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.”