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by Aaron Poppleton

12 Apr 2011

A few years ago, a writer by the name of Christine Love released Digital: A Love Story quietly into the wilds of the internet.  Set in a idealized vision of late 1980s computer culture, it told the story of two people who meet on a BBS and fall in love—albeit with a few Gibsonian complications thrown in for good measure.  The story was well written, capturing the feel of not only the first stumbling steps into adolescent romance but also the contradictory connected isolation of the early internet.  The story on its own would have been interesting enough, but Love’s decision to present the story via an old looking interface added to the immersion of the story as well as pushed the right nostalgic buttons for some members of her audience while also evoking an idealized image of the past for others.  In short, Digital was a period piece, set during those infant days of networking when stealing long distance codes in order to connect to a remote BBS was done without a second thought (I suppose it goes without saying that it was also set during a time when long distance phone calls were actually a big deal—before cellular telephones made the concept archaic). 

Digital had its flaws, which are mostly courtesy of its occasionally clunky interface and a few design decisions that were symptomatic of Digital’s short development cycle, but the strength of the writing and the charm of its unique presentation were more than enough to make it something of a critical success.  Here was a solid example of what electronic literature could do, something which hadn’t really been in evidence since the days of Patchwork Girl or Twelve Blue—and Digital’s youth meant that it was better able to take advantage of the electronic format than its predecessors.  Thematically the narrative was exciting as well, as it provided an interesting, if idealized, view of the role of technology in forging new relationships and ways of relating to one another.  Setting it in the early days of the internet (back before it was the internet, really) better helped to highlight these themes by restricting the interaction to text on the computer screen—no pictures, no face to face conversation.

by Aaron Poppleton

5 Apr 2011

There are an awful lot of games out there that allow you to play for free these days.  Microtransactions, once derided as an idea for online business, have suddenly become almost distressingly common.  One need look no further than Fallen London or Lords of Ultima to see examples of fairly successful games built upon nothing but the idea of microtransactions (although tellingly Fallen London has added the option to become an “exceptional friend” and subscribe rather than submit to microtransactions).  The problem is that a lot of people who are more concerned with the art of making games than the profits that can be gained by making games (like most critics, for example) regard these games, perhaps rightfully, with a deep sadness.  How cynical, they say.  This game severely restricts what you can do, slapping timers and a limited amount of actions per-day on things, dangling the promise of Extra Time!  Extra Moves!  Special Items! in front of the player, when very often it seems as if the real problem is that playing the games without these perks renders them almost unplayable—or so the thinking goes.

I’d heard about the Facebook game Dragon Age Legends through my brother, whose stubborn refusal to shut the hell up about anything remotely connected to Bioware is invaluable, and after reading Alec Meer’s review over on Rock Paper Shotgun, I decided to finally give the thing a whirl and see how it stacked up to the other two microtransaction-based games I already play on a regular basis—namely the aforementioned Lords of Ultima and Fallen London.  What I’ve come away with after spending a few days of playing Legends is that it is far more aggressive in its attempts to take the player’s money, and the game is the poorer for it, especially when you look at the promotional game for the first game in the series, the excellent Dragon Age Journeys (which I have continued to play despite the unfortunate fact that the unlockable content that the game offered can no longer be accessed).

by Aaron Poppleton

29 Mar 2011

One of the great strengths of a game like Dragon Age is that it wisely shied away from strictly good or evil choices with a few exceptions (I think it is safe to say that letting a demon keep possession of a child is probably an evil choice, for example).  The world of Dragon Age thrives on grey areas for your Grey Warden to find himself navigating, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the various political situations that seem to get in the way of stopping that whole “Blight” thing that seems so urgent.  It is a cynical view of a cynical business, and where the game really shines is in its absolute refusal to give you any one safe choice.  These aren’t paragons of virtue; they’re generally people with goals that may seem noble but are really just interested in plays for power or else they are despicable people who happen to have noble goals.  As a disclaimer here, I should explain that I played through the game as a dwarven commoner, and that particular origin influenced at least one of my decisions a good deal more than I thought it ever could.

by Aaron Poppleton

15 Mar 2011

“You’re joking, right?  I don’t care about titles or power.  I just wanna be number one.”
—Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes

We are a culture obsessed with ranking.  No multiplayer game worth its salt releases without having leader boards anymore (and even single player games have leader boards these days) so that we can all see who is the “best” at whatever game that we’re currently talking about.  Suda 51’s No More Heroes takes the obsession with being number one into the world of assassination, presenting a world where the mysterious United Assassins’ Association has created a ranking system for assassins in which one can move up the ranks by killing those above him.  For Travis Touchdown, the promise of being the top ranked assassin is enough.  “I wanna be number one… Short and simple enough for you?” he asks the player in the introduction.  This is the first step on a bloody path that comprises the game’s story, which darkly points out by the end that the rankings don’t mean anything.  Travis’s battle has been in the service of nothing at all.  It is a nihilistic message that lies hidden under the game’s constant pressure to move up the rankings and be the “best”.  By the end of the game, the plot itself refuses to provide any sort of actual conclusion, as Travis seeks only to bail out of the plot, saying “You want me to tie up all these loose ends [in the plot]?  I don’t think so”.

There is a hint at this lack of meaning after the very first fight, when Travis complains that “I’m not feeling the sense of accomplishment that I should”, which in turn leads to the promise (but not a guarantee) that if he reaches number one, Sylvia might “do it” with him.  The motivation for making a run at the number one spot (the desire to be “the best”) changes once Travis realizes that the defeat of the former 10th ranked assassin is not half as satisfying as he hoped it would be.  Apart from the promise of sex, the only other motivation he has is that defeating assassins pays the bills, but when one of those bills happens to be the fee for setting up the next fight, it all seems a bit self-defeating.  This is also setting aside the number of perfectly legitimate jobs that can do the exact same thing for Travis—and in many cases the assassination jobs that Travis can pick up pay less than some of these more menial tasks—the gas pumping job can reap sizable rewards, as can a job cleaning up litter, although the game does provide at least one assassination mission that pays far better than most other jobs.

by Aaron Poppleton

8 Mar 2011

In a book, the first person narrator is always difficult to trust.  We read a story as told to us by one of the characters, who may or may not be telling the truth.  Things are emphasized that may not actually be important, while other seemingly more important events are ignored.  The narrator may even outright lie to the audience, seeking to elevate his or her own importance.  (This is one of the fascinating things about The Sound and the Fury, for example.  The narrators of the first three parts all carry their own biases into the mix, which makes it difficult to figure out what is going on until the introduction of an omniscient third person narrator in the fourth and final section.).  A similar trick can be used in a movie, as the camera may follow one character’s version of events only to go back and contradict that very same version of events (such as in Fight Club or really any movie with a twist that involves a trusted friend’s betrayal).  The narrator of a story mediates between the world of the story and the world of the reader/viewer. 

Suda 51’s divisive masterpiece Killer 7 chooses to throw additional levels of mediation into its gameplay beyond merely seeing the game world through one character’s eyes (or more accurately the seven characters’ eyes).  Killer 7 utilizes several sub-layers of mediation as the game progresses, including changes in art style during some animated sequences that add to the confusion of what the world of the game really looks like.  The reality of the game demands that the player engage it through these additional levels of symbolic mediation in order to not just play the game but to understand what is going on in the narrative.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article