Saturday, January 23, 2016

Moments - Opera Omnia

There are moments when we face ourselves and the horrors we have perpetuated. And there are moments when we do not. In Opera Omnia, there is a moment when we should have.

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How do we forgot what others are, and in turn what we are? How do we forget to treat other human beings as human beings? It's a question with many answers, one of which is that we utilize tools to distance ourselves, or indeed use people as tools, treat them as its instead of thous. If the only tool we have at our disposal is a hammer, then everything starts looking like a nail. If the only tool we have at our disposal is a boot, then the only interaction we can imagine with another is the boot stamping on a face. But we do not have to do our stamping in close proximity - if we abstract our interactions enough and create a framework for evil so that it appears both banal and commonplace enough, we can run through a a large set interactions/boots-in-faces simply as we go about our business . We can go "the distance", commit to our framework of abstract interactions and in doing so committing atrocities as science.

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In Opera Omnia, you play a state historian who is charged by your superior to prove certain theories the state has about the past migration routes of minority groups in your country. For this task you have tools for simulating migration patterns, population numbers, natural historical occurances such as famines, plagues, etc. You get these in the form of a very counterintuitive interface and data points situated in both the past and present which your superior doesn't even bother to assure you are correct but are indeed taken at face value. It all takes some time to wrap ones head around, and the complexities of the missions just grow with each completed assigment. But idle hands make for devil's playthings as they say, and thus you will just have to put all your mental effort and computational power at your disposal to become one with the interface and learn to think backwards like the system which you use for your calculations. See, if there were still people left in the city after the plague had decimated the numbers of the minority population, then plagues actually increase population if you see this simple fact through the interface which works its way from data points located in the present toward the past. Once you get the hang of it, it starts making sense. Kinda.

Well, the fact of the matter is that Opera Omnia was never meant to be simple, and that the obscurity of its interface furthers the theme of obfuscation at the hands of the imagined state which the protagonist works for. The object for that state was never to create a better future, but rather to craft a more convenient past under the veneer of objectivity. There are no theories which you can arrive at in Opera Omnia other than those already typed into the programs which you work in. Thus the conclusions are drawn before any real questioning can begin. The minority groups in Opera Omnia, Romani or what have you, are abstracted through so many layers that one doesn't know what comes out at the other end. Or wait, one knows exactly what comes out, because that was the point all along - to obscure and abstract through temporal aspects such as time/proximity, by unclear communication such as insinuations, by cherrypicking for misrepresentation, by making unfounded generalizations, by Othering, in general. Add to this a preoccupation on the protagonists part with figuring out the interface/"scientific" procedure and a promise of a future career at the institute by hir superior instead of evolving the capacity to ask tough questions and question superiors, and you have the parameters set for the possibility space of the data points in this little game of politics.

Withhin that framework, persecution can become a migration pattern. From there, the step to genocide becoming a famine isn't that big. The data points are there. The facts add up. It's all so godamn clean. It's so godamn clean that one of the problems toward the end of our assigments make no sense at all outside the scope of the simulations we toy around with - the theoretical assignment can only be proven if we treat the number 0 as a purely mathematical concept within the computational landscape of the programming itself. After all, 0 can be zero, nothing at all, or an infinity of numbers. Suddenly there's no end to the possibilities. And during all this, a disconerning question starts formulating in the back of my mind - what kind of government would want to cover up atrocities if not one which commits atrocities as we speak?

At that point, I wonder if the protagonist would even recognize a human being if zie looked one in the eye. And I wonder what zie would see if zie looked in the mirror.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In the absence of long rpgs

For a second I thought that Telltale might become my new Bioware now that I don't have patience for 50+ hour videogames. Bioware has been that company which makes me buy a new console and always has me anticipating and following the progress of their upcoming releases. And then has me playing their games, and replaying them, and always loving them. I don't think there are any other companies out there which I've had this relationship with for the past 5-10 years. I used to love the Metal Gear Solids, and I used to play every new Castlevania and Silent Hill game, but there has not been anything quite like Bioware, meaning a company which makes a very specific type of game that isn't part of the same video game franchise/series and makes that type of game consistently awesome. For a while there was Cave and their shmups, but mostly it was their back catalogue that I explored, and by the time their games started reaching the Western hemipshere once again my interest in arcade shmups was already waning. And there was Nintendo and their trinity of Zelda, Mario and Metroid games. Of these, I'm mostly into Mario today, which I wouldn't have guessed ten years ago, but that's a franchise. There's all these indie developers whose upcoming projects I've been looking forward to (Aaron R. Reed, Jake Elliot, Terry Cavanagh, Jason Rohrer, etc). But none of these is Bioware. And then there is Telltale. But Telltale is not Bioware either.

Bioware for me has been about immersing myself in something for an extended period of time. It's been both about the hype before a game release, about playing the game with millions of other people, and then being part of the gaming communities collective memory. It's been about comparing their new game to their old ones, tracking the progress of their conversation systems and contextualizing their games in the video game industry as a whole. It's been about finding these types of charts endearing. It's been about always getting to know interesting characters in interesting settings, and about doing cool missions with these characters. It's really not the same thing in Telltales games. In my playthrough of Tales Of Borderlands, I got the opportunity to talk to the supporting characters by approaching them on my own maybe once or twice per episode. There were a lot of other conversations (seeing as the game consists primarily of these), but mostly in-action, as part of the plot development. One might see this as a strength and proof of good writing. But it's not the same thing as kicking back with your squadron in your spaceship, extensively getting filled in on their backstory and what problems they might have had with each-other while you were out doing something else. It's not the same as taking in what a character is asking of you in your own pace, then deciding how to answer, approaching the problem at hand. It's not the same as exploring a world and its characters in that RPG and Bioware specific fashion.

So I mourn the fact that I don't have the same relationship to Bioware as I used to have, and that there doesn't seem to me anything close resembling a replacement. jRPGs just never worked for me in the same manner, and I even tried replaying both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII just last weekend. I got five hours into FF7 and three hours into FF8, and this when playing without random encounters! No, I'll just have to remember those games through their soundtracks, because by God is the writing in them so bad that I honestly think many teenagers could come up with something better. And newer jRPGs, well, you know, they haven't gotten much better, and they sure as hell haven't become much shorter. And I guess that's part of the problem, that the open-world trend has taken over both the new Dragon Age/Metal Gear Solid games and the upcoming Zelda (although in the context of the Zelda franchise I'm actually intrigued).

But, you know, I did play Pillars of Eternity last year. It was awesome, even though it wasn't Bioware. And this year the new Planescape is coming out. Perhaps it's not so bad after all, it's just me being nostalgic as always. And then there is always Mass Effect: Andromeda. If they make just enough changes and don't make it too much of an open world game, I might give it a spin, and I might even get hyped before release. Well, if I get a PS4 that is, but I still don't know any other game which might convince me of doing so more than Bioware's upcoming one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Critical Compilation - Her Story

Moving Pixels Her Story Podcast

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Idle Thumbs Her Story Podcast

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Game Maker's Toolkit - How Her Story Works

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Her Story Gamers With Jobs Spoiler Section

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Her Story: Walkthrough Guide and Discussion

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Barlow decided to make a game by himself and never looked back. His very first idea was to place the entire game around a police interview, and the reasons behind that are more intriguing than you'd think.

