Thursday, November 29, 2012

Killing is Harmless: Some Reviews

In the last couple of days, three really interesting reviews of Killing is Harmless have appeared on the internet. Each in its own way rightly points out that the approach of criticism I use in Killing is Harmless is not the be-all-and-end-all approach to videogame criticism. In response, I want to write a post that states just why I think this kind of 'personal experience' criticism is worth doing and just what it achieves, but I've decided not to rush that and maybe wait a few days before I do it so I don't just come across as some slighted artist complaining that you just don't get me, man. Instead, for now, I'll just point you to the reviews, recommend you read them, and make some really small remark about each of them:

First and foremost, good friend, talented developer, and intimidating intellect Darius Kazemi's review rightly notes that Killing is Harmless doesn't discuss the game so much as my experience of the game. Darius brilliantly highlights the shortcomings of my approach—what it can't do—and the conversation in the comments has been incredible.

Tristan Damen makes a similar observation in his review. Though Damen goes so far to say that Killing is Harmless isn't criticism of the "game itself" so much as a discussion of my own experiences. I guess my rebuttal of this would be that criticism of 'games themselves' isn't what I'm interested in doing. The game-as-played is certainly the area I am interested in. But that can wait for another post.

At Medium Difficulty Bq Roth's review also rightly notes all the things Killing is Harmless doesn't do. Roth notes throughout the review that I said multiple times before the book's release that I wasn't attempting to do these things in the first place, but I guess it is still valid to note what it doesn't (and can't do). Roth also discusses the press's fixation with the book's length to make some telling observations about our confidence about the state of the medium (the medium of game criticism, that is, not the medium of games). I think this fixation came from my own regular tweeting about the number of words I had written, as well as my reluctance to actually call it a 'book'. Regardless, his observations on this are interesting.

At This Cage Is Worms, Cameron Kunzelman has written a really great analysis of the book, too. Of particular interest is how he scrutinises my far too casual and flippant references to mental illnesses.

I have more opinions on all of these, and I will write more about them in the coming weeks, but for now I just want to flag them as all totally worth your time to read.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Killing is Harmless: A Correction

This post serves as a correction to a factual error I make towards the end of Killing is Harmless. The book will soon be updated with a footnote that links to this article (along with a couple dozen fixed typos thanks to the amazing support of some of my readers!). This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line and, if it is possible for a piece of criticism to have spoilers, for Killing is Harmless. I recommend reading Killing is Harmless before you read this post, if you are going to read it at all.

So I made a simple error as to how one of the endings plays out. Interestingly, what I have written in Killing is Harmless is exactly what I thought happened, and in my memory it is still exactly how I remember it happening. It's as though my memory has pushed out the real events and inserted something more palatable—not unlike Walker does throughout the game, really.

I have written in the book that the first time I played, I let Konrad count to five, and he shot before I made any choice. After this, I said that, somehow, Konrad still died. This, it has been pointed out to me, is not what happens. What actually happens if you don't make a choice before Konrad gets to five, is that he does indeed shoot and kill Walker, playing out the same ending as if the player makes Walker shoot himself.

So what did I do that made me misunderstand it so? As I write in the book, I was not ready to make a choice. Konrad was counting so fast. He was up to "THREE" before I was even starting to think about what to do. So, what must have happened was that I just freaked out and pulled the trigger, scared as I was of what would happen if he got to "FIVE". So I shot Konrad, I refused to acknowledge what I did, and the game continued.

In the book—in my memory—what I have said is that at this point I was still refusing to make a choice; I was still denying my own responsibility. This is still what I was doing when I shot him and then suppressed the memory, to be sure, but more than this, I was also being a coward. Clearly, I was denying my own denial by not accepting what I had done. Like, I truly believed that I had not shot Konrad. Even after a couple of readers emailed me to tell me I was wrong, I had to go back and play this chapter again before I believed them. In my head, my memory is still that I didn't fire.

So I don't believe this changes my interpretation of the game at all. Rather, I think it is fascinating that my memory warped the events of the game much as Walker's mind warps the events he went through.

