Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Games of 2013: Part One

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Normally around this time of year I write a series of posts discussing my favourite games of the past year. I usually write about 20 to 25 games, spread over five posts. Most would be games that were released that year, with a few outliers from the year before that I did not play when they were new. This year, conditions are slightly different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was asked to write Game Of The Year posts for both Overland and The Conversation, and I contributed two games to Game Critics's excellent “The Year of the Games 2013” mega-post. Secondly, I found precious few of 2013’s AAA releases worthy of my time, and instead committed much of my game-playing time to older games and platforms that I had either never played before or wanted to return to. What this means is that this series of posts will serve less as “The Best Games That Came Out in 2013” and more as “The Games I Played In 2013 That Were Really Good”. Really, that is what I think all GOTY lists should be, a reflection of what was played, not of what was released. But anyway.
So, first things first then, if you are interested in what I thought were the seven best games that came out in 2013, the Overland piece has you covered. I think they are Tearaway, The Last of Us, Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, 868-Hack, Candy Box, Towerfall, and Gone Home. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was also memorable, and is written about on the Game Critics post. The games I wrote about on The Conversation, I am going to re-include here as I had to edit down that piece quite substantially, and I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to say about those games. I also had to cut two games from that list for length reasons (webpages don’t grow on trees you know) and they will be on this list too.
What I’m saying is don’t read too much into the ordering of this list.  
There are 20 21 games on this list, and I'll post it in four parts over the coming days. So without further delay, here are My Most Memorable Games Of 2013 Except For Those Other Memorable Games

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)
Any longrunning franchises risks stagnation. After nearly two decades, Tomb Raider had long since fallen into insignificance, with forgettable release after forgettable release. Before its release, the game was riddled with poor press and marketing faux-pas, as developers made it sound like there would be an 'edgy' rape scene from which (male) players would want to 'protect' Lara. A traditionally strong woman seemed reduced to a crying, quivering girl in a torture-porn adventure for men.
Either the marketing department failed miserably (not unlikely), or the developers listened to the critical feedback, as the actual game when released was a satisfying romp of gritty survivalism and platforming. Some understandably criticised the shooting as excessive and detrimental to that sense of ‘fighting to survive’ (Lara’s journey from traumatic first murder to gunning down a room of men is pretty swift). Personally, I found it just right (once I made the personal rule to not use the machine gun, limiting myself to the messy shotgun, desperate pistol, and elegant bow). After the Uncharted serious successfully reimagined the Tomb Raider series through the adventures of Nathan Drake, Tomb Raider came along and reimagined Uncharted, combining cinematic set-pieces and impossible acrobatics with tense but fluid gun battles. It was bombastic and ridiculous, to be sure, but it was a joyous frolic. This wasn't a game about 'survival' like, say, DayZ, but it successfully depicted an aesthetic of survivalism.
Lara, meanwhile, sat in a paradoxical space. Rhianna Pratchett succeeded at writing a young and naive yet strong and intentful Lara that the marketing campaign failed to demonstrate. She makes her own choices, holding her own again viscous and aggressive men. She never gets raped, and shoots in the face the one man who tries. Yet, the camera gazing at her is very much a man, lingering just that bit too long on her buttocks or breast, or listening to her gasps as a tree branch skewers her after a failed quick-time event over and over and over. Ultimately, then, the new Tomb Raider succeeds at depicting Lara Croft as what she has always been: simultaneously strong woman subject and passive woman object, a character far more interesting than the games she has often found herself in. 
I wrote a Notes post on Tomb Raider with more thoughts. I really related to Justin Keverne's discussion of how he prioritised Lara's performance over simply playing the game 'well'

Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory)
Another long running franchise revamped. Unlike Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry (or ‘DmC’), is not an origin story but a stylistic overhaul. Like Tomb Raider, DmC struggled before its release against a fan base unhappy with the direction the series was being taken. The series' protagonist Dante has received a makeover, replacing his white mop of hair and red trenchcoat with a more generic crop and singlet. "He looks like a male model," someone described it to me recently and, actually, I think that is the best way to put it. But at a brief glance and he looks like any other videogame dudebro. The series looked diluted to appeal to a mass audience. People were unimpressed.
Having zero attachments to the serious in its previous iterations (perhaps the best way to approach any relaunched franchise), I found DmC to be a delightful, campy, and utterly absurd romp. It was, perhaps, 'bad' in places. The characters were flat and the metaphors of the plot were utterly transparent in their fifteen-year-old-goth-boy ludicrousness (a braindead conformist public can't tell they are being controlled by the mainstream media and junk food). Banter with one boss is, literally 'No, fuck you!" yelled at increasingly loud volumes back and forward for an awkward length of time.
But this isn't the typical terrible videogame writing accepted as inevitable in most videogames. The badness of DmC transcends that, not dissimilar to Bulletstorm (except perhaps not quite as clever). The lewd dialog and ugly characters (covered in cellulite and sneers) is not simply 'so bad its good', but instead reaches a level of masterful campiness in its innuendo and flourishes and artifice. Meanwhile, the level design is sincerely spectacular, with upside-down cities and demonic nightclubs pulsing to the dubstep and torn apart by invisible forces. 
Combat is streamlined, with moves simply requiring you to hold down the right or left trigger as you press a single button—no rhythmic patterns or obscure combination to memorise. It's something else diehard fans of the series lament, but for newcomers it allows a fluidity to the combat: what you want to do you can do. The game also boasts what are perhaps the only enjoyable boss battles from the last few years. I won't soon forget fighting a giant, hardly disguised cyborg Bill O’Reilly Tron-demon, or the ham-fisted Freudian boss of a woman demon and her unborn demon foetus.
There's a self-awareness to DmC’s camp. An eye-winking that suggests that the game knows exactly what it is doing. That the tenth "No, fuck you" is not just generic videogame dialogue, but a serious and deliberate attempt at a certain aesthetic, a certain tone. 
It's not for everyone, that's for sure. It doesn't want to be for everyone. At times it actively goads the fans that miss Dante’s white mop, essentially giving the finger to its fanbase while blowing a rasberry. But I love that irreverence. In an industry/medium that usually just pampers its fanbase with whatever they want, it's refreshing to see a developer just not give a shit. It is, easily, one of the more enjoyable Triple-A games I played this year.

Knightmare Tower (Juicy Beast)
I feel slightly dirty enjoying Knightmare Tower as much as I did. A random and casual download from the Ouya store/gulag, I played it for several hours straight one afternoon, unlocking all the features and playing it to completion. A fairly traditionally moulded mobile-esque games for the Ouya (and browser and Android, too), the goal is to fly high into a tower while bouncing off monsters beneath you for extra speed. It’s a Dragonball Z aerial battle, with your knight at the top of the screen using his downward attacks to stay afloat. 
There’s a satisfying rhythm to the controls, pulling the trigger as the character thrusts down in a meaty swing of his blade before bouncing back up. Progression is carefully crafted if not entirely conventional as you encounter enemies that are too tough and incrementally get further as you upgrade your power and health and speed and all that. 
I played Knightmare Tower at exactly the right time. I was interested in my Ouya and bored of all the games on my other consoles. I spent 4 or so hours grinding through the game, and have not touched it again since. I felt more than a little dirty putting so many hours into such a straightforward game, but I don’t regret it.

