Call for Music Writers... Rock, Indie, Urban, Electronic, Americana, Metal, World and More

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
I was not terribly surprised at the feeling of overwhelming uncertainty about where I was. But I was surprised that I was also struck by an overwhelming uncertainty about who I was.

Sherlock Holmes: Baffled as Always?


I was recently revisiting Frogwares’ adventure game, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening.  Very early in the game as I was just growing accustomed to taking on the role of the most brilliant deductive mind to ever penetrate the fogs and mystery of Victorian England, I stopped to ask a policeman the way to a bookstore about three blocks away from 221 B Baker Street.  While I had just left the environs of my flat containing all of the familiar odds and ends associated with Holmes, like his trusty violin and oft used tobacco pipe, it was a decidedly disconcerting moment in my brief life as the most observant detective in literary fiction to discover that Holmes apparently had never noted the location of a shop less than a half mile from his own home.


This was not the Sherlock Holmes that I had read about in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels… He would have noticed such a thing.


Instead, I was facing a bit of awkwardly considered dialogue that served as a help to a player playing the role of Holmes that was unfamiliar with the game world that he had just been introduced to.  I was reminded that I was not Sherlock Holmes and that I was merely being introduced to a game location in a relatively obvious kind of way. 


This experience reminded me of my frustrations with another game set in London, 2002’s The Getaway.  Developer Team SOHO had bragged prior to the game’s release about the authenticity that the game aspired to by removing typically “intrusive” game mechanisms from the screen.  The Getaway, as a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game, would do away with interface elements like an omnipresent map or radar screen showing the player’s current location and other elements like a character’s health bar.  Largely, the developer argued, such elements detracted from the realism of the game by obscuring the direct experience of the game’s world.


Navigating the “familiar” streets of London in The Getaway


Such a desire for versimilitude seemed all well and good until I began watching the story unfold.  Being introduced to my new “self,” one Mark Hammond a former London gangster, through a horrific cutscene in which Hammond’s motivation for re-entering the life of a criminal were established, I found myself plopped down on an unfamiliar London street.  Hopping in a car, I very quickly became lost in what the publishers claimed was a very accurate representation of London’s streets.  Given that I had never been to London (and, of course, lacking a map of the area), I was not terribly surprised at the feeling of overwhelming uncertainty about where I was.  But I was surprised that I was also struck by an overwhelming uncertainty about who I was.  What bothered me was that I was supposed to be inhabiting the persona of a man who had lived in London for his entire adult life.  Like the moment in Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening, I realized that I was not the character that I was supposed to be; I was not Mark Hammond, Londoner.  Realistically, Hammond would know his way around these streets, and ironically, Team SOHO, by removing an “unrealistic” element like a HUD that provided a map of the London streets, had made Hammond an unrealistic character, an inauthentic version of a man from London.


Maintaing consistency in the way that an audience apprehends a character is of absolute necessity in creating authentic characters in fiction, and games that intend to tell stories need to pay attention to some different issues than prior storytellers have had to concern themselves with in regards to such consistency.  Not only should a video game character’s attitudes and behaviors remain consistent with their personality and intellect (Holmes as an investigator known for his superhuman observational abilities should know where a book shop right around the corner from his flat is), but the mechanics of the game have to maintain this consistency as well (an old London gangster should know basically where he is in the town that he grew up in).  If this calls for seemingly intrusive elements like HUDs and the like, so be it.  While something like a health bar seems like an unusual element to hang in mid-air to the left of my vision (as it does as I look at the screen as a player), it is far less realistic for me as a character to not know that I am very badly hurt. 


What Team SOHO seemed to forget when attempting to create a “realistic” vision of a London gangster is that since the player is limited in ways that he or she can perceive the world when inhabiting their role (sure, I can see and hear London, but I am unequipped with a memory of its streets or – blessedly—the tactile sensations that indicate when I am bleeding).  While gaming seems to offer bigger and better ways for its audience to experience the world, certain perceptual and epistemic experiences still seem beyond the scope of technology to represent.  Oddly enough, sometimes old school gaming often seemed to have been more aware of these limitations in representation and more subtle in their means of representing them than some more recent games.


