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Asterion's blog

7:33 AM on 03.05.2014

Jim Sterling's Next Adventure

I always liked Jim's reviews here on DToid. They were always a notch above what most other games critics do - "the graphics are good, the mechanics are bad, 7/10" - and more importantly he used his intelligence to write honest criticism. He was not, as some alleged, a contrarian; he simply wasn't a majoritarian. Herd animals didn't like Jim Sterling because he was no sheep, but the truth is that he didn't set out to oppose the sheep: often he agreed with the critical consensus, more or less, but looked at games more comprehensively than your average hack. And of course I will always be personally indebted to Jim for his 10/10 review of Deadly Premonition. He described the game so compellingly that I bought it and once I bought I found out that he had hit the nail square on the head.

It therefore pleases me a great deal that Jim's new career as an accomplished salsa singer is working out. This video, for example, has racked up over 12,000,000 views (something the Jimquisition videos could only dream of).


1:51 PM on 02.20.2014

Something to do with Breasts

I have just read OpiumHerz's blog entry Community Discourse (or: for a better DToid). For those who haven't read it, the post consists of a quick list of suggestions for making the DToid community better. Although they are all valid, I do feel that part of the reason for the decline in community activity, perceived or otherwise, is beyond the reach of the staff or any initiative they might make. Rather, I think that video-game culture is calming down a little after a year or two of intense self-analysis across pretty much every site, and as it calms down, the communities which sprung up around these old debates deflate.

I came to this conclusion when trawling through my 180 odd comments made in three years of sporadic activity. What I found was that I, and other people, commented most extensively on posts in blogs from around 9-10 months ago at a time when, thanks to the likes of Dragon's Crown, the firestorm (or shitstorm, depending on your point of view) surrounding representation in games was still in full flow. In DToid as elsewhere, there was  a near-constant flow of blogs, often with a great many comments and extended debates, about the topic. They ranged from the fundamental (is there a problem with representation? if so, is there a solution? etc) to the downright trivial (including one which stated in effect that "not just women, also transsexuals need more representation" whilst forgetting that there are more minority groups than just transsexuals). I'm not sure if the debate always fostered what we might call a sense of community, but it certainly ensured a certain level of activity amongst DToid bloggers. The other major event which preceded the lull was the unveiling of the next generation of hardware, something which prompted an equally large (if less divisive and less long-term) flurry of activity.

Between June and December of last year, I spent a great deal of time in foreign lands without internet access, let alone access to consoles to play games, and did not venture onto DToid. I returned to find it an altogether quieter blogosphere, in which the number of posters per day was equally numerous (or so it seems - I haven't bothered quantifying) but the number of responses to their posts far less so. The reason, I believe, is that posts lack the fundamentally contentious qualities of the gender debate, or the emotional impact of the console discussions, and so inspire fewer comments. The result, of course, is that it gives the impression of a dying community, when in fact it might simply be that there is no grand topic about which everyone has an opinion.

As I said, I do not doubt the solutions put forward by OpiumHertz may be of some use. But I think that as the major question of gender recedes into memory and the transitional period between generations comes to a close (more or less), we might also have to accept that there are simply fewer big issues to discuss and so, perhaps, there might also be less discussion for the time being.   read

12:52 PM on 02.12.2014

Games That Never Got Made #1: Horace Goes Clubbing

It is widely known amongst fans of the ZX Spectrum home computer that William Tang, creator of the Horace series, was too ill to finish the mysterious fourth game in the series ‘Horace to the Rescue’. From a man who delivered such classics as Hungry Horace and Horace and the Spiders, this was a blow to his devoted fans.

In 2007, however, the enigmatic Tang resurfaced to announce that he was working on a title for the DS, to be published by Rising Star Games. It was tentatively titled ‘Horace Goes Clubbing’ – a not-so-subtle nod to the second and most popular game in the series, 1982’s Frogger rip-off cum sports sim Horace Goes Skiing – and, like the best the series had to offer, consisted of taking other people’s ideas. In this case, that particular mini-game from WarioWare where you avoid stomping feet seemed to be the inspiration, though Tang actually went far deeper than that.

Players of Horace Goes Clubbing were to be tasked with running around a club as Horace, avoiding the violent movements and drunken stomping of women’s heels. Touching the screen whilst directly underneath one of the women in the club would turn Horace’s head upwards, which then triggered a ‘Profiling’ sequence in which Horace took note of a series of images – it is said that Swery65 got the idea for this feature of Deadly Premonition from a preview of this Horace game in Famitsu – which would be added to the ‘Wank Bank’, accessible via the pause menu, which seemed to serve no explicit function in terms of gameplay, but in which images could be sorted, ‘starred’, and viewed at the player’s leisure.

Initially, the gaming press received the title warmly. Issue 41 of Retro Gamer posed as its monthly question to its staff, ‘How warmly do you feel about Horace Goes Clubbing?’, to which everyone bar editor Darran Jones responded ‘Very warmly’. Darran, being an Amstrad hardliner, responded ‘I am not aware of any such game.’ In Britain, the game was touted as having “the potential to revive the moribund British games industry” by the BBC, in spite of the fact that Tang (much like tennis starlet and British media favourite Laura Robson) is Australian.