Killzone Mercenary (Guerrilla Cambridge)
I’ve always had a strange fascination with the Killzone games. This is, largely, due to simply being a kid with a Playstation 2, desperate for a shooter to match Halo (Killzone does not match Halo). There’s always been, I thought, a subtlety lurking beneath the surface of blue good guys (ISA, one vowel away from USA) versus red-eyed pseudo-Nazi bad guys. At face value, it is a mindless bro-shooter narrative. But you listen to the rhetoric of the dialog in the cut-scenes and it becomes slightly more complex. You realise the ‘bad’ guys have quite a few justified grievances and the ‘good’ guys are self-righteous aggressors. It’s not high literature, but the face-value bluntness makes the implicit multi-facedness of each side much more interesting.
In Mercenary, on the Playstation Vita, you play both alongside and against each side. Unlike previous entries in the series, neither side is good or bad but, simply, a means of making money. It’s still hamfisted, but it’s a blunt and cynical comment on war-as-profiteering that fits the series' broader themes perfectly.
Of course, then, the game is at its weakest during the opening levels, where your beanie-and-sunglass-and-beard wearing bro companion (seriously he looks like he stepped right out of Every Shooter Ever) seems more interested in fighting The Good Fight than in making money. “That’s one Hig bastard I’d kill for free,” he says of one of the game’s antagonists at one stage, in the most blatant of thematic dissonances. This is a game about making money, not doing what is ‘right’. Thankfully, bro dies before too long.
But where Mercenary really shines is how this whole narrative and thematic conceit of mercantility and war-profiteering is used to strengthen the design of a mobile first-person shooter. Mercenary is not just a console FPS dumped on a handheld device as a graphical demo (though, it is also that); it has been designed with a consideration of how players engage with portable devices. It draws from mobile and casual design to use a ‘loadout’ system that I can actually tolerate. In single-player games, I generally hate loadout systems, where I have to choose my equipment before each level, pre-determining how I will approach each level; it utterly killed Splinter Cell: Blacklist for me. It feels like it cheapens individual missions for me. With loadouts, I don’t feel like I am playing through one long narrative whole but interrupted segments that I am expected to play over and over again. It makes games feel, well, too gamey.
But that’s on home consoles, where I am much more committed to some kind of overarching narrative. On a portable device, individual missions should be self-contained for brief encounters on the train or before bed or whatever. In this environment, loadout systems and a focus on replaying missions makes perfect sense, and Mercenary knows this.
Most cleverly, and with surprising nuance, are the different approaches available in each mission. It might be possible to stealth through half a mission, with NPCs only commenting after the fact that you did so. On the first mission, you are told to blow up a door to access a control centre which, of course, triggers an alarm. What you are not told is you can throw a smoke grenade through an air vent to quietly lure the guards out (if you brought smoke grenades with you). Do this, and you skip an entire defend-the-hill kind of segment. This is dramatically and fascinatingly at odds with the hand-holding FPS design popular in both the Killzone series and many others.
It’s formalised through the availability of three alternative missions for each stage, asking you to replay each mission with different loadouts and objectives: stealth the whole mission; destroy three crates; get X number of headshots; etc. These alternative missions don’t re-introduce the hand-holding so much as nudge the player towards discovering the alternative approaches themselves. Over recent holidays and airplane trips I’ve found myself replaying missions over and over with these different objectives. It’s become the perfect travelling game.
The other pleasure of Mercenary is a very simple one: good graphics (and yes, I mean ‘graphics’, not ‘visuals’). There is a simple pleasure in playing a game with this many polygons on such a small handheld device. It’s a technological spectacle, and I won’t deny the simple entertainment that offers.
So, what I’m ultimately saying is that Killzone: Mercenary is the Angry Birds of Call of Duty games. That might not sound too appealing, but its overall design does such a remarkable job of tailoring a certain experience to a certain platform, and then connecting that experience/platform combination to an existing franchise’s themes.

Saints Row IV (Volition)
I was unimpressed with Saints Row IV when it first came out. Using an identical city to Saints Row: The Third, it was hard to shake the suspicion that new publishers Deep Silver had coerced the developers into relabelling a final DLC project into a numbered sequel. It felt flippant and insincere, not just in the typical clever nonchalance of the previous game, but in the same kind of ‘B-side’ way as Red Dead Redemption’s “Undead Nightmare” DLC. I played it for maybe an hour at Cameron Kunzelman’s house, jetlagged as all hell, and felt equal parts bored and deceived. When I returned home to find my own press copy in the mail, I didn’t even bother unsealing it.
Then, in early December, I had done all my writing for the year, and I wanted a mindless grind to chill out to, so I returned to Saints Row IV with fresh eyes and the right mindset. It still feels cheap and flippant and kind of just ‘thrown together’, but there is a keen edge to the satire that I’d not sensed earlier, one that takes a while to emerge as the game begins at a glacially slow pace. There’s the typical satire of making nods to things that exist, that base level of satire that Grand Theft Auto V never surpassed (“Hey, remember this moment in that game?”), but there are also moments of incredible subtlety. Parody in a camera angle, such as the Sorkin-esque walk through the White House, which the game never explicitly draws attention to. Another mission digs deep into theoretical musings on fan fiction and alternative universes. What on the surface feels like a typical videogame adolescence is a subtle, almost modest intelligence. 
But what is most fascinating about the game is its ludonarrative harmony and glitch aesthetic. People have long mused about whether you could deliberately produce glitches, and if you did, would they still be glitches? There’s an artistry to Skate 3 glitches or the body horror of Fifa or Oblivion. It’s like going right up to a painting and looking at the individual brush strokes. It’s the materiality of digital media, often repressed and rarely embraced by anyone except individual digital artists. Saints Row IV is the first commercial game I’ve played committed to this aesthetic. Tears in the system (the whole games takes place with a program, a game in a game) glitch out nearby NPCs and cars. Pedestrians' limbs warp and stretch; an upside down person walks by; an invisible car driven by two giant eyeballs bumps along. It’s a deliberate glitch aesthetic, but one majestically achieved.
But on another level than just visual glitches, the game is unabashedly broken. Pick up a few superpower upgrades and the world that contained Saints Row The Third is unable to hold you now. You are able to engage with the world in ways that this world was never designed to be engaged with. Challenges become ridiculously easy; vehicles of any kind become redundant. Whereas most games of a similar plot would give you challenges within that world you require superpowers for; Saints Row IV gives you challenges utterly unmatched by your super powers.  It matches perfectly with a plot about breaking the simulated world—because you actually break a simulated world. But A broken and unbalanced game simulates a breaking and unbalanced game. It’s clever, very clever, and far far more than the cheap DLC-cum-sequel I initially thought I was playing. This is a game I am glad I gave a second chance.
Oh yeah, and the dubstep gun.

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013: Some Writing

2013 is almost over. It's been a pretty intense year! My December is going to be full of travel and events and I'm going to have precious little time to spend on my usual, self-gratifying retrospective end-of-year posts. So this is going to be a bit rushed, but here is a list of some of the writing I did this year that I am still pretty happy with.

1. My interview with Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams. I mostly wanted to talk to Walt about what it is like to read criticism about your own game, but our conversation went much further than that. I didn't want to dissect it into pull quotes, so instead I published the entire transcript on Unwinnable. Related, that there is a site like Unwinnable where I know I can always publish an article makes me very happy.

2. My feature on the Queer Games Scene for Polygon. I struggle to feel proud about this piece because I know it isn't perfect. I know that, despite my best efforts, it still homogenises a diverse range of creators under that 'queer' label. I know that, as a straight white dude, I wrote the article from a position of extreme privilege over my interviewees. But I also wrote the article with the sincerest intentions. The creators I speak to in this feature remain, I am convinced, the most important and exciting people making and writing about videogames today. I wrote this piece because I want other people to be excited about these people. Not in a weird, exotic animal kind of way, but in a "these are the people that are going to convince others your beloved medium is art" kind of way. I don't know. Writing it was exhausting. Seeing a select few people criticise it on Twitter even as so many others applauded it was exhausting. Knowing I could only ever do an imperfect job of this article was exhausting. Still, I know various people who have said to me they had no idea this side of games existed before reading this article, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. So I should be proud of that I guess.

3. My feature on game jams for Edge. This was a piece I was asked to write, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. I like how I try to complicate game jams and look at how they've seeped into the Triple-A space, and that blurry line between jamming and crunching.

4. My profile of Douglas Wilson for Edge. Essentially, I just wanted an excuse to meet Douglas Wilson and talk about his amazing games and research. Still pretty happy with how this turned out.

5. My article on Grand Theft Auto V for Overland. One of my goals for this year was to write for one of Australia's literary journals, to write 'criticism about games' rather than 'games criticism', if that makes sense. I guess the website of a literary journal is close enough (the actual literary journal is happening next year!). This was technically meant to be a review of Grand Theft Auto V but it turned into a longer discussion of how despite talking loudly, Grand Theft Auto V fails to say anything of substance at all.

6. My essay on Tearaway and Sontag and Immersion. Okay, this piece only got published today but I'm still pretty happy with it.

7. My Notes series of blog posts. I really enjoyed writing my Notes posts. It started as an experiment. Okay, it started after reading Susan Sontag's "Notes On Camp" and not being able to repress my desire to imitate every great author I read's style. But it turned out pretty well. The Notes format gave me the breathing room to just touch on ideas and move on to the next with no concerns for how the paragraphs flow, without having to make a singular 'point' about a game. Others have also done this this year, most notable Cameron Kunzelman's excellent post on The Last of Us. I would have liked to publish more Notes posts than I did (I still have drafts for Metal Gear Solid 3, Problem Attic, and Towerfall, but I'm also really happy with the ones I did post.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Notes on Metro: Last Light

1. I went into Last Light braced for disappointment. Metro 2033 had been one of those games that I loved for its roughness, from its personality that came precisely from not being polished to within an inch of its life. It had this jagged silhouette that if it walked into the room, you knew exactly what game it was. That kind of roughness can only come from a team with a big heart and a small budget. When that kind of game does good, and a larger budget is given to a sequel, that roughness rarely survives. It almost is impossible for it to survive. So I went into Last Light excited for more Metro but ready to accept that more of what made Metro good might be impossible.

I was ultimately surprised, then, to find that Last Light, largely held onto much of what made Metro 2033 feel so good. The oppressiveness, the bleakness, the kind of stand-off-ish design that will just dump you in a place with no clear waypointing or objectives and just let you figure it out. Some parts of the game have been polished up, but only selectively and to the game's benefit. Guns in 2033 felt jangly like you would expect a gun built from scrap to feel, but they lacked a punch. Last Light's guns are punchy enough that skirmishes are enjoyable, while still feeling super messy. It feels like they tried to polish the jags into being more pronounced, not just polish them away to a curved nothing. So that is nice. It still lacks some of what made Metro 2033 special, but it is about as good as a sequel to a rough game could hope to be.

