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

 
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Friday, Jun 26, 2009
Consequences are better represented through story than karma systems.

The opening scene in Indigo Prophecy is one of the most memorable moments in gaming for anyone that’s played it. The main character, Lucas, goes into a trance and kills a man in the bathroom of a small restaurant. Play it once and it seems fairly unremarkable: You clean up the murder scene and flee out the back door. Not much happens. But on a second try, when the player realizes the wealth of options available, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wonder. Clean up the murder? Hide the murder weapon? Wash your hands? Pay your bill? Call someone? The vast number of small choices is impressive, but the real accomplishment of this scene is that all these choice are presented to the player without any moral implications. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” options. Cleaning up the murder doesn’t make you a bad person, and paying your bill doesn’t make you a good person. The game presents the player choice without morality.


Unfortunately the rest of the game failed to live up to that level of ingenuity. The story of Indigo Prophecy was split into several scenes, and while each scene has its own variety of choices, their consequences had little effect on the next scene. The game was structured like a series of sandboxes, giving players a false sense of control when really we were being pulled along a traditional linear narrative. For all the choices we had to make, the consequences ultimately didn’t matter.


A karma system would have fixed this dilemma by putting our actions in a larger context. Even though players would essentially be leveling up their character with arbitrary points, we would at least know that our actions were contributing to something greater than our current situation. A karma system lets us know where our actions stand in the grand scheme of things. If game doesn’t use arbitrary points to give our actions consequence, than that consequence must come through in the story: The consequences of any decision must directly affect the story for the player to feel like their input genuinely matters. If we can see the results of our actions on the plot or the characters, than there’s no need for a system of points.


The flash game Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui takes this approach to consequence in games. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: Told in just three panels, it distils the classic adventure story into three pivotal scenes and three pivotal choices. It revolves around three characters, and depending on how the player rearranges them within each scene, the outcome of the story changes. Does the knight kill the wizard or does the wizard kill the knight? Does the prince save the princess or does the princess save the prince? We could make a story with no conflict and a happy ending, or one in which all the heroes die. There’s no need for a karma system because we can immediately see the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions on the lives of these characters. The downside to this is that there’s not much of a story to tell. The characters have no names and there’s no plot, the only real story is the one we make up and it can be as complex or as thin as our imaginations let it be. Bernmergui is giving up authorial control in order to let us experience the full breadth of choice and consequence.


So consequences free from morality must affect the story, but giving the player too many choices can dilute the story. A middle ground can be found in Mass Effect, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between these two options. We don’t have nearly as much control over the story as we do in Storyteller; Mass Effect, like Indigo Prophecy, is very linear. When we’re finally able to explore the solar system, we can only choose the order of which story-progressing missions we accept, but we still have to complete all of them before we can advance. We can change how the story is told, but not the story itself. To make up for this we’re given choices at key moments with dire consequences, such as the possible deaths of central characters. Since death is a real possibility, the tangible consequence of our actions can be felt in the main story. There are also several short stories within the game whose endings are entirely dependant on our actions. There’s the mourning man who wants the military to give him his wife’s dead body, the gambler who wants us to test a device that will help him cheat, or the waitress worried about her sister working as an undercover agent. By giving the player choices within these short stories, and consequences that play out with these minor characters and sub-plots, we don’t notice how little we actually affect the main story.


But there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect does have a karma system. Every choice we make gives us either Paragon points or Renegade points, and for most gamers these easily translate into “good” and “evil.” Such associations are unfortunate because the Renegade options are hardly evil. Some actions may make Shepard act cold, but never truly evil. The game does a commendable job giving us a range of emotions in our choices without making those choices blatantly good or bad, but the presence of the karma system undermines everything the game does right by separating all the consequences into only two categories. Sometimes the Renegade option is the best choice, but it may be difficult to convince a player trying to play through the game as a good character to go with that option simply because of its unwarranted assumption of being “evil.”


The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is. Yet it’s become an established feature of open ended games, sometimes to the detriment of the game. Even though it’s a relatively new mechanic (at least in its more comprehensive forms) it’s already outdated as games like Storyteller and Mass Effect prove it’s possible to represent consequence without the morality.


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Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009
Playing video games is not usually Zen.

