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Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010
Is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?

I recently caught the first few minutes of the cartoon movie version of Dante’s Inferno.  Besides reminding me that “serious” cartoons that are supposedly made for adults are often really badly written, it also reminded me of how poorly the motivations were developed for the character, Dante, when I tried to play the video game version.


Using that old chestnut, the “damsel in distress,” as a primary motivator in video game narratives is hardly something new.  The slight plot of Donkey Kong wholly rests on the idea of “guy needs to save girl.”  This plot line represents a very simple emblem of a traditional sense of heterosexual romance, men pursue women, thus, it is compelling to tell stories about this pursuit or, in the case of games, take on the role of the man pursuing the woman. Embedded in this notion is the idea that a woman is something worth pursuing in and of herself, however, more sophisticated versions of these stories tend to at least attempt to give us some sense of a relationship that exists between these characters or a sense of who the woman is that a man should go to so much trouble for.


Donkey Kong has a seemingly similar advantage that Dante’s Inferno should have in telling its story.  Since Donkey Kong derives its minimal structure from King Kong—ape steals guy’s girl, guy has to pursue girl to get her back—prior knowledge of the story of King Kong may help us to understand that a relationship exists between our hero and damsel.  The need for exposition then in Donkey Kong is obviated by the romantic background of the story having already been told. 


Likewise, a prior knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy should give us insight into the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, idealized as it is by the poet.  However, Dante’s Inferno has also revised the tale, making Dante and Beatrice’s platonic and ideal love something less so, modernizing it for a contemporary audience.  Beatrice “gives it up” only to Dante because he is especially worthy and faithful.  A modern day version of “platonic” love is monogamy . . . or something? Despite being familiar with the previous work, the game still leaves me cold regarding Beatrice as a motivation for Dante. 


However, I can’t quite figure out why I am pursuing her so very hard (indeed, like the cartoon movie, I only made it through the first 10 or 20% of the game before returning the rental—talk about a lack of motivation).  This brief nod to idealization and a few scenes that fail to give me a sense of who this woman is before she is bleeding on the ground and giving up her ghost to Lucifer himself don’t really speak to me of why Dante likes this woman so much.


Curiously, though, lack of motive is at the heart of classic games that utilize the damsel in distress motif.  Is Mario in love with Princess Peach?  Is that why he is pursuing her in Super Mario Bros.?  That has always remained a bit unclear to me in the Mario mythology.  I seem to vaguely recall a reward kiss from Peach in some iteration of the series, but Mario’s motives in the first game seem especially unclear as he is merely launched into the Mushroom kingdom and begins moving to the right (assumedly, the direction that “the castle” where Peach is being held exists).  The closing scene, in which Peach simply thanks Mario, also doesn’t clarify any kind of romantic closure to a potential love story. 


Instead, if we are to assume some sort of romantic motivation or at the very least that the princess is valuable enough to pursue, Peach is defined merely by her status as princess.  In this instance, Peach seems to be reduced to a characterless object rather readily.  She has a crown, so she is conceived of by the player as something like treasure, maybe?  It’s a rather cold emblem of the goal of a romantic, epic quest if that is the case.


That same coldness seems to exist in Dante’s Inferno.  While Beatrice and Dante’s relationship is at least represented briefly in some flashback sequences, as noted the player is simply never really given a sense of who this woman.  She is blonde and voluptuous and maybe this signifies something like “treasure” in a most bleak vision of the fundamental nature of male-female relationships, but is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?


Ironically, I just wrote a few weeks ago about “The Romance of Karateka, a game very much in the vein of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Dante’s Inferno, but I praised it for its success as a romance cast in this very same formula, saying, “In a sense Karateka‘s romantic sensibilities are simple, traditional, and cliched, but they are also simple, relatable, and supported by the gameplay itself, which boils romance down to one thematic interest: how does effort fit into the equation [of romance]?” (Popmatters.com, 3 February 2010).  However, I also observed about the reason for the elegance and simplicity of the way that that game approaches romantic relationships is due to the fact that “It is a boy’s story.  Frankly, it is a little boy’s story.”  While Mariko is the “object” that motivates the effort in the game, nevertheless, the experience of the game focuses the player on its lesson in romance, which is that effort is required to reach that goal.  It is a simple enough lesson about love when you haven’t yet reached puberty, requiring no real necessity in creating complex characters and psychologies to support a mature sense of the complexities of a relationship.