2. Which is not to call the game perfect. Last Light still seemed to lose focus on what made 2033 so special. In particular, the sense of life in the metro the first game evoked. There was this real sense of being a commuter, fittingly enough, of just passing through this towns that were other people's entire lives. The people in the bunks on old carriages, or the way a station is sectioned off into small houses. It was always amazing to stop and look at these places, but always fleetingly as you were always on your way to meet someone. Last Light still has a bit of that, and when it does, it is terrific. A moment near the start of the game where you are dashing through a nazi station under fire and you get this faint glimpse of everyday life as you dash past. The theatre station and the flooded station of Venice are particularly strong highlights of just 'life on the metro'. As is the refugee train.

But, for the most part, with the story focusing on WAR and militaries and all that, we don't get the same diversity of lives and lifestyles 2033 gave us. We have army bases and prisons and dead towns and army dudes and more army dudes. It feels less like a place and more like a serious of videogame levels at times. It felt more like a videogame story than an adaption of a novel this time, essentially.

3. Related to that is the sheer number of men in the game (or the lack of women, more accurately). It's just a bunch of gruff dudes and the occasional woman (they all look the same) sobbing in the background. 2033 was largely men doing things, to be sure, but the places felt alive with children and grannies and dogs and all kinds of people. Now we just get soldiers. The two women who speak in the game are a prostitute (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex) and a sniper lady (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex. Also she has your son, of course). How to sap any atmosphere from your world: homogenise the people you populate it with.

4. I really enjoy the stealth of Last Light. It's that kind of stealth that goes really good until you screw up, and then you pull out your shotgun and improvise. That kind of stealth works in very few games, because usually there is some fictional context that makes that kind of stealth feel very wrong, even when it is mechanically possible. Some games get it right. Splinter Cell: Conviction always presented contexts where the enemy knew Fisher was around somewhere, so if things devolved into a gunfight, it felt natural. The same goes for Last Light. I never felt like I needed to reload the game when I was seen, just change my tactics.

5. That grittiness of 2033 remains. The constantly pressure of needing to recharge your batteries, needing to replace your oxygen mask filters, needing to pump your airgun. All these little things always taking up your attention just to stay alive. It's incredible effective here as it was in 2033. It is weakened, though, by a timer giving you the exact number of seconds of filter life you have left. It is strengthened, though, by the need to press a button to wipe water or blood off your oxygen mask to see clearly.

6. I really like the subtly of both 2033's and now Last Light's approach to the supernatural. Not so much with the 'dark ones' who are just some generic alien monster things, but with the shadow-ghosts that disappear if you shine a light directly at them, or hallucinations of a thousand arms stretching out to get you. They never really try to explain it; they just do it and it's kind of cool.

7. Last Light's ending is terrible. There are two endings, to be sure (like 2033, Last Light has this very subtle series of choices through the game that never tell the player they are about to make a choice, and I really love that), but the ending I got was terrible, and I don't doubt the other one was just as bad. The game has this slow steady build up of 'war is coming' and needing to find answers and needing to make peace and all of that. Then, while there are still all these loose narrative threads unresolved, the 'war' happens, and it is just a terrible stand-your-ground turret section, and then some dude tells you, by the way, I rigged the place to blow, and you blow the place up, making the Ultimate Sacrifice. Then you find out Sniper Women Who You Had Sex With was telling this whole story to your son because of course if you have sex once you are going to have a child.

It is actually the most terrible ending I've experienced since Far Cry 3 (Far Cry 3's endings (both of them) made me laugh at my television they were both so terrible). It is the most generic, bullshit, 'oh I guess we should wrap things up now' kind of ending. It's the kind of ending of the fantasy stories I wrote in my teenage years with absolutely zero planning about how they would end. One day I'd just get bored of all these action sequences I was ripping right out of Dragon Ball Z and stick an ending on them. That is how Last Light ends and it is appallingly bad, to the extent that it damaged my overall feelings about the game.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on Doom 3

1. I have played Doom 3 before. It was new; I was 17; our family's computer could hardly run it. It was the most terrifying thing I had played in my life (unless I had already played Project Zero, but I think that might have been a few months later). I would play it in the study, in the dark, with headphones on. Every jump-scare would be followed by several moments of lag even as the Imp's scream continued to loop. It was oppressive. I tolerated it as far as your first steps into hell, at which stage it became both too intimidating and too intolerable. So when I started playing the BFG edition on the Playstation 3 recently, I was entering it with a half-memory of the game: a memory of being terrified but not really remembering any of the specifics (except Delta Labs 1, but we'll get to that).

2. Doom 3 is intense. Not in the way we just throw that word at games as a synonym of 'fun', but in the way that it has this remarkable level of intensity, an absurd level. On the surface, it is a horror game: demons and foreboding and dark corridors and all that. But horror is all about what you don't see, about the suspense and the atmosphere and the 'what if?'. Doom 3 has very little downtime, and instead attacks you with one scripted scare after another. An invisible sensor opens a trapdoor behind you with an Imp in it. The floor collapses in front of you and drops you in a pit of zombies. A previously empty hallway is now filled with waves of spider creatures. It is a constant barrage of frights that is, ultimately, exhausting. Like sitting on a rollercoaster for an hour. You just feel this strange sense of dread if you play for too long. You just want it to stop. It's unorthodox or heavy-handed, perhaps, but a game that has me thinking "please, stop" must be doing horror somewhat successfully.

3. Doom 3 feels like Doom. Or, rather, it is possible to play Doom 3 in a way that feels like Doom, and I believe that is the way it was intended to be played. I played through the original Doom just before starting Doom 3, and it felt the same. The things I was doing with my hands in Doom 3 (always moving, always strafing, squiggling out from behind a wall to fire a shotgun blast then back behind the wall between shots, spinning in circles looking for traps) were the things I do with my hands playing Doom. On the surface, though, they could not be more different. Doom is more 'arcadey', with maybe a dozen monsters attacking you in a hallway. Doom 3 rarely throws more than two or three enemies at you at once, and every encounter feels like a Big Deal. There is the fanfare of a single Imp teleporting in, or the screech of a Cacodemon.

It is strange to me that a game where you fight a single enemy can feel the same as a game where you fight a dozen. I think it is that each games make me play in a very 'twitchy' style but through different means. Doom does it by giving me a dozen targets at once I have to pay attention to. Doom 3 does it through that oppressive intensity that makes me utterly paranoid as I move through it. I am twitchy because I do not know what this game is going to do to me next. So I am spinning in circles and putting my back against the wall and then refusing to trust that wall because it feels like at anytime there could be a dozen enemies coming for me. So Doom 3 feels like Doom, but for very different reasons.

4. More on that. I said Doom 3 'can' feel like Doom if you play it a certain way. When I played Doom 3 as a teenager on the PC, I played it incredibly slowly, creeping forward slowly, trying to pre-empt every jump-scare. This time, I ran headfirst into every room then dealt with what the game threw at me. Because I had just played the first Doom, I approached it like Doom, and this required me to be more twitchy. It is possible to play different games in different ways, and those different ways are going to drastically change how you approach it. I hate it when people say the player is always right and there is no wrong way to play a game. There is. There is a way a game is intended to be played and ways it is not intended to be played (I watched a student this semester play 30 Flights of Loving like he was playing Counter-Strike and it was the most surreal thing). No one is going to stop you from playing a game the 'wrong way', but personally I prefer getting out of the game what the game wants me to get out of it. Anyway, what I'm saying is I think Doom 3 wants to be played like the original Doom, and I think playing it in that way makes it a vastly more enjoyable (and exhausting) experience.

5. An aside to this: I think the significant change that the BFG Edition allows you to hold a gun and have your torch on at the same time greatly encourages the 'just run forward' approach, while the original was much more standoffish, since you knew the moment you pulled your gun out you would be thrown into darkness. Which, I guess, means that I am saying that I think being able to hold your gun and your torch at the same time is actually better. Though, many of the game's greater moments of lighting design are still ruined by this change.

6. One more note about Doom 3's relationship with the original Doom. I really enjoy watching longrunning franchises evolve. I like playing a revamped entry to an old franchise and seeing how they re-imagined certain things. Or, related, I like playing new entries in a longrunning franchise and noting the design decisions of previous games that are lingering and influencing the current game. Like the way the more recent Call of Duty games cannot escape that series' origins in World War II cinematic battlefield simulation. Or the things that continue from one Final Fantasy to the next. I love how Doom 3 reimagines all of Doom's bizarre demon/alien/monsters. How it has 'updated' them all while still clearly grounded in this mid 90s masculine adolescence of Robocop and Marilyn Manson. Of course there are zombies and robotic demons and squirming torsos used as torches and some random reason for there being chainsaws on Mars. This is Doom. Those things have to be there.

