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

 
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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
The last installment of the ZA series (for now) is finally here, with L.B. Jeffries talking about why the critical focus should be on the experiences games can potentially generate as opposed to other approaches.


At long last, we come to the final entry of the Zarathustran Analytics series. The question proposed in the first essay of this series was essentially this: if we define video games by player input, how do we go about assessing that? Since the game design illustrates what the input precisely is and the plot defines the meaning of that input, the thing game critics should be looking at is the overall experience the game generates rather than just one of these particular elements. Then we took into account how to categorize games by experience rather than game design, exceptions to this concept, and the basic philosophies that govern what people think games should be. We also made the decision to not factor in graphics or A.I. in order to not inhibit creativity in the medium (and somehow, no one called me out on it). After taking into account what a critical language for video games should not do, we finally get to the point of why we need to be talking about the player experience in the first place.


 


In a blog post by Henry Jenkins in 2006, he points out the basic problem that interactivity creates for a critic. Unlike Gone with the Wind, in a video game the player’s input may result in an extremely different outcome. Rhett may have gotten shot a while ago, or Scarlett might be level 80 and fully capable of running the farm herself. The basic problem of re-addressing art’s quality in terms of seeing the audience’s response to the show rather than the show itself is that most people aren’t used to the audience response being a factor. For someone like Roger Ebert or a literary critic, focusing on the audience response is reverse-thinking. Not what does the game project at me, but what does the game allow me to project back. Jenkins and others compare game criticism to assessing architectural designs and discussing how a person will inhabit a building. I personally tend to think of them as miniature languages and what those languages allow me to express. Whatever the mindset of the critic, rather than dismiss the audience experience as impossible to discuss we should tackle it head on. We do this not by talking about what a player should be thinking, but what a player could think in the space given to them within the game. That’s what it means to assess a game experience. Since we can put so much of ourselves into a game, the critic must assess where our response can go in such a place. 


 


So how big of a difference does adding player experience to our criticism really make? In a link from Jenkins’ post, Timothy Burke goes over several examples of games that by themselves sound downright dull. Planescape: Torment is a basic D&D affair about an immortal who can never die. The average player spends the whole game wandering huge dialogue trees, sometimes behaving and sometimes being cruel depending on what’s advantageous. Yet what made the game profound was that at the very end, the game asks you what all that meant in terms of your identity. What made you help people, what made you abandon them? And every person has their own, self-realizing response to that. Or Burke’s comment on Katamari Damarcy being impossible to explain without sounding idiotic. You’re a tiny man rolling a tiny ball into a gigantic one, going from items on a desk to entire cities. Beyond the complete control of what you roll into the ball, the sheer pleasure of progress and happiness at rolling together an entire planet of junk is what makes the experience amazing. Or perhaps the most profound story on the web thus far is the incredibly personal reaction to Animal Crossing that one player had with their mother. That brief story about one person’s reaction to a game played with their mom is probably one of the highest emotions art can ever achieve, and we need a critical language that can talk about how that experience was created. Otherwise, we’re only talking about half the story.


 


Finally, we need to talk about player experience because this element, this way that games allow audience input which makes them art, is going to be neglected if we don’t. If no one notices game developers for producing profound player expressions in their games, why should they bother making them? If no one bothers to look beyond the plot or the game design, then no one is going to ever really get into what makes games so amazing in the first place. The late Joseph Campbell, whose works with mythology inspired Star Wars and countless video game plots, was asked in a PBS interview what he thought of video games. He said that they were another way of imparting wisdom. That games were still functionally doing the same thing as a group of people practicing hunting or sitting around a fire. Games were just a new way of teaching and sharing experiences, whether that experience be making a successful kill or hearing the legend of an epic hero. Such is the function of myth, philosophy, and art amongst people and Campbell thought video games would eventually take their place with them. We need a new critical approach so they can finally start doing it.


 


Joseph Campbell was the first person to make me sit down with video games and start looking at them in a new way years ago, so I’ve decided to end with a quote from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He writes:


Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.


If the audience response is where games become art, if that response could become so powerful that it could allow a person to achieve personal breakthroughs, or to gain new perspectives on life, then it is not enough for game developers to create more complex games. It is not enough to just make them more realistic or incredibly satisfying. We must now, both as critics and as gamers, start to ask ourselves something far bigger when we play a video game: What are video games for?


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
New Releases for the Week of 2008-06-09...

I’ve never been someone you could call a launch-day adopter, usually opting to wait until brand new consoles get a) cheaper and b) a little bit more readily available.


We're counting the minutes…

We’re counting the minutes…


There was a time, however, when my then-girlfriend and I decided that paying out the ear for a PlayStation 2 was a good idea (this was in January of ‘01), because hey, it was a DVD player too!  And for the better part of that year, it was a fun toy that occasionally came in most handy when we really, desperately felt that we needed to have a DVD (a format which, at that point, was still something of a novelty).


In November, everything changed.


I hadn’t actually played anything past the demo of the original Metal Gear Solid, but I got swept up in the massive amounts of hype for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, purchasing it as soon as it came out.  It remains, to this day, my favorite PlayStation 2 experience of all time.  It was something that I could play while my girlfriend watched, and while I would be entertained by the stealth and the constant tension, my girlfriend could be entertained by the lengthy (and often hilariously convoluted) storyline.  It was a game we would play instead of watching our favorite television shows, and the turning point that transformed the PS2 from a fun curiosity to an all-out entertainment machine.


The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I stillwouldn't want to mess with Snake.

The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I still
wouldn’t want to mess with Snake.


Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was just as good a play experience, but it came at a time in our lives when games simply could not take the priority that they once did, so it didn’t leave nearly the impression that MGS2 did.  Still, the affection I hold for MGS2 means that anything related to the series gets my full attention—especially a full-on sequel.


Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots looks incredible.  From the shock and awe of the Movie Voiceover Guy trailer to the 15-minute beast that’s been floating around for a couple of years now, every little bit of publicity I’ve seen for MGS4 makes it look like an incredible experience.  Heck, even Raiden, the much-ridiculed primary player of MGS2, looks like he’s grown up a bit, perhaps inspiring a mite less criticism for his presence.  All in all, the thing looks incredible, and I’m going to have a really, really hard time paying attention to anything else until next week.  Maybe this game is what transforms the PS3 into its own full-on entertainment machine.


Once again, it's style over realism on the Wii.  Developers arefinally getting the hang of this little console…

Once again, it’s style over realism on the Wii.  Developers are
finally getting the hang of this little console…


Obviously, things are pretty quiet elsewhere on the release front.  Nascar fans get the latest iteration of EA’s circuit simulation, and Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles looks fun in a sort of Hotel Dusk meets Phoenix Wright kind of way.  Wii owners also have the inventive-looking shooter Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy on its way this week, in which you get to build up your own ship out of the pieces of other ships.  Like a cannibalistic Vic Viper.  It’ll make a perfect game to play with the kids (rated E and everything!) during those times of day when Metal Gear Solid 4 might not be, you know, appropriate.


The full release list and the Movie Trailer Guy trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 (just because I’m obsessed with it) is after the break.


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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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Text:AAA
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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Text:AAA
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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