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by L.B. Jeffries

2 Jun 2008

The outcry for a critical language in video games is something that is now necessary for video games to continue progressing as a medium. As Clint over at Click Nothing points out, a critical language doesn’t just give us more to talk about. It gives developers feedback, real insights into their game, so they can go back and improve their work. There simply isn’t a way for people to properly explain criticism in the current culture of “I’m not having fun” reviews. Nor is there a way to reward innovation or successful elements of games beyond gushing “I’m having fun” praise. It’s one thing to say you like a game, but figuring out a way to go beyond that gives developers a better understanding of their audiences reaction. As that audience gets older and starts demanding more complex experiences from their games, it’s essential that developers get a more advanced form of feedback to create those experiences. To figure out how to tackle these issues, we’ll begin with what current video game criticism is having trouble with.

 

The biggest issue with game criticism at the moment gets pointed out by Greg Costikyan in his blog: critical pieces are still just reviews. Telling someone they should pay to see a movie is not the same thing as explaining why a movie is important culturally, or even what it adds to cinema. Yet the problem is mostly conceptual; video game critics need to recognize that they are not talking to consumers. Literary critics circumvent this dilemma because they usually have the privilege of assuming you’ve already read the book they’re discussing. There also isn’t much to discuss in terms of whether the reader actually liked the text or not. If you’re reading a thirty page essay on masculinity and feminine authority in Macbeth, it’s a pretty safe bet you already like the play. The same goes for a reader going over repressed homoeroticism in R-Type. You probably liked the game, or at least video games themselves, if you’re reading that blog. The problem with game criticism, then, is that many of us are still subconsciously selling the game to people. It’s what we read all day and it’s what our mind instinctively does to fit in with other video game essays. We all devote a paragraph or two to how great this part of a game is or how superbly this part works. And as fun as those sections are to write…they tend to be about as informative as “teh game suxorz”. Why given parts of games work is still the question of the day.

 

One of the most prolific critics in video games right now is Yahtzee, and he is rapidly becoming video games’ Lester Bangs. The ranting style of Bangs gets mixed with a Charlie Brooker wit that makes for really fun viewing and a lot of insights into the games he covers. The problem is that the people imitating Yahtzee seem to be pulling an Alan Moore. When Moore published The Watchmen, the idea was to make a comic that told a much more powerful story by tempering the superhero fantasy with reality. A superhero is actually a sociopath if you think about it, their childhoods were really disturbing, etc. The problem that arose was after The Watchmen experienced such success and popularity, comic books mimicked it by featuring lots of their own gritty, dark realities. Which wasn’t the point. The point was to use a comic book to tell a really new and interesting idea about social dynamics, not to have every comic feature pedophiles and torture as motivation. The same thing is slowly happening with Yahtzee: People are imitating the jokes but not understanding that the joke still needs to make a point. Yahtzee uses humor to pad out interesting and insightful critiques that would otherwise be fairly dull. Just like mindless praise or negativity, most of the time a joke is still a means in an essay, not an end.

 

Beyond reviewer mindsets and jokes, however, is forgetting that the purpose of criticism is to ensure that there is a home for new games. We’re trying to advance the medium by stripping it of boundaries, not by imposing them. Saying that a good game doesn’t have to be replayable or even fun is pretty weird, but all those beliefs really do is inhibit growth when applied broadly. If a game still works but violates those tenets, why should it be an issue? A prime example would be The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey by David Wong. It’s all very good advice: get rid of repetition, forget save points, and that graphics don’t make games better, etc. But beyond the constant nagging question of why these things are bad, is the equally poignant why are they not? Orson Scott Card, in his book Ender’s Game, wrote about a video game that tested the player’s capacity to accept defeat. Ender was subjugated to the same impossible level over and over again, with the game testing to see when Ender would give up. It was an exercise in learning to not be suicidal to win. It’s a very interesting challenge in a game, but one that won’t have a home if critics continue to close the doors on what a game can do. Case in point, Wong lists off one of the criminal offenses of an FPS is to have jumping puzzles. It’s something I’m inclined to agree with, except then you have some like this come along. Are we going to denounce it before we even play it because of some critical rule set?