Perhaps the only insight I missed making was that some players, when Konrad started talking, just put the controller down and wait for Konrad to make the shot. It's not so much a continued refusal to make any more choices, as I read it, but a refusal to continue playing. Just as killing yourself at this point is accepting responsibility for your own choices, allowing Konrad to kill you is making the choice to no longer play the game. Each option includes the player accepting something about themselves, and each in its own way ends with Walker's death.

So that is a factual mistake I made in Killing is Harmless. My description of my experience is still accurate, but I think it is important to note that that is not how that choice actually plays out. But how fascinating is it that, as a narrator of this book, I have become as unreliable in the retelling of some experiences as Walker himself? I think that is incredible.

Thank you again, everyone, for your support of the book. It has been an incredible success and I can never repay such kindness.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Killing is Harmless is out!

Killing is Harmless's cover illustration, by Daniel Purvis
It's out! Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line is out! You can buy it! You can follow this very link to Stolen Projects where you will see it and be able to buy it. An previously announced, we have decided to use a "pay what you want" model. You can purchase the .pdf and .epub versions together in a zip for a minimum price of $2.99. If you think it is worth more than that, you are welcome to pay a little bit more. Obviously, whatever you decide to pay, I will be greatly, greatly appreciative. 
I'm really, really excited for you to finally be able to read this. The attention that this project has received from both the gaming press and players alike has been really humbling and, if I am to be completely honest, terrifying. I really hope the actual product meets everybody's expectation.
Creating this has been an insane journey. I truly did not appreciate how much work I was getting myself into when I started it. But it's all been worth it and I am really, really proud of the final product. This is a book! It has an ISBN number! That is insane!
In that vein, there is an acknowledgements page in the book that thanks a lot of people, but I really do need to thank Daniel Purvis again for the incredibly hard work he has put in to turn my overwhelming Word doc into this book. The last few days he has put in a huge effort to ensure this would be out on time. That illustration up there is the front cover that Daniel created specifically for the front cover. I love it so much. I think it really speaks to that breaking down of actual and virtual violence that The Line comments on so succinctly, and which I examine throughout Killing is Harmless.
I won't waste your time with this post telling you all over again just what Killing is Harmless is. You can read up about it in the original announcement if you missed it. If you buy the book, thank you! If you read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can comment on this post, you can email me at, or you can give me a shout on Twitter. Negative or positive, I'd love to hear what you think.
Thank you again to everyone who has shown their support during this process. I really hope it meets your expectations.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Update: Killing is Harmless

Thought I should write a quick update about Killing is Harmless. I don't have anything particularly new to say about it that wasn't in the initial announcement, but I can assure you that we are still on track to have it out this Wednesday 21, 2012. So that is great!

Since writing that announcement, Killing is Harmless has, much to my surprise, received a moderate amount of press attention, thanks largely to an entirely unexpected article on PC Gamer. Word of it has also made its way to a few forums around the internet, and NeoGAF has had a moderately interesting discussion (for a forum thread) around the game and the idea of long-form games criticism.

Most exciting for me personally, L. Rhodes from CultureRamp asked if he could interview me about the project. We spoke about military shooters, self-reflexive virtual violence, long-form criticism, and other things in an interview that you can read here. I was really humbled to be asked to do this interview as CultureRamp post phenomenally insightful articles and metacriticism, such as this superb series from earlier this year on the broader state of writing about games.

I don't have a link to an exact page you will be able to buy Killing Is Harmless from yet, but keep an eye on this blog or my Twitter feed and you'll surely see something. I can say, though, that we will almost definitely probably be selling it through Gumroad as it was the simplest storefront we could find, and also one of the only ones that didn't use PayPal. I know a lot of people don't like using PayPal, so I really wanted to avoid going through them if we can. Also, PayPal apparently puts insane fees on every sale, especially those in a foreign currency, so that would've been gross.

