Telling Stories Through Glitches: Review of Ghosts in the Machine

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For a book that involves worlds and places we can never inhabit, Ghosts in the Machine speaks a lot of truth about how we interact and exist in our own day to day lives. Ghosts in the Machine is a short story anthology edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, and contains 13 stories that look at what goes wrong in video games  – and how these glitches and disruptions and flaws become humanizing. The following is a book club style discussion of Ghosts In The Machine. This post features thoughts from Kaitlin Tremblay and Valerie Valdes,

KAITLIN TREMBLAY: This is a book about living out our own flaws, and the metaphors we see in video games that help us mediate this sometimes soul-crushingly overwhelming task. In “GDD,” the initial story in the collection, we are told “Don’t take my anecdotes literally.” There’s no attempt at covering up the use of hyperbole and metaphor because there is no need: sometimes the most honest truth comes out when we’re not exactly being strict with the rules of reality.

VALERIE VALDES: “GDD” is also interesting in the way that it discusses gender relations: an overly simplistic approach that is predicated more on an internal reward system and a narrow, predefined perception of women’s roles in both games and the real world. The two female characters are both described in unflattering terms by the main character, both are sexualized, and both are defined more by their relationships with the men in the story than by their own agency and autonomy. These are issues that arise not only in many games, including the one that the main character eventually creates, but also in many real-world situations that women, gamer or otherwise, deal with every day.

KT: The cool thing about Ghosts is the way it confronts usual archetypes and myths that have become canon in video games: what is the “hero,” specifically. In a lot of the stories, the idea of the “hero” as self-made versus being a product of a higher power is discussed. In “All Time Heroes,” it’s about trying to beat the system to become the best there is, and in others, like “Unto Dust,” it’s about adapting within the system. It confronts how we view the hero as this self-willed, self-determined underdog and changes the hero into someone who is merely lost and confused and trying to find their way to exist in a system that is uncaringly cold to their existence. These systems do not care for the hero or the main character, but the main character MUST find a way to exist within them, even if this means following a script or tearing the script apart at the seams.

Things are always falling apart. Worlds are breaking, limits are becoming less defined, and I think this a good metaphor for the culture at large: the gaming community is stridently rallying against the box it finds itself in. For example, we have Samantha Allen’s open letter to the gaming industry about our comment policy, and Megan Townsend’s open letter to David Gaider about the failed excuses for not being inclusive. We are refusing to accept the rules as they are laid out since they are cold and outdated. We were redefining the culture, just as these characters are redefining what it means to be a video game character.

VV: Change can come from without, or from within, as evidenced by the plight of the main character in “Patched Up” by Ryan Morning being nerfed by a change in a special move. He’s forced to acknowledge the unfair advantage he had from the beginning, a mirroring of the unchecked privilege that a lot of gamers don’t realize they are living with until it’s affected somehow by outside forces. “Don’t fix things,” one of the other characters, a female, notes, “just try and work with them.” This kind of defeatist attitude is common, and yet in context, it’s almost a gentle chiding of the type of gamer who feels that change is inherently bad or wrong. Instead, change often makes a game or community stronger as a result.

KT: All the struggles are Sisyphean: what does it mean, the life of a video game character? For some, it is a calm horror, especially in Alois Wittwer’s “A Perfect Apple.” What’s worse than having to constantly fight the same fight over and over again? Doing nothing. In “All Time Heroes” by Matt Riche, one character faces the loss of meaning by achieving the ultimate goal, and then being reduced to the beginning with a score of 00000250 — whereas other characters, specifically in “If The Sun Rises Again” by Dylan Sabin, have to contend with the fact that there isn’t even a pretend goal, or a loss, to deal with. There is just nothing.

VV: ”Good Losers Are Pretty” by Andrew Vanden Bossche also deals with this idea of trying to find purpose in a game where one is considered the “worst” character to play by virtue of a poor win-loss ratio. The characters in these games interact with the real world directly, and even though their personalities are technically defined by their creators, they nonetheless expand through their relationships with humans. Here, the characters are presented with the strange situation of knowing exactly what their creators intended them to do and be like, like having their own gods come down from heaven to explain things, yet still undeniably having free will and autonomy.