Mario feels SUPER


Remember how Mario became “Super” when he ate the magic mushroom?  His size on screen clearly conveyed to the player that Mario was at his peak and could fearlessly take on any walking mushroom or flying turtle that might cross his path.  He was BIGGER than them.  He was at no risk of death from them in his visually evident “pumped up” form.  However, after taking a hit and shrinking down to plain, old Mario, suddenly Mario’s vulnerability became clear.  He was just a little plumber confronted by gargantuan (in respect to his current smaller stature) fungi and aeronautically gifted reptiles.  That is not to say that Super Mario Bros. is an example of pure realism (did I mention the mushrooms with the feet?), but it is a game that remains authentic in representing how a character feels about himself.  Curiously enough, this “unrealistic” visual becomes emblematic of Mario’s real sense of self in relation to his enemies.  Something less than real has established the authenticity of the character’s sense of the world and sense of himself.  That’s a character that I can believe in.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
The culture and benefits of encouraging patrons and games meant primarily for the public to enjoy.

As the entire “Are Games Art?” discussion continues to plod onward into infinity and beyond, there’s an interesting thing games are missing besides some random famous critic or cultural milestone. They haven’t got any patrons. In the 15th Century, Florence produced such popular art that it became one of their main exports. An article explains how a commissioned piece of art was originally a way for the wealthy to atone for usury and other sins. As time went by, the art began to change in topic from religion to the personal so that, “Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply ‘for art’s sake.’” The wealthy paid the artist to create a piece of work, usually about themselves, and would display it for the entire world to see and experience. Could such a culture find a home with video games?


Image from htmlhelp.com

Image from htmlhelp.com


The first question is what exactly would someone commission to be made if they were talking to a game developer. I asked a few random people and got a lot of interesting answers. One person said they’d want a level that was their favorite rock concert, allowing them to walk around while a bunch of pre-scripted activities took place and the band was on stage. Another said they’d like their house from when they were a kid to be remade so that they could visit it when they got old. Dan Bermegui, an indie developer, has already started a patronage service that lets people choose the topic of his poetry games or just be in the credits. Personally, I’d like it if someone just made a map of my favorite city park at just the right time of year, maybe Fall or Spring, so that I could turn it on whenever I wanted and just walk around. I asked a few level designers and developers in the industry how much it would cost to make such a park. Steve Gaynor, a level designer with 2K, writes, “If a “patron” were going to fund the re-creation of a place they wanted to visit, they could arrange a contract with an established level art outsource company and work with them to produce a level to their specifications. Alternately going the smaller route one might try to solicit the services of kids from a video game college to produce the same thing, which would presumably be cheaper but less reliable.” He estimates that it would only take a handful of people getting paid about $ 4,000 a month to make the bare minimum. Nels Anderson estimated about $50,000 or more if you wanted something on a scale comparable to The Graveyard.


From gettyimages.com

From gettyimages.com


Although some people might have the change to spare for a personalized level about their topic of choice, it’s important for a healthy patron culture to empower both the wealthy and the everyday person. A great example of this necessity can be seen in the Not Just Another Face exhibit in Chicago that was posted in Hyde Park. A huge variety of artists were matched with patrons from everyday walks of life to create a self-portrait. The artists ranged from literal painters to more abstract artists, meaning the artists were matched with what the patron could afford. Paper folding work was cheaper to produce than the oil painting, for example. The curator noted that one of the best parts was how people who had little interest in art were turned on and how artists were able to work with topics they’d never explored. He explains, “Too often artists are viewed as people who have very different sensibilities and attitudes and the patrons are afraid of making some kind of mistake – that they will show that they don’t know much about the art world.” Fortunately, there is already an easy way for a game patron to cut their costs, and it’s by using the art and engines from published games. Mods, a bastion of creativity and independent work, may be the best bet for a Patron who wants to make their favorite park into an interactive world.


From Oblivion, Bethesda

From Oblivion, Bethesda


Could the park be put together by a modder? There are already several amazing examples of modders simply making private homes in-game. This gets into a very tricky legal question because of the way that video games are copyrighted. As a five year veteran of modding Bethesda’s games, Kateri explains that once you convert all the information into the file format that their games can read then it legally becomes the company’s property due to the EULA. All art and textures made before conversion remain yours but if the level is to be playable by a large group of people then you’d want it to work in the game’s engine. Since a game like Oblivion is filled with hundreds of pre-made plants, trees, and landscape textures the cheapest way to have the level made is to just have to someone put all those pieces together. The problem is that you cannot use any of these assets without Bethesda’s approval. Another problem is that since mods for profit have been illegal for so long, many of the people in the community would be hostile to the notion of someone getting paid for their work. A fierce debate in the Bethesda Forums shows the wide range of opinions people have on the issue. Kateri explains, “If you were to enquire within the Bethesda modding forums about ‘hiring a modder,’ you would likely be met with hostility. However, if you were to say “here’s this wonderful park, would anyone be interested in recreating it?,” you might well get a positive response. The quality of work offered will be variable, but you’d have that issue to consider anyways.”


