Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Best Of

I'm not normally one for writing reflective "The Year That Was" posts but, well, 2011 deserves one. It was a pretty giant year for me. I somehow managed to scrounge up a press pass and get across the world to the Game Developer's Conference at the start of the year; I wrote a thesis; I played more great games than I can fit in an upcoming "Top 20 Games of 2011" blog series (stay tuned!); and, perhaps most importantly, I somehow stumbled over that blurry line between "random videogame blogger" and "freelance videogame journalist/critic/what-have-you".

I've been fortunate through 2011 to have the chance this year to write a vast variety of articles for a vast variety of outlets, including such prestigious outlets as Edge and Ars Technica that I never could have imagined I would one day write for.

So I thought I would write this quick post to recap on some of my favourite pieces of writing from the past year. In other words, those few articles I wrote that I can actually stand reading myself.

"I Think They're Mad: Inside A 48 Hour Battle To Build The Best Videogame" (Ars Technica): Easily my most successful piece of writing this year (well, ever) and easily the one I most expected to fail miserably. When Truna asked me to cover this year's Fab 48 Hour Game Competition, I'm not sure why I instantly assumed that meant "record the entire 48 hours in one epic article". It wasn't until I was on my way to QUT's Kelvin Grove Campus with computer, sleeping bag, and spare clothes that I realised she has probably just meant for me to visit for an hour and write up a quick story.

Going into it, I had no idea what I was going to write or how it was going to turn out. I had sent Ben Kuchera at Ars a rambling pseudo-pitch of an email saying I would try to write a kind of liveblog equivalent of an article. A kind of subjective "as it happens" thing. I don't think I've ever written a pitch with so many instances of "kind of like" in it. Still, he asked to see a first draft once I had it written up and actually knew what the hell it was I actually wrote.

So I wrote it. I walked around and spoke to people while scribbling in a notebook, then rushed back to my laptop and tried to write out a rough draft narrative of everything I had witnessed, and then I picked up my notebook and went out again. And again. And again. It was a while before I had any real focus or idea of just what I was doing or aiming for, but things started to fall into place once I made the decision to just focus on a select few teams rather than trying to cover all of them. Fortunately, one of the teams I chose won overall--I have no idea how I would have concluded this otherwise!

So "I Think They're Mad" was a surprise hit and, in retrospect, I think I was mad to ever attempt it. It made Ars Technica's "Favourite Gaming Stories of 2011" list and even has an ebook version available for purchase if you are so inclined. I went into it expecting to come out with a 5,000 word ramble that I would just stick on this blog and have read by nobody. Instead I came out with 25,000 words that received nearly unanimous (and entirely unexpected) praise.

"Videogame Criticism, Videogame Journalism, Journalism about Videogames, Videogame Criticism: More a Rant than a Manifesto" (Critical Damage): Some of my most popular writing seems to be my angriest. I'm not quite sure why that is. Maybe the rapid, off-the-top-of-your-head writing one tends to when they are angry closely reflects my usual writing behaviour of writing rambling draft after rambling draft. I wrote this rant after the second day of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne in response to a panel that didn't really go very well. I wasn't the only person to write criticisms of the panel in the weeks after Freeplay, but I think I was the first (and, let's be honest, the drunkest).

The panel was meant to be about videogame journalism, and all four panel members were utterly deserving to be on the panel, and I would go to another panel with exactly the same synopsis with all four of them again in a flash. The problem was that the panel got quickly sidetracked into territory it was never meant to go into and a whole lot of problematic claims ended up being made without being challenged. So my responsive rant should not be (and hopefully was not) seen as an attack on the panel members, but as a response to the incorrect things that were said about topics the panel was never meant to cover.

I wrote my first draft of this post on the stairwell of a Melbourne backpacker's hostel at 2am, more than slightly drunk after the Freeplay after-party. I wisely listened to some friends on Twitter who told me to sleep on it before I post it, so the following morning I sat in Federation Square and read it aloud to my brother, Glynn, who wisely recommended I deleted about 50% of the expletives. I then posted it, packed up my computer, and chilled out in Melbourne for a day while waiting for my plane home to Brisbane.

It spread like wildfire and I instantly regretted posting it so soon after Freeplay's end as, on the whole, Freeplay was (and always is) an utterly positive and uplifting and inspiring event. I instantly regretted that the first big article to come out of it was my hugely negative rant. But, still, it had to be said and it had to be said while it was still fresh in everyone's minds. So, in the end, I'm glad I got it off my chest.

"Bastion Review" (Paste): I loved Bastion. I played it through twice in three days and felt absolutely compelled to write about it. I wanted to say everything about it and I wanted to say it now. Fortunately, Paste still needed a review so I had an outlet. This is one of those reviews that practically wrote itself. I found exactly the right words for everything I wanted to say and exactly the right paragraphs to fit it all in. This is perhaps the only review I've ever written that I didn't look back at afterwards and note all the things I forgot to mention.

"Modern Warfare 3 Isn't An Un-Game, John Walker. You Are An Un-Player (And That Is OK)" (Kotaku Australia): Another angry rant. This piece was a response to an article by Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker where he wrote a largely negative rant about Modern Warfare 3 and how it was an "un-game". I read it, and it made me kind of furious. It seemed to me like he had begrudgingly gone into the game with the intent to not enjoy it and to make it break. He seemed to want to play it in a way that Modern Warfare 3 was never meant to be played so he could blame the game when it didn't work. So I was ranting about this on Twitter when Mark Serrels, Kotaku Australia's Editor, DM'ed me and asked if I would be interested in writing a response piece. I said maybe, as I had quite a few other articles to work on. But, by the end of the day, I was emailing Mark my responding rant. Truly, it is easier to write when you are angry.

Some context I think this piece deserves: I was responding to John's article as it appeared on Kotaku. I had missed the point that it was a republished article from Rock Paper Shotgun where it had a different title and was, essentially, just John's review of the game. I felt a bit like a jerk when I realised this, that I had written this response to someone's subjective review of the game. But still, this absolute dismissal of games that aren't about the player being in a position of power by videogame criticism is a huge bugbear of mine so I am glad I wrote a response.

John then wrote a response to my response on Rock Paper Shotgun, which really just reiterated many of his opening points. Still, I think all three posts make for a really interesting dialogue. It is an argument, to be sure, but it remains a very civil one, and I think we can agree to disagree. Also, while I didn't respond to John's second post, Jim Sterling did at Destructoid, and he says pretty much what I would have said if I did respond.

"Character Building" (Kill Screen: The Intimacy Issue): So I can't link you to this article as it is in print. If you want to read it you will have to go buy Kill Screen's The Intimacy Issue, which is really a thing you should do anyway. And, really, if this wasn't in print I probably never would have written it. The idea of putting such a personal article on the internet where an "in real life" friend of family member might easily stumble across it would have absolutely terrified me--as it has terrified me enough to never even mention this article on the internet before now. The internet might be great for anonymity, but it can't beat print for discretion.

"Character Building" is about the darkest years of my ongoing struggle with anorexia through the lens of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That perhaps sounds like a strange connection, but it was a realisation of what I was doing to CJ's body in the game that first forced me to accept what I was doing to my own body.

I am neither as proud nor as terrified of any other piece of my writing.  I am so glad that I worked up the courage to write it, and that I had the editorial support in Chris Dahlen to turn it into something so much more than just another confessional. But I am also terrified that it exists out there for people to stumble across, read, and know about me. I guess acknowledging its existence on the internet, finally, is a part of getting over that terror.

Anorexia was something I had wanted to write about for quite some time (what writer isn't consistently tempted to write about their darkest secrets?), but I never had the place or the context to do it in. Who would have thought that a videogame magazine would have given me the chance to finally get it out?

And perhaps that, more than anything, is what I have gotten out of 2011. Not an excuse to play more videogames, as the joke so often goes when you tell people you write about videogames, but a chance to just write and write with a purpose.

There is an old Brainy Gamer podcast (I'm not exactly sure which one) where Michael Abbott is interviewing Chris Dahlen and Jamin Warren about Kill Screen, and one of them says (and I paraphrase) that if you are serious about writing about videogames you need to approach it primarily as a writer, not as a gamer. It sounds so obvious, but it was not something I'd ever thought so explicitly before. Later that day, I wrote my first pitch to Kill Screen and took some of the earliest steps towards seriously trying to write about videogames.

