Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
L.B. Jeffries notes some of the classic mistakes and problems that face criticism today in the next to last post in the ZA series.


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.


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-02...

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:


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
This is a write-up about an extremely short (1-2 minutes) experiment game called Execution. The experiment will not have much effect if you read the write-up before trying it yourself.

I found this game via Brenda Brathwaite at her blog Applied Game Design and it proposes an interesting take on how to generate moral dilemmas in games. One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone. If I accidentally say something awful to someone in Mass Effect and we get into a fight, I can just load my game. Few people are going to allow something like making a mistake impair their enjoyment of a game experience. They want the best items, the ‘best’ ending, and for things to generally work in their favor. So even games that do feature choices just inevitably devolve into asking someone to make a choice and then letting them keep answering until they get the right response.


There are two solutions in games to this problem. You can make the plot entirely linear, in which case the player isn’t responsible for the consequences anyways. Or you can make either choice a valid one. Although that’s an interesting solution for a morally grey scenario, it becomes problematic when we get back to the fight in Mass Effect. Sometimes what the player did was wrong, there are serious consequences to such actions, and they should be punished for them. And the only real way to do that is to take away the save game feature.


As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.


This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
G. Christopher Williams begins at the end in his first blog post for Moving Pixels.

Mind Candy is dead.  Cinderella Red is dead.  Infernal Waltz is dead.  A few little pieces of myself are dead.


I just killed my avatars.


After playing City of Heroes from its beta stages about four years ago, I have only now finally managed to cancel my account.  The wife and I have needed to cut back on some budgetary expenses, and a $14.99 bill every month for a game that I haven’t played in over a year seems a reasonable and rational expense to lose…


But, still…


The death of a number of fictional characters that you have never heard of likely means little to you.  But, my finger hung poised over the “Okay” button that would confirm my account cancellation for more than it should have if it meant so little to me.  I had to pause for a moment even though I hadn’t seen those characters in quite a while before I consigned these various creations of mine to oblivion.


I didn’t cry or anything, but I sort of think I should have.


All of this teeth gnashing may seem silly to most.  But, anyone who has invested a significant amount of time in an MMORPG probably knows something of what I mean.  Deletion, cancellation, is hard.


Character design, stat building, all of these things take time.  They indicate value.


It isn’t that I don’t realize that it’s “just a game,” “just a fictional story,” “just a fictional world,” but there was a little piece of myself in that world for awhile.


Like in other kinds of fiction, the characters that were the protagonists of this story were fictional, but, also, unlike in other kinds of fiction, they were a little bit real because they were a little bit me.  They had a bit of my personality in them.  They represented me, and they made some real friends (that were also I suppose a little bit fictional, too—but who isn’t?).


I guess all that I’m trying to say is that when you feel a little hesitation over the death of what is “just a character” that that is the great thing about the medium of video games.  It is also what is so awful about the medium.


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Monday, May 26, 2008
L.B. Jeffries offers an analysis of the various constituencies of gamers, and how the attitudes of those groups can reflect the Zarathustran Analytics approach.


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.


How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?


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