Frankly, such simple goals and lessons also make the seemingly purposeless pursuit of Peach similarly palatable to the pre-pubescent gamer.  But Mario has always been marketed first towards that demographic.  If the game holds charm for adult gamers, that charm lies in its innocence and simplicity because of the way that it has been shaped for its younger target audience.


If that is the case, Dante’s Inferno rating, Mature, may speak to its problems in developing a plot based on underdeveloped relationships and an underdeveloped damsel in distress.  While children might need a simple and emblematic vision of romance to tell a story, adults generally want a bit more information to begin to believe in character’s motivations. If Beatrice is represented as a flat, emblematic character laid bare (quite literally, which is part of the many reasons for its rating) for the adult player, the mixture of mature subject matter with an idealized image and childish theme becomes problematic for the game’s target demographic.  It is a dilemma for Dante’s Inferno as the imagery that the developers want to portray in hell is certainly not suitable for a child’s eyes, but, unfortunately, the romance that is being presented is maybe only believable when viewing it through those same eyes.  It is a children’s story trapped in an adult frame.  If the content of games is to mature, characterization needs to mature alongside it.


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Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010
If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors.

As a game reviewer (and maybe this is true even more so than for any other form of criticism), you can never quite shake the fear that maybe it’s just you who doesn’t like a game. Or conversely, maybe it’s just you who could ever enjoy the twisted thing. While something like New Games Journalism (“The New Games Journalism”, Popmatters.com, 18 June 2009) attempts to articulate the individual experience, the hazard with a game review is that your experience might ultimately be too unique. A reviewer might have played every single FPS that came out in 2009 and nothing short of the second coming is going to impress them. A reviewer who has been a fan of every single Bioware RPG is probably going to be able to figure out a game’s system much more quickly than someone who has never touched one. Review sites like IGN or Kotaku mitigate this problem by breaking things into categories like Story, Presentation, Likes, or Dislikes but these are hardly objective standards. It’s easy to dismiss technical critiques like bugs or load times as irrelevant to a game’s value, but the notion of bringing them up still has merit. What can be gained by approaching a game review from a more technical perspective than things like fun factor or story? Looking at a game from a technical perspective really just means treating games like experience generating machines instead of experiences themselves.


I’m not talking about just rattling off stats, I mean applying a technical methodology normally used to test for things like bugs to gauge the value of the game itself. If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors. How much of a beating can a game take if you play badly? A Gamasutra article by David Wilson on QA styles highlights several interesting testing methods. The Ad-Hoc style is one in which the QA tester is constantly screwing with the system. If they spot a hole, they try to jump into it. If they see a weird nook in a fence, they plow into it with the strongest attack. The article explains, “This is where ad-hoc testing becomes an art: finding things that the end-user may attempt that the developers haven’t planned for” (“Quality Quality Assurance: A Methodology for Wide-Spectrum Game Testing”, Gamasutra, 28 April 2009). A more reasonable test for a reviewer is one in which the QA lets the screen fill up with monsters then tries to save or perform a move that will tax the hardware to the brink. If it’s a mission in which you are supposed to be following an NPC, what happens if I turn around and go back to the start of the level? If I’m supposed to be guarding an NPC, does friendly fire hurt them? Explosives? How many bullets does it take before they drop? The purpose of these tests is to undermine the fact that as a game reviewer or experienced player, you might not run into these problems. Rather than try to break it down into “I found this easily” you can just say, “The NPC can only take five bullets and will stop moving at key intervals if you forget them”. Consider the last level of Half Life 2: Episode 2. Anthony Burch points out in an article for The Escapist (“String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity”, The Escapist, 31 March 2009) that the whole level is an elaborate feedback system. It’s designed to just put you on the brink. Based on your health and location, X number of spider tanks will come after the base.  As more games begin to revolve around adapting to player input to perfect the player’s experience, spotting the edges of the system can only be done if you do some serious poking around.


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Friday, Feb 26, 2010
A warning screen appears when you first start Silent Hill: Shattered Memories that states “This game plays you as much as you play it.” This is a warning not to be taken lightly.

This discussion of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does contain spoilers.


Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a complete departure from the traditional survival horror format. It’s not simply a reimagining of the original Silent Hill. It’s a wholly new game. However, despite the differences, it keeps the single most important facet of the Silent Hill franchise intact, the very facet that its predecessor, Homecoming, forgot: retaining the psychological in psychological horror.


 


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Thursday, Feb 25, 2010
Why not put that gamer brain power to some good use, since we've got it doing grunt work anyway?

