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Friday, Oct 30, 2009
The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke.

Whenever a critic of the gaming industry starts to decry the level of violence in games, the response is generally the same. It’s standard to point out that violence in games pales when compared to the more explicit violence and gore in movies. While that may be true when comparing a game like GTA IV (the mass media’s favorite whipping boy) to a movie like Hostel, it doesn’t hold up for games versus movies in general. If we go by gallons of blood spilt, games are more violent and gory than movies by a longshot. But what’s the real effect of all this violence? A little blood is realistic, lots of blood is scary, but the geysers that often fly from enemies in games is cartoonish. The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke. Any message or deeper meaning the game might have is lost because no one takes it seriously.


Gears of War 2 is a prime example of this sideshow gore. It embraces violence as one of its selling points but also tries to be serious at times. When we chainsaw a Locust in half, the camera rotates slightly giving us a better view of the chainsaw cutting into our enemy; blood spews out and splashes all over the camera to emphasize the very bloody nature of this kill. A lot of care and attention to detail went into this short scene because it’s important, it’s our reward for getting in close for a kill. We could have shot at the alien from the relative safety of distance, but instead we chose to get in close where we could have been easily flanked or killed by a single well-placed shotgun blast or been punched and cut in half ourselves. The violence has been embellished to the point of ridiculousness, and that’s why it works as an entertaining reward.


It’s interesting that the most emotional scene in the game is completely bloodless. When Dom finally finds Maria, his missing wife, she steps out of a tiny cell looking normal and healthy. They embrace, and when the camera pulls back, we realize that we’re seeing her through Dom’s eyes, and in reality, she’s nothing more than an emaciated skeleton that is mentally dead. But there’s no blood. There are scars on her face, we can see her bones through her skin, but no blood is presented in the secne. Gears of War 2 embraces bloody mayhem as it’s chief attraction, but the lack of it here suggests that this scene is not supposed to be enjoyed, this scene is meant to be taken seriously. But it doesn’t work.


Gamers make fun of the Maria subplot in Gears of War 2 because that single moment of seriousness is out of place in the game. It really is a powerful moment, but when surrounded by ultraviolent fun, it alone can’t grab the player’s attention and make him care.


Where ultraviolence helps make a message clearer is in parodies. Madworld and No More Heroes are two of the most violent games on consoles, let alone on the Wii, and both have embraced their cartoonish ultraviolence by becoming cartoons. They parody other violent games by exaggerating other aspects of the game, the art style, boss fights, and characters to the same extent as the violence. In this context, the ultraviolence seems normal, but being normal in these kinds of over-the-top worlds serves to showcase how out of place it is in purportedly realistic games.


Games must learn restraint before they can be taken seriously, however, “restraint” doesn’t just mean less violence. Bloodless violence is common in games rated anything but M, and this kind of violence is often seen as childish, as the removal of something graphic in order to make it more appealing to a younger audience. So to avoid this unwanted label and to make themselves immediately stand out, M rated games tend to go to the opposite extreme but end up looking just as juvenile. It’s then up to that player to actively try and get over his immediate preconceived notion that these games are just over-the-top mindless fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little ultraviolence, but not every M game has to embrace it to the degree that’s currently popular. Everything in moderation.


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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009
The game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games in the series were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.
There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story) because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained; an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.
—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

In attempting to distinguish the hard boiled detective story from the kind of “parlor” detection of traditional British detective fiction, Raymond Chandler suggested that a distinct difference emerges in the interests of these two subgenres of mystery.  The latter “classic” form is concerned with solving a formal problem.  Hard boiled or American crime fiction is more concerned with setting a tone and resolving mysteries through movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the elucidation of character.  What this difference boils down to in practice is that detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot become logicians that draw conclusions based on careful studies of evidence and formal problem solving all while sipping tea in the parlor.  Detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade don’t so much investigate by reasoning out solutions as much as they get their hands dirty by wading into the muck of the world that a crime takes place in in order to see what might shake out.


The British detective is brilliant, insightful, and driven by logic.  The American detective is persistent.


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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009
A breakdown of the arguments made in Espen J. Aarseth's seminal video game text.

Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext is one of the first, and arguably strongest, books to outline how games work as their own artistic medium. Written from 1989 to 1997, it details a wide range of textual interactions that attempt to identify the interactive component of electronic media: the act of traversing and controlling a text. He defines a cybertext as “a machine for the production of a variety of expressions” (3). This does not have to be just a computer interaction. The oldest example of a cybertext is the I-Ching: “the Chinese book of oracular wisdom that is used (rather than simply read) in a ritual that involves writing down a question, manipulating coins or yarrow stalks to produce a path (out of 4,096 possible paths) through the text, and consulting certain of the book’s 64 fragments to reach an answer to the question”(66). Interacting with a system in a way that makes the experience unique to the individual is the distinguishing element from a traditional book or film. A user is not just reacting to embedded meaning like they do when they read a book, they are exploring and configuring it based on its interaction model.


Part of the context of the book is that Aarseth is arguing against the post-structuralist conception of video games as meaning play, a group who “tried to show the inner contradictions of concepts such as sign, structure, work, and author in order to foreground the metaphysical nature of these innocent-looking terms” (83). Post-structuralism is the theory that two people can sit down, read the same book, and have two different understandings of its meaning because of their personal backgrounds and varying attention spans. Your desires and personality will dictate your understanding of a book. To the post-structuralist, gameplay is just an extension of that concept. What Aarseth points out is that portions of a cybertext will be cut off and will never be seen depending on your actions. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (41).


Accepting that there are connections between literature and games is still important, and Aarseth goes to great lengths to explain that there is a specific type of literature that games overlap with. He borrows research from Penelope Reed Doob to highlight this distinction. There are two models for a book: “the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually towards a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices, or bivia” (6). What happened in literature was that people started to move away from the unicursal idea of a book and started pushing for a multicursal model. It’s the difference between just reading something in a linear progression and having a book that you’re meant to hop around and absorb in a disjointed fashion. For example, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a long poem with numerous optional footnotes that tell their own independent story while commenting on the poem. You can still read it and understand it without looking at any of these footnotes but reading them enhances and nuances the narrative. The more popular example would be a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, which Aarseth declares is also a cybtertext. He explains, “a cybertext must contain some kind of information feedback loop. In one sense, this holds true for any textual situation, granted that the ‘text’ is something more than just marks upon a surface. A reader peruses a string of words, and depending on the reader’s subsequent actions, the significance of those words may be changed, if only imperceptibly.” (19)


Like myself and other writers discussing video games, one approach to games breaks the gaming experience into a triangle of player, design, and narrative but Aarseth opts instead for operator, verbal sign, and medium (21). Aarseth tears into the concept of analyzing just the narrative of a game by pointing out that the expressive component of a book or picture in terms of the audience is at best trivial. You can read the book aloud and modulate. You can string together a bunch of pictures to create a movie. Yet the transition from source to expression is still minimal; the act of expressing a text or picture can only be minorly adjusted through that expression. Aarseth notes, “To write is not the same as to speak; listening and reading are different activities, with different positions in the communicative topology” (163). Instead, he believes that between player and game “the relationship might be termed arbitrary, because the internal, coded level can of course be fully experienced by way of the external, expressive level.” There are multiple layers of meaning occurring in a game that go far beyond the surface and instead come from the ludic elements that the narrative is built upon.


From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie


To Aarseth, that’s the problem with the post-structuralist stance: “identical signifiers do not guarantee identical meanings.” (83) Being at full health at one point in the game is not the same thing as being at full health in another. Their theories do

provide interesting insights into the more advanced possibilities for meaning in games, but they don’t really address the mechanical issues at work. Using Roland Barthes own argument Aarseth writes, “Tmesis, claims Barthes, is not a figure of the text but a figure (at the time) of reading: the author ‘cannot choose to write what will not be read’ (47). The validity of the assertions that Aarseth makes depends on what type of game you’re talking about as well. Everyone who has played Half-Life 2 went through the game in roughly the same manner so that the missed details are trivial or minor. Where it becomes more interesting is in the more emergent games that have variable outcomes besides “Die or Progress”. He writes, “The important lesson to be learned from discontinuous and forking texts is that when two readers approach a text they do not have to encounter the same words and sentences in order to agree that it probably was the same text” (74).


How then do the relationships between player, designer, and machine pan out? Since you have no control over the final text of a game as the player, can it actually even be said you have written something in the Aristotelian sense? (84). Aarseth argues that the player engages in a contract with the cybertext. Discussing interactive fiction he explains, “The contract between user and text in ‘interactive fiction’ is not merely a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ but a willing suspension of one’s normal capacity for language, physical aptness, and social interaction as well” (117). But if you’re not really authoring anything, what is the player’s role in a game? The book muses, “When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader, where, and what, am ‘I’? Am I the sender or the receiver? I am certainly part of the medium, so perhaps I am the message…just as the game becomes a text for the user at the time of playing, so, it can be argued, does the user become a text for the game, since they exchange and react to each other’s messages according to a set of codes. The game plays the user just as the user plays the game, and there is no message apart from the play” (162).


