Archive for gaming

VALE GameTrailers: Goodnight and Good Game.

Posted in Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2016 by drayfish

GameTrailers logo

Last week the videogame media community was shocked by the surprise closure of

And I do mean ‘surprise’.

Defy Media, owners of GameTrailers, ran the closure like an execution. The entire GameTrailers staff turned up to work, were unceremoniously told they were fired, and were to be out of the building all within the space of a handful of hours. There was no grace period, no warning. (One of their employees, Daniel Bloodworth, was on his honeymoon.) It was a shady, needlessly brutal final blow, seemingly the final ‘Screw You’ from Defy, who, having clearly never known what they wanted to do with the brand after purchasing it from Viacom two years previous, had systematically bled the site of funds, carved down their staff, and splintered their viewership.

For those who might be unaware, GameTrailers was a site that had been active for over thirteen years. It pioneered the early capture, discussion and critique of videogames on the web before sites like YouTube and Twitch oversaturated the market, and for over a decade it remained at the forefront of its medium. Its writers offered thorough and thoughtful (if, in the early days, a little overly-mechanical) reviews. It’s on-air talent, particularly in its last few years, consistently set an industry standard for their professionalism and content (a herculean achievement after numerous job losses had dwindled the staff to a small team of accomplished multitaskers), and it continually fostered new programming around the games medium.

In the early years it offered video podcasts that exhibited welcome variety, if not always high quality. This is just personal preferences, but for every Invisible Walls, hosted by Shane Satterfield but fleshed out with a charming, rotating guest panel from the staff, there was an inconsistent Annoyed Gamer helmed by Marcus Beer, or a redundant Pach Attach (why anyone would consider Michael Pachter’s opinion relevant to anything is mystifying).

But this willingness to give a platform to a diversity of voices payed dividends. Soon passionate, intelligent content creators were being invited to explore games from their unique perspectives. Michael Damiani was able to create programs like Pop Fiction that explored the quirks and myths in game design. Michael Huber’s unassailable enthusiasm for the medium radiated out from Huber Hype. Kyle Bosman, whose The Final Bosman was all wit and welcome, offered quirky commentary on games and the games media, revelling in absurdity and always defending the right to treasure games that no one else cares about. There was the lighthearted, thoughtful weekly podcast, GT Time, that dissected news of the day and topics of contention. There was the more surreal Mandatory Update (which started as an overt Weekend Update knockoff manned by Elyse Willems and Ian Hinck and morphed into a lovably shambolic chat show. There were retrospectives and countdowns and live streams, and always, throughout it all, a genuine sense of camaraderie and joy.

GameTrailers was a place in which games were not simply spruiked and slammed in an endless Sisyphean loop. Particularly the site of the past few years, under the guidance of editor-in-chief Brandon Jones and Daniel Bloodworth (although it is fair to also commend previous editors like Ryan Stevens* and Brad Winters for setting this course), never treated videogames as chum to stir a feeding frenzy of spoilers and snark.

Games were art objects worthy of discussion and debate – and not in a dry dialectic mode of pretentious waffle. Games were always something to be shared; to be experienced together or reminisced about after the fact. GameTrailers cultivated the welcoming, enthusiastic tenor of friends enjoying their play experiences together. That sense of community that countless bro-ho-hoing podcasts strive vainly to manufacture and that feeling of shared experience that has made a streamer like Pewdiepie a millionaire were baked organically into the site.

Seemingly without effort it evoked all those sensations that have become the sensory memory of gaming: those times as a kid when you would stay up all night with your siblings to beat M. Bison on Street Fighter II; when you poured over screenshots of upcoming titles in preview magazines, trying to riddle out their possibilities; when the Konami code was whispered like a sacred text; when you realised you could grieve for the loss of characters that were merely lines of computer code stirred to life with a controller input. GameTrailers knew, and celebrated the fact, that games were experimental, experiential spaces; singular and shared; ridiculous and marvellous at once.

GameTrailers farewell stream

IMAGE: The Farewell GameTrailers Live Stream

And so, on the day they ended, GameTrailers went out as they had lived, with one last impromptu Twitch live stream – a play through of Grand Theft Auto 3, the first game digitally captured by the site way back in 2002. And even here, with every reason to rage and moan, the combined staff showed their signature class and spent the hour laughing. They took comfort in each others’ company, nitpicked beloved films, remembered old friends, and thanked their audience, again and again, for the honour of sharing those years with them.

Rather than gnash their teeth, they reasserted the joy of community. They thanked everyone, from the bottoms of their hearts, for playing along.

In the past week many have waxed lyrical about the whys of GameTrailers‘ closing. Jim Sterling has called it the inevitable consequence of YouTube’s ubiquity and the inability of a corporate business model to adapt to a broadcasting service optimised for lone content producers. Those more predisposed to conspiracy theories have speculated that Defy wanted to funnel their viewership toward some of their other gaming venues like Smosh Games and The Escapist.

For my part, I just wanted to briefly pay respect to a community that right to the end was a source of heartening entertainment. I admired GameTrailers, and the philosophy it embraced. And given that the soul-deadening, hatemongering nightmare of ‘Gamergate’ seems to keep churning out its exclusionist, paranoid judgemental dictation of who is, and who is not allowed to be a ‘gamer’, it seems especially sad to farewell GameTrailers, a place in which everyone was welcome. Where games brought people together rather than splintered them apart. Where the questions of sexism in games, or the strip-mining of nostalgia, or the interplay of aesthetics and narrative and game play, could all be debated freely, amongst friend who respected one another’s opinions, without the whole thing descending into invective and name-calling. Where games were not solely product to be consumed, but could be appreciated as tests of skill and strategy, or journeys into narrative, or art objects and curios.

The closure of GameTrailers is worth lamenting not solely because a lot of good, talented people lost their jobs and were treated poorly in the process. It’s painful because of what the site represented, and what the videogame community can always use. A variety of unique opinions were valued at GameTrailers; individual voices were allowed to be heard. And in a games media being strangled between corporate interference and a desire to pander to consumers who merely want to hear their own opinions mirrored back at them, that was something spectacularly rare, and deserving of respect.


IMAGE: The GameTrailers Crew

* Speaking of which, Ryan Stevens’ podcast Game is a Four Letter Word is a fantastic listen, and well worth seeking out.

Verb Yourself: The Naming Of Gaming

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by drayfish

Scott Pilgrim Gamer pic

IMAGE: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)

I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare these past few weeks, which means I’ve also been reading a lot about names. Not surprisingly, as the most talented and prolific writer of the western world (this is a fact; the end), Shakespeare, was particularly obsessed with language – how it functions and alters over time. It means that he can go a little nutty for the puns at times, but it’s forgivable, because ultimately what he’s exploring is the way that we can take our language for granted. A crappy pun about ‘maiden heads’ or ‘country matters’ – aside from being surprisingly smutty – is a way of forcing us to re-evaluate the associations that words carry with them, to stop and compel us to examine the way that we use words and invest them with meaning.

As a consequence, he interrogates the nature of names and naming repeatedly throughout his work. In Julius Caesar, Antony, while giving a eulogy after the murder of Caesar, calls Brutus ‘an honourable man’ for his actions in the scheme; but by the end of his speech he manages to load the phrase with so much irony and contempt that when he repeats the word ‘honourable’ it translates to pernicious, traitorous killer. It is a compliment that becomes, effectively, a sneering declaration of war. Meanwhile in Richard II, when Richard has his throne usurped, he spends the remainder of the play mulling over what the name ‘King’ – previously an inextricable element of his very being – now means. He is King. Or was. And if he’s not King anymore, then what – if anything – remains of the man underneath?

We can still see the kinds of grammatical concerns with naming play out today. There are certain names that carry so much baggage with them that merely their utterance entirely derails a discussion. The most obvious examples of these, the ones that first spring to mind, come steeped in asinine partisan politics, or preloaded with bigotry and offence – hackneyed, racist, and prejudicial terms that carry with them the idiocy or ugliness of their past. For obvious reasons I don’t want to talk about those (despite how pertinent such a discussion might be while the Washington Redskins continue to be a thing).

Instead, I want to wade into the shallower end of the semantic swimming pool, to pick a target of lesser consequence, but one with a similarly loaded connotations. Because over the last few years, in the midst of its ongoing struggle for artistic respectability, the videogame medium has had a curious relationship with one such name:


It’s a word that looks innocuous enough.

Gamer. (Noun.) A person who plays games.


But in practice, the word ‘gamer’ raises a number of problematic connotations that often muddy or complicate meaning – questions of what does or does not determine who is allowed to call themself a ‘gamer’. It’s a word that has evolved beyond ‘a person who plays a game’, to take on a whole new dimension, one where the amount of time spent playing, and the intensity of these sessions, are somehow being implied by the use of the term.

A ‘gamer’, from this perspective, is not a dispassionate descriptor, it delineates a kind of player of games. A ‘gamer’ plays the ‘HARD MODE’. A ‘gamer’ knows what ‘animation cancelling’ is in fighting games. A ‘gamer’ can get a twenty plus killstreak with only the throwing knife. A ‘gamer’ gets to say things like:

‘Oh, you’ve played 20 hours of Skyrim, have you? How quaint. Maybe you get to have an opinion when you’ve logged 300…’

Candy Crush becomes cited as the trash ‘non-gamers’ play; Dark Souls is for the ‘serious’ ones; Pokemon games are for hoarding, animal-blood-sport enthusiasts on acid. (By the way, Twitch Plays Pokemon was profoundly cool.)

