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

 
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Friday, Jun 5, 2009

Having recently finished Far Cry 2 I found myself wondering what I should play next. I had embraced the holiday rush last year, so I had plenty of games to choose from, and I browsed through my collection looking for one that sparked my interest. Since this happened to coincide with E3, I bombarded myself with press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, and suddenly my collection didn’t seem as interesting as it did last week. I found myself getting more excited for those upcoming games than for the games I already own.


So much of the gaming culture revolves around upcoming games. Previews make up a major part of any news coverage, especially during the build up to E3. Gamers’ desire for the “next big game” is so strong that a ten second trailer for Modern Warfare 2 is cause for a surprising amount of fanfare, and companies make announcements of announcements in order to start the hype as soon as possible. Many people sell older games in order to afford newer games, and Gamestop’s record profits are a testament to how common the practice is. It makes sense then that E3 is the biggest event of the gaming industry. Whereas movies and music have the Oscars and Grammys, award shows that focus on what has come out in the past year, gaming’s major show is a preview event that looks ahead at what’s coming out in the next year.

This kind of attitude is necessary for an industry that relies so heavily on technology. New tech is always being introduced to the gaming world, so developers must always be looking ahead and thinking of new ways to incorporate that tech into their games. Just this week, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all showed off new forms of motion control, so now it falls to developers to figure out how to integrate that new kind of control into games. The future of gaming is always changing, so it’s understandable that the industry would focus more on its future than its past.


A problem arises when consumers adopt this point of view, and become more concerned with what lies in the future rather then the present. I remember times as a teenager when I would be playing a game and all I could think about was what I wanted to play next. I’d continue playing the first game just to beat it, feeling an odd obligation to finish it before moving on, but the moment I was done with it I would never think of it again. Even if I loved a game, once I beat it I no longer cared about it. Such an attitude is not only a disservice to the game and its creators but to me as a gamer. Instead of savoring my time with those games, I’d rush though them so I could stay up-to-date with each new release: Games were a disposable media to be used once and then forgotten.


I enjoy E3. I enjoy the press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, but I think it’s important not to get too caught up in the hype. I was giddy with every mention of Assassin’s Creed 2, Uncharted 2, and (to my pleasant surprise) Scribblenauts, but I’ve also recently become enthralled with the voice recognition of EndWar and the wonderful absurdity of No More Heroes. In the wake of E3, I’d encourage every gamer to play a game from last year or even from last console generation just to put things in perspective: older games are still worth your time.


Tagged as: e3
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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 4, 2009
Nintendo might do well to remember that we, as gamers, crave a challenge every once in a while.
Nintendo's Wii Music

Nintendo’s Wii Music


Wii Music is where it started, I think.


Somewhere along the way—sometime in the first year during which Wii Sports was starting to show up in retirement homes, schools, and libraries across the nation (not to mention more homes than any game, like, ever), Nintendo came up with a strategy to try and maintain their new constituency, an audience that defied easily-formed generalizations.  Namely, they decided that it was in their best interest to not offend anybody with their first-party software.


Wii Music was derided, and rightly so, for being a joke of an entrance to the world of music.  As a little toy for me and my kids to fire up when we were bored, it was fine, but even in that context, its replay value was terribly limited.  The point of Wii Music was to be as inclusive as possible, to give anyone the opportunity to pantomime—and, in effect, “play”—any instrument pretty much immediately.  “Playing” the violin was easy as moving the Wii remote like a bow, “playing” the drums involved flailing around with the Wii remote and nunchuck (and, optionally, the balance board), “playing” a trumpet involved holding the Wii remote up toward the player’s mouth and alternating the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons.  It was all terribly easy to “master”, if “mastering” it was the goal, and those looking for some sort of challenge—some sort of game—were left disappointed.


It would have been easy to believe that this was some sort of one-off, a case of Nintendo’s pandering teaching a valuable lesson, but the recent beginnings of the coming flood of Fitness apps for the Nintendo systems is telling a different story:


Nintendo’s too nice.


Nintendo's Wii Fit

Nintendo’s Wii Fit


Look at Wii Fit, the one that started it all.  It starts off well enough, by measuring your weight and turning your Mii into a distorted, roly-poly version of itself if you’re in the overweight or obese categories, and it allows you to set a goal for yourself, to lose (or gain) however many pounds you like in a certain amount of time.  And after that…what?


On my second day, I gained weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.


On my third day, ashamed as I am to say it, I gained a bit more weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.


