Monday, November 4, 2013

Before Next-Gen Critical Compilation

By replacing immersion with the frame of attention, which is a word that holds scientific and psychological significance, we can use this frame of attention to make more meaningful observations.
It’s worth remembering that realism is not fidelity.
And Anita Sarkeesian says as much in her videos: remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
Failure in games often implicitly suggests that you aren’t grokking a system and that therefore you’re misunderstanding the text. But Cart Life doesn’t require mastery of its systems to understand what it does. In fact, playing Cart Life well misses the point.
[on Depression Quest] After a really rough time, my character fought his way out of deep depression, just a bit. And I reached a decision tree with five choices, and for the first time, all five choices were blue and available to me. No AAA video game power fantasy, no immersive sim, has ever made me feel as close to having as much agency as I felt like I had in that moment.
[on Kentucky Route Zero] The choices are not about making change in the game world, but determining the character’s intentions. You can never exhaust all the content in a dialogue tree because it cares more about the beautiful transience of conversation. It’s about what questions you ask, which information you seek, and which you don’t - not because any of it is quest-specific, but because it affects how you perceive your character.
Failure, choice, realism, these concepts and any value we assign to them are destroyed by these games. They don’t erase failure, or devalue choice, they come from a different frame of mind completely.
Video games don’t exist.

We invented them.

And we can destroy them.

BioShock Infinite is the worst game of the year.

It’s an unjustified shooter without a single new idea.  It’s a self-gratifying spectacle that confuses cunning with depth.  It’s a craven, heartless game of false moral equivalencies that uses the suffering of oppressed people as window dressing, as theme, while it explores its own cold metaphysical conceits.

For its lack of humanity, for its fake guilt, for its flat boring gameplay, for its 100 million dollar cost, for its cleverness, for its cowardice, BioShock Infinite is not just the worst game of the year.  It’s the worst game I’ve played this generation.
The BioShock series’ great talent thus far seems to be thematizing videogame conventions rather than challenging them.  It has mastered the safe subversion, never mind its conservative heart.  Clever self-awareness trumps actual innovation.  And gamers eat it up.  Because we love to feel smart, removed, safely above it all.


... Where the self-examination begins. We start to see something about our own, internalized, beliefs and acceptances of colonialism, um, through shooting people in the face."


But on a deeper level, throughout the series, we made decisions about what kind of a man Lee was, and how Clementine would see him. Our choices may not have affected the story outcome or averted his death, but they certainly affected his life—they made him the character we got to know and care about. (Or, depending, dislike but maybe understand.) One could make the same argument about the Mass Effects and Dragon Ages of the world, but given that The Walking Dead was a character study as much as it was an adventure, the fact that our decisions affected Lee's character is more central to the game's meaning as a whole. Game critic Sparky Clarkson has effectively encapsulated why player choice mattered in a post over at his blog awesomely titled "Your choices don't matter." Rather, the choices do matter, he says, but "they don't matter in the way that they appear to."
Lee's choices don't change the world, or alter the fundamental flow of the story. He can do nothing to keep the drugstore safe, preserve the motel stronghold, or prevent the treacheries in Savannah. If those are the kinds of choices that "matter", then Lee's decisions don't. But decisions that mattered in that way wouldn't really fit the themes of The Walking Dead. It's not a world where a man ultimately has any real power to save anyone.
But the choices in The Walking Dead aren't really about changing the world, they're about changing Lee. The player's choices define who Lee is, whose company he values, what principles he chooses to uphold. The world reacts to those decisions, in subtle ways that either reinforce those decisions (for instance, in the developing friendship with Kenny) or play off them (as in the case of Duck's fate). The player's choices matter because they establish a context for his emotional connection, through Lee, to the game world


Most players are used to a "choice" moment, i.e. "PRESS X TO THIS, PRESS Y TO THAT". Since they never saw that anywhere in the bar, a lot of players didn't know they had the option to leave. [BEYOND: TWO SOULS]

Players are also used to the outcomes of choices being obvious. Someone dying, someone leaving, someone lying, etc. Subtlety and nuance are not things that games are implementing left and right. When something as low-key as a buried phobia rearing it's head hours later in the game is a consequence, it's understandable for it to go over a lot of heads.
 An Adventure game like Beyond that does away with standard HUD elements just doesn't look like it's as advanced as it is. Players are most likely to assume what they are seeing is a pre-determined part of the game, and not results of actions they have taken or not taken. A more immersive and natural storytelling system also makes the game seem less interactive. Quite the double-edged sword.
 It's very easy to miss dozens of important interactions if you don't explore the environment. Because you don't see everything on an overlay, you have to search around to see what can be toyed with. Sometimes, you simply don't expect things to be of any importance.
So the game's better form of discovery also comes with the chance of unintentionally leaving things behind. Yet another double-edged sword.