I am doing this not because I love videogames (which I do) but because I love writing. So if you read anything I wrote (including this) in 2011, thank you for giving me a reason to write.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Linear Writings

I have a couple of new articles around the place you may be interested in. Firstly, over at Games on Net, I have devoted my latest "You Know What I Love?" column to the Modern Warfare series. It's... a complicated kind of love. This is as close as I will get to a response to John Walker's response to my response to his review. Also, did you see Jim Sterling threw a hat into that particular ring, too? He says a lot of things I agree with.

Secondly, I wrote a piece for Paste about a very memorable choice in Ico that, really, wasn't a choice at all but that doesn't matter.

I'm pretty happy with how both of these turned out, and they have a lot more in common than I realised they did when I first started thinking about them both. In each I am essentially arguing for that same old thing I'm always arguing: for videogame criticism to stop putting so much onus on the player and instead look at the interrelationships of acting and being acted upon present in all games.

So hopefully I've said something interesting about that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

An Audiosurf Playlist

I've already linked my Audiosurf article over at Gameranx. Now, following suit from some of my fellow Audiosurfers on Twitter, here are the mp3s of the songs, if you wish to play them.

I've also added a Side B. While the original songs I chose were mainly focused on presenting the broad scope of what is possible in Audiosurf, Side B should be more seen as "songs I personally love to surf."

So I hope you enjoy! Let me know what you think.

Also, before you do this, you should really grab and surf Mattie Brice's playlist because it is an absolutely amazing surf.

Brendan's Audiosurf Playlist Extravaganza:

Side A
1. Killing All The Flies - Mogwai
2. It's Not Meant To Be - Tame Impala
3. Right Here Right Now - Fatboy Slim
4. Skinny Love - Bon Iver
5. Casimir Pulaski Day - Sufjan Stevens
6. Bad Romance - Lady GaGa
7. Blue Monday - New Order
8. Hearts A Mess - Gotye
9. Teardrop - Massive Attack
10. Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love - Underworld

Side B
11. Changes - Supercar
12.The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
13.Dayvan Cowboy - Boards of Canada
14. Crystal - New Order
15. Squares - The Beta Band
16. Release Yo Dell (Prodigy Mix) - Method Man
17. Clubbed To Death - Rob Dougan
18. Wolf Like Me - TV on the Radio
19. Music is My Radar - Blur


The State Library of Queensland has a place called The Edge, which is like a (for lack of a better word) mutlimedia wing of the library. It's pretty cool! People can go there to use the computers and other digital equipment and they host all sorts of funky events. For the last month or so they have been running a program specifically focused on games, and as part of this, people have been invited to write guest blogs for their website. People including me!

I decided at first that I wanted to write something about 'moments'. I have this idea that has nagged me for a long time that videogames are about moments. That it isn't about the overarching story or goals or even the mechanics of a game that really hold our attention and that keep us coming back to new games over and over again. Rather, I think it is the hope that we will create moments. These crazy, half-authored/half-chance coming-togethers of player and machine. Essentially, we play videogames in case something cool happens.

So I thought about how I would write something about this and in the end decided that, rather, I would just describe two memorable videogame moments (for me, at least). Two moments that, for very different reasons, epitomise why I love playing videogames: for those moments that everything just works to get an emotional reaction out of me.

So the first blog I wrote was about Portal and the second blog was about Modern Warfare 2. I intentionally chose fairly well-known games since I don't think I am writing for a particularly game-savvy audience. Still, hopefully you get something out of them. I'd be interested to see what people think of them!

Also, for the three or four of you that have been reading my blog for some time, you might notice these blogs are similar to a series of blogs I was writing a while back by the same name. So there you go.

And in unrelated news, I have teamed up with George Kokoris from Microsoft Game Studios and Shane Liesegang from Bethesda Studios and together we are writing a letter series as we simultaneously play through the classic shooter Marathon. We've each written an introductory post and next week will begin playing the first few levels. Please follow along with us. Maybe even play along!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THESIS: "Partners in Crime: The Relationship Between the Playable Character and the Videogame Player"

If you have been following me on any kind of social media network this year, you've probably heard me mention once or twice that I've been writing an Honours* thesis in Communication and Cultural Studies at The University of Queensland. Well, I submitted it about a month ago and today the marks finally got released. It would seem I got a First, which essentially means I received some mark above 80%. So this is great!

And now that marks are finalised, I can finally let you fine people read it, if you wish. If you want it, and if I have done this correctly, you should be able to get it from this link.

If in all my social media network rantings I never actually mentioned what I was doing, here is my abstract:

This thesis creates a space for videogame criticism to account for the playable character’s role in the shaping of the player’s experience. Just as the player defines certain actions and characteristics of the playable character, so too do the character’s actions and characteristics shape the player’s experience. The two exist in an intimate coupling where intention and action start with neither actor but in the flow of information and agency between them.

To account for how meaning is produced in videogame play the videogame critic must account not only for the player’s agency and actions but also for how the player is acted upon. Players interact with videogames textually as fictional worlds embedded with actual imperatives that afford and constraint different styles of play. While most videogame scholars acknowledge the role of the playable character as a vehicle through which the player navigates and configures this world, rarely is its mediating effect on the player fully recognised. In discourses surrounding videogame play it is not unlikely for the terms “player” and “character” to be used interchangeably when discussing the agent that acts within the videogame’s fictional world. This uncertainty as to just who is acting highlights a gap in the existing literature on playable characters and their significance towards the production of textual meaning.

Engaging with actor-network theory and cyborg theory to understand videogame play as cybernetic, this thesis demonstrates how the playable character’s nonhuman agency—independent of the player’s intentions—can be accounted for. It explores how the agencies of both player and playable character intertwine and mediate each other to form a hybrid actor, the player-character, which is the actual actor that navigates both the actual and fictional worlds encompassed in videogame play. Finally, through a textual analysis of Grand Theft Auto IV, this thesis demonstrates how the player-character hybrid can be deployed to account for the playable character’s role in the production of the videogame text’s meaning.

So there you go. If this sounds relevant to your interests, please give it a read and let me know what you think.

(*For those of you in countries where university doesn't have an Honours year, it is this kind of bridging, research year you do right at the end of your undergraduate degree, usually (though not always) if you want to go onto postgraduate work. So this isn't quite on the level of a Masters or PhD dissertation, so don't expect such a thing!)

Skyrim Review and Some Further Thoughts

Some games, the review just comes out. Sometimes to the extent that I must stop playing the game simply to write the review as it won't wait any longer. Sometimes you just get this perfect mix of experience and critical thoughts that make writing a review the easiest thing ever.

Skyrim was no such game.

My review is up now for Pixel Hunt. I'm really happy with everything I said, but there is so much more I didn't say. I probably could have kept writing for another three thousand words or so if I wanted to and had the energy to. But writing a review of a game that a) so many people have already played, and b) where everyone is going to have such a unique experience, is pretty dang hard, it seems.

I focus on two main things: how utterly awesome the world is, and how utterly horrid the UI is. You might think the amount of words I devote to the UI is unfair but it really is bad and it really, really bugs me in a way it wouldn't in a lesser game. It in no way makes the game any less worth playing, but it certainly hurts the experience regardless.

Two things I didn't mention in my review that I would've liked were combat and music. For combat, I wanted to say something along the lines of "If you are playing an Elder Scrolls game for the combat, you are doing it wrong." But I think I have told enough people they are wrong for one week! The combat is good enough for your character to engage with. Sure, throw a few companions and enemies in the mix and it can begin to look like an Under-6s soccer match, but for the most part, it works good enough. You don't have the control of Dark Souls, sure, but that isn't the point of the game. Really, I would've been happy if they had removed the different kind of attacks all together and just had one attack for each weapon, a la Morrowind with the "use best attack" option on.

The weird slow-mo executions are... weird and, for the most part, jarring. The problem with these is that you can't really have a set of executions for all characters when every single character is going to have its own imagined morals and personality. I can hardly imagine Qwae decapitating people, but she needs to for the bonus damage that perk gives her. Sometimes it works. Sneaking up behind someone and slitting their throat is enormously fulfilling, but picking up a cave bear on two daggers just feels like some weird, VATS-induced hallucination.