On the fourth day, when I held constant to the previous day’s weight, Wii Fit‘s only admonition was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I might not meet my weight loss goal.  And then I was free to keep doing as many (or as few) of Wii Fit‘s “exercises” as I wanted. 


Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Walking

Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Walking


Personal Trainer: Walking, on the DS, suffers from the same problem.  It sets a goal for you, records your progress, and is full of encouraging words.  If you meet the daily goal (which starts at 3,000 steps, which is actually obscenely easy to reach if your ass hasn’t grown roots in your sofa yet), it says “hooray for you!” and your Mii does a little dance.  If you miss the goal, the shortcoming is barely even acknowledged, and the game just moves on.  The only penalty?  A red stamp on your calendar instead of a green one and slower progress toward unlocking the little treasures in the game’s cutely-designed “Walk the World” and “Space Walk” (the latter of which owes a tip of the hat to Noby Noby Boy if I do say so myself) diversions.  Other than that, it just moves on.  No “what happened?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?” or “what, you didn’t even have it in you to pretend to want to get in shape today?”  Just a “hey, whatever!” and the game goes on.


Now, these games are not meant as standalone weight-loss tools; I can respect that.  They’re tools, guides to help you along the way, but not full-fledged plans.  Fine.  This seems all well and good until you start up with something like EA Sports Active, whose goal seems to be to kick you in the ass and get you into shape if it kills you.


Electronic Arts' EA Sports Active

Electronic Arts’ EA Sports Active


EA Sports Active will, on your first workout with it, very likely make you sweat, huff, and puff more than all of your “workouts” with Wii Fit combined.  It places particular emphasis on the upper legs toward the beginning, building muscles that are going to make running long distances seem like much more feasible an activity.  It does this by telling you it’s going to put you on a program based on your current weight, giving you a set of 20 or so workouts to do back-to-back, and making sure you do them in a manner that will maximize the return on your investment, as measured by muscle mass (not to mention the ache you’ll have the next day).


The point is that by not being afraid to crack the whip a bit, EA Sports Active feels like far more effective a “tool” toward fitness than Wii Fit‘s software component ever could.  It offers a lesson that Nintendo might do well to learn: stop pandering to us.  Most of us are mature enough to take a little criticism, to be offered a challenge.  In fact, we crave a challenge, and without being challenged, all we’ll take your products for are disposable toys.  While they’re very slick, very well-designed toys, they can’t help but leave a bad taste in our mouths when our expectations are so dramatically better fulfilled by third-party entries into the same arena.


Oh, and since I started the 30-day program in EA Sports Active?  Four pounds down and counting.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
I was not terribly surprised at the feeling of overwhelming uncertainty about where I was. But I was surprised that I was also struck by an overwhelming uncertainty about who I was.

Sherlock Holmes: Baffled as Always?


I was recently revisiting Frogwares’ adventure game, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening.  Very early in the game as I was just growing accustomed to taking on the role of the most brilliant deductive mind to ever penetrate the fogs and mystery of Victorian England, I stopped to ask a policeman the way to a bookstore about three blocks away from 221 B Baker Street.  While I had just left the environs of my flat containing all of the familiar odds and ends associated with Holmes, like his trusty violin and oft used tobacco pipe, it was a decidedly disconcerting moment in my brief life as the most observant detective in literary fiction to discover that Holmes apparently had never noted the location of a shop less than a half mile from his own home.


This was not the Sherlock Holmes that I had read about in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels… He would have noticed such a thing.


Instead, I was facing a bit of awkwardly considered dialogue that served as a help to a player playing the role of Holmes that was unfamiliar with the game world that he had just been introduced to.  I was reminded that I was not Sherlock Holmes and that I was merely being introduced to a game location in a relatively obvious kind of way. 


This experience reminded me of my frustrations with another game set in London, 2002’s The Getaway.  Developer Team SOHO had bragged prior to the game’s release about the authenticity that the game aspired to by removing typically “intrusive” game mechanisms from the screen.  The Getaway, as a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game, would do away with interface elements like an omnipresent map or radar screen showing the player’s current location and other elements like a character’s health bar.  Largely, the developer argued, such elements detracted from the realism of the game by obscuring the direct experience of the game’s world.


