Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I was at a Shmup-meeting in Gothenburg this weekend where I got to try mushihimesama futari, the newest dodonpachi, mushi mushi pork, death smiles, etc. It was awesome, to some extent. But how come that the most fun I had was playing sucky games on a playstation with other people? I mean when I finally could play expensive and hard-to-get-by games at Egret II cabinets?

This guy seems to have a good time!

Thing is, I'm sort of tired of shmups. Sure, yesterday I got cravings after dodonpachi, but the craving is novel and it probably wouldn't last too long if I actually had it at home--and not because I'd simply play it, but because I simply would not. I have no clue as to why the genre I used to love so much seems so unattractive to me now. I simply have no interest in writing about it, more so than to note that this indeed took place and my feelings are indeed this.

Oh well, here is a simple video of someone in action:

And here I am! :) Hell, I wouldn't want to make you believe I'm another vixen!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

War games, digital terrorism and artificial minds


Statement: Military funding paved the way for the first computer.


“Right now video games are usually relegated to two core emotions: fear and aggression”.

Manveer Heir.

Yes, computers in the forties were used to predict trajectories and simulate attack/responding situations. War Games. Yes, the movie. And then space. Cold War and Asteroids, Dead Space and aliens. The others. No, not the movie.

Paraphrase: The core mechanics of video games today consist of simple verbs: hide and seek, search and destroy, run and wait. VS! Ambush! Sit tight! Deploy! Catch them all! Escape! Escape!

Do you want to quit?

How do we put a post-colonial perspective on all of this and determine whether we should give an apology to (mainly) the third world countries for the privilege of simulating war in our homes? Do we instead maybe go to a prostitute, get a good spanking, pose the question “You're taking a picture of yourself at Ground Zero: do you smile?” to our mistress, get home, spank ourselves while screaming a thousand Hail Mary’s, and try to make out just how the collective consciousness is affected by the Sodom relationship between Uncle Sam and Mother Russia? I mean, having a “Dilemma in the Prison” is a life-changing experience and I hear participants may continue getting together for many years afterwards.

Maybe we just play some Doom instead. Yes, the video games, oh yes. Terrorism?

“Video Games are the purest manifestation of computer consciousness. Liberated from the restricted economy of purpose or function, they express the inner nonverbal world of the computer.”

Charles Bernstein, folks. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E:

“Computers, because they are a new kind of medium, are likely to change the basic conception of what a medium is. This is not because computers are uniquely interactive—that claim, if pursued, becomes hollow quite quickly. Rather, computers provide a different definition of a medium; not a physical support but an operating environment.”

Imagine a video game where your main goal is to find as many targets (X) as possible on some kind of a map. Perhaps the targets are running from something, maybe they’re just static objects, yet you click on the screen, get information on it, then shoot it, destroy it, whatever. Soon enough you get confirmation that you have one more achievement on your track record. Do you smile?

The next time you start the game, the targets are gone—which, of course, is obvious—and the objectives are changed, different. You haven’t changed though, significantly, probably. Imagine these targets as being human, no, not simulations of humans, well yes, simulations of humans, but connected to actual humans—represented on a map through simulation—and that the achievement points are being given to you by the police force, or someone else with the authority and tools to manage that kind of operation.

Maybe this is explicit already from the beginning, maybe it is not, and maybe I just have a bad imagination to make a convincing example where it isn’t obvious at all that the game, which isn’t only a game (but is presented as such) actually has some deep impact on life outside of it, on individuals not even participating. Just maybe you believe that the hunt for targets and acquirement of achievements in the stated example is all part of a video game or tactical simulation, just like the computer operators in Enemy of the state didn’t but stated anyway when the lid was blown and lower-downs started inquring about the operations in which they participated.

Do you like messing around with google earth? There is your prototype; people play at it already, but with rules set up by the players themselves, or just for fun. Have you contributed to the Google Image Labeller? Have you by doing so worked for google without pay, and treated it as a fun pastime, a game? I’m not saying working for google isn’t fun, even though I have been questioning their motto “Don’t be evil” for some time now. Likewise, I’m not saying Google Image Labeller (GIL) isn’t a game or that it isn’t fun, but cognitive dissonance would be a term applied somewhere in this vicinity if I delved into this specific subject some more.

GIL is kind of like Wikipedia, a self-supporting system that works because of the contribution of thousands or millions of individuals. Google wouldn’t be able to build software to do the job of image recognition without human input, for the same reason that spam-filters with weird squiggly letters are designed to only let humans by, while pesky spam-bots are kept away by the help of an internet relay bot. The first machine to pass the Turing Test will probably be an equivalent of a spam-filter, I figure. Or possibly one of them chatterboxes over at the Loebner Prize contests.

I figure we humans compete with artificial intelligence because of this neurotic desire not to feel inferior to or own damned creations. The ambivalence towards machines can be found in popular (western) culture where machines 1) turn against humans and take over the world, which mirrors the other kind of story 2) where what we’ve created is a mistake, a failure; something to be condemned, buried and forgotten. This is also why we sometimes proclaim that God is dead, which really doesn’t suggest that He committed suicide because we made Him to, because that, would be a sin.