The music is something I realised I forgot to mention the moment my review went live. My thoughts on it have been sitting on a piece of paper beside my computer for weeks! Argh! Anyway, these are my thoughts on the music that should have been in the review: I remember reading a review of Morrowind years ago that lauded the game but hated the boring, looping soundtrack. The review recommended that you rip your Lord of the Rings soundtrack to your xbox, and play it instead of Morrowind's soundtrack. I can't help but think Skyrim's developers read that review and did exactly that. The way the music shifts from ambient skipping-through-the-woods to harrowing choir there-is-a-dragon-right-above-you is amazing. It is so subtle then so present, and the way it interacts with the dragon language and your shouts is really quite phenomenal.

And finally, some further thoughts I have for something I want to write in the coming weeks. I've been thinking about Skyrim and coming of age. At the start of the game, when you create your character and start thinking about what skills you will focus in, you aren't really choosing who your character will be, but who they will become. For hours, you are limited by whatever armour/weapons/magic you can scrounge. You want to be sneaky, perhaps, but you suck at sneaking. So you keep sneaking-and-failing then fight until you sneak-and-fail a little less. And a little less. Soon enough, you are walking up to a Bandit Chief and stabbing him in the back with a dagger before he even realises his entire posse is dead. So it's this weird thing where for the first part of the game you don't really get to be the character you want, but eventually you get to become them.

And that is something I plan to write more on. In the meantime, perhaps you want to go read my review.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You're Playing It Wrong!

I have an editorial up at Kotaku Australia which is a response to an editorial that Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker wrote on Wednesday. In this editorial I might say one or two crazy things like "Modern Warfare 3 is my favourite game of 2011" and "You are playing it wrong!". So nothing too crazy.

I won't waste your time repeating what I say there here, but I felt I needed to write this as I am tired of a game's worth being measured in "freedom". I think there are plenty of valid criticisms to be leveled at Modern Warfare 3, but not being able to be a leader or to choose where you go isn't one of them. Talk about it's (arguable) glorifying of war or the complete lack of female characters or the implausibility of its plot if you wish. You can even talk about how it is or isn't well paced and how the set-pieces are or aren't well directed, but judging it simply for being a linear game is wrong, I feel.

And certainly, Walker's piece did make some of these valid criticisms, and that is cool! My disagreement should be seen as specifically towards those bits of his article that discuss the game is terms of choice or lack thereof. Such as his title.

Related, here is an old blog post I wrote last year when I played the first Modern Warfare and was utterly surprised at how much I enjoyed it despite my complete lack of agency.

UPDATE: Walker has now written a response to my response to his post on Rock Paper Shotgun. While moving away from a form of game criticism obsessed with player freedom and privilege is central to my interests and studies, I'm kind of over forwarding this very narrow debate centered on a single game. So instead of repeating my arguments in response to Walker's repetition of his own and continuing this ad infinitum, I'll just leave this as my closing remark and walk away:

If someone is reading a book you despise or watching a film you hate, you might tell them that it is a horrible book/film, but you wouldn't tell them that it isn't a book/film. Yet we seem to do this all the time with games. I hate this. If any videogame regardless of its quality does not fit within your definition of what a videogame is, the problem is with your definition, not the game.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Writing: Audiosurf, Lost Hearts, and Qwae.


A few things that I've written have appeared around the internet this week. I would like to give each piece its own kind of afterthoughts piece here but, sadly, I don't really have the time for that so here is some quick thoughts on each of them before I go back to Skyrim writing all the other articles I have due:

"You Know What I Love? Qwae" at Games On Net: My second column looking at why I love a thing that I love is looking at Qwae, my personalised character that exists across videogames and universes. While I was writing this I thought I was describing this weird thing that only I do. It turns out I could not have been more wrong. In the comments, everyone is telling the story of their own personalised character they have been playing with for years. It's really quite fascinating.

"The Immersive Wonder of Audiosurf" at Gameranx: This article is, essentially, a mixtape for you to play in Audiosurf. I love Audiosurf and I want you to love Audiosurf, and these are some of the best songs and can think of to achieve this. Of course, as soon as I wrote this I thought of another 20-odd songs that are even better. This was a post I'd been chewing over for some time so it's nice to finally give it a home.

"Where Is My Heart? review at Edge: Technically this one is in the magazine, but you can read most of it online, at least. Where Is My Heart? is an amazing little indie game on PSN that I've been wanting to play since I got to try it out at the Kill Screen party at GDC earlier this year. Was great to finally be able to just sit down for an afternoon and play it. It was one of those games that I needed to write a review about afterwards just because I had so much I wanted to say about it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dark Souls: A Time To Grind

I wrote an article for Gameranx about temporality in Dark Souls and how it justifies the centrality of grinding within the game's play. Some disagree with my rather broad definition of "grinding", but I am really happy with the piece, regardless. It is an idea I have been musing on for a few weeks and was planning on just throwing up here on the blog, so I am glad I was able to give it a proper home.

Time and games is fascinating. It is something my Honours supervisor kept returning to this year throughout my thesis, but which ultimately I did not have the time to look at. So many different games deal with time in so many different ways. Lots of people are saying lots of interesting things about how videogames deal with and disrupt space, and I'm looking forward to when time and temporality are given the same appreciation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cloud's Strife: A Rejected Pitch

[When Kill Screen announced their call for submissions to their Intimacy Issue towards the end of 2010, they explicitly stated that an article about Aeris's death was probably not what they were after. That gave me an idea: a story about Aeris's death. Fortunately, they rejected this story--not least of all because Brian Taylor wrote a far superior story about the subject. Also, I had pitched another story, too, which they did accept, and which I am much happier with.

So I stumbled across the old draft of my Aeris's death piece in my "Old Writing" folder just recently. It was better than I remembered. Certainly not Kill Screen quality, but not bad for something I frantically threw together. So rather than gathering cyberdust on my computer, I might as well post it here. Enjoy.]

Cloud's Strife

 The safety harness clicks open. Cloud pushes it up, leans over the side of the rollercoaster, and spews chunks onto the platform. He coughs, splutters, spits, and looks up at the scoreboard: 3200 points—enough for another prize.

He steadies himself with a trembling arm against the railing and tries to climb out of the cart without landing in his lunch. His knees buckle the moment he puts weight on them, but he manages to keep his footing. As he stumbles towards the Prize Collection Booth an oversized moogle glares at him, mop in one hand, bucket in the other.

“Sorry,” Cloud gags.

The moogle man just shakes his Styrofoam head and walks towards the mess.

Cloud’s world still spins. The loops and the corkscrews have knocked, twisted, and tumbled the Golden Saucer theme music into a discordant, demonic taunt that echoes through his mushed brain.

 Lights and shapes still flash across his vision; ghosts of targets, stars, and aliens are burnt onto his retina. He has not left Speed Square for, well, he isn’t sure, a day at the least. Over and over and over he rides the rollercoaster, shooting the laser gun at the targets that jump from the same spots every time. At first he would fail to reach the 2000 points required to win the prize, but now he had memorised the whole course and is pushing 4000 each go. The first time he pushed to the front of the queue security tried to throw him out, but one look at his oversized sword kept them at bay. Now Speed Square was shut off to all other customers as Cloud continued to ride the rollercoaster.

To her credit, the lady at the Prize Collection Booth still smiles and still bows as low as she did the first time. She knows the prize Cloud craves, but she is tied to the Golden Saucer’s Prize Randomisation Policy. It isn’t her fault, Cloud keeps reminding himself, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Congratulations! You win a prize!” She repeats the line with only the faintest quiver to her voice.
Cloud leans on the counter with bone-white knuckles, and she jumps back, momentarily losing her composure. With obvious reluctance, she places the X-Potion on the counter.

“God damn it no!” Cloud roars and sweeps the X-Potion aside, the glass vial smashing against the ground. “You know what I want!”

The Prize Collection Booth Lady bows profusely. “I’m sorry, sir, but the Golden Saucer Prize Randomisation Policy states that—“

“I don’t fucking care. I need—“


A hand on his shoulder. Cloud turns quickly—too quickly, almost spiralling into the ground. For a painful, delirious thousandth of a second he thinks it has worked, that she has returned, that Aeris is alive again. But he blinks again and this time he recognises Tifa. Her eyes are wide with horror.