As is the nature of games today, however, the project failed to make it to release. It was crippled by declining sales forecasts as the gaming press moved on to new fetishes, while the central mechanic was picked up by Anita Sarkeesian and other prominent members of the unemployed community as being “demeaning towards women.” Rising Star Games attempted to appease them by including what a press release described as “men with ripped trousers so you can see their bits too”, but they refused to add men’s ‘profiles’ to the Wank Bank, labelling such a feature “gay.” Once Rising Star got the European rights to No More Heroes, they dropped the troublesome title, stating that they could not have “too many buttocks” on their 2008 release catalogue.  Some rumours have it that the game was actually cancelled because Tang bankrupted himself on long distance phone calls to his UK-based publisher, and was unable to fund development. Either way, Horace Goes Clubbing is a gem we will sadly never get to play. All that remains is the three screenshots featured below.   read

8:59 AM on 02.11.2014

Review: Grand Theft Auto V

I apologise for two things: first, for not blogging since June last year, and second, for not bothering to write this review until over a month since I finished the game. GTA V is my sixth experience with the series, following (in order I played them) Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories, San Andreas, IV and Chinatown Wars. Although I was as addicted to this most recent instalment as to past games in the series, I must admit for the first time in my gaming career the experience gave me considerably less satisfaction than both earlier games in the series and other Rockstar games of a similar mould (notably Red Dead Redemption, which I loved).

This is not to say that V is not a game with a great deal going for it. Graphically, it is a vast improvement on its immediate predecessor, not to mention other games in the series. Gone is some of the awkward lighting which plagued Liberty City, while the textures throughout are sharper and more realistic. The size of the in-game map is similarly impressive, not only in its size but also in its range - the contrasting urban and scenic locales give the player far greater choice, as do the expanded range of vehicles, which aside from the usual cars, trucks, helicopters and motorbikes also includes planes (which handle like a dream) and pedal bikes. Sports bikes find a whole new purpose on the game's three mountains; riding down them is like a PS2 game in itself, and even when you veer off course mid-way through, die, and lose $5000 it never feels like time wasted.

But beneath this impressive surface polish, V does not always feel as satisfying as previous games. Part of the reason is that, although the world is more open than ever before, many of the new avenues are rather dull. The one truly interesting diversion in the GTA series - pool - is gone, while the tedious darts remains, complemented by such boring diversions as triathlons and tennis. Similarly, the side-missions remain as low-key as ever, but this time they form mini story-arcs of their own which drag on - such as one which involves a lot of smashing 'For Sale' signs in Vinewood - and frankly there is next to no incentive to complete them.

Of other side features which seem to have wandered since IV, perhaps the most disappointing is the cultural parody. The radio stations are markedly less entertaining (though, I stress, still good), the in-game internet is smaller and more gimmicky, and the stand up comedy has been replaced with three movies of generally low quality (only a faux art-house film called Capolavoro is remotely entertaining, and then only once). The only constant is the TV, which has been slightly expanded. I should also mention the much vaunted inclusion of an original soundtrack in certain missions (while of course the radio stations remain the default). Given the massive success of Red Dead Redemption, which had a soundtrack to rival Tiomkin or Morricone, I had high hopes, but the occasional use of a score in GTA V was unremarkable and quite often fell flat.

The main story left me feeling equally flat. Of the three main characters, two were quite bland, while Trevor was rather like Tuco from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the first half of the storyline - which is to say extremely entertaining if not particularly complex - but soon became an almighty bore thanks to his constant whining in the second half. Outside of the protagonists, the range of characters was far more limited than IV, with only the comically inept Lamar Davies sticking in mind, and the narrative arc rather more prosaic and dull (including a choice between three anticlimactic endings). This is not to say that the main story is a fun experience. The missions are more varied than in any previous entry into the series, although the heists are less exciting than promised and the preparatory missions at best prosaic, and the three protagonists are used particularly well. Not only do they allow you to play out different parts of a complex operation without it feeling forced, many missions featuring two or three of them also give you the choice of who to control. The result is that missions can be played more tactically and, perhaps more importantly, replayed totally differently.

I realise that I have focussed a little too much on the negative, but make no mistake, GTA V is a strong game. It simply suffers from not being the sort of overhaul which was promised, and which the series, predicated still on patterns from two generations ago, is starting to show signs of needing.

4/5   read

8:26 AM on 06.07.2013

The Interesting Gender Issue: Raymond v Nigri

Last month, I told you just how pointless it is to care about how genders (and, for that matter, races, religions, and every other group) are represented in games. I feel it is important that I mention that gender problems do exist in gaming, but simply that the ones people gravitate towards are irrelevances which divert attention from real issues. Far more concerning than how games present women is the roles that women – real women, with actual breasts – are expected to fulfil in the industry itself. To illustrate the latent sexism in the videogames industry, we need go no further than a comparison of the ways in which gamers (or some at least) responded to Jade Raymond becoming Ubisoft’s public face of Assassin’s Creed, as against the promotion by Jessica Negri of Lollipop Chainsaw on behalf of Suda51.

