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 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.]