CFP: The Legacy of Radiohead's 'The Bends' 20 Years On [Deadlines: 4 Feb / 19 Feb]

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Wednesday, Dec 9, 2009
The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.

Video gaming’s recent love affair with parkour (or free running) should really come as no surprise given the centrality of two basic forms of movement, running and jumping, to the video game experience.  In a sense, this love affair might be traced back to Super Mario Bros. whose gameplay solely derives from the notion of carefully managing velocity and gauging distances.

One of the more innovative elements of of Super Mario Bros. is one often taken for granted in contemporary gaming, and while I can’t say with absolute certainty that the idea of a “speed run” button first appeared in Super Mario Bros., it is certainly the game that brought the usefulness of such a button to gamers’ general attention.

The notion is simple: hold down a button while moving and the avatar onscreen runs rather than walks.  The application of that simple mechanic made all the difference to the Mario experience, though, since Mario’s survival depends on leaping onto turtles and over seemingly bottomless pits.  Thus, the ability to change the speed of the character in order to make a jump of just the right distance to either bop a turtle on the head or to clear a distant jump becomes the main skill that needs to be mastered in order to solve the game. 

Here we are over twenty years later and this notion of playing with speed and evaluating distances is still one of the central mechanisms that gaming depends on.  Part of the allure of the simple run fast and jump mechanics of Mario games seem to derive from a pleasure that is taken on the part of the player that is probably less intellectual than it is visceral and kinetic in nature.  While precision is essential in succeeding in running and jumping and certainly there is an intellectual component necessary to process how fast and how far a game character can run and jump, there is something about the motion itself of moving in this way that reminds us of our own bodies and how they move.  Physics are being simulated alongside a simulation of physical expression, which brings us to the recent spate of games that have overtly or less explicitly adopted parkour (literally “the art of moving”) as a more refined influence in the simulation of human locomotion.

In particular, three recent games come to mind whose gameplay largely concerns emulating parkour and simulating it for the pleasure of the player, Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Assassin’s Creed.  The first of these three, Mirror’s Edge most overtly references parkour as an influence on its gameplay, which is ironic as it seems in my estimation to be the least successful of the three in creating a simulation of a free runner.

Mirror’s Edge certainly attempts to immerse the player in the perspective of the free runner.  By adopting a first person perspective, the player finds themselves thrust into the simulation of running itself.  Velocity becomes immediately apparent to a player as a touch of a controller really does seem to “thrust” them forward into the world. The illusion of accumulating speed becomes much more apprehensible from behind the eyes of a free runner in a way that a third person, two dimensional perspective (like Mario’s) is unable to, since space itself seems to move past the player from this viewpoint as opposed to watching an avatar traverse it.  The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.

Of course, the problem that underlies this model is one that plagues games from the first person perspective generally.  The somewhat artificial and rather “slow” means that one has in changing perspective (with a right hand controller stick for instance) as one moves rapidly through surroundings makes it difficult to quickly evaluate what you are looking at and to gauge what elements of the environment can be successfully traversed on foot or by leaping in the air.  The right thumbstick control scheme for looking around has yet to properly simulate the movement of the human head and eyes to effect this same ability to take in surroundings rapidly.  Mario has few of these problems as the two dimensional perspective nearly guarantees a pretty clear sense of just how wide an upcoming gap might be.  The first person camera perspective with no ability to “crane the neck” or “squint” to focus quickly seems sorely lacking in this regard.  Additionally, no real sense of where your “body” is underneath you (there seems to be some sense of weight that is lacking in this simulation, reminding me somewhat of the problems that I have with Wii bowling—it simulates the motion of rolling a ball, but I can’t gauge the ball’s “weight” with a Wiimote) makes it more difficult to judge where “you” will land.

