Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Back to Uni

(People on the internet never seem to realise that 'uni' means university. Consider this me telling you that indeed uni does mean university.)

It looks like I will hopefully be returning to university next year to do a Communication and Culturual Studies Honours (ie. "Other", in the English School) to look at narrative in gaming and the such. Particuarly I want to look at the role of the author in games and all that stuff that I rant about (and other people rant about far better). So that should be fun, if my application survives the 6-months of beaurocratic hell to try to enrol.

Technically, though, I am not elligible to enrol as my Writing Major did not have the subjects to prepare me for an English School Honours. So over the summer (southern hemisphere), I will probably be writing a 5000 word research essay to hopefully pave the way into Honours. I applied yesterday for the research essay, and this is what I wrote that my research topic would be:

"The interactive nature of video games allows the presentation of unique narratives that would be impossible in conventional, non-interactive mediums such as film or literature. I wish to identify the devices that video games use to form these interactive marratives and how they affect the audience's (ie. the player's) experience."

So in five thousand words (ha!) that is what I will roughly be looking at. Hopefully looking at gaming narratives' uniqueness will create a kinda vague framework for the authorship stuff I wish to look at next year.

So the question I have to ask you guys is this: Are you aware of any scholarly pieces or academics that already name and identify devices that games use? It would make my essay easier (and make me seem far less arrogant) if I could critique someone elses definitions rather than take it upon myself to make some up myself (and not do them justice in a measly 5000 words).

So now I have to seriously start getting a bibliography together and finding scholarly readings that I can cite and the whatnot. My main issue is that I believe the most interesting discouse about gaming theory is happening in blogs and (the occasional) gaming magazine. So I will need to make a case for citing these types of sources in my essay/thesis. That said, I really haven't looked too hard for scholarly game writing or peer-reviewed journals so I shouldn't jump to conclusions. If anyone can suggest any, that would be tops.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who is the narrator?

So between ODST, Scribblenauts, and a family holiday, it has been a while since I last posted. Oops! I attempted to write a massive piece about why Halo is amazing without soundig like a fanboy...but I inevitably sounded like a fanboy so I gave up on that.

Anyway, I have been playing a LOT of ODST lately. The reviews I read were mixed (Edge gave it a 9, Good Game gave it a 5 and a 7, I think) and I think the safe conclusion is if you like Halo you will like ODST, and if you don't like Halo, you won't like ODST.

I am going to resist the urge to go on a rant about how unfortunate it is that so many people disregard Halo as a simple humanist/Americanist alien-shooter (and how unfortunate it is that so many people love it as a simple humanist/Americanist alien-shooter) when the series does so many things right, ad instead talk about some of the really interesting narrative things ODST does (at least, i thought they were interesting). I warn you, though, I am probably oging to pose more questions than I am going to answer. I'm lazy like that.

As you probably already know, ODST's story unfolds as you explore the ruins of New Mobasa and trigger flashbacks where you play a level as anothe rmember of your squad, gaining new perspectives and clues. One of Good Game's criticisms of the game was (and I paraphase) that the Rookie seems to be some mystical, omniscient medium who seems to be able to see the past simply by touching a vaguely related object. I refute this. Never does the game suggest that the Rookie himself viewed/interacted with the same flashbacks the player did. The player did, but not the character the player plays.

But how then does the Rookie know where to go next? Well, the Rookies objectives are never explained in the flashbacks. Rather, they just seem to magically appear as navpoints on his visor. This navpoints, I believe, are set by the AI, Virgil. The Rookie is not merely exploring random areas till he finds the clues needed, he is being points ever-so-subtley by the AI with locked doors, "Keep Right" signs and warning sirens. In a sense, the Rookie is merely the Ai's puppet. It is as subtle in the gameplay as it is blatant in the audio files. I love it. I love how the AI's presence is spread so thin and ghostly but so omnisciently through the story.

Anyway, Good Game's use of the word "omniscient" got me thinking. Perhaps ODST truly does have an omniscient narrator--a narrator that is capable of seeing/hearing anything from any perspective.But who is this narator if not the rookie? I put forth the (not too-well considered) notion that perhaps the AI, Virgil, is the narrator of ODST. The hints are there: the security camera cutscenes, the scanning-esque loading screens, etc. Each member of the ODST unit sees only a fraction of the entire story, but Virgil and the player see it all.