Suddenly these kinds of exclusionary statements imply (or outright declare) that there is a self-evident division between what constitutes a real gamer and a fake one. It sets up a dichotomy of ownership of the medium in which only those devotees decreed to be in the inner circle can be considered the true audience, and everyone else condescended to as just along for the ride. It’s from this kind of classy system distinction that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘newbie’ and ‘gamer girl’ and witless garbage like ‘girlfriend mode’ spring.

It’s not clear where all of this started. Perhaps an attempt to engender some kind of tribal mentality (a spill over from the ridiculous brand loyalty wars of the Nintendo versus Sega days, and the current Xbox versus Sony age*); maybe the unintended result of the competitive nature of some games and the communities that support them; or the unfortunate, if natural, extension of the enthusiasm that inspires all fandom (we’ve all felt that; as for me, if you do not love Firefly then I regret to inform you that you are not a real person) – but whatever the cause, ‘gamer’ has come to represent a subcultural, elitist divide.

It’s a shame, because it risks taking something that should be inclusive, something to be celebrated, and turns it into a tedious pissing contest. Say to someone that you are a ‘gamer’ and suddenly a sense of judgemental snobbery threatens to overwhelm. They worry that you’re looking upon them as a Farmville barnacle; you worry that they think you’re a foulmouthed, teabagging thirteen year old on Call of Duty. And even if none of that disapproval is actually going on, it’s still in the atmosphere, stirred into being by the endless clogged forums and comments sections that do mean it all as an insult.

The answer, one might argue, would be just to not use the word anymore. We could say ‘people’ instead. Or ‘audiences’. Or ‘external biological reactive input interfaces’. Anything to let ‘gamer’ fall into that junkyard of sorry, formless terms we’ve abandoned, left to burn itself out on its own asinine steam – like jeggings, or Rob Schneider. The most logical choice would be to say ‘player’ – people who play videogames would be ‘players’, just as people who listen to music are ‘listeners’, and people who read books are ‘readers’ – the verb dictating the title.

Shakespeare’s Juliet would probably agree. For her a name was completely arbitrary. They literally didn’t have to carry around the stink of their past associations; a ‘rose’ by any other name would still smell as sweet. But what did she know? She was hopped up on adolescent lust. And as far as most research suggests, never even had an Xbox Live account.

But for the very same reason, using a different word seems like a needless concession. It is, after all, just a word; and when removed from its funk of juvenile competitiveness, it’s an entirely fitting one. A ‘gamer’ is just someone who wants to play a game – which is perfect if only it can be rescued from all that grammatical smog.

It’s not even like this kind of linguistic restoration would be anything new. Years ago, the idea of a television audience was observed with cynicism. A viewer? People would scoff. A ‘viewer’ was just whoever happened to be plonked on the couch willing to soak up the half-baked pabulum being spewed at them from the screen. Probably they were ironing and not really paying attention. Maybe they would fall asleep half way through, or flick over during the ad breaks and not return. Being invested in whatever the networks served up week to week was a waste of time. Next week Jeannie would still be misunderstanding Master’s orders (how was that show ever okay?); Magnum would still be; Gilligan was never gonna get off the island. The shows were only there at the behest of the advertisers anyway – yes, those are some smooth cigarettes, Fred Flintstone – so the viewer could just lap it up and call it ice cream. Of course, just as it is with videogames, this was all a gross oversimplification – but it was an opinion that for a long time continued to hold sway.

And yet.

Over the past couple of decades the notion of a viewer has been reclaimed. Redefined. In part this was aided by the surge in prestige programming that could not so easily be dismissed as cheap televisual distraction (your Mad Mens and Buffy the Vampire Slayers and The Wires), but it has also been a product of the empowerment of the viewership. Only a decade ago a network program sitting on 10 million viewers would be dismissed as a failure (remember Newsradio? NBC hopes you don’t); now it would be considered a smash hit event of the year.

Audiences are not, and never were, passive sponges for whatever is vomited their way; and the ubiquity of the medium, and our myriad ways of interacting with it, have shown this acutely. Shows can be time-shifted, recorded onto DVRs, bought through iTunes and watched on Hulu. What were once ‘water cooler’ events are now dispersed through circles of influence – people sharing programs with friends and loved ones.

‘Viewers’ are now something to be wooed. Cultivated. Treasured. Viewing is not just a passive act. ‘Viewers’ can bring shows back from the dead (Chuck, Star Trek, Futurama), they can crusade for programs they believe in (there is no way that The Wire would have run for five seasons on its relatively small ratings were it not for the rightful adoration of its loyal audience – many of whom, thankfully, were television critics**). In just the past few weeks Community, abandoned by NBC, announced it will be resurrected on the new broadcasting platform of Yahoo (huzzah!), largely because it carries its loyal fans in its wake.

There’s no reason ‘gamers’ need to be seen any differently. Sure, some might scoff that they ensure derivative FPS franchises keep chugging along (a fact far less offensive than the realisation that Transformers 4: Greasy Shouty Shiny Smash is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time), but that lazy cliché is hardly the whole picture. They also foster and support the smaller, experimental games. They invest in Kickstarters and keep online communities alive. They help conduct gene research in order to find cures for cancer.***

Again, as Juliet would suggest, maybe the word ‘players’ would get this variety of interaction across just fine – just as ‘viewer’ can equally mean someone yawning their way through an episode of Two Broke Girls or an academic writing a dissertation on the Faustian descent of Breaking Bad. But it seems a shame if ‘gamer’ can’t be reclaimed as well. It just needs to be hosed off a little. Scoured of all that exclusionary us-versus-them drivel that, in a sad irony, has tried to turn it into a badge of honour by souring the very thing it is meant to celebrate.

For me anyway, to be a ‘gamer’ should just mean that you play games; that you see something of worth in the medium. It could be that you view them as a competitive sport, a work of interactive three-dimensional architecture, a narrative with which to invest yourself, a challenge to overcome, an auditory and visual stimuli, or all of these things at once. Whatever. All that matters is that you see them as something worthy of exploration. Something deserving of the attention you pay them when you pick up a controller, or tap a screen, or waggle your hands fruitlessly in front of an aggressively non-responsive Kinect sensor.****

You are a ‘gamer’ if you bother to play a game. Simple.

Because making that choice – for whatever reason – is a worthy act in itself. We don’t have to feel guilty, or territorial, or turn a definition in to some twisted, competitive point of pride. We could just be ‘gamers’, and be content that there is a medium as expansive and idiosyncratic as we are, where everyone is welcome if they just agree to all play along.



How’s that for a pun, Shakespeare?*****


IMAGE: Gamer Life (Mimo Games)

*Personally, I was a Sega kid by circumstance (Go, Alex Kidd!), but looked on longingly at my Nintendo compatriots (Go, Tanooki suit!) …Atari I could take or leave (Go, Faceless-Man-Jumping-Over-An-Alligator-Onto-Underground-Swamp-Ladder!)

** Just to put it out there: The Wire never won for best drama series. Way to keep proving your utter critical irrelevance, Emmys.

*** In contrast, Michael Bay spends multimillions to film a robot pissing on John Tuturro. And he makes sure that the camera angle is so overdramatically low that the splash off hits the audience; a more fitting metaphor for his asinine directing style I have yet to find.

**** At least until game stores and publishers perfect that process of segmenting and merchandising every component of a game behind preorders and pay walls, finally reducing ‘gamers’ to the cash-spewing compulsive magpies they have always suspected we were.

***** Yeah, okay, I know it was terrible. Shut up.



‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by drayfish

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

Gears of War: Postpartum Edition

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

I remember the blood.  The shouting.  I remember sweat and pain and carnage.

I remember losing all sense of time – minutes seemed to be hours; but somehow hours disappeared in a flash.  There was exhilaration, and chaos, and confusion.  Bunkered in, feeling wave after wave of intensity and fight, bearing down against the rush.

At one point I thought it was all over, but there was even more struggle, more agony to come.  It seemed altogether more terrifying than I had ever imagined, and yet I surged with adrenaline that made me alert, and alive, and left me shivering.  And then, when it seemed we could give no more, when we had been pushed beyond the point of endurance – it was over.  A swell of staggered, numb relief washed over me as I realised we’d made it through.  All of the fight was worth it, and the horror washed away in a flash, in the achievement of something sublime.

My child was born.

…Oh, sorry – did you think I was talking about Gears of War? 

I guess it’s an easy mistake to make.  Both are filled with agony and blood; both involve a frenetic urgency, confusion, chaos, and more than a little fear.  Both rob you of all coherent thought as you start to react instinctively, and find a way through the confusion.  Both have a military organisation assembled from the last stragglers of human resistance fighting back against an unstoppable alien armada.  …No, wait, only one of them has that.

In any case, it’s fair to say that personally, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so weirdly analogous to the experience of those first few moments of parenthood – the birth itself and those chaotic first weeks of caring for a newborn.

People often say ‘rollercoaster’.  The early days of parenthood are just like a ‘rollercoaster’, everything’s upside down and a big rush, but soooo exhilarating.  I disagree.  I’ve been on rollercoasters.  Rollercoasters have tracks.  Rollercoasters have safety harnesses.  Rollercoasters make you remove your hat and secure all valuables.

