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

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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008
A few thoughts on Jason Nelson's latest art game.

Whenever someone tells me that video games are superficial or generic it always feels a bit like having someone who only watches MTV tell you that all music is shallow and commercialized. Yes, if you only pay attention to AAA games made by companies who want to appease the largest set of consumers possible, you will probably notice that there is rarely much experimentation or issue pushing. They never totally make you happy nor do they totally piss you off, they just get the job done.


A lot of funny things start to happen to video games once you ditch the desire to make money, make people happy, or care about review scores. You start seeing games that are using the player to protest a trend in games. You start to see games that spoof their history. And sometimes you see a painting of Mega Man made out of a woman’s menstrual fluids. All signs indicate the rabbit hole keeps going after this.


Which is why Jason Nelson’s latest game I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies. is a welcome addition to the scene. Mixing a bit of social commentary with basic gameplay and massive amounts of abstraction, the game runs very similar to his last project game, game, game, and again game. As noted in the interview with Nelson that Popmatters did about a year ago, the principle purpose of the game design is to get the player to engage with the art. Not rack up a score, not make you feel pleasure at beating the level, and certainly not at figuring out the solution to Nelson’s nebulous art. There are a couple of basic elements that anyone playing will quickly notice. Your avatar moves in a pattern that is very similar to how your eyes travel when viewing each of the different websites being spoofed. The Yahoo News site moves up and down on platforms like one reads the columns, the Fark website moves in horizontal lines as you traverse down the page. Although being sent back to the level only mildly figured into game, game, etc., here it plays a massive role in communicating how a website sucks you in by constantly dragging you to the start. The mental trap of being stuck in ‘F5’ mode expresses itself throughout the game. Layered throughout all of these levels are Nelson’s signature eccentric videos, scribbles, and cryptic poetry.


I’m as late to the party as ever with this game, if only because watching it make the rounds is almost more interesting than yammering about my own analysis. The principle thing most websites looking at it seemed to struggle with was whether it was gibberish or something really clever that they didn’t quite understand. Which might be one of the most interesting new developments in video games outside the mainstream. While it’s certainly true that player input is what makes these things video games, there is still quite a bit of room to explore in regards to how exactly one should be treating the player. Perhaps the thing that wears people out so much about AAA titles is that they are always treating the player like royalty and rolling everything out in a nice, neat package. One doesn’t have to drag themselves through a film like Vanilla Sky to know that part of how people define their pleasure from an experience is by contrasting it to the things that they didn’t enjoy. In Nelson’s case, chucking the player into the chaotic confusion these websites manifest through an abstract video game interpretation is not really about being clever or using gibberish as an obstacle. It’s just a part of the grander experience of not always understanding what’s going on around you.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
The post-mortem reactions and thoughts on a short indie game about death.

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.


The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.


The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.


It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?


Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.


And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 5, 2008
A few sex games on the internet and their merits. Warning: video (embedded after the jump) is NSFW.

In response to the fuss caused by the Mass Effect “Sexbox” controversy, a lot of bloggers and YouTube Critics were quick to note that the game hardly features any real sex. A little bit more digging however, and a frank reality began to strike some people: it’s not like sex has ever been handled maturely in video games anyways. Daniel Floyd’s excellent video on the history of sex in games makes a simple conclusion: if sex is an expression of love, then we need to handle the topic maturely and allow players to express in appropriate ways. Which I heartily support and believe sounds great in theory.


