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Andy Astruc's blog

3:23 PM on 05.26.2011

Fistfights in the Conservatory

Iím just going to keep punching you in the face until I win. Failing that, youíre going to get shot in the stomach. Itís nothing personal, thatís just how we do things around here. Okay, we can talk a little first, maybe even negotiate a peaceful solution. Then Iím going to punch you in the face.

You might have noticed that thereís a lot of violence in video games.

Iím not referring to the usual macho bloodfests which come up in these discussions - the Gears of Duty: Call War Splatterhouse Electric Chainsaw Boogaloo Bullet Edition type of game that appeals to the repressed, psychotic 12 year old boy in all of us - because we all know those are stupid. Theyíre over the top and way too violent and thatís why they exist - so people can do stupid, violent and anti-social things they normally arenít allowed to (or donít want to) do. Iím not opening that can of veiny man-worms. No. This is about misplaced violence. Sometimes youíre happily playing a game - running, or building, or talking to NPCs - when suddenly youíre fighting. Fighting for your life. Fighting because someone didnít like your shirt. Fighting to get from A to B. And it feels weird, because just a moment ago you were playing a game about dispelling political tension in a medieval city-state. Or maybe itís much worse. Maybe you didnít even notice, because youíre so used to every game kicking and punching that you just expect it now, to hell with context.

Mirrorís Edge suffers badly from this deplorable personality disorder. The game bleeds unrealised potential from every orifice, but itís the combat that really stands out. Because itís there. Because it shouldnít be there. A relatively new type of game was promised - first-person running. Translating parkour into a video game seemed like some sort of developer black magic, especially in the first person. Didnít they realise that perspective is for shooting dudes? But when it came out it was fucking amazing. Nailing a full-tilt leap off the side of a skyscraper, sliding down a drainpipe and rolling perfectly onto a balcony only to wall-jump off a nearby billboard and slide down a glass roof to freedom without breaking stride is up there with the best of the best gaming moments.

Then more and more soldiers turn up, so naturally you try to run away, since this is a running game. But Mirrorís Edge doesnít want you to run, it wants you to stop and fight, maybe grab a gun and shoot someone. Itís possible to perfect your technique to a point where you can slide-kick your way past a foe or two, but the game just keeps throwing them at you. By the end, your memories of soaring majestically through the clean, white jungle like a nominally-Asian bird are tainted with the mind stink of awkward counterattacks and tacked-on gunplay.

So a game hyped on the idea of completely bypassing combat is full of forced combat - and it's not even very good combat anyway. Why?

One possibility is that the developers were terrified of their own creation. Gaming is the most fickle of all beasts, and gamers react to new ideas by grinding them into the dirt with a big, heavy boot of indifference. So it isnít a stretch to assume the people in charge shit themselves at the idea of a game in which the pervasive mechanic is running like a girl. But just imagine an alternate universe version of Mirrorís Edge, where a lone courier speeds along the rooftops of an oppressed city, thumbing her nose at authority. Imagine if you could deftly dodge The Man instead of kicking him in the balls. It could have been a white-knuckle speed run from start to finish, twitch reflexes being the only thing standing between you and a messy death.

Obviously, not every game should try to take out the fights. The Dragon Age series, for example, rightly has you cutting through seemingly endless waves of evil scum, their blood-soaked corpses spraying bodily fluids all over your totally awesome sword. Bookending these mass murders are the talking bits RPGs tend to have, but somewhere along the line the developers decided to be lazy. As you play (and this is much more prominent in Dragon Age 2) you start to get the distinct impression every conversation, one way or another, is going to end in you fighting sixty well-armed men. The first time a negotiation goes pear-shaped you can brush it off, but after the fifth straight peaceful compromise turns into a screaming showdown and a pile of bodies, you start to wonder. It's as if Bioware couldn't think how to make up the content, so they just shoehorned in a thousand battles. The game tries to convince you it is simulating the knife-edged world of politics in a fantasy setting, but even when you make a great argument, or diffuse a heated situation by calling someone a sexy beast, you'll still end up in murder town.