Jade Raymond is an executive at Ubisoft. She also happens to be good looking. Back in the lead up to the release of Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft decided that she, rather than chubby-faced creative director Patrice Désilets or androgynous, creepy writer Corey May, would be a good person to promote the game. It was perhaps a slightly cynical move, given that as producer she was not the most directly involved in the creative aspects of the game, but it was also commercially sound, and not too different to the way Nintendo use Miyamoto to promote games he’s barely heard of, but which they nevertheless accredit to him. She may speak in a language riddled with executive jargon – talking about franchises and shipping units more than anything else – but she is nevertheless intelligent and, more importantly, involved.

Jessica Nigri did something vaguely similar by promoting Lollipop Chainsaw last year. The fundamental difference was that where Jade Raymond gave interviews clothed, spoke about the game, and was generally a very recognisable and articulate presence, Nigri would turn up dressed in the skimpy outfit of the game’s lead character, and her interviews were limited to being asked who she was dressed as. There was nothing special or interesting about what she did. She is no more than a high profile cosplayer who turns up at promotional events to seduce the sad and lonely into buying a product by presumably becoming the object of their fantasies. Her attire goes some way towards indicating this is her goal.

These facts alone are not particularly interesting or noteworthy. One woman has ‘made it’ in the supposedly male-dominated world of games design, the other has found fame by appealing to the actually male-dominated world of gaming – when we talk about gamer demographics we often forget that the ‘hard-core’ of gaming is a predominantly male group, with women rising in accordance with the rise of casual games for iPhone and Android devices. What makes the comparison of Raymond and Nigri interesting, and in my eyes representative of the problem we currently face in gaming regarding gender, is how this predominantly male group of gamers reacted to these two prominent women promoting their respective games.

Let us start with the response to Nigri. I may be wrong, but I cannot recall any outcry over the use of a scantily clad woman to promote a game. This, I think, is quite sad. Jessica Nigri, like just about every cosplayer out there, displays no skills or ability by peddling her wares (whether this is the costume or what’s underneath is up for debate), happy to become the object of every fetishist’s desires by dressing as this or that character, inevitably a semi-nude anime or gaming character from Japan, the most sexual frustrated nation on earth where maid cafés and the fetishisation of adolescents is normal. The only thing which distinguishes Nigri from most cosplayers is that she is not ugly, and so does a rather good job of becoming the object of a fetish. Indeed, insofar as there was any response to Nigri’s parading herself, it was a positive one, and some went so far as to debate whether or not she was the perfect woman – and in my eyes it is pretty revealing, when you read these dicussions (such as at, to see how perfect is defined. The gawky eunuch who initiated this particular discussion on IGN did not give a reason for his belief beyond an interview and several pictures of her in costume.

Where Nigri was lauded for her soft-core pornographic performance, some of the particularly swivel-eyed males in the gaming community were left with dyspepsia at the idea that Jade Raymond, a woman, was able to sustain a conversation about a game for more than sixty seconds, whilst showing none of her cleavage. They were so baffled that they decided to draw a comic of Raymond in a bikini, giving head to bespectacled nerds in the hope that they would buy Assassin’s Creed. They were trying to point out the cynicism of Ubisoft for putting the most attractive person involved in the game at the head of the media campaign (though she also happens to be the most articulate and least boring, even if she were as ugly as sin), but although there is a degree of truth to this, all they demonstrated was that in gaming then, and still now six years on, women are expected to fulfil certain roles. They are expected to be the wenches hanging around at conventions, dangling off the arms of the mighty man behind a game. This is not something that has been fed into by how women are portrayed in games, though it is certainly facilitated by their portrayal, but rather something that gaming has borrowed from manga and anime conventions (an unfortunate custom, in my opinion). Thus the infamous Raymond comic was an attempt to repackage and re-imagine her as a more easily identifiable sort of gaming woman, such as Jessica Nigri, as an antidote to her talking about a game in the way a man like Miyamoto or Levine might. It did not so much tell us about Ubisoft’s intentions as give us an insight into the preconceptions of (some) male gamers. Although many journalists were vehement in their criticism of the comic, I do not recall many of the rank and file gamers making comments being too outraged. Some were, and many thought the comic a little crass, but for the most part people seemed to think that the comic made a fair enough point about Ubisoft’s marketing. As I’ve said, it didn’t: it just showed how people react if their compartmentalised view of women in gaming is contradicted in some way.  