A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote a column on gamer burnout that examined how playing video games can become a kind of work.  Jeffries asked a number of industry folks as well as games journalists to comment on such burnout and the focus of the column largely remained on how difficult it can be to review and work with games that are not enjoyable.  As someone who has written on games and reviewed games for a number of years, I could certainly relate to the notion that having to play a game that you don’t enjoy is a bummer and can turn the process of prepping to write about it into pure drudgery.  However, I was more interested in a comment that Jeffries made about an essay that concerned avoiding burnout generally by focusing on relaxing, less work-related activities: “The article makes a point of saying that video games or surfing the net are NOT relaxing because you’re still mentally working and stressing yourself out.”


Indeed, while often regarded as a past time, playing games is not at all a leisure activity like reading a book or watching a movie.  As I thought about the idea of gaming as mental work, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I hate playing games before I go to bed.  When I do so, I almost inevitably find myself awake with my brain still actively chugging away.  Growing up, I was that kid with a flashlight and a comic book under the sheets.  Reading a copy of The Avengers seemed essential to a good night’s sleep.  My wife always reads before she goes to bed and often enough falls asleep with a book lying in the sheets next to her.  I can’t imagine sneaking a Gameboy into bed and helping me get into any kind of relaxed state at all.  I even have similar experiences playing board games.  Some friends and I meet every Saturday night to play such games, and we usually wrap up around midnight.  However, I usually don’t fall asleep until about 3 AM.  My brain remains occupied by working out strategies and tactics, calculating odds and decisions, and considering what mistakes I might have made.  None of these thoughts are at all conducive to relaxation. 


In an effort to differentiate “cybertextual” narratives from other standard forms of narratives, like those found in books and movies, the media critic Espen Aarseth uses the term ergodic to describe cybertexts, deriving the term from the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path).  Aarseth’s terminology seems to nail down an essential feature of video games as a medium as opposed to more traditional media, claiming that games necessarily produce a kind of effort that other entertainment media often do not.


That is not to say that reading a book or watching a movie is not work.  Indeed, as a literature professor, I clearly do not underestimate the work required to read a book well (and I believe that my students suffer from some kind of fatigue as well).  But interestingly, I differentiate between reading as work and reading for pleasure on the basis of my interactivity with a text.  When I read a book to prepare for a class, I do so with a pen in hand and post-it notes close by because I am marking up my text to indicate significant passages and using post-its to remind myself of passages that I want to focus on discussing in class.  However, when I read for pleasure in the summertime, I distance myself from the pen and other apparatus so that I can simply read with the passive pleasure of someone experiencing the story rather than attempting to shape it to my purposes.


Thinking about interactivity and creativity in this sense, I am strangely reminded of a particular passage by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which Rilke describes how poetry is derived from experience:


Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines[. . . but] it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.


Part of Rilke’s point in this passage seems to be that poets do not so much work to write poems but that instead poems emerge simply from being.  There is an almost Zen-like quality to Rilke’s description of the production of poetry as if it is generated (or maybe simply is something that necessarily is) in a state of complete contentment and repose.


Listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a book all seem to allow for such natural experiences of art that I have a hard time comparing to the usual experience of playing a video game, which in my estimation requires not contentment and repose but a focus on process and strategy. Nevertheless, I have made an effort to attempt to think of games that have a Zen-like quality to them and that can produce a calm or relaxed state of mind.  Thinking about the restless state that most games put me in before I retire, I tried to consider if there were any games that could pass a “sleep test” (that is a game that I could play before bed that wouldn’t lead my mind to continue on in a working mode and thus disturb my effort to sleep).


Largely, the only games that come to mind that might pass a sleep test and that might contain some semblance of Zen are rhythm games.  For me, Harmonix’s Amplitude is a game that I have been able to play for an hour or two before bed and shortly thereafter fall quickly to sleep. In fact, sleep seems to even produce solutions to the the game’s more difficult moments.  As I have heard other fans of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band attest to, sometimes a particularly challenging track that seems impossible to play or play well can be mastered after a good night’s sleep.  I have gotten stuck on some of the more challenging songs on the Brutal and Insane difficulty levels of Amplitude like “Rock Show” or “Synthesized” and played them for hours one day.  With a little sleep, my brain seems to unconsciously and without effort to have worked out what my reflexes could not the day before, and I breeze through them. Such moments seem akin to Rilke’s observations that poetry is something that emerges when experiences are not even memories any longer.  Instead, they seem to “ have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.” 