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[interview with Sam Barlow]
At it’s core it’s a game about a single case, a murder, and what’s different about it is that rather than taking the direction that other crime and detective games take of having you embody the detective and wander around, doing lots of gamey stuff, with the trappings of a police procedural – I’ve gone off on an extreme and created something where you have a lot less of the gamey stuff. Almost to the point of having none of it. I’ve abstracted things but this, in theory, gives you a much greater sense of the feeling of being a detective and, for me, fires a lot of stuff off in the brain that you get from that kind of police procedural material.
/.../
If you do a thought experiment and you imagine the holodeck exists and you’re standing in a fictional world, and to all extents and purposes you’re there – for me, at that point, all the things that make art just disappear. If I’m in this virtual space and it’s all happening to me, and I’m reacting exactly as if it IS happening to me, I completely lose that layer that enables me to parse something.

If I’m watching a movie, there’s this wonderful thing where you have the floating viewpoint of the camera and a lot of your responses to the movie are as if you were in the position of that camera, spying on things, looking at things, reacting to the action with movement. At the same time you’re doing this magic act of putting yourself in the shoes of the characters but also being outside of them, so you’re aware of their situation, you have dramatic irony, you have that whole concept where you’re able to think of things on a more thematic level – that’s what makes movies really interesting and makes them more than just soap operas.

Part of me, when I’m trying to make games that are that immersive and virtual, is aware that there needs to be another thing that is pushing against it and deliberately defying it. With Shattered Memories, we deliberately did things that are specifically designed to take you away from that character, Harry. When we’re cutting back and forth to the therapy sessions, we’d occasionally spawn Harry in a slightly different place to where you’d left him and some of the things that he said were there to deliberately push that.
/.../
RPS: We mentioned performance as an aspect of a psychiatrist’s job. The same must be true of a detective?

Barlow: Yes, that whole aspect of performance is key to the police interview. With the stuff about torture coming into the public domain now, I had that in the back of my mind while I was working.
/.../
It isn’t about uncovering contradictions – some of those contradictions and lies are interesting because they lead to a different truth.
/.../
You were talking earlier about how people take skeletal things and put flesh on them and particularly with women accused of murder, all of the tropes come out. When somebody is trying to get the death penalty, to show that the accused is beyond human, you get these concepts of the femme fatale and all of that. On some of these YouTube videos, people are analysing the way that this woman cries – is she crying in the right places or in the right ways? No, they’ll say, she’s deliberately crying, or she’s flirting with the police here. She’s evil! All this kind of stuff comes out.
/.../
Overall, Her Story ends up being about the bigger picture rather than the crime.
/.../
I think there’s a bigger point that comes from all of this. It’s not just about armchair detectives, it’s true of everything. People take very small pieces of information and extrapolate from there, ending up with conspiracy theories. You just have to look at some of the stuff in the games industry recently. The level of invasiveness and the way that people concoct crazed theories around stuff, which is essentially peoples’ lives!
/.../
We’ve almost now become immune to reality. There’s a realness to VHS and scrappy footage that just doesn’t work on us anymore, partly because of found footage films mimicking reality. If I watch an advert for tissues or bread, I will be in tears. A little boy pedalling up a hill and his bike breaks, and I’m in tears, crying because of the artistry of this completely synthetic thing. But yet I can sit and watch video footage of these people who have lost loved ones, or been forced to do horrendous things that they’ll never recover from, and we’re able to sit and watch it and eat it up and post popcorn gifs on the internet.

That’s partly what I’m trying to figure out in my head with Her Story.

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Her Story creator wants the truth about the game's ending to stay a mystery.
/.../
"My notes and my current understanding is that there's a definitive version of the story that I have in my head," Barlow said. "Certainly of what happened prior to the various interviews; this was important as well because all of the detectives' dialogue was fully scripted as well.
 "Obviously when you remove all the questions of the detectives — obviously there are a lot more questions — but for the detectives to be asking those questions and have their line of inquiry that would have to be quite well thought out." Barlow has no plans to release those detective questions, though he did consider it for a short time.

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lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.) I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it? So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it.
/.../
let’s get this bit out of the way: yes, the thing is crammed with tropes. It’s a Gothic story, fundamentally, the bones of Radcliffe and Bronte still visible under the wrappings of more modern genres. The duality of persons, the midwife, the poison, the significant pictures that are usually kept covered up; the obsession with mirrors and fairy-tales, doppelgangers and disguises, the forbidden places within the home, the family secrets preserved by servants, the false parentage. No, of course it’s not plausible. This kind of story has never been plausible. It never made sense that Mrs. Rochester could hang out in the attic that whole time without Jane finding out, either. The Gothic is a way of talking about irrationality, darkness in the soul, and the fact that people aren’t consistently just one thing or another. Though the Gothic is full of women who might, in the words of some of the reviewers I linked above, fall into the “crazy bitches” category, it was also often written by and for women, concerned with domesticity, and touching on family loyalty and family perversion. “These tropes are really old tropes!!” is obviously not an excuse of any kind: I don’t think the mere presence of recognizable tropes is an automatic artistic demerit, but what is harmful or derivative remains so regardless of length of pedigree.
/.../
So what truth did I see in all this? I think: the social mutability of self, which is something that everyone inevitably experiences. It has been especially present in my life the past few years. I travel more and have increasingly non-overlapping social circles, so that I’m playing the role of native and foreigner, novice and expert, relatively rich and relatively poor, depending on environmental factors that change sometimes many times a day. And for reasons of career, I’ve also needed to give more thought to actually managing all this, rather than just observing it in a bemused way. Here’s a thing that happens to me pretty frequently. I’m at a game-related conference. I may be wearing a speaker badge. A young man comes up to me; often he’s a student, sometimes a bit older. He asks me what I’m into, game-wise, and I say that I work in interactive narrative. This is the starting gun. He begins to tell me all about interactive narrative. He has deep theories about interactive narrative, in fact, which are usually grounded in having played a couple episodes of The Walking Dead, or maybe the end of Portal or Bioshock. Typically the insight he wants to share with me is something like “it’s really hard to have both story and gameplay” or “it ruins the story if you let the player make important decisions” or “twist endings, man, whoa”. There isn’t really a stopping point for me to say anything. Sometimes he may transition from telling me his insights to giving me some advice about how I might “break into” the field, e.g. by working in QA, or maybe teaching myself to program a bit. Gently, he may tell me that I shouldn’t be scared of code and it might really help me out to learn some. If I somehow manage to get a word in and mention that I do code, the fact that my language of choice isn’t C++ inevitably entitles him to blow this information off again. Sometimes at this point I excuse myself from the conversation and go find someone else to talk to, or the bathroom, or a drink, or just the nearest exit. Just occasionally, the incident gets an alternate ending: someone Student has heard of and respects — his professor, an older dev, a journalist — comes over and says, “HI EMILY! It is great to meet you! I love your work!” Student becomes confused, then silent. Professor and I have a conversation instead.
/.../
It’s not lost on me that I’ve needed to learn a lot of traditionally feminine-coded and traditionally less-valued skills (I pretty much never wore makeup before a couple of years ago) precisely in order to navigate an environment where I was shown less respect as a result of being female. I don’t think all this is about discovering how to be fake or how to deceive people, but how to be myself in a way that other people will best connect with, and that will draw the least negative feedback. Even if it’s not fair to have to think about these issues, what happens when I don’t think about them gets in the way of doing my job. When Student is talking down to me like I’ve never read a CYOA or opened a terminal window, he’s not having a conversation with me as I am, but with a projected imaginary version of me that I’ve failed to dispel. Maybe it’s not really my fault as such, but we’d both be having a better time if I could change that. The more authentic self, in other words, is sometimes also the more deliberately enacted and performed self. And this is the point (finally!) where we get back to what I liked about Her Story. Eve is both the more false and the more true member of that pair. She knows what she is doing and why she is doing it. She is more confident, braver, a superior liar. Hannah is less competent at being bad, without being a better person. Eve, one feels, would not have lashed out and killed Simon by accident. She might have killed him on purpose at some point, if she felt she had to, but not by accident. As exaggerated as the story incidents were, as much as the virginity story squicked me out, as little as we have in common in circumstance or (I hope!) personality, there was still something about the deliberate self-making of Eve that spoke to me.