KT: One story that really stood out for me was “Supercollider” by Alan Williamson. It takes the same sense of meaninglessness and struggle that is a common thread throughout the collection, but grounds it in a world that is both real and not — it is a version of our life that we have distilled into a game to combat the overwhelming bit of boredom.

Another one I found interesting was “See You On The Other Side” by Shelley Du, where the characters are aware of their mechanisms and that their actions are being controlled and decided upon by others — yet they still retain a sort of agency, and are cognitive to the point where they can comment on and critique the way they are being handled. It’s when a glitch happens that they’re free to behave as they want and be themselves. These moments of technical error allow for the greatest freedom. Glitches here operate as a means of truth, or a chance to express something new and unscripted.

VV: As noted by the main character in “Good Losers Are Pretty”:

“Being an enemy in a single-player game was like doing a job. Being played by a person was like turning into a human being, or what she thought it must be like to be a human being.”

KT: Exactly.

The ending of “Good Losers Are Pretty” is what got to me the most, though. The final three sentences hit such a punch that it’s hard not cheer and cry at the same time.

“She leaned forward. ‘I think it’s fun to eat people and humans don’t do it enough,’ she said.

The crowd gasped, and then they laughed.”

We laugh at our own monstrosity — but we also need to revel in our own delights. Of course we shouldn’t eat people, but it’s our flaws that makes us humans. This is the heartbreaking finale of those two lines that sums up Ghosts in the Machine for me: we need to look at and challenge our flaws, but we also need to understand that our own flaws humanize us.

For more information (including how to buy the book), check out the official Ghosts in the Machine website.

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Alpha Protocol: Just hope you get lucky (A Review)

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Not long ago, a friend of mine recommended I take a shot at Alpha Protocol. He knew that I enjoy action RPGs and that I love spy games. Some years ago, the same friend also recommended that I try Dark Souls. I loved that game but I would never have picked it up without him suggesting it. I found it rewarding to play even if a majority of my time was spent getting killed. It felt like an accomplishment to defeat every enemy. Alpha Protocol offers no such reward. When I finished the game it felt like a Pyrrhic victory. I had clawed my way through the game. I had made the hard choices that saved some people and killed others. Friends and lovers lived and died by the decisions I made. But by the end of the game I felt like I had done nothing. I had connected to characters that felt like they would have lived or died even without my say so. When I finished the game I felt like I had been tricked. I hadn’t achieved anything. I was playing a corridor shooter that made me feel like I was behind every decision when I wasn’t.

Alpha Protocol bills itself as “The Espionage RPG” and that is certainly accurate. It is most definitely an RPG. The espionage aspect is however a little bit more nebulous. The whole game seems to want to shroud itself in cloak and daggers: the mechanics, the reasoning behind in-game events, and even the benefits of making certain choices. Much of the time, you aren’t quite sure what’s happening. At least from a player’s perspective; you make choices and you do things, but the why of those things always seem rooted in a vague hazy mystery. Everything about the game is about boiling down systems in the real world (conversation, relationships, skill-building) and gamifying them. It’s far more RPG than FPS. All of the action elements seem to be tertiary to the aspects of the game which I consider primary: the conversations, and the choices the player makes. These are traditionally things that happen in RPG games. The action being an afterthought negatively affects the gameplay and the way in which the player is informed of this emphasizes the issue.

AP2

Unfortunately, part of the problem with the game is that it isn’t upfront about just how much role-playing lies within the game’s mechanics. For example, when aiming a pistol in-game you have a dot in the center of a circle representing a best case shot scenario. The dot is deceptive. At first, you need to develop skill in the weapon through investing Advancement Points in order for it to be an accurate estimate. Otherwise your shot falls somewhere within the circle, giving you the difference between a head-shot, or a miss that alerts every guard nearby. In theory none of this is an issue. But the game makes very little mention of this in any meaningful way. You kind of just find out on your own with a bit of practice and some vital misses with an assault rifle. Therefore, don’t expect excellent accuracy at at any range early in the game. This game isn’t a standard FPS by any means. It’s very much an RPG with heavy action elements. Most of your skills will be gained through investing Advancement Points. These points can be very scarce depending on the class you choose in the beginning. You can also somewhat enhance your weapon abilities by using the weapons themselves. Certain actions when repeated will increase your skill with the weapon. The enhancements tend to be quite minor and that works just fine. But things working “just fine” seems to be a recurring element in this game.