Perhaps most exciting about using Gumroad, purely selfishly at least, is that is has a "pay what you want" option, much like the Humble Indie Bundles and the such. So we will be enabling that for Killing is Harmless. You can still get it for as little as $2.99, of course, but if for some crazy reason you feel like giving us more money, you are now able to do that as well!

And that's really all the news on the project at the moment. Dan is slaving away at the cover illustration; I have just completed a final proofread to flush out those pesky typos. All that's left is to put it together and get the store set up so y'all can get your hands and eyes on it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gravity Rush: Some Pictures and Thoughts

This last week I procured a PS Vita. Perhaps the two most exciting things about the console I've discovered thus far are a) the fact you can take screenshots with a simple two-button combo, and b) Gravity Rush. I'm really, really enjoying Gravity Rush. It's like a combination of VVVVVV and a hypothetical version of inFamous that isn't terrible. I really enjoy just falling around its fantastical Steampunkish-but-not-terrible world. But most of all, I just really like how it looks. So in lieu of having anything of length to write or say about it, I thought I would just share some of my screenshots and say a few words about why I think it is great. (Hopefully this embedded imgur album thing works. I really didn't want to go pasting every single image through Blogger's godawful interface).

(Also, Gravity Rush's music is really great, too. But Kirk Hamilton is perhaps better suited to tell you about that.)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Announcing "Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line"

[UPDATE: The book is now out and you can buy a package with both .pdf and .epub formats here for a minimum price of $2.99. Kindle and print versions to hopefully be announced in coming weeks. You can also read the first section of the book for free on Kotaku AU.]

As you might already know, I have been working on a ‘thing’ for the last few months to do with Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line. It is a very long thing, coming in at about 50,000 words. For the longest time I had no idea just what it was that I was creating, and I had no idea just what I was going to do with it. Well, now I'm finally at a confident enough place with it that I think I can replace the word 'thing' when I talk about it to 'book'. Because, really, that is what it is. I have written a book about Spec Ops: The Line
I have talked a little bit about the fact it exists on Twitter, referring to it as my “Big Spec Ops Thing”. Well now I am in a position to formally announce what Big Spec Ops Thing is, when it will be out, and how you will be able to obtain a copy of it. I am excited to finally be able to tell you about this, and I want to go into some detail about just what this is and why I have done it. But if all you want is the straight up details of when and where you can get it, there is a TL;DR version at the bottom of this post. 

So what is it actually called?
First things first: that name. As attached as I have grown to Big Spec Ops Things, I have chosen to title the book Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. “Killing is Harmless” is an appropriation of one of the loading screen messages later in the game that states, in part, “To kill for entertainment is harmless.” I considered using this whole quote as my title, but it was just a bit clumsy, and there are other meanings in “Killing is Harmless” as a phrase that I think are more applicable to what I am writing. So this name is both an allusion to something from the game and my own interpretations, so I think it is a good name.