Jade Raymond is not exceptional for being a senior woman in games production. There always have been women, from Roberta Williams in the days of Sierra to Kellee Santiago, who runs thatgamecompany, and there always will be. Their numbers are already rising organically as females (incrementally) join the hardcore and stay there. But in the public sphere they are all too often expected to be like Jessica Nigri (or the imagined Jade Raymond from the comic), whose purpose is to use assets like blonde hair, a vapid personality and skimpy clothing to objectify themselves and sell a game. Gaming has enough Jade Raymond’s, but they are not prominent enough, all too often closeted away like a homosexual in the 1950s, while the likes of Jessica Nigri are as whorish with our attention as they are with their choice (or lack) of attire.   read

6:00 AM on 05.27.2013

The Crisis of, and Challenges to, the Triple-A

The triple-A title does not seem on the outside to be struggling all that much. By far the most lucrative releases are those in established franchises such as Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. The truth, however, is that the triple-A and the underlying assumptions behind large-scale game development – primarily that a game should aim at fluid play and good graphics to compel people to play it – are being challenged with increasing regularity. On the one hand, the sort of casual gaming promoted by the Wii, and taken up in earnest by the sorts of titles released on iOS, has introduced a new generation of ‘gamers’ into an entirely different notion of what gaming is and how far its boundaries extend. On the other, there is the art gaming scene, which has gathered particular momentum in the past decade or so, and which enjoys painting itself as gaming’s avant-garde. The rise of both non-commercial and openly ‘artistic’ games and casual games has been aided by the financial crisis, which has encouraged large-scale developers to tighten their belts and rely more heavily than ever on established franchises and formulae. At the height of the crisis, for example, generic Modern Warfare clones abounded.

In my view, the shortcomings of most triple-A titles are numerous. These days, only the worst fail graphically, but behind this veneer one is struck by the trite unoriginality of a massive proportion of them. Many games use tried and tested mechanics for running, shooting and jumping; they are serviceable but not particularly interesting. They justify this running, shooting and jumping with narratives so thin and characters so decidedly wooden that they might as well not exist. Of course there are exceptions, such as Red Dead Redemption or BioShock, but for the most part ideas that lacked much substance to begin with are recycled endlessly, each time a little glossier, more realistic, and with better physics engines.

Unfortunately, neither the art nor the casual games present a viable or desirable alternative to the fundamental problems of gaming today. There are of course exceptions to this general statement. Braid is one of the most beautiful, ingenious and affecting games of the past ten years. But it is not so strong that it can carry the torch for the indie games movement on its own, and its brethren by in large fail to carry their weight. Casual gaming is, I think we can all agree, something one does to pass the time, and does not represent a pursuit in the way that gaming as a hobby would be considered. Who honestly plays Angry Birds seriously, for example? Yet the art game professes to offer a serious alternative to the triple-A. To understand why it fails, let’s use some dubious analogies.

The average triple-A title is, in literary terms, a novel. Gastronomically speaking, much meat clings to the bones of virtually every triple-A. The novel may not be of the best quality, the meat may be horse or just a poor cut, but there is no denying that a lot of ‘stuff’ constitutes a triple-A. On the rare occasion that this stuff is good, the result is a gaming experience that can be many things at once. I will refer again to gaming’s Citizen Kane (BioShock), which was tense, challenging, well-crafted, well-written, and thematically deep. A tenuous parallel might even be drawn between the vast emptiness of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu and Rapture, but obviously the parallel goes far beyond such literalism.

Conversely, the art and indie game is never a novel. Occasionally, such as in the case of Braid, it becomes a short story, but mostly art games are sentences, slices of meat so tiny they can scarcely be tasted. They are regularly based on one of two things: an exploration of a single mechanic or an abstract theme. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is regularly cited as a turning point in the ‘games as art’ debate, and is a prime example of the thematic strain of art games.

For those unfamiliar with Passage, it is a free, low-tech game about mortality which lasts a few minutes. I recall the first time I played it, utterly unsure of how I was progressing, and how I grew concerned watching my little avatar age. I was shocked when he died, although I shouldn’t have been. It was certainly a touching and affecting experience to play a game that dwelt on death, which we are so often exposed to in games but which we rarely reflect on: the enemies we kill are expendable, the ‘death’ of our character rarely has a sense of finality thanks to ‘lives’ or ‘re-spawning’. Passage doesn’t really ask those questions, but from this epigrammatic memento mori they do follow quite naturally. Unfortunately, if the first play through packs a punch, then the second time is more like a limp-wristed slap, and subsequently the game becomes utterly redundant.

Sadly, Passage differs from most art games in only one respect, and that is that it has a clear vision and executes it well. Many art games suffer from Passage’s shortcomings – limited scope and size, including an absence of replay value – without ever having any of its advantages to begin with. Molleindustria is a prime example of games being used to express in a more longwinded and tedious manner what could very nicely be summarised in a sentence – the essence of Every Day the Same Dream is far more engagingly portrayed in Ibsen’s play The Doll House (which is an existentialist play first, a feminist text second, as far as I’m concerned). Some art games are like a Damien Hirst installation: they try so hard to be ‘artistic’ and ‘meaningful’ that they end up exposing their own vapid meaninglessness inadvertently. I have in mind the nonsense oeuvre of Rod Humble (I refer only to his homemade games), which he mistakenly tends to craft around a title. In my eyes, this is artistic failure of the first degree: if we look at Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander, the title does not even properly tell us who we are looking at (is the man in red or man in black Alexander, for example?), and instead we are left merely to appreciate the forceful body language of the Greek men as against the submissiveness of the Persian women. We can appreciate these contrasting dynamics without any knowledge of context. This is the true art, not making something obscure that can be illuminated only by its title, which is more like a terrible brainteaser than art.