Frank Lloyd Wright\'s Falling Water, from freewebs.com

Frank Lloyd Wright\‘s Falling Water, from freewebs.com


Considering Bethesda’s interest in selling their games and supporting the mod community, it’s possible that they and other developers would consider becoming patrons themselves. Since they own everything in the game, they could support artists by commissioning works that would appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Many modders would jump on the chance to be distributed with the latest batch of DLC on a game because thousands of people would see their work. With so many games continuing to rely on their DLC for profits, they are going to have to get creative about what they’re offering. So why not just have a level for its own sake? Maybe something the company spent minimal money on except some touching up that’s just a beautiful space to be explored a few times? The possibilities for this kind of work can already be seen in video games today. You may not be able to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, but you can go there in a Half-Life 2 mod. Ever wanted to visit the island that Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes place on? A student project has created just that. There are even websites that let patrons and artists find one another on the internet. As artist Ron Jones explains about the Chicago art community, “If a city has a good patron community and good critical writing, you don’t have to worry about the artists. They will take care of themselves.” Perhaps what video games really need to be accepted is not an audience, but just someone willing to pay for games to be art for the sake of being art.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 29, 2009
There’s an automatic assumption that since we’re still in control and that there is still progress to be made.

The Call of Duty series has never been known for subtlety or for story but more for its large scale battles and action sequences. The 4th entry stays true this formula but also uses the modern setting to set a pace that builds up our perception of the game as a “power fantasy” until that fantasy is violently undermined.


The basic flow of combat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is meant to make us feel powerful. We rush into the fight surrounded by allies, and the respawning enemies ensure we always have someone to shoot or that’s shooting at us. We’re always in danger and it’s always exciting. In order to stop the flood of terrorists, the player must charge ahead past an invisible line that shuts off the respawning enemies. By forcing us to advance farther ahead than the other soldiers, it feels as if we’re clearing a path for them. Even though we’re in the middle of a crowded battlefield, we’re encouraged to act like the lone, bold hero of a typical action movie. We are clearly the hero here regardless of however many allies are with us.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Why would a game's developer choose to rub in its audience's face the presence of a no-longer-available pre-order bonus?
My blog about how Wolverine's racist imagery was overlookedin the wake of Resident Evil 5 fatigue will have to wait.

These are days when I wish everyone followed the Google-popularized mantra of “Don’t Be Evil.” The concept of the pre-order bonus is not a new one: buy the game early, get a little something extra for being so darn sure of your purchase.  It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, and despite the after-the-fact howling of the terminally wronged, it makes sense from a business standpoint to throw in an incentive to get people to buy a given product at a specific place.  Time was, you’d pre-order a game, or a CD, or a DVD, and maybe you’d get a poster, maybe you’d get an action figure, maybe you’d even get a little bonus CD with some exclusive (or, at least, timed exclusive tracks).  The huge fans pre-order it to make sure they get the prize; everyone else just gets the product when and where they feel like it. This has recently become something of a phenomenon in gaming arenas—Atlus has the pre-order business down to a science, what with soundtracks, plushies, posters, and all manner of other bonuses awaiting the Atlus Faithful, and the just-announced Guitar Hero: Smash Hits pre-order bonus extravaganza features everything from drumsticks to discounts, depending on where you order it from.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, May 25, 2009
A break down of the pioneering and still unsurpassed emergent music game Rez.
From Rez, SEGA

From Rez, SEGA


Last year’s release ofRez HD on the Xbox Live marked a return for what was one of the best cult classics for Dreamcast and PS2. Inspired by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia style, it attempts to make literal Kandinsky’s declaration that “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” This statement refers to his belief that when he observed colors he could hear literal sounds in his mind, that a painting could produce music the same way an instrument can. The game is an exercise in abstractions contrasted with technology, a mixture of ambiguous art and an electronic style of music that creates the experience of playing a musical instrument as a game. It is just as much ahead of its time today as it was in 2001 when it was first released.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.