Mirror’s Edge‘s interestingly stark and washed out aesthetics are a solution to at least the problem of perspective.  Since the world is so washed out, the game’s design provides visual cues to draw the attention of the runner that indicate what are the most useful environmental details to use to move through an environment and to indicate the best routes through them.  These markers, designated by their orangish color, are fairly noticeable as they stand out in contrast to the starkness of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, this detail while sounding reasonable on paper is less useful in practice.  Since Mirror’s Edge‘s main sequences usually involve running for your life from some threat, it still remains difficult to quickly assess the landscape and make the right decisions about where to run.  Much death results or a tendency on the part of the player to have to stop frequently to regain their bearing, which kills the fluid dynamism that free running is all about.  In Mirror’s Edge, you take on the role of a free runner but a seemingly less than competent one since she is so frequently falling off things or starting, stopping to look around, starting up again, then stopping again to look around.  All the pleasure of moving in a fast, fluid way is replaced by a frantic, spasmodic form of “the art of moving.”  Unfortunately, the mechanics undermine the simulation not only because they don’t work well but also because they call into question the authenticity of the character herself.  Faith is supposedly a world class free runner, how come she falls down all the time and seems so incapable of keeping up a regular and fluid parkour pattern

Now before getting into arguments concerning whether or not the player is as skilled as the avatar that they are playing (and ignoring also for the moment that Mirror’s Edge does provide some slight narrative justification for Faith’s relative incompetence during its tutorials – she has been away for awhile, is rusty, and needs to brush up on her skillz), I want to turn my attention for a moment to the other two games that I brought up earlier that also lean heavily on mechanics that concern moving rapidly through an environment. 

The newest Prince of Persia depends heavily on just such a mechanic.  Curiously, by distancing the player from the experience through the use of a third person perspective and simplifying the way that the player responds to the environment the game more successfully creates the illusion of both speed and fluidity of movement but also the competence of the Prince as a free runner.  I (and others, like blogger Iriqois Pliskin) have commented before on how much Prince of Persia resembles rhythm games like Guitar Hero.  Much like Guitar Hero‘s note track designated by colors onscreen that correspond to the buttons needed to be pressed on a guitar controller, several simple and distinct visual markers like gouges in a rock face signal to the player of Prince of Persia what button to push at any given time as you approach that kind of obstacle.  Like a rhythm game, this does indeed make movement in Prince of Persia feel rhythmic as timing button presses—A, then B, then A again, then X—suggests the same kind of rhythmic timing that makes the Guitar Hero experience feel like an approximation of playing a guitar.  The illusion of playing in a band or running along a wall is supported by the very real sense of rhythm and timing that the player is experiencing while inputting commands on the controller.

This tends to further immerse the player in the simulation of a physical experience of moving fast across the landscape, flipping, spinning, andkicking out in a regular way as if one actually knew what one was doing.  The illusion of movement supports the illusion of a competent acrobat and gymnast.  Furthermore, that the Prince is saved from falling by his partner in parkour, Elika, further provides an illusion of a man who knows what he is doing (who slips once in awhile) as opposed to a player who just can’t keep up with the amount of visual data being thrown at him.

Likewise, Assassin’s Creed generates a similar sense of confidence in the player in an even more simple manner.  The mechanic of holding down one “speed run” button with another button that might be termed a “do anything that is appropriate given the context” button, Altair and Ezio are both capable of some stunning acrobatics with great regularity and the illusion of a real competence.  While a button that allows a player to signal his avatar to “do the right thing” in a given circumstance might seem like a cheat, it really serves as a more important support of the player’s sense of the character that they are playing and frankly adds a level of authenticity to a confident and competent acrobatic assassin. 

Altair and Ezio basically will determine how to respond to an environmental obstacle as is appropriate when holding down this button.  If they leap towards a small square chimney, they will perch when they reach it or bound off of it quickly if the button remains pressed down.  If they are just short of hitting a rooftop as they leap towards it, they will reach out and grab it.  This is a long way from the days of Super Mario which a jump just shy of the lip of a cliff would feature a hapless Mario falling to his death without ever reaching out to save himself, hands left stupidly at his sides.