But it is more subtle than that, too. Doom 3's most obvious inspiration beyond its own predecessors is, quite clearly, Half-Life. Like Half-Life, it tries to build a convincing world out of very directed levels, rather than the very distinct levels of early Doom games. It wants to tell a story environmentally. For the most part, it achieves this. The Mars Labs feel like actual places on Mars. But then, suddenly, the Doom is back as panels suddenly open up behind a piece of body armour and a demon runs out at you. There's often no attempt to justify why these monster closets exist: they are there because this is Doom.

So there's this clash of design styles in the environment. Just moving through this game is like peeling off layers of old wallpaper of a centuries-old house. They all just mash together and create this weird thing that is Doom 3—glorious on its own terms, absurd on any others.

On this note, there is a moment late in the game where the player encounters some ancient stone tablets from the long gone Mars civilisation. One of the tablets, quite clearly, is the cover art of the original Doom, making a clear nod to the game's own pre-history that can't help but to pervade every aspect of the game.

7. I guess I've already covered the monster closets, but they seem to also deserve their own note. They are Doom 3's most often criticised moments. I guess people like to feel like they can master a game, or pre-empt it. They don't like games that cheat (see also: Limbo). I love games that cheat. I love games that are jerks to the player. Doom 3 has so many sudden jump-scares and monster closets, but each one is so deliberate, so considered in its layout and timing that it is hard not to appreciate them. Each time, the developers have clearly thought about what direction the player is going to be looking, and use that to their advantage. Sometimes lighting or a sound will direct you to look in one direction, then something will jump at you from the opposite direction. The game is always one step ahead of you, always (often literally) laughing at you. So it gets to a point where you are double-guessing the game, where you no longer trust it. You become paranoid. You begin expecting every wall to peel back and throw zombies at you. It gets to a point where the game has trained you so well that it doesn't need any monster-closets. You begin filling the closets yourself.

8. Doom 3's monitors are still some of my favourite monitors in any game. It was a big deal when the game was new, that these computer monitors within the world were of high enough resolution to display real information without having to open another screen. I love the seamlessness of moving close enough to a monitor for your camera to start controlling the on-screen cursor, pressing buttons and controlling devices. It's such a small, subtle thing, but just so well done.

9. One section of Doom 3 I remembered clearly from playing it as a teen was the Delta Labs. I was actually a little nervous as characters started mentioning that I was getting closer to them this time though. I couldn't remember why I dreaded the Delta Labs, but I did. When I got there (and I recorded it when I did), I discovered one of the few times Doom 3 exploits downtime to terrorise the player. You are walking through empty corridors for what must be the longest uninterrupted segment of the game. You are constantly waiting for the next thing to jump out at you. There are demons crawling on the outside of the facility, throwing long shadows over the walls. There is an automated robotic woman's voice on loop for the entire section telling you about the power outage. Once the fighting does start again, there are some masterful jump-scares and misdirections. It's just a very well designed part of the game.

10. I really enjoyed Doom 3.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Notes on Call of Duty: Ghosts

(With thanks to my girlfriend Helen Berents, who is all over South American politics and conflicts, for helping me think through some of these ideas, and giving me the words for them.)

(I don't play Call of Duty multiplayer and am only discussion the campaign here.)

1. People remain perplexed whenever I mention my interest in Call of Duty games. They don't understand what of value one could possibly get out of a franchise that pumps out a nearly identical game every year or so. To be sure, there are all kinds of valid reasons to dismiss the Call of Duty series out of hand: the hypermasculinity, the military-entertainment complex (as the credits rolled on Ghosts, Remington Arms Company Inc. were on the list of people Activision "would like to thank"), the fact that the only way to engage with the world and others in it is by shooting them. These are all, without a doubt, valid reasons to never touch a Call of Duty game.

But there are a whole lot of other reasons often cited that, to me, highlight these uncritically accepted values at the core of games culture: the idea that Call of Duty is bad because the player has no freedom and can only do what they're told (as though the only games that are valuable are those that offer unparalleled freedom), the idea that Call of Duty is not 'innovative' enough (as though games always have to do 'something new' to be worthy). This is going to sound super weird and I fully acknowledge the irony of this statement, but I feel the measuring stick people use to dismiss Call of Duty out of hand is the same measuring stick they regularly use to sideline games by marginalised creators as 'non-games' or some kind of 'low culture'. This is not to say that Call of Duty requires the game critic's energy to defend it as much as Dys4ia, but simply that there is totally some kind of high/low culture divide being implemented by those critics who turn their noses at such a popular franchise.

Even if I didn't enjoy the core feedback loop of Call of Duty (and I would be lying to myself and to you if I tried to pretend I didn't enjoy it), as a critic I don't want to ignore those games that a huge proportion of our culture engages with. I want to understand them. I want to understand how they work. I want to understand the cultural values that emerge from them. I want to understand what is happening here and why it is happening. Dismissing a game out of hand makes it much harder to be meaningfully critical of that game.

And, yeah, I enjoy the core feedback loop.

Anyway. That is why I played Call of Duty: Ghosts.

2. Ghosts narrative is fascinatingly nonsensical. It is nothing but the condensation of North American paranoia of South Americans crossing the border. 'The Federation' (which is just all of South America as one, homogenised nation) hates America and wants to destroy it. One of the first levels, you are literally patrolling a 10-story wall to make sure no South Americans have made it into the country. Of course, the most popular media of a culture is going to highlight just who the imagined, antagonist Other is in the contemporary cultural imagining. It was Russians and then Middle Easterns as America's power spread across the word. Now, as it recedes on itself, the most terrifying enemy is the one at the front door, sneaking in to take our jobs and destroy our way of life. That is Ghosts entire story: the South Americans want to destroy us.

3. Okay, that's not the entire story. There is also one American who wants to destroy us. One American who had his own Kurtz experience in "the heart of the Amazon" where "natives" have mastered the art of torture to break a man. The South Americans have the magic voodoo power to turn Us into Them. South America is the new Africa, where its own history of colonialisation is demolished as all South Americans are branded as 'natives'. These are the two narratives of Ghosts: South Americans want to destroy us, and this American dude with Marcus Fenix's manrag wants to destroy us so we should probably kill both of them.

4. Ghosts is the first Call of Duty I've played not contextualised in a fictional version of a real-world conflict (I never played Black Ops 2). the Modern Warfare games and Black Ops didn't need a whole heap of time spent contextualising the world or politics because you already knew them. In Ghosts, nothing makes sense. America is simultaneously a post-apocalyptic ruin and a burgeoning army. One mission simultaneously deploys "our last remaining carrier" and a space shuttle launch. 'The Federation' is a homogenous evil blob with no clear commander or dictator (the Evil American's connection to this army is never fleshed out). There is no discussion of life beyond either army. No one ever mentions what the rest of the world is doing while these two continents battle it out. This is a world reduced to a battlefield between two purified armies detached from any socio-political body or nation. There is only war. The world makes no sense, and you are never given a reason to care about it or its characters.

5. "It's Call of Duty, did you really expect a good story?" Yes, actually. The Modern Warfare trilogy and Black Ops did not tell good stories per se but they told stories well. For a series derided for churning out the same thing over and over, it experiments with storytelling in a whole heap of fascinating ways. Most significantly, through the constant swapping of perspective. Loading screens aside, you are never looking at the world of a Call of Duty game from a disembodied nowhere; you are always embodied in a particular subject's point of view. Call of Duty doesn't have cut scenes; it has a small level from another character's point of view. I think this is fascinating, the confidence to just take the player out of one character and insert them into another. You can trace this historically to the early games desire to show that World War II was won by "countless men, not a few heroes" I think it was the box said. The multiple POVs are meant to give the player a sense of this networked, intersubjective military. That is gross for a whole heap of reasons, but the purely formal mechanic of only using bodies to let the player see the world is a fascinating one I would like to see more of.

Tellingly, Ghosts rarely swaps your point of view (with the exception of the end of the game). For the vast majority of the game, you are one blank slate character following his brother (his literal bro) around the battle field. Where the Modern Warfares could show a large, complex, (absurd) network of war spreading across the world, Ghosts is restrained to a boring, head-to-head conflict of the Americas and is forced to ignore the rest of the world.

Also, for all that military shooters embody this jingoistic love of American militarism, it was always refreshing to spend so much of the Modern Warfares not as an American.

So, yes, I do expect to enjoy the story of a Call of Duty, but I didn't this time.

6. The story was claustrophobic. I felt restricted being trapped inside Logan's boring body for so much of the game, on the same goddamn continent the entire time. But even interpersonally, you spend the entire game alongside your brother and your father. The army-as-family is literalised. One mission gives you the objective "Get to dad". It's weird. It's really, really weird. I don't care about this blank slate white bro family. What the hell even is this?

7. The dog. The dog is the most boring, embarrassingly forced story component ever. Special effects always have a dual spectacle, as much in games as in film: there is the spectacle of the cool thing happening in the fictional world, and the spectacle of the technology that allows that cool thing to be produced as a real thing. Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix was cool because he was following bullets, and it was cool because a camera spun in a circle. Infinity Ward are so excited about this damn dog they spent a whole lot of money on. You spend the first few levels forced to look at this dog do its dog things. You are riding a tank and its head is popped out of the manhole in front of you to force you to pay attention to its 3D many-polygon model. If someone from Infinity Ward had telephoned me once per level to remind me how they animated this dog to put in this game, it couldn't have been much more pathetic.