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On that last interview, it's important to note that the clips you bring back with every search are ordered chronologically rather than given a permanent random ordering. This seemingly minor detail is significant because the final interview clips often get edged out of a search's five clip cap. This is an astute way to bake hard answers into the game without having to gate them artificially, thus retaining Her Story's sense of openness.

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If the player were able to act like an actual researcher, the game wouldn’t be very exciting.  Dumping an ordered list of all the videos and sorting through them in order would have satisfied by academic inclinations, but it would have drained the story of any mystery or sense of discovery.
/.../
Her Story does an uncanny job of modeling some aspects of real technology, while at the same time ignoring the fundamental purpose of that technology.
At times, it borders on being disingenuous. Her Story presents something that looks like the 1990s, but it only contains a small portion of the rules that governed that world. Why not embrace the artificial limits and change the entire setting into a fantasy realm where memories can be magicked away or a cyber-punk future where computing rules are more science fiction than fact?
/.../
Her Story is about investigating people’s true nature with a set of tools that have had their true nature diluted.

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with the exception of Narcissus, all of the stories named above are about women. In her essay Book as Mirror, Mirror as Book, Veronica Schanoes points out “the historical association between femininity and the trope of the mirror,” particularly in fairy tales. Schanoes also discusses the long tradition of Eve—the biblical first woman and humanity’s first sinner—being portrayed looking into a mirror. “Eve’s connection with mirrors suggests the medieval emblem of vanitas, always depicted as a woman gazing at herself in a mirror,” she writes. In Her Story, Eve—the first twin to appear on-screen and arguably the first to sin, by sleeping with Hannah’s husband—presented with a set of psych-test pictures, Eve can’t help but see herself in them. In the first, she sees Rapunzel, and describes a girl trapped, “looking out the window because her mother won’t let her out.” In the others, she tells tales of mistaken identities, affairs and women wielding sharp objects. It’s practically a full confession.

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It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable.
/.../
I think, had Her Story been significantly more rigorous as a puzzle, it would also have lost some of its emotional impact, and some of its mechanical focus. I like that you really can find out a satisfying amount without ever diverging from the main mechanic the game offers you at the outset.

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Aisle was, among other things, about how a character remembers his ex-lover. It’s explicitly a man’s feelings about a woman. Her Story attempts this much trickier, less explored territory of fiction: a woman in her own words.
/.../
I feel like this was a plot that could have been built out believably, deeply. Yet I find it so frustrating because despite being called Her Story, it keeps dodging the opportunity to say anything about women’s real experiences.
/.../
Her Story is incredibly good at jolting the part of our brain that seeks out motivations. I’ve read once that humans can have trouble calculating some logic problems, but when those problems are framed as checking other humans for cheating, we find the same logic much easier. Our ability to reassemble complex stories is heightened when we suspect other humans of deceit.

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What’s interesting is how Barlow doesn’t seem to sweat the idea that the mystery might be solved quickly, or whether that mystery itself is all that important to Her Story.

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So I’m assuming we all took slightly different routes through the story and I’d be interested to know your favourite or most memorable AHA moments because I’m thinking they’ll vary due to those different pathways.

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There is a freedom in Her Story, and it is the freedom that comes from the game getting out of the way: you don't have to arrange your thoughts for the computer to then check at the end. You don't have to show your workings. It's not Cluedo. You don't actually have to arrange your thoughts at all. Ultimately, the game's about prejudice as much as detective work; it's not Her Story but Your Story as you weigh the evidence and apportion motives as you see fit. There is a neat thematic reason for all of this, I suspect, just as there is a neat thematic reason that the logo on the opening screen fades in and then slowly fades out again, one letter at a time. A narrative can never belong to a single person for very long. Once we become historical artefacts, we belong to everyone, our agency is steadily erased, and our actions are open to everyone's interpretation - or lost for good.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dreaming in gamespaces

One can be a gamer in many different ways, a notion I explored earlier. I just realized another aspect of being a gamer - where one's mind wanders when it is time to choose one's creative weapon of choice.

I recently saw The Martian, a sci-fi flick about a guy being left behind on Mars. And as often is the case when I interact with works of fiction (but also academic literature), I got inspired and started imagining scenarios; by projecting the possibility-space of what could occur in the movie later on; by trying to figure out how scientific the movie was; by trying to put myself in the position of the main character; by exploring the life of the main character after the end of the movie, and so on. My mind was exploding with creativity, a reaction I often have when watching an interesting movie, where really half of the experience is just me thinking about alternatives to the experience at hand, me extrapolating interesting things about the movie and toying with them.

It also so happened that when watching The Martian, I remembered an idea for a video game which I wanted to make some years ago wherein you are a person in a spaceship with just a couple of minutes to live/play. A similar idea has since then been explored in Orchids To Dusk (Pol Clarissou), which in turn has conceptual similarities to earlier web-based works 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (Petri/Kloonigames) and We the Giants (Peter Groeneweg), but notes for my idea are still scribbles all over the pages of my copy of Alain de Bottons Religion For Atheists, which inspired me to imagine this spaceship game about connectivity and spirituality. I mean what better way to realize the connectdeness of everything than on your own deadbed, seeing the planet as a "pale blue dot"? I imagine going to ones own funeral might also work - someone should make a video game about that!