What even is it?
I never did find a more succinct (or less wanky) phrase for what this is I have actually written other than “a close, critical reading.” That is exactly what it is. When I finished playing The Line, I was left with a whole heap of questions. These questions the game left me with were largely to do with the nature of virtual acts of violence, but also some further questions to do with Western interventionism and wars conducted via proxies. Killing is Harmless is, in part, an attempt to find some answers to these questions but, primarily, it is an exploration into just how The Line came to make me ask these questions in the first place.
While with most other games I could perhaps sum up their themes and how they conveyed them in a thousand words or so, I found this to be impossible with The Line. I think this is largely to do with the unique way that The Line is structured. Most videogames have narratives that work in a kind of looping fashion, going in complete circles one after the other, and you can talk about any of one of these loops in relative isolation. The Line, meanwhile, is one long, slow, gradual arc, and it is truly difficult to talk about any single bit of it without talking about all of it. 
So to analyse The Line, then, I needed to analyse all of The Line, from the opening menu screen to the end of the final epilogue. I needed to look at every single little bit of the game from start to finish to see how it all goes together in such a way to make me ask the questions I asked. So that is what I have done. 
After an introductory Foreword, the book is split into sections that align with the game’s sections (a prologue, fifteen chapters, and an epilogue). Each section talks through that stage, describing and analysing in equal part. I look at what the characters say, what the environment looks like, what music is playing, what the player does and is made to do, and the relationship between all of these. It is a close reading of the game, an act of interpretation that looks at the game much like you could look at a book or a film, and it tries to understand how it conveys what it conveys to me.
Also, as an appendix, I have compiled a “Critical Compilation” of articles, interviews, blogs, and video essays that other people have created to discuss The Line. All up, I have about forty links to a really vast variety of viewpoints and opinions and takes on the game. I’ve done this so that my particularly long take on the game doesn’t get crowned as some kind of be-all-and-end-all authoritative reading of the game. A lot of people didn’t get out of the game what I got out of it, and I think this is important to acknowledge. This critical compilation is also going to find itself a home on Critical Distance, accessible to all, and regularly updated as more people write more things about the game in the future.
Most importantly, if I want people to read 50,000 words about a game, those words better look pretty damn nice. This has to be a book, not just a really long article. Thus, I am super excited to announce that I have Daniel Purvis helping me design and format my words into a product that is going to be really special. Daniel is the editor of JumpButton Magazine (having recently taken over from Drew Taylor), regularly illustrates Dan Golding’s column in Hyper Magazine, and has produced all kinds of crazy and awesome illustrations for Kill Screen and other places in the past (check out some of his stuff here). In addition to doing all the design stuff for the book that I am utterly incapable of doing, Daniel will also be designing a unique illustration for the book’s cover. So I’m really excited about that, and I am stoked to have someone on board who can make the quality of the finished product really reflect how much time and commitment I put into writing the words. Hopefully it will be something that people want to own as much as they want to read.

That’s insane. Why would you do such a thing?
Ideally, I hope that others who found the game to be so powerfully evocative might be able to get some insight into just how it was so. Further, I hope that those that disliked the game might find some answers as to just why others did find it powerful. Further still, I think good videogame criticism should be able to describe to someone who has not played a certain game just what that game meant to those that did play it. Hopefully Killing is Harmless will be able to communicate to those that are interested in The Line but never wish to play it themselves just why other people found it so engaging.
But more than that, on perhaps a slightly more meta level, I’m hoping to show that a single videogame can be so critically rich as to warrant such a prolonged interrogation. I want to show that one videogame has enough happening in it to warrant 50,000 words of analysis. As videogame criticism comes into its own, related to but distinct from games journalism, I think it is important to explore new avenues and methods of being a videogame critic. Not just new ways to ‘do’ games criticism, but new ways to distribute it to a readership. This project is such an exploration. 
I believe long-form videogame criticism is a valid form of writing and one that an audience exists for. Certainly, too many words about a single game can become long-winded and self-indulgent and repetitive and utterly meaningless. But if it is done correctly, it can also allow for the most magical of insights that a smaller article just can’t grasp. Look at Tim Roger’s must-read 12,000 word analysis of Earthbound, for instance. Some of the insights it makes are absolutely stunning, and could not be made in a shorter article.
I also believe that videogame criticism does not always have to cling on parasitically to games journalism outlets. I believe that games criticism is slowly coming into maturity to a point where it is worth trying to distribute works of criticism independently from journalism. So by writing this long-form piece on a single game and distributing it beyond the normal channels of game journalism magazines/websites, I’m hoping that maybe (maybe) this book can help games criticism find its own feet a little bit. 
So those are the main reasons I am doing this: because The Line deserves it; to validate long-form games criticism; to help mature games criticism as its own form.

Cool story. So when and where can I get it?
We are looking to sell Killing is Harmless through Daniel’s website as part of his new publishing company, Stolen Projects. I don’t have a URL for you yet but watch this space. We will be selling it as a straight up PDF (no DRM or any of that stuff) that will look equally slick on your desktop or your tablet. Going forward, we’ll hopefully look into selling it through other venues like Amazon or Apple, but for now the PDF will be the way to go. In the near future, we are hoping to also release a limited edition print run, but that is all up just dreams at the moment.
As for when you can buy it, the official release date we have set for ourselves is Wednesday 14 November. So that is less that two weeks away! Exciting! And kind of terrifying!

[Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the release date has been pushed back a week to Wednesday 21 November. I'm terribly, terribly sorry to have to do this, but it was necessary to ensure the quality of the final product. Ultimately, I had completely underestimated the amount of work that goes into creating a book (turns out it takes quite a lot). So absolutely definitely, the ebook will be released on Wednesday 21 November. Again, my sincerest apologies for the delay.]

How Much Will It Cost?
We’ve decided on the price of $4.99, with an introductory price for the first month of $2.99. Hopefully this will be cheap enough to get people interested in actually paying for it, but not so cheap as to devalue the work. I believe videogame criticism is valuable, and videogame critics deserve to be paid for the work they do. So hopefully this introductory price is a good way to balance out this belief with the internet’s sense of entitlement for getting everything really cheap. Ultimately, I think the quality (never mind the sheer quantity) of the work in addition to Daniel’s fine design work makes this a more than acceptable price. 
From each sale, a percentage will go into hosting the shop on Daniel’s website, a percentage will go to Daniel for his work as designer, and the rest goes to me. In many ways, this is an experiment to see just how viable it is to write long-form criticism about games. If this sells well, it is certainly something I will happily explore doing again in the future.

TL;DR Version
Killing is Harmless is a digital book that performs a close, critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line. You can buy it on Wednesday November 14 Wednesday November 21 for a special introductory price of $2.99. Day One DLC is TBA. Get excited.

So I’m really excited about this, not just because of the amount of time I’ve spent working on it, but because I am cautiously optimistic that this could maybe be a turning point for the kind of writing I do about videogames. Maybe. I guess I’ll find out on November 14.

[Update: Lots of people on Twitter have asked me about the possibility of the book being released on other platforms in the future. I can't confirm anything yet, but we are exploring both Kindle and print as other platforms that we really want to make Killing is Harmless available on. So after we release the PDF, we will be looking at that, but I can't yet say if that will certainly be happening. Hopefully it will.]

Friday, November 2, 2012

October Writing

(I don't actually talk about Binary Domain in this post but I played it this month and it is awesome so there you go.)

It's getting a bit cliché to start these monthly writing summary posts with a comment about how fast the month has gone but my god how is it already November? I thought October was going to be a slower month than the previous two, but I was sorely mistaken. Still, I may have nearly killed myself in the process, but I wrote a few things this past month I was really exceptionally proud of. So that is okay.

First, the regular gigs.

At Unwinnable I wrote quite a few pieces this past month. For my Pocket Treasures column, looking at iOS games, I started with a review of Cool Pizza. This is perhaps the first time I fell in love with a game that I first heard about through a press release. It's really something special, which makes it all the sadder that it ends far too prematurely. I also looked back at Pix'n Love Rush, which was one of my first iOS loves, and a game I was reminded about recently when playing Rayman Jungle Run. And the third Pocket Treasures for the month was a look at Shadegrown Games's first release Starbloom. Shadegrown Games is Matthew Burns's indie team, and I really love what they do in the realm of music-based gameplay. I'm really looking forward to see what they do in the future.

Still at Unwinnable I had two non-Pocket Treasures posts this month. Firstly I looked at guns in Borderlands 2, and the way simply choosing what gun 'feels' right changes your identity in the game as both a player and a character. I am still playing a ridiculous amount of Borderlands 2. It's exactly the kind of grind that I love, despite all the terribly problematic sexist humour which I really wish wasn't there. I forget who said it on Twitter, but games really have to stop trying so hard to look like they aren't trying hard.

And my last piece for the month at Unwinnable is not about videogames at all, but about my grandfather who passed away last week. It was not something I intended to write, but the words just came out, and Unwinnable were kind enough to post it. As an aside, I think it is a testament to just what a special site Unwinnable is that I can post something utterly unrelated to videogames but still 'cultural' and that it does not jar at all. I think that is really special and invaluable, that we have a site that talks about games but which doesn't always have to talk about games.