Some people say it’s like having your heart outside your body.  In this I slightly agree – certainly in those first few weeks I remember my wife and I feeling like all of the blood had rushed out of our systems, that our bodies were in a state of startled atrophy – sleep-deprived; exhausted; short-tempered; panicked by every noise or cry our daughter made; unable to concentrate – on some level we really did feel like the guy in Temple of Doom who gets his chest torn open and thrown into a pit of lava.  But still, it does not really capture the drudgery, the chaos, and the weird exhilaration that these first few weeks inspired…

For that, I submit for your consideration: Gears of War 2; videogaming’s finest depiction of the emotional maelstrom that comes in the wake of parenthood.*

Back up momentarily to the week before my daughter was born and my beautiful wife was (as logic would dictate) still in the final month of pregnancy.  We were in the long anticipatory period before birth; the anxious, poised state, waiting at any moment for the inevitable to kick in to gear.  A bag was already packed.  A crib was already assembled.  Linen was already tucked.  Diapers were stacked.  Pumps and wipes and feeding pillows and basinets and (for some reason) grinning soft toy dinosaurs were all gathered and arranged.  Now came the killing of time…

And so, finding myself – as I so frequently am – flicking through a shame pile of unfinished videogames, I decided to slide in a copy of Gears of War 2 (purchased on sale only days prior) and leap in to while away the hours…

To begin with, if I’m honest, I was a little nonplussed.  Perhaps it was the result of jumping on a series without having played the previous entry, but to me the whole aesthetic seemed to be predictably washed out browns and murk, rust uniformly spattered with blood; the enemies looked like WWF dolls left in a microwave too long; the harrumphing self-satisfaction of the main characters completely rubbed me the wrong way (dialogue that purported to be ‘banter’ came off more as ‘redundantly repeating the painfully obvious’); and the clunky sack I was controlling seemed to move with the grace of a rolling wheel of cheese.

I played through the opening sorties with a vague appreciation of its game-mechanical polish, an appreciation for the relatively optional turret sections now becoming obligatory in other shooters, and a gradually rising respect for the art direction, which was starting to show some variance, and a surprisingly deft hand at rendering the awe of an ongoing apocalyptic collapse.  But I was still, nonetheless, mystified by everything going on in the story, and although I’m not exactly squeamish, some of the finishing-move animations (my gun has a chainsaw?!), and the spigots of blood pumping out of everything seemed a little gratuitous…

Then, suddenly, it was time.  There was labour.  There was hospital.  There was birth.  There was a new little girl in the world.  And the tribulations of Delta Squad faded utterly into the nether.

Days later, back from hospital and putting that stack of change wipes to work, I decided to occupy my fatigued mind in between bouts of newborn crying by returning to the fight.  I needed something non-taxing; something that could be paused at a moment’s notice; a game that would not judge me for being incapable of following along with a plot given my foggy mental state…

Gears was still in the Xbox.  I loaded it up again.

I remember actually thinking, ‘Heh.  Look at that.  My gun has a chainsaw on it…’

And five minutes later it had clicked.  All of it.  As my divine cherub slept in her basinet, offering a few sweet moments of quietude, I tore through the Locust horde now emboldened with a synchronicity of player and text that only comes from understanding, at last, what the core of whole thing means…

Suddenly, sitting in the flickering half-light of the television screen, with every piece of clothing I was wearing stained with spit up and saliva, the game’s gratuitous obsession with blood and gore and puke – with bodily excretions and fluids of every type – made perfect sense.  Surrounded by a trash can filled with used diapers and scattered tissues filled with snot, suddenly, hearing the words ‘Shit!’ and ‘Crap!’ in every second clause structure, and watching my character get covered in slime and brain matter and viscous goop seemed completely familiar:

Hmm…  Now I’m fighting my way through the digestive tract of a giant worm?  Yeah, seems legit.  Hey, is that a guy being eaten alive by stomach acid?  Well, we’ve all been there…  Yeah, that’s not so much Riftworm blood to have to vomit back up…

Even the sight of the bombed out detritus of once bustling cities reduced to smouldering wastelands was instantly recognisable.  As I looked around the house what I saw was all but unrecognisable from the week before – sprawls of swaddles and teething rings and pumps and bottles and mobiles, blankets and soft toys and wilting flowers, boxes filled with discarded gift wrap and dirty laundry piling up for the morning.

And yet – just as it is in game – the sight of it all was somehow glorious.  The shambolic wreckage of a new parent’s house, retaining the shape of what once was, but spilling over with the happy, weary chaos of something altogether vibrant and new.

…And completely covered in drool.

And I realised in a flash: maybe that’s why the opening level started in a bombed out hospital!  Like life, the game was declaring: You were born into this shambles, parent – now embrace the life-affirming pandemonium.

As I played on, I was able to dive into the swirling, mayhem of the story.  Just like every moment of caring for the needs of a newborn, the game is not about making plans and schedules and adhering to rigid structure: it’s about reacting, running on instinct.  If your child needs food, you give her food.  If your child needs burping, you do of the burping.  If she needs to be changed, you change her.  Needs to sleep, you help her sleep.  Linear time does not exist – your logic, order, timeframes, are but ashes in the wind of her principal need.

So too with the game…

‘Why is the Locust Queen human? someone who sleeps in more than half-hour increments might well ask…   Or, ‘What’s all this about a bomb?’  Or, ‘Who’s the guy chained up to the thing, and why did he wig out like that?’  Or, ‘Why is the Queen exploding that bomb?’  Or, ‘Why is this building being knocked down, set on fire, and flipped over?’  Or, ‘Why am I exploding the bomb now?!’  Or, ‘How are we all suddenly riding on the friendly space bugs who wanted to eat our faces a minute ago?

And the answer will always be returned: Who the hell cares?  It all just is.  And if you run with it, it’s a magnificent squall.  Because Gears of War is not about narrative.  It’s not about causal links and arching plotlines (at least not that I saw), it’s about gut instinct.  About pure, primal, primitive emotion.  Rage.  Fear.  Revulsion.  Love.  It paints on a big canvas, and uses thick brushstrokes, but the result, if you suspend all disbelief (and maybe even a good deal of belief too) is an unfiltered, expressionistic roar.

Even controlling Marcus – now that I had just given over to the mindset that the game required – had become a joy.  My lumbering pile of meat was suddenly a fluid ballet dancer across a blood-soaked stage.  There was rhythm and drive to it all, and I was soaking it in.

And speaking of Marcus – I finally knew exactly what to make of Delta Squad…

Margaret Stevenson-Meere, an Early Childhood and Family Health Nurse, wrote, in the introduction to her book, Baby’s First 100 Days:

‘Babies are not rational beings …. Babies lose the plot occasionally …. A baby does not have a grasp on anybody else’s emotional needs until he is about 7 years of age.’**

They were children.  All of them.  Manifestations of humanity’s primal id.  That’s why they are all so snappy and rash.  Why Marcus shouts ‘Gimmie that!’ when he picks up a gun.  They, all of them, operate in a newborn bipolarity of emotion.  Mournful and melancholy one moment (‘Dear God, we lost them all…’), screaming and in shock the next, only to immediately undercut it all seconds later by cracking wise and giving pet names to captured space bugs.  Like a newborn they snap from glee to devastation and back again without warning, each time punctuated by seemingly random shrieks and snarls.

Indeed, these characters even look like inflated newborns.  At first glance they appear to be farcically over-muscled Y-chromosomes made flesh, but check those proportions: they are upsized babies.  Thick arms; chubby legs; Marcus Fenix himself looks like a toddler with a soul patch.  (I’ve not played game three, so I’m not sure if he ever takes it off, but I’m fairly certain that he wears that bandana non-stop because his fontanelles have not yet closed over.)

Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in the character of Dom.  Dom is haunted throughout the game – to the point of complete irrationality – by the hunt for his lost wife, who has been kidnapped by the Locust scourge.  And when he finds her, near the climax of the narrative, the Bro-thumping tenor of the game momentarily shifts, and for but a fleeting glimmer of time, we see some genuine heartbreak – true sorrow that creeps in amidst the locker room jocularity.

Dom’s wife is gone, a twisted, malformed shade of the woman she once was; turned into yet another monster.  Dom must do the unthinkable, and in a moment of profound pathos, we feel his loss.

…But literally seconds later Dom is spitting out the one-liners again as a fresh horde of meat-bags he can riddle with bullets files in.  Admittedly, I was not expecting him to sigh, brush a single, silver tear from his eye, and turn to the heavens to murmur:

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…’

But you would expect something

After almost an entire narrative filled with desperate obsession and emotional fanaticism intense enough to endanger a mission to save humanity itself, he leaps back into the fray and reverts to ‘Boo yaw!’ type.  In any other game this would be a universe shattering moment of cognitive dissonance, here it’s a sign that maybe Dom needed a nap.

Speaking of which (if you’ll forgive me the aside) but: What the hell is a ‘Cole Train’?

At one point I’m in the middle of a hopeless battle, surrounded on all sides by snarling, grasping fiends – a city block collapsing around me in flaming rubble as my squad scavenges for cover – and suddenly someone called ‘Cole’ barrels through the line, shoving grenades down throats, kicking unholy monsters through the thorax, and whooping like a rodeo clown.  And from that point on in the plot he appears to offer little more debate or discussion than a series of third-person catch-cries or yelps for joy.  It’s like someone took Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and Elmo and squeezed them down in an olive press to make Extra Virgin Cole…

In any case, the men throughout are depicted as hunks of needy, flailing meat, while the women – the few that there are – become absurdly, hopelessly idealised.  I presume that someone, somewhere has already made this observation, but truly: the women in Gears of War (or at least here in 2) are exceedingly romanticised creatures.  When they are seen (which is rarely) they are statuesque, swimsuit model-proportioned, tactician voices of reason.  Frequently they appear only through headsets – angels calling from the beyond to try and calm down the chaos.   Dom and Marcus will be pinned down, screaming and storming, and a soothing voice will come over the com to act as a comfort, to direct them forward.

Substitute this sequence of events with a baby’s cries and the consolation of her mother’s voice, and the metaphor is potent indeed.  These women – protectors, guides, solace – who appear at the end to patch up the soldier’s wounds, are like surrogate mothers: a home to return to, a source of peace in a maelstrom of emotional turmoil.

