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

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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 12, 2008
As requested, a quick run-down of all 10 parts of the ZA with definitions.

You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought, and not that you have escaped from a yoke.


Are you one of those entitled to escape from a yoke? There are many who cast away their final worth when they cast away their servitude.


Free from what? What does that matter! But your eye should clearly show me: free for what?
      - Thus Spoke Zarathustra


I. Introduction and Basic Concepts
What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. What controls the player input? The game design. What gives meaning to the player input? The plot or backstory. All three need to adjust to a game’s purpose and be judged by their relationship together, not just one or the other.


II. Evaluating Game Design
The most objective gauge of depth in game design would be the number of options it gives a player. A deep game takes a lot more work and can end up only being enjoyed by an elite few. A shallow game needs either a deep story or friends over to pick up the slack. Deep game design should not be considered an inherently good or bad attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment.


III. Evaluating Game Plot
The plot of a game is the part of it you cannot change: backstory, who you’re friends with, etc. Judging a game’s plot boils down to assessing what the designer’s force you to experience and its overall merits. If you cut a player totally free, the game experience will lead towards self-fulfillment. If you shove too many awful experiences on the gamer, the game might be too dark and unpleasant to justify the experience. In either case, it depends on the game.


IV. Evaluating Player-Input
The player input is your connection with the game, your means of interaction, and this piece focuses on the silent protagonist method. A connection with a game requires two elements: you interacting and the game giving you feedback. You’re both actor and audience in a video game. Judging the player input is judging how well a video game establishes and maintains this two-way connection.


V. Four Forms of Video Games
It’s becoming nonsensical to identify a game solely by its design. We should instead identify them by which element is dominate in the game experience. The other two elements still exist in varying degrees, but one factor controls the others.


First Person - The Player Input is dominant. You control both plot and how you play the game. These generally tend to be RPG’s like Mass Effect.


Second Person - The Game Design is dominant. You win the game according to its rules and not by what you or the plot dictate. Peggle is a better example than the one I used in the essay.


Third Person - The Plot is dominant. All of your actions and choices are based on the story and have meaning within it. Zelda and countless others are good examples.


Fourth Person - The three elements balance out. No one element has complete control. A lot of RTS games and some open world games develop this out, like Starcraft.


VI. Exceptions to the Four Forms
These are in no way inferior to any other type of game, we’re just distinguishing their elements and what they consist of.


Simulation - A game without a plot. A game doesn’t have a plot if it doesn’t have an ending. Think Sim City.


Interactive Ficton - A game without any game design. A game doesn’t have a game design if there are zero options for the player besides the one that progresses it.


VII. Application of the New Approach
Three examples of how to approach a game in terms of the experience rather than one individual aspect. The key is to see what kind of experience the game is attempting to create and how all of the elements work towards that goal.


VIII. Factions of Gaming
The terms casual, hardcore, or ex-core are not really consumer groups, they’re philosophies about the purpose of video games. Casual players think a game should be fun. Hardcore think a game should be replayable and ex-core think the experience is what’s important. All 3 views have serious flaws. I probably would’ve been better off calling them something else, a lot of interesting stuff happens in the comments on this one. The point was to criticize the philosophies, not the groups.


IX. Flaws in Criticism Today
The culture of reviews is not the same thing as critically analyzing a game. Making jokes is fine but try to remember they still need to make a point. Most importantly of all, don’t create a bunch of pre-defined rules that inhibit people from experimenting or discovering new games. We need to give good feedback and proper explanations to reviewers so that games can get better.


X. Evaluating Game Experiences
Looking at a game experience means evaluating how the game allows you to express yourself in an experience. We have to ask ourselves what that experience is for and how can it best be used.



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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
Jack Thompson has finally ticked off enough people to get disbarred. The final step on the way to that disbarment was just kind of sad.

“‘I strenuously object?’ Is that how it works? Hm? ‘Objection.’ ‘Overruled.’ ‘Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.’ ‘Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.’”
-Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) to Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) in A Few Good Men


For the last day or so, it’s been a little bit difficult to avoid coverage of the disciplinary “hearing” that Jack Thompson took part in last week to determine what sort of punishment he would undergo as a result of his being found guilty of professional misconduct.  Of course, I use the scare quotes around the word “hearing” because it wasn’t really a hearing at all, in that Thompson had no part in it except to fiddle with the podium, berate the judge, antagonize a couple of members of the press, and stomp off in a huff.  As a result, in addition to the case against Mr. Thompson, the prosecutor was also left to offer mitigations, actually helping his case to an extent in, as best as I can tell, the interest of fairness.


They strenuously object.

They strenuously object.


In the midst of his belittling of Judge Dava Tunis, Thompson even managed to forget the lesson offered by the above exchange in A Few Good Men, telling Judge Tunis that he “[objects] strenuously...to the very notion that this proceeding can even occur on various grounds.”


The excellent GamePolitics.com has a transcript of the entire exchange, while the Daily Business Review has the audio.  The audio is particularly revelatory, because Thompson sounds just as unreasonable and as belligerent as the common gamer perception of him dictates.  Is this how Thompson has always been, or has he simply been blasted by so much legal failure and so much internet hate that he’s become the caricature of himself that we’ve been led to believe is an actual portrait of the man?


I believe that, at least at the start, Thompson had good intentions, that he was truly determined to make a difference.  I know that having kids (or a close family connection of any kind, really) can make you want to make the world a better place in the worst way, I know that faith can drive someone as well, and it’s hard for me to believe that Jack Thompson was always a self-aggrandizing propagandist with an agenda, unwilling to hear two sides of an argument.  He has gone on crusades for the causes of censoring the lyrics of rap music, he has taken on morning talk radio, and he most famously espouses the evils of violent video games.  And maybe the man has a point—while violence in video games can contribute to the visceral thrill of the play experience, some would certainly argue that it occasionally has the propensity to get a bit over the top and gratuitous.


A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?(Image courtesy of Kotaku)

A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?
(Image courtesy of Kotaku)


Still, what once manifested itself as legal maneuvering has turned into a glorified ambulance chase.  Thompson has no issue with linking games to major tragedies involving high school and college students, regardless of whether those responsible actually played the games.  He comes off as bossy, ruthless, and a blowhard; obviously, something in him snapped somewhere along the way, and he lost the will to make the world a better place, a drive replaced by the undying need to be right.


It is this need that manifested itself in Thompson’s tantrum in court, and it is this need that bubbled up so far as to not even allow himself to hear any argument that might discredit his opinion.  Now, he’s set to be disbarred for the next ten years.  For a little perspective, that means he won’t be able to practice again until he’s 67 years old.  It’s a sad fate for the man, but perhaps it’s what he will need to regain perspective, and some sense of the honor that he left behind long ago.  I’d like to believe it’s still in him somewhere, that the parasitic brand of self-promotion he has offered can be fixed.  Of course, the next time he appears on a news program after a school shooting as an “expert” in the link between gaming violence and real-life violence, well…perhaps my optimism will be tempered.


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Text:AAA
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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Text:AAA
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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Text:AAA
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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