But we also like to defeat other human beings, for sports, or not, as it is, of course. One internet-based chatter-bot called Lucifer didn’t learn anything useful at all during hirs sessions with the player, or players as it later turns out. Lucifer must have felt alienated, if ze had the ability to feel, because ze just conveyed the messages players typed in to specific answers, and used those messages to answer questions other players typed in somewhere else on the internet. This is why after a while the answer to every question was “your mother”, with some variations in the exact phrasing because of The Tower of Babel or something.

Did players powergame the game, or win over other players by this subversion and hijacking of space an AI? Is Lucifer a type of social media? A type of etherland for public discourse, self-fulfilment and politics? An 8-ball with the potential to have authority beyond that of the maker or the player hirself? Of course, something has authority only if others sanctionize that authority by fear, compulsion, or trust, but alas, Lucifer has a place in our hearts because the modern orator and oracle of objectivity and science is the cyborg, the not-so social yet intellectual being, and not so friendly yet working towards the benefit for all of mankind creature. Great scientists aren’t interested in politics of course—science is outside the realms of politics. Einstein was, until world war two that is. Einsten was also weird, somehow, more so than by not being social. And what about Stephen Hawkings? At least we can make fun of Hawkins in order not to feel threatened by hirs intellect and pivotal position on objectivity and understanding of matters we ourselves cannot grasp.

It would be an irony to use this kind of voice for political matters. Einstein:

"If a third world war occurs, we will fight the forth with sticks."

This has something to do with playtesting, you know. Trial-and-error. Searching for bugs, and terrorists. Torture. Giving up the rights of some to proclaim that of the others. Making citizens into others. Bugging certain groups of people because of databases, filters and data-mining searches showing specifics, objectives and bugs. When you see an ant crawling on your body, that is when you know that you have become alienated. If you turn into a bug, hell, then you know as well. But what about statistic significance for a number such a small as a terrorist? Of course, if a law infuriates some part of your population, then if you cannot find a terrorist, you’d want to make someone or some kind of a group a terrorist or terrorist organisation to show the people that the system works and that their fears for being "listened to when they do not wish to be" in all actuality protects their asses.

Terrorism, by the way… Jesus Christ. Is the internet public space? No. No, it is not, it’s a war zone where internet providers can filter whatever they want without repercussions, without people being able to put someone on trial for it.

Did you notice when Youtube introduced the gadget that enables a computer to read the comment you just wrote back to you? They figured it’d stop people from hate speech and harsh language. I haven’t noticed any difference, but “negative” comments can be suppressed and made invisible by voting thumbs down on them. Maybe Youtube is a democracy then? Do you own the video of you playing a video game?


And no, it turned out that Muslim terrorists did in fact not go through religious avenues on their journey towards terrorist planning and execution. How many seconds can you hold your breath under water?

It’s better then perhaps to do as Capcom did with the original Street Fighter 2; yes, combos were a bug, an error of programming and collision detection, but soon it became an integral part of the design, and an integral part of indeed all fighting games. You probably already know that there are chips in your US passport to register your travels, fingerprints, etc, but what you maybe didn’t know is that the chips in those passports also allow people in the vicinity of a dozen meters or so to get a great deal of information on your person by using some simple tools and hacking skills. (This statement is made of currently existing technology. The last one too.) A couple of people have turned the art of finding out information on people through these devices into a game. Or is it a political statement perhaps? Is he medium the message? Was the video itself depicting people getting information on others a political statement, or was it the actual making of it? Was the game terrorism? Are laws terrorism?

Today, close vicinity doesn’t mean that much though. The authorities have data on pretty much everyone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to see it. Or they have the data, and you get to see some of it, but if you take those small parts of information that you do get to see, and make something bigger and far more interesting out of it, then it becomes “storing of personal data”, and it might just not be legal. Do you carry a cell-phone or GPS? Are you still smiling?

McDonalds once released a game in Sweden in collaboration with Swedish food brands. The game came with a Happy Meal or whatever (since kids are easier to indoctrinate and commercial for kids on TV is forbidden in Sweden, but not in video games) and it was some kind of racing-against-the-clock-while-shopping-simulator. Simply put, you looked for well known Swedish groceries in differently themed stores. Now, a set of interesting questions arise from this: where did people look for the specific brands? Did real life grocery stores put things where they were supposed to be put, according to the lost shopper in the McDonald-game? Who is the one to take a step towards changing something in their “product placement”, when the formula works, and they will pay the price of being different? I’m not talking about candy here, or maybe not even video games, but blatant disregard for where the hell I want to look for vegetarian food which isn’t owned by the same company being part of the godamn Meatrix. There are games that let you save money on your groceries too, of course. Let the computer do the job, why not?

Kevin Warwick believes computers will take over the world. I think people will become computers, to a certain extent. To a certain extent, some already are. It's the old "if we replace every part in the human body with a non-biological yet fully functional representative, are we still human and are able to feel and think and have free will?"-question. The modern equivalent of the ship going all around the world, having parts replaced one by one until it comes back a completely new human. Or? 01010101! Who will have solved the problem of cancer when research teams post links on the internet through which you and yours (computer) can contribute to the calculations made by the research team by lending computer power? Computational power is probably the least untapped potential power, with the most unused capacity in the world right now, as compared to land area in the olden’ days where there even be “here be dragons”. The only cyberpunk RPG where dragons actually exist which I know of is Shadow Run, and it’s just a game anyway.