“My God, Cloud. What are you doing?”

Cloud pushes her away and stumbles away from the Prize Collection Booth. He needs to buy another ticket.

“Cloud!” Tifa follows him. “This isn’t going to bring her back!”

Cloud rounds on her. “What the fuck else can I do, Tifa? Aeris is dead, you get it? Dead. The rest of you might not care but I can save her. I just need to take thirty-five 1/35 Soldiers to an old man in a cave near Junon, and this is the only way to get them.”

Tifa stands her ground. “Just like the 400 tornberries, Cloud? Just like the 99 megalixirs? I know you miss her, Cloud, but listen to yourself. These rumours you are following are clearly false.”

Cloud shakes his head. “No. This will work. I will bring her back.”

He turns and slams 10GP onto the ticket counter. “One please.”

“Cloud! Listen to me! You have sold our best materia, our best items. Meteor is going to destroy the world in a matter of days. We need to go stop Sephiroth. Now.”

“I need to save Aeris.”

“Cloud. She is dead.”

The rollercoaster slides up to the starting line. Cloud’s own vomit is still stained down the cart’s side. He steps over it and slides in behind the laser gun.

“Is this how you think she wants to be remembered? By you wasting your final days on a rollercoaster?
Cloud, we need you. She needs you.”

Cloud hesitates. He remembers Aeris’s eyes, her hair, the way she offered him that first flower.

The way she died in his arms.


He pulls the safety harness down and locks it shut.

“I’m sorry, Tifa.”


She keeps shouting, but the wheels are already clicking as the chain drags the cart up the first slope. Cloud shuts his eyes and swallows the lump in his throat. When he opens them again, the hill is cresting and fireworks are exploding and lights are flashing. He grips the trigger.

“I’m coming, Aeris.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Writing: Open Worlds and Game Jams

Two pieces of writing I have been working on recently went live today. Firstly, I wrote this article over at Games On Net in which I try to distill my thoughts on why I am so excited about Skyrim. There is something special about a new open world that I really wanted to catch the soul of. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

And over at Ars Technica is Part One of my sit in of the Fabulous 48 Hour Game Competition. I spent practically the entire forty-eight hours at this thing and watched energy transfer from developer to crafted game like a zubat suck HP. Or some analogy like that. It was a thrilling weekend and I'm really excited with how this piece turned out, so please go over and read Part One and stay tuned for parts Two and Three, which I will add links to from this post when they go up. Also, over at the game competition's blog, a few of the games are already online and available to download and play, if the article makes you curious.

In other news, my Honours thesis is due on Monday, so in the coming weeks you can expect a link to that, too, if you have any interest in my academic writing.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

El Shaddai Review

My review of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is now up at Pixel Hunt. You can read it if you want.

As will become apparent quickly enough if you do indeed read it, is that I got really, really bored with El Shaddai. This disappointed and frustrated me in equal measures. I love the games that try to do something different, something weird, something other than men-with-guns-in-corridors-shooting-alien-zombies. So I really wanted to like El Shaddai--so much that I tolerated its dreadfully boring play for hours just to give it a chance to get better. It was weird. It was experimental. It had weird colours! It deserved a chance, right?

But El Shaddai is creatively bankrupt. As I say in my review, the pretty visuals are just wallpaper on the corridor. My engagement with the world is so frivolous, so insignificant, that I might as well have been watching a video. But as this was meant to be a videogame, it was a video where I had to constantly hold down the 'play' button, and that gets old pretty quickly.

So as I was playing it and undeniably not enjoying myself, I kept thinking, "But I really like Rez." It seemed at first to be a weird game to be thinking of, but the two really have a lot in common in how they attempt to engage the player. The difference is only that Rez succeeds. Both are highly linear, require minimal interaction from the player, and rely heavily on their audiovisual representation. But this works for Rez. It doesn't work at all for El Shaddai. I think it is because Rez is skeletal, stripped back, wireframe and drumbeats--so a stripped back interaction with it worked. El Shaddai is lush, deep, multi-layered and complex--so a stripped back interaction with it just feels fraudulent.

So that is why the review talks about Rez before it talks about El Shaddai, which is probably breaking some game review style guide's rules or something. I don't dislike El Shaddai because it is weird and experimental. I dislike it because it is generic, dogmatic, and so devoid of any creativity beyond its pretty graphics that there is nothing unique there to experience. In short, it has no soul.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gears of War 3 Review

I wrote a review of Gears of War 3 over at Pixelhunt. You can read it now, if you want. It doesn't say everything I want to say about Gears of War 3, but Gears of War 3 is a huge game so there is a lot I want to say about it.

One thing my review didn't have space for was the excellent menu and stats system. Gears of Wars 2 was one of those few games on 360 where I wanted to track down and get as many achievements as I wanted, as they were actually enjoyable, additional things to do. Gears of War 3 channels this superbly by tracking your exact progress with every single achievement. Within the menus, you can find out exactly what collectables you are yet to find, exactly which weapon executions you are yet to achieve, exactly which campaign levels you still need to complete on what difficulty, etc. It makes going after the achievements even more enjoyable. The user-interface improvements stretch to multiplayer, too, with dropping in and out of groups and parties immensely easy without having to go to the dashboard.

Story wise, I talk about it a lot in the review, but I only touch on how much I love the Gears characters. Sure, they are all dude-bros, but that doesn't stop them from being characters. Epic has done an excellent job of crafting these personalities and their little nuanced reactions to different scenarios. For me, Gears of War isn't for dude-bros, it's about dude-bros. I find the relationship between Marcus and Dom especially interesting, especially in relation to how I have played through ever Gears of Wars' campaign. Namely, with my own brother on co-op with myself as Marcus and him as Dom. There is a moment later in Gears of War 3 which had a huge affect on this, but I won't spoil it yet and will save that for a later post. Though, the name of the chapter in-game pretty much spoils it anyway. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it reflects on its inevitability. Who knows!

I also have many ideas of how Gears of War can be read as a reflection on the futility and contradictory nature of modern masculinity, but that too can wait for a latter post. For now, I find it fascinating that for all their brawn, none of the Gears are equipped with whatever it is they need to save those they love. They are always coming up short and painfully aware of it. Even the cover system reflects this: you are not good enough to face them head-on. I think it captures something really interesting. I could stretch such a post to discuss the Locust as a non-phallic civilization because they don't build towers. You know, just to really annoy those that insist Gears of War is about nothing.

Anyway, there you go. Gears of War 3 is great and you should play it. Also, we should play it. My gamertag should be over there on the side somewhere. If you see me playing, feel free to drop in and help out with a few waves on Horde mode.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ignorance is Bliss. Kill the Scientists.

As I’m writing this, several Italian scientists are going on trial for manslaughter because (if I am understanding the news reports I have read correctly), they failed to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people. Not because they caused the earthquake; not because they knew there would be an earthquake and didn’t tell anyone; but because they didn’t know there would be an earthquake. Essentially (and again, assuming I am reading this correctly), the scientists are being charged with the deaths of hundreds simply because they were unable to do something they hoped they would be able to do.

Months earlier, Australia’s top climate scientists began receiving abusive phone calls as well as death threats because of the work they have been doing towards better understanding global warming. As opposed to the Italian scientists being crucified for not doing something the general public wanted them to do, these scientists are being threatened for saying something no one wants to hear.

These are two pretty extreme examples of the fall out of what I see as a recent, pervasive trend of wanting to shoot the scientific messenger. Scientists try to understand the world and sometimes that means discovering things we would rather not know, such as how we are responsible for a progressively warming planet and rising sea levels. Instead of dealing with the problems, we move to discredit those delivering it. After all, it is easier to assume the world isn’t warming than it is to actually change our behaviours and societies enough to fix it.