So if Virgil is the games narrator, then does that means that the characters that the player controls (the ODST squad members) are not narrators? Does this is turn mean the player is not a narrator in ODST?

I don't think that is possible. The player is still narrating. The player is still determining what order the scenes play out and the exact, physical actions of the ODST members, so as each ODST member, the player is controlling a Limitied Narrator, while Virgil is somewhat of an omniscient meta-narrator looking over the whole thing, arguably determining how the player views cutscenes.

In fact, I think I may have answered my own question: the player is the narrator(s) from start to finish, but from multiple points-of-view... maybe. I don't know! I am thinking this as I write and now I have a lot to think about.

As a side-note: the Arts student inside me wants to point out that there is no reason the Rookie could not be a female, and I place all the blame squarely on sexist English pronouns for my refering to s/he as 'he' in this post.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fontaine's Ghost

The following is a letter I wrote in response to an article in Edge Magazine (E206) titled "The Death of The Author" in which Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2, Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead, and Ragnar Tornquist of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey talk (quite bleakly) about the irrelevance of authored narratives in the future of gaming. I agreed with a lot of what Tomquist said, but really disliked what Hocking and Faliszek said--which is ironic as I love their games and have never heard of Tornquist's. Anyway, this is my response--one that could be far more elaborate and detailed, but it is a start.

I find it disappointing and somewhat unsettling that the minds behind some of recent history’s most interesting interactive narratives (namely Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 and Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead) have some of the grimmest, most apocalyptic predictions on the importance of authored narrative in the future of gaming (“Death of the Author”, E206).

The issue of authorship in narratives, and just who possesses it, has been debated in literature circles for decades. Certainly, the unique element of player interaction that makes gaming narratives so interesting complicates the author’s role, but I think it is rash to claim that the author is made redundant simply because two players will play through the same game in a different way. Player expression has not killed the author, but has merely given the author a new, slightly more subtle responsibility: that of story-presenter instead of storyteller. The author no longer writes a script for the player to read in a linear order, but instead writes a world and presents it to the player.

Left 4 Dead is an interesting example as it straddles the fence between authored narrative and player expression. Certainly, each play through the campaign will leave the player with a different experience and a slightly different narrative—one time it may be the narrative of the college student who saves the day; the next day it is the Vietnam veteran who uses his training to get the survivors to safety with a valiant self-sacrifice. However, regardless of what stories the players tell in the social experience, the games author still looms overhead, ensuring that whatever narrative is told by the four interacting players, that narrative will still be about four survivors of a zombie outbreak making their way to a hospital rooftop.

An author is required to present the narrative of Left 4 Dead, to present the narrative of four survivors desperate to escape the city. Within that presented narrative, it is the player’s responsibility to shape how the story is told. This is the opportunity that gaming alone offers us, and what makes our medium of choice so exciting.

Bioshock attempted to teach the gaming community this lesson in 2007. No matter how the player chooses to play the game, no matter what choices they make, the game’s author is still looming above them, whispering in their portable radio, saying, “Would you kindly play this narrative that I have presented, and no other.”

To state as the article’s interviewer does (and as Hocking and Faliszek agree) that players constructing their own narratives makes the author’s role redundant, is only addressing half the problem. In gaming, the author has a new role: to present the tools that the player requires to construct that narrative.

Player expression has killed the author about as successfully as Andrew Ryan killed Frank Fontaine, but all of Rapture is still jumping at his shadow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Deep Breathes

The article in the latest issue of Edge (E206), "Death of the Author"is brimming with stupid comments that I want to respond to. I am going to try to finish this article, take some deep breathes, and then see if I can't formulate an intelligent reply.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking the Mould

So I gave in and got the full version of Shadow Complex and do not regret it at all. This game is great! Just, the commitment to the old-school style of side-scroller is unprecedented despite the incredible graphics and slick animation. The story isn't half bad either. I guess I ahve to agree with the majority of people who are saying you shouldn't let the guy's political and personal beliefs prevent you from enjoying his creative IP. That, and I guess ignoring his opinion is no beter than him hating gay people... or something.