8. There are a few levels in the middle of the game that stand out, that made me think, okay, this is why I bother playing Call of Duty games. These are the levels that aren't just this one, constant, boring gunfight, but a well and deliberately paced script of down-time followed by up-time followed by down-time. The levels that don't feel like filler.

The first one is in Caracas (of course the capital of Evil South America is the capital of Venezuela). The level progresses from abseiling down skyscrapers to parachuting while that skyscraper is falling on you. Every moment of the level feels considered and there for a reason, like Infinity Ward actually, deliberately built this level with a certain goal in mind—like they did with most of the Modern Warfare levels.

Another one is when you are attacking... I don't know... some lab in the snow. You steal uniforms and sneak into the lab quietly. You have a massive stand-your-ground gun fight. You escape on a lift and head out the same way you came in: blending in. You are forced to walk slow through the wreckage you caused as the injured you left behind are helped. It's this seamless escalation from just walking down corridors to explosive action and back to just walking down corridors and then, to end it, you drive a jeap across a frozen ocean, sinking other jeeps with a grenade launcher, and drive your jeep onto a submarine. It's a wonderfully paced stage that hits a high level that the game never again achieves.

9. You've probably seen the video of how the intro of Ghosts uses an identical animation sequence to the end of Modern Warfare 2. It's the most explicit example of it, but the same animations and moments are used throughout Ghosts. It's either intended as laziness, apathy, or deliberate intertextuality—it functions as all three. The entire game feels like a collage of moments from the previous games. Not just the same mechanics or the same features but literally the same moments. The moment your bro looked into the distance then helped you up. The moment your bro was fighting the bad dude while you were crawling towards a gun. The moment an explosion knocked you off your feet in slow motion.

Where these because interesting is where Ghosts is clearly, deliberately using these to subvert expectations. At one point, a tank bursts out of a carpark wall to save you, exactly as it does in Modern Warfare 3. Except, instead of saving you, it gets blown up as well and you have to run for your life. At another moment you are about to breach a door like you have done a million times when your bro tackles you to the ground a moment before a hail of bullets splinters the door. There are these little snippets where the copy-pasted moments feel cleverly used.

But even if it is just laziness, I still find that fascinating. Like peeling back layers of wallpaper from an old house. I kind of like that you can see the history of this series and these studios in the game.

10. Towards the end of the game is this absurd tank level. You are driving a tank at super high speed in a battalion of tanks in a bizarre sandbox-y level. It felt like I was playing Tokyo Wars. It was weird.

11. A reason most people can't tolerate Call of Duty is a reason I can't tolerate most AAA games: because it takes itself too seriously. When you spend millions of dollars on a game and you need to make millions in return, you have to be bombastic and absurd and ridiculous. When that bombastic, absurd ridiculousness gets painted up as GRIM and SERIOUS, there is this weird jarring that doesn't always work. I am increasingly convinced that AAA games can not, and perhaps even should not, be 'serious'. At least, they can't be serious for as long as their primary goal is to just be 'fun', and they're primary goal isn't going to stop being 'fun' for as long as they need to make millions of dollars.

But I think this is exactly the reason I am able to enjoy a Call of Duty, despite everything: because they are so absurd that I don't think anyone, not even Activision, really takes them serious. Medal of Honor takes itself serious, with all its bullshit 'Lest we forget' quotes around its 'real' battles told by 'real' soldiers in a self-gratifying fellatio. Call of Duty, though, with its commercials that quite explicitly note that it only sees itself as a 'fun game', and its partnership with Eminem has me convinced that it doesn't take itself seriously. Or, perhaps more justifiably, makes it impossible for me to take serious. I don't take Call of Duty serious. I take it as I would take a Michael Bay film. I think that is how I can tolerate all the shit of each Call of Duty to explore the things I find fascinating: by only ever taking it at face value, as nothing more than a ridiculous, military-themed story for a little while.

Of course, that is not a reason to excuse or justify the many issues I've stated with the game.

12. The loading screen animations are really great.

13. Although the world has finally reached a level of technological advancement that Infinity Ward is able to animate a 3D model of a woman, there are still next to no women in the campaign, with the exception of one significant companion for a single mission towards the start of the game. Unsurprising, but still disappointing. Notably, the game's marketing was no better.

14. People like to say that Call of Duty studios just tack on the campaign as an afterthought to the multiplayer that is their main consideration. Ghosts is the first time that I am anywhere near convinced of that argument. Infinity Ward doesn't care about this story or these characters.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Proteus for Playstation 3

(Proteus spoilers below)

The other night I dreamed that I died. It was super weird. 
I was aware I was dying. I knew it was happening. Other people were there. Maybe I was elderly and fading. maybe I was ill. I don't remember being in pain, so I don't think it was an injury. I was pretty calm at first, but as I closed by eyes and saw only black, I started to think. Thinking made me panic. It dawned on me what was going on. Wait, I'm dying. I really am dying. Not at some abstract point in the future but right now. What happens next? What is it going to feel like? Is it going to feel like anything? Will I know I'm dead? Will I have a moment where I sense the world continuing on without me before I dissipate? Each question made me more terrified that the last, and I continued to die with each thought I thought.
Then the blackness slowly, gradually changed to nothing. I don't know how nothingness looks any different from blackness, but it does. It was a tonal difference, I guess. I knew I wasn't looking at the inside of my eyelids anymore; I just wasn't looking anymore. Then there was a silent 'ping', like a very specific moment. A snap, like that moment the kid gets electrocuted in Limbo and stops being a living body and starts being a sack of silhouette meat. And then I felt like I was floating in Space inside my own head and I felt the network of my own consciousness kind of stretch and fade like water spreading too thin on a flat surface. Then from the edges of my non-vision the nothingness slowly shifted to a white that took me over.
Then I woke up. 
"Yes," I thought to myself. "That is probably what dying would feel like."

Several nights later, Proteus was released on Playstation 3. I sat on the couch with my girlfriend and we played through it together. We chased squirrels and frogs (she thinks they are rabbits) and stood under the castle ruins (she thinks they are tree stumps). We watched the mushrooms trumpet in Spring and the owls fly in front of the stars on a Summer night. In Autumn we stood in the circle of Deer Gods, as we decided they were called, and the sky turned red.
I've played Proteus several times before on computer. I knew how it ended. You rise into sky and close your eyes, returning back to the main menu. It never really struck me as particularly emotional or powerful on my previous plays, just a timely end to a beautiful experience.
But my dream left a mark on me. Not in a particularly scary or depressing way, but I remembered it. I have what I think is a pretty healthy fear of the inevitability of death if I dwell on it too much, so perhaps that is why I remembered my dream so vividly. 
When our Proteus game reached Winter, I suddenly felt the tiniest pang of panic. This would all be over soon. This play session, our character's life: over. I suddenly regretted voluntarily progressing the seasons. Why didn't we just sit in Autumn forever? Why did we come to Winter? Now there was nothing we could do.
I had to see as much of the island as I could before it ended. The Deer Gods, the house by the sea, the forest beyond the mountain. I had to see them all one last time.
But then, walking down a hill, I never reached the bottom. Our character had started to lift. It was coming to an end and there was nothing I could do about it. We were among the tree tops. Then we were in the clouds, the ground obscured beneath us. Then we were passing over the mountains.
I remembered my dream, there with my character's legs dangling feet above the tallest mountain, with the Deer Gods turning into little dots in the snow. 
It was my dream. The inevitability. The sense of 'shit this is happening right now'. The strange sense of floating in nothingness. The sense of wanting to extend my connection with this word for just a moment longer.
And then, looking down at the island, the maximum draw distance the game could render began to suck up the mountain peaks in whiteness, disappearing them. No land left beneath me, I looked up at the moon and stars, trying to take it all in as quickly as I could because in any moment--
--my eyes closed, and I returned to the main menu.
And, yeah, that is probably what dying feels like.

Proteus is really lovely on PS3. Play it with someone you love.
If you were wanting a real essay on Proteus, you could do a lot worse than Dan Golding's piece on Meanjin.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Freeplay and Other Haps



It's been a very busy and exciting week with a lot of things happening. First and foremost, Freeplay happened in Melbourne last week and over the weekend. It was my fourth Freeplay event in as many years. It was a really great event with plenty of talks full of fury, passion, and optimism. Not the generic kind of games industry optimism of "believe in yourself and be Indie and things will be cool, yay!" but a real sense that things are slowly changing. Actually, changing is a terrible word that gets thrown around at Freeplay as much as it does at every event. In previous years, there has always been some kind of 'politics' panel where politics and culture and games gets talked about. This year, that stuff just kind of permeated the entire event. That pissed off some people who were more excited about learning how to use Unity to make platformers or something, but for those of us attending Freeplay as a cultural festival, it was really great to see.

