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Monday, Nov 3, 2008
A breakdown of 2K's methods of overcoming ludonarrative dissonance in a very dark, conflicted plot. Spoilers abound.


Clint Hocking once used the phrase ludonarrative dissonance to describe the times when what you’re doing in a video game in terms of the design does not merge with the plot. It’s an old post and I hate to drag out the Bioshock analysis but it could just as easily reference GTA IV or any other game. What do you do when what the game design and thus player input allows does not really make sense for the character? 2K’s The Darkness explores this question by creating a three-way relationship between the protagonist, the demon controlling him, and the player. Yes, the game’s lip animation is a bit off and the Trent Reznor-looking protagonist is a bit dated. But past the Uncanny Valley is a very sharp game design that draws the player in and supports the narrative. Given that the game is about a man losing his soul for the sake of revenge, it is quite a feat that by the end the player is just as guilty as the protagonist.


The game opens with what will become the principle theme throughout the game: the player is dragged into increasingly dangerous actions that he can only loosely control. You awaken in the backseat of a car with a driver who is fleeing the cops in the Lincoln Tunnel. As the driver steers into incoming traffic while maniacally laughing, the player is immediately frustrated at not being in control while insane mobsters are operating the car. The fact that the game design lets you swing the camera and take a few shots before the crash only reinforces this helplessness. The game then transgresses into being an FPS similar to the Call of Duty duck and cover play style. You have no explicit health bar, ammo must be checked by tapping a button, and things proceed generically until the demon (The Darkness) manifests itself. Although it has been a weird voice-over for the opening levels of the game, when it takes over Jackie’s body control is literally jerked from the player. The swarm of mobsters that have surrounded you are horribly killed…but it’s all done from a Half-life 2-esque perspective that looks exactly like how we play the game. It again establishes the theme of having control yanked away from the player, only this time it is now performing actions that the player themselves, within the context of the game design, are capable of doing. Contrast that to a cutscene of Kratos doing a bunch of flips that would be impossible to implement in regular controls: the game design is flaunting your possession just as the character of the Darkness, narrative-wise is doing the same thing.


Alone this would be nothing but a fairly gimmicky narrative/game design device. What the game does is then flesh this violation of control out with a combination of Deus Ex-style dialogue sequences and load-screen diatribes. In regards to the latter, it’s simply the protagonist giving a short speech about his feelings towards the story. Imagine Bioware’s tactic of telling backstory in load screens taken to a much grander scale. Whether it’s the protagonist talking about being beaten by his Uncle or how much he loves his girlfriend, it gets in talking time without making the player sit still more than they would anyways. As for the dialogue sections, Jackie can move around New York City and receive various side quests from homeless people, old mobsters, and friends. What makes these extremely interesting is that there are no benefits in-game for doing these missions. You get some unlockable content that can be viewed if you quit (usually a comic book), but there’s no money, weapons, or change to the plot to be had by doing this. You are also expected to behave respectfully in-game. If you walk away while someone is talking, they get upset and ignore you. If you point a gun at them, they get offended. By having no reward for these somewhat demanding side-missions the game presents an interesting option: are you such a good person that you want to actually help someone for no personal benefit?


Yet having non-rewarding missions is just one way that the game explores your eventual self-destruction, it even goes so far as to present an option for sitting down and not killing people. Just think about an FPS featuring that and you appreciate what a bold move it is. It starts with the options presented with your interactions with Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny. Since all of the loadscene diatribes are founded on Jackie talking to Jenny (in darkness), we already have begun to develop ideas about our relationship with her. That she isn’t there to respond facilitates the player putting their own impressions on her. When you actually do meet her, the player is confronted with explaining to her why he is in trouble with the mob and the people you’ve killed. The options are startlingly frank: ‘Protect her from the truth’ is one while ‘Tell her the truth’, if selected, puts the player into an incongruous position. Jackie doesn’t want to and instead lies. Whatever you tell Jenny, she immediately assures you that you’re not really a bad guy and invites you inside. Just as doing the side missions offers no real incentives in-game neither does hanging out with Jenny. All of the exchanges with her involve mostly standing or sitting doing nothing. The Darkness, frustrated at this downtime, will declare, “She reeks of innocence!” It potentially gives voice to the more violence-prone players, while those who think of Jackie as a decent guy caught up in some trouble will be more resistant. The only reward you get for sitting on the couch for an extended period is Jenny saying that she loves you and kissing you. Yet if you want, you can watch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its entirety in-game with her. What better analogy for Jenny’s belief in you, the rampaging protagonist, than Atticus Finch defending a man everyone else thinks is a rapist? She is the one person who thinks Jackie is worth redeeming.


