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Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010
While we seemingly get lots of choices in a game about how we get from place to place, how to kill enemies (and with what weapon), and even how we make moral decisions, when the game prompts us we usually get down to doing what it tells us to do.

“For whom is the funhouse fun?”
—John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”


About four months ago, I wrote an essay entitled, “How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”. (“How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”, PopMatters, 17 February 2010).  This discussion is intended to be a companion piece to that essay, so if you’re interested in the topic, you may want to check out the aforementioned link before reading this one.  Or, check it out afterwards.  Do what you want.  I don’t want to force you into anything.


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Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010
Does this Grand Theft Auto-influenced open world Old West extravaganza live up to its gaming pedigree? Or does it maybe exceed all expectations?

This week we’re a man down, but there’s no stopping us now that we’re hot on the trail. Nick, Tom, and Rick take on the world and game play of Red Dead Redemption in this spoiler-free episode. Does this Grand Theft Auto-influenced open world Old West extravaganza live up to its gaming pedigree? Or does it maybe exceed all expectations? Or does it depend on who you ask? As always, we don’t all quite agree, but we’ve all got a lot to say about the world of Red Dead Redemption.


This podcast is also available via iTunes.


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Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010
Bill Murray's Groundhog Day is like Bioware RPGs. When the plot is over, all you can do is go back to the start. If you die, you get sent back to a different part to try again.

Video games face a lot of interesting problems whenever they want to tell a coherent story. You need an enemy that does not create any moral dilemmas if you slaughter them wholesale. The main character has to be dramatically important to the point of ludicrous. They also need to have a blank enough personality that the average person can project onto them. Even the touchstones of game narrative have convoluted plot holes. Bioshock stops making sense after the third act depending on your choices. Uncharted 2 might be remarkable for having good writing and acting but there is still a drastic difference between Nathan Drake the character and Nathan Drake the person slaughtering hundreds of soldiers. Even these games ignore fundamental elements of gameplay like loading your saved game, artificial interactions, or the natural emotional distance that all players have from the consequences of their conduct. It’s funny then that there is already a movie which has tackled most of these issues by presenting a protagonist who is stuck in a time loop.


Groundhog Day is a remarkably pliant work of art. Bill Murray (Phil Connors) is stuck repeating February 2nd in a small town in Pennsylvania. There’s no explanation for it, he just wakes up over and over to the same events constantly. An article over at suite101.com points out numerous religious interpretations of the film (Kerri Carpenter, Groundhog Day: A Classic Comedy With A Moral Legacy”, suite101.com, 27 Jan 2010). Catholics see it as a parable for Purgatory, Buddhists identify with the themes of self-reflection that Murray’s character experiences because he can never change the world due to the time loop. Life always resets, and no one has any memory of the things Murray did except him. Mario Sesti points out that the film’s character arc is seeing Murray’s changing relationship with this situation (Groundhog Day The Movie: Buddhism and Me”, P.S. A Column on Things, 20 Jun 2008). Murray is stuck in the time loop long enough to learn fluent French, the piano, memorize every person in town, every event experienced in the day, and every reaction to his conduct. Sesti comments, “[Murray] becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator.”


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Friday, Jun 18, 2010
As worlds become more open they demand more attention, and there’s a clear trade-off between story and environmental details.

Last week I wrote about how the open world of Red Dead Redemption is constrained by its focus on story. Soon after, a friend started playing Mass Effect 2 and I realized that New Austin is practically a sandbox of imagination compared to the world that BioWare created, but both games still fall way short of the freedom offered in Fallout 3. These three games represent the full spectrum of open worlds, and each developer is a master of their respective type.


BioWare
The worlds of BioWare are “open” only in the barest sense of the word. We’re given a group of missions and we can choose what order to do them in, but the missions themselves are very directed. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age games are structured like an old school JRPG. There are towns, maps filled with shops that resupply us, and people that need our help. There are also dungeons, maps filled with enemies to fight, and there’s a stylized overworld that connects them all together.


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Thursday, Jun 17, 2010
The fake killing is old hat. The helping fake people sell fake medicine to other fake people, for whatever reason, that really got to me.

As I mentioned last week, I’m devoting myself to compiling a catalog of moving experiences from video games in aid of adding a few of my own bricks to the mountain-sized edifice of evidence for the obvious fact that video games can be art. After that post, my friend Ben Mack sent me this: “Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You has great quantitative data to suggest video games as Hegelian art objects, ‘An art object is anything that is a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness from which one never fully returns.’” That’s pretty damn good, and plus it references Hegel, so clearly we’re on solid philosophical ground here. It very much applies to the game that I’ve been playing most of late, Red Dead Redemption.


Next week I’ll talk about the ending of the game, which I view as a clear artistic triumph, but I want to give everyone more time to finish it. Additionally, we talk about it at length over the next two Moving Pixels Podcast episodes. However, Red Dead isn’t a perfect game by any means, even setting aside the bugs and occasional open world weirdness. The narrative is far from tight and focused, and the story is meandering and occasionally self-indulgent to the point where I know that some players were turned off by it. But even in the places where the game takes false steps, it still creates multiple moving moments that very much fit into the above definition.


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