The story in Alpha Protocol is quite standard for a spy story. The character dialogue is moderately interesting at times. You play as Mike Thornton, a character whose backstory you can determine, which also determines his potential skill set and thus partly determine his personality. This, however, is the beginning and the end of your ability to genuinely control the outcome of the game. The customization is extremely limited. For example, you get to change the skin tone to different shades of white. It feels a bit out of place to be honest. It’s pointless and somewhat insulting. You get to be a white guy who has facial hair or doesn’t have it. Who wears a hat or doesn’t. Who wears glasses or doesn’t. The options are very limited and very out of place. This just reinforces the illusion of choice from very early on. The story at no point requires that Mike Thornton BE Mike Thornton. A slightly expanded but lazy character creation option would have been much better.

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Timed conversation forms the basis of how you choose the direction of the story and the development of relationships. This is familiar to those who’ve played games like the Mass Effect series, Dragon Age, or The Witcher series. However unlike those games you don’t get a rough idea of what you will say in response. You have to choose from three basic options “Aggressive” “Suave” and “Professional.” The joke responses usually appear in terrible situations and, in my experience, always end badly. With the exception of professional responses, which clearly keep the mission at hand in the forefront, the other options could virtually be anything. A well-worded and timed joke in a tense situation between nervous or angry co-workers can cut the tension and help everyone’s focus. In this game, however, you have to roll the dice on responses which remove much of the actual choice out of the game. For a game built on the idea of the player making decisions, it kills any immersion in the story. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, but for the wrong reasons. Having to make such decisions under the gun, as it were, while having no real idea what you’ve just chosen, is how this game operates.

It would be easy to state that the game developers had no idea how to implement their conversational system in a way that felt natural and still have the quick, almost frantic quality for which they strove. But all of this seems very intentional as though bewildering you was their first choice and not an unfortunate accident. In theory, it’s great that we can choose how we want our character to express themselves. In practice however you only have a basic generic personality that seems emotionally stunted. We blurt out things we didn’t expect, in a tone we wouldn’t have used, in ways that feel false. We feel almost betrayed by the experience, at least the first time. By the eight or ninth conversation you come to view Mike Thornton as that friend you like but find embarrassing because of the inappropriate things they say.

A game built on the illusion of choice in a linear narrative can achieve a great deal of things. Alpha Protocol seems to offer choice and remove it just as quickly with each conversation. It is even worse when you are supposed to develop relationships with your in-game NPC mission handlers. Handlers are the people who supply you with info and advice during missions, and the better the relationship with your handler, the greater the perks you receive from them. However, these points are gained through basically spamming the particular response type (Professional, Aggressive, or Suave) that they are programmed to prefer. One character almost exclusively responds positively to the ‘suave’ response. Conversations become tiresome chores once you figure out the ‘correct’ response.

The other ‘benefit’ of the conversation system is romancing the female characters you meet. Almost invariably you can consummate all your romantic relationships if you reach maximum affection. This game continues the tradition of most ‘complex’ relationship systems in RPGs. You pick the option the character you are talking to prefers most. Get relationship points. Reach a certain amount of points and you’ll have a burgeoning romance. It seems straight-forward. That’s part of what I find so odd. Most games keep their points system secret. Alpha Protocol makes it clear. This removes the ‘organic’ aspect  of developing a relationship with someone. When you spend time with a person you naturally share your interests with them, and they share theirs with you. You discuss things and learn their perspective on a variety of topics. Alpha Protocol boils things down to what we all sometimes believe: If we say the right things, everyone will like us. When you start a mission with your handler, it has their affection score listed right beside them. It also shows the benefit of them liking you, or being your friend/love. The gameplay benefit for making people like you is making missions easier to manage with the perks you get from them. Another facet of life is gamified.

I supposed I shouldn’t fault AP for treating relationships as a procedure with a material value rather than an abstract good. The fact that it’s so upfront about the mechanic is almost commendable.