Anyway, the game is great, and one little cutscrene was awesome. This may be a little spoiler, but not really an important thing, so you decide if you want to skip this following paragraph.

I love it when game/movies/stories/whatever set up what looks to be a stereotypical, well-rehearsed scene that could be in any other game/movie/story/whatever but then just totally jar it off in another direction. In Shadow Complex, you spend the first hour-ish of the game trying to track down Claire who is going to be tortured and potentially killed by (cue dramatic music) MR. SWEET! You havent seen (dramatic music) Mr. Sweet yet, but he is only mentioned with a sense of anticipated violence by the grunts. Like, you know he is someone to fear and is a sick enough person to be able to make anyone talk. So you finally get to see (dramatic music) Mr. Sweet preparing his scalpels and instruments of torture while Claire is chained toa dentist chair beside him, talking about the gruesome things he is going to do to her, when your hero bursts in with a gun pointed squarely at Mr. Sweet's head. Mr. Sweet chuckles and I expect a MGS-esque blurb at gunpoint followed by an epic boss battle. But no... Your dude just shoots him in the head, kills him, and frees Clair, and that is that.

This was as funny as it was anticlimatical. What made it so great was the entire game up to this point had been setting up Mr. Sweet the same way Metal Gear Solid might set up Praying Mantis (but not to the same level, but you get the idea). It was just really well pulled off.

In other news, I have started playing through Bioshock for the second time. Well, third time, I suppose, but I never finished it the first time over a year ago, so I guess it is the second time. I am going for several achievments (yes, I do like going for achievments, i am one of them). I am playing it through on hard, and I want to rescue EVERY little sister. Last time I rescued/harvested about 50-50. It's gonna be a challenge, but it's gonna be cool.

BioShock is one of those few utterly incredible games up there with Half-Life and very few others that actually KNOWS how to present a story in a game without relying on other mediums. SUre it has one or two cutscenes, but the vast majority of the story is the player's own responsibility to uncover. On this playthrough, i am already much more aware of how the world fits together. SO much of the time is spent walking through halls inthe back walls of buildings and the such that if you dont stop and look around, it can just feel like random corridors. But it really does all fit together so perfectly. It truly feels like the designers created the world and then placed the story in it, instead of the lazy alternative of creating the story and the world to conveniently fit around it.

I LOVE the twist in Bioshock as one of my favourite twists of all time. (Don't worry, I am going to be vague and not say what the twist is because you NEED to experience it for yourself). I had to stop playing after it for about an hour just to think about what had happened. HOWEVER! This leads me to my gripe about Bioshock: it is hypocritical. It has the twist, it makes its very important criticism of gaming in general, and then it falls victims ot its own observation. The game should end when you get to Ryan's office. You should deal with Ryan, press the button to prevent hte explosion, have Atlas give his little spiel, then fade out to credits. That would have been excellent!

But no! It would have been too short, I hear people say. Well really, half the levels after Ryan's office are generic enough tasks that thety could be placed before Ryan's office. Regardless, I would rather a short game than a hypocritical one. I may go into this further in a later post where I name the twist so I am less vague. That said, the game is excellent and I am glad to be playing it again.

So last night TeamOGL (my housemate's team) took on Team Crazy Bill for the top spot in the Cybergamer Left4Dead ladder and just missed on the win. It was incredibly close with some great plays on boths sides. The videostreaming worked on gamestah this time, too,, so my other housemate and I prett ymuch watched the entire game from beginning to end with the added realism of our housemate yelling and swearing from across the hallway. If you have got 90mins to kill, I strongly recommend watching it. Some excellent plays all round.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shady Complex

I downloaded the trial version of Shadow Complex and really enjoyed it. It reminded me of the five seconds I have played of Super Metroid (yes, I am ashamed) and of Knytt Stories in it's exploratory ways.

Ironically, I never would have heard of this game if not for the failed boycott of it by gay-rights activists. When I first heard of this boycott, I was more than happy to join it as I had heard nothing about the game and was more than happy to stick it to the homophobic man.