As anyone who has attempted to play the drums for the first time in Rock Band can attest to, that is not to say that games that produce a Zen-like reaction from the player that is instinctive and seemingly almost thoughtless are necessarily immediately so easy to grasp.  Games like these seem to be founded on principles of simplicity and elegance, though, that when mastered provoke an almost trance-like quality in the player that is less like work and more like being.  The most recent Prince of Persia has this quality in that some very limited visual cues in the landscape allow a player who has practiced a little while with the controls to pretty instinctively send the Prince through a variety of complex acrobatic motions with just a few button pushes.  Likewise, when I was in my Street Fighter II phase 10 or 15 years ago, I could nearly instinctively fire off “shoryukens” after countless hours of playing the computer and others in this basic combat game.  Games that train you to become instinctive as if the experience and understanding of them are have become “very blood” seem to move us away from thought and strategy towards a place of almost pure being.  In other words, it is as if the game is not something that I play to solve any longer but instead something Zen-like that simply is.


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Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009
A closer look at why so many game avatars are scowling all the time.
From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft

From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft


Easily one of the more prevalent facial expressions in video games today is the scowl. Although their anime and cartoon inspired counter-parts break the trend along with faceless protagonists such as Master Chief, overall the heroes of video games all seem to be having a bad day. Why are angry video game characters so prevalent? The basics of the scowl are explained in a guide on how to surgically alter your face to not scowl. It recommends removing the vertical hatchet lines between your eyebrows and always keeping you lips just slightly parted to avoid pursed lips. The scowl, based on the instructions on how to avoid making one, involves keeping your jaw clenched and your eyebrows arched down. Doing so will make people feel intimidated, cost you potential business clients, and make everyone think you’re unhappy. So why are we so desperate to play as people with this facial expression?


From Netflix.com

From Netflix.com


How does one make a scowl appealing? A random Twitter cast for people’s favorite celebrity scowls brought up everything from Harrison Ford, Adam Baldwin to Uma Thurman and Alan Rickman as favorite scowls. Clint Eastwood, whose scowl continues to intimidate people to this day, still manages to bring in the fans. An old article from People Magazine about Eastwood interviews several industry people that have worked with him. One comments that the really impressive thing about him is the fact that he’s genuinely a tough guy. After almost collapsing while filming a scene where his character was climbing a rocky wall, Eastwood clawed his way up when the photographer told him he had no choice. Another relates a story where a boulder almost fell on their mountain guide and maimed another crew member. Eastwood, who was funding the film, nearly broke down into tears. He was ready to cancel the film right there. The crew member states, “Clint seemed so simple I thought he was phony. But after a while, I realized how sharp he was. He isn’t verbal, but he is one smart mother…He always comes off very callous and pragmatic, but inside, he’s just mush.” Eastwood’s scowl thus communicates both a sense of hostility but an underlying belief that there is something genuine about him, that his contempt only comes from the fact that he cares.


A comparison between a good scowl and a bad scowl can be seen at Sports Manifesto that compares the scowls of Dick Cheney and Bill Cowher (retired Steeler’s Coach). The blog notes, “Cowher’s scowl seems more genuine than Cheney’s, his is a classic scowl which is solely intent on eliciting fear in the victim. Cowher seems capable of unthinkable acts when that scowl is strewn across his face…Dick Cheney’s scowl seems contrived, as though he accidentally shoved something up his ass as a child and can’t get it out.” The blog concludes that Cheney is scarier because his scowl is something that is simply worn like a mask while Cowher is reflecting his inner turmoil. In the case of both Cowher and Eastwood, we accept the scowl because of its authenticity.