 

It can be difficult to get people to think beyond what they like or don’t like. It can be even harder to get them to accept something they don’t like as a viable approach. And there is certainly still plenty of room for those kinds of discussions, but they aren’t the goal of a serious critical analysis of a video game. It’s got to get into the actual experience of the game itself. Because here’s the thing: the people who used to be kids playing video games are adults now. The people who never played games at all are starting to pick them up as well. And if this momentum is going to last, we’re going to have to change the way we think. We’re going to have to change the way we talk. We’re going to have to take all these values that established video games and break them down. Kenneth Tynan, a theatre critic, once said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” We have to make sure that we don’t give bad directions to the women and men pushing video games forward.

by Jason Gross

2 Jun 2008

Like many ol’ fashioned music nuts, I take heart in survey that says that CD buying is still a popular hobby.  The problem though is that this is one survey, as opposed to all the other ones that keep telling us that the CD is on the way out.  In a way, both trends are on track- while many people do indeed buy up CD’s, the numbers keep dropping year after year.  The thought is that the trend’s not gonna reverse itself with each successive generation using the Net more and more to get their music and as record stores big and small keep closing down.  Just as with vinyl, a niche market’s gonna remain but I’m not too optimist about the long-term future of the CD.

Granted again this is only one survey but how about this other nugget?: “... just 7% in a recent survey said online information had a major impact on their music purchases.”  What’s that say about blogs and mega-sources like Pitchfork and All Music Guide?  Are they themselves just niches?  Is it a matter of how much each of them alone really influence purposes or that they’re not part of a large-scale pop market?  Again, I don’t think this study’s got an definitive answers or that it’s the last word on the subject but what would it mean if other studies back this up?  It would kinda turn our little online music world upside down, wouldn’t it? 

Radio and TV as well as friends seem to be bigger influences on purchases, according to the study.  The industry is getting hip to this, putting more music in commercials and even shows for placement, not to mention building street teams to help with word of mouth.  Web fanatics can take solace in the fact that a slight majority find out about new artists from online sources but that clearly ain’t the only game for labels and artists.  The web is sucking up a lot of attention, action and ad dollars but avoiding all the other parts of the media world is still a stupid move when there’s obviously plenty of life still there otherwise.

by Rob Horning

2 Jun 2008

Taking off from a remark in the NYT foodie blog that “the same plate of pasta goes down a lot easier at $12—it even tastes better at $12—than it does at $16,” Felix Salmon wonders why the same is not true of wine, which we think tastes better when we know it was more expensive (at least according to a study described here).

everybody has wine insecurities. If we know that wine quality is inversely correlated with price, then why do we feel guilty bringing a cheap bottle of wine to a dinner party? Probably because if it turns out not to be very good, the “but it was quite expensive” defense is a reasonable one. When navigating a strange and scary and unfamiliar land - which is how most people feel when they enter a wine shop - one grasps at anything one knows, which means that people (a) buy brands they recognize, and (b) navigate by price, in the absence of any other means by which to narrow down the selection.
Very few people, by contrast, are insecure when it comes to food. They know what they like, and while they might well be willing to pay a lot of money for a great meal, they’re generally even happier when they pay very little money for a great meal. What’s more, if there’s one big secular trend in the restaurant world, it’s away from the three-star gourmet palaces of old, where you dressed for dinner and were served ostentatiously expensive food like Lobster Thermidor on fine china by obsequious waiters, and towards much more low-key shops which concentrate on the food more than the theater and which pride themselves on doing great things with formerly déclassé ingredients.
Interestingly, it’s the grander, more high-theater holdouts which still tend to have the magnificent wine lists full of really expensive bottles. Maybe the more casual places know that without the accompanying palaver, a great wine won’t seem quite as magnificent.

By “accompanying palaver” Salmon may mean the Grand Guignol absurdity of fine dining, but it seems to apply equally to all forms of marketing copy for consumption goods of nebulous utility. In these instances, we consume the copy, not the good. With pricey wine, we consume the experience of ourselves spending on something extravagant. It’s generally to retailers’ benefit to transform goods into experiences, which are subject to a different emotional and economic calculus. With experiential goods, there’s hardly any standard by which we could tell whether or not we were ripped off. So we feel safer spending on them, and the rewards they supply us are immeasurable. That’s perhaps why Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, says (in this Times of London profile) “Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.” Skepticism deprives us of the ability to fool ourselves into thinking our unique experiences are worth any price. We can’t know with any confidence what the real value of the experience it is, only that it diminishes if we start doubting it. If it creeps into our head that the wine is a ripoff, we enjoy it less than we would if were thinking we were giving ourselves an expensive treat. Skepticism makes us aware of hype as hype rather than letting hype serve its role of amplifying our experience of our own time. We only get to live once, and there is little good in regarding that time as inadequate or inferior to some lost time we would have preferred.