From what I understand, women get to play a far more active role in Gears of War 3, which frankly would be nice to see.  Having watched one extraordinary example of their gender give birth to my child, and observing her superhuman capabilities while I fumbled about in a newborn haze, I can attest that they would handle the gore and endurance and carnage far more handily than any number of storming ‘Cole Trains’ or ‘Bairds’ or ‘Doms’.

What Gears of War 2 proved, again and again, is that often the greatest splendour can arise from the most acute disarray.  As the old adage goes: children – like an invasion by murderous alien bugs – do not come with an instruction manual.  There is no definitive handbook to read to prepare you to become a parent, no class you can take that properly renders the journey it puts you through.  But in the gory haze of Epic Game’s stirring sequel I found a distorted funhouse mirror of my own experience, and a striking experiential metaphor for the peculiar Stockholm Syndrome of love that it engendered.

By the end of those first few weeks of parenthood I could see beauty in a dirty diaper, and a peculiar glory in the exploding membrane of a writhing, mutated monstrosity, stewing in its own ungodly putrescence.  And while I’m not sure precisely who to thank in that equation, or even what exactly it is that I am thanking them for, it has meant a great deal.

Image: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

* Although I freely admit that this probably has a lot to do with my own, singular experience of the game than any authorial intent.

** Baby’s First 100 Days, by Margaret Stephenson-Meere. (Doubleday, 2001), p.xiii

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Six Days in Fallujah (Konami)

Who doesn’t love and angry rant written months ago and left to ferment?  Mmmm hmmm…  A nice, acidic argument – now completely out of context, with references that almost no one recalls – lambasting an opinion piece that pretty much everyone has already forgotten?  Those smoky, earthy tannins of matured rage smouldering on the palate.  Who doesn’t love that?

…What?  Nobody loves that?  In fact, people actively despise that?  Oh.  Well, this blog might not be the taste experience I predicted…

Anyhoo…  This piece was actually written in response to an IGN Playstation editor, Colin Moriarty, and the peculiar editorial appeal he made last year to the videogame industry, declaring that ‘political correctness’ was stifling the creative potential of game designers.  It struck me as a ludicrous (and rather childish) screed, one that fundamentally mistook personal gratification for artistic license.  That this irrational tantrum was being offered by a prominent representative of videogaming – a medium that I believe deserves more regard than it is currently afforded – unnerved me greatly.  (Indeed, in truth I’m still rather shocked that he retains such a high position in the industry.)

My response (which follows here) was written and published last year at What Culture, but I offer it up now in all its un-contextualised, un-timely, utterly-irrelevant anti-glory:

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Eidos)

 I: ‘Do what I say, not what I do’

I’ve taken issue with the opinion of IGN Playstation editor Colin Moriarty in the past.  A few months ago when Moriarty loudly decried the temerity of fans who would dare question the rushed, illogical, nihilistic endings of Mass Effect 3 (a game whose creators themselves went on to agree needed ‘clarification’ with a free Extended Cut), I lamented the way in which Moriarty, despite being a mouthpiece for the videogame community, had joyfully set back the debate over the validity of games being Art with a number of stifling and anachronistic sentiments about the way that they should be approached as texts.  In a curiously hypocritical declaration for a game-reviewer, Moriarty had posited that audiences had no right to be heard by the creators of videogames, that their only options in engaging with a text were to either purchase the work and unquestioningly praise it, or to not buy it, shut your mouth, and walk away.  For Moriarty there was no avenue for feedback or critique; you either paid your money or got the hell out: nothing to discuss here.  Seeing this as a shockingly reductive way in which to interact with any work of Art – let alone in the still-burgeoning medium that videogames represent – I concluded that Moriarty was probably in the wrong profession, and that his stifling hostility certainly did the legitimacy of his own position as a critic no favours at all.

At the time I had hoped that Moriarty would prove this strange outburst to be a momentary lapse of thought.  Having finished venting his ire at the ‘entitled whiners’ of the Mass Effect community who seemed to have somehow personally offended him by not agreeing to being satisfied when he told them to, I believed he would return to his function as a reviewer, perhaps even, one day, looking back to appreciate (if never vocalising) the irony that his very career was based upon the commentary he had condemned others for attempting.  And yet, only months after his first outburst, in the past week Moriarty has chosen to cast his net even wider.  Expanding his buy-it-or-shut-the-hell-up treatise to the whole of the videogame world, Moriarty has decided to decry the ‘Political Correctness’ that he imagines is stifling all creativity in the field.

II: All the little things…

In an opinion piece published on the IGN Playstation website, Moriarty argues that, as he sees it, all videogame Art is currently under threat.  Games in the midst of development, he argues, are being choked by the whims of vocal minorities; voices of complaint are stifling the creativity and innovation of developers, compelling them to change their visions based upon the most insignificant of personal grievances.  All because, as he states, ‘Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy.’*

But what are those inconsequential ‘tizzy’-inducing ‘somethings’?

Well, helpfully Moriarty offers a list.  They are: rape; the sanctity of people’s religious beliefs; and graphic recreations of ongoing real-world military bloodshed (actual events in which currently serving soldiers have watched their squad mates die).

You know?  The small stuff.

Extraordinarily, considering how harangued he sounds in his Chicken Little proclamations, Moriarty offers no legitimate examples to support his claim that this kind of censorship is rife.  Citing the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot (in which pre-release advertising showed the game’s protagonist being overtly threatened with sexual assault), the game Smite (which offers gratuitous and unflattering depictions of Hindu Gods), and the now-cancelled Six Days In Fallujah (an FPS that recreates in painstaking detail the real-world events of the bloody insurgency in Fallujah), Moriarty argues that somehow – he’s not actually able to articulate how, but he can feel it: somehow – these games are being stripped of all creativity and communicative potential by voices of dissent that would question how such subject matter is being depicted.  However, in the three examples he has selected only one can perhaps be said to have been effected by the criticism it received.  Tomb Raider and Smite are both confirmed to be going ahead without any alterations at all, and it still remains unclear why publishers Konami pulled the release of Six Days In Fallujah – though one can fairly comfortably suspect that it was more to do with projected sales figures than the moral outrage of a ‘vocal minority’.

For Moriarty even the suggestion that one could question any of the design decisions in these games equates to an affront to free speech, but, as now appears to be the case with his entire thought process, he misses the nuance that can put these complaints into context.  The issue with Lara Croft’s threatened rape in the recent trailer was not that the subject matter of sexual assault itself should never be depicted in fiction, it was that it was being used, cynically, as a tool through which to disempower the central protagonist in order to make her sympathetic to a playing audience.  Much of the complaint centred around the suggestion that we, the players, needed to be so ham-fistedly manipulated, that we would feel no compulsion to follow a strong female character unless she was first violated and beaten down, a weakened damsel in distress that we, with our godly player-agency, could rescue from the ravenous advances of predatory men.**  It was an advertising move that insulted its audience as much as it did the heroine (who thankfully, we were soon assured, was not actually going to suffer a sexual assault in game just to elicit empathy).

Indeed, in order to scramble up to his fearful, speculative peak, Moriarty has had to completely ignore the reality that in the history of the medium very little – indeed almost none – of this so called ‘Political Correctness’ has ever actually succeeded in altering the design of a game.  Nonetheless, he believes that all dissenting opinions (such as those of veterans of war who questioned how appropriate it was to release a sensationalised portrait of an ongoing conflict in Six Days… – this is literally the argument Moriarty makes***) should always be ignored in favour of the marketplace, which has a better chance of regulating the material to which the public should be exposed.  Instead of debate and dialogue, Moriarty proudly subscribes to a form of Darwinian Capitalism in which the dollar is the sole measure of a text’s artistic merit.

And who knows, perhaps he’s right…  It’s certainly true that money has, in the past, always been the best arbiter of Art.  That’s why Transformers remains the most important cinematic touchstone in recent history; why Twilight is the finest piece of literature to have elevated the written word; and why Justin Bieber is widely considered to be history’s finest composer.

…Hold on.  What?!

Alongside being patently idiotic, Moriarty’s purely commercial vision would also theoretically silence any critic who did not speak with their wallet …although it goes without saying that Moriarty (as a ‘critic’) reserves the right to himself complain about whatever he feels (it would appear that he is either addicted to, or is incapable of comprehending, irony).

III: ‘Yer with us, or agin us’

To arbitrarily shut argument down, to point to some mythic commercial idol that will somehow rescue us from the need to converse with one another about social and artistic issues is so mind-numbingly reductive that it is hard to believe Moriarty could be unaware of the false dichotomy he employs.  By pointing to some mythic commercial idol that will rescue us from the responsibility of actually having to think for ourselves Moriarty uses the oldest and most rote means of shutting any discussion down; in his new fallacious bipolarity of argument he decrees that either everything is allowed, or everything is not:

Should we succumb to the plight of political correctness and let it ruin the creativity of our industry like it’s corrupted so many other artistic avenues? Or should we stand up and say “anything goes” and encourage the creative minds that give us the games we love to push the envelope, social consequences be damned?

It’s the kind of infantile either/or scenario that is popular in any rhetorically specious debate: ‘Well if you don’t agree that torture is acceptable then you’re pro-terrorist’; ‘If you eat meat then you can’t complain about animal cruelty’; if you laughed at Leno you must hate Dave; Pepsi versus Coke; Jacob versus Edward; ninja versus robot.  In discourse it’s the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears and shouting ‘La la la la laaaa…’ to avoid responding to contrary opinion.  It’s pathetic.****

Indeed, in any other circumstance it would be comical to hear someone so witlessly misapplying this kind of arbitrary delineation to a debate on artistic merit.  It is as if Moriarty were intentionally evoking each and every cliché in the history of turgid irrational screeds.  We get the predictably uncontextualised Benjamin Franklin quote; the ‘Thought Police’ have their obligatory mention; and his tantrum even comes packaged with its own victimhood complex: I’m sick of being told how to live; I know plenty of fire fighters but I never stop anyone saying anything about 9/11!!, etc.  Taken completely out of context (as Moriarty impossibly wants people to consume all Art), his opinion piece is an hilarious, although unwitting, parody – the indignation of a paranoiac with a persecution-complex, wailing that the ‘PC’ bogeymen are ruining all his fun.