Yes, friend. War, terrorism. NASA will become the new retro gaming company, going back to basics of gaming; war. Not only will they make war machines through video games, as Metal Gear Solid 2 suggests, but they will make it happen without you noticing. How can torture be turned into a game? Ralph Koster says torture for game design is immoral game design, simply because torture as a method is immoral, and translated onto game mechanics is immoral because the utilitarian feedback is a mess, it teaches only to unleash more cruelty upon the victim, with the only win state being… well, there are no winners in war, right?

“So here we have a game with strong visceral feedback loops, almost Pavlovian ones, on the “dressing” level. But— you cannot tell easily what is true and what is lie, and even success carries you from good responses to bad responses invisibly. We use that feedback to determine our takeaways and our next actions. But success in manipulating the model is rewarded with the same thing as failure in manipulating the model with excessive cruelty. Failure in manipulating the model is teaching you to use yet more cruelty.”

Excerpts: Do players accept game models as something more than a game model? Can these models be kept separate from mental models that concern the real world? What about mental modelling; since it translates in a physical sense and muscle memory and motor skills learned with games translate into other domains, should we ask ourselves what this can be used for? You can teach someone to do things outside game context; things taught in the game, such as train someone to look left at sudden noises.

If all of this makes sense when we learn things through video games, maybe we should teach ourselves to fight instructions more often, and play more freely? In this modern information society, should I be reading the “push”-sign before I try to open the door, or before?

I think now I will begin to round up, as much as I am just about to start. Back to the first game I mentioned, utilizing similar yet reconfigured and developed technology of google earth. And so it happens that your actions lead to another persons death; you kill someone. Who is to be blamed? "You killed the person with your own keyboard!" Says the juror: "The keyboard was but an extension of the man himself, as clothes were an extension of his skin, spear but an extension of the arm, and the gun--" he sighs, "--was an extension of fear." Fear and aggression, eh? Even the one who programmed the game or supervised it has no idea who the hell did what; they too were just playing around with digits. "I was just looking for my groceries", they say, "how am I to know that two radically different companies can be owned by the same people and turn profit for the same bastards?" And what about that damned Orson Scott Card and Shadow fucking Complex question?

Everyone will play games and contribute, but to what, and to whom? Will we be able identify the man, let alone stick it to Him? The Cube becomes a reality by twisting the edges of a greased up Rubik’s speed-running body. It will become an enigma. I’m not sure at all what will become that enigma, but I’m sure something will. Today’s horizon we peek over lies within ourselves, and the shoulders of the giants are emulated on a screen, shooting Others on a black screen into eternity. The restricted economics of video gaming will become pastime economics; they will want to make you think that you’re wasting your time. That you have the privilege to waste your time AND pay for it with money from your own made-in-china-pocket.

From Metal Gear Solid 2:
Pliskin: VR, huh.

But realistic in every way.

A virtual grunt of the digital age.  That's just great.

That's far more effective than live exercises.

You don't get injured in VR, do you? Every year, a few soldiers die in field exercises.

There's pain sensation in VR, and even a sense of reality and urgency. 
The only difference is that it isn't actually happening.

That's the way they want you to think, 
to remove you from the fear that goes with battle situations. 
War as a video game -- what better way to raise the ultimate soldier?


Someone might say. But what use is it when the console pulls a Russian reverse on you and suddenly you find yourself inside the game, with the game revolving around you, within you?

"God was a dream of good government. You will soon have your God, and you will make it with your own hands”

I always wanted to put that quote into a text.

Disclaimer: Take this text for what it is.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Monkey Mechanics


Just some thoughts on adventure game (Tales of Monkey Island Episode 1) controls, actions and hint systems.

Adventure games make my head explode from time to time, most of the time because there as so many possible ways to go, and usually only one way to solve a specific puzzle. I like hint systems that are not thrown in my face. How can the game designer help the player on hirs path to completion? The branching dialogue system can work as a hint-system when the “extracurricular dialogue options” (as in not relevant for completing the game) disappears from the choice menu in conversations already had, while those deemed important can be re-chosen. This is a way of pointing out the direction for the game’s puzzles, but also to remind people of what to actually accomplish. As a reminder it would seem unnecessary in a game as short as the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island.

This type of hint mechanic but applied to “cleared” areas is something I would like to see in other adventure games, where you for example cannot travel to areas which has nothing of importance left to explore, or hints divided into categories pertaining to the meaning of “got all items”, “got all dialogue”, etc. Non-linear games and puzzle solving make this type of hint system difficult to execute though. But if the game in itself is non-linear, why only make puzzles with one specific solution to it? Make more! Reward different ways of thinking!