Navigating the “familiar” streets of London in The Getaway


Such a desire for versimilitude seemed all well and good until I began watching the story unfold.  Being introduced to my new “self,” one Mark Hammond a former London gangster, through a horrific cutscene in which Hammond’s motivation for re-entering the life of a criminal were established, I found myself plopped down on an unfamiliar London street.  Hopping in a car, I very quickly became lost in what the publishers claimed was a very accurate representation of London’s streets.  Given that I had never been to London (and, of course, lacking a map of the area), I was not terribly surprised at the feeling of overwhelming uncertainty about where I was.  But I was surprised that I was also struck by an overwhelming uncertainty about who I was.  What bothered me was that I was supposed to be inhabiting the persona of a man who had lived in London for his entire adult life.  Like the moment in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening, I realized that I was not the character that I was supposed to be; I was not Mark Hammond, Londoner.  Realistically, Hammond would know his way around these streets, and ironically, Team SOHO, by removing an “unrealistic” element like a HUD that provided a map of the London streets, had made Hammond an unrealistic character, an inauthentic version of a man from London.


Maintaing consistency in the way that an audience apprehends a character is of absolute necessity in creating authentic characters in fiction, and games that intend to tell stories need to pay attention to some different issues than prior storytellers have had to concern themselves with in regards to such consistency.  Not only should a video game character’s attitudes and behaviors remain consistent with their personality and intellect (Holmes as an investigator known for his superhuman observational abilities should know where a book shop right around the corner from his flat is), but the mechanics of the game have to maintain this consistency as well (an old London gangster should know basically where he is in the town that he grew up in).  If this calls for seemingly intrusive elements like HUDs and the like, so be it.  While something like a health bar seems like an unusual element to hang in mid-air to the left of my vision (as it does as I look at the screen as a player), it is far less realistic for me as a character to not know that I am very badly hurt. 


What Team SOHO seemed to forget when attempting to create a “realistic” vision of a London gangster is that since the player is limited in ways that he or she can perceive the world when inhabiting their role (sure, I can see and hear London, but I am unequipped with a memory of its streets or – blessedly—the tactile sensations that indicate when I am bleeding).  While gaming seems to offer bigger and better ways for its audience to experience the world, certain perceptual and epistemic experiences still seem beyond the scope of technology to represent.  Oddly enough, sometimes old school gaming often seemed to have been more aware of these limitations in representation and more subtle in their means of representing them than some more recent games.


Mario feels SUPER


Remember how Mario became “Super” when he ate the magic mushroom?  His size on screen clearly conveyed to the player that Mario was at his peak and could fearlessly take on any walking mushroom or flying turtle that might cross his path.  He was BIGGER than them.  He was at no risk of death from them in his visually evident “pumped up” form.  However, after taking a hit and shrinking down to plain, old Mario, suddenly Mario’s vulnerability became clear.  He was just a little plumber confronted by gargantuan (in respect to his current smaller stature) fungi and aeronautically gifted reptiles.  That is not to say that Super Mario Bros. is an example of pure realism (did I mention the mushrooms with the feet?), but it is a game that remains authentic in representing how a character feels about himself.  Curiously enough, this “unrealistic” visual becomes emblematic of Mario’s real sense of self in relation to his enemies.  Something less than real has established the authenticity of the character’s sense of the world and sense of himself.  That’s a character that I can believe in.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
The culture and benefits of encouraging patrons and games meant primarily for the public to enjoy.

As the entire “Are Games Art?” discussion continues to plod onward into infinity and beyond, there’s an interesting thing games are missing besides some random famous critic or cultural milestone. They haven’t got any patrons. In the 15th Century, Florence produced such popular art that it became one of their main exports. An article explains how a commissioned piece of art was originally a way for the wealthy to atone for usury and other sins. As time went by, the art began to change in topic from religion to the personal so that, “Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply ‘for art’s sake.’” The wealthy paid the artist to create a piece of work, usually about themselves, and would display it for the entire world to see and experience. Could such a culture find a home with video games?


Image from htmlhelp.com

Image from htmlhelp.com


The first question is what exactly would someone commission to be made if they were talking to a game developer. I asked a few random people and got a lot of interesting answers. One person said they’d want a level that was their favorite rock concert, allowing them to walk around while a bunch of pre-scripted activities took place and the band was on stage. Another said they’d like their house from when they were a kid to be remade so that they could visit it when they got old. Dan Bermegui, an indie developer, has already started a patronage service that lets people choose the topic of his poetry games or just be in the credits. Personally, I’d like it if someone just made a map of my favorite city park at just the right time of year, maybe Fall or Spring, so that I could turn it on whenever I wanted and just walk around. I asked a few level designers and developers in the industry how much it would cost to make such a park. Steve Gaynor, a level designer with 2K, writes, “If a “patron” were going to fund the re-creation of a place they wanted to visit, they could arrange a contract with an established level art outsource company and work with them to produce a level to their specifications. Alternately going the smaller route one might try to solicit the services of kids from a video game college to produce the same thing, which would presumably be cheaper but less reliable.” He estimates that it would only take a handful of people getting paid about $ 4,000 a month to make the bare minimum. Nels Anderson estimated about $50,000 or more if you wanted something on a scale comparable to The Graveyard.