Things get really stupid during one particular Dragon Age 2 mission, when Hawke is asked to help a socially awkward guard captain gain the attention of Corporal Sexy Sideburns. It starts well, with a hilarious exchange of poorly-thought-out gifts and comical misunderstandings. Then they go on a date, disguised as a guard patrol (audience laughs). At this point, your job is to run around the map like a psychopathic Benny Hill killing bandits, all so some woman can have her position filled. And just like that, a quite funny companion mission becomes just another fight.

Even presuming it is a case of laziness, a lack of creativity or a fear of new things, what do you do about it? Games have to give you something to do, because they're games.

Combat is the easy option, since it requires conflict - which is the basis for any story - and also translates easily to pressing buttons. Hit A, pull trigger, bullets hit thing. Press B, fist hits nose. Other options require some thought, but they're far from impossible. The aformentioned running-and-jumping genre is going strong in its own way, with games like Canabalt, Mirror's Edge and Prince of Persia. Stealth games are always popular, but usually can't commit to the idea. People these days tend to complain if shown a game over screen, so your average Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell has a safety measure: if you suck at stealth, just murder the shit out of everyone. It would be nice to see more games willing to cast you as a totally helpless pile of flesh instead of a sneaky tank. On another front, titles like Portal replace fighting with puzzle solving, but place it in a real world context. It's like shooting problems with your brain!

Talking is the other big one. Communication, more broadly. Talking to other characters, creating relationships, making enemies, conducting commerce. Lots of games already have speaking weaved into the game, with varied results. Games like Mass Effect and Oblivion erect a laser barrier between talking and acting. You're either in battle or you're choosing a response from a list. And the responses don't really matter, they determine how you play, not whether you win or not. LA Noire takes a leaf from ye olde adventure games and gives weight to your responses, meaning there is actually a right answer, you may actually fail due to being the world's most stupid detective and consequences will never be the same. Personally, I hope to see investigation and exploration make a comeback in modern gaming.

The possibilities are endless, if only developers can muster the guts required to take the scary, less-trodden path of innovation. Maybe a GTA-style open world game where all the personal differences are sorted out via the medium of dance. A stealth game where you are an escaped human prisoner in a world of giant robots. Or maybe youíre a giant robot, and you have to help a tiny set of people rebuild their shattered world.

Okay so maybe I just want more games with giant robots.

The point is that we shouldnít be looking to force feed violence to everyone in every video game. At the risk of sounding like a flaming hippie nancy girl-pants, there are options. Some games could stand to tone the bloodshed down a little, replacing it with other types of gameplay, and plenty of games would work fine without fists and bullets if given the chance. Combat is only one tool in the gaming toolbox. We donít need to always play the role of the death-dealing mother fucker.


7:55 AM on 04.29.2011

Aaamaazing: It's all Spatial Effects

Dedication. I am dedicated to video games. When I was young and my father suggested I go outside, I said NO, I would rather finish playing Battletoads. When my mother asked if I would like to get some of the hottest new releases from the local video store, I said NO, I would rather hire Super Mario Bros 3 for the 19th weekend straight, because I know I can get past that stupid ice world this time. When my friends asked me to come over to hang out with them, I said NO, you should all come sit on my couch and watch me play all of Eternal Darkness. And please bring your own snacks, I am not a charity.

Through the years I, like many others, have played a lot of games on a lot of different machines. I thought that Iíd peaked, that I had become as obsessive and anti-social as I possibly could, short of hooking living human babies to my TV as a power source. And then there was Mass Effect 2.

Iíd played the original Mass Effect to death, of course. The whole idea of trumpeting through space as an armour-plated badass was so far up my alley I almost expected it to buy me dinner. See, if they finally discovered a way to colonise other planets and travel through space in any meaningful, entry level way, Iíd be the first person clawing for a seat. I grew up on Star Trek of all shapes and sizes (Voyager is the best, thatís a fact) as well as all the other science fiction TV, movies, books, comics and video games you can think up, meaning I not only wish society could send me to space, I demand it. So then Mass Effect comes along and thereís spaceships and aliens and the chance to make out with a hot racist lady and saving the galaxy and committing genocide while making life and death decisions and trying to see blue side-boob.

