering pre-2007 top-heaviness but it’s still horrifically large, unsustainable in its girth and the inertia of its own technological obsolescence. I do not want IndieCade to ever resemble that.

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Visions of sugar plums

I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly: I still struggle at sticking to a mostly regular sleep schedule, so that one day I might turn in as soon as the sun tilts toward the horizon, and another I’ll stay up long enough to see the sunrise. Both such tendencies have their own motivators –depression and all-night FF7 binges, respectively– and a certain kitten-shaped constant who ensures that whenever I do decide to sleep, that is the time she’s most active.

There is another reason, in that whenever I do stretch out in bed I start thinking about setting again. Very particular settings: fortresses built into mountainsides with five compounds representing the five traditional elements; and the territory that fortress would oversee, and the taxes it would collect in exchange for protection from its militia. What is the attitude of the servant class within the fortress; are they from the region, or transplanted from the empire capital? How many are more loyal to the emperor than his son who manages this territory?

In other words, I’m writing again.

Or more precisely, preparing to write. I had another project in the pipelines for a while about war and aliens –you know, all-new literary territory– but after spending months neck deep in The Journey to the West and other Chinese and East Asian half historical/half mythological texts I decided the chances were slim of being able to suddenly change gears into some inverted Starship Troopers story. So, I gave in and went with the flow of my current interests.

(I’m making the SF project sound more banal than it is. It’s a narrative I believe in, or I wouldn’t have spent almost two years to date developing it. But SF is about politics and extrapolating from the present world’s circumstances, and right now I’d like some escapism.)

And since it’s that kind of fantasy novel, the sort about beds and the folks occupying them, the mind wanders to those before-and-after conversations that sound most authentic when you’re half-asleep when you come up with them. Except I then don’t sleep, largely because other things seep in: do I have time to think of frivolous things like novels when I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford rent next month? how will I ever find a way to sell off enough of this stuff to fund a move? how many of my books will I need to part with?

And then come the anxiety attacks, because my serotonin levels are low, and my new health insurance plan is very good at being expensive and little else, and then there’s the crippling debt I now face, and all the glib responses from well-meaning colleagues how it should be so easy to just pick up and go, change everything, choose life, get out of this country before the GOP turn it into a wasteland, did you hear Clint Eastwood got into an argument with an empty chair and lost?

So yes, fantasy novel, I choose thee. Of all the things giving me insomnia, you are the least unpleasant at the moment.

The other is Final Fantasy VII, which I mentioned I was replaying. That’s going well, except the problem with videogames for me at a time like this is their machine logic is precisely the opposite of what I need. Simon Parkin once wrote (and it’s still one of my favorite essays of his to date) that games (and especially JRPGs) “function how we want the real world to function”:

“Because, while the battles may be random, the war’s outcome is always predestined,” I continue. “You’re predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going. And jeez, that may be escapism or a gross oversimplification of the reality we live in, but isn’t that sense of… of justice the yearning of every human being? Are not JRPGs maps of perfect worlds where everything behaves how you expect it to.”

“Um…”

“Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you… I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That’s just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break…”

“Simon…”

“No, wait. They give you that power, sure. But more than that, they give you consistency. This world, and the people in it, do not. JRPGs are, well, er, I guess they’re sort of like heaven in that regard. Except with, like, improbably large swords and nuclear-grade hair gel.”

It’s one of my favorite heartbreaking little rambles in any piece of New Games Journalism to date, and 99% of the time, I agree with it.

Right now I just want all the numbers to go to hang themselves. I toil at leveling up these little masses of polygons, meeting all the necessary quotas to advance stats and limit breaks and fill out all the necessary check boxes on every unnecessary sidequest and the only persistent impression I get is that I’m fumbling to connect, that the virtual world on the other side of the screen isn’t ever going to come alive because of numbers or command combos. Its story is a dead thing unless you let the machinic part of it go. Otherwise it’s just… hell, it’s just Confucianism.

Because I really don’t want the world to be fair, just now. I want it to be extremely unfair in my favor. Not for very long; just to make it through the next month or two. That would be nice. FF7′s new PC version even accommodates that very kind of cheating, which throws Parkins’s “heaven” for a hell of a loop. Not that I could bring myself to partake in it if I did have the funds to spend juicing characters in a game I’d already beaten a half-dozen times. But I wouldn’t mind a Character Booster for my own life. Or even just something to let me sleep.

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