Every game forces you to play it in exactly the fashion it wants you to. I have never witnessed this truth laid so bare before me. I’ve never seen a game that revels in its flaws so viscerally. The audacity of it is stunning and vicious. To tell us we have choice and then systematically show us we really do not. Function within the tiny margins of choice that the devs give you and nothing else. I found myself repeatedly astounded by this message. The only choice you have is the one they give you. It’s clever in the sense that it forces us to rethink the entire game as a game with aspirations of storytelling and nothing more. The illusion of choice is a common occurrence in video games in general. We are limited by physical constraints, computing restraints, the amount of time the devs could put into giving us a variety of options and a bunch of other things. Alpha Protocol doesn’t hide its limits from us. The game lays them bare to us and promotes them as central to our experience with it.

Alpha Protocol is a better than average game. It is so despite the glaring issues, especially early on, that can deeply hinder your enjoyment. The story is generic: spy takes on new job, spy gets betrayed by agency and finally, spy takes down agency. But what really makes this game unique is how maddening it can be. It gives you the feeling that you make all the decisions, but choice in this game is a red herring. You don’t choose. The game chooses for you, but it does an admirable job of instilling in you the idea that you’ve made a difference. Not effort or skill really; just pure luck and that is what you spend a large portion of your time in AP hoping for: a little luck.

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​Gotcha!: An ARG Story

My investment in this whole horse_ebooks thing was pretty low to begin with. An infamous Twitter bot that spits out spam poetry (that’s a freebie, Def Jam) but wasn’t actually fully-automated this whole time. Or maybe it was and was just being carefully curated by a couple humans; the details are fuzzy. Turns out both horse_ebooks and the Pronunciation Book YouTube channel were being run by Jacob Ballika and Thomas Bender, and the string of cryptic clues emitted recently by the two social media accounts served as an alternate reality game (ARG) promotion for a browser-based FMV game called Bear Sterns Bravo. With the entirely of their project unveiled, both the horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book have ceased production.

Oh well.

But for a lot of people, horse_ebooks was a new media institution, and the big not-a-bot surprise felt like a ruse at their expense. What seemingly amplified the ire was the framing of Ballika and Bender’s initiatives as art. The loyal retweeters of horse_ebooks were part of an artwork without even knowing it, and in a way, labelling these initiatives as “art” made them less real –a front for an illusionary artistic concept instead of just an interesting thing in and of itself. Ballika and Bender brought their digital work into a physical space by staging a gallery show called Bravospam, complete with live performances. During the show’s brief run, you could call (213) 444-0102 to hear Ballika or another attendant speak a horse_ebook-ish-ism into a phone. There are a few videos on display too, featuring characters from Bear Stearns Bravo staring back at you, as if “waiting to be spoken to,” according to the in-gallery text explanation. Additionally, horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book are referred to as online “installations.”

The common thread that supposedly ties Bravospam together was the ARG lead-up to the grand reveal. Cryptic clues were dropped around the Internet and ardent fans read into the patterns of spam being emitted by horse_ebooks looking for clues. The folks who pursue hunts like this are intrigued by the mystery, curious to find out what’s at the end of the rainbow. In this case, as is the case with just about every other ARG, the pot of gold is an advertisement for an upcoming product. At best, these reveals are predictable and don’t unfairly inflate players’ expectations. Such was the case with the electronic music duo Boards of Canada’s ARG earlier this year, which participants suspected was being staged by the band (it was) and ended in the reveal of a new album. The album unveiling, while not a revolutionary announcement, was something that the ARG players were interested in and many saw coming. At worst the ARG culminates in a marketing ploy for something largely disconnected from the game everyone was playing and the point of original interest. Enter Bear Stearns Bravo.

This is a problem for the gallery show as well, which doesn’t forge much of a connection between Ballika and Bender’s suite of Internet memes and their FMV game about financial regulation, to say nothing of either component’s individual value. It hitches onto the label of “art” hoping it will solve this problem and act as the rescue copter, lifting them out of the enraged jungle of followers and subscribers who feel lied to. It doesn’t fare all that well as an art show though. Even the title of the exhibition, Bravospam, comes off as a lazy portmanteau of the two distinct concepts. There’s no rulebook that states a body of artwork can’t have a bifurcated concept, but in the case of Bravospam, it’s more of a bait and switch.