So yeah, it was pretty cool. I wasnít blown away, but it was a highlight in my virtual life. A few years pass, filled with gaming and non-gaming events, until January 2010. Mass Effect 2 comes out. Obviously, I get the special edition, complete with art book and super-keen fancy metal case. The Xbox is primed. The disc is inside. My body is ready.

Before we go on, I should mention this. I get migraines. If you also get migraines, you know exactly what Iím talking about. If you donít get migraines then fuck you. Hereís how it goes for me. It starts with a strange feeling, like you really canít look at things properly. Then a small, sparkling dot appears somewhere in your vision, growing until it is a giant shining puddle in your line of sight. You peripheral vision vanishes and the blot gets bigger until you are completely blind. Except youíre not blind, you can see a thousand exploding suns. If you close your eyes it will just get brighter. You were feeling fine 10 minutes ago, but now you want to barf up the world. Suddenly, your vision comes back, although it still hurts to look at things. And WHAM. Enjoy your brain-splitting headache, sucker. Deep, throbbing pain from the depths of hell is clawing out of your skull with tiny pickaxes. The best news is that this will all be over in a mere four to eight hours.

Keep this in mind as I begin playing Mass Effect 2. In the past. I turn the game on and MY PRECIOUS SPACESHIP EXPLODES. I DIE. Iím now dead, floating in space. Now Iím not dead, but Iím horribly scarred and have become the cyborg property of intergalactic terrorists. No time to care about that! Iím too busy swooping around the universe, solving peopleís problems, getting drunk, making moral decisions and exploding every damn thing I can. Giant wasps are stealing babies - according to Martin Sheen - and to get them back I have to collect the baddest asses in the whole galaxy. Vampire aliens are poisoning the air system of an asteroid where the economy runs on sex shows. Glowing yellow bugs possessed by giant robot squids are calling my mother a whore. I have to pilot a ship through a black hole before my secretary melts!

A full day into the insane ride through the stars, I realised it was getting quite late in the day. Well into the night portion of the day, in fact. But my eyes and fingers wouldnít tear themselves away, even if I did have work in the morning. Even if my wife was trying to sleep. Even if I could barely tell what was going on anymore because my brain was already in bed. I knew I just needed more explosions. More hilarious dialogue choices. More god damn adventure. Just stick the explosions straight in my veins. But then another problem crops up. I can see a tiny dot on my vision. And now my peripherals are all blurry. Yep, Iím getting a migraine.

If I stop playing now and go to sleep I should be okay, but Iím playing Mass Effect 2, I canít stop. My brain does a quickfire calculation, weighing up the risks and rewards of playing a video game for so long that I go blind. The game wins of course. And now Iím half-disabled, squinting at my tiny television as I fire orbs of psychic ass-kicking into the brain pans of defective clones and colour-coded gang members. My head starts pounding so hard it actually puts me off balance. Mass Effect 2 is now actually making me physically ill and I donít care. Imaginary spiders with sledgehammer feet are scaling the back of my skull and my eyeballs are being sexually assaulted in a crowded nightclub. I could vomit at any point.

But I saved the galaxy. Iím the hero. I managed to beat the most difficult and explosive missions, save (most of) the citizens and spit on the graves of my enemies. I got to have sex with a Quarian. Eventually I collapse into bed, often rising during the night - although it is already 4:00am - to vomit and writhe around on the bathroom floor. The next day I canít get up at all, so I sit quietly in a dark room muttering about launching probes. It was totally worth it. Mass Effect 2 is interactive cocaine.   read

2:37 PM on 04.12.2011

Digital Mind in the Analog World

This is the brain of a gamer. More accurately, it is the brain of Andy Astruc, a human being of slight build and not inconsiderable height. Known to the dusty tubes of the internet as Zwuh. Iím an Australian, but not a very good one, considering I moved in with its sexy cousin, New Zealand. My eyes change colour depending on the day. I am an atheist, a vegetarian, an artist, a writer, a madman, an alien, a wall-flower, a loudmouth, a nerd, a super-villain and a unicorn. The following probably sum it up best, though.