But now I have read more about it and I have played it and I enjoy it. Conundrum much? Yes!

But! My ingenius girlfriend may have saved my conscience on this one. I can buy the game, play it, and just try to get some screen-captures of guards/characters in suggestive, homosexual poses, and post those online. if I think about it, this probably won't actually work, so I am trying not to think about it to hard.

Expect a rant on what is wrong with Bioshock in the near future.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A revival

So it seems that I fail at this constant, academic-quality updating, so I will attempt to revive Critical Damage with some more casual, less analytical entries. Pretty much, it is now just going to be the journal of my gaming adventures.

Though, it is a silly time to try this revival as we seem to be in a gaming lull at the moment. There are quite a few games coming out next month that I am interested in: ODST, Wet, and most of all, Scribblenauts . But last month and this month, there has been very little. I made the mistake of buying Tales of Vesperia, thinking it was time to give the ol' JRPG a go again, but I should have known better. I will probably trade it in when Final Fantasy XIII is released.

To keep myself occupied in the meantime, I picked up Burnout Paradise cheap. I loved Burnout 2, but never played the later ones that everyone praised, so it is pretty cool to get back into it, even if every single race feels like it is following the one road. Road Rage mode is amazing fun, and the seamless trasition between online and offline play is great. On a negative note, though, whoever thought "DJ Atomica on Crash FM" was clever should not be let anywhere near another game script.

Anyhow, hopefully that gets me through to the end of this month. If not, I still need to finish Point Lookout.

My housemate is currently taking part in a Left 4 Dead ladder run by cybergamer.com.au. His team, TeamOGL, are undefeated on 7 wins and currently in fourth position. Their most recent game was last night against Scrubs and was broadcast live on gamestah. I tried to watch the video but it streamed horribly, so I just listened to the audio commentators while playing Burnout. It was an incredible experience. I've never listened to so-called "e-sports" before and to hear people treat their game as seriously as people treat sport was incredible. It reminded me of dad listening to the cricket on ABC radio. At several times I had to pause Burnout and just listen as the commentators went crazy as Bill on 1hp shot two Hunters out of the air mid-pounce. It was pretty incredible to listen to. Only suggestions to the commentators would be a) write the score down on a piece of paper as the game is going so you remember it and can tell listeners who is winning, and b) stop with the immature sexist jokes tacked on the end of every sentence about Zoey; no, i do not think she enjoyed being "pounded" by the tank. No wonder no one takes gaming seriously. That aside it was exciting to listen to.

In geekier news, my 360 gamerscore hit 10,000 yesterday. I'm trying not to be proud of this.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Chinatown Wars has given me Liberty City nostalgia and I have caught myself hitting up my unfinished second play-through of GTA4.

I was thinking while taking a random phonecall from Little Jacob how I really love how GTA4 encourages you to live the story, as opposed to telling it to you.

While Nico's blind thirst for revenge and the American empire's fall from grace permiates the entire story, many of the events towards the end of the game are quite unrelated to events at the start. This is not a story of a character in a single situation, the story of GTA4 is a slice of time in Nico Bellic's life and video games is the perfect medium for such a story.

You live Nico Bellic's life for several months. You don't just do missions; you live his life. This is expressed so well through the interactions with characters outside of missions with the mobile phone and social meetings. So many of the characters are so complicated, yet the player would know nothing about them if not for the time spent with them outside of missions.

I think this style of storyliving (see what i did there?) is what has garnished the most criticism for the game, as people have an expectation that sandbox games will let them do whatever the hell they want (a la Saints Row). But for me, GTA4 shows the true storytelling potential of sandbox environments. Without being rushed through a fast paced campain that takes place in 24 hours of gametime, the player is really able to explore the characters and world and bring so much more life to the world.

I don't think anything I said in this entry is new, but on this second, more analytical play of the game, it is really standing out to me.

Also, happy 20th birthday Gameboy, that is amazing.

And yay for a new Fallout game in the near future.

My brother finally got Gears of War 2 and we are hammering away at Horde mode on Jacinto. After a few nights, we have gotten to Wave 30. Not looking forward to Waves 45+, not at all....