And maybe that’s the point.

I’ve played Bear Stearns Bravo, and it’s a pretty funny game. If Tim & Eric made an FMV game about the housing crisis of 2007, it probably wouldn’t be far off. You play as Franco, a government regulator, charged with investigating and taking down financial firm Bear Stearns for their credit default swap practices, among other white collar deceptions. The aesthetic of the game is straight out of the late 80s and early 90s, when FMV and Laserdisc games were cutting edge. Unlike the muddy pixels and low resolutions of those old games, everything in Bear Stearns Bravo is shot and rendered in high definition. Actors ham it up for the camera and knowingly diverge into goofy, nonsensical tangents about their personal lives. Your only control in the game is selecting from dialogue options when questioned. The whole thing can take less than an hour, depending on which paths you choose.

The best part of this whole Bravospam showcase is the all-too-short scene in Bear Stearns Bravo where you encounter Champion and Dynasty, two sleazy, fast-talking debt slingers. They toss glowsticks (mortgages) back and forth and yell into disconnected phones, while justifying their behavior as essential to keeping the worlds systems in motion. It’s a great parody of the egos that created the housing bubble and their tenuous relationship with credibility. At one point, you can try and empathize with them by saying that regulators and bankers aren’t all that different, but they quickly dismiss your remark and continue shouting into their phones, totally self-absorbed.

The horse-ebooks/Pronunciation Book ARG isn’t wholly unlike Champion and Dynasty, both are convincing you to invest in something that appears one way, but yields an unexpected return. And like the real-world investment banks that facilitated the global financial crisis, Ballika and Bender have opted for the crash and the spectacle. I understand wanting to move on from silly web jokes that require daily iteration. I wouldn’t hold it against Dan Walsh if he stopped doing Garfield Minus Garfield and said, “OK, I’m doing this other thing instead.” Surely the appsurfing generation, with their supposed short attention spans, would be able to empathize with the horrors of boredom. This, the same generation that, ironically enough, begat the term “catfishing,” as well. The goodwill from players was there, but it was exploited instead of shepherded to the next thing.

A second episode of Bear Sterns Bravo is available for $7 from the game’s website. It’s probably good too, but I have a hard time seeing horse_ebooks fans giving Ballika and Bender their money considering the two made a name for themselves through misdirection, and I’m not sure anyone else cares enough to pay attention.

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Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames

In the great sandwich of videogames, game mechanics are the baguette and game stories are the stuffing. Whether a game is simply a thin spread of butter on an oven fresh bun or a triple-decker steak’n’cheese with pan fried vegetables and extra dressing, a game is composed of these two necessary but separate elements. Sometimes we need only the bare minimum and other times we need a little mustard; sometimes we need a full meal’s nourishment and other times the sandwich is stuffed so full that we spill its contents all over our formal wear and ruin our best friends’ wedding pictures. However, it is always important that both the bread and the stuffing are prominent and distinguishable.

This tortured but delicious metaphor doesn’t really solve anything though, does it? Limiting a critical conversation to mechanics is, in its most elaborate form, a walkthrough and most often amounts to an answer guide to what buttons result in what actions and what numbers influence what other numbers. On the other hand, when audiences—critical or general—are talking about story, more often than not they’re primarily interested in summarizing plot. What writers are talking about is “not mechanics” as if the rules of a game somehow get in the way of analysing it. But the effort to separate a game’s systems of rules from its story ignores both the extent that mechanics inform meaning and that these mechanics in turn depend on narrative. As admittedly convenient as the gameplay-narrative binary can be, it’s ultimately a false one because, upon close enough inspection, the ludo- and the narrative bleed into one another.

The context provided by a story can systematically alter behaviour (I can kill these creatures but I’ll take pains to avoid harming them because it doesn’t make sense for me/my avatar to attack them in the context of the story). Alternatively, mechanics compose a story (executions conserve precious resources and the sound and camera work makes my nethers tingle, the structure of this world encourages me to become a monster). The problem in ignoring how these two factors of composition are connected is that it limits criticism to a game’s surface elements.