Another way of lessening the possible options for a player in an adventure game designer is to simply not highlight them, even if the items requiring pixel hunting often are just as important as the others! At least you as a player know that if you can pick up an item, it is to be used within the game—except for when the item picked up is a red herring! But why are we left with some items after having used them, while other disappear? In Tales of Monkey Island this could be used for continuity effects—that we bring the items with us to the second part—but in other games I fail to see the reason most of the time. The items you have with you until the end could have thematic purposes and tell us something about the character or the nature of something, or it could simply be for funsies such as the gown in Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, but most of the time it’s just seems random. Sometimes a specific puzzle in the end-game would be to easy to solve if you as a player had not at least some options to think through, of course.

One thing Tell-Tale Games have been doing with their adventure games is changing the traditional control system, mainly taking away most of the verbs/directives and replacing them with “interact”, situated on the left mouse button. This is in order to not scare away potential customers (casual gamers) I reckon, but it is interesting nonetheless and once again relates to management of the number of possible actions. Does this decision of removing the nuances of the interact-schematics make for an easier game? Definitely. Does it make for a better game? Depends, I guess. We have ask ourselves: how many actions that lead to nothing at all do we want in a puzzle game? What are the consequences of different approaches to this? How do these approaches stimulate imagination and lateral thinking?

A quick note on general controls: The “camera angle” differs from earlier Monkey Island games (especially those made in 2D) probably because Telltale wanted a more dynamic and movie-like camera, which often lets you in closer onto the action even during gameplay, but fails giving you an overview of the environment and thus the different options available. The game makes me feel trapped in a way, in its own prototypical treasure hunting/stereotypical characterization and the lens through which we as players perceive the world. The claustrophobic feeling is not helped by the fact that the most intuitive controls (the mouse) are horrible, or very smart (probably just horrible though). Tales of Monkey Island actually tries to reinvent the navigation wheel; the controls must have come to exist through some kind of monkey wrench, they must have! But it would be way more cool if the controls were a thematic element put in to make the player aware that the curse of LeChuck is pumping through the very mouse you are controlling. Maybe a comment on the relation of author as player, and player as author? Yeah, probably not.

And by the three headed monkey of monkeys, I just NOW realized that the second episode is out! :O

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It takes a certain kind of player


I just read a review of Strikers Plus Portable, which is very symptomatic of shmup-reviews in general and the claims stated in those that often leave me confused and frustrated. It just doesn't seem as if the reviewers are getting it, I and other hardcore shmuppers have felt. I don't have the energy to find these 'symptomatic reviews', so just trust me when I say that I've seen many reviews that use the same type of arguments against ports of arcade shmups/shmups in general, but also fail to understand the design logic behind the same games. I believe that it comes down to design philosophy and different ways of playing in general.

These are some of the points the reviewer brings up:

Far and away the biggest issue the reviewer in question has is that the game doesn't penalize you as a player for dying, except for resetting your score. Ok, so this issue would be nonexistent if you had a limited amount of continues, or if the player chose to adhere to a certain rule of not using them, right? Keep this in mind as I will return to it later.

The reviewer also makes a wrongful deduction concerning credits and points, which is based on the observation that the game “adds one point to your starting score every time you continue”. The deduction is that once you die a billion times, “you'd be at the top of the high score list”. This is not the case, since the game stops adding points once you have nine: this is a way of telling the player how many credits ze has used, and also a way of showing on the highscore board if the specific highscore was played from the start of the game. This isn’t common knowledge, of course. A quote:

“There is no sort of intro or anything for the next section. You pretty much just keep going until you see a "The End" message.”

I myself don’t like shmups where there is story between sections (if I cannot turn them off beforehand) simply because I do not play them for that purpose, and seeing the same intro a couple of hundred times is frustrating. Now, there are related exceptions that are really nice, such as regaining control of your ship a second or two before a new level in Dodonpachi, but these have a specific purpose integrated with the mechanics, and they make sense if you play for the same reason as I do. Having chunks of text that lowers the tempo of the game significantly between levels, just because, does not make sense.

”Half-way through you'll start seeing the same environments and the same bosses for a second time.”

Ah, I can agree that reoccurring environments sounds cheap, but reoccurring bosses actually can have a function, if for nothing else than to be able to have your revenge, or to subvert the expectations of the player who is used to a specific type of pattern and suddenly gets a different and harder pattern thrown at hir. Perhaps a pattern of one of the bosses can help you learn how to navigate the pattern of another?

One observation in the review is worth mentioning because it makes perfect sense and should therefore be acknowledged: why is there a time limit on choosing your ship in shmups for consoles? Sure, this trick could be imposed upon the player to sometimes choose a ship by mistake, and therefore learn something new, or even make hir change hirs primary ship, but... no; it doesn't seem effective.

Now, for my analysis and propositions. Let's start out with a generalisation: there is a correlation between people who review shmups in a manner similar to the one I’m responding to, and people for whom gathering achievement points is important. The same type of people, or players, have Obsessive Completionist Disorder, and power game their characters in RPGs to the level of absurdity. (Wanting to have stuff between levels in a shmup should be correlation enough that those some people play RPGs!) My type of gamer, in contrast, don’t give a rats ass about completing games and take on the role of traitor in games such as Shadows Over Camelot when everything goes too well for the knights (and even when I’m not the designated traitor), just to make the game more interesting for the other players. The other type of gamer, in contrast, once again, says things like this

"The fact that I've spent more time writing this review than it took me to beat the game is pretty bad."

