Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Written In Blood


In M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense, fate curses Bruce Willis with the supernatural ability to see dead people. My curse is the ability to spot juicy metaphors that can be flogged until they’re dead. I'm a metaphor junkie. I guess it’s just my cross to b—arghhhh, see! (Almost walked right smack into that one.) Recently I’ve been struck by how perfectly the indie platformer Super Meat Boy functions as a metaphor for the writing process. I’ll begin by spelling out the metaphorical equivalents of the game’s various bits.
  • Overall game = writing project (novel, essay, dissertation, etc).
  • World/stage = paragraph unit.
  • Level = sentence unit.
  • Bandage Girl = period at the end of the sentence.
  • Meat Boy = Microsoft Word's blinking cursor.
  • Meat Boy’s bloody red trail = spilled “ink.”
  • Rescuing Bandage Girl = completion of a given sentence.
  • Timer = measure of concision and clarity in each sentence.
  • Lethal obstacles—saw blades, lava, spikes, salt deposits—scattered across the level = grammatical errors and typos.
  • Meat Boy’s path from the beginning of the level to its completion = the series of words you choose to make your point.
  • Replay function = the self-editing step of the writing process (deleting a particular sentence and attempting a different wording, construction, etc.)
  • Each stage’s degree of difficulty = the level of complexity in the idea you’re attempting to convey.
Part of the joy of writing is the creativity required to figure out the best way to get your point across. In the same way that writing a long, rambling, verbose sentence—like I'm doing right now by using a series of three adjectives when one would do just fine—obscures your intended meaning, a long roundabout path to Bandage Girl in Super Meat Boy guarantees you a poor completion time on the level. The point of the game is to find the most direct path to her, which means careful consideration of the route you take. At first a level may seem like it requires a long detour when, in fact, there’s a more direct line there to be carved, even if you overlooked it on your first several passes.

Super Meat Boy tantalizes players with the knowledge that any given level could be played better. Just as changing a single word in a sentence can sharpen your idea, something as basic as adjusting the trajectory of your jump can shave precious hundredths of a second. As the ever-quotable Mark Twain wrote in an 1888 letter to fellow author George Bainton, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Super Meat Boy's story may have a conclusion, but the game leaves itself open to infinite subtle revisions. Even if you’ve battled your way to 100% completion, any given level can be revisited and tightened up to reduce your overall time quotient and improve your standings on the leaderboards. Similarly a piece of writing can never be perfected, merely tightened in its execution. You may have finished writing your book/essay/etc., but you could spend the rest of your natural life going back and tweaking each and every sentence to increase the quality of the work as a whole.

The game of writing can make even the most talented practitioner feel tempted to rage quit now and again. In other words, if you'll allow me one final metaphor: writing is a bitch.

***

Any interest in helping me stretch the metaphor until it cries "Freeeeeee-dom!" like Mel Gibson getting tortured in Braveheart? I could use writing-related metaphors for Dr. Fetus, the warp zones, the alternate playable characters, Brownie, etc, etc. Leave your ideas in the comment thread.

***

Read my formal review of Super Meat Boy for Paste here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hey Where'd Everybody Go?


Epic Citadel is a tech demo. This means it’s the videogame-industry equivalent of a late-night infomercial:

Check out the Unreal Engine for iOS devices! It slices! It dices! It facilitates bump offset mapping and dynamic specular lighting with texture maps!

Personally I think calling this particular work a “tech demo” diminishes it. Epic Citadel is a gorgeous little sandbox designed in just eight weeks by Epic’s Principal Artist Shane Caudle. The demo, which can be downloaded from the iTunes app store, lets you walk around the grounds of an imposing medieval castle and look at stuff.

Sounds pretty boring, right?

Hardly.

Because Epic Citadel is a tech demo and not a game in the traditional sense, its designers were under no obligation to stuff it with the usual game elements. There are no monsters to kill. Despite the heroic fantasy setting, there are no princesses to save. There are no NPC characters bustling around in the streets waiting to feed players their next quest objective. There’s no HUD. No health bar. There’s no opening cinematic letting you know the name of the dark lord that’s about to hijack the realm’s magic crystals and/or yank the curtain down on humanity.