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Andrew Vanden Bossche already dropped the mic on this subject in how it applies to literature: exclusively discussing plot and characters tells us nothing beyond a shallow summery. Grammar and craft, as Vanden Bossche writes, are what create meaning in a piece of literature:

This repeated word hammers in emphasis, this sentence with lots of commas sounds breathless, these short sentences create a terse and minimalist aesthetic throughout the novel, etc. This stuff is actually more important than characters and plot…Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy.

Plot and character are only important in understanding a text insofar as they are elements of craft. A close reading of a novel or poem should come with some understanding of genre conventions, grammar, literary techniques, author history and whatever else is relevant to the reading. This is as true for games as it is for literature.

A “story” is just the structure of a sentence spun out at greater length: a subject verbs an object. In a more elaborate story the subject might verb an adjective object, but in the end, that’s all there is to it. Understanding a story requires an understanding of the grammar and structure of it: this character’s name is a palindrome which resonates with his journey back to his beginnings, this semicolon anchors this sentence, which resonates with the novel’s search for balance. In games, most of the major tools and techniques that craft a story are based in a game’s rules and systems. This is not a practice unique to games, it’s generally expected that good storytelling of any kind shows with its grammar rather than tells ad nauseum. “Good writing” in a videogame is understanding how its structure creates its intended theme/argument/message/experience.

For instance, the beat of the background music in Super Mario Brothers is timed to Mario’s optimal running and jumping speed. The player grasps Sephiroth’s power in Final Fantasy VII because they experience his invulnerability juxtaposed with Cloud’s weakness in the Nibelheim flashback. Hate Plus’s complicated world is easier or more difficult to pass judgement on based on whose perspectives the player trusts, how many they’re willing to consider and what order they research them in. Design supplements narrative and gives it meaning. It’s one thing to read the sentence “war is hell” and it’s completely another to play Captain Walker’s metamorphosis in Spec-Ops: The Line.

Have I got a story to tell you.

Have I got a story to tell you.

Similarly, mechanics themselves tell a story. I wrote an essay that was way too long on a game that was way too obscure where I discuss how mechanics compose a narrative,

The problem is that you can’t say a thing and have it not mean anything. Language isn’t just limited to words: images, facial expressions, attire, music, sound effects and game mechanics are all language. The human mind is an infinitely sprawling web of ideas that are connected with varying levels of strength… Language is the magic that activates certain nodes of that web in another person so they create their own associations that sprawl out to other concepts based on their own experiences. Some ideas are more easily activated than others… and become solidified with every new iteration.

Essentially, mechanics are just another way of communicating ideas. Most of The Last of Us boils down to “Resource Management: the Game.” The item combining system, however, is what creates tension, it tells us not only that Joel is a resourceful character, but that he’s not a very powerful figure in his world. It also tells us that gauze and alcohol have more value in its speculated reality than does a human life. The difficulty or tension that comes with lacking a resource tells the story of a weak person in a hostile world driven to murder for band aids.

There’s plenty of writing already about how mechanics ought to pair with the narrative context, but mechanics themselves are a language and therefore communicate a story. When a system demands something of the people in it, it carries ulterior meanings. The bullet economy in Metro 2033 implicitly tells the player that access to lethal force directly creates wealth. Faith in Final Fantasy Tactics is a stat that makes characters more powerful and more vulnerable, suggesting that belief in God is as dangerous  to a person as much as it is a source of strength. Hell, the fact that “the sorts of verbs we find in games are limited to acts like shoot, jump, move, steer, build, destroy, etc. [sic]…typically amount to movement and collision detection” suggests that most of the medium is currently invested almost exclusively in the practice and escape of murder.

Systematically speaking, human consciousness organizes information in stories. When presented with a mechanic in a game, players necessarily understand it in terms of a story. The faster blocks fall in Tetris, the more difficult the game becomes. That’s the whole game right there. But there is a narrative in there and not just for the reader-response theorist. The player (subject) organizes (verb) blocks (object). That’s a story. Players behave according to a goal. The experience of the purely mechanical Tetris has weight because the language of its mechanics carry meaning on a narrative level. Players understand the anxiety of fast moving blocks because they understand anxiety in their everyday lives.

No understands us.

No understands us.