For quite some years, this troubled me deeply. The triple-A title has waned in my estimation just as it has is most people’s, but I have also lost the hopes I had of five or six years ago that art games provide a viable alternative.

The timing of Deadly Premonition’s release three years ago now came just as my interest in gaming reached its nadir. By early 2010 I hadn’t been excited by a triple-A game since GTA IV almost two years prior, and in desperation I had returned to my RuneScape account for gaming sustenance.

You may at this point be asking exactly how I had my confidence in gaming restored by a game which I bought on the back of Jim Sterling’s Destructoid review, which in spite of its 10/10 score called it a “beautiful trainwreck” (or something to that effect), and which my trusty games™ gave a mediocre score to, citing poor graphics and inept mechanics.  

The answer is really quite simple, and disappointingly short given the length of my preamble. Deadly Premonition was my first experience with a formula of games design, which I’ve yet to see codified or articulated coherently by anyone, which represents a happy medium in an age of extremes, where consumer choice is so often limited either to showy set pieces or equally showy pixel games with little actual gameplay.

Firstly, and this is something many people have picked up on and written about at length, Deadly Premonition is a standout example in the games industry of good writing. I have often said, and oftener think, that as a result of the relative failure of games to translate the size of the industry into any form of clout or even respect in wider Western society, a person looking to be a writer in entertainment goes to film or television instead of games. And although film or TV writers do not necessarily make good game writers, the aspect of being able to write for the mechanics of gaming is not an issue our writers today have, but rather they lack the ability to script characters competently, develop plotlines, and other skills which seem to have emigrated to the film and television world. Deadly Premonition taps into a very specific type of writing which has been compared to Twin Peaks time and time again, but which I think goes a little further; rather than being a direct borrowing, I think Deadly Premonition mixes Twin Peaks with a sort of exaggerated campiness we might expect from an Almodóvar comedy (and one of the good ones at that). At first I thought the far more overt bizarreness of the characters in Deadly Premonition was a weakness of its writing – that because the supporting cast is less varied and less nuanced, it was somehow an inferior piece of writing. I was wrong on two counts. Firstly, because I was attempting to make a straight comparison with Twin Peaks without acknowledging that there was more to the game than that, and secondly, because I was not factoring in other aspects of the game’s design which could not have worked if the game were identical to Twin Peaks.

For example, in places Twin Peaks was a rather atmospheric series. Deadly Premonition could never have achieved this thanks to its rather sub-par graphics. Thus it moved away from the atmospheric bizarreness of Twin Peaks to a more overt form of comedy. If it had tried to be too dark, then the game would have failed, and similarly the graphical quality of the game added to and enhanced the comedic aspect of the writing in a way that is unique to games – the jerky animations or the driving controls, which veered to the left like York was the victim of a paralytic stroke, are devices which only games can employ (but unfortunately rarely do). Similarly, the manic saxophone part of the soundtrack takes on a new dimension in a game when you have to use the terrible controls to defeat a horde of zombies using a knife which inexplicably runs out of life juice, or whatever that meter represents. Swery knew how to enhance the sense of comedic ineptitude, even if he did so unintentionally, beyond simply cut-scenes and dialogue, to create a sort of comedy unique to games.

I also felt, though this may be a rather tenuous point given that I’ve never seen anyone else make it, that the outdated graphics of Deadly Premonition did rather a good job of making you feel as though you were in the 1990s. I’ve never been too struck on the photorealism which the triple-A games of today inevitably aim for, which is not good enough to achieve much beyond giving every game of that ilk a vaguely similar appearance and feel. This is not to say that the graphics of Deadly Premonition are directly evocative – far from it – but that the PS2 era graphics and old-fashioned mechanics evoke a sort of nostalgia which indirectly helps to conjure up the feeling of playing a game from the 1990s. To gamers too young to remember the period, the device fails, but for those of us who can remember and who subsequently make this association the feeling is a warm and fuzzy one.

Great artistic achievements always say or show something. Many games in the indie current sort of do this. Every Day the Same Dream by Molleindustria does say something about our existence, but it does nothing beyond this. It is so fixated on demonstrating its silly little political point that it neither entertains nor even makes its point particularly well. Deadly Premonition explores the issue of the player-character relationship, and does so almost as an aside. Games and gamers alike rarely reflect on the connection between the person sat in front of the screen and the on-screen object they are in control of. Although some games break the fourth wall, they very rarely reflect on what they’re doing –breaking the fourth wall is often a cheap device to shock or get the attention of a player. Rather than opt for such a blasé approach, Deadly Premonition integrates into the game the idea that York, the on-screen character, is a schizophrenic who takes advice from Zach, who lives in his head. On the surface, it’s a mechanism inspired the tape recorder Diane from Twin Peaks, but in reality it goes far deeper – by using mental illness as a metaphor for the interaction between players and their on-screen representations, it encourages the player to look at the notion of interaction in gaming, without being dogmatic and giving answers, and not at the expense of practical concerns. York’s insanity makes for hilarious dialogue, for example, and besides that it also bypasses clunky on-screen instructions and tutorials. Just as a great drama film asks questions about society whilst focussing primarily on some heart-wrenching scenario, Deadly Premonition gives us campy comedy-horror which also happens to raise questions about the nature of interaction within gaming in the most unobtrusive and integrated manner possible.  

