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by L.B. Jeffries

17 Nov 2008

One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.

 

The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.

The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.

The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.

 

There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.

by Mike Schiller

17 Nov 2008

(Schiller is taking a break this week as his body attempts to recover from a business trip gone loopy.  He’ll be back next week with his normal weekly wrap-up.

The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant

He does want to mention that he doesn’t see what the big deal is with Final Fantasy when Square Enix keeps putting out full-featured, innovative RPGs like The Last Remnant...

He also thinks Lips is going to be a bigger hit than anyone realizes…

He’ll probably end up buying a whole pile of sequels in the form of Raving Rabbids, Cooking Mama, Sonic, and Tomb Raider...

And he really hopes the new DS Tecmo Bowl game actually comes out this week (as opposed to its originally scheduled release last week)...

He left a trailer for The Last Remnant for you, along with that humongous list of releases (among which the PSP’s list looks…well, sort of pitiful), after the jump.)

by Lara Killian

17 Nov 2008

Following in Jane Austen’s footsteps…

Sometimes after spending my days poring over management texts and improving my understanding of those oh-so-fascinating research methods, at the end of the day I just need a little fluff in my reading.

My easy-on-the-brain fiction of the moment is Linda Berdoll’s Mr Darcy Takes a Wife (2004), a story that picks up where Pride and Prejudice left off. Diving headfirst into the married life of the Darcys, Berdoll uses exaggerated period language to describe decidedly un-Regency-era action. If you ever wished that Elizabeth and Mr Darcy weren’t quite so chaste in their courtship, in Berdoll’s fiction you’ll find that these beloved characters get some private time - as man and wife, naturally - to explore the depths of their mutual passion.

image

I first encountered Berdoll’s tale when it was published in 1999 under the title, Bar Sinister, now out of print. Apparently this antiquated English phrase for a child born out of wedlock did not sufficiently describe the contents of the novel, and so the book has taken on a re-invented name and is now marketed with a cover more reflective of the contents – an oil painting depicting a dark haired gentleman kissing a brunette in a flowing evening gown. There is even a volume two of Berdoll’s extension of Austen’s beloved novel, entitled Days and Nights at Pemberley (2006). I have yet to come across a copy, but why not let the fun continue? Elizabeth and Mr Darcy seem to have such a perfect marriage, it’s delicious fun to see what obstacles they’ll have to overcome now that they’ve said their vows and start getting to know each other’s little secrets. The perfect antidote to the nonfiction I should be perusing in order to get that term paper properly researched.

Any tasty fiction you would recommend for those times when you don’t have the brain power left for challenging reading?

by PopMatters Staff

17 Nov 2008

Check out the PopMatters tribute to the 40th anniversary of the White Album. Side One songs post tomorrow, but here’s some video highlights to whet your appetite.

 
Side One

Paul McCartney
Back In The USSR (Live in Kiev 2008) [Video]

 

Siouxsie & the Banshess
Dear Prudence (Top of the Pops 1984) [Video]

 

Cirque du Soleil
Glass Onion (also Because, Get Back) [Video]

 

Gentlemen Singers
Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da [Video]

 

Pixies
Wild Honey Pie [Video]

 

Phish
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (also Glass Onion, Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, Wild Honey Pie) [Video]

 

George Harrison
While My Guitar Gently Weeps [Video]

 

U2
Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Gun Mix) [Video]

 

The Breeders
Happiness Is A Warm Gun [Video]

by Rob Horning

17 Nov 2008

Maybe the savings behavior of Americans has nothing to do with optimism and everything to do with fear. Chris Dillow linked to this paper by Jon Wisman that confirms an idea that seems intuitively true, but that many economists took to the op-ed pages to refute—that when Americans save less, it’s because they ar eunder pressure to spend more, and they are rejecting prudence altogether. Wisman seeks to explain Americans’ paltry savings rate with Veblen’s theory of consumer behavior. He rejects the hyperrational “life-cycle hpyothesis,” which argues that individuals try to spread out consumption levels over time based on their income expectations in order to maintain a consistent standard of living. Empirical studies Wisman cites seem to refute this. Using survey data, he instead establishes that though American society is not characterized by unusually high social mobility, Americans think that it is.

The data presented above (as well as that provided by Alesina and La Ferrara 2000) suggest that there is “American exceptionalism,” but that it relates not to the actual degree of vertical mobility in American society, but Americans’ exceptionally strong belief that they live in a land of highly fluid vertical mobility, a land of relatively equal opportunity. If they study, work hard and diligently, they can improve their social status. Each is responsible for his or her own status. Possessing high status is thus a consequence of virtue. This places a premium on showing higher status. One option for doing so is to struggle to consume at the level of those with higher status and thereby improve one’s reputability. This special pressure to demonstrate higher status through consumption may help account for the exceptionally low personal saving rate in the U.S.

Increasing inequality worsens the cycle, making the efforts necessary to emulate higher-status people more strenuous, while support for collective, public goods erodes. These, after all, boost no one’s status. You don’t score points for idling in the public park and riding the bus (unless you a part of a hyper-eco-conscious counterculture.)

If that is the case, then the key question is what sustains the ideology about social mobility in the face of contrary evidence. Wisman suggests that it might be advertising, since Americans are believed to be targeted by more marketing messages than those in other cultures. The nature of this advertising need not be subtle or especially laden with a defense of “freedom” as defined by consumer choice or proofs that social mobility is possible. Ads simply need to show us what the lives of the wealthy are like (and convince us their portrayals are accurate), and our “natural” desire to emulate their behavior will kick in. By seeing the living standards of the rich, we know what we must aspire to. Consumption overall increases because of status anxiety, so they don’t even have to sell a particular product well to be effective. They must instead create an aura that the standards above our own are comprehensible and attainable. They must make luxury life seem not so much glamorous as realistic, almost ordinary. (On this point, marketing and entertainment converge, fulfilling much the same function—they make the substance of status anxiety appear pleasurable to absorb.)

Goods need not be presented as exclusive; the exclusivity appeal of luxury goods stems not from how they are marketed, but from what they cost, and the nature of that appeal has to do with being safe and belonging, with feeling worthy rather than feeling superior. Thus people can consume luxury goods without ever regarding themselves as snobs and without ever thinking of themselves as being more than middle class—upper middle class? Sure, but not one of those snotty elitists.

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