That’s the crux of criticism: the application of a fictional game’s lessons and messages to a player’s nonfictional life. The universe and people are systems of mechanics and the human brain understands the world through stories and language. People take their experiences—fictive and non-fictive—with them. To properly understand a game and its influence on a player it’s important not to alienate the narrative qualities from its mechanical ones. Dissecting videogame story depends on understanding the structure of its language and engaging with mechanics creates a narrative. A knowledge of both is necessary.

Granted, knowledge of an art’s craft often gives rise to elitism —which we could use a little less of—but it’s still important to recognize that “story” can’t be evaluated without considering the structures that go into its telling. Likewise, without appreciating how systems create narratives they can’t ever be understood beyond rote regurgitation. It’s fine to specialize in one form of criticism or another, but it’s important not to privilege one element of composition over others. It makes no sense to think of a sentence with words but no grammar, nor should we think of games as purely systems of rules or as a mode of storytelling.

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Introducing Medium Rare

We’re very proud to present Medium Rare, Medium Difficulty’s all-woman podcast. Intersectional, diverse, outspoken, and often silly. We also just like to play video games. There will be general discussion of video games, video game criticism, as well as gender, sexuality, and women in video games. There are also frequent naughty jokes.

We will be be putting up a permanent link to the podcasts on the main page but in the meantime, all podcasts can be found here.

iTunes users can subscribe manually to our feed with the following instructions:

Files -> Subscribe to Podcast then paste in http://mediumdifficulty.com/podcast/feed/

Enjoy!

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Close Playing: The Swapper

 

I was invited to the launch for this game - or so I thought, until I had to leave my keys in a bowl.

I am the last undamaged consciousness. If I can even call myself undamaged. I am the sole survivor of a plague; I am the sole survivor of a machine. I am an avatar, generated from something meaningless, or something with all of the meaning in the world. My body is one of endless copies, which I’ve let fall to their death, evaporate, or just left behind. They moved when I moved, looked where I looked, and that’s it. They weren’t real: all they could do was obey me, and I knew who I was because I was the only person who could move on.  But we were all silent. Did we ever really have identity? And does it really matter? We moved, after all. We jumped and ran and pushed buttons and carried boxes and collected orbs until, finally, we didn’t have to anymore. All the while, we journeyed through a space station devoid of life, or maybe teeming with it. Hallways filled with silent conversation. Architecture that existed only to impede my journey. And yet, I could look back in time and see the people relaxing, experiencing the wonders of the void together. Maybe they never left the Recreation area. As a melancholy piano played in the peaceful, golden room, I hoped I’d never have to. But I pressed on into the darkest regions of the ship, with the company of my wits, my soul, and my swapper.

The title of Andrew Groen’s review of the Swapper was in my mind throughout the duration of my playthrough. He referred to it as “Braid by way of 2001, A Space Odyssey,” which I find to be a bit of a misrepresentation, in so far as it doesn’t particularly resemble Stanley Kubrick’s film – I assume the film, not the book, is the reference we are meant to take away – in anything other than their general science fiction aesthetic and ambitions of intellectual philosophizing. In truth, the comparison to Braid is far more apt, despite their rather severe differences in mechanics, art design and narrative method. Like Braid, The Swapper takes the basic system of a familiar franchise – in Braid’s case the Super Mario Brothers games – and drastically alters that system so it can function as the framework of a deviously clever (and sometimes ludicrously difficult) puzzle game. Like Metroid, the player controls a person covered from head to toe in a suit that hides the majority of their physical characteristics (height and weight, you could argue, are not hidden). Like Metroid, the game opens with the player character leaving a small craft they occupied on their own, and, like Metroid, the player has to navigate a freely explorable map that opens up new areas to the player when they retrieve certain items. Though truthfully, the direct connection to the early Metroid games did not become evident to me until I noticed the doors that the player has to enter to travel from room to room; the similarity to the doors from Super Metroid is undeniable. And, like Braid, the game exploits its aesthetic and systemic similarities to a familiar franchise to both explore and subvert an idea from that franchise; in this Swapper’s case, this is the mystery of identity.