I think I should probably stop now, but not before I say this: far more than any game labelled ‘art’ or ‘indie’, Deadly Premonition is the strongest challenge I have seen to triple-A dogma thus far. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I truly believe it marks one of the most quietly significant landmarks in gaming in the past ten years.   read

3:44 PM on 05.22.2013

Anywhere But Here and Now: Gaming's Oldest Narrative Gimmick

To fans of the Halo series, the 26th century will always be that period in the distant future when, surely, the Master Chief will prevail over the dastardly machinations of the Prophet of Truth and his incompetent cronies (Regret being particularly inept). Halo may have been paraded as a watershed moment for the FPS genre, but in its approach to and execution of its core narrative, Halo fits snugly into gaming’s long established conventions.

I often make comments, in blog entries and in response to articles posted here, deriding the quality of videogames writing. I do not feel this is the place to go into all of the ways in which games writing is subpar, because that would be longwinded and likely frustrating to read, but I will indulge myself in criticising gaming’s oldest narrative convention – use of the distant future and/or parallel universe as a setting for a game.

The convention is used most often in sci-fi and high fantasy games, which in turn make up a large majority of the games we as consumers are presented with, but it should also be noted that the convention is equally applicable to those increasingly popular post-apocalyptic games. All three of the aforementioned genres have in common one thing: in order to circumvent such laborious demands on the developer as attention to detail or a sense of place, games writers instead decide that they would rather work on a blank slate. By beginning with nothing, they are not limited by the constraints of having to work around this or that aspect of the real world. Their storylines can be as fanciful and as silly as they like, and indeed they often are.

Other than the fact that this device is overused, there exists another reason for my ire over our reliance on it. In another sense, the blank canvas approach is in fact an immense burden for the developer of such a game, because they have no framework in which to work. While this is a blessing for their designs of levels, armaments, alien races and intricacies, it also means that creating a truly compelling game world requires a lot more effort – unless the game in question is part of a long established franchise, there is no presumed knowledge which writers can fall back on, and so they either have to create a parallel world from the ground up or, as is more common, flesh out what’s necessary and leave everything else to the imagination.

This sorry state of affairs is remedied by the handful of games which do show that games can reflect the society in which they were made. BioShock uses alternate worlds to explore aspects of our own society. Grand Theft Auto uses simulacra of famous American cities as the perfect vehicle for a grand parody of American society, to such an extent that I can think of a single series, including in television and cinema, which has tapped into the post-9/11 zeitgeist more astutely than Rockstar’s series. Games are already proving they are better than the tat we all too often settle for, but still these games are still few and far between.

Even today, 25 years since Space Invaders became a household name and the likes of Atari were making gaming a part of every household in the way televisions are, we gamers demand very little of those who create the worlds we inhabit and write the storylines we follow blindly in countless ‘missions’. It is my belief, or perhaps just my optimistic hope, that if and when games are written by more competent individuals, we will start to see blank canvasses more fully explored or dropped altogether.   read

1:00 PM on 05.19.2013

Mature is a Dirty Word

I finally got round to reading my latest copy of games™ the other day. Inside, between a wonderful piece on the next GTA and a bland one about Battlefield number God-knows-what, I found a rather interesting little piece about Hideo Kojima’s vision for the next game in the Metal Gear Solid series. I’ve always found MGS a solid series for a bit of stealth action, but I’ve never been too sold on a storyline which makes high-fantasy plotlines look staid and pedestrian. This being so, I was a little surprised (not to mention worried) to find Kojima employing David Cage’s favourite word to describe his ambitions for the series.

“Videogames as a medium really haven’t matured much in the past 25 years… I think games have a long way to go before they can mature… Honestly, I’m going to be targeting a lot of taboos – a lot of mature themes – that are really risky.”

As much as I respect Kojima as a gaming grandee on a par with the likes of Miyamoto, I was extremely disappointed with his emphasis on the word ‘mature’. It was the word that, for me, soiled an otherwise perfect pitch for the new MGS game, which looks likely to overhaul the series with its new open world approach.  

Kojima did not specify what ‘mature’ will be, but I am pretty certain I can guess. By equating mature and taboo, Kojima makes clear that he does not mean mature in the actual sense of the word of fully-developed (which would indicate he was trying to push gaming to such a point), but rather intends to communicate the teenage notion of something ‘mature’ as being something prohibited and out of bounds, typically drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and so on. I have a strong feeling that Kojima intends this as the mature vision for the next MGS thanks to the way he framed the word. Looking at how David Cage has tried to create mature games, we see for example that Heavy Rain revolves around a horrifically adolescent and clichéd view of what maturity is. The four playable characters all have personal demons (Ethan’s dead son, Norman’s drug addiction, Madison’s insomnia), for example. This supposedly visionary game fell flat for me because visionary is precisely what it was not; ‘troubled’ characters have existed since time immemorial, and only when they are compelling and complex, not just cardboard cut-outs with token addictions, are they anything but trite.