Because Epic Citadel isn't meant to be a game, it naturally becomes so much more than a game. It contents itself with simply being a world—an emotionally resonant one that invites players to fill in all the backstory. As I wandered down the winding cobblestone alleyways, craning my neck to watch sunlight dance on the wash somebody had pinned to a clothes line, watching the slow arc of a hawk gliding overhead, watching a colourful banner whip in the breeze atop a stone parapet, my mind worked feverishly to fill in the gaps.

Why are there no people in the city even though there are signs of habitation everywhere? Candles are lit. The cathedral bell chimes. A dog barks. It appears to be late afternoon based on the sun’s perch.

I begin to imagine the citadel as part of a hypothetical videogame called Rapture (I know, I know, try to forget about BioShock for a second) in which all the castle’s pious inhabitants have been whisked up to heaven. Except for yours truly.

I imagine Rapture opening, with no backstory, no map, no narrative anchor. This wouldn't be a game about trying to find out what mortal sin kept you from being admitted to glory. This would be more like Cillian Murphy’s character beholding the unsettling grandeur of deserted London in Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later. The game’s one-word title would be the only thing colouring your interpretation of your circumstances.

In Rapture you'd see vestiges of human life everywhere, but the whole of humanity would seem to have vanished into the air. You'd find cauldrons of water boiling over lit kindling and piles of scrubbed potatoes that had not yet been scooped into the pot. You'd stumble across fields half-tilled. The whole game you'd wander in search of life, wondering if you were the only person left behind on earth. This wouldn't be a game about checking off the laundry list of adventure-game to-dos. Instead the experience would center on exploration, loneliness, human connection. Confusion and fear and instinct and desperation.


Rapture would be a game suggesting the darkest extreme of the single-player experience. Only what if the experience merely appeared to be taking place offline. What if other players’ exploration left behind dynamic footprints—a far subtler version of the overlapping universes of Demon’s Souls’ multiplayer component.

Perhaps what the player initially thought was simply a missed train to Paradise was actually a sentence to something more sinister—being left to wander a version of earth that forever teased you with the promise of human connection but never delivered.

Obviously Rapture is not a game that will ever be made (Irrational Games would issue a cease-and-desist on the name anyway). But I like to think a videogame world that took environmental storytelling seriously enough could capture a player’s imagination without reams of dialogue and cutscene plot development. Or any plot development whatsoever.

It's time for developers to leverage our restive subconscious.

So many games bend over backward trying to be movies. For once I’d like to play a game that felt more like a colouring book, where the developer provided me with the wire-frame outline of a narrative and then set me loose to colour it in with my own fever-dream what ifs. Till that sort of game arrives, I’ll be busy compiling the first issue of my new magazine Tech Demo Enthusiast Quarterly.

***

[You can download Epic Citadel from iTunes here.]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gongs of the Patriots


Metal Gear Solid 4’s opening cinematic whets players’ appetites with a fairly standard menu of videogame comfort food—a non-specific battlefield somewhere in the Middle East, assault rifles, missile launchers, turbans, crow-scavenged corpses. The game’s protagonist Old Snake, perfecting his nail-gargling Tom Waits impression, croaks the opening line of voiceover narration: “War has changed.”

War may have changed, but gamers have been here before, killed this enemy before, perhaps in this very same war-ravaged desert outpost. As the opening cutscene builds in intensity, the player grips the controller more tightly, anticipating the action to come. Minutes slip by. The player looks on impotently as a firefight breaks out. Somewhere around minute seven or eight, the player sets down the controller. Snake flees for his life from a towering bipedal armoured mech. The player follows this development out of the corner of his eye while getting up to pour a glass of Coke.

The preponderance and length of MGS4’s cutscenes have become something of a running joke. At times the game’s creator—iconic Japanese videogame auteur Hideo Kojima—seems to regard the PS3 controller as an oddly shaped DVD remote, little more than a means of pressing play on the series of short films he’s crafted for his audience to consume. Herein lies the game’s thematic tension: MGS4 is itself a game about control—both literally and figuratively. Kojima comes out and tells players as much.