From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/


Ultimately, accepting that a video game’s meaning comes from the interplay between user, ludic design, and plot requires abandoning an absolute emphasis on one particular element. Rather than think of narrative as the grand structure of everything, “the story of an event is not necessarily the same as the event itself, and stories can be told about things other than stories” (94). The concept of ergodic design, traversing a space and controlling the narrative instead of absorbing it “must have more than one explicit outcome and cannot, therefore, be successful or unsuccessful; this attribute here depends on the player” (113). Ultimately, the three elements collapse into one another to form a unique whole: “the user assumes the role of the main character and, therefore, will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself” (113). The three elements are still distinct at key moments though, such as when you die without intending to in a game, so that there is still a distinct player who is learning to play and improve. Aarseth makes the same argument that people still have to make today, “To achieve interesting and worthwhile computer-generated literature, it is necessary to dispose of the poetics of narrative literature and to use the computer’s potential for combination and world simulation in order to develop new genres that can be valued and used on their own terms” (140).


Looking back at the now almost ten year old book, I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of these ideas and principles are now considered self-evident. Aarseth himself admits in the last chapter that the book will probably date rapidly as technology advances, but what’s remarkable about his work is how much of it is still true today. Even if most people are willing to accept that a game emphasizing just plot or design is not as compelling as when the two are merged skillfully, the process of how to do that has hardly been answered. Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul are all grappling with the techniques of that combination in their own way. Aarseth, struggling to make sense of the medium in the mid-1990s before video games were even totally acceptable amongst my own generation, is mostly concerned about the gap forming between people who are engaging with the technology and people who are not. In the final chapter, he ponders the flaws of a growing group of people who are familiar and engaged with the medium. Doing so, “reduces our possibility to empathize with those who are not using the same technology as we, be they our less well-endowed colleagues or our historical predecessors, the texts’ creators or their contemporary readers” (169). As the generation gap widens and the staggering complexity of things like video games continues to grow, what is probably the most worrisome is that those who continue to dismiss them are ultimately just going to be left behind.


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Friday, Oct 23, 2009
A look at the various incarnations of torture in games.

Saw VI comes out today, the latest movie in the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror. When this sub-genre first began to grow in popularity, many film critics lamented that torture had become something entertaining, but in all the time since then, horror games have not jumped to cash in on the trend. Horrow games have changed dramatically over the six years since Saw was first released but not along the same lines that their filmic counterparts have. Horror games have become more action packed thanks to Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, all but ignoring the seeming popularity of torture. It seems those critics can breathe a sigh of relief because, while certain horror fans enjoy watching torture, it seems that they also don’t want to partake in it directly.


That’s not to say there are no instances of torture in modern horror games. One scene near the end of Silent Hill: Homecoming feels ripped straight out of Hostel. The hero is tied to a chair while a cultist stabs a drill into his leg, and a few quick-time events later he’s free and the drill is sticking out of the cultist’s eye. Then there are the Manhunt games in which players are forced to participate in a snuff film. And the franchise that arguably started it all, Saw, made its first jump to video games earlier this month. What’s interesting about all these examples of torture is that the player is always the victim, never the torturer. We’re tied to the chair in Silent Hill: Homecoming, we’re a killer in Manhunt, yes, but a killer forced to play the starring role in a snuff film. In the Saw game, we don’t play as Jigsaw but as a cop caught up in one of Jigsaw’s maniacal, elaborate traps. Every torture device that we come across has someone else stuck inside it and solving the trap plays out like a mini puzzle game. This allows for a variety of play that we wouldn’t get to participate in if we had control over Jigsaw because torturing people just isn’t an interesting game mechanic.


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Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009
Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint's Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.

Most games based on the Grand Theft Auto formula of creating an open world, in which a player in the form of a criminal is allowed free reign to explore and dominate a world, have a tendency to attempt to distinguish themselves from this forerunner in some fundamental kind of way.  Games like The Godfather or Scarface have attempted various ways of changing up the open world formula by grafting area control and economic development elements into the mix of shooting and driving components that form the basis of GTA-style gameplay.