From chickenbetty.wordpress.com

From chickenbetty.wordpress.com


Yet the scowl is not just something used in film or politics, even the fashion industry is dependent on creating a scowl that is genuine to sell their clothes. An excellent article at The New York Times asks why fashion models always look unhappy. The article is about a random survey that showed the unhappier the model looks the more expensive the product they’re selling. One of the first comments to the story explains that models are technically not allowed to smile. They will even be fined money if they do it on the runway. Smiling, as opposed to scowling, is psychologically interpreted as an act of submission while scowling communicates superiority. The article quotes from a Professor Ketelaar, “Lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates… Thus, the non-smiling faces of the higher status brands are not trying to make the consumer feel bad; they are simply attempting to display the signals that are associated with higher status.” The irony is that the higher the status you want to communicate to a person, the more negative the signal you need to send to show that you don’t care.


From Half-Life 2, Valve

From Half-Life 2, Valve


It is hard to conclude this blog post without stopping and appreciating the power of the smile in a game avatar. Even the fashion article above points out that there is a difference between an embarrassment grin and a pure happiness smile. Just as the scowl indicates superiority and indifference, the smile creates a sense of being welcome. You don’t even have to do it with your mouth. A guide on how to smile with your eyes at wikihow explains that a good smile is not just turning the mouth upwards. The essay notes, “Fake smiles involve just the mouth, and people notice something wrong. The next time you are REALLY smiling, take note of the muscles in your cheeks, forehead, and temples.” A real smile should make the eyes glimmer and it has to come from something real. The article goes so far as to suggesting thinking about a happy thought when you try to smile, even if what you’re smiling at doesn’t qualify. For all the excitement that may come from playing as the ultimate scowling badass, it is hard to not appreciate the big goofy grin on Mario’s face when he invites us to come fly around the galaxy with him. Or feel welcome when we see Alyx Vance smile after we just blasted our way through a tough level. If the scowl’s function in video games is to empower the player, it’d be nice if they had enough character to drop their guard as well.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 19, 2009

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique game within the genre of turn-based strategy games. It’s a mix of that classic slow paced strategy with the fast action of a third-person shooter. But the most unique feature of the game is its surprisingly well defined supporting cast. Since these characters are not part of the main story, their development must be done outside the narrative of the game. Valkyria Chronicles manages this with a system of menus, descriptive traits, and the slow reveal of each character’s past.


In other turn-based strategy games, players build up their army by recruiting low-level soldiers with no special skills and then train them into something useful. Since these soldiers are not part of the main story they have no personality, no back story, and no individuality. Not so in Valkyria Chronicles.


From the very beginning we’re encouraged to view the supporting cast as real characters and not as cannon fodder needed to fill out our team. When selecting our squad for the first time in the Command Room, we pick from a list of 30 potential candidates. The first thing players will notice is that every character on the list looks different. From their facial features, hair color, hair style, skin color, or age, there’s no mistaking one for another. Each is visually unique and easily identifiable, and certain soldiers are guaranteed to stand out to certain players based solely on appearances.


Next to each picture is a small list of character traits. Some soldiers may be described as a “Hard Worker” or a “Challenge Lover” or “Meadow Bred.” These traits are not just descriptions but have tangible effects on the battlefield. A “Hard Worker” will occasionally get to take an extra action during a turn. A “Challenge Lover” gets a boost in attack power when charging into the fray and being “Meadow Bred” increases one’s defense while in grassy meadows. Since these advantages and disadvantages are worded as actual behaviors and not just statistics, they help solidify the personality of each character. The player quickly learns what soldier has what trait and how to best use those traits to gain an advantage on the front lines. For example, I’ll always send a “Challenge Lover” or “Hard Worker” to mount an attack because those traits make them well suited for direct combat, and I’ll never use someone who’s “Meadow Bred” while in a city. I’m encouraged to use the character in a way that reinforces their personality, and in doing so, those traits written in the Command Room menu become a self-fulfilling depiction of that personality.


Also next to each picture and below the list of traits are three names of people that this character likes. These aren’t random names; they’re other soldiers and potential squad mates. Trying to follow this web of relationships can be daunting if a player tries to map it out, but what’s important is that these characters all know each other. They all live in the same world and have their own set of friends and enemies. When following this web, there’s a sense that we’re stepping into the middle of a world that exists beyond the player, that the story of Valkyria Chronicles is just one story within a larger world. These characters had lives before the official story began and will continue on after the official story ends.