Gamer. Thatís right. Iím a gamer. Sure, itís an unpopular term among a specific brand of semantic fuzzhead who thinks calling yourself a Ďgamerí is as useful as saying someone is a Ďbook readerí or a Ďguy who wears socksí. But the term is more a useful shorthand for Gaming Enthusiast. Someone for whom gaming isnít merely a diversion, distraction, or a way to pass time.

Itís a passion. A deep, burning need to play video games which Iíve had since the time I can remember having things to remember. First it was our old Amstrad home PC, resplendent in a decidedly brown shade of grey. Most likely through a bargain shop, I got the floppy disk for a game called Bedlam. It was a top-scrolling space shoot Ďem up which had three colours and ended when a giant head descended and humped you in the face with lasers. When we made the leap to Windows, I tracked down the only store in our small Australian town which had even heard of video games. They were selling two. One of them was Warcraft, and the other was Jazz Jackrabbit. Obviously I went for the one about a space rabbit that kills evil turtles.

From then onward, my life was defined by gaming. I needed a TV of my own so I could play NES games in my room. I had to go to the newsagent because they sold gaming magazines. I would gladly help with the shopping because the electronics store was down the road. And in the present, games are the subject of my writing, the way I connect with friends, the filter through which I see the world. So please keep calling me a gamer.

Devil's Advocate. Arguments. Discourse. Mouth fights. Flame wars. Brain-powered fisticuffs. If you ask people who know me, they will say I am a funny guy who likes to argue. If someone knows me really, really well, they will say I am fucking annoying and I never shut up. Any excuse to talk at length about some piece of the world around us will be grabbed and choked to death, then the corpse will be beaten with a stick. Naturally, thatís why I came to the internet.

While I have my pet subjects like anyone else - comics, games, film, TV, science - Iíll take up any cause that looks like it needs a good rogering. Since everyone agreeing with one another general leads to an unsatisfying silence, I often argue the unmentioned side for the sake of discussion, so I apologise in advance for that feeling creeping up the back of your neck telling you to scream and kick me in the nutcracker suite. But if I disagree with you it doesnít mean I hate you, it just means youíre wrong.

Husband. This is important. I am married. Iíve been married for a very long time, unless time is linear. My wife is not a gamer but she plays games. She isnít a comic fan but she reads comics. She doesnít like films and TV except for the ones she likes.

She is the light of my life, and the speeding train behind it. Rachel is a writer, and she encouraged me to get into writing as well. She definitely does not encourage my gaming, unless it makes money somehow. She once spent four days doing nothing but sitting on the floor playing Oblivion and sleeping.

Eater of Worlds. Iím one of those terrible, pretentious people. The ones who moan about the importance of narrative in entertainment. The ones who donít like to play games without stories, and will happily play a mediocre game with a good plot.

Storytelling is the most amazing and creative act human beings are capable of. The genesis of a fully-formed and functional fiction from the void. Worlds where literally anything is possible. Like an explorer discovering a new world, ripe with adventure and exotic breasts, I love to dive into as many different universes as possible and experience them firsthand.

And with every adventure, with every new universe and shiny new character, you learn a little bit about the real world. And yourself, of course. Thatís why games are so valuable, they not only allow us to be told about experiences, they let us participate. Little kids have the right idea, playing doctor and having fake sword fights, experimenting with the world. Gamers get to do that too, even if we generally take it for granted.

So thatís a little of what Iím about, I suppose. Pretentious wanker. I hope to do a few fun things with my blog, the main thing being a series called Playing the Fool, which will look at a selection of games I believe represent the best gaming has to offer... or at least the potential for greatness. Also I will kiss people on the mouth of you ask nicely. I love making new friends and enemies, and I love a good discussion.

I like Pokemon, Metal Gear, adventure games, RPGs (of the Western and Eastern variety), Valve products, Minecraft and about a billion others.

Hello World.   read

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