Anway, watching the Martian something hit me - why do I start realizing video game ideas both when watching a movie and when reading a work of non-fiction? Because I am a gamer, of course! ;) Seriously though, my thinking patterns say something about me. I've never made a video game in my life, but I do give videogames a lot of thought. And even though words pop up in my head, often I want to insert them into a videogame of some type. I love a lot of things about video games, but one of the things I love the most is inhabiting game spaces. Many of the games I play these days (Her Story, Beginners Guide) don't have spaces you can traverse through and inhabit in the sense that you might traverse a space in games such as The Legend of Zelda or Baldur's Gate, but nontheless I love inhabiting game spaces and associate just walking around strongly with video gaming. And even though I love exploring game spaces conceptually and many of my favorite video games have these sorts of spaces, I'm happy that modern adventure games such as Telltales are linear and have game scenes rather than game spaces, as compared to oldschool point-and-clicks which were all about game spaces but then also all about backtracking through those spaces and being stuck in them far too long.

I have less patience these days and I'm more interested in story than ever before, and thus just exploring game spaces for the sake of it doesn't cut it, which is why I didn't play Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or Fallout 4. But I'm not completely satisifed with the interactive movie solution presented in Telltales games either. Perhaps this is why I enjoy games such as Consortium so much, where you both have a very clear sense of space where it's all about mise-en-space rather than mise-en-scene, but you also have a lot of character interaction and story (all of the game takes place aboard a ship and thus there isn't much transportation necessary between the good bits). Pathologic is similar, yet different: there, the characters and world-building is awesome, and there is also a clear sense of space, but most of the time is spent walking between interesting encouters, which takes far too much time and is something I hope Ice-Pick Lodge address in their upcoming remake, and not solely by making the walking bits/combat/scrounging system more intrusive/encompassing - then it just becomes a gamey survival simulator which has too little of the character/world building elements which I love about game spaces.

So what do I love about game spaces then? It's the sense of being somewhere specific, really connecting to that place, something which is easier to do when it has quality characters, and harder to do when it's empty or not fully-realized as a space and instead is more like a movie. It's also easier to get this sense of place when it's filled with characters that live and breathe (Life Is Strange, Undertale) as opposed to filled with audiologs of characters talking about the spaces at hand in the past (Bioshock, Dear Esther, etc). "Audiologs" exist in Life Is Strange and Undertale as well (I imagine it's really hard making a game as deep as Life Is Strange with as much a sense of space and character exploration without lazy environmental narrative "crutches" such as diary entries, newspapers, etc) but they do so as complements to exploring the space at hand rather than abstracting it completely. I guess that when I wish to be immersed in other worlds, I primarily want to be so through tightly-knit video game spaces with the traits mentioned above, and I actually don't wish to be immersed through text simply because I don't find text immersive enough. Text inspires me, non-fiction or fiction with for example sci-fi concepts such as the ones explored in Mievilles or Egans books especially,  and I can imagine movie concepts, sure, but a good RPG such as Planescape Torment or an adventure game such as Pathologic makes me really want to live and breathe somewhere else for a while. Now then, I'm off to immerse myself in some Oxenfree.

Longform Crit Comp 17/1

there is a history of American temperance literature that Carousel slots into nicely. Temperance literature, very briefly, aimed to convert the drunkard from his destructive ways and onto a path of righteousness and bourgeois productivity. In many cases this was through tales of the (female) children of these intemperate men taking the brunt of their violence and, through the power of their innocent acceptance in the face of this onslaught, their weathering of the storm, allowing these men the chance of redemption. It would seem that a broken and powerless man is in need of an unflinching and unarguing object for his patriarchal control in order to be rebuilt as a man of action. The drunk is drunk because he has been denied, or has forsaken, the mantle of authority that a man must wear: alcohol is a way to avoid responsibility and for the family patriarch the first responsibility is ownership of the women (and the as-yet ungendered boys) of his household./.../
When, in Bioshock: Infinite, then broken drunk Booker DeWitt batters down the doors of a castle that he himself built in another life to rescue his own daughter, trapped there in an asexual stasis it is not the chaos of imagery and symbolism that it at first seems, but instead a direct descendent of the form of rehabilitation pioneered by temperance literature.
/.../
Perhaps unsurprisingly then the piece of Infinite fan media that most makes sense to me is Zone’s Biocock: Intimate, which collapses the erotic tension inherent in the game and as Maddy Myers says ‘comes … a lot closer to offering me the version of Elizabeth that I wanted to see than BioShock did,’ one who ‘speaks, moans and calls the sexual shots.’
/.../
In Zone’s game, the protagonist, this time a disembodied cock rather than a disembodied gun, as if there is a real difference, is still Booker, making explicit the incestuous undertones of the source game while neither remarking on them or judging them.
/.../
Ken Levine, Bioshock’s lead creator, keeps telling people to stop sexualising Elizabeth because he views her as a daughter. But I cannot for the life of me imagine why he thought a young woman would neither develop or be the subject of a sexual gaze, especially when, as I keep saying, the story that is told in Infinite is the story of her sexual awakening and her emergence from the cloying constraints of a father who wants to own her and use her as a replacement for his wife, with all of the sexual labour that that implies.
/.../
It is a fairly common mechanism of patriarchy that violence against women is framed as being bad, by and for the understanding of men, on the premise that ‘you wouldn’t want this to happen to your daughter,’ that a victim is ‘somebody’s daughter.’ Fundamentally what this says is that men can apparently only view women as an object in relation to a man, not as a person in their own right. The non-daughter is an acceptable site for your sexual fantasies because she is not owned and spoken for. Female sexual awakening is therefore posited as a process by which a man separates the bond between father and daughter, destroying the tower and building a new one to encase her and protect her from the sexual fantasies of other men.
/.../
as an industry and a society we will continue to seek our redemption in the arms of those we have wronged, whose job it is, like the little sisters of the original Bioshock, to be used to fuel our monstrous rages and to accept our caresses and desires when we break down and wish for forgiveness. We will continue to expect these women to save us with their love.
[I love how pieces like these can put something in a larger context and enrich my understanding of something which didn't make as much sense before. It's interesting how I even come to appreciate Bioshock Infinite more in some twisted way, even if it's flawed in its execution and in using this idea of temperance without my having seen them putting it in brackets or providing self-reflexivity.]