Not helping is a rise in the fundamentalist and conservative right in both the press and politics of many countries that have an interest in not just discrediting climate change but also evolution, stem cell research, and many other strands of science. As such, over the past decades, the authority of scientists on a vast range of subjects has been eroded down to the same level as newspaper editorials, footpath vox pops, and angry bloggers. Many people don't want to hear from the brainy, ivory tower intellectuals about a topic; they want to hear from the average Joe.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Scientists have always been scapegoated for telling people what they don’t want to hear and not telling them what they do want to hear. It comes in waves, and at the moment, as we come to terms with just how unsustainable our first-world lives really are, we are certainly at the muddy bottom of the curve.

Personally, I find it all incredibly infuriating when I watch television and see creationism and evolution debated as equal ‘theories’, or when the secret agendas of a climate scientist's peer-reviewed findings are questioned by an oil company, but that is not an area I’m an expert in or tend to write on. What I find interesting, however, is how this general attitude to the sciences permeates and is reflected in our cultural texts. In particularly, two videogames I’ve played and loved in recent months I think could be seen as emerging from this culture that has become obsessed with discrediting and deriding the sciences.

Two caveats. One: There have been stories about well-meaning scientists making dumb mistakes and paying the consequences for them for as long as there has been scientists (Frankenstein, for instance), and I am not trying to say “Look at this entirely unique thing that has never happened before!”. Rather, I’m hoping to just point at what I see as a really interesting, recent emergence of it. Two: These games, I don’t for a minute believe, are intentionally forwarding some secret, anti-science agenda. Rather, they simply reflect the culture they are produced in.

The first game is Halfbrick’s amazing Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride is the definitive moment where Canabalt stopped referring to a group of games mimicking Saltsman’s game and started referring to an actual genre. Jetpack Joyride has a simple framing narrative set up mostly in the game’s trailer: playable character Barry is a down-and-out blue collar who is sick of his day job and decides to steal a machinegun jetpack from the top secret science lab. After blowing through the wall and sending scientists flying, Barry straps on the backpack and the player must use the jetpack (and a range of other contraptions) to avoid electric zappers and missiles while collecting coins and getting as far as possible. The gameplay is so simple, so intuitive, yet so compelling, so diverse, and so intuitive. It is a phenomenal game and if you own an iOS device and have yet to own it, you are doing yourself a great disservice. But what stands out most in Jetpack Joyride is the insane amount of polish that has gone into the game—something that Halfbrick is already well known for after their successful Fruit Ninja. The shockwaves from explosions, the “thud” of the Little Stomper vehicle’s footsteps, the thrust of the jetpack all feel so good.

One such detail is the little scientists running around beneath you. The little guys are panicking, helpless, and clueless as you destroy their lab and send bullets flying everywhere. It’s as though they have no idea how to react to Barry stealing their device. They run back and forward, they get in the road of rockets, get capped by your bullets, immolated by your flames, and zapped by the zappers. Sometimes, they just slip over.

It’s meant to be funny, watching them run around and get zapped, and it truly is. The scientists also come into play in the games mission structure, with objectives such as high-fiving (i.e. running past) scientists and achievements for avoiding them. But, ultimately, Jetpack Joyride is a product of a culture influenced by politicians and the press determined to discredit and degrade scientists. Everything in the portrayal of the scientists and of Barry in relationship to the scientists is about portraying the supposedly-intelligent scientists as actually dumb and brought down to the same level as the supposedly-yokel blue-collar worker who is actually in charge. It’s a revenge fantasy, really. Look at how dumb the stupid scientists are. Not so smart now, eh? I have your contraption and you don’t have any answers as to what to do about it.

The other game is also an iOS title, but one that is probably far less known. This game is League of Evil, and you play a brawny cyborg who must punch the heads off evil scientists. Again, League of Evil is a great game. Despite the on-screen controls, it is one of the better sidescrollers on iOS and has a real Super Meat Boy Lite kind of feel. But, again, it is possible to read it as emerging from an anti-science culture. Unlike Jetpack Joyride’s scientists, the unquestioningly evil scientists of League of Evil just stand there, waiting for you to punch their heads off. It’s the brawn’s time to shine.

In fairness, this is part and parcel of being a videogame—it is easier to put the player in control of a character whose strength lies in physical abilities than intellectual ones. When you press a button on your controller, you generally want to see something tangible happen in the videogame’s world. It’s something that Half Life 2 comments on when Barney remarks how useful Gordon Freeman’s MIT doctorate was for pulling a lever. So usually, if not the bad guy, the scientist is rarely in a role more noble than sidekick, the one giving the brawny main dude his cool gadgets. Snake has Otakon, Bond has Q, Ezio has de Vinci.

So it is not as though Jetpack Joyride and League of Evil have made scientists the victims/enemies simple because “society hates science nowadays” or anything so reductive. But rather, the way the scientists are presented as dumb, degraded, and helpless offers an interesting lens through which we can see how the prolonged treatment of scientists and science within the media and by our politicians is perhaps starting to drip down into an everyday perception of science as untrustworthy, annoying, and dangerous.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Split Screen: Freedom in Alcatraz

I have commenced a new column at Kill Screen that is all about playable characters and how they control us. The first, introductory column went up this week and is all about Alcatraz of Crysis 2 and The Shawshank Redemption. It also has an amazing piece of art by Daniel Purvis. If you read it, I'd love to hear what you think about it.

I am Waaaaggghhh

I really like Warhammer 40,000. Not so much the tabletop game (which I suck at) or the miniatures (which I love but, again, suck at) but the fictional universe itself. I love the idea of the Imperium of Man as this futuristic, zealous, fundamentalist movement where humanity itself is the religion. I always found it a fascinating mix of medieval zeal and distopic science-fantasy and continued to devour many novels set among its stars even after I gave up the tabletop game and diverted my funds away from the miniatures to buying more videogames.

Still, despite my love of the fiction, I did not find myself too interested in Space Marine before it came out. I was never too interested in Orks, and as fascinated as I was with the Imperium of Man, I always found Ultramarines to be the drabbest of many drab Space Marine chapters. But then I watched the cinematic trailer (I'm a sucker for cinematic trailers) and had a change of heart when I saw that Chaos would be making an appearance, too. Ultimately, the trailer convinced me that the game successfully captured the feel and vibe of the 40K universe, and that was enough for me.

I'm glad I did because Space Marine is really, really fun. The boltguns feel meaty and the melee is visceral. Shooting and hacking is streamed beautifully so combat slides fluidly from picking off enemy gunners with a scoped rifle to thinning out the hordes with the boltgun before throwing yourself fully into the remainder with chainsword or power axe to pick off those that are left--and there will always be many left. Combat is repetitive and button-mashy, but this quick three-act cycle of distant/mid/close combat gives it a really steady, thumping rhythm that is pleasurable despite its repetition.

The game's feel has been polished well so that the combat is accentuated brilliantly. Orks have this kind of satisfying 'splat' of blood when the fatal bullet impacts them, as though their body expels all the blood remaining in their veins as they die. This offers a vital piece of information to the player, informing them thatone target is dead and they can move onto the next, but it is also, simply, really satisfying to feel your opponents pop like that. It is an odd comparison, perhaps, but the closest game that 'feels' like that to me is Geometry Wars 2. The enemies, when they die, have the same kind of chunk, meaty, splatting nuance to them. This splat is missing from close combat, but that is hardly a problem as it will be a rare occasion that you fell an ork in melee and its body is still in one piece. 

Though, unfortunately, the game is still chunky and clumsy in places. The narrative is rarely convincing and poorly communicated to the player. Often, it feels as though the characters have had a conversation while the player was out of the room, and the player is the only one present who doesn't know something. One example: the space marines see a weird ork contraption in the distance and one of them ponders "What is that?!" Minutes later, you are approaching it and your character says "Quickly! We must destroy the ork ram!" Oh, okay. I guess it is a ram then. I'm glad we figured that out and no one told me. It is always minor things, but it jars with the progression of the story in quite a few places. Also, for a game about space marines, there are precious few space marines present. If not for one vox transmission too far into the game's second chapter, I would have sworn the Emperor only deployed three single space marines to take out an ork infestation. Ultimately, the narrative feels like a condiment to the game and in no way integral to it.

Which is odd as the worldbuilding is excellent. Everything feels like Warhammer 40K. The universe, the species, the imperium are all depicted perfectly so that simply engaging with that fiction makes the game enjoyable. The way the space marines tower over the imperial guardsmen, the humility and zeal, the pride and lack of compassion all feel superb. The ork models are vibrantly coloured as though they were picked right out of the pages of a White Dwarf magazine. Everything looks and feels like 40K and this more than makes up for the clumsy, poorly delivered narrative.