 


While it doesn’t provide an option for pacifism, the game’s plot does emphasize that as Jackie’s bloodbath continues so does Uncle Paulie’s (the villain) wrath. As you wage a mob war with one another, your friends and family who you’ve been helping in the side missions get sucked into the mess. At one point, the player meets up with Jenny and sees the chaos left after Uncle Paulie has blown up your childhood home. All the while, the Darkness is making cruel comments and snide jokes, again echoing those players who would rather be shooting than listening to the story. It’s the dichotomy that the player is torn between: does one spend time developing selfless relationships or be a cold blooded killer? Is Jackie a decent person struggling against oppressors or is he just an asshole with a gun? The conduct to be either is possible. All of this culminates in what is probably one of the most tragic cutscenes ever to grace a videogame. Jenny is kidnapped and murdered in front of us. Again, it’s all Half-life 2 style and again, the Darkness has taken control from us. Claiming that “she was a burden, this is freedom”, it is a manifestation of removing that choice of staying with Jenny from the player. It is taking away the option of being a decent person. With her death, there is no longer a need for a game design with a happy ending or for anything but rampant destruction. There is no ludonarrative dissonance because our one source of options for non-violence (the only passive activity in the game is sitting with Jenny) has died. Plotwise, Jackie’s rampage is equally expected.


 


Jackie’s suicide because of losing Jenny yanks control from both the player and The Darkness and ends with him being placed in his own private hell. Rather than be irksome, it magnifies how upset Jackie is because again, in Half-Life 2 style, a gun is put to our mouth in as shocking a manner as Jenny’s loss. To Jackie Estacado and the player, Hell is a World War I battlefield. Once you collect yourself, you are put out on a mission to gain control of the Darkness so you can use its supernatural powers. Yet Estacado is eerily unwilling to explore the implications of The Darkness being just as responsible for Jenny’s death as Uncle Paulie. He instead needs those powers to get his revenge and throughout the game we are complicit in that necessity. Without the Darkness activated, we lack the shield it generates and will be ripped to shreds in most gunfights. You must accommodate the demon by destroying all of the lights so it can stay healthy. In order to level up the demon, you have to feed it the hearts of people you’ve killed. In this way the game design draws the player into actively feeding and supporting the Darkness, despite its damning nature, just as much as Estacado does. In the final moments of Hell, Jackie is even partially told how to free himself from the demon, but he isn’t interested. When the Darkness is finally weakened, the player can only merge with it so he can keep killing for revenge. It is a decision that would be bothersome for many people were it not for the fact that the game design has already made us utterly dependent on the creature. The ludonarrative dissonance is again circumvented in this moment because the game design has drawn us into Jackie’s decision to keep the demon so that we at least appreciate his motives. There is still one more person that needs killing.


The game design makes us complicit with the tragic ending because the Darkness is steadily gaining control of us with each death and consumed heart. The fact that you cannot become strong enough to survive without helping the Darkness makes this dilemma all the more difficult for the player. You have to do it to progress in the game and hunt down Uncle Paulie. In the final level of the game, the Darkness again takes control of Jackie, just as he did in the opening and with Jenny. As in those other moments, it is all actions the player himself can do such as killing swarms of people or taking down a helicopter. The Darkness literally robs the player of experiencing the last level by playing it for us. The final moments confront the player with a curious illusionary choice: kill Uncle Paulie and lose your soul to The Darkness or…nothing. You do not have any other alternative. Merging linear game design and plot, the final scene of the game forces the player to confront the truth. Sitting with Jenny was the only game option that didn’t involve killing, without her the player is just feeding the Darkness and losing the metaphorical war inside Jackie’s soul. In this way, the game design supports the linear narrative by providing motivation and necessity for the player that coincides with Jackie’s choices. When Jenny died, so did the choice we could have had in that final moment.


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Monday, Nov 3, 2008

William Wharton, author of Birdy, Dad, and A Midnight Clear died in hospital this week following an infection. Despite the success of Birdy, about a young man so obsessed with canaries he thinks he is one, Whartom resisted literary celebrity. Instead, he kept a low profile, dividing his time writing and painting, mostly in France.