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we see Fragile Dreams trying to reconcile modern Japanese life with traditional Japanese thought. However, looking at the game on a character level complicates the aesthetic. These ways of seeing the world are not natural, as Seto (the game’s protagonist) must spend the entire game learning to appreciate the beauty that arises from a fleeting reality.
/.../
For Japanese aesthetes, the most beautiful arts would blend into the greater world around them. Anything that announced its presence was considered simple, boisterous, and to be avoided.
/.../
in terms of mono no aware, the best way to bring out something’s beauty is to remind us of its inevitable change or passing.
/.../
as long as technology does not supplant the feeling of change and being in nature, it’s capable of functioning within Japanese aesthetic theory.
/.../
Over the course of the game, Seto finds various broken items amid the wreckage. When he takes those items to a bonfire, he finds out what they are, and hears a short story regarding the item’s last owner. There’s a consistent message running through these stories: one of unfulfilled desire. The protagonists of these stories regret making choices they can never fix, or they feel scared after having something valuable taken from them. They realize that their lives are short, and Seto sees that their worries outlasted them.
/.../
The game relays most of these narratives through some object the owner confided in. They intended to relieve their pain at least a little bit, but all we see is their emotional pain; we rarely see any kind of resolution. Therefore, the objects fail to serve their intended purpose of consoling their owners. The cell phone’s story displays this quite poignantly: while her intent is for the world to remember her, the tragic irony of her situation is that she leaves us nothing by which we can identify her. We don’t know her name or any details about her life, and it’s unclear if Seto can even access those details. All her story illustrates is how insufficient her possessions are for satisfying her wants, even if she can never know that.

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If Fragile Dreams uses its environments to celebrate Japanese aesthetics, then it uses Seto, the protagonist, to complicate them.

/.../
he’s so pre-occupied on his loss that he’s unable to draw a connection between the impermanence of life and its being valued in the first place. Any mentions of impermanence at this point in the story reveal Seto’s negative thoughts on the matter. For example, he opens the game with the words “At the end of a summer that was all too short” (tri-Crescendo). On one level, these words indicate his wishes that the summer had lasted longer. Yet on another, they connote loss. This is a consistent theme throughout Seto’s opening narration, implying that he can only perceive change and passing on painful terms. We might also draw connections between the youthful connotations of summer, Seto’s adolescence, and the death of his caretaker.
/.../
if we interpret the old man’s death as an opportunity for Seto to appreciate life’s transience, then we must also interpret the possibility of survivors as an opportunity for Seto to deny that very same transience.
/.../
Seto’s denial is best illustrated through his interactions with Ren, a silver-haired girl who appears to Seto very early in the narrative. She runs from him the second the two meet, and he only gets brief glimpses of her throughout the story. He follows her by the drawings she leaves in her wake, and when the two finally cross paths, it’s only for a short period of time. While the story uses these facts to code her character with impermanence and uncertainty, this isn’t the meaning that Seto reads from her. Upon first meeting her, he remarks, “On my journey through the world, all the people I thought I saw slipped away like they were just a mirage. But that girl… her cheek was warm to the touch” (tri-Crescendo). So for him, Ren represents life and stability. She is the anchor against which he can verify his own experiences as real. Yet the irony is that is in worrying about whether his experiences are real, he fails to appreciate them for what they are.
/.../
the time he spends with other people shows him how it’s possible to appreciate things for their temporary nature. The first person to show him this is PF, a robotic assistant that Seto attaches to his back. The two grow close to each other as they explore the underground mall in search of Ren. However, their journey together is very brief: at the end of the day, PF’s battery drains, effectively ending her life.
/.../
Where the old man struggled to share his most intimate with regrets with Seto after knowing him for fifteen years, PF has no problems telling him about how much she loved talking with him, despite only knowing him for a day.
/.../
The two themes that emerge from Seto’s time with PF — death and its relation to mono no aware — carry throughout his encounters with other people. Chiyo demonstrates this the best by bringing the two into focus for him. When the two characters meet, Seto initially sees her as the ghost of a bratty little girl who demands that he does the impossible. But as he continues to fulfill her requests, he eventually learns the reality of the situation: she is an old woman on her death bed. Chiyo leaves Seto with these final remarks: "The day will come when your journey will end as well. Your greatest adventure will be over and you will make your way home. However, your journey will not be complete. The days will still go on for you. One after another they will pass, until you’ve had enough of the monotony. No new discoveries will await you. You’ll watch the sun rise and set. That’s all your days will have to offer. That’s the moment when you’ll realize the truth. The sunbeams, the wind rolling over the tall grass, the idle chit-chat with friends…These were the gems of your life. Then your heart will be carried off by the gentle, caressing breeze and it will sparkle like a jewel, fade, and grow cold."
/.../
her own life suggests that mono no aware could be a psychological state of being rather than something inherent in life’s experiences. She was able to view the same natural phenomenon (sunrise/sunset) at least twice in her life but have greatly divergent reactions to them at different times. In her youth, she viewed the sun’s movement as a dull monotony. It is only on her deathbed that she can finally appreciate it as a liberating event. That realization didn’t come to her in a moment; she had to cultivate it over an entire lifetime of thought on the matter. In relaying her message to Seto, Chiyo helps him through the process of appreciating life’s transitory nature, and hopes to shorten the time necessary to learn it.



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Silent Hill 2’s architecture, along with its iconic blend of fog and darkness, is its main antagonist.
/.../
Oddly enough, this unnerving dysfunction stems from the game’s sense of order. It has an obsession with the well-ordered spaces of institutions, taking the player from an apartment block, to a hospital, to a prison, and finally a hotel. The symmetrical ground plans for these locations, found on the game’s various maps, seems to have been pulled wholesale from life, rather than created for use in a videogame. In order to become functional spaces in a game where exploration is key, these maps have then been hacked into, with entrances blocked off and walls smashed through. The divisions, functions and even internal logic of the game’s architecture is subverted, room by room. The game constantly forces the player to turn back on herself at a dead end, to check again and again the map, and try to connect its straight and true lines with the decaying masonry around them.
/.../
The descents of Silent Hill 2 are many. It is no coincidence that the game’s protagonist, James Sunderland, begins his journey at a rest stop high above the town, and must descend into it. This marks a preoccupation with downward gestures that recurs throughout the game, from elevator rides, to climbing into your own grave.
/.../
In the final third of Silent Hill 2 the player arrives at the top of a staircase. Its not the first staircase in the game, or even the last, but it is the beginning of something. Projecting down into darkness, it marks the start of the game’s most exhausting descent.
/.../
This is where Silent Hill 2’s architecture reveals itself as a psychological construct. Up above, in the town, ordered spaces stand in a struggle with the onset of decay, but here, as you tread ever deeper, the subconscious takes over.