However, as Moriarty is not joking, and as these opinions are being espoused by a commentator who is himself a member of the gaming press, this ludicrous fear-mongering has the potential to be quite harmful for a new medium of expression that has, throughout its relatively short span, struggled for legitimacy in a world that frequently dismisses it as juvenile distraction.  Moriarty might well be content to pursue an illusory enemy, leaving his city to burn in the process, but for those of us who do genuinely care to see the videogame form accepted for the innovative artistic medium that it is, seeing someone who should be using their platform to advance this message instead railing like a petulant child is quite disheartening.  I can only presume that this is why his employers at IGN provided a more rational response from a fellow editor the next day, seeking perhaps to offset the unflattering portrait his eruption presented of the contemporary gamer.*****

For critics who have long dismissed videogames as the competitive playthings of people too self-involved to conceive of what the purpose of ‘Art’ actually is, Moriarty’s petulant ultimatums – silencing debate and reducing the medium to pure consumer product – will confirm their every ugly stereotype of games and the people who play them.  Rather than innovative texts that have the capacity to redefine narrative experience and audience interaction, games will merely remain a means of juvenile gratuitous satisfaction, feeding whatever wanton or base desire for which its customers are willing to pay.  By reducing the conversation of Art down to a cartoonishly politicised either/or proposition, Moriarty undermines the very validity he claims to defend and risks making gamers everywhere look like infantile fools.

IV: ‘The reason we all have one mouth but two ears’

In the end, Moriarty sounds like little more than a brat throughout his opinion piece, squealing for his toys as the big mean ‘Politically Correct’ mummies and daddies of the world try to tell him that sometimes it’s important to think of someone else in the world besides himself.  Indeed, there are so many things wrong with his ill-conceived fantasy of a commercially-dictated artistic merit that in trying to formulate a rejoinder it is difficult to know where to start.

Does one begin by pointing out that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, so profit alone is no validation of Art?  Does one explain to Moriarty what the highly profitable pornography industry actually is, and how profitable it has proved over the years – since he seems to have made himself wilfully unaware?  No.  In the end, one needs to settle on the simplest answer; the most fitting response in this case.  One needs to offer him the advice one would offer to the tantrum of a child:

Despite what you might think, Moriarty, you don’t know everything.

No one person does.  And it is only through being willing to participate in healthy, adult discussion that works of artistic merit (and ideally of profit) can be produced, dissected, and enjoyed.

For all his bleating about protecting the rights of freedom of speech and expression, Moriarty is so busy weeping for the fun he imagines himself to be denied that he utterly forgets about the social responsibility that any self-respecting artist should value.  No artwork is divorced from the social and cultural milieu into which it is presented; no artist works in a vacuum.  Any piece of Art (if it is to be considered worthy of the title) – and even if it aspires to speak for generations beyond its time – remains a conversation with an audience that cannot be divorced from its context.

Simply being able to say something is no immediate indication that one should (as Moriarty’s own article proves); and reminding artists that they have a duty to communicate something of value, not to simply pander to whatever base desire floats momentarily across the transom of their mind is not the Orwellian censorship about which Moriarty apoplectically shrieks.  It is simply part of the organic dialogue of creativity in which every artist must participate; to pretend otherwise, to mistakenly equate ‘freedom of speech’ with a reckless abandon of purpose and taste is to fundamentally devolve the act of expression itself.

It would therefore serve us all – artists, audiences and critics – to remember that communication itself is the most elemental component of all artistic expression, and lies at the heart of every interaction between audience and text.  Videogames offer us an unprecedented window into a thrilling new relationship between creator and player; but with restrictive voices like Moriarty in the gaming press conceitedly shouting such dialogue down, the debate over whether videogames should be considered Art is only made harder to justify; they become nothing more than soulless product met by a silent audience, made-to-order fare with nothing innovative to say and nothing to ask of their player.

IMAGE: Smite (Hi-Rez Studios)


** The producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku stated that he wanted players to feel an urge to ‘protect’ Lara from danger: ‘When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.’ (

*** ‘Never mind that we have hundreds of games about World War II – a war in which some 65 million people died – anything to do with Iraq should be censored. Why, because it just happened?’ (

**** Besides, the ninja clearly wins.


Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: Freedom in a Cage

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2013 by drayfish

[I’m about to utterly spoil Enslaved (particularly the ending). If you ever intend to play (and I encourage you to), DO NOT READ ON… ]

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

‘Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude’

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

So…  ummm…  How come no one told me about Enslaved?

You know, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West?  Created by developers Ninja Theory and released two years ago for the Playstation and Xbox consoles?

I mean, sure, I had heard about it…  From the makers of Heavenly Sword (who have also just this month released their take on the reboot of the Devil May Cry series); staring, and partially directed by, the incomparable Andy Serkis; a retelling of the Chinese classic Journey to the West…  But no one told me it was sublime.  No one said it would fire my every gaming endorphin in a blaze of immersive bliss.  No one said it was a mystifyingly underappreciated gem in this age of redundant sequels and reiteration.

So how come?!  Why did no one bother to tell me I would fall in love with this game?!  Why was it kept from me?  Were you all just hiding Enslaved for yourselves?!  Secreting it away?!


…Ahem.  Excuse me.

What I meant to say was: I am something of a fan of this game.  It was the good.

In truth, I had known little about Enslaved before trying it out.  Continuing my now well-established tradition of being embarrassingly behind contemporary pop culture, I decided to pick up (on sale) a game that, since its release over two years ago, has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity (although to be fair, it seems to have made very little splash when it was released; is mystifyingly not heralded as an underperforming classic like Beyond Good and Evil or Psychonauts; and from what I can tell no sequels are in the works).  So when I payed for my copy, I was buying it on something of a whim.

Indeed, I only bothered giving the experience a chance for two reasons.  Firstly, because it was loosely based on the ancient Chinese text Journey to the West, and by extension the television series Monkey, a show that I admit I was slightly obsessed with in my youth (yes, I have faint recollections of playing with a toothpick behind my ear to pretend is was Monkey’s elongating bo staff, and doing the whistle he used to call his cloud*).  And secondly, because it stars the extraordinary Andy Serkis (Smegol from Lord of the Rings; Caesar from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and the giant ape-monkey-thing in King Kong …you know, whatever his name was) – and simply put: if you don’t like Andy Serkis, then you may have less humanity and soul than the  sequences of ones and zeros that he so effortlessly dance to life in his pioneering of live-action computer animated acting.

Beyond that I knew nothing.  Beyond it being just another game with a nonspecific but intriguing cover, and the pronouncement of its ‘Captivating story’ declaring itself on the game’s own list of attributes, I had no idea what to expect.  (…But, again, I knew that Andy Serkis could make the narrative coma that is Twilight suddenly compelling if he was given the chance.)

So despite my ignorance, and perhaps helpfully with my expectations lowered, I slid the disk in, loaded up the game, and played through the first levels, immediately finding myself overwhelmed by a kind of stupefied awe…

For those who have played the game no doubt you already know what I am about to say, but I was delighted to find Enslaved utterly enchanting.  And I mean that on every level.  It’s a game that throws everything at you.  The whole toy box.  Mêlée combat; ranged weapons; sneaking; Prince of Persia style acrobatic platforming; stirring cinematics; exploration; hover surfing; increasingly gargantuan boss battles.  It’s colourful without being garish; heartfelt without being saccharine; rousing without being witlessly bombastic; the game walks a delicate line of storytelling, gameplay and emotion, all, somehow, without ever tumbling into excess.

The aesthetic too is exquisite.  Set in the overly familiar videogame territory of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Enslaved eschews the predictable sepia wash of bombed out dust and ash, and instead shimmers with a backdrop of verdant green scissored with rusted scrap metal.  A dishevelled, abandoned New York is overrun with lush vegetation.  Broken streets and railway stations lay eviscerated, the natural world sighing in relief as the urban sprawl is reclaimed by grass lands and trees.  Your character clambers though shattered office buildings, cracked open, overgrown with vines, and spilled through with the warmth of the midday sun.

Legitimately: how is it that no one seems to talk about this game as a high watermark for videogames?  From its sumptuous art direction to its generous gameplay; from its absorbing story to its charming characters; from the tweaking and upgrading of skills to the genuinely heart wrenching performance of these actors.  This game is like a jewel, polished and deep and gleaming.  It has charmed me utterly, left me enraptured, ensnared – which, of course, is wholly fitting given the subject matter the game presents.

Because over and above all of its other achievements, the game’s most extraordinary magic trick is the way that it reinvigorates and legitimises one of the most tedious and infuriating of gaming conventions: the escort mission.

At the centre of Enslaved, melded into the mechanics of every aspect of the experience, is the obligation to care for a persistent NPC, and as anyone who has ever had to suffer at the hands of a wonky AI will attest, this is quite an ominous task.  Personally, I despise escort missions.  Give me some chump to shepherd about in Skyrim, or a car to shield in GTA, and it takes about thirty seconds before I am squirming with fury in my seat, desperate to abandon this burden in a misty wilderness with the sounds of comically exaggerated wolves howling from the fathomless reached of the night as I sprint away.