Also great was the large percentage of young and inexperienced speakers. So many young people saying so many great things instead of the old guard saying the same old old guard things. Great! Exemplary of this was Sam Crisp/Stephen Swift (I don't even know anymore) and Marigold Bartlett's "How To Destroy Everything" talk which was just the most phenomenal thing. I highly recommend you read the manuscript. Also, speaking of young and inexperienced people. The event was directed this year by Harry Lee and Katie Williams, who have never directed an event before. They did an incredible job. Freeplay was incredible, is what I am saying.

Andrew Brophy and Chad Toprack also did a great job with the Hovergarden party (pictured). On par with the Wild Rumpus and Kill Screen parties I've attended at GDC.

I've been trying to think of a US equivalent to try to explain to people why Freeplay is special. I think it would be No Show Conference, from what I have heard of that event. An event for hobbyists and people interested in the culture of games not necessarily connected to The Industry of games. I love it. Mary Hamilton's writeup for The Guardian gives a pretty good gist of things.

At Freeplay, I spoke with Leena van Deventer on a panel called "Travel Diaries". I spoke about Towards Dawn and Leena wrote about her Sim, Interrupted project. I recorded the talk and you can download the audio I recorded here. I didn't start recording until halfway through Leena's introduction, accidentally, so allow me to say that she is rad and does rad stuff and maybe check out Widget, her Women in Development project.

After Freeplay I had an Academic Conference at RMIT, the IE Conference. I presented a paper on Towards Dawn and permanent death. I've uploaded it to my Academia.edu page if you want to read it. The paper I presented at DiGRA on Spec Ops: The Line is there as well, if you were after that.

And, finally, I have two articles in the newest issue of Five Out Of Ten that just got released. I write about writing about 868-Hack and embodiment in games. This is the fifth issue of Five Out Of Ten. It's exciting to see an independent project for games writing be so successful!

Aaaaaand that is about everything for now.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grand Theft Auto V and Everyday Photography

I have a lot of things to say about GTA V. Lots of things about the absolutely failed satire, the shameless and explicit misogyny, the phenomenally beautiful world, the terrible writing and the great storytelling, the identity crisis of being stranded in the no-person's land between GTA IV and Saints Row. Lots of things! I have a review forthcoming and there will probably also be a Notes post at some point.

For now, just a quick note about how much I dig the in-game screenshot system. What I really admired about GTA IV was the 'everyday' mundanity. It wasn't about jetpacks or hovercrafts or aliens or absurdity, but about being embedded in and weighed down by Niko Bellic's mundane, everyday existence as a criminal in Liberty City. In a lot of ways, GTA V has abandoned that sense of everyday-ness in its return to the PS2 era absurdity, but here and there, it is there.

Primarily, it is in the screenshot system. Like GTA IV, you can pull out the character's mobile phone to send text messages and make phone calls to other characters. This increased the feeling of Liberty City being a thriving city in GTA IV. You got the sense of other characters living in the city as you live in the city. There's the concept of 'co-presence' that mobile media theorists talk about, that sense of being in two places at once. While Niko is stealing a helicopter and Roman is ringing him wanting him to hang-out, that is co-presence. Understanding the city from two perspectives through mobile media.

Since GTA IV was released, mobile media has become so much more convergent and ubiquitous. We use these things in our pockets for talking, texting, surfing the web, taking photos and capturing videos, recording talks, checking-in to Facebook. GTA V shows this through the increased use of the mobile phones. No longer do you have to visit an internet cafe to get online. Now you just pull out the phone and enter the web browser.

Part of this is the game's in-game screenshot system, Snapmatic. Players can take low quality, low resolution photos full of fake noise. I'm sure some people are grumpy about the poor quality of these images (I'm just annoyed at the need to go through and bypass Rockstar's terrible social media thing as opposed to saving them directly to the PS3), but I love this replication of everyday photography in a game. For many people, photography is no longer a big deal. You don't stop and perfectly compose a photo with your expensive camera any more. You pull out a phone, take some snaps, throw a fake filter on it, and throw it on social media. Photography is now fleeting as often as it is permanent.

So I really love how this very modern everyday practice has been translated into the game world. It makes the world of Los Santos feel even 'more real' as you explore and archive it just as we explore and archive our real urban environment: with low quality, mundane photography.

And all of this is reinforced through the genius inclusion of the ability to take selfies.

GTA V falls short in many, many areas, but its depiction of everyday practices through mobile media is as fascinating as it was in GTA IV. So, anyway, this wasn't the first thing I expected to write about GTA V but there you go. So those are some rough thoughts on why I find the in-game screenshot functionality cool. Here are some of the photos I've captured in my first week of play.

EDIT: Patricia Hernandez just reminded me that the new HD release of Wind Waker similarly has a selfie mechanic. This is the greatest thing. More of this, please.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sir, You Are Being Hunted

I've been playing the alpha build of Sir, You Are Being Hunted. It's really nice. It feels like a single-player DayZ. There is not a whole heap to 'do' in the game, but the few objectives you do have are so stretched out and extended just to force you to have to really get to know an environment and care about your survival. It feels like the kind of survival game that would never be commercially viable but which a small subset of people would really want to exist. Which is exactly what Kickstarter projects do, I guess. Anyway. Here are some screenshots.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Disconnected Updates.

Hello. It has been a pretty intense, trans-pacific, grits-fuelled couple of weeks. Here is a rundown of important and exciting and disconnected things I've been up to:

1. Dan Golding and I launched our own company. It is called Press Select, and it is a publishing label for long-form game criticism. We have some truly incredible authors lined up to write about some landmark games. We wrote a blog post to tell you more about what we are doing, or you can read the article Polygon wrote about us.

2. I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the 2013 DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) conference last week. It is games studies' biggest international journal, and was full of awesome papers by intelligent people. It was a pretty great week! I am utterly indebted to Cameron Kunzelman for putting me up for the week so I could actually afford to attend. I presented a paper drawing from my work with Killing is Harmless. It is about Spec Ops: The Line, genre conventions of the military shooter genre, and how the genre gets caught up in the military-entertainment complex. There's a full version of the paper available here if you are into that.

3. Michael Brough's 868-Hack (pictured) was released on the App Store. I've been playing the pre-release build for a couple of months, and it is one of my favourite games of the year. I'll have more to say about it in the future, but for now I'll just note that it is responsible for breaking my Animal Crossing addiction as it started to dominate my portable gaming time.

And that is that!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Notes on Gone Home

1. As the credits rolled on Gone Home I felt happy, sad, and old.

2. Gone Home is a game you don't want to read about before you play. All you want to know about it first is that it is lovely, that is is beautiful, that it will take maybe 2-3 hours to play, and that you should wait until you can give it your undivided and uninterrupted attention so that you can let it all sink in in one playthrough. That is all you want to know before you play it. So stop reading now if you haven't played it yet.

3. I think Cameron Kunzelman has already sad everything I will say about the game here far more succinctly.

4. Gone Home is a scary game. The things that scare you are the things that scare you as a teenager. Childish fears that you are old enough to know are silly but not old enough to completely disbelieve. Ghosts, dark rooms, absent parents, eery answering phone messages. When you're a teenager, the world is so dramatic. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Playing through Gone Home, I was certain from the start that everything was going wrong (but surely it wouldn't). There would be ghosts (but surely not, right?). Something would move in a dark room (but it wouldn't, surely (but I should leave all the lights on just in case)). My entirely family was going to be dead (well probably not, but surely). Lots of things made me nostalgic and melancholy in Gone Home, but its defining sensation was one of dread amplified by a hyperbolic, adolescent imagination.

5. Which, now that I write that, makes me think back to when I talked to Walt Williams at GDC and we discussed how videogames aren't a 'young' medium but an adolescent medium in the way they think they are being all dark and serious in really immature ways. Gone Home plays to the strengths of an adolescent medium, feeding on my juvenile fears that something terrible is surely going to happen eventually because this is a videogame.

6. I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn't turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn't. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad's friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It's a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it's going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

7. But then it all makes sense. My parents are away at a counselling retreat (for reasons I understand based on the objects scattered around the house). My sister hasn't killed herself like some TV-trope depressed gay teenager. She has run off with the love of her life. Of course the house is a mess, then. Of course! it makes sense now. Like the shadow of a terrifying monster turning into a coatrack, everything makes sense in hindsight. How silly was I! Everything that was scary wasn't actually scary. It was just my imagination, moulded like clay by this masterful game and its genius creators. This is why you want to play the game not knowing anything about it. To feel that trepidation. To not be sure if there are ghosts or not but surely there aren't but maybe there are. To bring in your expectations from other media that the gay teenager surely killed herself and have that expectation shattered.

8. Gone Home is yet another indie game that proves that videogames do not need to be packed with action and violence to maintain the player's attention. A space to move through and things to look at. Those elements alone will carry a game far. Gone Home, Dear Esther, Proteus, Journey. I hope the creators of AAA games start to realise this. I want more big blockbuster games that are not afraid of downtime or a slow pace. Last Of Us was a step in the right direction, to be sure, but you can carry a game so much further with so much less action and I hope we finally begin to see more of this in the AAA space. Maybe.