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the beauty of P.T. is not in its basic looping structure, but they way in which it plays and experiments within that structure.
/.../
In semantic terms, the game’s corner is analogous to the classic ghost-story phrase “and then.” It is the architectural equivalent of the shock reveal, articulated through a 90-degree turn. It’s an ancient story-telling trick, holding information back until the last possible second, but P.T.’s twist on it is to do so without speaking a word, performing its repeated reveals through the clever manipulation of space. Sometimes these reveals are red-herrings, showing you the corridor you expect to see, but in the world of P.T. even this is a cause for concern—if the corridor hasn’t changed, then something else has. It’s worth nothing that almost everything that happens, from bloody fridges to generic horror graffiti, happens on the other side of that corner. After every repetition the first task is clear—walk. This is the way the storyteller has you in her grip. “She entered the corridor,” P.T.’s storyteller says, “walking cautiously, unsure of what might be waiting for her. As she reached the familiar corner she paused … and then …”
/.../
The clock, the phone and the radio, all three sources of information, are carefully spread, each given its own alcove. The front door is the only door that never opens, an escape to an outside world hinted at but never allowed. At the end of the corridor lies a short set of steps, meaning that for each loop you must descend a little further down. This descent is carefully offset by the balcony that hides in the darkness above the entryway, imbuing in the player the distinct feeling of being watched. These precise architectural features, twisted through an elegant play of light and shadow, are laid out with precise intelligence.
/.../
Agency is non-existent—instead, choreography reigns supreme. P.T.’s scares may follow well-worn horror iconography, but they don’t require it to function. Instead they rely on the corner and the corridor, the room and doorway, the bright and the dark. This—the idea that horror exists as little more than a series of spatial arrangements, presences and absences—is truly P.T.’s greatest trick.



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Eventually, every genre, every media, has its Ulysses. I don’t know if Kentucky Route Zero is Ulysses. It’s certainly allusive: a structurally complex, confusing, the brilliant and beautiful episodic point and click game by Cardboard Computer in which a host of characters embark on a seemingly meaningless and mythical journey through the finance and poverty ravaged landscapes of rural Kentucky. Regardless, writing about KRZ is not “easy”. Partly because of its episodic nature, and partly — I think — because of its dense and almost Beckettian allusiveness, its semantic density, KRZ seems to escape ready comprehension and understanding. Its mechanics (the word we often descend on to describe a technical process) are both simple (literally, “point and click”) and alarmingly diffuse (navigating, by symbols, the Zero itself). Meanwhile, its ‘story’ – the fabula itself – is slippery, and the formal framework around which it is arranged is complex. It’s perhaps the hardest ‘text’ – not simply ‘game’, but text, product, artefact (see? Even finding the right category word is tough) – that I’ve ever tried to write about.
/.../
Maybe we’re not properly equipped to write long-form about video games — especially those games which excel in their own obscurity and strangeness — and are not used to it, or are standing in the primordial sludge of it.
/.../
For KRZ, and games like it, it might be best to think with the rhizome in mind. You build your theory as you go.



§



[SOMA]
These days, when we talk about being human, we’re more preoccupied with defining humanity in opposition to machines and advanced AIs. We want to reassure ourselves that we have something more than an uncanny android who looks like us, acts like us, speaks like us, and is better than us at almost everything. It’s as if we know our feeling of superiority is dwindling. Taking the Aristotelian definition to its extremes, perhaps we could say that modern-day machines, as purely rational creations, are even more human than us.
/.../

In trying to preserve the core of what it means to be human, it’s easy to forget that this core immediately changed when coming into contact precisely with what we’re defining humanity against. The very existence of machines has already changed our concept of what it means to be human.
/.../
attachment to the body as an imprescindible part of one’s identity, both in a positive and in a negative way, is one manifestation of that excess that is unique to the human. We also have have Catherine, the exception who accompanies the player for the best part of the game but who lives in a chip attached to Simon’s Omnitool. I don’t think the game explicitly says why she doesn’t go mad like everyone else who suffered a similar fate, but I believe the answer may be found in her strong sense of purpose. /.../
Catherine is the most liminal figure in this world in which every barrier is being broken. A human mind in purely mechanical hardware, she is driven by a very specific purpose, and, like a machine, she evaluates the world purely in terms of utility towards that purpose. But what she wants to achieve is precisely the recovery of a space in which to be human. As such, she is driven by a concept of what human life means as opposed to the mere survival of biological functions, a concept that the WAU never understood.
/.../

The machine ends when there is no clear objective left to achieve. The human, as we have seen, begins with the excess: the reality of being left behind when the objective has been achieved and disappears. It’s the reality of being alive when there is nothing left to do, a reality in which the body remains in its irreducible, useless materiality.



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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Crit Links 16/1

Things of Beauty: Super Smash Bros. as Spectator Sport

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Into the Black: On Videogame Exploration

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Near-Impossible Super Mario World Glitch Done For First Time on SNES

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Game Writing Pitfalls - Lost Opportunities in Games - Extra Credits

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Ingenious Solutions in Video Game Design: A Long-form Analysis

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WIRED by Design: A Game Designer Explains the Counterintuitive Secret to Fun

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Classic Game Postmortem: Loom

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Get Anticipated - The Final Bosman

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What if you could talk to the monsters? The Wuss Mode: Monsters Won’t Attack mod for SOMA [official site] doesn’t quite allow you to hold conversations with the denizens of Frictional’s latest creation but it does prevent them from chasing you around the place until you die. I’m excited to try this because it might just improve the game significantly, simply by focusing on the fact that fear does not need to be followed by violence and death.
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“One of the weirdest / saddest design exp I had: [Bioshock 2] playtesters carefully loot every container for hours, then report hating every moment.”
- Zak McClendon, Lead Designer on Bioshock 2
/.../
I was a moth to the dull flame of the hidden packages of GTA III (Rockstar, 2001), pieces of virtual tat that simply add one to a meaningless counter. I continued to burn rubber for hour after hour until I had found every last package. They’re just one example of the now ubiquitous collectible. Today I’d like to introduce the collective noun for the collectible: a fucking plague.
/.../
thank God for those first-person secret box games dubbed “walking simulators”. At least there aren’t any items to hunt, right? We don’t need rewards for our activities! Oh reallllly?
/.../
Will O’Neill, who wrote Actual Sunlight (2014) and provided words for Planet of the Eyes (Cococucumber, 2015), tweeted that he walked an entire football pitch in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015) hoping to trigger a scripted response but there was nothing. He felt the game was forcing him to do tedious things for fear of missing out. O’Neill is not the only one to feel like his time is being squandered by these games. But when players who are into walking simulators complain they have no reward other than walking – you know something has gone wrong. It’s our old friend the overjustification effect: once you wrap an incentive around something people enjoy doing, it performs a weird kind of alchemy that transmutes the fun into drudgery, into work.
/.../
When I played Fuel, it was easy to concentrate on the driving and forget about those paltry liveries and vista points because they were too sparse, but the scrum of missions and sidequests and collectibles had come to define GTA more than its cityscapes. I had hated GTA: San Andreas, with prior GTA experience convincing me to conquer everything – but San Andreas was overwhelming and I was left dejected.

Yet all I needed to do was forget about the objectives and collectibles.

All I needed to do was get in a car and drive.