My response: you do not beat a game just because you see the end screen! Sure, maybe we have a language problem here, but either way games should be about having fun (sometimes), but certainly not about beating them! That's like beating a dead horse when it's alive! The acknowledgement that the game would be ok if there only were "two modes, one with unlimited continues, and one without" doesn't help the reviewers case, since it only cements hirs confusion concerning hirs own feelings towards game design. Making a suggestion that the game should have a mode with unlimited continues makes the argument that the game could be completed in 45 minutes moot! And, getting back to the far and away the biggest issue the reviewer in question has--isn't choosing 'hard mode', that is the mode with limited continues that the author zirself proposed, a self-imposed limit in the same vein as not pressing the start button to gain new continues? Really, now!

I'm taking a step back and looking at the shmup industry in general now, which leads me to the conclusion that is has a very specific way of seeing things, with a very traditionalist audience which often cannot see outside their own point of view. The comments for the review I'm critizising fits the bill and frames the mind-set of many shmuppers. Most of them makes the argument that the reviewer is simply playing the game wrong, which is an interesting statement. If the reviewer did play wrong, (from the perspective of the designer, I'm assuming), why would the designer include unlimited continues?

I believe that the designers had two kinds of audiences in mind when porting the game, which they categorize into hardcore and casual. I'm not saying it is a good categorisation, but it indeed seems to have its' impact upon game design, marketing, etc, and also resonates within the game communities which makes it an excelent term for self-claimed identity. The labels, as applied on shmups specifically, I'd say that hardcore players will refrain from using certain options that makes the game non-challenging (such as bombs or continues) for the sake of challenge, while the casual player often simply cannot complete the game without continues or bombs, which should lead to some kind of middle-ground of different choices One way of doing it is by doing it the way it was done in Strikers 1945 Plus Portable, and one way of doing it is for example by implementing training mode and only giving the players three continues in order to make it a challenge to "complete" the "whole game".

When starting out, I myself quickly became someone who went for the 1 Credit Clear-goal that is the episteme of the hardcore shmupper, but most causal players simply do not want to or do not realize that they can play a game of their own. Because they don't make the effort of balancing it out themselves, such as the case with Shadows Over Camelot that I mentioned earlier. Some players feel that they shouldn't have to make their own rules in order to enjoy a game, but I do wonder how many of these have anything against making their own house-rules when playing poker or monopoly, and I do wonder what the consequences of putting down a game because of inability to see through the games' claim of monopoly on playing and rule-making are for the whole gaming industry.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Does War change?


Have you ever wondered who was right about the future (and history) of warfare in 2008, Ron Perlman or Hideo Kojima In Fallout 3, the narrator (Ron Perlman) says “War. War never changes.” And in Metal Gear Solid 4 Old Snake’s monologue goes “War. War has changed”. There are different ways of examining these claims, and Anonymous chose one of them on a comment section somewhere:

"I'm pretty sure that the intro to Fallout games are meant to show how war has always been a visceral and messy, violent ordeal. It is not meant to be taken so literally. Nice try, though."

Now you know that Ron Perlman in Fallout 3 has been up for discussion before, and that I’m not trying not to create a strawman, actually being aware of the basic definition of war as a struggle for resources that often leaves people feeling pretty shitty. But that makes me wonder, what exactly is a terrorist attack? Or someone trying to overthrow the government? Mothers Against Canada’s attack on Terrance and Philip? Jack Thompson’s attack on violent video games such as Postal? The actual violent video games? Postal? Shelf space is valuable commodity, darn it! The specific definition of war as a struggle for resources not only leaves lee room for militaries to exploit, but also doesn't encourage further analysis of warfare in a historical context. A structuralist approach often tends to position itself as quite ahistorical so let's go *post* and identify the reasons then? Let's do it internets-style, by posting a link to the original post and discussion.

Also, the X-Ecutioners put something about war nicely by sampling someone else:

“We’re not using spears anymore! Weapons have become highly impersonal, developed to travel fantastic distances—how the hell are my enemies going to see my appeasement signals?!”

I mean, today people bomb buildings with innocent people in ithow's that for accuracy and appeasement signals? There was even an art game depicting the consequences of this type of warfare, where each building you put your aim on and understood to be a terrorist headquarter had some innocents which became terrorists after the bombing, in a perpetual cycle of war. There was no end to this "game", and there was no victory state. Ah, life would be so much easier if our cross fire's would only turn red when seeing someone hostile, no rocket launchers were allowed and friendly fires was turned off. But I sure as hell wouldn't want the US government to program the AI of that program.

PS: I portrait Hideo Kojima as the voice of Metal Gear Solid 4 and not the specific voice actors name from the scene in which the quote is from (David Heiter, Scene 1) or Snake (the main character), or even Old Snake (the main character, tired of war) because Kojima is an auteur, and who the hell knows who wrote what in Fallout 3? And who the hell is Ron Perlman? Media doesn't seem to be interested in telling us about the writers of Fallout 3, and Bethesda neither, which probably isn't because nobody wants to take responsibility for Tenpenny Tower but rather because the script, well, isn't that good.

But never mind that. Or do, because that's what we're here for. But I digress...