From gettyimages.com

From gettyimages.com


Although some people might have the change to spare for a personalized level about their topic of choice, it’s important for a healthy patron culture to empower both the wealthy and the everyday person. A great example of this necessity can be seen in the Not Just Another Face exhibit in Chicago that was posted in Hyde Park. A huge variety of artists were matched with patrons from everyday walks of life to create a self-portrait. The artists ranged from literal painters to more abstract artists, meaning the artists were matched with what the patron could afford. Paper folding work was cheaper to produce than the oil painting, for example. The curator noted that one of the best parts was how people who had little interest in art were turned on and how artists were able to work with topics they’d never explored. He explains, “Too often artists are viewed as people who have very different sensibilities and attitudes and the patrons are afraid of making some kind of mistake – that they will show that they don’t know much about the art world.” Fortunately, there is already an easy way for a game patron to cut their costs, and it’s by using the art and engines from published games. Mods, a bastion of creativity and independent work, may be the best bet for a Patron who wants to make their favorite park into an interactive world.


From Oblivion, Bethesda

From Oblivion, Bethesda


Could the park be put together by a modder? There are already several amazing examples of modders simply making private homes in-game. This gets into a very tricky legal question because of the way that video games are copyrighted. As a five year veteran of modding Bethesda’s games, Kateri explains that once you convert all the information into the file format that their games can read then it legally becomes the company’s property due to the EULA. All art and textures made before conversion remain yours but if the level is to be playable by a large group of people then you’d want it to work in the game’s engine. Since a game like Oblivion is filled with hundreds of pre-made plants, trees, and landscape textures the cheapest way to have the level made is to just have to someone put all those pieces together. The problem is that you cannot use any of these assets without Bethesda’s approval. Another problem is that since mods for profit have been illegal for so long, many of the people in the community would be hostile to the notion of someone getting paid for their work. A fierce debate in the Bethesda Forums shows the wide range of opinions people have on the issue. Kateri explains, “If you were to enquire within the Bethesda modding forums about ‘hiring a modder,’ you would likely be met with hostility. However, if you were to say “here’s this wonderful park, would anyone be interested in recreating it?,” you might well get a positive response. The quality of work offered will be variable, but you’d have that issue to consider anyways.”


Frank Lloyd Wright\'s Falling Water, from freewebs.com

Frank Lloyd Wright\‘s Falling Water, from freewebs.com


Considering Bethesda’s interest in selling their games and supporting the mod community, it’s possible that they and other developers would consider becoming patrons themselves. Since they own everything in the game, they could support artists by commissioning works that would appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Many modders would jump on the chance to be distributed with the latest batch of DLC on a game because thousands of people would see their work. With so many games continuing to rely on their DLC for profits, they are going to have to get creative about what they’re offering. So why not just have a level for its own sake? Maybe something the company spent minimal money on except some touching up that’s just a beautiful space to be explored a few times? The possibilities for this kind of work can already be seen in video games today. You may not be able to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, but you can go there in a Half-Life 2 mod. Ever wanted to visit the island that Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes place on? A student project has created just that. There are even websites that let patrons and artists find one another on the internet. As artist Ron Jones explains about the Chicago art community, “If a city has a good patron community and good critical writing, you don’t have to worry about the artists. They will take care of themselves.” Perhaps what video games really need to be accepted is not an audience, but just someone willing to pay for games to be art for the sake of being art.


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Text:AAA
Friday, May 29, 2009
There’s an automatic assumption that since we’re still in control and that there is still progress to be made.

The Call of Duty series has never been known for subtlety or for story but more for its large scale battles and action sequences. The 4th entry stays true this formula but also uses the modern setting to set a pace that builds up our perception of the game as a “power fantasy” until that fantasy is violently undermined.


The basic flow of combat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is meant to make us feel powerful. We rush into the fight surrounded by allies, and the respawning enemies ensure we always have someone to shoot or that’s shooting at us. We’re always in danger and it’s always exciting. In order to stop the flood of terrorists, the player must charge ahead past an invisible line that shuts off the respawning enemies. By forcing us to advance farther ahead than the other soldiers, it feels as if we’re clearing a path for them. Even though we’re in the middle of a crowded battlefield, we’re encouraged to act like the lone, bold hero of a typical action movie. We are clearly the hero here regardless of however many allies are with us.


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