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Drug Dealing

So after two impatient weeks, my copy of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars finally arrived yesterday. I had read all the positive reviews (9.3, I think, at last glance at metacritic) and was quite excited.

The drug dealing sidequests are amazing yet simple fun... Buying cheap when people sell cheap and selling high when people buy high, not much brains required for that. But the risk factor is very well implemented.

For instance, I spent a good two hours doing taxi fares and selling antidepressants and weed before I could afford any of the hard stuff like cocaine and heroine. Then I got up to like $6000 dealing some cocaine, then spent all that money on a massive amount of cheap heroin I though I could move for a massive amount... only for the cops to bust the deal and for me to get arrested and lose all my heroin that I had just spent all my money on. So I was back to $94 and smuggling cheap antidepressants for $50. The build up, all-or-nothing, gambling with the cops thing is excellently implemented. I got so distracted trying to get my small fortune back that I totally forgot about the missions.

Which, sadly, isn't that bad a thing as the 'cutscenes' are dreadfully written, which is very dissapointing after the amazing acting and dialogue in GTAIV and even the GTA3s. If anything, it is the lame dialogue inbetween missions that isolates this game from the universe of GTA4. But still, the gameplay is utterly amazing. I was laughing with delight so hardly the first time I tried to make molotovs, I spilled half the petrol on the ground.

The PDA UI is also excellent and feels just like using some iPhone equivalent. Only criticism there is the inconsistencies between different touch screens. I think I would prefer to have every touchscreen mini-game to have similarly themed navigation than the different style for different things which it is at the moment. But still, that is a minor criticism. The minigames remind me so much of WarioWare Inc. And that is a good thing.

I forsee productivity stalling in the near future due to this game.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Moral Ambiguity

Wow. I really need to learn to update more frequently.

Last night I reached what I assume is the major decision-point of Fallout 3's DLC, The Pitt. The summary of the plot was simply that the player would "choose to rise up against the slavers, or side with them".

This almost put me off getting the game because I thought it would be too black-and-white for my character. Qwae, the nimble, stealthy, small-guns-and-ranged-weapons character i play in both Fallout3 and TES games draws a firm line when it comes to slavery--she opposes it. She spent hours and hours trekking over Vvardenfell looking for the Twin Lamps and hoarding slave bracelets; she slaughtered every last slaver at Paradise Falls. I thought for this character, the Pitt may be boring because, obviously, i would side with the slaves.

Well, last night proved to me the impermanence of any belief, no matter how firm. Without spoiling anything, the decision Qwae was forced to make in the Pitt was a hard one, and she found herself having to shoot slaves and side with raiders just to defend herself after making the decision.

I had to stop playing and spent at least an hour in bed rethinking my decision. Had I made th eright choice? Had I been weak? Could I really destroy the slaves' only chance at freedom because I felt doing wha thtey wanted me to do was ethically wrong?

Overall, The Pitt feels hastily developed and rushed, and I think the story could have been easily spread out and developed over many more quests and hours of gameplay... as seems to be a reoccuring flaw in DLC releases. Still, an in-game decision like this one hasn't affected me so much since Fable II's Spire. Actually, this may have even stayed with me longer after turning the console off than the Spire did. Amazing.

I may adress this again in a later post when I actually finish The Pitt. I love moral ambiguity in games.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lost, Damned, Finished, and Left for Dead

So I have spent the last few days playing through the first Downloadable Content (when I was a kid the word was Expansion Pack but whatever) of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned.

Overall, I was as impressed with it as I was with the original story arc. It was really interesting to see Liberty City through the eyes of a character without the naivety and, I guess 'innocence' of Nico Bellic. While exploring Liberty City as Johnny, I noticed so many things (small things--buildings, alleyways, people) that I never had as Nico.

This makes sense. Nico just got the boat. He would see the top of skyscrapers and the statue of Happiness and, I guess, the 'tourist' America. Johnny, on the otherhand, has been here his whole life. He is in a gang; he has a clubhouse; he rides the streets confidently like a king (a president), not some nervous tourist (not even a nervous tourish with psycotic tendencies).