These kinds of obligations are tedious, frequently just a cheap means of prolonging game play as you watch the baggage you are meant to be protecting get sidetracked walking mindlessly into a wall as zombies overwhelm them, a ‘Mission Fail’ screen flashing up for the twelfth time in a row.

But again – and I cannot say this enough – I love this game; an experience built entirely around this premise of babysitting another figure.

Perhaps it’s because of how deeply the metaphor runs; how this deceptively linear game ingeniously uses this entrapment to speak to the nature of gaming itself…

One of the first actions depicted in the narrative moments after a dynamic escape from a slave ship that is plummeting from the sky is the manacling of the central character.**  Monkey, the loner protagonist, awakes to find that he has been shackled to Trip, a desperate girl who needs his help to cross a dangerous wasteland of violent mechs to return to her village; and that’s precisely what the game mechanics are doing to you the player.

Trip imprisons Monkey, just as the mechanics funnel the player.  You (through Monkey) are then compelled to follow her every command – to do her (and by extension the game’s) bidding in order to progress through a streamlined, straightforward path.  There is room for deviation in how you confront enemies, or clear a stage, but the journey is already programmed in, and you are bound to your obligation.  Move too far out of her general proximity (which coincidentally runs the span of each level’s playing area), and Monkey suffers seizures and eventually dies; fail to climb where she tells you to, or to fight through the creatures she tasks you with, and the game erupts in a searing warning that you have strayed too far.

The onscreen gaming hud is even incorporated into this fiction: the headband Monkey is wearing  taps into his vision and allows him to see his shield strength, enemy health, and marks points of interest with cursors.  You look, effectively, through Monkey’s eyes (although not in a first person perspective); you too are trapped.   Here are your tools, here is the pathway, and here is the assignment you are tasked with fulfilling.

And yet, just as Monkey will come to realise, it is a happy kind of enslavement.  You come to want those parameters.  You want to keep Trip safe.  She’s not merely some helpless tissue paper target.  She’s smart enough to hide from danger, to run, to get out of the line of fire.  She takes heed of Monkey’s orders; can offer a needed distraction; and if backed into a corner can protect herself, disabling enemies with a defensive pulse.  The relationship between Trip and Monkey grows fluid, symbiotic.  They dance together, each informing the other’s progress.  It is through Trip that Monkey upgrades his skills; through Monkey that she can be propelled to higher platforms; and only together that they can proceed through the lush detritus of this wasteland.

When Monkey, at the moment he is freed from his obligation, tells Trip to switch his collar back on, the scene crackles with a happy frisson.  Player and character are united in the same embrace of bound agency.  For me, this was another ‘Would you kindly…’ moment, only this time, the shackled player is committed to action by love, not pre-scripted mechanical obligation.  Unlike the original Bioshock, Enslaved is not making a statement about the minor gradation of choice in a deterministic framework, but rather the potential unity of duty and pleasure.  By pledging oneself to the goal, serving another willingly at the behest of the game’s structure, the narrative opens up to celebrate selflessness in a medium that can frequently reward individualistic indulgence.

And so, the journey continues to its revelatory endpoint, through cyberpunk revisions of Pigsy, the ‘spirits’ and ‘monsters’ that impede their progress, and the ‘West’ to which they travel, through nods to Monkey’s bo staff, cloud, and being ‘born’ from an egg, through Trip’s heartbreak at losing her home and history, to watching Monkey commit to a purpose greater than merely self-preservation…  Monkey and Trip finally reach the pyramid that has marked their journey’s end – they confront the source of all this slave technology, exposing the reason for all this horror – and the game climaxes in a sublime, ambiguous conclusion.  (Ambiguous in the best way: morally complex and ripe with potential; not weighed under with infuriating unanswered questions, and faux-philosophical pretention – I’m looking at you, Mass Effect…)

Monkey and Trip confront the leader of the slavers, and in an effort to understand his idiosyncratic motives, Monkey is invited to peer into a mask that will reveal the purpose of this self-perpetuating system of forced captivity.  Monkey slides the mask over his face, but what he sees, ironically, is us – we humanity, before the devastation of our world.  Monkey stares into a miasma of colour and light – a panoply of activity and sensation that we do not see (save perhaps in the snapshots of the real Andy Serkis that pepper the game as mask Easter Eggs), but that we are invited to intuit from the look of wonder in his expression.

In this moment he is – if you enjoyed the experience of the game as I did – effectively mirroring back at you your own delight playing the game.  In its concluding beats the text reveals its perspective on you, how it has watched you sitting enraptured in your seat, stirred by the journey you have just undertaken on this excursion through its multiplicity of scenic and game mechanic splendour.

And it is at this moment that Trip, after a game of being rescued by Monkey, returns the favour.  She makes her decision, exacts the vengeance that she sought, and in the ensuing destruction a system of oppression is ceased in a feeble, gasping collapse.  But her final line, the last piece of dialogue spoken in the game – ‘Did I do the right thing?’ – hangs in the air, a question mark with no simple resolution.

The ending proves itself to be genuinely bittersweet: hopeful yet ominous, filled with the trepidation of sated revenge, with Trip finally visiting vengeance upon the creature that decimated all she cared for, but weighed against the ambiguous future that awaits those now free to reclaim a broken, but rejuvenating world.

You played the game, you were enslaved.  You had a task that was Monkey; Monkey had a task that was Trip; and as your time with the controller in your hand abates – the player in control while being controlled by the game – the beauty of that imagery that dances across your eyes starts to fade, but reminds you of the role you played in their quest.  Monkey’s headband flickers out; the lights sputter to darkness; and you are left to ponder your own place in the mechanics of this journey – your own bond to these characters, and your joyful servitude to their purpose.

A wind howls past the pyramid that stands defiantly beneath a golden sunset – another symbol of imposed slavery – nonetheless majestic in spite of, or perhaps in service to, the constraint that brought it into being.

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

* All of which will no doubt sound like gibberish to anyone not familiar with the program.

** This is apparently the demo of the game, if anyone is interested.

‘I come not just to bury 2012, but praise it’: A Gaming Retrospective

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Journey (thatgamecompany)

As gaming publications around the world finish declaring their Game of Year awards and looking back over the previous twelve months of releases, it is hard not to pick up on the sentiment that overall many do not consider 2012 the most stellar year for gaming.  Sure, there were some standout surprises that defined much of the critical discourse – X-Com: Enemy Unknown, The Walking Dead, Journey, and Dishonoured for example (all games I am ashamed to say I have not yet had the opportunity to sink into) – but overall the picture being presented by even some of the most glowing commentary is tinged with a vague sense of gloom.

New consoles were seen to be flagging: Sony’s Vita, thanks to an anaemic launch line-up, was released into the world to be greeted by the sound of tumbleweeds; Nintendo’s Wii U has likewise underperformed, and despite having the most unique (or needlessly convoluted) control scheme ever devised it was criticised for taking so long to catch up with the HD graphics of 2006 and botching its online capabilities.  The purported ‘future’ of gaming through motion control titles (to put it politely) failed to impress: the horror of Kinect Star Wars’ dancing Han Solo cannot be unseen, and what in the name of Batman’s shiny grapple was Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour?!  Publishers too came under fire as many of the most highly anticipated games (read: giant, sequel blockbusters) were said to have disappointed on some level or another, offering experiences that, despite being highly polished, were either derivative, anti-climactic, or technically and narratively lacklustre (see Resident Evil 6, Max Payne 3, Diablo 3, Far Cry 3 …and personally, I’ve not yet shut up about the half-baked grotesquery of Mass Effect 3’s morally deplorable conclusion).*

Of course, thankfully these kinds of sweeping generalisations are not the whole picture of this past twelve months, and wholly fail to capture the more interesting minutia that has defined this exciting period of the videogame medium’s growth.  Because, yes, while a catch phrase like ‘2012 was a bad year for gaming‘ is unfair to some of the works being shovelled into the ‘fail’ pile, what is far more unfortunate is that such a blanket summary completely dismisses the innovation evidenced in the smaller, noteworthy trends that were able to flourish this past year now that (perhaps for the first time ever) the usual saturating buzz that surrounds every Triple-A title could finally be penetrated.

2012 was a disappointment‘ fails to capture any of the nostalgic innovation we saw this past year in games like Mark of the Ninja and Fez; it totally dismisses the industry-wide revolution of downloadable titles and independent publishers that have exploded to the forefront of the audience’s consciousness with games like FTL and Hotline Miami; it barely even touches upon the works that tried (even if not always successfully) to explore the nature of gaming itself, to test the boundaries of its capacity to convey complex, emotionally resonant material, such as in Spec Ops: The Line’s autopsy of the shooter genre, the utterly charming Thomas Was Alone’s playful evocation of rich interpersonal relationships between two dimensional shapes, or Papo and Yo’s poignant metaphorical depiction of domestic abuse.

Yes, this past year may have been a little sparse if judged by the traditional blockbuster headliners (Halo 4 was celebrated, but not really considered revolutionary, and Assassin’s Creed 3 seems to have alienated as many as it enraptured); it may have suffered some from the displacement of a few of the most hotly anticipated games of the year being pushed into early 2013 (Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are still being polished, and the long, long awaited GTA5 will arrive whenever Rockstar deigns); and it may be judged a little saggy and tired by those, both in the industry and audience, who are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the limitations of the current hardware and who simply want the next console cycle to be announced; but the year was by no means a resounding downer.

Certainly it was not a failure in light of the revolutions in mechanics, artistic expression, and distribution that flourished in its span.  FTL was birthed into the world through the then-untried method of crowd-sourcing investment (and Double Fine’s adventure game is still forthcoming through the same route); Journey revealed untapped potential in emotive co-operative online multiplayer experience that extended beyond being verbally assaulted through a headset because you tanked a death match; and The Walking Dead proved episodic narrative to not only be viable, but potentially the most absorbing, exhilarating means of investing an audience in a harrowing, adaptive tale.  And Fez?  Come on!  He’s wearing a Fez, people!