The wife he chooses is a wife he creates in his own image, a woman who is “a female version of himself,” and who the King loves dearly. The woman created is a combination of two Greek myths: Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection, and Pygmalion and Galatea, about an artist who falls in love with a statue he has created, and which subsequently comes to life. The intersection between these two myths leads to thematic intertwining between the narratives. It is one of the clearest cases where creation and love, as in the Pygmalion myth, are tied to self-creation and self-love, as in the Narcissus story. It is as if the King cannot distinguish between them, and the interrelation between these concepts becomes a running theme throughout the game. /.../ The King’s struggle to manifest the perfect self through his creations reflects the dissonance between his two selves. He constantly has his designs fail, he is left by his wife and mirror-self, and eventually he is faced with the possibility that he won’t have a legacy at all; he muses at the end of the game that all his works that “were meant to last forever… would crumble into dust. Or be painted over by someone who would come after [him].” /.../ ... he finally finds contentment in who he is rather than who he would like to be. It is in this spirit that he is able to at last give up creative control, bequeathing his magic paintbrush to his son, Monroe.
/.../ Rather than attempting to prevent outside influence, external support is necessary for Monroe to advance. /.../ This difference in attitude is crucial, and reflects the different mentalities of the characters. Where the King holds up an ideal and strives to achieve it, inevitably falling short, Monroe feels “pretty unfinished himself” and must make sense of his new reality, both in terms of the white world he finds himself in and the recent loss of his mother. He must become a creator in order to create himself, while the King approached it in the other direction, trying to create himself by becoming a creator.

Almost every repeated character or item seen throughout the game can be found in a mundane form in or around the Princess’s house. /.../
I noticed an interesting detail when examining the chandelier itself. When you look closely, three distinct figures can be seen across the wood patterning. The one in the middle is clearly female, and she’s pointedly turning her attention toward the figure to her left while the other simply watches. When the chandelier breaks, there’s a specific break in this image as well — the female figure and her chosen companion on one side, and the onlooker alone on the other.

We are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?
Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?

Playing in public in itself is a political act, especially in hard times.


I’ve started walking more in videogames because I was irritated by the way I felt compelled to run.

Make three lists numbering one through 20. In one column, write down 20 legendary, meaningful, culturally significant novels capable of standing the test of time. In the second, do the same for film. I expect that your third column, in which you’d write 20 games capable of doing the same, cannot be completed.
/.../Vice City is, after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing, because what it did has been done better by its sequels. Forgetting its cool setting and story -- I don’t think I’ll be remembering Tommy Vercetti on my deathbed, anyway -- GTA 5 has negated the need to ever play Vice City again. Rockstar Games made its own history irrelevant by giving us access to something better. It will do it again in five years. These are the building blocks of a brand, and not something with any historical value. What other medium seeks out its own obsolescence?


In truth, video games have no timeless masterpieces. There will come a day, sooner than we think, when no one will play Wind Waker. Or Chrono Trigger. Or Super Metroid. No one but curators and historians. And eventually, not even them. Tetris will not last, nor will Super Mario Bros. In a few years, who will be willing to survive fungal zombies for 15 hours just to reach the emotional climax of The Last of Us? For a medium so dependent on its players’ engagement, on their sustained attention, the question is not simply whether old games can technically be played, but will they? I think we sense this. And we want to protect our games while we can. We long to declare masterpieces and preserve them for the future because we are afraid: that one day, the game that meant so much to us will no longer have a player. Or even a legend to remember it by.


We'll accept innovations, even a radical one like Ocarina of Time's shift to 3D, so long as they add depth to the skills we already know. Sequels that interrupt the iterative continuity of the series, often end up as a footnote. At best, they accumulate, like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a kind of dark horse mystique.
Much like the recurring mythos that underlies their respective stories, Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker are not separate games, but the same game extended in slightly different directions.