§

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” says the pick-up artist. “I’ve just got more game than you,” says your roommate who wears too much cologne. Comparisons between dating and gaming are commonplace in our web-obsessed culture, and thanks to a recent profile on Tinder from Fast Company, it turns out this connection is less superficial than you might think.
/.../
According to Tinder CEO Jonathan Badeen, Tinder uses a variation of ELO scoring to determine how you rank among the site’s userbase, and therefore, which profiles to suggest to you and whose queues your profile shows up in. Invented by physics professor Arpad Elo to determine rankings among chess players, ELO assigns ranks by judging players’ presumed skill levels against each other.
/.../
The result is a system where your ranking is more determined by how you compare to other people rather than personal stats. The system has since been adapted for use in football, baseball, and even videogames such as League of Legends and Warcraft. So when translated to Tinder, the algorithm can be understood on a basic level as one where who you match with determines who the app shows to you. Get matched with those with a high ELO, and the site will start populating your queue with the people Tinder as a whole finds more desirable. Get matched with those sporting a lower ELO, and the site will only show you people who don’t get as many matches from high-ranking users. Your ELO is determined by the supposed desirability of the people who think you’re worth dating.
/.../
So if you want Tinder to think you’re cool, you need to match up with a greater number of popular users and fewer unpopular users.
/.../
Essentially, the key isn’t how many people find you attractive, but which people think you’re worth dating.
/.../
What if higher-ELO people match with you, but you’re actually interested in the type of people who normally have lower-ELO ranks? Just because other high-cheekboned and full-lipped ELO titans aren’t interested in them doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be. You might even be driven away by traits that Tinder as a whole finds more attractive. But because the high-ELO community has deemed you worthy, your queue will be filled with them while the type of people you’re actually interested in remain out of reach.
/.../
Dating is often framed as a competition, where one has to strive to attract as many people as possible. In this context, it might make sense to use a system born out of competition to rank which “leagues” people fall into. But the end goal of dating is one of the biggest cooperative endeavors people can take on together. Which raises the question: Is a system born out of a war game like Chess really the most appropriate way to judge compatibility?

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What gives Homesickened its gut punch is that, ultimately, it is a story about trying to go home, but how, for many of us, we can never really do that again. It’s a story about loneliness, isolation and the consequences of putting more value in things than in the people around us. The ironically wistful reproduction of CGA DOS conventions is, after all, the earnestly resigned sigh too heavy for the software designed to render it.

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Blow says he designs puzzles to be "first and foremost a representation of an idea, non-verbally." Rather than just being a tricky thing for a player to solve, he wants each puzzle to say something to the player. He does this by actually writing out a sentence for each puzzle.
/.../
Here's where Blow reveals The Witness' greatest trick: It's not only that he's not scared of players getting stuck, but that getting stuck is actually a key part of the process. It's a requirement to the feeling he wants the game to create. "I try to make puzzles in The Witness as simple as they can be," Blow says. "You just don't get it. It's not only that you don't get it, but you don't feel like there's anything to tell you how to get it. It's as much of a brick wall as possible, with no red herrings or anything. So eventually, when you manage to stick your head through that brick wall and see what's past it, it's the most magical.

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Critical Switch: Winter 2015
Zolani Stewart - Bernband 14:50   
Austin Howe - Party Size in JRPGs 07:36   

Austin Howe - Dead Sun 10:24   

Zolani Stewart - F-Zero and The Language of Space 10:50   

Austin Howe - Rest In Pain 15:19   

Zolani Stewart - Petrichor 07:57   

Austin Howe - BBSD, Ludocentrism, Abstract Themes 06:09   

Zolani Stewart - An Intro to Minimalism 15:10   

Austin Howe - Republican Dad Mechanics 07:37   

Zolani Stewart - Mirror's Edge: The Landscape of Sound 09:15   
Devon Carter (Guest) - JRPGs and Simplicity 11:20

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Critical Switch: Summer 2015
Austin C. Howe - Shovel Knight and Interrogation 07:27   
Zolani Stewart - Expanding Interactivity 13:30   

Austin C. Howe - FFVII and Jazz Standards 09:40   

Austin Howe - Intro to Game Design and Drama 09:15   

Crit Switch Podcast! 26:55   

Heather Alexandra - Procedural Generation in Game Design 08:25   

Zolani Stewart - Menus and UI 04:05   

Game Design and Drama: The Resistance Curve 09:06

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At the end of disc one, Squall and Friends face Edea on a parade float in Deling City. After the fight, when Edea seems defeated, she conjures an enormous ice shard and propels it through Squall’s chest. Squall stumbles back and falls off the platform. He sees Rinoa above, reaching to him as he falls. Squall closes his eyes and dies. The entire remaining game time, from the beginning of disc two to the second half of the ending movie, is a dream.

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Leigh suggested that it might be fun for us to do a letter series as I played, combining her nuanced understanding with my fresh eyes to explore just what it is that makes FFVII the game it is. I agreed, and we started to write.

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What we see in gaming right now is not colonialism, but evolution: the changes that need to take place for the art form to survive and thrive. Rather than imagining games as a community of chosen people whose integrity must be protected, everyone must take a broader view of the form and the multitudes it already contains.
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Those who dwell in the Friend Zone are not imprisoned by the object of their desire; they are imprisoned by desire itself, always entreating them to chase their own tail. The walls they build and occupy play host to a thousand doppelgangers, each wearing the mask of one person. They think they hate the person, but they hate only themselves. They think this person imprisoned them, but they must have imprisoned themselves.
/.../
Reading as I am in the year 2015, I must describe K’s behaviour as rapey; I must say he’d fit right in amongst the denizens of The Friend Zone, nestled snugly between the Nice Guys™ and the Creepers. It’s possible that his actions appeared dashing in the eyes of the book’s 1915 audience (as well as the eyes of the Internet Man). Regardless, the plot confirms for us that they were unwelcome and inappropriate, since Miss Burstner vanishes into the woodwork following the evening’s events.
/.../
My work on Friend Zone prompted me to read it as an elegy for the Internet Man, delivered 100 years before the fact. Like the Internet Man, K has exploited his station: lorded it above anyone he could, believing this to be his birthright and purpose. Like the Internet Man, K is too busy chasing tail to comprehend the shape of his crimes. His verdict is as much about big inscrutable forces as it is about a peculiar personal failing; it plays out neither with K’s complete consent nor fully against his will.

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Ethan Carter's final cutscene is a story unlock, whereas Verde Station’s last scene is a total shocker that does not, in itself, answer the big questions. HOWEVER. Both games refute the lazy pejorative “walking simulator” albeit in different ways.
/.../
an interesting distinction between Ethan Carter and Verde Station. The latter is much more authoritarian about gating progress, yet the former more inviting to the explorer-player, save for the endgame. Which is the better game? The question is how you like your mysteries spun. If a player figures out the story in the first few minutes, then the player is consigned to watching pieces move into assigned positions - and this is one of the reasons why Gone Home gates progress through the story.
/.../
I’ve yet to see environmental storytelling as coy and understated as Kairo, although that game confused many of its players, because Verde Station still needs to rely on lore in the form of handwritten notes scattered around and messages stored on terminals. But it might be better to see Kairo as a special case because I’ve previously discussed how limiting it is to tell a story in a dead world. Certain messages are corrupted a little too conveniently, so the world feels like a puzzle authored just for you as opposed to a real situation you’re trying to make sense of.