And so, with all of this righteous surety ringing in my head, scoffing at anyone who would dare dismiss this past year as a shadow of greater times, confident that despite the fact that we are crowding around the light of this console cycle’s dying embers we are still being lit with its warmest glows, I decided to arrogantly give it a shot myself, to think back on my own most transformative gaming experience of 2012 and decide which game most entranced, most moved, and most surprised me this year…

And to my utter astonishment (and rather to the complete contradiction of everything that I’ve just been blathering about in the preceding paragraphs), it’s actually not a game from 2012 at all.  It’s a game from 2010 that I only just got around to playing…


That’s embarrassing.

So for me, in my utterly subjective, walled-off-from-the-rest-of-civilisation, so-anachronistic-as-to-be-completely-meaningless, opinion, 2012’s game of the year is…

…the game I’ll be talking about next week.

Oooo… was that theatrical?  Did I create dramatic anticipation?


It was just annoying, and you don’t actually care anyway?


IMAGE: Fez (Polytron Corporation)

* And considering that the 10 top selling games of the year were all sequels, this was particularly evident (  Also, for a brief summary of some of the biggest controversies that blackened the year see:

Medal of Honor: Post Titler

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Medal of Honor: Warfighter (EA)

Medal of Honor: Warfighter has received quite a lot of flak for being repetitive, uninspired, short, and buggy to the point of unplayablility at launch without a hefty patch. It’s been mocked for its almost fetishistic obsession with the breaching of doors – despite how inconsequentially aesthetic this mechanic is – and for the creepy little soul-stealing she-demon NPC daughter character that haunts the uncanny valley of those computer animated cutscenes.

But what struck me – having scarcely seen the game in action – what I think it really deserves to be called out for, is that name:


Was that meant to be a joke? War. Fighter. I imagine the writer’s room for that decision:

‘So we need to brainstorm some titles… We’ve got the Medal of Honor part. That’s in the can. But what about the subtitle? Anyone got anything? Come on, let’s think outside the box. Yes? You. Tom.’

‘Well, in the game you’re fighting…’

‘Good. Good work, Tom. I like it. Fighting. Lots of fighting. Follow that thought through…’

‘And you’re in a war.

‘Great point also, Gerry. You are. You’re in a war.

‘And you’re fighting…

‘Yep. I heard you before, Tom. See? I already wrote it on the whiteboard.’

Medal of Honor: Stare Into the Abyss and the Abyss Stares Back at You.’

(* sound of a throat being cleared *)

‘…Glenn, what did I tell you about that stuff? Now, go for a walk while the rest of us sort this out.’

I mean, to end on Warfighter – the most a trite collision of immediate, obligatory noun and verb that one could possibly apply – does that mean we now have sequels like Medal of Honor: Gunshooter, and Medal of Honor: Soldierbattling to come? Each one more superfluous and hackneyed than the one preceding?

Indeed, it reminds me of a joke in 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon, hounded by the fear that writers are a relic of the past – an occupation no longer necessary in a world that glorifies ‘unscripted’ reality television and mindless special effect pyrotechnics – stumbles across a poster for an upcoming film that reads:

Transformers 5: Planet of the Earth.

Written by No One.*

She sees a placeholder name – words without context or meaning. A vague gesture toward sense that leaves the goalposts so wide anything could fall within its purview.

But there really is no excuse for such vagary. When you look at the titles of texts that have endured, there is rarely such artless phoning-in of the titles. Even in the world of videogames, where franchises are (most often very wrongly) accused of being thoughtlessly cranked out, there is frequently great consideration placed in the names with which these experiences are published.

In Assassin’s Creed you get that lovely collision of the antisocial and dangerous ‘Assassin’, with the notion of order and adherence to stricture in ‘Creed’ – a thematic conflict that plays out in every level of the text, from the battle between the Assassins and Templars, to the player’s own experimentation and exploration within the mechanics of the game/animus. Further to that, subtitles like ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Revelations’ allude to shake ups in the formula (albeit minor in ‘Revelations’), proving a good deal of depth in their meaning.

Grand Theft Auto is another ingenious descriptor. Despite each iteration of the game shifting beyond the narrow parameters of this one criminal act, the title nonetheless captures that sense of social abandon built into every level of the experience: you can steal a freedom of transport. It’s subversive; it’s reckless; it’s about escape and escapism – an antisocial defiance through which culture and civic order will be examined.

The Uncharted series, Mass Effect , Gears of War, Deus Ex – hell, I would say even Skylanders – every one of these franchises seems to have put thought into their titles than Medal of Honor has this time around. Each uses their name to reflect some fundamental element of the experience that the game is hoping to evoke, whether it be exploration; consequence; the gritty grunt work of battle; the collision of man, fate, and machine; or, uh… living on a land …um… in the sky. …Or something.

And yet: Warfighter.

Where you play the muddled, buggy experience of fighting wars.

Having already whinged about this lack of creativity elsewhere**, I was informed (to my complete astonishment) that ‘Warfighter’ (although not recognised by my Word program) is in fact a real term that the US Department of Defence (DOD) use to describe military service personnel.  Although in my (extremely pathetic) defense, the term is apparently used by the DOD precisely because it is the most generic, all-inclusive, nonspecific, gender-neutral title that can be applied. It is designed to reference everyone in a blanket definition, rather than single out any specific operative or experience.

So maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe that was the point of Medal of Honor: Warfighter: to let the player know, right before the load screen had even flashed into view, that this was just another generic shooter. There will be levels with heat blasted sand. There will be turrets. There will be obligatory vehicle sections. Stuff will blow up every thirty seconds or so. There will be ham-fisted nods to current political unrest, and rote acknowledgement of the real life sacrifice of actual soldiers sandwiched between staccato onslaughts of headshots and kill streaks. There will be bad guys menacing innocents in ways that make it easy for you to gun them down without qualm. A squad mate or two will die a tediously scripted death so that you feeeeeeeeel something, damnit! War is hell…  But not really, because we’ve got nothing new to say about it.

The makers of the game seem to have embraced the broad meaning of the word, but not bothered to subvert it with genuine individuality – which is a shame, since it sounds like there was room there to explore something new within such a wide purview.

Medal of Honor: Warfighter.

The name feels redundant, because you’ve played it all already, a hundred times before.

IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)

*  From the episode ‘Plan B’ from series five.  Tracy is on the run, so everyone starts considering what their back-up occupation will be – and Liz realises she doesn’t have one.  (It also has a pretty hilarious hallway walk-and-talk with Aaron Sorkin.)


‘This Whole System Is On Trial!’: Surprises and Self Reference in Game Mechanics

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2012 by drayfish

[To avoid what little spoilers for Chrono Trigger there are, skip the middle section surrounded by bold.]

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger (Square Enix)

Here’s something y’all might need to know about me: I’m always late to the party.  Any party.  And it’s not a ‘fashionable arrival’ thing.  It’s usually incompetence.  I got lost on the way.  I saw something shiny and decided to stare at it for a while.  I fell into a wardrobe and awoke in a magical land.  That kind of crap.  In short: I seem to operate at some kind of socially and culturally staggered pace.  If I’m praising the greatness of a television program, it was no doubt cancelled years ago (‘Have you guys seen this new Deadwood show?’); if I like a band, no doubt their popularity has already peaked and waned (‘The White Stripes sound so awesome, I wonder if they have any other albums?’); books (‘This Jane Austen guy might be kind of cool’)…*

So when you see me praising something as great, it almost always means both that everyone has experienced it already long ago, and they have most likely already written at length about why that experience was so important.  Please keep that fact in mind as I utter the following words:

I am only just now, for the very first time, playing Chrono Trigger.

And it is…



And let me tell you why…


I’ve just been put on trail.

On freaking trail!  In freaking COURT!  Where I’m gonna be put to death!

I came back to the castle, leading the princess home, and I’m all:

He-ey guys, here’s your princess and everything!  I’m just doing the whole thing where I bring-the-princess-back-to-her-castle-and-get-a-new-quest-deal’ – and they freaking arrested me!  Hauled me off to a specially designed courtroom splash-panel where I got judged for my actions.

But here’s the thing: they really were my actions.  All of the insignificant, insubstantial, who-gives-a-second-thought kind of actions that I had made up to that point.

Did you eat this old man’s lunch?

Hey! I didn’t mean to!  I was just standing there and I pressed a button and it was gone!  It was an accident!  And when it happened the princess laughed!  She thought it was adorable!  And – And I didn’t reload cause the next time I went back the lunch was there again!  No harm no foul…  Come on! 

Did you just run over and pick up the locket that the princess dropped before you even saw if she was okay?

…Um.  Well, yeah, okay, so maybe I didn’t talk to the princess before I picked up the locket, but it looked like game loot!  That’s what I’ve been trained to do!  Pick up game loot!  That’s RPG 101, man!  Some gear drops, you pick it up!  Right away before it disappears.  Years of gaming experience have programmed me to think that way – now I’m being judged for it?!

Aw no.  Hell no.  I’m not guilty.  You’re guilty!  This whole system is guilty!  We’re all part of the machine, man!  We’re all just cogs in the machine!  Attica!  Attica!  Attica!!!  ATTICA!!!

What about the girl I helped with her cat?  Doesn’t that count for something?  I could of just left it there!  I had to walk it across the whole screen!

No?!  Nothin’?  Guilty?! 