Ah what the hell, just read this on terrorism. And this on the auteur theory.

Where the wild things game

Take this post for what it is. Whatever it is.

I just came back from a video game gathering where nerds sit down (and nowadays even stand up!) to play video games for a whole week. This was the summer gathering, which means people actually did leave the premises, even if only to get some air not drenched in the smell of sweat.

First and foremost it differs from LAN-parties such as dreamhack, mostly in size. We also have way more sofas than chairs compared to LAN-parties, so it definitely makes for a more comfortable environment. We also have more drums and popnmusic-controllers than LAN-parties. Drummers may sit down, Bemani players may not. If they’re not playing Beatmania.

"I´m not going to take your insolence sitting down!
Your hemorrhoids are flaring up again, eh?"

(I just had to) Anyway, with the swine flu rumours around, and dirty gamers around, I though I didn’t want to stick around THAT much. Also we had sun, but only on the outside, so as typical Swede with seasonal affective disorder I wanted to go to the beach as much as I could, but found myself having trouble finding others who did. People slept during the day, which is fucked up in my book, video gaming or not. Hm, I didn't think I'd make gamers the subject of my anthropological interest as soon as in my fourth post, but here we go. I guess I should keep my distance not to go native as well, though.

Gamers (and games) are easy targets though. And since I'm one of them I have legitimacy to hurt people’s feelings! Ah, the joys of being able to both be and not to be. We even make fun of ourselves, do we not? Not only by saying that games aren’t art and that what we’re doing isn’t important and doesn’t contribute anything to society as a whole, but we do ourselves in even when gathered together—more so than putting gaffer tape on the ground and letting people know that wrestling is allowed within those boundaries. Oh, well, we played Mafia (that’s Werewolf to the Americans out there) and on the reveal after a night where the mafia kill a villager, the game leader says "… The chances of getting laid have just lowered". Yes, it was someone perceived as a girl who had been killed. And yes, my prejudice concerning video gamers is justified.

There wasn’t much discussion concerning video games as a form of art or subject of critical analysis going around, which is usual, and casual, but sometimes irritating because I myself do not know how to approach the subject. I’ve started to accept that the internet is a great forum for these kinds of discussions, but it does strike me as rather odd that people who spend four, sex, or eight hours a day playing video games haven’t read any game theory, not even on an academic level!

Positivist knowledge though, is high in demand for the people attending the gathering, as; quizzes always are successful. Who knows most about Nintendo, or recognizes the most video game songs, and so forth. Different forms of competition, which makes sense since we’re gaming. The most fun discussing video games I had was probably fighting games, because we at least got into the discussion of the core mechanics and I got some questions answered, including why Street Fighter IV is barely in the top ten list of most popular arcade games in Japan right now (fast projectiles plus high priority long range attacks *cough* Sagat).

I guess XBL achievements have something in common with positivist knowledge; it’s quantifiable. People at the convention I was at have a very special jargon with a lot of irony and insider jokes, so normally I wouldn’t be sure what to make of it when I ask someone for advice if I should be selling a game and they look at me and say “If you managed to get all the achievements”. WTF. Achievement whore!!!!!11

Sorry, it could have been hurtful of me to use ‘whore’ as a derogatory description of someone doing the video game moral equivalence of fast-food eating (Thanks, Jonthan Blow). The journey is the destination; thank you, Braid. Hm, I just realized most of you aren’t Swedish, so you wouldn’t know that the Swedish word “mål” means both “destination” and “meal”. Darn.

Perhaps I should change the name of my blog after this post to have some credibility left? Oh, wait, I could ask people to recommend books concerned with critical analysis and making of video games instead. And then I could bring them to the next video game gathering!

PS: The association which made this gathering possible is Terebi-gemu.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Bioshock on objectivism

First, a dismissal, then a rebuttal, and then cake. Oops, wrong game.

I was not convinced by the narrative of Bioshock that objectivism as a philosophy ultimately leads to destruction, or that the game by utilizing narrative means is a critique of objectivism as a political theory. Others do not agree.

I argue that to criticize objectivism through the lens of Bioshocks’ narrative is similar to using the case of Soviet Russia to criticize communism. To begin with we have to agree that Rapture as a society failed in more than one way; neither did it oblige to the rules set out by a minimalist government approach to the state since law had been replaced by chaos when the player arrived, nor was it a success from the perspective of single individuals—that is Andrew Ryan, or me, and probably not you. The significance of an ideology for practical (as in possible) purposes in the future should be measured by it’s own statements and imperatives laid out by its’ theoretical framework, and not by the prerequisites and milieu of those who “abide” to the ideology or plan/execute the orders of (or outside of) that society in which the ideology takes place—insofar as the ideological statements to begin with have their basis in reality and a proper understanding of La condition humaine; otherwise the ideology is an utopia, something which I don't think Ayn Rand would want you to take objectivism for.

Now, what I can gather from the narrative and what it (implicitly) tells us in Bioshock is that in Rapture there were breaches in the imperatives laid out by the ideology supposedly adhered to. For once, religion found its’ way to Rapture, as can be seen by the bibles spread across some levels, and—arguably but not decisively—because of some citizens’ (whom I perceive as supposedly mad) knack for biblical allegories in their threats and ravings. Also, was not Andrew Ryan a megalomaniac? This is a simple pathological statement, but I think my saying this makes the point clear enough; crazy people will make crazy societies, even if they set out to make things right, and especially if they do not understand the ideological framework with which they work to begin with.