From the Los Angeles Times obituary:


“One of the reasons I don’t want to live the life of a writer is I don’t want writers’ problems. Not thinking of myself as a writer gives me the freedom to be one. I’m not a wordsmith. I just basically look into my head and see the image and look for words.”


Read a revealing interview with Wharton here, in which he opens up up about his life, his politics, his art, and what he really thought of the film version of Birdy. It’s a brilliant piece, smart and hugely engrossing. You’ll come away wishing Adam Chmielewski got the chance to talk to all your favourite writers. From the interview:


Adam Chmielewski: You often say or imply in your novels that when faced with an all to frequent choice: fight or flight, we should rather flee. Interestingly, you suggested a flight—a flight into phantasy, into creative work. It is very much against our Nietzschean culture of power, winning, will to power, domination. Is it not that engaging into phantasy is a way of turning one’s back on reality, an escapism? 


William Wharton: I am not saying—take a flight into phantasy, I am saying, rather, phantasy in itself is a power. There is a little difference there. Albert Camus said—cherish your illusion, that is all you get. That is anti-Kafkaesque message, it is also anti-Nietzschean one. Camus gave a truly humanistic, livable, respect-yourself version of the human ideal. So I would not use the word “escape” here. Cherish your illusions as a way of coping with the irresolvable problems regarding which you are becoming panically or hysterically convinced that you have either to flee or fight. There is an another way: just to stay who you are, and have the confidence in your own capacity to deal with the problems. You do not have to fight or flee. You can create, create the situation.




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Monday, Nov 3, 2008

If you need a piece of contrary fluff, check out this Wired article which claims that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was a great boon to the Net- the comments to the article itself explain how stupid this idea is.  The DMCA was a piece of late 90’s legislation that was supposed to set up guidelines for who was responsible for copyright violations.  What it’s done instead among other things like limiting research opportunities is also give Internet providers (ISPs) and sites the right to yank material from the web with little or no notice. 


One example of this mess is Berkeley Place blog, which thought it was playing by the rules in posting music but soon found out otherwise as it had to deal with its material being taken down by blogspot.  Rules about the music that blogs can or can’t post are still fuzzy.  Some bloggers complain that someone from a big label will send them music to spread the word about a band but they soon get threatening notes from someone else at the same label, telling the blogger to take their music down.  Until this gets straightened out, this gray area is gonna remain a sore spot not just for blogs but also labels who want to promo their material.  In the meantime, everyone involved loses out- not just the bloggers and the labels but also the online listeners/users and the artists themselves who are caught between all of this mess.


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Monday, Nov 3, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
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Monday, Nov 3, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

It wasn’t Halloween night, but in New York a minimum of three days before and after October 31st is all that’s necessary for costume-induced revelry. And enough fans dressed ambiguously enough that the line between costume and outfit was thin. When MGMT, the duo consisting of keyboardist Ben Goldwasser and guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden, and their supporting band took the stage in matching Three Amigos attire, the crowd roared in delight.


And that was the general trend all night. The crowd clamored in delight every time Goldwasser approached his mic (he didn’t get more animated than that), lead guitarist James Richardson ripped into another fret-shredding solo, and whenever the group’s meandering jams coalesced into danceable beats.


The group seemed at ease on stage despite the surrounding underage regalement and general hysteria. They cruised through the majority of Oracular Spectacular, including their certifiable hits “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend”. But they lingered on “The Handshake” and a couple of other tracks, jamming extensively under Richardson’s commanding solos.


Singing has never been VanWyngarden’s strong suit—the album clearly works some auto-tune magic—but it was rough-hewn enough that it suited their ‘60s inspired indie sound well. “Weekend Wars”, however, simply sounds constipated and it did so equally live.



Winding down their set with “Kids”, they set down their instruments singing along to Goldwasser’s mostly solo electronic engineering. But they weren’t quite done and VanWyngarden pressed Richardson to follow his lead with playing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” What followed was a train-wreck of a cover, with VanWyngarden screeching out the vocals in an even loftier falsetto than usual and the bass player struggling to follow Richardson’s chords.


Though MGMT’s innovative psychedelic indie pop sound and songs of fated delusions made for a solid debut album, their only live embellishment was an exhilarating third-party guitarist. (And also their costumes.)



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