In addition to all the information given to us in the Command Room when selecting squad members, each character has a short biography, but in the beginning of the game, these bios are woefully short and don’t offer any personal information to flesh out the characters beyond what we already know from the Command Room. However, the more we use a character in battle, the longer their bio becomes. Like any relationship, the more time that we spend with someone the more that we learn about them. By requiring the player to use a character in battle before we can learn any of their back story, the game limits the number of potential characters we might come to care about. While this action seems counter-progressive, it’s inevitable that when dealing with a large group of people some of them will remain strangers, and by limiting the number of relationships we can build, those characters we do come to care about are made to stand out from the rest of the squad. These are the people that we have fought alongside over and over again. We grow attached to them just through this repeated use and that attachment is then bolstered by progressive character development. By the time a character’s bio is filled, we’ve fought enough battles with them and learned enough about them that we have developed a real relationship with them. And as we learn more about their history with each battle, they become less stereotypical and more multi-dimensional, becoming teammates who we genuinely mourn for when they die and all of this is accomplished without a single line of dialogue.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009
A player's achievement is often measured in excess violence.

Last week, I began a blog post by quoting from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.  I discussed a passage in which Stephen Daedalus argues with his friend Lynch about the appropriate and inappropriate apprehension of art.  I largely focused on Daedalus’ discussion of what he calls, “pornographical or didactic” art, which he associates with art that produces “kinetic” (or moving) rather than static (or sublime) emotions.  These former more viscreal emotional responses, he claims, are what are produced when the arts excite in their viewers the feelings of desire or loathing. 


Since I largely focused on examining video game production of images and behaviors that produce desire in players (largely, I discussed the tendency to enjoy visual stimulation of an erotic or pleasing nature, like buxom bikini babes and piñatas in love), I thought that I would discuss the seemingly strange phenomena of evoking loathing in video game players through similar kinds of visual stimulation and how and why that might be a pleasing “kinetic” experience. 


On the face of it, the notion of producing repellent or ugly images would seem to be a less than sound means of producing visual stimulation that might be appreciated and create pleasure in an audience.  Nevertheless, Daedalus is not crazy when he recognizes that art of a pornographic nature (and I assume by his definition, he means art that arouses a kind of basic and visceral reaction in its audience) has very often been dependent not merely on erotic visuals or even those that are obviously pleasingly “cute.”  Instead, it often celebrates the kind of imagery that produces definitely kinetic experiences, nausea, fear, and dread.


When Daedalus discusses such concepts he brings up what he deems appropriate forms of art that lean towards less than pleasing subject matter, the tragic modes of art and other forms of art that focus on observing suffering.  Certainly, while a play like Hamlet, for instance, has pleasing moments and even funny moments, the arc of the story will end in suffering and, well, tragedy.  Daedalus does not feel that tragedy in of itself is a bad subject matter per se—there may be to him (and Aristotle, on whom rests much of the basis of his thinking on the matter), a clearly cathartic and thus positive purpose in witnessing tragedy—however, witnessing the tragic and its myriad forms of suffering for their own sake may border on the “pornographic” in his estimation.


The loathsomeness of viewing suffering curiously does provoke a kind of appeal in many audiences.  Think of the moment before the knife (or chainsaw) falls in a horror movie. The image is clearly a repellent one; the viewer reacts kinetically to it by raising his hands to cover his eyes.  Yet, despite this physical manifestation of repulsion, you just can’t help peeking through your fingers to see the final blow, to witness the literal enactment of suffering.  While repellent, their may be something magnetic about that which horrifies.


Generating repulsive climactic experiences for players of video games to not only observe but also to enact has a fairly long and storied history, much of which has generated a great deal of hue and cry from social and political activists about the brutal nature of video games.  Despite such outcry, though, the Mortal Kombat series, for instance, seems a brand grounded on the display of gratuitously repellent imagery.  While Street Fighter II and the fighting game genre generated a kind of renaissance in arcade gaming in 1991, it was its more infamous 1992 cousin that attracted additional fans to the genre.  Mortal Kombat had similar qualities to the Street Fighter series, fast-paced, reflex-driven tactical hand-to-hand combat that could be shared with an opponent willing to pony up a quarter to challenge you, but unlike other attempts to cash in on the successfulness of Capcom’s game, Mortal Kombat offered a myriad variety of not just special moves to learn in combat but special moves called “fatalities” that enabled spectacular executions to complete the humiliation of a vanquished opponent.  During this brief period in which players would gather around arcade machines and place quarters along the top edge of a console to mark their desire to challenge an opponent, players of Mortal Kombat prided themselves on their ability to not only win a Mortal Kombat match but to show off their combat prowess by vanquishing their foe with a finishing move.  Since each of the seven original fighters had their own unique way of brutally killing their opponents, the game rewarded experimentation and replaying the game as each of the characters in order to witness these loathsome and yet strangely compelling sequences.  Part of the appeal of the fatality was in seeing some new grotesque method of finishing off a downed opponent.  Scorpion burning Johnny Cage to death was quite a sight but Sub-Zero tearing the head and spine from Sonia was even more astonishing to see and hard to look away from.