What amazed me was the game’s capacity to call into question the very way that I play such RPGs – the decisions that I make, without a thought.  Do you arbitrarily pick this thing up?  Do you bother (for seemingly no reason) helping that other person out?  It invited me to consider what it would be like if people actually did notice and respond to the way that a player operates in a pixilated adventure world…  What would people say about you if you were really behaving this way in real life?

In a game like Mass Effect or The Witcher this kind of in-game response is expected, it’s part of the package: your actions will be remembered, will be folded into the design, will be commented upon.  But here it was a thrilling, experience-altering surprise, one that actually led me to consider the manner in which I approach games themselves – how my character avatar behaves in these spaces, and what that says about me.

I’ve heard that – in a far more grim and dire manner – the recent release Spec Ops: The Line has been designed to perform a similar function, to invite the player to consider the very nature of military shooters, their jingoism, their moral dimensions.  I’ve not played the game, so I have no comment myself, but it is intriguing that this can be a definite communicative purpose in videogame design.  One I find particularly intriguing.

So, my question is: what games – and perhaps more specifically what surprise moments, mechanics, or ideas in games – have had this effect on you?  Have made you question the very action of playing games itself?  Even shaken up the way that you behave in game, or the way that you relate to the genre as a whole?

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger ‘Courtroom’ (Square Enix)

* Also, have you guys heard of the Beatles?  I think they’ve got a promising sound.  Could probably use some more experimental Japanese avant-garde sound-scapes though.  I hope someone can help them with that…

Show Us Your Human Bits: Play and the Shifting Paradigms of Art

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by drayfish


IMAGE: Pacman installation Art by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille


Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant? Because I bought this soapbox in from the car, and they only let you hire out these megaphones for the day. So, ready? Excellent. Testing. Testing. Is this coming across self-righteous enough up the back there? Can you hear me being all judgmental? Okay. Here goes.

I’d like to take a moment to dive back into what I admit are the thoroughly fished-out waters of the film critic Roger Ebert’s now infamous declaration that videogames cannot be Art. I want to explore this premise again, briefly, because I think that it is still in this presumptuous, ill-conceived dismissal that we can see many of the most pervasive misconceptions that continue to stifle the discussion and celebration of the videogame medium in its relative infancy.

And yes, at this point you might be thinking to yourself: but why? Why bothering referencing Ebert again? I mean (you will probably ask) does it even matter if some film critic foolishly tries to wade into utterly foreign territory? Hasn’t he already revealed his own ignorance by superimposing foreign rules upon an artistic medium in order to point out how it has failed to live up to criteria under which it was never intended to function? And is this just because he recently (vaguely) slagged off Naughty Dog’s upcoming release The Last of Us,having neither seen nor played it, because he believed it would ‘leave absolutely nothing to the imagination’?

You might even inquire whether this is all just my petulant, thinly-veiled jab at a cantankerous, nay-sayer because he disregarded a medium that I hold with genuine affection. ‘You’re not that petty, are you?’ you might very well ask.

…Well, yes. Yes it is. And yes. Yes, I most certainly am.

In 2010, after belittling the artistic merit of videogames, it was suggested to film critic Roger Ebert that he should watch a TED presentation by game designer and cofounder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago. It was hoped that he might get a greater perspective on the medium, even a vague respect for its potential, and its new breed of auteur. Ebert viewed the talk, but rather than gaining any insight, he instead responded by immediately doubling down on his comments, offering a condescending opinion piece in which he declared that videogames could never in his opinion each a point at which they might be considered Art. He dismissed them as wholly devoid of any relevant narrative, tonal, or thematic potential; finally aligning them (at best) with intellectual sport:

‘Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.’*

He effectively likened them to time wasting amusements such as Jenga or Hungry, Hungry Hippos – mere exercises in rote memorization or reflexes – and waved them away as not worthy of serious consideration.

He then went on to make several attempts to classify what Art actually was, arguing in each example that games do not and cannot fit any definition he could cite. In one notable instance he even referenced Plato’s discussion of mimesis. (Although if a philosopher who called all artists mad and who advocated the most draconian censorship of literature in history was his go-to for such classification, he might not want to throw stones: there’ll be no more watching Taxi Driver or Singing in the Rain in the Republic either, Ebert…) Believing he had seen off the possibility of their being confused with ‘real’ Art, Ebert then antithetically attempted to dismiss some examples as not even being games – at least by his extremely narrow, antiquated conception – arguing that he failed to see how a work like Flower could even operate in the absence of a scoring system or ‘win’ state.

As one might imagine, Ebert’s satisfaction at disregarding games he happily admitted not being bothered playing soon grows tiresome – he even goes so far as to describe a handful of examples ‘pathetic’ despite having only glimpsed seconds of them in action and without ever holding a controller in his hands. Reasoned, contextualised criticism at its finest this was not; indeed, using Ebert’s logic, if someone hadn’t seen Citizen Kane it would be okay for them to arbitrarily bin it as a dreary, pretentious, ill-lit bore – an undergraduate mess where people draw lines on their faces to indicate that they have aged. …And how come the dude likes roses so much?  It’s probably some dumb reason. Best not bother finding out.

When responders inevitably called nonsense on Ebert’s ignorant proclamations he swiftly bowed out of the debate – although conceding nothing – admitting that he was still unwilling to play a game to explore the experience for himself. He effectively shrugged, passive-aggressively asserted that some people just evolve their artistic perspective differently, and clamoured back out of the  mire to return to the higher ground of novels and film, where the once hotly-contested battles for artistic integrity have already been fought and won long before he appeared on the scene.

But it was in this, his tactical retreat from the discussion, that Ebert revealed the fundamental disconnect at the heart of his position: he argued that in every conception he could conceive Art must remain static. His issue with the videogame form is that the very element of interactivity that gives them identity renders them too fluid to be artistically expressive. If one could re-spawn and replay the ending of Romeo and Juliet again, he said, it would render the tragedy and pathos of their original deaths meaningless. But this line of argument is, at best, misguided, at worst, wholly disingenuous: of course one can’t get a do-over on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play. It obeys different conventions. Just like you can’t see a song, or listen to a painting. They necessitate entirely different engagements with their audience. And to demand that new media be dictated by the limitations of the old is a fatuous, knee-jerk response mired in outdated thought, one that stifles rather than elucidates artistic innovation.

Ultimately Ebert’s comments reveal that it is he and not videogames that had failed to meet the standards of Art. With the proliferation of games that flaunt expectation and convention, that provide innovative and immersive experiences that expand our understanding of communicative possibility, anyone arrogant enough to dismiss the possibility of games being Art based solely upon their personal failing to wrestle the medium into some preconceived notion of what Art must be, or what it needs to contain, exposes their own incapacity to adapt to the shifting dynamics of expression. Such categorisations are based upon outmoded, ill-conceived notions that have remained nebulous since humankind first applied colour to cave walls; and Art should never be shackled by the expectations of the old. Art is innovative, progressive. It manifests human experience; and if we are nothing else we are creatures of adaptation and evolution to new stimuli. A contemporary Art that remains mired in old thinking loses the capacity to meaningfully reflect anything of our existence back to us.

And if the purpose of Art is to articulate something of the human condition; then it must acknowledge that we are creatures of play. It is through play that we develop language; is how we learn social structure; how we develop our motor skills. Storytelling is a manifestation of imaginative play; theatre is an expression of imitative play; music; visual art; dance; all have their basis in the freedom and modulation of play. And it is arguably only now, in the birth of this new medium of videogames, that we can see one of the most natural and engaging forms of crafted play in our history.

Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or DayZ allow for explorations of play and social organisation on unprecedented new levels; game like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire provide an immersion in genre arguably more striking and intimate than film can provide; an adaptive game like The Witcher 2 allows us to play out moral ambiguity and consequence; and this is all before even calling upon the more nebulous gaming beasts like Heavy Rain, Journey, Braid and Fez. To dismiss all this as childish fancy (as critics once did with graphic novels); or merely a tacky commercial product (as they once did with cinema), or a thoughtless leisure activity (as they once did with the novel form), only further perpetuates the same tired reactionary fear of the new that has consistently plagued all Artistic development.

Todd Howard (of Skyrim) spoke in his keynote address at the 2012 D.I.C.E. conference of the way in which games are the only form of artistic expression capable of evoking the sensation of pride in an audience. Because we as the player participate in the activity of bringing the game’s narrative to life, he said, we invest in an expression of the game that has the capacity to inspire triumph at our successes; and it is a form of satisfaction that is only possible because of the unique interplay between player and text. Games therefore don’t just communicate in new ways: they have the capacity to evoke whole new emotions and experiences; sensations that film, fiction, music, by the limitations of their form, cannot.

So while I’m sure that in many other discussions Ebert has some profound things to say (although lest we forget the man gave Speed 2 a glowing thumbs up), in his foray into the debate over videogames he has proved himself to be a critic staring at the precipice of something altogether new, but remaining utterly blind to its significance. His comments are a stark reminder of why reviewers have the capacity to be such dangerous creatures; his arbitrary definitions of Art are so ingrained as to have already begun the steady decline toward intellectual stagnation.

Ultimately, the final word should probably go to another critic, Anton Ego (a character from an animated film; yet another medium once patronisingly dismissed as being only for the frivolous delight of children) who said:

‘In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critic must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something: and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent. New creations. The new needs friends.’

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

I believe that we need to acknowledge that games can be Art (even if, as yet, not all of them are), because that sad truth is that if we players do not take it upon ourselves to defend the new against those who would ignorantly malign it: no one else will. If we, like Roger Ebert, rely upon trite, reductive patterns of analysis, striving to draw categorical lines around the expressive potential of gaming before it has even grown into being, we risk strangling the most experimental and dynamic medium to emerge in human history, missing perhaps the finest opportunity, through the Art of play, to better understand ourselves.

* here

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