9. I love Gone Home's characters. I love that Katie is a real person, fleshed out by her own postcards and her voice on the answering machine. I love how she is situated for the player: someone who has been away for a year while her family moved homes. It's the perfect setup for the character being disorientated in this big, bizarre house, feeling as out-of-place as the player even as all the objects that fill up this space are familiar to her. Familiar memories in an alien environment. Like some kind of dissonant memory palace.

10. BUT! I love that this game isn't about Katie. Kind of like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't about Raiden. The main character in this story is not the playable character. Katie is unearthing the story of Sam, her sister, about which Gone Home's story is based. We follow in Sam's footsteps unearthing her story and her feelings and her memories (almost like Raiden follows in Snake's footsteps but let's not do a Gone Home/Metal Gear Solid 2 comparative essay just now). We make predictions (mostly negative) about how her life has played out and why she isn't here now. We feel jubilant when the game ends and we realise her ending was a happy one (if not bittersweet). I smiled and wanted to cry for a character that I had never seen or directly engaged with throughout the game.

11. Perhaps Gone Home feels so melancholy even at the end because I never got to hug my younger sister.

12. I miss the 90s. Like, I really miss the 90s. To be certain, the 90s I miss is probably not the same 90s as those just a bit older than me miss. I was born in 1986. I was not old enough for half the 90s to really appreciate it at the time, but I built up a storage of memories of things that I saw and heard and, in more recent years, have made sense of those memories. Now I feel this strange, aching loss for the decade that I lived out for most of my childhood (if not my adolescence).

It's something I've been struggling with for maybe a year now, this strange kind of late-20s crisis of being old enough to contextualise my existence within a much broader history of humanity to realise just how small and fleeting I am. I remember my dad listen to 70s music in the 90s, music from a decade back in some pre-history of humankind. The 70s were as far back in time then as the 90s are now. I was born in the 80s. The 80s are as far away from now as the 50s were from the 80s. The Pub Trivia I go to plays 'old' songs by The Cranberries and Garbage and Hole. I know adults who remember September 11 about as poorly as I remember the Berlin War falling down.

This is not to say I am old. Everyone older than me would scoff at such a statement. I am saying that I am old enough for time to feel like it is moving pretty fucking fast and my childhood is something that doesn't exist anymore. It's a memory that's trapped back in the 90s, locked up with Sega Megadrives and Riot Grrls and Marilyn Manson and purple Hang Ten t-shirts. I'm pretty happy with my present life, but that realisation that the past is, well, past, hits pretty hard.

So Gone Home was nostalgic for me in the most literal possible sense. Nostalgia is derived from the Greek nostos ("homecoming") + algos ("pain, grief, distress") (thanks, Google). Gone Home was a painful homecoming. For Katie, to be sure, but also for me. And also for a lot of people my age and a bit older, I imagine. Not because it says "Hey, remember Super Nintendo?" which is the extent of most game's use of nostalgia. But because it teleported me back to a time and decade in my life that I am just now coming to terms with being over. Gone Home isn't a memory palace; it's a memory museum.

To be sure, I wasn't a riot grrrl struggling with having to come out to my parents. But I was a kid in the 90s, and all the minutiae things around this house created a painful homecoming for me. Or maybe this was more like leaving home. Of having to accept that the 90s were the 90s and that's where they have to stay. I dunno. It's an emotion that I still don't really have the words for. All I know is that this is the first contemporary creative work (with one vague exception) that helped me come to terms with my already-here-but-not-quite-accepted adulthood in a weird way that I don't quite have the words for, and it was an incredibly powerful experience.

13. Courtney Stanton mentioned on Twitter that Gone Home has replaced Portal for her game-to-show-people-who-don't-like-games-what-videogames-are-capable-of (I'm paraphrasing). I could not agree more.

14. Ben Abraham wrote a really interesting piece on how the game plays off tropes to create a ludonarrative harmony (oh no he didn't (oh yes he did)).

15. Merritt Kopas's personal thoughts on the game and her own childhood are really moving.

16. Some thoughts by Mattie Brice about her relationship with the 90s and indie games and nostalgia and Gone Home.

17. Anna Anthropy's thoughts on the game.

18. Kim Delicious's thoughts on the game.

19. At the risk of sounding like some privileged cisdude exoticising queer experiences, I'm really fascinated and moved by the various reactions queer writers are having to Gone Home. Some are melancholically remembering when they were queer teenage girls in the 90s; others are lamenting that they weren't teenage girls in the 90s (be it because of age or of gender). There are so many different emotional responses to Gone Home, so many different people being reminded of something they either never had or have since lost by the game. I think there's something really special about that.

20. Naomi Clarke wrote a really in-depth analysis of a single piece of paper in the game world and what the player's limited interactions with it say about the game.

21. Cameron Kunzelman is putting together a post of writings about Gone Home, so I will stop updating this notes post now with my favourite posts about it since they are all already there.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Notes on The Last Of Us

1. The Last Of Us is a game of impossible tensions. A game of having cake and eating it too. A game that wants to walk a tightrope that so many games before it have fallen from. It wants its tightly-authored narrative and it wants the player to feel like their actions from one moment to the next are actually consequential. The Last Of Us is a remarkable game because, more often than not it finds this impossible balance. The Last Of Us is an infuriating game because the few times it does stumble, it plummets.

2. I once wrote in an article for Hyper (that I keep meaning to make available online) that the reason I loved DayZ was that it is the closest videogames have even gotten to evoking the feelings and themes of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. The loneliness coupled with a terror that someone could be anywhere. The savage wasteland stripped bare of resources. Spending hours in a single town, risking your life in the hope you might find a single can of beans, maybe even some bullets. Sitting on a hill and looking at a barn for a full five minutes to see if anyone exits it before you enter. The knowledge that if you worked with the other players on the map you could be invincible coupled with your finger tense over the mouse's left button, ready to fire in case you do actually see another player.

DayZ isn't a narrative equivalent to The Road, but it is a thematic equivalent. Because there is no story designed by the developers that must be seen through, it can focus purely on the non-story that is the entire mind and body consumed in the simple acts of managing resources and not trusting your fellow human. The simple act of not dying.

3. The Last Of Us wants to be The Road both thematically and narratively. It wants DayZ's sense of brutal survivalism, but it also wants to tell an pre-authored story about a man and a child walking across the United States that will play out a certain way. I have no qualms with "a veneer of survivalism" to reappropriate Dan Golding's critique of Bioshock: Infinite. I like how Tomb Raider and Max Payne 3 and Spec Ops: The Line communicate the desperate, gritty survival of their characters without necessarily ever making me feel like that maybe, just maybe, I might actually die. Even Metal Gear Solid 3, with its non-realistic focus on hunger and injuries, gave a good veneer of survivalism, an ambience, without me as the player ever feeling like that my character might die from hunger or my wounds. Resources were always plentiful enough, but it was something to pester my mind constantly. Little concerns that don't go away.

The Last Of Us wants both, and this is the key tension that had me tipping back and forward from being in awe at the game and wanting to rage quit and never come back. It wanted to limit my supplies to such an extreme extent that I might feel like I would actually die. Like I might forget that there is a narrative in this game that is going to play out in a certain way and that the game has an obligation to make sure it is impossible for me, the player, to screw up to such an extent that I can't get through it.

And, truly, it is so incredibly remarkable that for the vast majority of the time, it pulls this off. I would spend half an hour or more steering Joel around, clutching a revolver with a single bullet in the chamber. The number "1" in the lower-right screen glaring at me, not letting me forget. Like McCarthy constantly reminding The Road's reader exactly how many bullets are left in the gun. I might find two shotgun shells. I haven't used my shotgun for two hours, but I know it has no ammo. I stop, pull my shotgun out of my backpack, load the two shells into the five-shell chamber, and put it back in my backpack. I stand back up with my single revolver bullet and carry on. That these little moments are able to exist in a tightly authored game is remarkable.

4. But then it doesn't work. You are trapped in a room and you have to fight zombies for five minutes. Or you are hanging upside down from the ceiling protecting Ellie with an unlimited supply of revolver bullets. It's not that these segments aren't explained within the game (Ellie finds more bullets, magically, and throws them to Joel), but they completely jar with the gravity that the rest of the game has built up around firing a gun. It devalues bullets by making you use more of them in a single scene than you have previously used in the entire game. No single scene in The Last Of Us is bad in itself, but many of them jarred with the experience of desperate frugalness. Most particular the upside-down-with-unlimited-ammo segment (a segment I would be utterly delighted to play in, say, an Uncharted game). But this is that impossible tension. I usually have no qualms with doing what the designer wants me to do when I am playing an authored game. But The Last Of Us does such a great job of making me feel like I might run out of ammo and die that the times I had to do a lot of shooting, I really struggled.

5. Another (related) tension: The Last Of Us is an expensive blockbuster game that is, simultaneously, trying not to be a blockbuster game, and not wanting to stray too far from the conventions of blockbuster games. It doesn't want to be the same as every other game, but it doesn't want to stray too far from the path, either. It's a tension that underpins this entire interview on Edge with the game's creators. For every actually-creative choice they discuss, there is an anxiety that people won't get it (indeed, their focus testers apparently didn't). The idea that a game doesn't need multiple endings or choices or anything to be engaging. The idea that you can play a teenage girl in a dark and gritty game.