There are also glitches here and there, such as enemies getting stuck on walls or allies teleporting onto lifts or audio diaries playing simultaneously with squadmate chatter. Also, all space marines and orks seem to have come from the same region of England, but none of this gets in the road of the rollicking fun of shooting and chopping through orks. Sadly, though, one thing does: Chaos.

When Chaos rocks up about four chapters into the game, things begin to go downhill insofar as the fundamental fun of combat begins to decline. Significantly, the pleasurable 'splat' of a dead ork is not present with the chaos demons. The demons have a long, drawn out death animation that every single demon plays out exactly the same way when they die as your power axe just keeps swinging through them as though they have already returned to the warp. The few Chaos Space Marines I have fought so far, too, are hardly enjoyable to fight. Your bolts no longer explode in the flesh but ting insignificantly off power armour. The gameplay has been tuned to make fighting orks fun in a 1-vs-1000 kind of style. But Chaos Space Marines are your equal, and this doesn't sit well in the game's framework. Ultimately, fighting Chaos is unsatisfying.

Which is interesting, as it was the presence of Chaos that convinced me to try the game out. But once they appear, it becomes painfully clear that the game was not designed for them. Perhaps a more Gears of War-based cover shooter would be more enjoyable against Chaos Space Marines, as then you could bunker down and fight against them as equals. But Space Marine is designed for you to jump unafraid into a horde of orks and to be confident that you can come out of it on the other side alive and covered in the blood of greenskins.

The game itself seems to realise this. Not long after Chaos arrived, they now seem to have disappeared again as I go back to helping Guardsmen fight the orks. I'm sure they'll appear again soon, though, and hopefully something changes to make them more enjoyable to fight. But for now, Space Marine seems to be a good case study against putting something in a game just because you can. Sure, Chaos fits with the fiction of the 40K universe and they have been as beautifully realised within the game as every other element, but in the style of play that Space Marine demands, they are just no fun to fight. But for now, splatting orks is more than making up for them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do Videogames Need To Be Fun?

So while I was in Melbourne for Freeplay, I found myself participating in a discussion over at Kotaku Australia about what a videogame 'is' whether videogames have to be fun. Perhaps I said something you will find interesting. If not, the other very intelligent people in the discussion surely did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Videogame Criticism, Videogame Journalism, Journalism about Videogames, Videogame Criticism: More a Rant than a Manifesto

So Freeplay is over now. Just as last year’s festival, it was a vibrant and energy-filled few days of great talks, great drinks, and great people. The games ‘industry’ might be in the ashes stage of its phoenix-like life cycle, but the community is as strong and as full of ideas as it ever was.  Just like last year, I am now super excited about the developers, academics, writers, and players in this country and the kinds of things they are able to achieve when given (or, as is most often the case, when they forcibly take) the opportunity.

Yet, despite this, a couple of panels of today, Sunday, the final day of the festival, raised quite a few issues in regards to videogame journalism and videogame criticism. Firstly, in a discussion about supporting and marketing and financing indie projects, I was surprised to sense a kind of underlying tone where it seemed to be implied that the mainstream gaming press doesn’t care about indie games and that they only report on the next Modern Warfare or round of hats for Team Fortress 2. Certainly, go to any major gaming news website and this will be what you predominately see, but only because that is predominately what the gaming websites get sent. If you, as an indie, were to send the editor of a mainstream gaming news site some press pack about your indie title, chances are they will run with it if it is interesting. Game journalists are just as desperate and keen and passionate about new gaming experiences as their readers and players generally are. If you make it, they won’t come. But if you make it and you give it to them, they will almost certainly talk about it.

So this is my first point and it is a lot tidier and self contained than the rest of this inevitable rant will be. The second final panel of the day was called “The Words We Use” and, essentially, was about videogame criticism and journalism. I was pretty excited there was a panel talking about criticism at a primarily developer-focused event. More so, there were actual journalists and critics on the panel. Great! On the panel was Andrew McMillen (a great journalist of many hats), Alison Croggon (a theater critic), Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame), and Drew Taylor, formerly a THQ PR peep and a videogame culture guy who started the magazine JumpButton.

So two things upfront. Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for each of the individual panelists and their work. Secondly, the panel was the most infuriating thing I have ever witnessed.

My hands were tremblings and my heart was beating erratically every sentence that was said. I tweeted so much I lost 30% of the battery of my phone (but gained about fifty new followers, so hi!).

I don’t want to write here a rundown of the entire presentation, or to pick apart specific things specific people said. I also don’t want to talk about the very problematic gender issues that were brought up (very, very, poorly) by the panel’s chair (who, bafflingly, I don’t believe was a journalist, a critic, or a person who has read anything written about games for the past decade or two). Neither do I want to attack any of the individual panelists. As I said, I highly respect the work of all of them. I can’t stress that enough.

Rather, I want to focus on what most infuriated me about the panel. What ultimately caused the argument and its tone to be so, well, dumb, was due to what I think are much vaster issues in and around videogame writing, and the things that were said at this panel hit it home pretty hard that these things are really quite serious problems for those of us who care about videogame writing. So I think it is more constructive to talk about these problems than to throw harpoons at the speakers themselves. The fact they seem so oblivious to these following things should be a wake-up call to us that we need to do something about these problems. These problems, in list form are:

1. The conflation of videogame journalism, videogame criticism, and journalism about videogames into one interchangeable term.

2. The erroneous idea that videogame journalists should give a shit about developers.

3. The presumption that videogame criticism is ‘too intellectual’ and pretentious and doesn’t actually matter to ‘general players’.

4. The possibility that videogame criticism is, actually, perhaps too pretentious.

So let me hit on these one by one. Themes and arguments will probably overlaps and be out of whack but hear me out and let us see where this goes.

1. The Conflation of Terms

So firstly, the conflation of videogame journalism, videogame criticism, and journalism about videogames. In the panel, these different-but-related things were often used as interchangeable terms for the same thing—namely big, mainstream gaming news sites that just repeat the press releases given to them by a publisher, as though that thin sliver of a fraction is all the writing about videogames that is out there. This could not be further from the truth. These are, in fact, three completely different things. There are gaming news sites whose primary purpose is to tell the consumers of games what games are coming out, when they will be out, and what they will be like. This is, for my purpose, videogame journalism. It is an enthusiast press written for an audience that simply wants to know what is coming out. That such a press might copy press releases word for word is not a problem because it is not attempting to be a critical engagement. It is just telling people who want to know what is coming out, what is coming out.

But that does not mean we can not have great journalism about videogames. The most recent exemplar of this is Andrew McMillen’s “Why Did L.A Noire Take Seven Years To Make?”. Another superb example would be Tracey Lien’s look at “The Rise and Fall of Red Ant”. Yet another would be Leigh Alexander's "No Female Heroes at Activision?" These pieces are great, investigative pieces of journalism written about videogames and the videogame industry. Often (but not always) these pieces are written by the same people who write what I am calling above ‘videogame journalism’ simply because, well, they are journalists who write about videogames. Often, too, they are on the same websites, as the same readership will be interested in it. But they are not the same thing and they are not comparable. Just because one is super investigative and deep and explores things others would want hidden and the other is copy-pasting a press statement, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. They are serving different purposes.

And then there is videogame criticism which is yet another entirely different (though closely related) thing. Those three journalism articles linked in the previous paragraph? Not criticism. I won’t dare try to define here what criticism ‘is’ but, broadly, it is the stuff out there on other blogs. On this blog. Linked to on Critical Distance and written by Tom Bissell in Extra Lives or on Grantland and spoken by Yahtzee in Zero Punctuation and written by Kirk Hamilton at Kill Screen and the list goes on. But it is more than that. It is the Red vs Blue machinima movies. It is every Livejournal about The Sims. Criticism, broadly, is not about what a videogame will be or even what a videogame is. It is about an experience. Generally, that is the experience of playing a game, not of developing a game, as most criticism is (and should be) about playing the videogame and the individual, subjective experience of playing that videogame and what you, personally, felt from that. This doesn't mean a designer cannot write about their own experience of playing that game as a designer (more on that below). If nothing in this paragraph sounds like anything you have ever engaged with, go read “Bow Nigga” and come back here. Seriously. Read it now. The point is criticism isn't about 'story' and it isn't about mechanics; it is about experience.