Amid the overcooked dialogue and thinly veiled Iraq war commentary of the aforementioned cinematic, Snake describes the new face of war: “ID-tagged soldiers carry ID-tagged weapons, use ID-tagged gear. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance and regulate their abilities. Genetic control, information control, emotion control, battlefield control—everything is monitored and kept under control.” And just in case you missed the symbolism of this narration early on, Kojima introduces the Screaming Mantis boss character in Act 5 who hijacks the movements of Snake and a secondary NPC with—wait for it—puppet strings. (I see what you did there!)

Could there be a more blatant metaphor for the relationship between game designer and player? Player agency in any videogame is by its very nature an illusion, of course. Players only possess whatever agency the designer confers upon them. It’s hard to determine whether Kojima is merely being cheeky by calling out this lopsided power differential in the context of his game or if he’s trying to make a larger point.

The struggle between authorial control and player agency in videogames continues to be one of the elements inhibiting the medium's acceptance as art by gatekeepers in the broader cultural intelligentsia. American film critic Roger Ebert famously rejected videogames’ capacity to be art based on this premise: art is the product of a creative mind exercising authorial control. When players get involved and start making meaningful decisions, authorial control breaks down and the work ceases to belong to the author. In Ebert’s mind, at least, this interactivity taints the artistic purity of the creation.

Kojima—who teasingly (and tellingly) credits himself as “Voice of God” in the game’s closing credits—cedes control to the player periodically, but these moments feel like token gestures. Most of the time your actions in the game feel utterly inconsequential.


The game’s impeccably polished stealth mechanic, though fun to exercise, simply divorces you further from the conflict raging around you. If slithering on your belly across an active warzone and remaining undetected counts as victory, what was the point of you being there to begin with? If anything, it makes Otacon look incompetent for not airdropping Snake closer to his objective.

MGS4 takes you all over the world—the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, snow-battered mountain passes—but its level design is rote and uninspiring. Especially Act 2’s South America section, which sends you creeping and crawling through what might as well be a lab-rodent maze forking through a drab jungle. By way of consolation, the game scatters a few enemies about for you to shoot in the head if you get too bored. Or not. The game is too busy loading its next cutscene to care either way. Whether you play as a pacifist or a blood-thirsty headhunter has zero impact on zilch.

Kojima’s decision to repeatedly seize control from players in the interest of parceling out his story would be easier to forgive if he had a compelling yarn to spin. Sadly even by Hollywood summer-blockbuster standards, MGS4’s script is obtuse and syrupy thick with melodrama. There’s just no excuse for over-earnest platitudes such as “a new dawn is rising” and “find a new lease on life.”

Kojima’s unwieldy narrative rambles like a drunken university lecturer, heaping on exposition with babbling, jargon-spouting fervour. If the game’s myriad cutscenes were spliced together and projected onscreen at your local cinema, half the audience would walk out halfway through, red palm imprints gracing their foreheads.

Simply carving your story up into episodic, five-act structure and weaving in retro Metal Gear footage to stoke fanboy enthusiasm hardly makes you the Tarantino of videogames. Idiosyncratic design choices must always remain subservient to a tightly plotted, emotionally resonant story.


Some of MGS4’s creative gambles pay off handsomely—an experimental split-screen sequence toward the finale reminds players what’s at stake if Snake and company fail—but the game ultimately buckles beneath the weight of its own hubris. By ignoring the player’s need to make a meaningful contribution to the experience, Kojima ensures that we snort derisively when Snake’s friend and ally Otacon cheers “WE DID IT!” after the game’s final climactic victory (most of which the player has idly watched unfold in yet another bloated Jerry Bruckheimer-esque cinematic).

The most gratifying narrative-driven videogames go out of their way to bolster the player’s sense of involvement and contribution—BioWare, please take a bow. At least where MGS4 is concerned, Kojima comes off instead as the attention whore who corners you at a party and prattles on about himself while you struggle to get a word in.

Monday, September 27, 2010

M.A.C.H.

