Games are, above all else, forms of storytelling. And in that act of play, we commit ourselves to enacting narratives not entirely of our own design. Kiri Miller, in her article Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore, identifies games as performative folklore, navigable culturally significant experience. Like all folklore, she states, video games can “inculcate values, demonstrate behaviors, and transmit beliefs, thereby creating and perpetuating social formations and actions.” This same process appears mirrored, sometimes grotesquely so, in the processes by which narratives of both peace and conflict appear in media - propaganda and otherwise - in war zones. Appropriate, then, that the recent Gaza Missile Crisis, another event in a long and intractable conflict, should find a board game created in its image.
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I admire a developer who gives their game a name that lends itself to snide remarks. For example, take Giant Sparrow’s game, The Unfinished Swan. if the game turned out poorly, the pithy one-liners would almost write themselves: “Unfinished Swan? More like Unfinished Game!” Thankfully, the game gracefully delivers a complete, cohesive experience.
Like other outstanding games, The Unfinished Swan’s major achievement lies in the way it links its authored story to its interactive systems. The game is about a young boy becoming a more complete person, and the game’s mechanics reflect this journey while also inviting us to think about what constitutes a “complete” game.
The modern iterations of the Call of Duty franchise have consistently incorporated real world political facts and themes, albeit not always tactfully. More than mindless military shooters set to a simulacrum of modern politics, each Call of Duty reveals interesting aspects of American social and political fears and psychoses. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 continues this trend, touching upon themes of America’s economic decline, technological dependencies, and the loss of international political capital in the face of a costly empire.
The Call of Duty series has become a kind of shorthand in many circles, many of which I frequent. It’s often the punchline whenever eggheads like me decry annualized sequels, toxic online communities, overly-scripted gameplay, and jingoistic stories about glorious war heroes. The latest installment, Black Ops II, doesn’t really refute any of this.
Outside of Madden, Black Ops II is perhaps the most mainstream traditional video game of the season. It’s the game that gets prime time commercials. It’s one of the titles that folks who only buy a couple games a year eagerly await. It’s a summer blockbuster in November, something carefully marketed and crafted to appeal to as large an audience possible. It would be completely understandable if the search for such a broad appeal led to a bland product; trying to please everyone usually negates a lot of interesting ideas.
And yet, I always look forward to playing a new Call of Duty game. The foremost reason being that the snappy controls and dopamine-inducing multiplayer progression system create a compelling one-two punch. However, I’m equally drawn to the bombastic, single player experience campaigns. Despite being squarely in the mainstream, Black Ops II broaches topics that few other games touch.
Calling a video game “realistic” could mean any number of things. Sometimes, it’s about graphical verisimilitude: does that virtual character look like a real human being? Other times, it’s about how something feels: does swinging this Wii remote remind me of swinging a tennis racket? Games like Sim City try to tackle a more mathematical version of realism: does building a city with good roads help the economy?
The point is that video games have a variety of ways of representing our world, thus allowing even the most fantastical games to resemble aspects of daily life. Dishonored does this, despite the fact that it’s a game in which you can warp through thin air and commune with a supernatural deity. Getting to know Dishonored’s world and the people that call it home felt very much like moving to a new town and meeting the neighbors.
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