Okay, so at Games On Net I had three editions of You Know What I Love? this month. Firstly I got a bit emo and looked at dying in FTL and DayZ and tried to draw out what effect ultimate death has on the way I live my life. Then I looked at nostalgia in Retro City Rampage. I don't think this piece quite gets to the heart of what I wanted to say, but ultimately I am sick of 'nostalgia' being dismissed as the antonym of 'innovation', because it isn't. And finally I looked at Carmageddon's Pinball Mode and how it breaks the game in great ways. I'm kind of embarrassed to say I am still playing the iOS version of Carmageddon, and even more embarrassed to say I am still enjoying it. But seriously, this happened and it was great:

Ahem. Moving on. At Gameranx this month my A Sum Of Parts column looked at Halo Reach, perhaps my favourite game in the Halo series (but not by much). To start with I looked at the juxtaposition of the game's character customisation screen and the opening cut scene and how this conveys the game's overall sense of tragedy. This is a thing I've wanted to write about for ages, and I'm glad I was finally able to do it. Next I looked at the game's pacing that has you take two steps backwards for every step forward. I then looked at how the game frames its story with the natural world itself, directing the player's eyes and feet in nuanced, elegant ways. Lastly I looked at how the broader Halo universe has a story that it refuses to 'tell' its players, instead demanding fans come to it through actively researching this universe.

And that is all I had online, I think. But I had a pretty epic month in print, too. In Edge E247 (with Metal Gear Rising on the cover), I have a "Things" column looking in great detail at Rage's Wingstick, and how it brings together the pleasures of throwing a boomerang, firing a precise headshot, and sticking a plasma grenade all at once. As an aside here, if you have an iPad, the digital version of Edge is absolutely phenomenal. Not a mere pdf of the magazine, the digital version adds a whole lot of beautiful but not forced interactivity that feels really great. It feels like a 'digital magazine' should feel. So if you can't be bothered waiting for Edge to make it to Australia or you don't want to pay the high import costs, I recommend this greatly.

In issue 209 of PC Powerplay (with Dishonoured on the cover) I have previews of both Assassin's Creed III and Far Cry 3 from last month's trip to Montreal. Similarly, I also wrote about both these games for issue 230 of Hyper. Since Assassin's Creed III was being reviewed in the same issue, I didn't write a preview of it so much as a character bio of Connor and how the team are trying to bring his interesting ethnicity into the story in a natural, not terrible way. It truly sounded really fascinating when I spoke to Alex Hutchinson in Canada, but the reviews I'm reading of the full game suggest they didn't quite succeed. Alas.

My Far Cry III piece for Hyper (which, may I add, is also on the magazine's cover omg) is not a straight-up preview but an 'experiential' preview, where I simply narrate my time with the game. I wrote it as a series of postcards (as to write the entire three hours I spent with the game would take up the entire magazine, I'm sure). It is still very much a preview, with all the problems and Doritos-baggage that come along with being a preview, but it was really interesting to try to write it in a more interesting style than a straight up features list. Really, you can't mess around with the preview model too much, but it was still really fun to do.

I also ended up with two reviews in this issue of Hyper for Retro City Rampage (eh) and The Unfinished Swan (OMG PLAY IT). So the cover story and four articles all up in that issue. That is a little bit exciting.

Aaaaaaaand I think that is all I wrote this month. Big Spec Ops Thing is still on its way, I promise. Exciting things are happening with it, and I plan to write an announcement post about it tomorrow to let you know what is going on and when it will be out. Short answer is soon. It's all very exciting.

And in the academic world, I had my confirmation milestone for my PhD two days ago. It was nerve-racking and traumatic but I was "confirmed with minor edits" which is really exciting and means I am a few changes to a Word document away from being a confirmed PhD candidate. So that is exciting!

Also, I have a tumblr now that I am using to share and archive games criticism/journalism/other that I think is well worth reading. You can find that here if you are interested in that, which you should be.

But ultimately, the most important thing to happen to me this past month was this.