The reason that this isn’t a “cheat” is both due to the reasonableness of the idea that a trained acrobat would try to land correctly given the circumstances but also because it maintains the fundamental principles of the mechanics of running and jumping.  The player is not passively watching Altair and Ezio; the player’s responsibility is still to judge the velocity necessary for a jump and the distance that can be reasonably leaped.  Failure is still possible if the player makes a bone headed decision about what Altair and Ezio can actually do.  It is just that they aren’t such spazzes when performing their role as gymnast for the majority of the game.  The player is left to evaluate what can be done and where to go but in ways that still allow for the character to look both competent and experienced at the extraordinary feats that they are accomplishing.  Thus, both the simulation of kinetics is maintained but also the illusion of a competent hero, satisfying both the needs of the game as well as the needs of generating an authentic character within the parameters of the story.

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Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009
It’s not that load times are unacceptable; it’s that there needs to be some kind of organization behind them so that the player isn’t going to spend most of the game irritated by them.

All games need load times to set up those nice graphics and giant levels. We’re all accustomed to sitting through them with patience because we know that eventually the game will find itself and get back on track. But at what point do you finally just say no? What are the standards for saying a necessary lull has gone on too long? Technically speaking, what’s happening when a game is loading is that the console is scanning the disc for various bits of information. A guide to reducing load times explains the basics: make the files loaded as small as possible, make sure only essentials are being loaded, and try to get the heavy processing done before the game is going. I’m not a programmer and this isn’t going to be a technical guide, but you can flip through enough forum chats on the topic to know that reducing load times is a very important part of the process. And since we at least know there are ways to shorten the load times from a technical standpoint, what about from a design perspective? How should gameplay be organized around load times?

The most hellish load time sequence I’ve ever seen was sent to me by SnakeLinkSonic detailing the tedium of Sonic 360. Talk to an NPC, load. Answer a question by the NPC, load. Examine puzzle, load. Answer question, load. It ends up taking ten minutes for only about 1 minute of gameplay. It’s also very boring gameplay at that. This would pretty much be the absolute worst case scenario for a load time: there’s more loading than there is actual gameplay. A random twitter poll called up a lot of other violators that were much more in the middle of this standard. The average time that people said they would start to get ticked off with a load time was about 1 minute. One of the major targets was Grand Theft Auto IV, whose opening sequence lasts a good two minutes before you can start playing. Another was Mass Effect and their infamous elevator sequences. Lucasart’s The Force Unleashed was mentioned for having 6 to 7 second loads between menus. By contrast, Gatmog pointed out that Diablo 2 was the prime example of a game getting load times right. There are a few seconds at the start of a dungeon followed by maybe 1 to 2 seconds whenever you enter a dungeon.

The consistent theme in all those complaints is that the game has to load right when you want to be playing. A well paced game like Half-Life 2 knows loading sequences can provide a break after a heavy fight in the same way that cutscenes can be used to steady the pace of play. In Mass Effect, the main place that you run into the elevator problem is at the Citadel station. What happens is that you walk to an area, see that what you want isn’t there, and then have to get back onto the elevator that you just left. Another load sequence to get onto the ship, another load sequence once you pick a new destination, until you finally find a place with something to do, and you can get back to playing. The obvious solution is to just cut out one of these steps. From the elevator, let me choose to just go back to the ship’s navigation system. After the first time that I’ve walked through an area, there’s not much point in making me re-experience it unless I voluntarily choose to do so. That’s the argument Ron Gilbert makes in his retrospective on Monkey Island when they opted to cut out the row boat sequences in Chapter Three after the player has traversed the island. What’s the point in making them do the same thing over and over if it’s just travelling filler? In Grand Theft Auto IV, the problem is not so easily resolved. The game is just getting the heavy lifting done early so that you can play with short load times for the rest of the game. One of the interesting solutions that a game like The Darkness tried was by just playing a short movie during these periods. Given how GTA IV is filled to the brim with short TV shows that at least some players never bothered to watch, why not just play them while the game is loading? Stuff like Republican Space Rangers are great for complimenting the game’s satire and would probably have been much more appreciated since the player has to wait anyways.