It’s just that I can’t think of too many times in an artistic medium where the first forms of sex depicted were done for any reason other than…depicting sex. Thinking of that as an ends rather than a means may be crude, but it’s also a bit more realistic in terms of how one gets the ball rolling. There are several interesting sex games out on the web now that vary from the tasteless to the tasteful that explore this. Starting with the tasteful is the free to download Dark Room Sex Game. Using the keyboard or Wiimote (provided you have a bluetooth rig), you have to develop a rhythm with the moaning in the game until you can induce an orgasm. The game has no graphics and is instead entirely based on sound and in the Wiimote’s case, vibrating. You press keys until you match the pace of moaning with the partner, trying to synchronize so they can have an orgasm. The game gets much more interesting once you use the co-op or orgie-op modes of play as each partner has to coordinate the moaning with the person standing next to them. It’s an interesting game because it responds to Floyd’s chief complaint about sex in games being belittling to women thus far. Playing the game with your partner (or orgy members) is going to result in requests to ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’, etc. Rather than the sex being a one-sided affair, it instead takes on a supportive and team-oriented game design. I’m not trying to give myself an orgasm, I’m trying to give one to the other person.


Back on the subject of tastelessness is the recently released indie game BoneTown. Acting like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and a Ron Jeremy Sex Guide (he’s actually in the game), BoneTown is basically an exercise in masculine empowerment. You go on missions to improve your style, cash, and ‘balls’ power. This, in response, lets you increasingly score with more women and pleasure them better. I’m not going to really defend the game one way or another since I haven’t played it, but it has good production values and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It would probably be more respectable if it let you play as a woman, but that’s a psychological mirror even my male, job before social-life, mid-twenties singledom brain might not be able to handle responsibly. But at least the game is honest about the RPG mechanics it’s using and it beats the creepiness of two World of Warcraft players arguing over whose sword is better. At the very least, it gives people something to say whenever a deranged parent or news network is raving about some barely nude kissing sequence in a videogame. “That’s not a video game about sex. This is.”


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 22, 2008
A Flash game that educates the user about New Orleans while providing a decent platforming experience.

It’s something of a personal fantasy (and subject of a blog post meant to be posted in 2 weeks) to begin pushing video games into relevancy by having them discuss topics besides escapist fantasy. Different games have struggled with this in different ways. My now excessive knowledge about World War 2 aside, most games opt to attain relevancy by discussing emotion or philosophical debate. Braid’s sense of the futility of pursuing goals, Planescape: Torment’s questions about human nature and how our conduct reflects it. Or, as the Global Kids Media Initiative has done, you can just set the game someplace important. Like New Orleans, the day after Katrina hit.


It’s always interesting to play an educational or informative game because you immediately recognize that their goal is not necessarily having fun. Instead, it’s fun with a side of vegetables. Video games, by their nature, are more engaging than watching a film or reading a book. I actively absorb information given because there is a chance it’s relevant to play. I pay attention to what’s going on because something dangerous might hurt me. Whereas a game solely about fun or accomplishment will fine-tune that into generating a sense of reward by delivering chunks of plot or quaint jingles, an educational game is instead using all of these elements while slipping in bits of information about a topic. You learn inadvertently as you progress, although there have not been too many games that delivered a true melding of these goals.


In that regard Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City succeeds with a good mixture of dialogue in a standard platforming game. Certain people that you speak to will give a mission of delivering bottled water or first aid. Others will relate a true amazing story about the aftermath of the storm, such as Jabar Gibson’s hijacking of a school bus and shuttling survivors out of the city before F.E.M.A. arrived. Your character is a survivor herself, re-experiencing the storm through a dream as she rushes around saving the people she wishes she’d helped during the actual events. Each level is set to a timer that is gauged by the setting sun, which creates a real sense of conflict as you realize that you can only help so many people per level. Some survivors must be abandoned in order to help yourself. And as you progress to each level, the broken levies take their toll and the waters slowly rise. The final person you rescue, your mother, is revealed to have passed in the storm at the very beginning of the game. It’s a clever analogy for drawing in people who were not personally involved in Katrina themselves: our dreams of helping the survivors during the disaster carries on into today. The website provides more information and suggestions on what other can do to help after you finish the game. It takes about fifteen minutes to play through and will leave you knowing more about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina than before you started playing.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 1, 2008
I found this flash game thanks to Play This Thing!.

There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?


Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.


This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.


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