Games criticism is not about how good or bad a game is but about the experience you had interacting with that game. You might scoff and say “But what is the point? Does it help me design a better videogame? Does it tell me if I should buy this game?” No. Well, it might, but it doesn’t have to. Rather, criticism is about what you experience when you play a videogame. There was a talk the previous day about archiving videogames and hardware, and it bothered me that there was no talk about archiving criticism because that is how we archive how a game was experienced. That Moment in Bioshock or That Moment in Portal matter because of the lived experience of playing that moment and the 20-odd hours of moments beforehand. This is why videogames struggle to permeate broader culture: because if you don’t play that game for 20 hours, you don’t ‘get’ why it was significant. Criticism bridges this gap. Putting a controller into someone’s hand who has never played Bioshock before and making them play the ‘Would You Kindly’ scene will have no impact on them whatsoever other than reinforce ideas of how violent videogames are. Make that same person read any great piece of criticism about that scene and why it was so powerful, and they will get it.

If you want videogames to ‘matter’ to the rest of culture and society, then you need good videogame criticism.

So, again, this criticism is often written by the same people writing the above journalisms. But, again, it is fulfilling a different purpose. I have much, much, much more to say about the significance and proliferation of criticism that already exists but I guess I will get to that. But for now, the three things are not the same. They are closely related; they overlap; but they serve a different purpose and are written in different ways. You can not measure them all with the same yardstick, as this panel was trying to do.

2. The Erroneous Idea

One panel member made the observation about how, when he was in PR for a game publisher, it was so frustrating to see a game get a bad review (a 5!) even though they had told the reviewer that the game was still buggy. This turned into a further rant (partially continued on Twitter) about the ability for a bad review to close studios so, ultimately, reviewers and journalists should be careful about writing bad things about games.

No. They should not.

The videogame journalist is writing for the consumer. If they were to not warn them not to buy a shit product, then they would not be doing their jobs properly. When I write a review, I don’t care if it could mean the difference between you, as a developer, still having a job or not. I care if the game, if my experience of the game (because a review is at least as much criticism as it is consumer advice) is not decent. If it isn’t, I would be a poor writer if I did not tell my readers that.

However! If I was writing an investigative journalism piece into the many, many issues with the industry (as many of the best pieces often are, as the above examples) then, clearly, the developer and the developer’s concerns are mine. But when I write a review, when any reviewer worth her salt writes critically about a game, be it as consumer advice or not, the developer’s career should be the last thing on their mind.

3. The Presumption of Pretentiousness 

So now I am back to ranting about criticism in what perhaps infuriated me more about the panel than any other moment (except, perhaps, the one sentence within which the chair somehow managed to fit a dick joke, a bukkake joke, and a question about gender equality). On the panel was Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation fame. I want to stress that I love Zero Punctuation. It is crude, yes, but it is funny and consistent and self-effacing and, underneath it all, often hits very close to home about what does and doesn’t work in a game, albeit in very exaggerated terms. Now, Yahtzee was kind of held up on the panel as The Critic while the others were Journalists. Someone (again I think it was the chair) made the observation (if one could call it that) that videogame criticism goes hand-in-hand with humour, non-seriousness, and phallic jokes. Someone else said videogame criticism often tries too hard to be ‘intellectual’ and is only written for a small ‘niche’ of readers.

You are fucking kidding me.

So game conferences generally and Freeplay specifically seem to always be about how videogames are really something worth caring about. They mean something to us, they are art, they matter, they are cultural objects and we need them to seep into broader culture so that the significant, meaningful, artistic contributions that all games and play can make to society can indeed be made. That is the general kind of vibe. Videogames matter and we must move beyond the stereotypes.

In which case, why the hell should our game criticism pander and dwell on the same damn stereotypes? ‘Too intellectual’?! No. Videogames are smart, compelling, meaningful things and the intellectual writing about them is exactly the writing that portrays this fact to a broader culture. You want videogames to matter and be respected as intellectual? Then you fucking well need some intellectual criticism of your games.

And guess what? It is not a small ‘niche’ of readers and writers. There is a whole internet, maybe a whole two internets of thoughtful intelligent games writing. I’m not just talking about its formalised institutions like Kill Screen and the blogs often seen on Critical Distance (but they are a huge part of it and not even they were acknowledged by this panel), but every Dwarf Fortress story illustrated for a forum post. Ever Sim who has its own LiveJournal. There is so much intelligent criticism about what games are, what games mean, and why games matter and to not even mention that at a panel about videogame writing is a huge disservice to everyone associated to the culture and industry of videogame design and play.

And it is not just some anti-developer style of writing, either. Developers, programmers, coders, marketers, everyone has a crucial, unique perspective to bring to videogame criticism. Nels Anderson and Matthew Gallant are two superb examples that come to mind with great blogs full of criticism from a design perspective and well worth the read even if you never want to design a game yourself. Similarly, the criticism about playing games is interesting even if you never want to play a game yourself. I can’t stress this point enough: good criticism is where videogames stop being “lol videogames” and become accepted culture.

But what it all comes down to is that the word ‘intellectual’ should never be said as a negative point of any kind of creative process. Ever. If games are intellectual (which they are), then they deserve intellectual criticism.

4. The Possibility That Pretentiousness Actually Exists

So that was my high horse. Hopefully it inspires you enough to go start your own criticism blog. Because in videogames, everyone should be a critic. Everyone should be writing about their experiences and talking about their experiences and sharing their experiences. But, in reality, a lot of people don’t.

A panel on videogame criticism seemed entirely unaware of the vast blogosphere that exists and even of the more formalised outlets such as Kill Screen or even Extra Lives. And, earlier in the day, as talked about at the start of this rant, a whole bunch of indies thought game writers of any creed didn’t care for them at all.

What if us videogame critics have indeed built an ivory tower for ourselves? Or, rather, what if we have somehow managed to convince everyone on the ‘outside’ that such an ivory tower exists? I for one think it doesn’t exist. I quite literally blogged my way into videogame writing and I believe that if you are a good writer who has something interesting to say about videogames, you will be heard.
But are we more cut off from the world than we (or at least I) believe? Not even just non-gaming culture, but gaming culture, too? No one on this panel seemed to be aware of the broader videogame criticism out there. Is this an actual problem? Are we too self-absorbed. Are we even a we? I hope we aren’t a we, because I think we are just the players. All of them. All the people who have a stake in having real, actual experiences of these games and those experiences are worth recording and worth remembering and worth sharing. So I don’t know. I hope ‘we’ are an open community and that anyone who wants to write about games does write about games and, further, I hope we are reaching or can reach the broader gaming community of players and developers alike.

Developers need criticism, and criticism needs developers. Journalism about videogames is not always videogame journalism. All these things and entities are related and inseparable but they are not all the same thing. To treat them as such is a disservice to all of them.

Most importantly, and the single most crucial thing I want to say in response to the panel is that videogame criticism is out there. So much of it. It is so intelligent and so thoughtful and so well written and all of it is worth reading. Perhaps you have never engaged with it and you are only reading this because you added me to Twitter during Freeplay this year. If that is you, the least you can do is read Ben Abraham’s slide from the (un)Keynote as well as Critical Distance’s weekly blogroll. But there is so much more out there. On the mainstream news sites, in magazines (Edge, Hyper, and PC Powerplay are all incorporating more critically-minded sections of late). Just as crucially: you can write it too. Don’t say what the game is about, say what you experienced. That’s it. And videogames takes one little step closer to being as respected as it should be by the rest of society.

As one last final aside, if you do want to write videogame criticism yourself (please do!) but you have no idea how to, it is simple. Firstly, read Kieron Gillen's manifesto on New Games Journalism. Secondly, write what you feel. That's it. If our Ivory Tower exists, we would love to have you move in with us.

[Update - Katie Williams has also written up a reflection on this year's Freeplay and the role of this panel within the festival that I think is well worth a read. She does a far better job of putting this one panel in perspective to the rest of the festival than I have.