One of the most incredible screenshots I've stumbled across in ages, courtesy of a 1987 Commodore 64 title.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Immersion 2.0, Green Day & The Good Ole Days


"Immersion 2.0 (A Bug Report)" (6/16/10) - I remember when I first saw a clip of the Wii's motion controller in action. One of Nintendo's first Japanese television commercials for the Wii had gone viral on the internet. And even though I couldn't understand what was being said, I remember being wowed by the audacity of the technology. I recall thinking something like: 'Finally, virtual reality without the silly '90s headgear!'

That was a few years ago. With Microsoft and Sony now having jumped into the motion-control bandwagon (bandwaggling?), I'm feeling increasingly dubious about the whole idea of pantomime hour in front of the television, at least in games that offer lengthy, narrative-based, single-player experiences. There seems to be a misguided underlying assumption that acting out a game protagonist's movements in front of the television creates a greater sense of immersion in the game world. I find the idea silly, especially given my countless experiences with the absolute immersion offered by good literary fiction, which involves no more physical movement than sliding into the couch with a book cracked open in your hands.


Green Day: Rock Band Review (6/18/10) - It's always exciting, as a writer, to have an opportunity to share your work with new audiences. A couple of weeks ago I began writing a review of Green Day: Rock Band for Electronic Gaming Monthly. I was bummed when they abruptly shifted the assignment to an in-house writer in order to expedite the piece's layout before the start of E3, but I decided to finish the review anyway and find an adoptive home for it. Jeremy Zoss, the intrepid editor over at Joystick Division, kindly agreed to publish it as a "reader review."

I had some enjoyable moments with the game, but overall the experience felt strangely undercooked, especially in light of the obvious care invested in The Beatles: Rock Band installment that arrived last September. When you offer just three venues for a band that's been kicking around nearly a quarter of a century, it makes the band's career feel accordingly truncated and diminishes the sense of experiencing their full career arc. Not to mention the visual under-stimulation that comes from shipping a game with only three levels. Can you imagine Gears of War 3 shipping with three levels? Fans would mob Epic's office complex in North Carolina and messily rip out Cliff Bleszinski's belly-button ring.


"Pining Is Evergreen" (6/9/10) - I've been wanting to write a piece about the nostalgia of retro games for a while and Retro Games Challenge for the Nintendo DS offered me a softball pitch of an excuse. I remember my dad being obsessed with the oldies radio station K-Earth 101 in Southern California for several years during my childhood. I never particularly loved the music they played, but I did love the effect that it had on my dad. We'd be driving down the road and he'd be grinning from ear to ear, reminiscing on college memories, drumming on the steering wheel like a man possessed. There's just something about the way art crystallizes the moment in which you first experience it.

I get the same euphoric buzz when I play 8-bit videogames, especially the old NES classics. Picking up my NES gamepad retrofitted with USB and firing up the Nestopia emulator on my MacBook Air, I might as well be merging with the avatar of my childhood self. Regardless of where I happen to be playing—on the couch, on an airplane, outside—I feel like I'm at a grade-school sleepover. Just now while writing, I had this memory of playing Rampage with a neighborhood buddy, pretending that the damsel in the skyscraper that you punch out of the building and toss into your mouth like a peanut M&M was Aimee, the blonde girl in my fourth-grade class I had a crush on at the time. Pathetic, I know, but I cherish the memory all the same.

My childhood was one long pixellated fever dream.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Matter of Perspective


"The Floating Gun Barrel" (6/2/10) - Recently I've been catching up on Robert Ashley's terrific videogame podcast A Life Well Wasted.

In one particularly illuminating segment, Ashley conducted 'man on the street'-style interviews at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, asking random plebeians, "why do you play videogames?" A simple question, it would seem. Yet these respondents—some of them journalists, I'm guessing—couldn't staple-gun together a coherent rationale. They either just blurted out, "Uh, because it's fun" and then lost the power of speech entirely. Or they resorted to sarcastic jesting about escaping the senseless hell of the real world. I was struck by the dearth of genuine self-refection.

We like things. We don't care why we like them. We just like them.