I did a lot of mining during my first play through of Mass Effect 2. I did a lot more than I had to, and when the game ended, I had thousands of units of resources, while at the same time I’d researched pretty much every upgrade I could. I probably spent more than two hours in excess of what was necessary guiding that scanner around planets, waiting for the squiggly line to spike, and for my controller to start vibrating in my hand. As mini-games go, it’s not thrilling. Of course, it’s not terrible either. The simple system reminds me of what using a metal detector on the beach must be like, which makes thematic sense. The hide and seek element means that technically, I guess, it’s a kind of game, albeit one requiring only patience rather than strategy or skill. However, within the context of a game in which I was heavily invested in building up my crew and doing the best job possible in my quest to save the galaxy, I mined and mined and mined with nary a complaint until now.


But as I scanned and probed, I had a lot of time to think, and I wondered if there was some more productive way that someone could exploit my mindless willingness to mine for the greater good of The Normandy and her crew. The first thing that came to mind was the work being done at reCaptcha.net. We’ve all seen captchas when registering with web sites: you have to identify the word to prove that you’re human. ReCaptcha uses two words instead of one, one is for security testing and the other is a scanned image from an old printed book. By entering what you interpret that the scan as saying, you add to the database of reliable translations of scanned texts, helping to eliminate optical character recognition errors. Obviously the Folding At Home project for Playstation 3 re-purposes the gaming console for some sort of public good, but it just takes advantage of idle CPUs, not the player’s own cognitive skills.


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Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010
Much of Vice City's authenticity is derived less from any kind of historical reality than it is from the fiction that helped shaped a sense of Miami in the 1980s.

Top 10, Top 25, Top 50.  Lists, lists, lists.  We have just about cleared the “list season” that makes up so much of the end of year housecleaning at so many media sites.  I don’t generally read a whole lot of the “best 10 games of . . .” (because most often the most obvious suspects show up), however, I recently was perusing Steve Gaynor’s Fullbright blog, and I did check out an older post, “Design of the Decade”, that made a case for the games that “defined state of the art in game design in the ‘00’s” (Fullbright, 15 November 2009) and found myself really admiring Gaynor’s restraint in choosing a Top 10 list of games of the decade.


Given that Gaynor’s interest is in noting games of significance in terms of their innovativeness in game design, his choices seem very sound and what I found especially admirable was that they appear to be a list of games chosen not as favorites but for specific reasons related to his criteria. Making such selections without being colored by personal faves (as many lists of this sort by other critics often do) is often a pretty difficult thing to do.  Gaynor does slip in a list of his own favorite games of the decade in a longer list of 25 later in his posting, which reveals his self control.  For example, games like Rockstar’s Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV make his favorites list but not the list for best design. Grand Theft Auto III does make his best of the decade for design but not as one of his favorites at all.


It was the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto III that particularly got me thinking about the difference between taking pleasure in a game and realizing its importance from a design perspective.  My own gut level reaction when I saw it on the Top 10 list was to think about games like Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as being far superior in my estimation to GTA III and how undeserving GTA III is as representative of Rockstar’s achievements.  Then I thought about Gaynor’s categories and had to admit that he was right, and I was wrong.  GTA III might not be as masterfully crafted an open world as those other three games, but because of its seminal qualities, I have to admit that it should be there and seemingly that the other three shouldn’t make the list for design.


Games with considerably more “soul”, though, are present in the design list than GTA III. Bioshock and Portal, for example, are significant not only for design innovation but also for wedding that innovation to meaningful characterization, storylines, and especially atmosphere (the innovative design actually creates the depth of these elements in many instances). The most troublesome thing about Grand Theft Auto III from my perspective is that, while it is certainly a good game, it is a strangely soulless one with its nameless and voiceless protagonist and bizarrely designed setting in the form of the twisted and unnatural layout of Liberty City.


Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas all resolve this problem as each one is able to breathe life into their thuggish protagonists and especially in their ability to create really meaningful worlds, each of which seemed to have a clear foundation in time and space.  It seems to me that Bioshock is likely included on the design list for thse very reasons.  One of the strengths and significances of Bioshock is its ability to generate spaces that seem real and occupied in ways that might be traced to the later Rockstar accomplishments moreso than to GTA III.