It’s not that load times are unacceptable; it’s that there needs to be some kind of organization behind them so that the player isn’t going to spend most of the game irritated by them. A game should try to avoid a design where a player is going to be travelling between hubs excessively and watching too many load screens. If that can’t be avoided, it could try to have something going on during them. The thing is that it is possible to design these things so that load times are minimized. An essay at Planet Half Life describes how the Half-Life 2 mod Minerva does a great job at making loading almost unnoticeable. It explains that the maps are technically very small, “because of Foster’s ground-breaking idea to utilize every possible area to its maximum potential, and instead of expanding horizontally, he expands vertically. Rather than leave large areas wasted with inaccessible buildings, ‘fake’ corridors and rooms to give the impression of an immersive, realistic environment, Foster makes every area accessible. This doesn’t mean that one can simply travel all over the maps in any manner one chooses—but instead through the use of very creatively-placed barriers Foster is able to funnel the player around the maps in a spiraled fashion.” That’s just another solution to the problem. Enjoying a game does not just involve it having great game design and story, it’s also about how well it works within its own technical limitations.

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Friday, Dec 4, 2009
Assassin’s Creed is largely a mystery game, but we'll only find answers to its complex conspiracy if we divert from the path that the game sets for us.

Assassin’s Creed is largely a mystery game. It puts you in the shoes of two men who are defined by their ignorance and who spend the game in search of answers: Desmond is a bartender who has been abducted by a giant company for reasons unknown, and Altaïr is a once master assassin, now demoted and forced to relearn what it truly means to be a part of this brotherhood. There is no dramatic irony here, in which the player knows more than the characters. When we begin the game we too are ignorant of everything. We can play the game and let it lead us through its story, and by the end, we’ll have a general understanding of the events that take place. But if we divert from the path that the game sets for us, there’s a wealth of details that help flesh out this fictional world and the complex conspiracy that connects these two men.

Desmond is introduced to us a bartender, recently kidnapped by the giant company Abstergo, and forced to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, Altaïr. He interacts with only two other characters: Warren Vidic, the scientist in charge of this genetic memory experiment and his assistant Lucy. Desmond is only told that Vidic is looking for something and that Desmond’s ancestor’s memories may provide a clue as to where this “thing” can be found. With so little explained, the player is nonetheless thrust into the past, taking control of Altaïr and Desmond’s story is put on hold.

When Desmond comes out of the Animas, the machine that lets him relive Altaïr’s life, Lucy drags Vidic into a nearby conference room to talk. This is the first moment in the game when it puts control of the mystery into the player’s hands. You can either wait for them to finish their conversation, or you can go into a bathroom and listen to them through the vents. What’s interesting is that the game gives no indication at all that you can do this. The information that you learn from eavesdropping isn’t relevant on its own, and if you miss this opportunity to spy, you won’t be at a disadvantage later on. Our reward is the feeling that we’re learning something secret. The game wants us to get into the habit of exploring our environment as Desmond even when we’re not directly encouraged to do so because such exploration will reveal story details later on. Whereas other games constantly direct the player towards its secrets, Assassin’s Creed does not.

But in case players missed their chance to eavesdrop, the game gives us a more obvious push towards such exploration later. If we look around our room at this point in the game our closet door is closed, but after being locked in our room, the closet is now open. If we get near it, Desmond finds a keycard that allows him to sneak out and hack into computers throughout the lab. Since the closet door was initially closed, leaving it open draws the player’s attention towards it. This is the only time that the game directs us so blatantly towards a secret, and that’s because the rest of our sleuthing involves those computers outside. Everything else is contingent on that keycard, so the game hands it to us.