How much can we learn by reflecting on why we find certain things attractive, or repellant? Is this particular navel-gazing exercise productive? For ages I had no time for any videogame that employed a first-person perspective. I wanted to see my character doing his or her thing onscreen. I was a spectator first, participant second. I'd never really examined what turned me off about first-person games until BioShock converted me. Following my visit to Rapture, I couldn't even conjure the memory of what it felt like to not enjoy the absolute character immersion of first-person gaming.

In my Start Press column earlier this week, I explore that evolution of my gaming taste palate. And I wonder what hating first-person gaming conveyed about me as a human being. I can understand why self-reflection isn't particularly popular. When you start questioning why you dislike something, you might also discover character traits within yourself that you dislike. I certainly did.

We'd all agree that empathy is important, and what medium better than videogames to let you walk a mile in somebody's high-poly boots. Even though Hollywood has experimented with first-person perspective in films such as Being John Malkovich and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, games italicize the fantasy in thrilling ways.

When will game developers take the first-person perspective out of the fantastical and transport us into the bodies of people whose conflicts are terrestrial, relatable? Can you imagine playing a first-person game from the perspective of someone whose body is slowly losing motor function to the creeping debilitation of terminal illness? Who's going to create the first-person equivalent of Jason Rohrer's Passage? Would any publisher operating under the yoke of commercial imperative go near a game like this in a thousand years? Will the videogame industry ever have its equivalent of a Lion's Gate or Focus Features?

Please discuss. Talk amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Skate 3 & Demon's Souls


Skate 3 Review (5/31/10) - While I don't expect to revisit Skate 3 much at all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. The fluid progression of your skater through the fictional Port Carverton is pretty damn zen, rolling along without a care in the world, grinding the rim of a wall here, ollieying (ollying? ölluéying?) over a dumpster there, and so on, and so on. Also my character looks and dresses cooler than I can ever hope/afford to. Also tattoo removal is cheaper and easier and faster and less laser-requiring than in real life. I must admit, my character wears his ink well.


"Groundhobbit Day" (5/26/10) - I finished playing through Demon's Souls this past week, logging nearly 50 hours of play time. That's quite something, considering I tweeted the following after my first several hours effectively butting my head into the stout wall of stage 1's Boletaria Castle: "Five and a half hours invested in Demon's Souls thus far. And by invested, I mean raked into a pile and burned." My friend Michael offered some consoling words in response—something to the effect of "Become one with the pain. You'll end up falling in love with the game...or shoot yourself in the face." He was right, and thankfully it was the former. Demon's Souls reminded me that even the gaming equivalent of a dismal, argumentative honeymoon can segue into a lifetime of wedded bliss.

I've tried to pivot into a handful of new games since tying a bow on Demon's Souls. They're really good games, critically acclaimed, top of their Metacritic class—Batman Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect 2, etc. But I'm having a hard time bonding with these new suitors. I miss the atmosphere of Demon's Souls. I miss how alive I felt while playing it, which seems grossly counterintuitive given how much of my early experience of the game involved dangling limp from my enemies' piercing arsenal. I even miss the soothing, unplaceable accent of the Nexus Lady who assured me at least a billion times over the course of those ~50 hours "that the world might be mended, that the world might be mended." She's still cooing that morsel of dialogue ad nauseam in the back of my brain somewhere. I miss my +8 Claymore blade, its heft, the way it felt part of my arm, the command I felt over its brutal swish.

I'll move on eventually. I'll fall in love with a new game. But I don't want to.

Not just yet.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Paste Column Catchup


"How I Learned To Love The Plot Spoiler" (5/12/10) - One of the things that struck me as I played through Alan Wake was the way in which the scattered manuscript pages told you what was going to happen before it happened. This went far beyond simple foreshadowing. Not only did this not detract from the experience, it heightened the sense of dread, anticipation, etc. So why is it that when we read a piece of videogame criticism, the author falls all over herself warning us whenever any plot details are about to be revealed. Usually in all-caps: "OMG SPOILERZ AHEAD! WARNING! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK! HEAD ASPLOSION!" Tom Bissell shrewdly reminds us that games are about the how, not the what.