And @SearingScarlet (Sorry, I don't know their real name) has written the best post I have seen so far to deal with the gender-related problems of the panel which you should really read, too. 

And Andrew McMillen, one of the panelists, has uploaded his recording of the panel if you wish to hear it for yourself.

And Ben Abraham has written an opinion piece for Gamasutra about the sexism and gender issues that bubbled over during the panel. You should absolutely read this.  

And two of Australia's (if not the world's) best female videogame journalists have had a discussion on Kotaku Australia about the issues and concerns of being a non-male videogame writer. It is an excellent post and it is great to see two such notable female writers having the guts to speak out on such a topic when doing so is so often a suicide-by-comment-section. Fortunately, the Kotaku Australia commenters seem engaged, polite, and interesting. Read it. Katie Williams then wrote a second post sort of in response to this one that is both personal and heartbreaking and makes me hate all males ever including myself. You should read it as this shit totally isn't cool.

And Freeplay director Paul Callaghan has addressed the panel and the reaction to it on Freeplay's official blog. He also apologised, which I don't believe is fair. Paul is an amazing man who (with others) does a phenomenal job every year pulling Freeplay together to be the awesome festival it is. Still, you can read his thoughts on the reaction to the panel here

And panel chair Leigh Klaver has written a post justifying (I guess) and clarifying the panel. To be completely honest, I don't really think it addresses anything but instead shows how disengaged he is with the broader sphere of critical videogame writers by not including a single link to any of the pieces written about the panel by other writers and a reference to only one of said pieces. This is not necessarily an insult aimed at Klaver, but is perhaps indicative of just how closed off this sphere is. Who knows. I am not satisfied with his responses to the gender issues, either. Still, to be fair, he deserves a chance to explain so give him a read.

If you see any other articles on the panel around the place, please leave a link to them in the comments.]

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bastion: A Review and Some Further Thoughts on Choice and Inevitability

Firstly, I wrote a review of Bastion for Paste Magazine. You can read it here, and perhaps you should before you read the rest of this post so I don't have to repeat myself. But if you don't feel like it, here is a run down: Bastion is an utterly beautiful and melancholy game that makes you care for a world that no longer exists. There. That should be all you need for the rest of this post. Also, the rest of this post will contain spoilers for both Bastion and Grand Theft Auto IV so perhaps don't read on if you are yet to complete Bastion at least once.

At the end of Bastion you have to make a couple of choices. The first one is potentially heartbreaking, but not relevant to what I want to say here so I won't go into any details. The second one is what I am concerned with here. At the end of Bastion you can choose to do two things: either rewind time to before the Calamity ripped the world to shreds, or use the Bastion as some kind of airship to fly off and find new lands. However, both have consequences. If you rewind time and 'unbreak' the world, 'you' will cease to exist anymore. The Kid, Rucks, and Zia will have no memory of the post-Calamity world--something that would be hard enough to give up if Zia did not admit right towards the end that she has only ever known happiness since the Calamity. Further, there is no guarantee that people will not make the same mistake and simply cause the Calamity all over again. The consequences of continuing on, of using the Bastion as an airship to fly off into the sunset is two-fold: firstly, obviously, it means the Calamity will never be undone. Ever. Secondly (and more vaguely), the world around you will be irreversibly damaged as you take off. Or something. The game is not overly clear on this point but it seems to me that all the beasts and Ura in the vicinity will be destroyed by you choosing to fly off on the Bastion to find new lands. Perhaps I misread this, though.

It was a hard choice to make and, ultimately, I did not feel as though I had 'completed' the game until I played through it twice and made each choice. The first time I decided to turn back time. At that point, it was the obvious choice. Having heard so many stories about the pre-Calamity world from Rucks's tales, I needed to save it--or rather, to give it a second chance to save itself.

The second time through, when I played "New Game Plus" (which is essentially a new game where you keep you experience and weapons and the enemies get more difficult to reflect this), it was clear that this was not a distinct, 'other' game. The continuation of my character as well as some slight, clever changes in the narration made it clear to me that the Calamity had happened again. So on this playthrough, it made sense to make the other choice, to move forward into the future and not to stagnate in the past. It was bittersweet, of course, as it meant saying goodbye to the world I had wanted to visit for two generations of myself now, but it was filled with a sense of hope and optimism. There was me, Zia, and Rucks, and we were going to explore a brave new world.

The beauty of this was the the utter gravity of my choice to say goodbye to the pre-Calamity world was painfully apparent largely due to my previous playthrough. Because of that playthrough, I knew that turning back time yet again was inevitable. We often say that videogame narratives are about being able to answer the "what if" question. "What if I did this, not that." Bastion answers the question brutally by making you see that what happens is not pretty and then asking you to choose again.

Of course, the flaw of this is that not everyone makes the choice in the order I made them. I feel as though the game is attempting to set up the choices to be made in that order by trying to tie you down to the world with Rucks's sweet, sweet voice, but some players will certainly choose the future their first time through. This, then, destabilises the meta-narrative that, for me, ran through both playthroughs. It's a weakness of the story that i feel Bastion was trying to tell but one that is in no way new to videogames: the player will rarely do what the storyteller wants them to do.

Only one other game felt as incomplete until I played it twice and made the different choice: Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar's games always have that inevitability streak, but never has it hit me so hard as it did in Grand Theft Auto IV. Towards the end of the game, Niko makes the choice to either work for a man that previously betrayed him (and make a lot of money) or to kill the man for vengeance (and make no money). His cousin, Roman, wants him to take the money. His girlfriend, Kate... well, she doesn't want him to get revenge, but she doesn't want him to take the money, either. Either way, Niko has promised himself, his cousin, and Kate that this is it, that he will get himself out of this sink-pit of crime once he does this One Last Thing.

So the player makes the choice. Long story short, if you take the money (what Roman wanted you to do), then Roman gets shot dead at his wedding; if you take revenge (what Kate kind of wanted but not really) then Kate gets shot dead at Roman's wedding. The way the narrative progresses, both endings make sense based on the choices you made, and both leave Niko devastated at the end of the game's narrative.

The first time through the game you think "what if". What if you had just taken the money? Kate would still be alive. What if you had walked away? Roman would still be alive. So you play again; you make the other choice; and Niko simply loses someone else he loves. It kind of makes Niko Bellic one of gaming's few tragic characters. The utter helplessness of the situation he gets himself in becomes all the more apparent when you make a different choice and end up at a similarly dark conclusion--if you can call an aimless existence in a foreign city with the specter of a loved one haunting you a conclusion.

Neither of these games do this inevitability-through-choice perfectly. Bastion's hinges on makes choices in a certain order for the full impact to hit the player. Meanwhile, many people had enough trouble getting through one complete game of Grand Theft Auto IV, let alone two. But it is something I would like to see games exploit more often.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Thesis. By Others.

When I uploaded a draft abstract of my thesis back in April, I promised I would continue to write updates about it here. Alas, I have failed to do that. In part this is because I've constantly had other writing obligations and in part it has been because the only times recently that thoughts related to my thesis have been coherent enough to publish is when I am actually writing it. At the moment I am struggling through Chapter One, which I'm hoping will allow me to situate where the player-character relationship sits, stradling the fourth-wall between the actual and virtual worlds (or something like this). Anyway, as I have been failing to write anything coherent about it, I have instead been writing incoherent rambles over at Google+ with which to have conversations with people about my ill-formed ideas.

And conversations I have had! Every post has seen a stack of thoughtful engagement and bouncing of ideas back and fourth and has been really useful for my writing and for forming my ideas. Most surprisingly, these rambles have actually got other people thinking and writing in areas related to the player-character relationship. In particular, Adrian Forest has written a blog post at Three Parts Theory called "Inhabiting Game Spaces" which brings together the relationship between player and character in regards to his primary interest in videogame spaces. Further, Kris Ligman has written a post at Popmatters about videogames, characters, and fourth walls and in doing so has rendered one of my incoherent rambles coherent. Both posts are an excellent read and in a weird, cyclical, nonlinear, new media kinda way, will hopefully end up being cited in my final thesis.

As for my rambles, if you wish to read them yourself, let me know and I will add you to the appropriate circles on Google+.