At first, we only have access to Lucy’s computer. The most intriguing thing here is an email exchange about a woman named Leila who apparently killed herself. The emails show Lucy’s attempt to find out more, and how her search is blocked by the higher-ups in Abstergo. This exchange has little to do with why Desmond was kidnapped, but by introducing this very minor sub-plot it adds to the air of mystery surrounding the company. Since Assassin’s Creed is all about mystery, it’s important for the game to keep us in such an atmosphere.

Another email exchange refers to Vidic’s “access-key pen,” and certain words are capitalized: ACCESS-KEY, and LETTING IT HANG. These are subtle hints meant to make us focus on his pen because later we can pickpocket Vidic, which in turn gives us access to his computer. But these few words are the only clue we’re given that it’s even possible to pickpocket him. When the actual opportunity arrives, Desmond is told to get into the Animas and Vidic turns to stare out a window. If the player does as he is told, the opportunity is lost. The onus to disobey is on us, and we’re rewarded for doing so. In this way we’re encouraged not to listen to Vidic, and whenever he tells Desmond to do something, our first instinct is to do the opposite. This is important when he starts spouting philosophy: “The human race calls out for direction. They want to know why they’re here, what they’re meant to do. Well, we’re going to tell them.” His words are ominous by themselves, but our now immediate distrust of him makes them sound sinister as well.

Once we’ve gotten into Vidic’s computer, we get vague answers to some of our questions, but these answers come in pieces. We find off-hand comments about a delayed satellite launch, and the sender tells Vidic “just make sure you get what you need in time to meet the new launch window.” There are more emails, but this information about the satellite is the most pertinent and provides the player with the most immediate answers once all the pieces are connected.

Throughout the game, Vidic and Lucy talk about how Templars want to control people, but we’re never told how. The closest we come to getting an answer is when she says it involves the “Templar treasure,” the artifact that’s supposed to be buried in Desmond’s memories. At the end of the game we finally find the artifact and see its power. We see that it creates illusions and can controls minds, and the pieces finally start to come together. We learn that Abstergo once had that artifact, but it was destroyed in an accident. Hidden in Altaïr’s memories is a map that will lead them to similar artifacts. Since the discovery of this map (i.e. the discovery of more mind control devices) is supposed to coincide with the satellite launch, it’s not a leap to imagine that the artifact is meant to go up with the satellite and will then be used on a global scale. So finally we have a picture of Abstergo’s grand plans. We know why Desmond was kidnapped, why he was forced to relive these particular memoirs, what the artifact does, but not what it is. As with any good mystery, there’s always more.

One of most interesting things about Assassin’s Creed is Ubisoft’s commitment to the mystery. The game ends on a dramatic cliffhanger, leaving us with only more questions. In most cases this kind of ending is frustrating, but Assassin’s Creed pulls it off because of the way it handles its slow reveal up to this point. By putting much of that reveal on the player’s shoulders, solving the mystery ourselves becomes a part of the gameplay: we control how much of the story we see. So when the answers aren’t handed to us in the end, we’re fine with that because they haven’t been handed to us before. We don’t actually want direct answers because we’ve had such satisfaction piecing everything together ourselves. By ending on a cliffhanger Assassin’s Creed leaves the mystery open, it gives us more time to think about it and more time to enjoy it. Because the best part of any mystery is not the solution, but the process of solving it.

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Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
Boa and heavy rouge complete the burlesque effect.

While it parodies the very thing that we do here at, I kind of love Mark and Ari’s Ms. Pac-Man: Feminist Hero video:

The video pokes fun at “serious” readings of popular culture, and I can respect that.  We cultural critics do have a tendency to occasionally go overboard in assigning significance to our readings of seemingly superficial signs in media.  The parody here very cleverly sends up those moments. 

At the same time, I also kind of love the video because it really does contain interesting observations about Ms. Pac-Man’s relationship to feminist ideals.  The video makes me laugh, but it is also insightful at times.