"Herding Scapegoats" (5/19/10) - I'm as weary as anyone of hearing how violent videogames are responsible for all of society's ills. It seems that, with each successive generation, some new form of popular entertainment finds itself on the insta-blame chopping block. Growing up a heavy metal fan—to clarify, a fan of heavy metal; not a pudgy kid in an XXL Metallica t-shirt—I remember adults in my life demonizing (ha!) metal as some occultic tool of Satan. I just liked the guitars.

I think it's interesting that we don't really hear about the dangers of music anymore, while reporters investigating any crime by a youth will conduct an extensive background check to see if the suspect ever played a videogame. If it turns out that he played Super Mario Bros. even once as a kid, the headline will invariably read, "Videogame Addict Suspected in Murder of So-And-So."

Though I never quite manage to decode the underlying causes behind the scapegoating shift from music to games, it's still worth pondering why Modern Warfare 2 seems to be Generation X(box)'s Metallica. I suppose each new crop of kiddos must find its own way to make mom and dad and Joe Congressman skittish.
"Soldier boy, made of clay / Now an empty shell / Twenty one, only son / But he served us well / Bred to kill, not to care / Do just as we say / Finished here, Greeting Death / He's yours to take away."
- Metallica, "Disposable Heroes," Master of Puppets (1986)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thoughts on Alan Wake


My review of Remedy's psychological thriller Alan Wake just went up on the Paste website. (You can check it out here.)

I really enjoyed the experience. The soundtrack's Nick Cave entry "Up Jumped The Devil" was beyond perfect. Honestly, I think it's time for Cave to take this one step further and make a game of his own. The man's written novels and screenplays and produced stop-motion operas and sung songs and acted and what the hell hasn't he done? It's time for Nick Cave to make a videogame, full stop.

As a thank-you bonus for reading all the way to the third paragraph in this post, I'll leave you with the YouTube video for the Old Gods of Asgard song that rocks your socks during Alan Wake's main-stage-headlining, pyrotechnic blasting, shadow-zombie, scary-oke singalong killfest. Everything in the game that happens after that scene is epilogue, as far as I'm concerned.

Full disclosure: when I heard the song in the game, I swore the refrain "children of the elder god" was "children of the unicorrrrn!" Which of those two mental images do you think would look cooler on a blacklight poster? Exactly.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Separation of Church & Play?


I recognize that religious belief is a highly personal matter, however it's impossible to play videogames without considering the subject. After all, what could be more evocative of "intelligent design" (hallelujah, I see that wince!) than a game designer cooking up a living, breathing world from scratch. Even the way players and developers interact bears an uncanny similarity to a biblical model of God interacting with humankind. Internet forums become a kind of candle-lighting prayer ritual, in which players make their petitions known to developers.

The game world is either open and full of player choice (free will) or it's linear/on-rails (predestination) leading to an authored climax (apocalypse, redemption). Speaking of apocalypse, contemporary videogames can't seem to get enough. Instead of 'amen,' the developer's refrain is, quite simply, 'mayhem." And the flood of sequels continues well after the release of Ubisoft's Army of Two: The 40th Day. Incidentally, Noah's flood described in Exodus ended on Day 41.
"We rant about games that fail to offer their characters a meaningful purpose or reason to exist (read: story). We demand a certain kind of absolute truth (read: internal consistency) from the games we play. We crave structure and order, ejecting the game and hawking it on half.com when we decide its gameplay mechanics are too chaotically assembled. The fundamental difference between videogame critics and your average gamer is that critics are constantly and forever mindful of a game’s creator(s). Your average player doesn’t give two shits who created a game’s world, as long as they enjoy playing in it."
These are just a few of the topics I turned over in my head while writing this week's installment of Start Press. I hope you'll forgive the digressions about my own personal grappling with religious faith. It felt appropriate given the context. Plus, if we want to create a stronger community as gamers and critics, we really should let our thoughts on games intersect with our life journeys more often than we currently do.

[Update: I just stumbled across Richard Clark's interesting article "Not Beyond Belief - How Religion And Gaming Interact" on Gamasutra. Glad to know I'm not the only gamer thinking about this stuff.]