Much like the visual rewards of the more desirable images featured in games that, again, I discussed last week, loathsome imagery also seems to frequently be featured as a kind of visual reward to the competent or proficient player of a game.  The reward in seeing the event is even often even more dynamically demonstrated through systems that measure violence in points.


While a game like Tony Hawk might reward a player for visually stunning combinations of tricks, piling up points for the player able to keep up a consistent stream of amazing tricks, the aesthetics of violence in more recent games are often measured in similar ways.  Consider how Tony Hawk‘s trick-based point system is transformed to measure not the beauty of “athleticism” but the beauty of brutality in Devil May Cry.  While Hawk‘s system rewards efficient and elegant visual spectacle, Devil May Cry celebrates the efficiency and elegance of execution.  A player’s achievement is measured in excess violence.


Interestingly, this excess of violence is treated in an overtly pornographic fashion in the Devil May Cry series for as many spectacularly brutal images in a DMC game there are usually as many overtly sexual ones.  In Devil May Cry 4, for instance, the sexual and the brutal find themselves wed at times.  One particular example is found in a scene in which Dante finishes off a foe with a (literally) romantic flourish (he grips a rose in his teeth at the center of a giant heart) and brags about how well he “thrusts” and “penetrates” with his blade.  Devil May Cry seems more than self aware about the similar visceral responses that it evokes through both desirable and loathsome imagery.


Such measures of violent achievement continue to be regarded as a central aesthetic in a host of games but probably most recently in a really obvious and self aware fashion in Mad World.  Like Devil May Cry, MadWorld offers a cartoonish and half serious approach to the subject of violence.  However, the sheer grotesqueness and loathsomeness of its imagery is even more overtly tied to rewarding excess.  Since the premise of MadWorld is the notion that violence is being treated as a spectacle in a near future version of western civilization, the idea that the protagonist must perpetrate ever more hideous displays for the sake of a viewing audience at home makes the reward of gaining more points to advance the plot through more grisly ways of harming others into an aesthetic tied directly to the mechanics of gameplay itself.  It also mirrors a sports culture tied to observing violence with color commentators that react to and gush over the level of violence that you, as the protagonist, are capable of enacting.  Beating someone to death in MadWorld scores few points but impaling them with a street sign before beating them to death scores much more.  Given that advancement is based on high scoring, more varied and grotesque kills are encouraged by the reward system of the game itself.  Of course, given the stylish art and the contrast created by the three colors of the world (red for blood and black and white for everything else), it is clear what the player’s attention is intended to be focused on throughout, the spectacle of the most aesthetically pleasing bloodbath possible.


There seems to me to be a subtle difference between the types of images that video games create for the player to interact with be they motivated by desirability or loathsomeness.  The tendency to make images that are desirable into something collectible (be it the swimsuit collections to dress the beauties of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball or the cards that represent the conquered beauties of The Witcher) whereas the loathsome images of violence tend to become a commodity that demonstrates the player’s talent for violence that can be transferred into measurable achievements like “points.”  This difference might be reduced though to the tendency for visual stimulation to become a way of transforming bodies into commodities, though.  Bodies become commodities to be collected in games that motivate the player through visual desirability while bodies become commodities to be harvested in games that motivate the player through the spectacle of loathsomeness.


Author’s Note: Those interested in these topics of visual stimulation as a reward or motivator in games may want to check out the links to reviews of the games cited in the above essay. Most of those reviews address these topics in greater detail as they relate to those particular games, including the ones about Dead or Alive, Viva Piñata, and Devil May Cry).


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