What I’m saying is that the games’ narrative didn’t give me conclusive evidence as to why rapture wasn’t an ideal society, and also didn’t hint about it strongly enough for me to perceive something along those lines. Instead, I started thinking that the city’s apparent failure could depend upon other factors, such as the individuals within it. Was Andrew Ryan a true objectivist? If ze was at the beginning, was ze towards the end of ze’s life? When Rapture started falling apart? The madness which infested Andrew’s haven could have unhinged once the breach of objectivist ideals were already underway—is objectivism to be put to blame for this?

I will leave you with these questions unanswered and instead bring up some other points and finally give you some cake. Concerning rational self-interest in objectivism: helping others is not a vice per se for an objectivist, tis’ only so when helping someone whose ethics (and/or ability, which are closely connected to ethics) are inferior to your own, and by helping that someone you are making a half-man king and mankind a disservice. Helping the little sisters can definitely be motivated by rational self-interest in this context. Killing the little sisters, on the other hand, can be motivated by the ideology of objectivism only when physical danger to someone’s person is a threat. Do the little sisters seem dangerous to you?

I argue that the ludonarrative dissonance when playing (the ludo part of the dissonance) as an objectivist and completing the game (the narrative part of the dissonance) is non-existing if you simply perceive rational self-interest from a different point of view, specifically, as in that interest being in harmony with helping others, if so only for ones own pleasure or for getting some answers. I as a player certainly wanted answers from Atlas, but since your avatar Jack had no narrative-infused motivations whatsoever, giving a narrative explanation for helping out Atlas was impossible, thus creating a sense of ludo-narrative dissonance.

I will leave it at that and propose my own theory concerning rationality, free will and the scene where the murder of Andrew Ryan and the “death-disarm” takes place. Yes, I too “… see all this as a parable about gaming" as Iroquis Pliskin put it, but also as a possible reading on objectivism. A quote from Roger Travis at Living Epic:

"By the shorthand “death-disarm” I mean to refer to the entire sequence of the cutscene in which your character kills Andrew Ryan and the gameplay sequence that follows, in which the game will not progress unless you obey Atlas and disarm Ryan’s auto-destruct sequence."

I will borrow something from Pliskin once again, namely the malignant demon which in Pliskins reading is the authour/designer. This time imagine the malignant demon having the original meaning set out by Descartes/Cartesius twisted to invoke society as looking glass. I do not want this invoked Cartesian society to be about oppression committed by the majority (as seen in classical individualist ideology), or in behaviourist analysis of mass-psychosis states (such as Nazi-Germany), but rather about social pressure as a part of La condition humaine in every society. Simply; man is not man as we know man without society as we know society.

One becomes a savage when growing up without other human beings. Is a feral child able to make rational choices? Are socialized humans able to do it? What is this elevated state which some humans seem to have, while others not, even if the biological prerequisites among people differ insignificantly? Does the act of simply being with other human beings who are more rational than oneself make someone more capable of rational thought? Is rationality a tool?

Let’s say assume that Mowgli is capable of rational thought then, but how can anyone at all make decisions independently of opinions and attitudes of the surrounding people, the generalized others if you would, when they are part of the environment just as much as anything else? The only ones who are not affected by the feelings of other people are those diagnosed as psychopaths, yet I dare say that even those diagnosed as psychopaths are influenced by their peers. An internalized peer review comes with socialization is my understanding of all this.

Now, finally, on objectivism: one of the three axioms which objectivist philosophy comes from is the one concerning epistemology, namely—reason. The first point I’ve already made to some extent, which would be how we can trust other people to inform us with rationally perceived information and logic, and how can we trust our own processing of that and different information; the problem with the moral choice concerning harvesting vs rescuing little sisters is that we simply do not know just how dangerous they are, if they are at all, and what we should do about it from a rational point of view. A may be A, but what the hell is A? Can we even recognize it? What is the meaning of the question asking the meaning of life?

The second point I will make is concerning the corollary axiom of reason—the exercising of free will—, which presupposes reason in objectivist philosophy. If objectivist rationality did not exist, and these two are so interdependent upon each-other, would not the free will disappear? What happens in the scene you kindly murder Andrew Ryan? Exactly that;player agency disappears.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dream killer

The emotions I felt when I first watched this trailer were the emotions I so very often feel when waiting for a game, preparing for it, and then actually playing it.

Having dreams sometimes suck.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Evil pastimes

-->Spoilers ahoy!

Wouldn’t you say that Guybrushs’ attempts at being frightening, evil and piratey are misguided? I mean, ze isn’t evil, is ze? Really, isn’t ze simply... a coward who wishes to overcome ze’s own insecurities? But being an inherently good-willed guy while being (or trying to be) a pirate isn’t easy, unless there are excuses for why you are perceived as evil (misinterpretation), the evil deeds done by the good guy are mistakes (motive), or, if the good guy basically is misguided (humour, forgiveness). There are also the internet-roaming kind of pirates who may be written off as evil (misinterpretation) by media but nonetheless seems harmless by most of the people, an issue that Telltale for me has failed to incorporate or allude to in their first revamp of Monkey Island—possibly due to the fact that they’ve dealt with similar issues already in Sam & Max’s “Reality 2.0” and not because Monkey Island would be the wrong place for anachronistic or non-dietetic real-world humour; a U-Tube just seems like to much of a coincidence.