These additions to gameplay are welcome enough to fans of this form of crime fiction.  They also seem appropriate given that the player is taking on the role of a criminal and being allowed to play out the “business” of being a member of an organized crime syndicate or gang seems a sensible choice for building a more complex gaming system. 


However not all GTA clones have sought to make major innovations in the genre. Realizing the successfulness of the series lies in the experience of ripping off cars and creating mayhem alongside its generally satirical and absurd tone, THQ’s Saint’s Row (while sometimes making some subtle improvements to certain weaknesses of the GTA-style “thug simulator”) has largely chosen to adhere to the basic gameplay concepts and generally parodic qualities of its source of inspiration.  This tendency has led to a number of folks observing that the game is something of a GTA “clone” (a truly dreaded term given its usual implications of merely being a rip off of a more successful original).


Nevertheless, I would argue that the Saint’s Row series does distinguish itself from GTA in some subtle ways that are perhaps more related to some of its presentation of criminality than in its approach to gameplay.  While GTA games tend to focus on a kind of central and largely solitary protagonist, there is a greater emphasis on collectivism in Saint’s Row that is interestingly very much antithetical to exclusive individuality as its gang culture is rather radically inclusive.


Now the notion of radical inclusivity should at once raise some eyebrows when discussing gang social dynamics.  Seemingly much of the gangster lifestyle can be equated to a kind of tribalism that may be related to territorial interests or even hereditary or biological ones.  Gangs form around territory and shared interests, and thus, gang members surround themselves with fellows of similar socioeconomic backgrounds as themselves.  Or gangs are organized, like the Mafia, around family units that similarly have related social and economic interests that they wish to defend.  In either case, most gangs have a tendency towards homogeneity rather than towards recruitment of a diverse membership.


The original Saint’s Row certainly represented this tendency clearly through the gangs opposed to the 3rd Street Saints.  Los Carnales, the Westside Rollerz, and the Vice Kings all had a pretty homogeneous racial make-up (race being a relatively easy visual marker for representing such commonality) as each was largely made up of Spanish, Asian and white, and black gang members respectively.  Curiously, the gang that the player’s avatar finds himself a part of distinguishes itself from these three gangs through its racial diversity rather than its racial and ethnic homogeneity.  The Saints colors, purple, are the only color that marks this group’s unity unlike its opposition whose skin colors were largely as common to one another as their chosen gang colors (the Westside Rollerz represented some slight degree of diversity with their seemingly biracial make-up, however, the Rollerz social class represented by their more suburban territory might serve as a further homogenizing element).


Given the positive valorization of racial and ethnic diversity in contemporary Western culture, the Saints embrace of inclusivity has a subtle effect on the player’s perception of the gang.  They are clearly the most civilized of these warring tribes of thugs, since they are so progressive and open minded.  Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.


The gang’s leadership is similarly marked with this commitment to diversity as the Saints’s leader Julius is black and his lieutenants are Asian and white (though there are no major hispanic leaders).  This inclusive make-up is even helpful to the gang, since its members find themselves more capable of slipping moles into their rivals ranks; they have members that “look like” their rivals.  Diversity here is not simply a mark of the civilized, but it also demonstrates how such a strategy of inclusivity is advantageous and “smarter” than racial homogeneity.


Of course, some of the reason for the racial diversity of the Saints might be attributed to THQ’s decision to give players of Saint’s Row considerably more freedom in creating an avatar of that player’s own design.  Unlike Grand Theft Auto, whose characters are necessarily defined by the game’s narrative, Saint’s Row contains a fairly robust character creation system that allows the player to design their ideal criminal’s appearance, including racial characteristics. 


Indeed, the race and ethnicity of GTA characters are deeply wedded to the storyline that Rockstar has in mind for each installment of the series, and thus, the sort of freedom that Saint’s Row is looking for in crafting a character seems unlikely given the significance of various characters’ backgrounds.  Tommy Vercetti’s Italian heritage links him to his Mafia roots, CJ Johnson is a young black man from a Los Santos ‘hood, and Niko Bellic hails from an unnamed Eastern European country that has been devastated by war and left Niko with an axe to grind and a killer instinct.  The story of an inclusive gang allows Saint’s Row to give the player more freedom in crafting a racial identity of their own without interfering with the story.


Interestingly, this same system’s expansion in Saint’s Row adds an even more radically progressive inclusivity to the identity politics of Saint’s Row.  Since the protagonist of the first game was badly burned in an explosion on a yacht at the conclusion of the first game, Saint’s Row begins by allowing the player to once again select this character’s appearance.  The attempted assassination of the character becomes a useful conceit for justifying this change as reconstructive surgery.  What is especially radical about this chance to “update” the character’s look (assuming the player played the first game) is that not only can the player choose to change up the character’s hair and eye color alongside his race, but it is that the main character’s gender can be reassigned as well.