If we are to treat Mark and Ari’s “thesis” in a semi-serious way, though, I must observe that what Mark and Ari may be observing in the presentation of Ms. Pac-Man is less the representation of feminist heroism as it may be a representation of the complexities of acknowledging gender in a Post feminist culture. 

In “Post feminism and Popular Culture,” Angela McRobbie discusses such complexities when she defines the concept of a “double entanglement” present in a Post feminist culture.  She describes such an entanglement as “the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life . . . with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.”  In essence, McRobbie suggests that competing ideologies surrounding gender (traditional senses of what women should be as wives, mothers, and generally in relation to men alongside liberal values of female empowerment regarding freely making choices about marriage and sexuality) have become entangled with one another despite the seemingly contradictory values that traditionalists and progressives hold concerning the roles and behaviors of women.

McRobbie exemplifies this idea by describing a late 90s television spot for Citreon cars, in which Claudia Schiffer disrobes as she leaves the house to go for a drive in her car.  McRobbie reads this moment as an example of such an entanglement, saying, “This advert appears to suggest that yes, this is a self-consciously ‘sexist ad,’ feminist critiques of it are deliberately evoked. Feminism is ‘taken into account,’ but only to be shown to be no longer necessary. Why? Because there is no exploitation here, there is nothing remotely naıve about this striptease. She seems to be doing it out of choice, and for her own enjoyment.”  While the ad is suggestive of the idea that women are still reducible to something to be looked at for their sexual appeal (a more traditionalist position), nevertheless, this role is adopted as an example of the freedom and empowerment of choosing to be so (the progressive position).  McRobbie suggests that such power is clearly communicated in the ad because of the audience’s knowledge of Schiffer’s success, “the advert works on the basis of its audience knowing Claudia to be one of the world’s most famous and highly paid supermodels.”  Schiffer can afford to be an object because she is powerful enough to reduce herself in this way, to choose how to exploit herself.

Such a curious “double entanglement” of ideology similarly exists in the representation of Ms. Pac-Man.  While Ms. Pac-Man could be considered a feminist icon as a figure able to take on the world (or in this case the maze) all on her own, a maze rightly pointed out by Mark and Ari as being a more difficult puzzle to solve than her male counterpart’s slower maze with its stable fruits (Ms. Pac-Man has to work that much harder for her bonuses), nevertheless, these emblems of Ms. Pac-Man’s greater drive and need to prove herself are entangled by the imagery surrounding her.

Ms. Pac-Man’s bow, of course, marks her gender and is a simple enough way of distinguishing her from her male counterpart as female.  However, the Marilyn Monroe inspired beauty mark and lip gloss both suggest that Ms. Pac-Man is interested in maintaining an appearance that makes her more desirable as an object for others.  The dominant function of make-up is to enhance elements of appearance that are perceived to make women more attractive and the mole is an image evocative of a woman whose success stemmed from her ability to manipulate her status as object into a commodity.

Frankly, the image of Ms. Pac-Man on the side and front of the arcade machine is even more provocative of Ms. Pac-Man’s status as object as she resembles something akin to a pin-up.  Her leggy pose is reminiscent of that form.  That Ms. Pac-Man is “curvy” (quite literally, she is one big curve after all) is reminiscent of the pin-up period’s tendency to prefer a fleshier body type.  The boa and heavy rouge complete this more burlesque effect.

In an article that I read a number of years ago on female gamers, one psychologist suggested that one of the major reasons for Ms. Pac-Man’s appeal was that one of the reasons that female gamers were not attracted to video games is that they often need to be given “permission” to play with the boys.  By feminizing Pac-Man with a bow and a feminine identity (the “Ms.” marker), she further suggested that a female identity to inhabit while playing Pac-Man gives such “permission” (one might wonder about this same phenomena in comic books in which feminized versions of Batman and Superman are assumedly intended to capture the attention of female readers that otherwise might feel excluded from stories that are seemingly intended for boys). 