I worry that, if a man of Kojima’s stature has seemingly been influenced by the Cage doctrine, what has hitherto existed as a marginal vision of games design might soon gain in clout and recognition. This would be a dire situation indeed: whether or not a game treats a mature theme or an utterly childish one should not feature as a criterion to be met by any designer, especially one as respected and recognised as Kojima.

The Cage doctrine of including ‘mature’ themes intended to hit hard with the audience seems to take its cue from the Spielberg mantra of over budgeted, tritely sentimental films. It is not a sensible direction for games to be heading, for two simple reasons. First, by seeking so blatantly to mimic films (as Cage does in mechanical as much as narrative terms), games deny themselves the opportunity to flourish as an independent medium. Secondly, this sort of heavy-hitting approach, with characters flaunting their troubles and hoping to appear deep thereby, is, to put it crudely, piss poor and almightily boring.

Rather than ‘mature’ becoming the new watchword of the games industry, I would prefer it if a more meaningful paradigm were chosen. I am not presumptuous enough to propose an alternative, but I can categorically state that simply making games that ram taboos and troubled characters down our throats is no way to advance games, unless we want to reduce the medium to the status of bad quality films. This is what Cage has spent his career inadvertently doing, and I sincerely hope that a proper games designer like Kojima does not follow suit in MSG V. If he does, it will be another step towards the acceptance of an absolutely flawed conception of games design. Remember, it’s not just on porn sites that mature is a dirty word.   read

10:43 AM on 05.16.2013

Representation in Games is a Tedious, Tired, Irrelevant Point of Discussion

“Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred.”
-Jacques Barzun

Of late, it seems to me that the gender representation bandwagon has been gaining momentum. As it makes its creaky way through just about every nook and cranny of the online gaming community, this cumbersome old wagon picks up the strays and waifs here and there, slowly enlarging the number of people compelled to harp on about the supposed problem that games do not represent women adequately, both in number (too few) and in terms of their physical dimensions (too busty, too curvy).  Some have decided that transgender people are not adequately represented. Given that the bandwagon reached its top speed not so long ago, courtesy of Vanillaware, I feel this is an appropriate time to make a very simple point about gender representation in gaming: it’s a waste of time, through and through.

Firstly, let us ask ourselves the question: why genders? For if we reflect on the sorts of characters that prevail in today’s games, we find not only that they are male, but also that they are white, usually American, and take a US-oriented spin on things. In blockbuster FPS titles, there may be no or few women, but it’s worth also reflecting that nations such as North Korea and Russia are presented as pantomimic villains, and that the player inevitably assumes the mantle of one of the guys (white guys, of course). Your superior is usually gruff, but we know he’s a good guy at heart – after all, he’s on America’s side. Looked at in this way, a paucity of women seems the icing on what is already a rather binary cake. It is true that gaming is typically ethno-centric and culturally blinkered in favour of the USA, as well as featuring fewer women than men. Focussing merely on representation of women is therefore arbitrary, and those that do so fail to understand the wider problem of a whole range of cultural biases inherent in games. The male-dominance is only one aspect.

Much the same applies to the supposed misrepresentation of women, which those on the bandwagon claim is an example of objectification. I do not understand why people like games featuring exaggerated breasts, and such games are most certainly not to my tastes – but, unlike some, I do not feel that my own tastes serve as dictates for a multibillion dollar industry. I do not buy games like Dragon’s Crown because they fail to reach me as a consumer, rather than out of some pious ethical conviction with foundations about as solid as sand. The first mistake people make regarding buxom women in games is that it will have a malign influence on how players view women. This is clearly false on a number of accounts: firstly, it is totally wrong to believe that games, especially relatively niche titles (which those featuring oversized boobs tend to be), have the sort of socio-cultural weight to do so; games are more heavily influenced by the society they arise from than vice-versa. More importantly, I cannot think of a single instance where a developer has tried to pass such character designs off as representative (hence there can be no misrepresentation). Most such females tend to appear in RPGs (where they derived their designs from pre-videogame high fantasy conventions), fighting, or hack-n-slash games which make no effort to appear realistic. Like pornography, busty female characters are designed to entertain anaemic young men in the privacy of their own quarters, and it is inconceivable that any sane individual would then take these fantasised images and seek to apply them to the real world. Even if men were somehow encouraged to think like this, there are worse examples of gender stereotypes being reinforced: namely, Ubisoft’s Imagine series of glitzy, typically ‘girly’ series of games, which are aimed at young girls and which promote the most horrifically clichéd image of the sort of things females should like. Unlike the fantasies of Dragon’s Crown or other such games, these titles actually do impact the interests and self-perceptions of impressionable young girls, and yet those concerned with gender in gaming appear more concerned with suppressing male fantasies (an impossible task, I might add), instead of targeting the games that do feed into a real life issue.