The characters and the acting was as top notch as the original. I truly believe no game has acting (or character animation, whatever you wish to call it) like GTA4. The dialogue is so fresh, so real, the character movements and behaviours in cutscenes is exaggerated but so real. TLAD did just as well and each member of Lost MC had a distinct personality while still fitting into the redneck-bikie stereotype.

One criticism is the speed with which the game pushes the player through the story. You finish one mission, then almost instantly get the phonecall that something has happened and they are ready for you to do the next mission. I gues this makes sense as the player has more than likely already explored all there is to Liberty City and making them wait three game days to do something might get annoying... but it made it difficult to sympathise with the characters' situation when they have supposedly been suffering for days since the last cutscene but you watched it only ten minutes ago.

I finally bought Left4Dead yesterday. Hopefully it lives up to all I have heard.

I wanted to make a post about the playstation-fanboy riots over at Edge when they gave 7/10 to Killzone2. Instead, I will just say that graphics aren't everything (though it looks damn impressive for, yknow, a pre-rendered video), and if the gameplay is anything as repetitve as Killzone, then I think 7/10 is quite good. Nevermind the fact that some amazing games get 7/10 from Edge--Fallout 3 comes to mind. 7/10 means pretty good. If you think 7/10 is a bad score, stop reading Official [console name] Magazines.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stereotypes in Gaming

There is an interesting article over at Edge about the portrayal of Black characters in gaming. Though, it does read a bit too much like a University essay. Then again, it probably is.

I agree with everything the article says about Black characters in gaming being limited to already-accepted stereotypes such as Cole in Gears of War; though, the commenters on the thread point out several characters and games that deal with race a lot better (Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2, etc).

But I think the article is narrowing what is a wider issue in gaming: every stereotype is overly simplified. Look at the only female character is Gears of War--or any character in Gears of War for that matter. Gaming narrative is still so young and so reliant on tried-and-tested formulae that I think many game writers still only feel safe with stereotypes.

That said, the exceptions are there, and are generally in the better games: Nico Bellic, Alyx (black and female!), and others that wil lsurely come to mind the second i hit 'post'.

Of course the only game to treat all colours and creeds equally is Geometry Wars.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Assassin's Creed 2 Confirmed

[Assassin's Creed Spoilers]


I knew it had to be coming, and I'm cautiously excited, too. Things went crazy at the end of Assassin's Creed and I'm really curious to see what happen next.

What I want is AC2 to be based entired in the near-future. Like, completely move away from the medieval thing (as awesome as that was) and play as the decendant trying to escape and things. AC1 tempted the player with so much not-quite-information about the 'real' world and I really want to see more of it.

Hope Ubisoft don't screw it up.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Well done, Sparrow!

Well I finally got around to completing Fable II last night. I must say that despite its many, many, many technical and gameplay faults, the story was one of the most intriguing game stories I have played through for a very long time.

The entire tone of the storytelling was very mature and professional, for lack of better words. I think it was because it didn't play around. It was honest and blunt with the player in a way that most games fail to be. A simple example is you have sex. You don't have 'hot coffee' or a 'chat'... you have sex. Similarly, key story events just happen the way they do in any good adventure novel or movie.

Perhaps the story of Fable II is not trying to be a game-story, but just a story. There are plenty of more-compelling stories out there; when you look at the plot of Fable II, it is really quite simple. Look at Fallout 3: the sole reason it has taken me so long to complete Fable II. The story was, for me, far more interesting, but that said, it was still very much a computer game story--a story that knew it was a computer game and was careful not to be anything more than that. Fable II, on the other hand didn't sell itself so short to fall into good guy/bad guy blue blip/red blip divisions. The decision making aspects, the just-living aspects of it, the entire game embraced themes of just being... human. There are no good decisions and bad decisions, just favourable and unfavourable consequences.

[slight spoiler in this paragraph]
The story was certainly loose in parts and non-existent in others. How you actually defeated Lucien is never really explained beyond "It's your destiny." But no game before this has made me feel so responsible for my character's decisions nor has a game before this made me feel so affected by the consequences of those decisions.

Perhaps that is it: the sheer intimacy you develop with your personal character draws you, the player, further in Albion than a typical game world and thus ingrains the experience of the story that much deeper.