Various representations inspired by Ms. Pac-Man might suggest a more specific embrace of stereotypically female identity, though.  These representations also emphasize that female empowerment might not be suggested by Ms. Pac-Man’s imagery or what appeals to female gamers, but instead, the elements of Ms. Pac-Man that are emblems of sexual objectification.  These elements of her identity continue to represent the “double entanglement” of the Ms. Pac-Man image as the images throughout this essay suggest.  From retro shoes to lingerie inspired by Ms. Pac-Man to even a possibly suggestive “tramp stamp” featuring the consumption of a cherry, these images suggest an embrace of Ms. Pac-Man by the game’s audience as one doubly entangled by objectification and empowerment at the same time.

While the title “Ms.” is evocative of the feminist movement of the 1970s, Ms. Pac-Man’s pin-up inspired representations seem in some way more a product of a pre-feminist culture than they are evocative of the politics of Gloria Steinem.  Like Suicide Girls and Pussycat Dolls, Ms. Pac-Man’s image seems one predicated on recoginizing objectification as a viable choice assuming that the ability to pursue pursue power (in this case, perhaps, power pellets) by any means chosen by women has already been won.  Game over.

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Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
Crackdown is a pure example of a gaming space designed with a sense of the "traditional" male gaming demographic in mind.

As a part of the now blossoming sandbox genre, Crackdown was a game that chose to all but abandon narrative. Combining an RPG stat upgrading system with an impressive degree of physical mobility and strength, the game just plopped you down in a giant city and let you run amuck. Three gangs, each living in their own isolated section of the city, must be eliminated. Kill the main leader and the gang will fall, but if you want to curb the strength of his men, you can take out the lieutenants scattered around the area. Kill the arms dealer, and the gang’s guns become subpar. Kill their recruiter and there will be less thugs on the street. Anecdotal cutscenes will introduce these boss figures and explain the effects of their demise, but otherwise, there is no character interaction with them or that interacts as a traditional character might at all—no protagonist who speaks, no real response to your actions besides weakening the gang’s basic infrastructure. It is a pure example of a gaming space intended for the classic male gaming demographic.

This sentiment is somewhat mirrored in a postmortem detailing the problems that the game experienced during development. When recalling the four year development process, the lead designer mostly focuses on the difficulty of creating an engine and graphics that could support the game. Artistically, it is still gorgeous today, using darkly outlined edges with bright colors to create a vibrant and engaging aesthetic. The real joy of the game is just running around smashing stuff. Doing this improves stats (like incremental increases in jump distance), weapons proficiency, better car handling along with all the activities littered throughout the game. Weapons depots must be unlocked, every weapon in the game can be collected and safely stored. Car races and experience orbs all give the player something to conquer. These genre tropes are still prevalent in sandbox games today, but what is remarkable about Crackdown is that it does this without any real plot motivating the player. It’s just the urge to move around the environment that drives the player’s actions.

I cannot claim credit for recognizing that Crackdown represents a prime example of a masculine virtual space, a student blog post from Celia Pearce’s Game Design as Cultural Practice at Georgia Tech pointed out this idea out to me.