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20XX: Bleed And The Future Of Action Heroines

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As a child of the 80s, I was raised on bloodshed. Practically everything I did involved the quintessential adolescent male power fantasy, one expressed by countless Arnolds, Stevens, and Jean-Claudes. High body counts, bottomless clips, and an arsenal that defied physics was my paintbrush, endless hordes of faceless (and often nonwhite) foes my canvas, and the painter a muscle bound, bare-chested, man. It was always the two Bad Dudes rescuing the President’s daughter or Arnold rushing to save the innocent and virginal girl, no questions asked. If there was a woman with a gun, it was only a matter of time before she herself needed rescue. Even Linda Hamilton needed Michael Beihn to do the heavy lifting. Just like when I would steal my sister’s Barbies to use as POWs when playing with my GI Joes, the women were there as collateral, living breathing plot devices.

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The Trouble With We Men

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“Videogames are sexist” passes over my ears no different than “the sky is blue.” It’s obvious. But given the strident hostility towards the women combating sexism (most famously, Anita Sarkeesian) it seems that sometimes the obvious is invisible. And as the industry falls over backwards to laud “next-gen” tech and preview the umpteenth iteration of ‘man kills X number of people to achieve Y goal,’ Sarkeesian and other bloggers have begun connecting the industry’s creative stagnation with its distressing bond to sexism. Transitioning to the “next generation” doesn’t mean “adding more pixels” it means evolving equity, accountability and inclusiveness. Gamers, men specifically, rejecting these changes only impede the medium’s progress, adding to its troubles by unwittingly encouraging a misogynist industry debased by the very men playing its games.

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Heroic Homosexuality: Being Gay in Rogue Legacy

rogue legacy gay

Rogue Legacy takes players on a genealogical adventure through a mysterious castle filled with evil creatures and action-RPG elements. Each time your character dies, and he/she will (a lot), you are dead for good. But now you may choose one of three heirs to continue the good fight. As an heir you have traits that differentiate them along with different classes. You’ll find a barbarian with color blindness, a paladin with dwarfism, and perhaps even a homosexual mage. One of the traits in Rogue Legacy is even listed as “Gay,” described as “You’re fabulous!” and a further description of either “You’re a fan of the man” or “You like the ladies” depending on your character’s gender. I was curious, and a bit skeptical, about this trait as it seemed like it could either be funny, hurtful, or perhaps even moving.

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The Endgame:The Horror of Absence in The Last of Us

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“I love order. It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.”

Samuel Beckett, Endgame

[Spoilers for The Last of Us ahead, y'all]

Since its release, The Last of Us has  served as the catalyst for a great deal of discussion from prominent writers in the community about certain aspects of the game, particularly with a focus on the game ‘s apocalypse scenario and how it handles gender roles. Cameron Kunzleman wrote about how his experience with The Last of Us generated “something like apocalypse fatigue ” while Leigh Alexander conveyed half-praise of the work in her succinct summary of her experience: “This is probably the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that I need to play. It’s probably the last one that ought to be made, too. This is likely the pinnacle of that particular form.” The most engaging discussion I’ve seen related to The Last of Us has been Edge‘s Jason Killingworth’s praise of Naughty Dog’s treatment of female characters and the response piece to that article written by Gamespot‘s Carolyn Petit, in which Petit says that “simply presenting women as people is hardly something that should be considered incredibly praiseworthy. Rather, it’s the bare minimum that we should expect from our narratives. To shower a game with praise for doing the minimum is to set the bar extremely low.”

As far as my own impressions of the The Last of Us  go, I think it’s good, quite good. I have issues with the game’s immersion-breaking sequences and repetitious puzzle sections, but The Last of Us pulls off some impressive feats. One of game’s notable accomplishments is taking horror film clichés and making them stand out in an oversaturated genre. If you’ve seen enough zombie movies, you can predict nearly every beat of the story right before each one happens. For example, any survivor that our two protagonists come across is likely to die relatively soon after their introduction(s) because they’re expendable. Survival of the fittest reigns supreme and crushes almost any occasion for kindness or mercy beneath its boot heel, as bandits and infected monstrosities roam cities, highways, and even forests. TLOU never completely escapes the conventions of its genre, but the way it spins those clichés make it stand out — and a make the genre worth exploring.

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