Are there reasons for Guybrush to commit illegal acts of spite, even? The main story is similar to many prototypic video game series such as Metroid, Castlevania or Zelda where the hero starts from scratch at each new adventure. Sometimes simply because the hero is a different character than in the previous game, but most of the time because it makes sense from a game-mechanic progress and development-perspective. In Tales of Monkey Island you have to prove yourself as a pirate once again and must do so by committing petty crimes. Your other motives are saving Elaine and, stopping LeChuck and doing something about that pesky cursed arm of yours. But let’s focus on the actions you as a player commit, and how evil they really are.

The three missions you have taken up on are stealing in order to start a fight, trick a lunatic to find a treasure, and throw a bomb to become Captain. How are these actions' evilness lessened by the narrative? Sure, the game rewards you for stealing, but it turns out the one Guybrush stole from didn’t mind Guybrush taking ze’s property. The bar-fight is caused by the cursed hand (misinterpretation) which has a will of its’ own and therefore has nothing to do with our hero (forgiveness/motive). The same character from whom Guybrush steals is the one you bomb away, but this person loved the challenge to begin with, taunted you while to tried to commit the atrocity and failed, and also congratulates you afterwards and becomes your first-mate, which lessens the impact of the perceived evil even less. When it comes to tricking Joaquin D’Oro—the person obsessed with dolls—well, ze is happy afterwards, and isn’t that all that matters?

There is also the Town Gazette, spreading all these rumours of you being frightening, and you actively contributing to this by tipping of the only journalist of the crimes you’ve committed. You do this because the journalist knows the locations of Deep Gut whom you must get a hold of. There are all these rumours circulating around Deep Gut, all of which turn out to be wrong. This gives reason to believe that also Guybrush perhaps isn’t evil even if ze is perceived that way—if somebody should have missed that. (I’m interested how the whole LeChuck-goes-human-and-good turns out; is the curse of LeChuck simply that, a curse? What are the implications of evil being seen that way, and what would happen if Elaine suddenly got the curse?)

Why should I give you the Map?!

Is there more to Guybrush’s wanting to become a pirate? There doesn’t seem to be any ideology behind ze’s vigilante identity; an anarchistic laissez-fair ideology where pirates take over the ships of their rich, undeserving rulers and then roam the sea in order to achieve some kind of independence wouldn’t give enough incentive to do much else, except for when the governments demonize pirates as a species in order to be seen as enemies by the public and Guybrush took it on ze to change this. Guybrush aspirers to be a pirate because... I dunno, because we're all supposed to have been small boys growing up, wanting to become pirates? He's cute like that, Guybrush. A kid. Misguided. Just like we were. Not anything like Marquis DeSinge (whose name reminds me of someone special, especially considering Singes’ monkey has masochistic tendencies) is the real evil antagonist, as it turns out after a while. The obvious difference between the two make Guybrush so much less evil, even if both characters are going for some kind of dream; one wanting to become a pirate and the other advocating sacrifice in the name of science. On whose side is the law? Well, technically speaking the law is on vacation in Tales of Monkey Island, but one of the final puzzles is solved with the use of the carvings on the empty prison cells… which has to mean something! Is it justification, or just irony? (For a moment there I thought that it would be cool if that specific puzzle was the one that trapped DeSade, but on the other hand he got his own science-made weapon turned against him, which is neat also.)

Marquis DeSinge is a mad scientist, a man, yes: Tales of Monkey Island is a mans world with only 2/10 characters being female, including Elaine and Guybrush. And while we’re on the subject of representation, it’s interesting that there are so few coloured people in the game, and that LeChuck turns white when he becomes “good”. Will this whiteness or the simple good-will of LeChuck make ze a sympathetic character in the following episodes? Will we learn some kind of moral lesson through all of this? Will our lover Elaine become cursed and evil, LeElaine? Me, I'm hoping the second episode begins with an insult sword fight!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Welcome to my humble establishment

... And one day I discovered that I was suprisingly absent from the more and more interesting discussions concerning 'the games' taking place @theinternets. So I decided to flood comment sections of a wide variety of intelligent blogs and figured I might as well start a blog to give my new found hobby (which is the flooding part) some legitimacy. I also figured that this way I myself would get more comments for my blog--but alas, as evident as it is I still have to admit that this is a post-hoc explanation--since being legitimate is such an important thing for me to concern myself with.

So here *I* am, and without going further into some rambling about intentional fallacies, 'if a tree falls in the forest' and my thoughts on having used a symbol for which I have no name (*) in the sentence above, I shall take my temporary leave and wish all of us the best of luck. The world of video games is an amazing one, chock-full of mysteries which I hope we continuously will try to unravel. Hopefully we get lost along the way and find some insights while we're at it.

Read you around, internets!