The idea of a gender-themed game design goes back to an essay by Henry Jenkins. Writing years ago when developers all but ignored female gamers, he attempted to argue that video games allow for important psychological development in growing teenagers. He is not outlining games that should specifically be played by either gender but rather using that theme to propose a new awareness that game design is about allowing kids to escape to an empowering world. By explaining the basic themes of a teenage male’s empowerment fantasy, the essay proposes alternatives that might be more broadly appealing. He writes, “To facilitate such immersive play, to achieve an appropriate level of “holding power” that enables children to transcend their immediate environments, video game spaces require concreteness and vividness.” A player must have a large space to explore freely, activities to discover, and a means of interaction that lets their imagination engage with the game. Jenkins points out that in his own family, telling his son to go play outside isn’t really an option in their city apartment. The observation led him to doing some digging about what precisely playing outside usually provides for a young boy. He explains, “Our physical surroundings are ‘relatively simple and relatively stable’ compared to the ‘overwhelmingly complex and ever shifting’ relations between people, and thus, they form core resources for identity formation. The unstructured spaces, the playforts and treehouses that children create for themselves in the cracks, gullies, back alleys, and vacant lots of the adult world constitute what Robin C. Moore (1986) calls ‘childhood’s domain’ or William Van Vliet (1983) has labeled as a “fourth environment” outside the adult-structured spaces of home, school, and playground.”

The freer and more open the area, the better the child can escape and modify their physical environment. Jenkins draws heavily on a study by E. Anthony Rotundo on play habits of boys in the 19th century or what is called “boy culture.” Jenkins points out that the fantasies and behavior of kids back then was just as remarkably violent as games are now. Jenkins further comments, “Nineteenth century ‘boy culture’ was sometimes brutally violent and physically aggressive; children hurt each other or got hurt trying to prove their mastery and daring. Twentieth century video game culture displaces this physical violence into a symbolic realm. Rather than beating each other up behind the school, boys combat imaginary characters, finding a potentially safer outlet for their aggressive feelings. We forget how violent previous boy culture was.” To back these claims, Rotundo examines prime examples of popular penny novels and stories from this era. Fighting Indians, raging sea battles, blood, guts, and violence are the things that have always interested young males growing up. These books worked through, “persistent images of blood-and-guts combat and cliff-hanging risks that compelled boys to keep reading, making their blood race with promises of thrills and more thrills. This rapid pace allowed little room for moral and emotional introspection. In turn, such stories provided fantasies which boys could enact upon their own environments.”

This is precisely the space that Crackdown elegantly creates. In any section of the city, the player is never completely safe until the gang has been defeated. Random drive-bys will always occur and each gang has their own strengths that make them dangerous in unique ways. The Volk use grenade launchers while the Shai-Gen keep a corporate army of snipers hammering you from the rooftops. Jenkins explains, “The space of the boy book is the space of adventure, risk-taking and danger, of a wild and untamed nature that must be mastered if one is to survive. The space of the boy book offers ‘no place to seek cover,’ and thus encourages fight-or-flight responses.” Crackdown always dangles the possibility of tackling the head gang leader once you find their hideout. Each time that you take down a lieutenant you are informed of your statistical chances of surviving an attack on the final boss. Once you hit 50%, the narrator will encourage you to take the odds or “flip a coin.” Exploration and risks are also encouraged because of the wide-open nature of the game’s setting. Although all of the bosses are basically the same as the thugs except they have far more health, their locations on the map are often distant and difficult to access. A boss hiding at an island fortress can be approached by well-guarded floating bridges or you can swim through a minefield to approach from the rear. Combat and even death are both very forgiving; you regenerate health and death by respawning at the armory of your choice. This is a game that encourages you to be daring inside its space.

The game is not without its flaws nor was its release not problematic. For Example, the ability to lock on to distant targets makes the rocket launcher the weapon of choice. The Halo 3 beta key could only be claimed by buying the game, fueling a lot of indignation and then mild support once the demo hit. One of the tenants of a “boy space” that Jenkins overlooks is the need for a driving purpose or goal, an achievement for the player to pursue. Crackdown’s lack of narrative means that once you max out the stats, there isn’t much driving the player to actually complete the game. User TheGum at gamefaqs sums up a much younger perspective than my views of Crackdown: “The first few hours are great, as you discover the layout of the city, build core stats, and hunt down the many orbs. But after you have the strength and agility maxed out, the game really crashes; hence, the crack loses its potency.” Where Crackdown succeeds is both providing an exotic world to explore and a slow expansion of the player’s ability to access, control, and destroy that environment.

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