Gender representation also goes the other way. There is nothing inherently more or less sexist about a character from Dead or Alive versus the behemoth male protagonist from Gears of War. Massive tits and massive pecks are both intended as fantastical, and despite what some would say they are, in principle, equal in terms of their objectification of women and men respectively. I fail to see how this could be anything other than starkly obvious, yet I know some will find a way to weasel their way around what is in effect commonsense.

I feel I have established, as concretely as I can without being a total windbag, some specific flaws with the hysteria over gender representation. But there exists an even more fundamental problem which the myopic gender-Nazis seem not to have grasped: if one aspires after representation, one must have a goal to aspire towards. Simply demanding ‘greater’ representation is vague and meaningless, and gives nobody any indicator of how far down the line we are at any given point. To be truly representative, a game would have to mirror the demographics of its intended audience. Thus it would have to have x number of males and y females, with a certain percentage white, a certain black, and so on. International releases then become complex: a European release would probably have to have a greater proportion of white people, and the characters would have to look older to reflect Europe’s population. Japanese releases would mean an all Japanese cast, virtually. I realise I have taken the representation to its logical conclusion here, but I always think it best to do so: after all, if an idea buckles under its own weight when taken to its logical conclusion, it’s not a logical one at all. Seeking some paradigm of representation is pure folly, and if we’ve nothing to aim at, no tangible target to reach, then there is no point in even considering the problem.

Yet for all the flaws in their thought-process, I have to thank the representation maniacs, because in pointing out their flaws we reach, almost by chance, the true flaw in games today. If we go back to my first objection regarding the arbitrariness of gender representation versus other forms, we realise that the problem of ‘gender representation’ is really just the prevalence bad writing and limited creative vision. Characters in games are all too-often lazy and clichéd, as are the plots they come wrapped in. This goes for a vast majority of games, from the sparse and functional plot of Call of Duty up to the narrative-driven Heavy Rain. As far as I’m concerned, merely inserting more women or more normal women into games as they are today is pointless (especially when the men are rarely ‘realistic’ in the way that people want women to be). People demanding gender equality make the wrong demand. If the bar were raised for writing in videogames – if the David Cage’s and Corey May’s of this industry were forced to buck up their ideas – then compelling women characters follow naturally, just as male characters would improve.   read

8:54 AM on 04.28.2013

Review: The Cat and the Coup

Thank God The Cat and the Coup is free, for if it wasn’t, I would probably tear my eyes out in disbelief. This indie title is so short and so devoid of replay value that it charging even the smallest of prices for it would be a scam of Ponzi-esque proportions. It may be termed an art game by some, and it is certainly unique, but ultimately The Cat and the Coup fails to live up to expectations.

Firstly, however, the game deserves commendation for its boldness. Very few games treat anything remotely political in their subject matter, and so it is refreshing when real life political problems are addressed in a game. The Cat and the Coup seeks to tell the story of the CIA-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, whose attempts to nationalise BP in his country invoked the ire of Britain and America. The player assumes the role of Mossadegh’s cat immediately after the man’s death, and is tasked with coaxing his ghost through a series of rooms retracing the past, back to the attempted nationalisation. Each room contains a simple puzzle which helps the cat guide the ill-starred Prime Minister on his way, and a caption marking an event. Often, the rooms bear little or no resemblance to the event they ‘portray’.

All in all, the number of rooms (and by extension puzzles) barely exceeds one hand’s worth of fingers, and none of them are particularly challenging. Simple controls and the sparse design mean that figuring out how to solve the puzzle and nudge Mossadegh onwards is little more than a matter of pressing the arrow keys and spacebar in the vicinity of whatever objects appear in the room in question to manipulate objects. Even in this short space, a clear visual progression adds something to the game. It starts off resembling a beautifully ornate Persian miniature (I’ll forgive that some of the miniatures are in fact Ottoman), but as we progress backwards it becomes ever more dreamlike and surreal: where the first room, where Mossadegh is dead, leads nicely to the second, but thereafter the cosiness of this art style begins to breakdown, replaced by omnipresent blackness filled with oversized logos and symbols, as does the continuity of the rooms, which are separated by periods of freefall. Combined, the logos and the falling symbolise Mossadegh’s own political fortunes, which spiral out of control as he combats the vested interests in his country. In one memorable puzzle, the cat attempts to break up a meeting with a macabre BP executive with a rabbit’s head. The game ends with Mossadegh’s ghost being floated back to his body by oil he has unleashed, whilst a chronology, expanding on the captions previously offered, floats across screen.

For all its ambition and beauty, The Cat and the Coup falls short on three counts: first, it offers absolutely no challenge, thanks to ludicrously easy puzzles. Second, it is short, and has absolutely no replay value. Third, as a professed ‘documentary’ game, it tells us no more than a scan reading of a Wikipedia page. Its brief captions offer a chronology, but otherwise lack depth. The well executed symbolism of the art style does not make up for a lack of real substance. Like so many art games, The Cat and the Coup nails the art, but is missing a game.

2/5   read

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