I am irrevocably grafted to his story, like hanging on to driftwood out at sea. He floats on without any regard for my splinters. Can I really be blamed for burning it all down? And though I am released from my porcelain casting, I am evoked to serve in this nightmare patriarchy. Which is why I need you; only the living can make choices.

Stanley’s always been dead.


How they wish to destroy one another. How they wish to control one another. How they both wish to be free. Can you see? Can you see how much they need one another? Playing a game forges a relationship between player and designer and the experience of play is a conversation between them.

What struck me about this single page of Sam’s Diary in Gone Home is that it’s an exception to a rule — not part of a consistent fabric of showing the player what kind of thing they can and can’t do. It’s the only time Katie refuses to execute an action; the rest of the time, as Merritt points out, she acts like a camera, your lens into the world.


Gone Home is played using Katie, a real character. There is much talk of player agency, but I don’t think there’s ever enough talk of character agency. My point is this: Katie might pick up the various things she finds, but she wouldn’t throw them across the floor the way the game allowed me to.


Gone Home is too dressed up as a horror to justify comments that it proves forthright tales about teen romance, about lesbian relationships, about nostalgia and broken families, can be made at this scale and succeed. I wonder, even now, if it would have succeeded without tricking the player into playing it as a horror game. The most cynical part of me wonders if it was made into a horror because Fullbright figured it wouldn’t sell otherwise.
The beauty of the Dark Souls narrative form is the eloquence with which it drops nuggets and hints, and invites the player to want to explore and resolve these mysteries. But truthfully, it only really belongs to Gone Home’s peripheral characters. Sam and Lonnie’s narrative form is little different than BioShock’s, with a voice in your ear clearly explaining everything you need to know at each story beat, leaving little mystery on their part for the player to unlock. It naturally dissects itself to form two not-quite-related parts: the plainly told teen romance, and everyone else’s Dark Souls. Which, I think, could offer an interesting reading of the broken state of the family, but I’ll leave that for another day.

One woman told me that when she plays as a male character, her teammates listen to her, and take her more seriously.


Participants who wore sexualized avatars internalized the avatar’s appearance and self-
objectified, reporting more body-related thoughts than those wearing nonsexualized avatars. Participants
who saw their own faces, particularly on sexualized avatars, expressed more rape myth acceptance than
those in other conditions. Implications for both online and offline consequences of using sexualized avatars are discussed.


Games media is constantly trying to legitimise the hobby it’s built on: to prove that games can be every bit as valid as movies and art and novels. But for some reason, rather than celebrating titles that claw at the boundaries of what is accepted, the media’s first response when presented with something difficult is to turn its nose up in disgust and claim that it’s damaging the medium.

In the end, we are left afraid not due to simple emotional response but because of the game’s implications.
Adrenaline wears off. Ideas attach themselves to our mind and stay with us. That may be a more truthful execution of horror.


As you design, repeat this mantra to yourself: "I will have no keycard doors in my game." No feeding fertilizer or poison to giant plants. Check yourself before adding puzzles about inserting crystals, gems, or figurines into some ornate locking mechanism. Reconsider any puzzle involving a four-digit number sequence, found elsewhere, that opens a lock.

Do not employ sliding block puzzles. Ever. That includes sliding statues! No!


Earlier today, I had a peculiar reaction to the footage of The Evil Within that oozed through the clogged pipes of the interweb from the Eurogamer Expo and directly onto my screen. As Craig pointed out, the spinny-blade room is so daft that it’s immediately rendered non-threatening. Finding such a machine in a mental institution raises logistical questions rather than the hairs on the back of my neck.


Horror art nowadays tends to stick to clichés, to familiar genre markers. A review of a few of the latest horror games makes this clear, almost painfully so. That said, part of the appeal of the genre, to some people, is its predictability. Horror orbits around a few central themes because they are apparently important to our culture.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him.

Art is a relational proposition, one of habitus and contingency in relation to the structuring roles of economy and power. I think the better question to ask is “what do games do?”
Maybe drawing the utopia out can be done through the process of making.

Games like Howling Dogs and Kentucky Route Zero are the material embodiment of this positive impulse. These games would not exist without the blood and horror that is the AAA games industry. They have to exist in stark contrast with it – but at the same time they draw out the utopian, feminist, trans, queer, anarchist ghostly utopia in them


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