To my knowledge, no other open world crime game has allowed the player to play as a woman, let alone as a transgendered character.


Before considering this decision’s implications for the player, though, it should be noted that Saint’s Row 2 largely maintains its distinctions between the “good gang” and the “bad gangs” through racial unity and diversity.  Saint’s Row 2 concerns conflicts with a Japanese gang and an Afro-Caribbean gang.  A third gang, the Brotherhood, is interestingly more homogeneous in nature, which is especially interesting because they initially attempt to form a truce with the newly reformed Saints, suggesting, perhaps, that this more inclusive style of gang membership does lend itself towards more peaceable and civilizing tendencies.


Returning to the reconfiguration of the player’s avatar, though, players who adopt a new racial identity may certainly note how easily they are once again adopted into the Saints despite their change in appearance, but a player who adopts the role of a transgendered gangster will likewise find that their former colleagues have managed to maintain an extremely progressive stance towards identity, which might be surprising given the radical nature of their change


Now, I don’t want to make too much of the scripting that acknowledges identity and identity change in the second game as it is largely played as a joke, but I find it notable that the nature of the joke largely changes based on the player’s choices in reshaping their identity and their choices made during the prior game.  In that sense, Saint’s Row exhibits a really interesting consequence of a medium that allows its audience to alter the course of the narrative.  While a script is in place for the game regardless of those choices (the linear narrative will remain regardless of the player’s choices about character creation), the way that those lines are interpreted by the player are directly affected by such choices and thus do alter the message of the text because the context in which the lines are understood changes their signification.


The notion that meanings need to be reconsidered under certain contexts are common enough in literary works.  For example in Natheniel Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter, Hawthorn acknowledges a symbol’s meaning can change given its context in a number of ways and that when such changes occur that their consequences are meaningful whether that meaning be intended or not.  The Scarlet Letter A itself is intended by the Puritans to mark Hester Prynne as an adulterous.  However, since Hester is allowed to design it herself, she sews an emblem that is highly decorative and ostentatious, something potentially beautiful.  When she emerges before the Puritan women with the A on, they are offended by its message, both because it is emblematic of Hester’s sin but also because it is so ornate and beautifully made that it also suggests a defiance in its wearer (probably very much an intended message on Hester’s part).  Later in the novel, a Native American visiting the Puritan community sees Hester’s A and assumes that she is a personage of great honor and power.  This alternate reading of the A results in an unintended message that nevertheless has consequences as it alters the way that he chooses to behave towards her. 


To illustrate what I mean in the context of the Saint’s Row series, players who choose to play both Saint’s Row and Saint’s Row 2 as a man are likely to find Johnny Gatt’s comments (Gatt is a former lieutenant in the Saints) to be mildly amusing when he notes that the player looks like he has changed in some way and asks the protagonist, “Did you do something with your hair?”  If the player has altered their race, this comment takes on an understated and ironic tone However, the joke reads even more differently when the player has chosen to adopt a female role for the second game.  Gatt’s wildly, understated comment is all the more ironic in this context, but it is also serves as a kind of reassurance that Gatt still recognizes and is not rejecting the appearance of the character. 


Thus while joking, Gatt still seems pretty accepting of a big, big change in the character.  In this context, the superficiality with which he treats the transformation becomes a kind of acknowledgement of an essential respect for the character, especially because this comment is one of the game’s few acknowledgements of such a radical identity shift.  Gatt’s interactions with the character then revert to something resembling the general camaraderie that his character showed towards this same individual towards the close of the first game.  Thus, unlike just choosing a new eye color for a character and having Gatt shrug it off, Gatt’s joking acknowledgment of radical identity reassignment, followed by his resumed comfort with the character speaks quietly but clearly to a sense that the character’s essential self is respected regardless of what physical changes have been made to the character.


There is little else to say regarding the gender reassignment possibilities in Saint’s Row 2, and while it may well be that the game’s developers didn’t bother to seek to explore the complexity of this issue in the game’s script, the near silent acceptance of such transformation tends to speak volumes in the context of the game’s commitment to accepting and embracing diverse identities.  Maybe it is just a character creation thing but curiously that mere mechanism sends rather interesting messages whether intended to do so or not about the nature of assigning identity through appearance.


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