Marketing is primarily an exercise in achieving the transformation of goods into experiences: trying to make a routine shopping trip feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; trying to make us think of ourselves and the kind of people we can become rather than the good itself and its limited capabilities; trying to convince us that a good confers distinction, making ownership of it into an accomplishment in its own right. (An antidote to this is the pursuit of scoreboard—of bargains for their own sake.) Is it worth the effort to be skeptical of this sort of marketing? The danger is that these ersatz experiences with a price tag could supplant noncommercial experiences, which become devalued relative to those experiences being hyped. When experiences become purchasable in a market society, “real” experiences are only those with the imprimatur of the marketplace. Just as certain products seem more legitimate when they are bought in a “real store” (I’d rather get my socks from Macy’s than from a random dude on the corner of 76th Street and Broadway), experiences may become subject to the same bias.

by Mike Schiller

2 Jun 2008

A surprisingly busy release week (albeit one chock full of cross-platform movie adaptations) is giving way to a couple of firsts here at TWiG.

The first, uh, first is that this marks the first time that a given franchise has managed to snag the featured spot in The Week in Games twice.  That’s right, way back in the very first edition of The Week in Games, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword looked like the game to beat; this week, it’s Ninja Gaiden II, for the Xbox 360.  Let’s face it—a lot of us grew up on Mortal Kombat, living for the fatalities and the location-specific kills that the game introduced us to, inspiring arguments regarding which, of all of the kills in the game, was the coolest (read: bloodiest).  As much as we might purport to be above such base desires now, there’s still something appealing about a game that doesn’t just include blood as some means to an end of gritty realism, but revels in it, putting gushing fountains of red liquid where mere arteries should be.  My nearest point of reference would be Kill Bill for the style of the bloodletting going on here, though I’m sure you can point me toward obscure Japanese films that would be closer to the truth of the inspiration.

If Ninja Gaiden II were only about the blood, though, it wouldn’t be worth highlighting.  No, the other thing about the reborn Ninja Gaiden series is the way it preserves an old-school level of challenge to the player.  For those who can appreciate a good challenge (that is, things that are freaking hard), it’s refreshing to see that the franchise’s transition to 3D hasn’t brought with it a softening of the controller throwing, profanity-spewing, rage-inducing difficulty that so loudly marked its NES predecessors.  I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on the thing.

As for the other first, this is the first time that a single game has had a release that spans the entire gamut of current gaming systems.  From PS3 to the PC right down to the Nintendo DS, Lego Indiana Jones is making his debut this week.  If you aren’t looking forward to being chased by a giant Lego boulder and seeing how they handle the heart-ripping scene in Temple of Doom in a game aimed at kids, well, I don’t know you.

Otherwise, we have a whole pile of other movie-themed fodder (hello, Kung Fu Panda), GRID, which looks like a seriously fun bit of racing once you get past the drab visuals, and PC Mystery/Adventure fans who don’t mind a gothic bent in their gaming might find something to love in Dracula Origin.  For the first week of June, honestly, this is a hell of a release list.

The full list of games and a short trailer for Ninja Gaiden II is AFTER the JUMP:

by Lara Killian

2 Jun 2008

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This weekend I finished Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. First published in France in 2000 and 2001, this two part autobiographical tale of a young Iranian woman who grows up during a volatile time in Iran’s political development is a great starting point for trying to understand the struggle and confusion of many ordinary Iranian people during the time of the Islamic Revolution and subsequent establishing of the Islamic Republic. I should also mention, in case you’ve missed all the press about the movie version, first released in France and finally in the US in early 2008, that this is a graphic novel—not a customary autobiographical format, but extremely accessible here.

Satrapi’s parents sent her to Austria in 1983 to escape the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war and the increasing pressure of the Islamic regime. Her story telling manner is captivating as she describes the oddness of not fitting in, of coming from a totally different background from that of her classmates, and of being alone and independent in a foreign country at the age of 14. Satrapi must overcome assumptions that are made about her religion, her political background, and her sexual proclivities.

Satrapi, a wonderful graphic artist, lays out her poignant story in stark black and white, demanding the undivided attention of her reader as she portrays the most memorable and important events of her teenage and university years—telling off the nuns at her school, experimenting with drugs, living as a homeless person for several months, and feeling like a failure for wasting the incredible opportunity her parents gave her to make something of herself in Europe. All these episodes lay the groundwork for Satrapi to share her story, which is truly noteworthy.

I’m probably not the first to wish that Persepolis was required reading from high school on up to the highest ranking officials in the US and other world governments. If I sent Dubya a copy do you think he would flip through it? This is, after all, a picture book with words.

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