6. But the 'gamey-ness' is still there in The Last Of Us. It hasn't fully gone away. Every now and then it can't help but remind you that you are playing a AAA videogame. This is most apparent at the start. After an incredible opening, after a nicely-paced, slow tutorial out of the city and back in again, you have the most amazing sense of place. The military forces, life Outside The Walls, what these zombies have done to society, the toughness of life inside the walls. It's all there. Walking through the marketplace stitched together with tarps between old buses, where vendors sell barbecued rats, you get this place.

Then you walk into a square area full of waist-high boxes, and you know exactly what is going to happen.

The same happens at the water station. As I walk through it from one side of the other, with Joel's brother telling me his hopeful stories for the future, all I can see is the Videogame Cover everywhere, yelling at me that there will soon be a gunfight (and, indeed, it is a gunfight that exists for a gunfight's sake, adding nothing to the game).

I still go back and forward on whether or not this is a fair criticism. Should a videogame try to not be a videogame? I often speak highly of Hideo Kojima's games for not shying away from their own videogame-ness, but for embracing it. I think it bugged me in The Last Of Us, though, because it was inconsistent. For long stretches of time it was interested only in evoking its sensation of darkness, of getting me wrapped up and lost inside the story of these characters that I was controlling. But then, in pockets, it just wanted to be a videogame with 'videogame bits', because a videogame should have 'videogame bits'. I think those bits just felt like an inability to commit to a vision. But, they only stand out here because The Last Of Us, by and large, is committed to its vision like almost no other recent blockbuster.

7. And while I could complain that there is still too much shooting in this game (and I truly believe there is), there is no denying that those skirmishes feel unlike any other game. There is a weight to the guns, to the bullets. Every time you pull the trigger is a Big Deal (this is greatly helped by the fact you don't have access to an assault rifle for the vast majority of the game). And, wonderfully, you often get the sense that the same is true for your opponents, that they don't want to waste their ammo, either. The way these core mechanics that differ little from Uncharted have been converted into an entirely different genre and given an entirely different feel is an excellent achievement. I just wish I was doing it less often.

8. Others have, quite keenly, noted a trend of 'dadification' in videogames like The Last Of Us. As the young, twenty-something, mostly-male creators of blockbuster videogames start to get older and have their own families, we are seeing more videogames with themes of fathers protecting children/families. The Last Of Us is undeniably part of this trend. But I think The Last Of Us is also more interesting in that it isn't just using the relationship between a father and a child to frame a story; it is a story about fatherhood (and, more broadly, parenthood). That is far more interesting. There is the relationship between Joel and Sarah. Between Joel and Ellie. Between Sam and Henry. Between Ellie and David. Between Ellie and Marlene. What I find fascinating is that, apart from Joel and Sarah at the start of the game, none of these relationships are about the relationship between a kid and their birth parent, instead it is always a surrogate. Someone else who has stepped into the role of parent for one reason or another. The Last Of Us is a dadified game of dadified characters.

9. When The Last Of Us starts, you are playing as a teenage girl. After the intro is over, your partner (and boss, more or less), is a woman. The next major plot character you meet, who follows you for a time, is a black woman. Then Ellie, another teenage girl, joins you. A while later, the first male to ever join your party who is not Joel is, it is implied but never explicitly stated, gay. The next two people that join up with you are a black man and boy.

Make no mistake: all of these characters are in support roles. The Last Of Us is, at its core, another videogame about a straight, white, grizzly man with facial hair. But, I was incredibly pleased to see this diverse range of characters in the game. They never felt like lip service. They never felt like a quota that was trying to be filled. They never felt stereotypical (to me, at least). It just felt like a believably diverse representation of the kinds of people in this world. I really appreciated the effort. Though, it would've been nice to actually encounter some female bandits or guards or soldiers, apart from one in a single cut-scene.

10. But then there are the cannibals. Cannibalism is used to great effect in The Road and many other post-apocalypse narratives to convey the hardness of life, the desperation of the people. In these post-apocalypses, the Earth has been stripped bare of resources. In The Road, next to nothing lives. It makes sense that humans would, as a last resort, eat each other. In The Last Of Us, the world is more rich of life and plants than ever before. This isn't an apocalypse for Earth, just for mankind. Without humans dominating the world, wildlife has returned to the world in force. In such a world, I'm unconvinced that people would become cannibals.

Which is not to nitpick the realism of a zombie apocalypse. Yes, maybe the winter months push them over the edge. Yes, maybe they have created some weird, whacky ritual out of cannibalism. But that is exactly my problem: The Last Of Us wants to be one of those post-apocalypses where there aren't 'good' and 'bad' guys, but just humanity tearing itself apart as everyone tries to fend for themselves. In that world, 'cannibalism' feels like a lazily deployed shorthand for 'crazy post-apocalypse evil people'. You may as well replace them with demonic Nazis. They weren't interesting cannibals. They were Bad Guys and nothing more.

11. At various points in the game, I did not know how I was meant to be approaching a scene. In a game authored like this, I expect the game to find a way to tell me if it expects me to go in guns blazing, stealthily, or if I have the choice. Because I was playing on hard and because supplies felt so intensely sparse, I always tried stealth. But sometimes this wasn't always possible. Maybe a cut-scene would demand that the zombies are chasing me, and all the ones I've managed to sneak past suddenly are alerted to me after I step over an invisible tripwire. Maybe I restart a scene ten times because I want to stealth it successfully—only to get to the far side and realise I can't advance until I go back through the place and kill everyone.

If, maybe, Joel had more regularly muttered to himself or Ellie, "There's no way around these guys" or something, I would've got the hint of what was expected of me. Instead, I'd waste time frustrated that a certain approach wasn't working, unaware that I was just playing it the wrong way. For this reason, I think The Last Of Us is a game I will thoroughly enjoy a second time.

12. Just like the Uncharted games, The Last Of Us is a game of finely crafted moments. Two kids playing darts. Walking through the woods. Standing on a roof looking down on some grazing giraffes. My god, the giraffes. I think it is, perhaps, my single favourite design decision in the game, to have Joel and Ellie just lean on that rail and watch the giraffes for as long as the player will let them. They just stand there until the player presses a button and nudges them forward. It took me a long time to press a button. I wanted my characters to have this serenity forever. I didn't want them to go back into the darkness.

13. The Last Of Us is a game of jump cuts, not a game of fade-ins and fade-outs. Most videogames fade, but The Last Of Us cuts. Time skips forward. Scenes end abruptly. The whole game ends abruptly (and magnificently). Time cuts forward with each scene. It gives the game a very distinct ambience. Something... minimal. Something essentially. All the frayed ends have been shaved clean. This game won't waste your time with drawn out fade-ins or unnecessary plot. When it's done telling you something, it's done.

This is a style so consistent that you encounter it before you even get to the main menu. 'Sony Computer Entertainment presents' and 'Naughty Dog' appear suddenly on a black screen in silence, one right after the other, each cutting in then cutting out. Before I was even at the menu, I knew something about what this game was going for.

14. That consistency of tone is so important and so incredibly well achieved. Tim Rogers's review details this much better than I could.

15. The boss battle against the bloater-or-whatever-they-are-called was terrible (and despite what the developers say, it was a boss battle). The boss battle against David was pretty great.

16. I have always liked how Naughty Dog deals with companions. I love that they can look after themselves and, occasionally, might even look after you. I like that I never have to worry about them. It didn't bother me the few times Ellie would stand right out in front of a guard while I am stealthing around, totally invisible to the guy walking past her. I can live with that. What did bother me, though, was when my companions would shout loudly around clickers or humans. Designing them to whisper when whispering is appropriate could've been a nice touch.

17. The Last Of Us has one of the best openings of any videogame. And one of the best endings.

18. Clickers were great. I am glad they killed in one hit. Unlike the other kinds of zombies, I could actually read them and understand how to act around them.

19. Naughty Dog are masters of environment design. The way they can take a building, age it twenty years and turn it on its side and have an environment that is both convincingly detailed and still fully navigable is a testament to their ability. Each and every place in The Last Of Us was a pleasure to just move through. So much so that the game, not to harp on, could have supported my engagement with fewer skirmishes. 

20. While I was playing The Last Of Us and complaining about all the individual segments that really frustrated me, I predicted that those segments would not bother me in hindsight. I was right about this. Once I had finished the game, I was left with only admiration for this game. For the plot, for the characters, for the moment-to-moment things I had done throughout the game. It is still a game of tensions, of things that are incredible and things that are incredibly frustrating. But I don't think it could be one of these without the other. Here is a blockbuster game that is trying to do something interesting, pushing against the mould if not entirely breaking out of it. The final result, then, is a warped mould rather than something entirely unique. Frustrating because it doesn't always act the way you expect it to. Incredible because it doesn't seem particularly concerned about your expectations.