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[The Talos Principle]
human race perishes but, in its dying moments, initiates a long-term computer simulation in which it is hoped a sentient intelligence will evolve to carry on the torch of humanity... but the simulation itself is frightened to die. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story of individuals pulling together to “save the world” and what exactly that means. It’s a story of a species facing the end with dignity. It’s a meditation on what it means to be sentient. It’s a story of programs desperate to understand the strange prison they are born into and the “god” that presides over them. And virtually all of this is told through text, some with a conversational component.
/.../
“I was actually trying really hard to avoid retelling the same story,” he explains, “since I really hate repeating myself, but everything kept evolving into that direction, perhaps partially because Croteam enjoyed The Infinite Ocean. I think some of the mistakes I made in my first few drafts came from trying to avoid similarities. What I ended up deciding was that if The Infinite Ocean is a game about an AI becoming a god, Talos is about an AI becoming human.”

§

The saddest aspect of the QR texts is that as you move further towards the end of the game, they thin out, making it clear how many programs never made it through and the world grows more cold and lonely. Rather than the Garden of Eden, the simulation is both purgatory and graveyard – many of the child programs fall into depression or go mad.

This ethical aspect of the simulation is never made explicit, although Gehenna does sail much closer to these particular rocks. Elohim continues to iterate from one child program to another, attempting to find the program that will finally defeat the simulation and thus be the candidate for upload to physical hardware. But many of the AI already seem to be self-aware and these programs are being put through mental torture. I’m not sure the creators of the Process, Alexandra Drennan and her team, thought this far ahead, as if they assumed only the successful AI would feel anything at all. But they were trying to save humanity and these abused children were the inevitable price.
/.../
“I always intended for a certain amount of ambiguity there. It's the messiness of the story – how the simulation was made out of disparate parts, how it malfunctioned in odd ways, how maybe the very malfunctions ultimately helped it succeed – that makes it human to me. Elohim is part of that. He's supposed to be challenged, yes, but he takes that too far, out of desperation, out of fear. To the player's character Elohim is just a test, but to himself the whole God thing is more than an act, it's his whole reality. Maybe he endangers the entire Process by his actions. Maybe he actually does a better job than intended by accident. Maybe underneath it all he always knows how it's going to end, no matter how much he denies it. To me, that messiness and ambiguity is a more realistic reflection of how we deal with these things in the real world.

“I should probably also point out that there are deliberate references to Jesus and his moments of doubt in Elohim's lines, another syncretic element of the story, another retelling. There's a reversal of roles at the end, God in his doubt submitting to man: let your will be done. The end of the game, in many ways, is about Elohim's moment of humanity, a kind of precursor to the humanity about to be realized."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Truth through systems


Game systems often seem to be telling me something or try to convince me of something. But almost always the argument made is an emotional one or one that appeals to my own ideas about the systems simulated away from keyboard. Anestesia, a 1 minute game by Pedro Paiva about addiction, self-hate, alienation and consumption in a modern capitalist setting can serve as an example. I'll also provide a video of a playthrough since I cannot seem to get the game working properly right now.

I think it's an awesome game, succinctly and swiftly juggling complicated concepts and their relationship to one-another. I mean it's also very on the nose, but in a span of a minute or two it manages to explore quite a lot of ideas, and being quite terrifying in the process - even if it does so with the help of text and equations. It really does feel like a slap in the face, in more ways than one, and not only because it's very much in-your-face, but because it is just that and also speaks to my own experience which informs my understanding of the mechanics (understood as arguments/explorations) presented. But what kind of arguments does the game propose that might convince someone of something concerning its subject matter by virtue of its system, really?

It's not easy to separate "the system" from "the rest" of the game, but at all points during the game one could easily interject and claim that the systems prestented are misconstrued - because there is too little agency, because it misrepresents communication between the involved parties, demonises capitalists, working conditions, media, etc. And although I can both agree and argue with those criticisms (I understand that the game simplifies things in order to make a point), I cannot truthfully say that the mechanics of the game make good arguments in the sense that for example Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart & Nicky Case does. Then again, that game is more of an interactive spreadsheet than something that feels like a work of art. It employs more of a didactic method in its truthsaying than the Socratic questioning more common to art with its many ambiguities.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Anestesia here. Perhaps the fact that it manages to raise so many questions and topics for discussion is its strength, is in fact its method of teaching. We are dealing with two different beasts here, even if both approach the seemingly scientific by incorporating using the language of mathematics. I guess I would just like to see more games trying their hand at explorable explanations, newsgames, serious games. Remember those1? It was a while ago we saw September 12th or JFK Reloaded. Those two examples might actually be good to put side to side when I think about it. September 12th claims that for every terrorist that is killed by bombs, some civilians die, and they in turn become future terrorists. I find this idea fascinating, but once again the argument seems more in the vein of Anestesia - it takes a lot of context for that argument to make sense in my world, context which I take for granted, but context nonetheless. The game claims that it isn't a game but a simulation, a simple model one can use to explore some aspects of the war on terror, but I mean as a simulation it's just piss poor, honestly. It doesn't give me any reason to believe that the model it uses for simulation has any credibility. It's mostly a think piece.

JFK Reloaded on the other hand tries to recreate the actual day that JFK was murdered with the "facts" US citizens were told about the murder to either make the player recreate that scenario, or realize that in fact it couldn't have happened. It is journalism at play, basically. Or scientitic inquiry at play, rather. A similar game but placed in the here-and-now with another topic is Spent - The Interactive Poverty Experience (McKinney), an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness created by ad agency McKinney for pro bono client Urban Ministries of Durham (basically Cart Life but with actual statistics and actual examples).

Could one combine these type of games with more traditional storytelling? It wouldn't be an easy task, going from all those macro perspectives, bird eye views and exteriors to micro perspectives, phenomenological truths and interiors. I would like to see people try, though. Another missed opportunity seems to be the way in which the controls of games and the actual playing of games can inform the systems we toy with, the narratives which emerge from those systems. I watch playthroughs of video games on youtube sometimes, and very seldom do I think I miss out on something relevant by my not actually holding the controller in my hand. There is the obvious example in Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, but other than that, it's often quite optional to actually play the game in order to understand the systems of a game as it relates to the themes it might explore.




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1One could speak of influence transparency, construction transparency, and reference transparency. In video games, assumptions about the source and consequences of for example technological advancements are sometimes presented, as in Civilization 4, and are indeed needed to take into account to be successful at the game. In Crude Oil, the authors assumptions about the nature of oil prices, supply, and demand are all there, and being transparent about the simplicity of hir formulas, zie is in fact elucidating that it is possible for oil companies to operate on similarly simplistic models for their own business operations. Games such as these (Democracy 2 being a prime example) exemplifies a different kind of citation than those in books, one that resembles a journalist opening hir notebooks of interviews and research instead of cherry picking a convenient quote.
Newsgames, Journalism at Play, Ian Bogost/Simon Ferrari/Bobby Schweizer