Which brings me back to my list of open world games from Rockstar.  Of the three that I have mentioned, Bully is probably my own personal favorite.  I like it as a satire of middle school years that evokes memories both pleasant but (mostly) painful.  Nevertheless, it is Vice City that gives me some pause regarding its possible unfortunate snubbing on Gaynor’s list because it precedes the other two games and what it resulted in, other open world games (and not just those desgined by Rockstar) as well as other games in other genres that accomplish not only a successful open world playstyle but the creation of worlds that seem soulful and grounded in time and space.


I have written before about the significance of the craftsmanship of the setting of Vice City before (Music, Nostalgia, and Force: Grand Theft Auto and Sensory Immersion, PopMatters.com, 22 July 2009).  However, I think it worthy of discussing some of these ideas again in order to note that the notion of creating a kind of “historical” reality in open world settings is important in understanding why more interesting open world games like The Saboteur and Assassin’s Creed have been developed in the wake of Vice City as well as the development of non-open world experiences that are examples of marvelously rendered atmospheric pieces like Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.


Vice City‘s contribution to open world design is that its development suggests that getting the mood of an era and place down is necessary to give an open world a “soul”.  The game does so in interesting ways, some of which are related to representations based on actual history and place and some of which are even more interestingly based on perceptions of actual history and place.


The most obvious historical detail that lends Vice City so much of its atmosphere is, of course, its commitment to the sound of an era.  The importance of the ability to tune the radio dial in Vice City and hear actual songs from the decade cannot be understated in its ability to evoke a sense of residing within the era.  It is likewise an element that later designers would integrate into games based on historical periods (Bioshock and The Saboteur, for instance, evoke much earlier decades through the use of ambient music).  Of course, GTA III first offered a radio dial to players as they jacked cars.  The largely unfamiliar tunes that poured out of a cars speakers leave a player relatively cold, though.  Whose music is that playing?  Seemingly it was music that belonged to a fictional space as (for the most part) these songs were being heard for the first time in a made up place called Liberty City, a place very unlike the Vice City which featured familiar and thus more “real” tunes.


Additionally, while the name, Vice City, is fictional, the details of the world have an obvious correlative to Miami, especially a Miami of the 1980s (but more on that in a moment).  As someone who spent an awful lot of time in Miami in the early 80s, none of the places in the game were obviously familiar to me, but the architecture and layout of buildings is.  In particular, the beachfront area on the southeastern portion of the island with a road bordered on one side by beach and the other side by hotels is no direct correlate to any part of Miami that I know, but it looks like it could be and I can think of places quite similar to it.


Which brings me to my second observation about the way that setting is evoked in Vice City, not just through mimicking an actual historical reality (through things like the music in the game), but also through our perception of a historical reality.  In other words, much of Vice City‘s authenticity is derived less from any kind of historical reality than it is from the fiction that helped shaped a sense of Miami in the 1980s.  With Lance Vance (especially) as well as other characters sporting fashions aped from the television show Miami Vice and Tommy Vercetti engaging in events, like the swanky yacht party thrown by Colonel Cortez near the beginning of the game, that look like something out of one of the show’s episodes, Vice City becomes our perception of Miami (whether we were ever there in the 80s or not) as generated by Miami Vice.


Similarly, Vice City‘s many nods to Scarface further this mediated sense of what Miami is or was during this decade.  Historical Miami is mediated by our experience of the place as universalized for Americans by film and television of the era.  Someone from Boise who has never visited Miami can have a sense of what Miami is and was from the perspective of Sonny Crockett and Tony Montana.  While Montana’s mansion might not be a place that a native of Miami could actually visit, when Tommy Vercetti begins to occupy a mansion in Vice City that looks like the spitting image of Montana’s place in the film, the player familiar with Scarface will recognize the correspondence and feel that they are “there”.  It is what film has taught them to think of Miami being While certainly other games have attempted to simulate aspects of historical settings before, Vice City‘s thoroughness and level of detail and its mixture of perceived and real elements of such a setting seems to me largely unprecedented on this scale.


It is for this important way of implying correlation between real and fictive worlds and combining elements of both sight and sound from the real and fictive worlds that the game wants to make us believe in that I would argue that Vice City might be a more significant fixture in design during this decade in gaming than one might otherwise realize.  Its influence on thinking about how to make us play make believe when we enter a virtual world may even be more critically important than GTA III, which admittedly brought us a genre but may not have as much impact as making designers reconsider something more subtle, but much more impactful on immersion in a world, authenticity of setting.


On the other hand, my point is not to call Gaynor’s list out.  Again, I think that it is a well considered one.  I just might want to add a personal favorite of my own to it with what I hope are well considered reasons related to the significance of its design and not just because it is a pleasure to play.


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